In China's age of economic liberalisation, the new Shanghai is being ordered to get rich again - on condition that artists and writers, who gave the old Shanghai its free spirit, stay mute. Ian Buruma reports on a metropolis with a past, where money buys you almost everything - even freedom, of a kindby Ian Buruma / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
It is better not to be in Shanghai during a heat wave. I was there when a heat wave struck, the hottest September day in 48 years: 87 degrees at night and humid as a steam bath. Schools closed, as did many museums which lacked air-conditioning. In one museum, the former home of Zhou Enlai, I was followed from room to room by an attendant with an electric fan. At night, in the old neighbourhoods of Nantao, or what used to be the walled city, families slept in the streets, stretched out half naked on bamboo chairs.
The houses in Nantao were like little brick furnaces-dark, unventilated, with tiny windows. The streets were not much wider than a grown man lying down. There was no electricity and often no running water. The air was filled with the stench of public toilets mixed with that of the Huangpu river and piles of rotting food. Dust from nearby building sites left a sticky black film on one’s skin. Not everyone was able to sleep. Even after midnight, people were playing card games, eating snacks, sipping green tea from jam jars, fanning their children.
Shanghai still has many such neighbourhoods. In a few years, there will be almost none. They will be demolished to make way for new high-rise buildings, department stores, banks and elevated highways. Hundreds of thousands of people are being shifted to suburbs, miles from the centre of town, into cheap public housing more likely to have running water, better ventilation and electricity. The new Shanghai is to be a symbol of the new China: rich, big, modern, flashy. But the methods used to bring this about are not new at all. They are based on coercion, sloganeering and exhortation. And the cynicism bred by years of communist propaganda has created a perfect climate for graft and corruption.
In what is perhaps the greatest urban transformation since Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the 19th century, Shanghai is being dismantled and a new city built in its place. Yet most people don’t leave their old neighbourhoods gladly. One man defied the Shanghai housing demolition office by refusing to move. He held off intruders for months, armed with a pellet gun. Suburban tower blocks were no fun, I was told, not renau-“hot and noisy.” Hot and noisy is the way Shanghainese like it.
I first saw Shanghai in 1986, as a reporter…