Ye Shanghai!

(This column was published in DNA edition dated April 23, 2010, just ahead of the inauguration of the Shanghai World Expo. The title is an allusion to a song from 1930s Shanghai about the city’s famed nightlife! You can watch a (slightly grainy) music video here.)

Venky Vembu

A little over a week from now, the epicentre of the world will evidently shift from wherever it is to Shanghai, the shining city on China’s east coast that breathless commentators like to invoke as a municipal metaphor for a country on the ascendant.

The 2010 World Expo – a global jamboree that’s rather like a village mela, only more lavish – gets under way in Shanghai, with national pavilions put up by over 190 participating countries to burnish their “national brand” among the over 70 million visitors expected from all corners of the world over the six months of the fair.  For the host nation, it’s another chance, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to showcase itself as a modern nation and – lest anyone forget – an emerging ‘great power’.

The World Expo was conceptualised as a platform for the agglomeration of global ideas at a time when international travel was cumbersome, and information flows were not as efficient. Precisely what value it holds today, other than as representing a ‘We are the world’ moment, isn’t immediately obvious. Yet, the show goes on.

As a barometer of the rise of the ‘next world power’, though, the World Expo has been more a little efficient. The first Expo was held in London in 1851, about the time when ‘Great Britain’ (as it what somewhat grandiosely called) was going about its Empire business. And although that first Expo featured an assortment of oddball exhibits – one of the highlights, for instance, was an American locksmith who demonstrated his ability to pick brand-name locks of those times – it provided Britain a platform that confirmed its global ascendance.

Likewise, the first time the Expo was held in Asia was in 1970 – in Japan, which was at that time emerging as an economic powerhouse on the strength of its exports.  That mantle has today been passed on to China, this year’s host. And although the Expo’s own brand value has been considerably diminished in the age of free information flows, it’s being hard-sold in China as the surest sign that all roads today lead to China.

China’s newest media celebrity, blogger and racer Han Han sums up the dissonance between the Expo hype in China and the blasé attitude abroad. He says it’s a bit like feeling flamboyant while wearing a heavily advertised ‘international’ fashion label, only to realise that among more discerning consumers overseas, it’s considered a third-rate brand.

Authorities in Shanghai have been on an extensive city beautification drive for a while now, and have been doing their damnedest to inculcate their understanding of civic sensibility on Shanghai’s 20 million residents. Edicts have been passed directing sartorially casual Shanghainese not to parade in public in flashy pyjamas or put their laundry out to dry on clotheslines visible from the streets. Of course, this has given rise to a vigorous counter-culture: an internationally renowned photojournalist has now put together a pictorial book with countless catchy photographs of Shanghainese folks dressed only in their pyjamas!

But even in normal times, when extravagant Expos are not in town, Shanghai is an endearingly wild world city. It isn’t just the city’s famously fabulous skyline – in Pudong and, across the Huangpu river, on the Bund – that, to my mind, defines the city. It’s the sheer vibrancy of its people, who flock to it from various parts of China, drawn by the shining lights of the big city, and who in turn embellish it with their divergence of identity. Of New York, it’s famously said: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” But the feisty folks who flock to Shanghai believe, even if somewhat naively, that “even if they can’t make it anywhere, they can make it here.”  Whether they be kite-sellers on the Bund, migrant workers from China’s poorer provinces who come to gawk at the skyscrapers, cheery traders peddling trinkets on the streetside of old Shanghai, or ‘honeypot’ hustlers who can flatter and con the unwary tourist into coughing up for over-the-top expensive tea… they enrich the Shanghai experience – in countless ways and in a variety of Chinese dialects.

Bloggers like Han Han, seeing Shanghai as ‘insiders’, have a rather more critical perspective. Shanghai, he says, has no culture: it can perhaps match other world cities with its flashy skyline, swank mansions and trendy malls and art galleries, but it doesn’t have an enabling environment where vibrant and unhindered expressions of art and culture can flourish. That is of course true: even the Shanghai Expo theme song was found to have been shamelessly plagiarised from a 1997 Japanese song.

But it’s the way Shanghai fuses, for the most part, an ultra-modern cityscape with an endearing human interactive experience, that will capture the essence of the ‘wild east’ city, long after the wrecking balls have flatted the Expo pavilions.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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