Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Shanghai

I first discovered Shanghai in 1986, travelling first from South Korea to Hong Kong, since direct travel to Shanghai was forbidden in those days. It had been only since 1979 that China under Deng Xiaoping had opened to the West, and an infra-structure for tourists was still in its infancy. A whole generation of Chinese had grown up without having seen a Caucasian person in vivo, so that a backpacker hiking about town was an instant sensation. If you paused for even a moment from walking down the street, you were quickly surrounded by a small crowd of curious Chinese who wanted to feel your nylon jacket, or have a look at your digital watch, novel at the time.

Of course no one spoke English, and the streets were full of cyclists on "Flying Pigeon" fat-tire bikes and empty of cars, since private ownership of automobiles was still prohibited—which seemed to me like an intelligent, postmodern solution to the air- and noise pollution problems afflicting urban environments in the West. There was certainly no indication then that the industrialized P.R.C. would become the world's greatest air-polluter two decades later.

Entering Shanghai was like travelling back in time to the 1930’s, since little had changed long before the Communist takeover in 1949. The Bund looked about the same as in the picture above taken in 1928; capitalism hadn’t yet taken hold in China, and the run-down blue-gray buildings lining the Nanjing Road were void of modern shops. It was a city was frozen in time, and the effect was absolutely uncanny.

The two main attractions were the Shanghai Museum, then quite literally the only museum in the P.R.C. dedicated to traditional Chinese art (and funded by the Taiwanese), and the Jade Buddha Temple. The temple furnishings would have been familiar to anyone from San Francisco, since the temple was built in the late Qing period, when temple décor quite unhistorically relied heavily on elaborate red, gold and black coloration.

Best of all, rooms at the famous Peace Hotel at the corner of the Bund and the Nanjing Road were available for a reasonable price. The legendary Peace Hotel swing band, now composed of older men who had somehow survived from the 1930’s, also played from time to time.

The whole experience was like a dream. After an erotic episode at the Peace Hotel, I wrote:


in a city of cold blue stone
we awoke like two Celestials

fallen from Heaven onto silken
bedsheets at the Peace Hotel,

our arms and legs curved into
each other like yin and yang,

later we lay on the bed smoking
and looking up at the ceiling,

listening to bicycle bells,
motor scooter horns and the rain
streaming down endlessly
outside in the Bund


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