Shanghai breathes the spirit of capitalism reflected in its vivid lights, enumerate business offices, banks, luxurious hotels, bars, restaurants, eye-catching shopping centers and exquisite shopping malls. However some communist legacies are still there but they are far more less obvious than in other cities in China, including the capital city, Beijing.
Firstly I noticed countless red flags streamed across important streets and on top of the buildings in the city center. Despite this at least unusual high number of national standards, hung on top of the buildings and trees, I think they somehow fit into the landscape and that the national red colour makes a beautiful contrast with the greenery.
Another mighty legacy is the huge number of old massive blocks of flats. In some neighborhoods I could see cranes and building yards, a sign that some more accommodation is needed for this rapidly expanding megalopolis. The old ones are all grey, neglected and shabby and they average around 20 – 30 storeys high.
Strolling down the dusty streets that usually surround them, I had this strange feeling of smallness, like these callous and tatty giants from a bygone era were leaning towards me, crushing me, watching every move and step I made, spying on me from above… I guess no one entirely understands what the communist cultural revolution was and how Chairman Mao and others alike worked their way into people’s minds and souls until they actually take a walk around these old beasts. They are so grey and massive and horrendous that they smash every action of opposition one can have, so vast that you can hardly see their end… by towering the sky they seem to get supernatural powers to read your mind and crash every thought of freedom that might lounge in there. Brrr! Better not to stare at them for too long…
I couldn’t miss out the former residence of Mao Zedong where this socialist “prophet” is, surprisingly or not, still venerated as a great cultural leader or more than that…something like a saint or god. Nostalgics of the “golden era” might want to pop in and admire his house-museum where they can read about Mao’s great achievements (no mention of human massacres though or of the forced “cultural” education programmes for those unlucky enough to be considered class-enemies).
Here is a picture showing one slightly weird exhibit (but a perfect example of the devoutness some Chinese still pay to Mao and his family): there is earth from the place where Mao Anying (Mao’s eldest son) sacrificed (he was killed in 1951 by the “cruel American enemies” during the Korean War where the US supported South Korea and communist China supported North Korea).
I also had the feeling there are still a lot of public guardians in Shanghai (maybe less than in Beijing), which you might say it’s good as it gives people a sense of security and reassurance. I’d argue to this that many guardians don’t actually have a strong physique and seem the type of guys who’d rather get busy elsewhere rather than fighting a thief. But still, some guardsmen have their role: there might be some unwanted graffiti in Shanghai but I can assure you no one can climb on top of the Bund’s Bull statue or shot a ‘naughty’ pose as long as the vigilant and weather-resistant guard is there day and night, against the wind and the rain and cold weather.
There is also a funny aspect – toddlers wearing hot fashion trousers – holed between their legs (see below). They’re everywhere in China and seem to be quite popular: be it summer or winter, hot or cold, clean or dirty… the little ones will see no shame in using any street corner, middle of the pavement or train station to relieve nature making use of the strategically positioned hole in their trousers. Now, letting aside the jokes, the explanation of this old fashion is actually a sad one: during the communist years it was difficult (if not impossible) to find Pampers for children and the holed trousers were meant to protect the bottoms from getting wet and rash. Today there are Pampers (in big cities) but like many other Western products they are very expensive. Therefore you will see more naked “cheeks” in the country side or less affluent areas. However I managed to spot some in Beijing and Shanghai too:)
Next is the subway network, which is a landmark difficult to classify. Modern, high-tech and English signposted, many subway lines have their last ride as early as 10.20 pm… cunning strategy to tell average Chinese earners it’s good to sleep early or party indoors . Expensive taxi rides (with a ‘bonus’ of 30% fare increase after 11pm) seem reserved to wealthy foreigners and nouveau rich of the society. It is interesting to jot down that every subway entrance has a luggage check point and packed metro trains… getting in and out can turn into a violent experience and one can lose a bag or get a bruise. Elbows, shoulders, bags and high heels, all become useful weapons against the ‘enemies’ who are trying to get in or out before you.
Last but not least on the list of legacies is Shanghai South Railway station: modern and sophisticated it was redesigned in 2006 with a circular layout, unique in the world. The station is a perfect exemple of necessary megalomania (in a country which saw a record peak of 238 million railway passengers this summer and where hundreads of trains rush in and out Shanghai every day): its waiting area has a circumference of over 800 metres and can host over 10000 passengers at any given time.
However, despite its large, clean and tidy appearance it lacks any sort of entertainment. There are no shops, not even a mere mini-market . Only three food places for 1000 square metres of station, all located in the same corner: a pricey restaurant, a Chinese fast food, inaccessible to non – Chinese speakers, and a MacDonalds. I’m tempted to think of it as a small dash of capitalism. Still I sense a dash of discrimination too: foreigners can only order the entire pricey menus and using fingers to point to cheaper bites seems to not be understood. So, if you’re vegetarian and you land on this station: well, pay for the menu, grab the chips and give the meat to someone else. And try to feel good about your generosity in a country where not everyone can afford meat on a regular basis. Bon voyage!