Is there more to China’s style cap­i­tal than con­sumerism, asks Christina Pat­ter­son

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

ON my first morn­ing in Shang­hai I was wo­ken by drums. It sounded like a mil­i­tary pa­rade, but the roads I could see from the win­dow of my 16th-floor ho­tel room were still choked with traf­fic. Then, im­me­di­ately be­low me, I saw a play­ground full of tiny crea­tures march­ing. They paused and saluted and moved as one. This is a coun­try where you can’t miss a beat.

It’s a coun­try col­lec­tively hold­ing its breath as it re­hearses a greater role on the world stage. In­deed, it’s a coun­try au­di­tion­ing to be the star. As Bei­jing tries to shoot away its smog and trains its work­ers to smile and cheer­lead and clap in prepa­ra­tion for the Olympics to end all Olympics, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are pon­der­ing the fu­ture of the world.

Chi­nese in­dus­try, like its econ­omy, is boom­ing (and belt­ing out car­bon), and Made in China is be­com­ing less of a boast than a threat.

But can it, in an age of com­mu­nism heav­ily laced with cap­i­tal­ism, but with­out that lit­tle lux­ury called po­lit­i­cal free­dom, do cul­ture?

In Shang­hai, at least, they are des­per­ate to prove they can. The city that was ir­re­sistible to greedy Bri­tish traders and greedy French traders and greedy Chi­nese traders, and that pro­vided a su­per-glam­orous back­drop to a world of pre­war deca­dence (one gor­geously por­trayed in Ang Lee’s vis­ually stun­ning Lust, Cau­tion ) has been mus­ing on such is­sues, and it has come up with a so­lu­tion.

Of­fi­cials from the Shang­hai Cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Foun­da­tion have joined forces with the Shang­hai Pudong New Area Gov­ern­ment, the Com­mu­nist Youth League Com­mit­tee, a raft of re­gional gov­ern­ment bod­ies and a range of in­ter­na­tional part­ners (the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre, Ars Elec­tron­ica, the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in the US and the Bri­tish or­gan­i­sa­tion Made in China) to put to­gether Shang­hai eArts, the big­gest dig­i­tal arts fes­ti­val in the world. I went to see it and to see Shang­hai, too.

The first sur­prise is the size of the city. Ar­riv­ing in Pudong, the gleam­ing mega­lopo­lis that has, in 10 years, sprung out of nowhere, you can only gasp at the scale. It is like 10 Man­hat­tans ar­ranged in neat rows next to each other, but here, be­tween each tow­er­ing glass tem­ple to mam­mon, there’s more green space and sky. This, af­ter all, was cre­ated as a fi­nan­cial and sci­en­tific dis­trict, and it is China’s com­mer­cial hub.

In the Pudong New Area Li­brary, I saw an ex­hi­bi­tion of dig­i­tal work by stu­dents from the new me­dia de­part­ment of Hangzhou Fine Art Academy. Away from the books, screens filled with rivers or forests, ac­cord­ing to my touch. A touch recorded my voice and played it back to me. A rub­bish bin chased me and a television changed chan­nels ac­cord­ing to the weight of my steps. It was cer­tainly interactive.

So was Dig­i­tal Art and Magic Mo­ments, an ex­hi­bi­tion at the ul­tra­mod­ern Mu­seum of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, and so, in­deed, was Global Fire , a mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tion on the edge of a traf­fic is­land. As dusk fell and the neon lights around us sprang into life, I watched flames flicker around the base of a gi­ant globe and rise un­til the fire­ball faded into mush­room clouds of smoke. By light­ing a flame that acted as a ther­mo­static trig­ger, I could even end the world.

And at the New Vi­sion E-con­cert at the Shang­hai Ori­en­tal Art Cen­tre that night, I saw a spec­tac­u­lar mix of tech­nol­ogy and tra­di­tion: cubes of green light that flashed and danced like fish on what looked like a rip­pling river, mu­si­cians play­ing old-time in­stru­ments to an eerie elec­tronic sound­track in front of a screen swarm­ing with pin­pricks of light. There was a wo­man decked out in the bril­liant robes and make-up of tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera, singing her strange, squeak­ing song as black lines were ap­par­ently (and with the help of 3-D glasses) gath­ered into a screen to form the out­lines of moun­tains.

All im­pres­sive stuff, but the dig­i­tal world has its lim­its. So I went to 50 Mo­gan­shan Rd, a rab­bit war­ren of for­mer fac­to­ries and ware­houses on the banks of the Suzhou Creek. It was there, in a large in­dus­trial space dis­play­ing avant-garde Chi­nese art of the 1980s (art that was swiftly crushed by the gov­ern­ment), that I had a rare con­ver­sa­tion with the young cu­ra­tor about cen­sor­ship and op­pres­sion. You can talk about money in China. You can talk about art. But you can’t, un­less you are very sure of your com­pany, talk about pol­i­tics.

Money and art, of course, go to­gether in Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao’s har­mo­nious so­ci­ety; and here there is the kind of poverty that sees some Chi­nese fam­i­lies send­ing off­spring into fac­tory con­di­tions not far from slav­ery. In the Peo­ple’s Park, I saw China, old and new.

First, a trip to the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, the first pri­vately owned con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum in Shang­hai. Wher­ever you look inside this dra­matic glass struc­ture, you can see art and trees. And when you’ve had enough of the art (a lit­tle too cut­ting edge for my taste), you can watch the match­mak­ing par­ents in the park. The bits of pa­per hang­ing from the bushes are, ap­par­ently, their chil­dren’s cur­ricu­lum vi­taes.

Even in a boom econ­omy, some things don’t change.

And even in a boom econ­omy you can see peo­ple play­ing mahjong or drink­ing tea in al­ley­ways zigzagged with lines of wash­ing and full of rusty bikes. In the mar­kets, you can still buy life­size bud­dhas and Maoist pro­pa­ganda and gi­ant ter­ra­cotta war­riors (though pos­si­bly not the orig­i­nals). You can shop in sweet­shops that also sell dried fish. You can nip to the chemist and buy whiten­ing gel. And if you brave the bazaar and the Yuyuan Gar­dens (not an ex­pe­ri­ence I’d rec­om­mend at a week­end), you can still see peo­ple sell­ing dumplings or soup or spicy cakes or an­cient, dirty sneak­ers.

You can dine in fancy restau­rants in Shang­hai’s for­mer French con­ces­sion, on leafy boule­vards dot­ted with man­sions. You can sip a soya latte in Star­bucks, now spring­ing up ev­ery­where, or nib­ble patis­serie at Pauls. You can shop un­til you drop in the neon-lit high­way to con­sumer heaven, Nan­jing Road.

Or, like Noel Coward or Char­lie Chap­lin, you can sip cock­tails on the Bund, the old colo­nial em­bank­ment that has some of the finest art deco build­ings in the world. In those days, you would look out at a black­ness bro­ken only by the stars. To­day, you see a Blade Run­ner sky­line of soar­ing tow­ers and flash­ing lights.

And, of course, you can eat. You can pick your fish or lob­ster or prawns from a bub­bling tank. You can have it mar­i­nated or braised or shred­ded. You can pick your an­i­mal and you can pick your body part. You can have duck tongue or chicken feet or goose webs or pig’s trot­ters or duck blood or grass carp or beef tripe.

Or, if you’re more con­ser­va­tive, you can stick to spare ribs and drunken chicken and pick­led pump­kin.

Can Shang­hai do cul­ture? Well, it can do dig­i­tal arts. It can do the con­tem­po­rary vis­ual arts. It can do ar­chi­tec­ture. And if food were clas­si­fied as an art form, it would win the bi­en­nale. What it does most of all, how­ever, is of­fer a fas­ci­nat­ing, and slightly scary, glimpse of the fu­ture. When it comes, please don’t make me beat a drum. The Spec­ta­tor


He­len Wong’s Tours of­fers a guided private car tour of the city as part of its four-day Shang­hai China En­counter pack­age. From $655 a per­son with ac­com­mo­da­tion, most meals, tours and trans­fers; flights to China not in­cluded. More: 1300 788 328; www.he­len­wongs­

Shiny happy peo­ple: Pas­sen­gers walk through Shang­hai Pudong in­ter­na­tional air­port’s fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing Ter­mi­nal 2 on open­ing day last week

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