The ruins of Shanghai always come as a surprise in a city so defiantly modern. Communist party officials and real estate speculators who power much of China’s economic boom have sentenced to death almost every old house and district; demolished low- rise houses lie exposed in the downtown district, next to gated American- style luxury condominiums with names such as ‘ Rich Gate,’ the wreckage surreally reflected in the glass facades of tall office buildings. In Dongjiadu, Shanghai’s oldest quarter, where I went walking one evening in the spring of 2005, bulldozers were expected within the fortnight; and the old Chinese women squatting silently in the cramped alleys seemed helpless before them. The storm of progress, whose devastation Walter Benjamin saw in early twentiethcentury Europe, is now blowing through China, propelling the angel of history into the future even as a pile of debris grows at his feet.
But you can’t get too sentimental about a place like Shanghai, which was built in the nineteenth century by something as unsentimental as the opium trade: the poppies harvested in India and then imported into China by foreign and comprador businessmen and soldiers.
To be an Indian in Shanghai is to know a sensation of familiarity, if tinged with unease. It is also to be inevitably reminded of Bombay, the city most complicit with Shanghai in nineteenth- century inequity. Both port cities began to flourish after the British bullied China into opening up its markets to India- grown opium. The political and economic networks of British imperialism created a native class of comprador traders in the two cities, attracted to them a cosmopolitan cast of businessmen and adventurers, and set them apart from their vast, steadily impoverished hinterlands.