India Today - - LEISURE -

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.

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