The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

China is more authoritar­ian than ever – but I still love it

As the first tourist flights since 2020 begin, Marcel Theroux returns to see how things have changed


During the gloomiest days of lockdown, I would sometimes hike to Mitcham in south-west London to do my shopping at the Hoo Hing Chinese supermarke­t. It wasn’t just for the noodles and excellent frozen dim sum. The meat cleavers, bamboo steamers, clay pots of Tianjin pickled vegetable, tableware, calendars, and orange bottles of Shaoxing wine were also a reassuring reminder that a world existed beyond my daily trudge around Tooting Common and nightly television updates on the death toll. There was a place called China. I hadn’t just dreamt it.

But in those dark months, it seemed certain that long-haul flights would not be possible for a very long time. And China, the epicentre of the virus, might be off-limits for years.

In January of this year, China finally reopened its borders to internatio­nal travellers. Virgin Atlantic put tickets on sale in February for a daily schedule that resumed flights to Shanghai in May. That is breakneck speed for a commercial airline, which usually sells tickets a year in advance.

I boarded one of the newly scheduled passenger planes at Heathrow, having obtained a visa by the skin of my teeth. I wondered what on earth I would find when I got to Shanghai.

I first travelled to mainland China in 2002. On that visit, I found the country baffling, polluted and intimidati­ng. I was in no hurry to return. I reasoned to myself that as I had loved Russia since I was a teenager, there was probably only room in my heart for one vast, authoritar­ian country. Ten years passed until I visited again. In 2013, I went back to make a film about the difficulty of finding a wife in a country where millions of women had been terminated in utero. The following year, I followed Siberian models who dreamt of making it big in the Shanghai fashion industry. And in 2017, I filmed wannabe pop stars, rebel hiphop artists, and dissident punk rockers as I tried to make sense of the links between China’s politics and its music.

Sometime during that second visit, my feelings about China started to change. I loved being there. I found its size and energy intoxicati­ng. Away from the cities, the countrysid­e was beautiful. Apart from the occasional encounter with overzealou­s officials, I found people friendly, pragmatic, open and easygoing. I never felt a scintilla of anxiety about my personal safety. The food was always amazing, and encounteri­ng the country’s cultural heritage, spanning millennia, was like peering into a starry galaxy.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to visit Beijing many times and spend time in the economic powerhouse­s of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Chongqing. Most of all, I have loved my glimpses of provincial China: the dreamy resort town of Yangshuo on the Li River; the terracotta warriors of Xi’an; a wedding I went to in the province of Shaanxi, where my Mandarin-speaking companions were baffled by the local dialect.

By the time of my last visit, in 2018, I felt my initial cool response to China turning into a lifelong romance. I belatedly started dabbling in Mandarin. I was certain I would be back soon. Then lockdown happened. Three years ticked by. The frozen food of Hoo Hing had to stand in for all the treasures of the Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Arriving in Shanghai on a Tuesday morning in May, I was surprised by how little seemed to have changed. The traffic was the same – bad. The feeling of economic energy was still palpable: the Teslas, the high-end fashion boutiques, the swish hotels and restaurant­s that pay stylish tribute to the city’s legendary years in the 1920s and 1930s. The major difference was the absence of foreign faces on the streets of what is usually China’s most internatio­nal city. The heart of Shanghai is the Bund, the waterfront on the Huangpu River where buildings constructe­d by 19thand 20th-century British and European tycoons stare across the water at the 21st-century skyline of Pudong. Its most futuristic building – the Oriental Pearl Television Tower, with its odd bulbous shape – recalls a structure from the adventures of Flash Gordon.

These days, it is rivalled by the newer skyscraper­s around it, which appear to have been built on a single-line brief to the architect: “Make something amazing!” There was barely a sprinkling of foreigners, but Chinese tourists, bouncing back from the restrictio­ns of lockdown, posed enthusiast­ically in front of the views. At night, when the towers across the water were lit up in an extraordin­ary display of lights, there was a celebrator­y feeling. The streets were packed with happy, maskless Chinese people in an almost carnival mood.

The rigours of lockdown in China might partly explain that. “It was pretty much a nightmare,” one Shanghai resident told me. Forbidden to leave their homes, some had struggled to get enough food to eat in the early weeks.

One Wednesday night in the rooftop bar on the 29th floor of the Edition hotel, I was struck by the amount of alcohol being consumed. Shanghai is no stranger to heavy drinking, but there seemed to be a seize-the-day single-mindedness to the revellers. And I understood why. Rememberin­g those three lost years, we were all determined to make the most of Shanghai.

Wandering around the shopping districts of Xintiandi and Tianzifang in the city centre during daylight, I felt happy to be back. Tianzifang still preserves the atmosphere of early-20th-century Shanghai. That was the era of jazz bars; glamorous women with cigarettes in holders, Marcelled hair and cheongsam dresses; émigré White Russian aristocrat­s driving taxis; and gangsters with colourful names running the neighbourh­oods. I window-shopped designer clothes, bought an elegant nose-hair trimmer, and watched a woman eviscerate a quail in a market that seemed untouched by gentrifica­tion.

Driven by apparently bottomless budgets, the appetites of super-rich consumers and the talent of architects and designers, Shanghai today gives the appearance of entering another hedonistic Jazz Age. At the Liangshe restaurant, for the equivalent of £300 a head, diners can enjoy an 18-course dinner of incredible food with paired wines, which uses immersive projection­s to recreate the glories of the Tang dynasty. The price is steep, but it was done with such elegance and imaginatio­n, I would happily sit through it again. The first course was a tiny black ball of preserved egg and a white one made out of jasmine gel, which is supposed to evoke the yin and yang of the Taoist creation story.

I ate enough delicious food to keep me supplied with memories for the length of another lockdown: dumplings at the Nanxiang restaurant in Yu Garden; braised goose feet and sea cucumber at the Canton Table, overlookin­g the Bund; and outstandin­g French food at the Michelin-starred Phénix restaurant in the classy PuLi hotel.

In Xintiandi, I ate a fantastic Cantonese meal at Sense 8. The tableware was decorated with the image of a bat, which seemed like an inauspicio­us callback to the source of the virus in Wuhan. In fact, it is a bit of wordplay, as the “fu” in the Mandarin word for bat (bian fu) recalls the “fu” in the word for luck (fu qi). A few hundred yards away, I stumbled into a museum commemorat­ing a key moment in Chinese history: the founding meeting of the Chinese Communist Party took place here in 1921. When I asked why the exhibits weren’t labelled in English, the curator laughed at me and said, “This is for Chinese people!”

The presence and influence of the Communist Party is, of course, the elephant in the room where visitors are concerned. It is not a subject anyone will discuss with you. That too is something just for Chinese people.

Yet it is a crucial and unique aspect of the country. China has grown visibly richer over the past 20 years. It has also grown more authoritar­ian and tightly controlled. Websites are blocked. Without a VPN on your phone, you will be unable to check your email or read the BBC news. Hi-tech surveillan­ce uses face-recognitio­n to keep tabs on the population. Critical voices have been silenced. Hong Kong has lost its singular freedoms. Muttering about reclaiming Taiwan is louder. Tibet remains unfree. And in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs face terrible oppression.

One of my motives for going to China as soon as possible was that the past few years have been so geopolitic­ally turbulent, I have no idea what will happen next. It is entirely conceivabl­e that a dispute over Taiwan might close China again.

As my visa was being processed in London, I had received a call from the Chinese embassy. The official I spoke to wanted to lay down guidelines. “Would I agree to respect the dignity of the Communist Party?” they asked. “Not to foment separatism? Not to undermine the sovereignt­y of China?”

It was the era of jazz bars; of glamorous women with cigarettes in holders, Marcelled hair and cheongsam dresses

The skyscraper­s appear to have been built to a single-line brief: ‘Make something amazing’

In my years of reporting on China, I have never encountere­d this. Given the degree of surveillan­ce and the new authoritar­ian mood, I felt it would be unfair on people to quiz them too hard about politics. I will never forget a conversati­on I had in 2016, when I was doing a story about California­n wine. One of the vineyards I went to was run by the adult child of an extremely rich Chinese businessma­n. Talking about China, I expressed my amazement that, after years of flexible and pragmatic leadership, the country was now in the hands of Xi Jinping, an apparently doctrinair­e ideologue. My host listened with a blank expression. “And this, our second wine, has elements of stone fruit and cassis,” they said, closing down the conversati­on.

The people I met on this current trip seemed generally uninterest­ed in politics. “There’s an old joke about the Shanghaine­se,” one person told me. “In Beijing, the taxi drivers all talk about politics. In Shanghai, they all talk about the stock market.”

Perhaps economic interests have supplanted political ones. Perhaps they are too busy eating, drinking and socialisin­g to care. Perhaps people are just too smart to be loose-lipped with a foreigner. If anyone expressed an opinion at all, they did it in a very careful way. When I asked someone how the war in Russia was being reported, they said: “The reporting on television is in favour of Russia. The opinion of ordinary people is very different.” Their judicious phrasing left me in no doubt where their sympathies lay.

Once I got over my surprise that the pandemic had changed so little, I started to rationalis­e it. Between 1959 and 1961, tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in the Great Famine. From 1966 to 1976, Red Guards ran amok, tearing down the country’s cultural heritage. Compared with the truly chaotic periods of recent Chinese history, the pandemic was a blip. The key thing, it seemed, was to make the most of the freedoms that remained and enjoy the stability and prosperity.

On a trip to the canalside town of Zhujiajiao, an hour by car from Shanghai, I joined visitors in the narrow streets, wandering, eating and window-shopping. It was a bright May day. The place had a holiday atmosphere. It was packed full of tourists, virtually all of them from China itself. Very few people were masked. Families and groups of friends were sightseein­g together, sharing delicacies, taking selfies by the landmarks, riding in the single-oared boats that shuttle under the picturesqu­e stone bridges.

Away from the crowds, I wandered around the tranquil Kezhi Garden, built by scholar-bureaucrat Ma Wenqing. It is only 100 or so years old, but its walkways and traditiona­l architectu­re evoke the ancient Chinese past and the mood of rustic contemplat­ion praised by the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu – who didn’t know if he was a philosophe­r or a butterfly.

I felt extraordin­arily lucky to be spending the day here. My sad wanderings around the Hoo Hing supermarke­t now seemed like a distant memory. And at that moment, as the warm breeze rustled the ginkgos, I experience­d a passing sense of affinity with Chuang Tzu. Who, in fact, was I? A man in the freezer aisle of a Mitcham supermarke­t dreaming of China, or a man in China dreaming of a Mitcham supermarke­t? The carp-filled ponds shimmered and gave no answer.

 ?? ?? j‘Lifelong romance’: after several visits to China, Marcel warmed to the country and its people
j‘Lifelong romance’: after several visits to China, Marcel warmed to the country and its people
 ?? ?? g Back to the future: the waterfront
Bund is the heart of Shanghai, especially at night
g Back to the future: the waterfront Bund is the heart of Shanghai, especially at night
 ?? ?? Illuminati­ng: lanterns adorn the Tianzifang shopping district of Shanghai
Illuminati­ng: lanterns adorn the Tianzifang shopping district of Shanghai

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