Of course, I realize it’s all a matter of point of view, but what is there to say but those regrettable key words: Vuitton, Cartier, Tiffany’s, Burberry, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta, Ermenegildo Zegna, need I continue?
And I was forgetting Pudong’s incredibly tacky skyscrapers: one wears a coronet, another one two globes like an overstuffed brassiere, a third suffers from mid-life bulge and I’m still trying to figure out the mongrel borrowing at the same time from Angkor Wat temples and the Chrysler building.
As they say, when in Rome… so I wish I could indulge in a shopping spree but I’m not very motivated or very good at it and haven’t found yet where they hide all those “made in China” schmattas that they resell us at high prices. Chinese women seem to favor dresses, preferably frilly, gauzy, tutu-skirted with little buttons, little bows, puff sleeves and round collars in outlandish patterns and colors: the schoolgirl look. I won’t mention the faux Vuitton, the faux Céline, who could even want the real ones? I seem to prefer my usual, boring nun-like black and white basics. No label, no frills.
I have been at the same time overwhelmed and underwhelmed by China. So many people, so noisy, rude and pushy. My level of comfort here has been inversely proportional to the sense of comfort and hominess I felt in Russia and Mongolia, where the warmth and generosity of the people was unequaled. Here, unless you meet someone with whom you have a common language, and there are not many, no communication is possible. You feel indifference at best, hostility at worst.
The young people I’ve been able to speak to were very critical of the system, of the lack of freedom, of the censorship, of the omnipresence of Big Brother, of the widening gap between the haves and the have-not and even sometimes of the lack of a future if you are not properly connected. I even heard the word ” revolution”.
The prosperity is very much in your face, and so is mercantilism. You feel as if China had been bulldozed during the systematic destruction of its cultural jewels, begun during the Cultural Revolution, and built over in the last 5 years. You often don’t know if you’re looking at something really old or at some clever reproduction: there are entire neighborhoods like that. Real estate is such a booming business that 8 out of 10 of China’s largest fortunes belong to CEOs of real estate enterprises. ICBC was classified as the first bank in the world in 2012. And, of course, thousands of containers leave every day for America to return to China empty. If that doesn’t all collapse in some monumental ecological or financial disaster, it will soon make America look like a third-world country.
In the French Concession, or I think that’s where I was. A nice terrace. A glass of wine. They have oysters, yum, but I know better than to have oysters when traveling. A Chinese man sits by me, he speaks English of course. He’s got a gorgeous, impeccably behaved Samoyed named Lucky. He says Lucky only likes Asian people. Well, of course. It must be a matter of smell.
I wouldn’t speak to him were it not for the dog and the finches in two bamboo cages. He’s philosophizing, I can’t quite follow him. My feeling is that Zhao Wong Sue- that’s his name – is mafia or used to be. His brother owns the restaurant. He wants to play dice. Red light! I don’t gamble. No no, no gamble, just a way to know each other. Oh, really? His English is hard to understand. I won. Whatever that means. They all play dice, I don’t get it. He’s 40 something, maybe 50. He’s retired. Oh, what did you use to do? It’s not quite clear but I would translate it as drugs and prostitution. I sure can pick them, not that I was trying. Shanghai has a way to make you feel sort of decadent. An older woman drinking wine with a mafioso and his racist dog, wondering whether or not she should worry about it, and not quite knowing where she is or how she’s gonna get home.
I end up in some pretty weird places sometime. As I was trying to get to the Pearl Center (not to buy pearls mind you), a charming young man raised in San Francisco and studying in London took me on a shortcut through the street he lives on. When I saw the McMansion, I couldn’t help saying: “Poverty, uh? Dire squalor!” He got the joke. Later, I stopped for lunch in that posh very faux-French place, called The Noble Seafood Restaurant, in that same posh area of town. It was that or no lunch. I seem to be the only customer with a battalion of very elegant waitresses fussing over less than elegant me and covering my unsightly shopping bag and, by now, dirty, mini-backpack with an immaculate napkin. Replace the dishes on the table, push it this way, that way, readjust everything once more for good measure. The portions are minute, even for me, and they taste…Chinese. Not sure if there is more coming, but 4 mini-scallops won’t take me very far for the price. Couldn’t believe it, they stacked the plate, silently, but they stacked them nevertheless. She forgot the rest of the order. It’s coming apparently.
I’m not saying that I’m not enjoying the trip. I’m glad I came, I’m also glad that I won’t have to come back. Maybe am I lacking the proper literature to put an old China veneer of romance on this very unromantic new China that looks every bit as if it had sold its soul to the devil. Because it does feel soulless, with a dissolving culture – Mao’s most lasting legacy – being replaced by the empty drive for money and things and, hypocritically, by the “Party’s interests” instead of the “proletarian dictatorship”. One empty slogan to replace another.
I actually tried to shorten my stay, but as saturated as I might be, I was not ready to shell out $3,000 to indulge myself.
I should be on my way home in a few days, that is if I don’t get run over by a bus, a car, a motorcycle or a bike. They come from every side, zoom over the sidewalks, almost chasing you. As for pedestrian zones, I might have mentioned already that they are mere decorations.
If this attack of the blahs continues, this might very well be the end of these quasi-daily travelogues of which a few – at least those who read them – must be getting pretty fed up by now. I can’t promise anything but there is hope.
A bit longer here and I’ll be hitting the opium! Oops, I forgot! No more drugs in China, that’s finished, over with, old history. Must be true, my mafioso told me. Shanghai is clean, clean, clean now. Where is Chinese know-how when we really need it?