Wallflower Dispatches

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The Charming Mountain Goat…is grazing in Shanghai

April 8th, 2010 · No Comments · Charming Mountain Goat, Travel Writing

It is common journalistic and literary practice to focus on a detail to explain the larger picture. Six years ago this was perfectly summed up in Shanghai’s Yu Gardens in the old city, which is dominated by a large flying eave wooden Chinese structure, a live Huang Gongwang painting set in 2004.

The small Starbucks Coffee sign and counter set among these ancient historical buildings was a tease, a promise, a challenge, a welcome committee and an aspiration all rolled into one. Inside, the cakes were stodgy and all wrong. Outside, the contrast of the familiar logo against the polished wood was also contradiction and anomaly, but above all the sign of things to come.

Today, try as I might I can find these little symbolic snapshots anymore – Shanghai seems to have ceased throwing them up. Starbucks Coffee shops are now to be seen everywhere around town on their usual corner location with excellent doughnuts.

The city is shinier, cleaner, its walkways newly neatly paved. American style highways, shopping malls, high-rise buildings battle for the prize of the silliest roof-top.

All the major international brands have arrived and have settled in. Vogue China magazine weighs 10 kilos and features a list of big name advertisers that Anna Wintour in New York can only dream as she sees other Condé Nast publications fold around her.

Six years ago, while on one of the escalators in the endless indoor markets, I felt someone stroke my hair in passing – it was the curiosity of the dark haired stranger to feel blond hair. Today, we blend in with all the other westerners who have ventured here. I also remember a reciprocal greeting with Frenchman because we hadn’t seen another European face for days.

Shanghai was a small curious child last time we visited, today it is a teenager who has prematurely inherited its trust fund and instantly gone on a shopping spree. Its charm is still there since it’s natural and honest, but the kid is wising up fast.

Madame Mao’s Dowry shop in Fumin Lu Street is an assortment of communist posters, mugs and nicely crafted clothes in the style of drab communist colours. I fall for it hook, line and sinker for it like any good tourist should since its nostalgic feel clouds out the real suffering of this brutal regime.

The word in everyone’s mouth, the logo on everyone’s T-shirt, the mascot on every corner all shout out “Expo” which starts on the 1st of May. In with the new everywhere…

But then maybe here is my symbol I have been staring at from the windows of the taxis that have been taking me around town; the only old parts of Shanghai to be preserved are the Bund, the French houses in the Concession and the English buildings in the same area, which look like family homes in suburban Esher.

The others are copies of Stalinist Baroque and it is known as the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

This is just the latest wave in a long line of copying exercises that brought us fake Rolex watches and Hermès handbags. Wouldn’t it have been more pleasing if the Chinese had gone for 16th century Florence or perhaps dug deep in their own design drawers and, say, gone for the Tang dynasty?

The Chinese Tiger is being led through Shanghai on his Tiffany diamond encrusted Louis Vuitton collar following the trail of New York 5th Avenue style paving stones – little does he know that this isn’t the road to the Seven Happinesses either.

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