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Shanghai in Cell Phone Photos
by OWEN ROBERTS
In the Toronto Airport I paid five bucks to use the Internet for an hour. I wrote a weird sort of gchat message to my sister, who wasn't responding, since it was seven in the morning. I wrote, "hey u there?" and she didn't respond, so I kept writing, "sorry i didn't call last night, i was busy..." leaving a message somewhere between e-mail and voicemail.
On the first night I was able to go into the city, I ended up in what is Shanghai's version of Times Square. I was told to be aware of scammers, girls who would pretend to want to hang out or whatever, and then take you to a bar or restaurant and order fancy drinks in Chinese and stick you with the bill. So when women approached me I avoided eye contact. Then a cute girl insisted on taking a photo with me. We started talking and I thought for a moment that she really just wanted to be friends until another girl appeared out of nowhere, she was much more physically attentive, and it creeped me out. They asked if I had a girlfriend and I said yes, and then they asked where she was and I tried to tell them I was meeting her down the street, but I hesitated too long. "You are Shanghai single." Embarrassed, I made it very clear that I was not interested. Their smiles faded and they started talking to each other in Chinese, not even bothering to walk away. No more, "Your eyes are beautiful," and "You have nice long legs."
I had seen an ad for a gallery opening in an old hotel on 'The Bund', the row of buildings on the west side of the Huangpu river, famous for their colonial architecture, where the decadent balls of the 1920s and 1930s were held. Zhang Dali is famous for being the only Chinese graffiti artist of the 1990s. There was no one at the opening. It was on the fifth floor of a bizarre fancy mall built into one of the old government buildings, most of the floor belonged to a cheesy bar/lounge thing.
Looking upward in Shanghai is completely disorienting, unlike New York. In New York when you look up you see buildings in a row, planes defined by building faces, angles and perspective. In Shanghai it is as if the buildings are all floating in space, ready to collapse in on you. They all face different directions, the architecture of each belonging to a different city and time, and often I had no idea how I would get to any one of them by road. Many of the skyscrapers disappear into the pervasive fog of pollution.
My aunt's family lives in a suburban neighborhood built for expats called Willow Brook. Like Jersey or Connecticut, you can take a train into the urban center of the city in about twenty minutes. Unlike Jersey or Connecticut, you'll find poverty, neighborhoods of shacks and crumbling concrete, on the other side of a wall just beyond the neighborhood, people fishing in a black, polluted canal.
To prove that the pashmina that cost fifty yuan was better quality than the other pashmina, the woman at the pashmina booth on the third floor of the fabric market borrowed a lighter from a man in the booth and lit the ends of both scarves, showing us the difference between the smell and texture after burning. So we got the fifty yuan pashmina, about $6.50 USD, having looked through about ten other identical booths in the giant warehouse filled with a small variety of identical booths.
The British first established a colonial municipality, the "British Concession," in 1843, and Shanghai became the most important Chinese port city. The British made opium, which had previously only been enjoyed by the aristocratic class, available for common people, and soon millions of Chinese were hooked. American and French concessions were established. Even today you can tell when you walk into the old French concession, now the neighborhood called Luwan. On the Bund, many of the old buildings are empty, their entrances and windows boarded up, neglected during the cultural revolution and left to decay.
Somehow, I found myself in front of the Shanghai Library , without even meaning to. I guess I spend so much time in libraries I've developed a sixth sense that pulls me to them unconsciously.
In high school I discovered in the University of Richmond library, while I was supposed to be researching a paper on either J.D. Salinger or Samuel Beckett, a book called The Carnal Prayer Mat, which is an ancient, erotic Chinese novel, and was obsessed with it. That was a long time ago but I thought about it today while I was in the ancient books room in the library, where the signs in front of the display books were marked only in Chinese, not in both Chinese and English like most things around Shanghai, so it's possible, although maybe unlikely, I was looking at original copies of The Carnal Prayer Mat.
In the car on the way to Mogonshan Lu, where rezoned industrial lofts house art galleries, Hilary said that she was good at bargaining with the Chinese merchants. She doesn't like bargaining, but she's good at it because she doesn't actually want anything, so if she doesn't get her price she just walks. The other expat women she knows just buy tons of crap.
Taikang Lu, a famous block with tons of galleries as well as tiny coffee shops and little shops, reminds me of my problem with art, that I can't keep any of this stuff, that its physical existence for me is so ephemeral. That I'll barely even remember it, except when I maybe attempt to recall an event sometime later.
Like the fabric market, it feels like there are a million of these little galleries, too many to process, so the experience becomes one of saturation, like surfing the Internet in real life. It's impossible to know if the art in any given gallery will be schlock made for tourists or "high art." The distinction loses meaning.
A gallery in Luwan, freestanding and more Western in design than the galleries at Taikang Lu or Moganshan Lu, and curated by a European woman, featured art addressing the upcoming World Expo, which is in Shanghai this year. They are completely remaking parts of the city in order to prepare for it. It comes up again and again in my reading and conversation, the Chinese disregard for history and the constant rebuilding and refurbishing of their cities. The Expo represents another redecoration of the city of Shanghai; the slogan: "Better City, Better Life."
Before leaving for China I read in an Eliot Weinberger essay that the Chinese government does not censor artists the way it does writers and intellectuals, because no one cares about art. Mogonshan Lu is more deceptive in its presentation of art as "high art."
At another gallery I ran across walking between Luwan and a DVD store where I had read you could find old vinyl records in the back (this turned out to be untrue) I saw some video art. One of the pieces looked really cool, and when I put on the headphones to hear the soundtrack I realized that it had been shown at a Performa '09 event in New York, which I had been working at. It was a piano piece that accompanied the video. In the screening at the Anthology Film Archives in November there had been live keyboard accompaniment, and I had set up the keyboard with the PA in the theatre.
I dreamed that my friends were making fun of me for liking narrative.
I saw maybe fifty galleries in Shanghai, but one stuck out, because the digital and interactive art reminded me of my own. I talked to the curator's assistant, a French guy probably my age. He came to study Chinese for six months, but dropped out of his program and started working for the gallery. "Shanghai is like a trap," he said, "It's like Hell." He said he has no intention to go back to Paris.
At first I didn't realize that Liu Dao, the name on all of the art that I like, and most of the art in the gallery, is the name of a collective of artists, mostly Chinese and some European, and not one Chinese guy, as I had been imagining. The work is a lot like digital and interactive art that I've seen before, but it's cleaner and more complete. It seems like art and not like a technological experiment, the way the work I did in college was. My favorite piece is called "Birds on a Wire." In a frame about two feet wide and three feet tall, two birds animated by red, orange and green LEDs move subtly behind a translucent yellow screen of paper filled with Chinese text.
Some of the more sexual and violent art made my aunt uncomfortable, and I felt a bit embarrassed. We both reserved comment in front of the more graphic pieces, except occasionally she'd say something like "I don't get all this violent imagery." Later, Hilary said something to the effect of "I don't really understand art," or "I'm not an artsy person," which is something that I often hear from older people like my parents. It seems to be an expression of feeling unfamiliar and slightly out of place in a hip art gallery, but Hilary is comfortable navigating her away around Shanghai, bartering in Chinese with aggressive merchants and vendors. I don't imagine most middle aged expat house wives have can say they have the same relationship with the city.
The Urban Planning exhibition was housed in one of the futuristic spaceship buildings near People's Square. The displays inside were new and shiny but poorly made. On the second floor I found facsimiles of old maps in a bizarre display device, a wooden box with frames that slide out of the sides. On the third floor a World Expo display featured scale models of different buildings, many of which didn't exist yet. On the fourth floor there was a massive scale model of the entire city of Shanghai.
After the Urban Planning Exhibition I met up with my roommate's cousin Lara, the only person my age I had contacted when I arrived in Shanghai. She and her boyfriend Trip walked with me along Foushou Lu toward the river. After graduating college and having difficulty finding work in the US, they came to Shanghai, where Trip had studied during a semester abroad, to teach English and live cheaply. When I met them they were frazzled by their work situation. They have been in Shanghai since October, but they had learned recently that the company employing them to teach English had forged some of their qualifications in order to get them work visas. "They think lying is just being crafty, or clever," Trip said, reminding me of my aunt's description of merchants in the fake market. Still, they were positive about living in Shanghai. They said they had planned to stay for only a year but were now thinking of staying longer.
On Friday I picked up my cousins Michael and Jack from school and took them to Kung Fu class. Then we ordered pizza and watched cartoons. I slept in my aunt's bed, reading to the kids from a book of Peanuts I brought Michael before putting them to bed. After they were asleep I watched a Chinese bootleg copy of Avatar for an hour and got bored. Michael jumped into the bed the next morning at exactly seven. "I've been waiting for an hour," he told me. "I think I have hair growing on my elbow." "What are you talking about, Michael?" I said, sitting up in bed, trying to focus. "I think you need to turn on the light to see it," he said. I turned on the light and realized it had been a trick to wake me up faster. We went downstairs to play Wii. I had to convince them to eat breakfast so I could make myself coffee.
At the airport I had Korean fast food. I read the book by Eileen Chang ("We call her Chang Eileen") I got at the foreign book store. I had been to Shanghai and in a few hours I would be somewhere else.
Owen Roberts is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find more of his work here.
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