"So you're ready to see the real Shanghai?" he asked, stepping on the gas and giggling as if he'd told a dirty joke.

I'd been alone in Shanghai four days before making contact with this friend of a friend in Vancouver. Now I was being picked up at midnight by a Chinese installation artist with an elegant goatee, his beady eyes rounded by rimless spectacles. Riding shotgun was a Sumo-sized chain-smoker who introduced himself with a pseudonym and, "I'm a new media artist." I was thrilled to speak and be understood -- already my tongue was undergoing atrophy -- and I was ready to see their "real Shanghai."

What was I doing there? they wondered. My answer was hard to lob over the language gap.

Having experienced the 2010 Winter Games back home, I was in Shanghai as a semi-ironic gesture: to see the 2010 World's Fair, completing the double-header of the year's bloated international events. But so far, I tried to explain, I hadn't made it past dropping my jaw at Shanghai's stupefying skyline and strolling the streets, falling in love with passing women, almost getting truck-flattened while I swooned. I was a tourist in the worst way, with a ghostly complexion and just enough language savvy to walk into a restaurant and say, "Beef meat."

And what did I think of China? I'll try to explain that now, because I didn't try then. I just said, "It's something!"

Before travelling there, my vision of China had undergone two formations and one breakdown. Beyond the knowledge that chopsticks were hard to use, the earliest vision was shaped by my Canadian education, which, when it shone light on China at all, did so with the nuclear after-glow of Cold War rivalry. Little red books, brainwashes and industrial wastelands unfolded in an Orwellian vocabulary. In Grade 9, I made a bristol-board presentation on Tiananmen Square. It was better to be born in Ontario. Case closed.

The second vision was of my own adolescent devising. Dissatisfied with North American capitalism, and generally willing to adopt any ideology that conformed to my anger, I found in China a convenient vessel. "After all," I reasoned, "Maoism isn't Stalinism; it isn't the Khmer Rouge; it isn't even Castro." This depiction of Mao in the Western imagination -- as a benign, rub-my-belly grandfather -- began with Edgar Snow's 1937 biography Red Star Over China and continues today on every Mao Zedong wristwatch and tote bag.

But after moving to Vancouver in 2005 and reading Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's biography Mao: The Unknown Story, I couldn't deny that Mao had been a monster, "probably the most disgusting of the bloody troika of 20th-century tyrant-messiahs," in the words of one review. Would you wear a wristwatch with Hitler on it?

World's Fair envy

So China went back to being just a country on a map. All I knew was how I felt: the 21st century would belong to China.

And Shanghai was being styled as China's 21st century city. That science-fiction skyline had shot up in just 20 years. China spent more money on Expo 2010 than on the Beijing Games, all to introduce the 21st century to Shanghai under the slogan "Better City, Better Life." It's basically the biggest debutante ball in history.

But in the West's coverage of the World's Fair, which I'd used to research the trip, I read anxiety amidst the backhanded compliments, the jealousy of dimming empires. I felt we were still trembling from the 2008 Opening Ceremonies, which had strikingly symbolized China's appetite in the middle of North America's economic meltdown.

I didn't know what to think of China, but I couldn't get behind this derisive attitude. Yes, Mao was bad; but Mao was dead. Hadn't China earned the century the only way nations do, by suffering?

In this confusion, I'd walked Shanghai's streets those first few days.

582px version of A man walking on The Bund in Shanghai
A man walking on The Bund, Shanghai's skyline beyond him. Photo: M.LaPointe.

"Real Shanghai" turned out to be a shred of a bar in the French Concession, where over the course of the night I'd drink a bottle of wine, fill an ashtray and numb my mouth with menthol betel nuts. I'd also have my vision of China remade once more.

My first words upon sitting down were, "I can only assume everyone in this bar hates Expo." The table of a dozen fellow drinkers erupted with laughter -- ah! English-speakers, all of them! The mood immediately loosened.

"Of course we hate Expo," said the one who’d driven me here, who I'll call Zhi. "Everything about it we hate. Do you hate Expo?" he asked, turning to the fat artist who'd come with us, who I'll call Hong.

Hong vehemently shook his head, scattering cigarette smoke, but it was obvious he was just being a contrary pain-in-the-ass.

I asked Zhi why Expo was despised, at least in this bar, and I heard the rants pounded like pots and pans in Vancouver before the Games. He began with development. As with Vancouver's Olympic Village, Canada Line and convention centre, massive construction projects in Shanghai were stained with corruption, incompetence and gross expenditure, most notably a new maglev train, which sparked one of the few effective protests in recent local memory.

At the same time, Zhi explained, Shanghai's cost of living was sky-rocketing as a result of speculation. The city has long been among the world's most expensive for expatriates, as my exorbitant americano proved each morning; but even for native Shanghaiese, staying put is increasingly difficult.

Familiar squeeze

I sympathized with the growing pains. As in Vancouver, the average worker in Shanghai can only dream of purchasing real estate in the city; and as with our Olympics, it can't be proven whether Expo is the prime mover of the growing divide, but the megalith event forms a point of convergence for local grief. The government is doing something to provide low-income housing, but the attempts are controversial and not nearly enough.

Lastly -- and with an aggression befitting a group of young artists -- the table sounded off with aesthetic criticisms of Expo. Haibao the mascot, Western critics have said, looks too much like Gumby. No one at the bar knew Gumby, but they resented that Haibao had proliferated across Shanghai like Quaatchi, Sumi and Miga, or like a rash. The artists felt there was no genuine cultural representation. Shanghai was suddenly home to the most expensive event in human history, yet the world was learning nothing about Chinese culture except what the word Coca-Cola looks like in Mandarin. No one would know about the country's many artists, some in this bar, who felt unable to freely exhibit work on the mainland or who just didn't have the money to make it.

582px version of Hedge of Expo 2010 mascot Haibao
In Jing'an Plaza, one of Shanghai's countless Haibao hedges. Photo: M.LaPointe.

"Is there resistance to Expo?" I asked.

"No," said Zhi with irony and dismay. "The government knows everything in this city. No one questions Expo. Either they don't know, or they're afraid."

Zhi, Hong, and everyone there agreed: yes, Shanghai has that 21st century skyline, but while this is meant to be a "Better City," a "Better Life," the ruling officials, like parents unwilling to show their child scary movies, refuse to expose people to a full range of information. As Zhi pointed out, this is condemning Shanghai to a 20th century stasis, as information has become the lifeblood of the digital age. The government won't let its people grow up.

A business owner as well as an artist, Zhi said it's impossible to find employees in Shanghai with the necessary creativity. "This is why you have all the 'Made in China' products," he said. "There are so many cheap drones. No one knows how to think."

'Half my class works for Google'

One doesn't need to look far to understand why. Turn on the TV. Just in the time I was in Shanghai, CCTV News applied its rose-coloured brush to epic flooding and a catastrophic oil pipeline rupture. The anchors could barely keep straight faces as they signaled all was under control. I just flipped to the shopping channel.

To go online, after all, is to navigate Big Brother censorship. Party-sanctioned search-engine Baidu runs far more efficiently than firewall-crippled Google. China also has equivalents of YouTube and Facebook, the originals of which cannot be accessed on the mainland. Some, such as the owner of the bar, are able to penetrate the Great Firewall of China, but everyone senses it's a losing battle.

"Half of my class goes to work for Google, half for the government," a computer science graduate student told me at a restaurant later in the week. "More and more go to the government, now that Google has left."

What's more, the student explained, pointing to some young children nearby, "Kids under 16 believe Baidu came before Google, Chinese Facebook before Facebook, Chinese YouTube before YouTube..." He broke into neurotic laughter as the list wore on.

"The only hope for a Chinese child who, for some reason, wants to learn about the world," Zhi told me, "is get good marks, study abroad, travel. That's the one ticket."

Indeed, the characteristic common to everyone in the bar was that they had been talented, rich or lucky enough to experience the world beyond mainland China.

Stuck in Shanghai

I still wanted my underground. "Are there other places like this bar?" I asked the owner, also a photographer, who I'll call Ming. (I don't know whether using pseudonyms actually matters, but everything that night made me feel I should use them.)

Ming pondered the question. "Maybe one other place," he said.

"Are there more people like you?"

"There are some more who could be here right now, but not many."

"Why do you stay?" I asked.

Ming shrugged and said the obvious, the profound: "I was born here, my parents were born here. Shanghai is my life. I'll probably die in Shanghai."

582px version of Poster in Shanghai of children in army uniforms
A poster of children in military uniforms in a rubble-filled building. Photo: M.LaPointe.

The mood was turning grim, held under an invisible heel.

Though I'd found most of the Olympics resistance in Vancouver self-congratulatory and embarrassing, nevertheless I wondered why these artists -- educated, aware, creative -- didn't invent some way of pushing back. This was perhaps the last deeply naive thought I had in Shanghai. In Vancouver the stakes were so much lower for the protestor. We didn't face a government which has again and again proven itself willing to suppress dissent by the most brutal means available. Had I forgotten my bristol board? I held my tongue, as they were holding theirs.

But Hong was there to party. "What do you think of Shanghai girls?" he asked, sucking down a smoke.

"They're very beautiful," I replied, "but the most beautiful seem to have their mothers escorting them everywhere."

Hong laughed, hacked, then said quite soberly, "Now you begin to understand the real China."

For some reason, I let these drunkards drive me back to my hotel. That night, I slept a heavy, dreamless sleep, and in the morning woke to a new city.

Where before I'd seen the shopgoers, businessmen, chefs and manicurists as 21st century citizens enacting the future's way of life, the mood of last night's conversation pursued me. Now I saw citizens of a hyperactive capitalism, a city where accessory shops are even built into ancient Buddhist temples. Shanghai culture suddenly struck me as intensely generic, manufactured simply and cheaply like those Made in China products. I no longer felt among individuals.

Expo and after

Later that day, I walked to Fuxing Park to see the Marx and Engels monument. I was on holiday, after all, and I worried I'd return home without a tan, so I rolled up my sleeves and basked like a lizard on a bench. Nearby, a speaker system was set up, projecting waltz music onto the park's shady square, where a few dozen couples were ballroom dancing.

I watched them for a while, savouring yet another example of Shanghai's eccentricity. Dusk was just commencing, sunlight slanting through the treetops, when a very old man hobbled toward me and asked in faltering English where I was from. I replied, and he asked who the president or prime minister was. The man cross-referenced my answer with a list he'd written out, which included many nations and their leaders. I noticed a few anachronisms and helped him out. The situation in Britain confused him.

The man eased arthritically into the spot beside me. "I have no teeth," he said, which I'd noticed. He was retired, and had never seen a dentist or a doctor. Neither had he ever been outside of Shanghai, though the rising cost of living forced him to live in the suburbs. He rode the bus each day to Fuxing Park to meet foreigners. He said he wouldn't be friends with anyone Chinese. "They are all liars," he said, accusing the parkgoers with a long, gaunt finger. "They do not even know it. They will tell you a street is one-way when it goes both ways. They are illiterate. They don't know who is in control."

He then pointed to the man and woman operating the sound system. "The Party pays them to play music all day, and so the people dance. They will dance every day, even when it rains. The Party wants us to keep dancing. Then no one will know anything."

The conversation trailed off into a comfortable silence. We sat watching the dancers until I had to leave.

I was finally going to Expo. The artists, though dismayed I wanted to bother with the fair at all, had informed me that tickets were cheaper in the evening. Maybe the line-ups would even be shorter. I hailed a taxi and tried giving directions, expecting at least the word Expo to be a clear transmission. I pointed through the window at a huge billboard of Haibao, exclaiming, "Expo! See? I'm going to Expo!" He rolled the window down.

582px version of Lineup outside Serbia Pavillion at Expo 2010
Another endless lineup outside Serbia's pavillion at the 2010 World's Fair. Photo: M.LaPointe.

Eventually we got moving, and I stepped onto the sprawling World's Fair grounds at the long-shadowed hour before dark. I stayed only a couple of hours, walking aimlessly, taking in the bizarre architecture of the pavilions, which looked like alien landings. The Expo ferry brought me across the Huangpu River, which divided the grounds. On the other, better side, I stood in line to enter a handful of pavilions. A tiny sigh of anti-climax was my reward each time.

The Canada Pavillion was enough to discredit the fair wholesale. My passport had let me cut the line, but others had been waiting for hours -- for what? The aesthetic felt derived from a Sarah McLachlan video. A restaurant served "A taste of Canada": chicken, poutine, steamed broccoli, soft-serve ice cream. It was the same feeling I'd had during the Olympics: whose definition of fun was this?

I rode the Metro back under the Huangpu, the tunnel drawing me away from the plastic Shanghai of Expo, away from its distraction, towards the French Concession. Both Vancouver's SkyTrain and Shanghai's Metro cars were built by Bombardier, so I could've felt at home on the swift, basement-cool train. My thoughts slid toward the man in the park, toward the artists in the bar, toward a towering statue of Mao I'd seen at a university.

A few days later, I found myself on Fuxing Road again, and decided to spend another hour in the park. The old man wasn't there. I think I was expecting him to be. The people were still dancing.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

What are you doing about reconciliation?

Take this week's poll