Today’s China is an interplay of contrasting worlds, which is perhaps no better than stepping out of an ultra-opulent shopping mall and into the streets of an old, working class neighborhood in Shanghai.
I’d just walked out of the super-modern, over-the-top luxurious, some could say gaudy, absolutely gigantic Global Harbor shopping mall and into the streets. I was in the Putuo area of Shanghai, which is being re-developed in patches — the old neighborhoods chipped away at to be replaced by high-end malls and luxury high-rises. It was last summer, the Global Harbor had just opened, and I was among the curious masses who were lured in to see what it was about. I actually happened to be walking by looking for somewhere to eat. I wasn’t expecting to be enshrouded withing 480,000 square meters of opulence where I could hardly even afford a piece of sweet bread at a least fancy of all the fancy cafes. I eventually retreated from the towering mass of excess, and headed back into streets where I turned a corner and was surrounded by an old working class neighborhood rife with 10 RMB noodle stalls.
Then I saw a young guy walk over to a pile of something that was covered with a dirty grey tarp. I watched as he uncovered a mass of large ice blocks, and began loading a few onto his tricycle cart. This is the type of ice that’s generally used in places of the world where refrigeration is unconventional or too expensive. These blocks of ice were once a sign of status in the tropics before the invention of refrigeration, the are what made the Ice King of Boston his fortune. They are the reason why freezers were once called ice boxes. They guy was loading them up to ship to the local restaurants and butcher shops, which functioned on in spite of the ever encroaching stream of redevelopment and the most recent wave of modernization.
Here, next to the most luxurious mall I had probably ever been in, was a place where an overtly archaic, third world method of food preservation was standard fare. China is a place where uber-modern, overtly archaic, and all out ancient practices, belief systems, and traditions come together, creating a mosaic of contrasting times, landscapes, and social spheres that touch but are not interchangeable. You can walk through what appears to be a polished new city of soaring skyscrapers, chain stores, brightly lit shopping malls, and wide avenues, then turn down a side street to find yourself in another age.
“We don’t want a situation where we have skyscrapers next to shanty towns,” Li Keqiang, the current premier of the Communist Party, spoke at his inauguration. But that’s exactly what has been created. And this is what makes today’s China so absolutely fascinating.
Shanghai is a city of towering skyscrapers that have guys peddling poached animal hides in the street right below them. Shanghai is a city of uber-modern architecture rising up right next to centuries-old communities of winding alleys and lopsided buildings. This is a city of duality, a city at the cross roads of cultures, economics, and time. It is a city in motion. To say that Shanghai is just like every other city isn’t just incorrect, it’s an admission that you haven’t really looked at it very closely. If you don’t find places like Shanghai amazing there’s probably a better place for you: home.
The same battle between the modern and the traditional, between development and preservation are being fought the world over. The countries who’ve peaked early on are now leveling off, while those who were previously lagging behind have jumped to the fore. Children are growing up into worlds vastly different than their parents, and cultures are forced to readjust, adapt, and accept that fact that the landscape is in motion. To observe this phenomenon occurring from viewing stations positioned all over the globe is to be able to begin connecting the dots and seeing a small part of the Big Picture. This is the privilege of modern travel.
Video of the Global Harbor Mall
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