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2006 06 13
Shanghai Missive
Image: AGOTW

Montreal resident Emmanuel Madan recently travelled to Shanghai to install an artwork called Ondulation. He sent us a series of dispatches about his experiences and we thought these were perfect for our feature on Shanghai. We will serialize them here over the next few days.

"Pudong New Area is the suitably science-fiction-like name for a very surreal place. Shanghai's history is tied up with European imperialism and was basically founded around the time of the Opium wars, in the mid-1800s. From that time until about ten years ago, Shanghai existed essentially on the west bank of theHuangpu river. Everything east of the river was reserved for farmland, supplying the city's millions of people with most of its produce. All that changed about ten years ago when city planners decided to open Pudong up to urban development. It has since become the banking centre of China, competing withHong Kong for financial dominance of the "New China".

Pudong New Area is where I spent more than half of my time in China, and I don't think I could have picked a more unrepresentative place. The model is familiar if unsavory: a vast agrarian area outside an existing city is appropriated, its existing inhabitants pushed aside to make way for a new urban experiment which by its very layout and design are meant to exclude everyone but the middle class. This permits people who have the funds to "leave behind" all the perceived problems of the old city: the narrow streets, the congestion, the "old" ways of doing things. In Pudong there is no street life, hardly anybody selling food on the street or just walking around or sitting and eating on the front stoop. Pudong feels like a city built for cars and traveled through at a car's pace, not on foot. It's not like everybody has cars of course: there were still quite a lot of bicycles and a fair number of buses. The rapidly expanding metro line is beginning to take in Pudong as well. But just like the local elite, taxis are what we always used to zip around all the time: between the hotel on Zhang Yang Road and the museum (the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art as it was called) where I was working.

The museum is placed in an area that I felt was pretty typical of Pudong: a sort of a shopping plaza / strip mall with a bunch of retail and food outlets arranged around a bit of a pedestrian area with a fountain and some really cheesy sculpture. It's called the Zendai Thumbs Up plaza, Zendai being the name of the real estate magnate who set up it and who is also the patron of the museum where we installed our show. The main draw of the "Thumbs Up" plaza is a supermarket called Carrefour. Carrefour is a major French supermarket chain, I was not a little surprised to see their familiar logo as I drove by it on my first day in Shanghai. The surprise was sort of dissipated when I metCarrefour's neighbours: Starbuck's, Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald's... plus a very popular karaoke complex, some Indian, Japanese and Korean restaurants, a videogame arcade and a few Chinese restaurants - relatively few of these, considering.

It was pretty fascinating sociology to sit out on the plaza on a Saturday, and watch all the middle class Chinese consumers come down to do their shopping at Carrefour and then stick around for a meal or an ice cream, watch their kids spin around on roller blades around the fountain... it felt to me like this place is really equated with status and status is something you buy. You buy those nice clothes to be seen in, you buy the expensive foreign food or clothing, you buy all those treats for your kid, you basically pay just for the privilege to be seen in such a place as Pudong. The clientele of this mall is eerily homogeneous - a kind of false homogeneity that I encountered again and again in all the various places I wound up across China."

Pudong Photo: Arlyna
[email this story] Posted by David Ross on 06/13 at 11:14 AM

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