The neon demon

31 10 2016

Arriving in Shanghai for the first time was thrilling. It felt like arriving in The Future, the new world capital. Here was a Tokyo-in-the-eighties money-making monster, ready to take on the world and swallow it whole, its streets lined with (literal) phlegm and (figurative) money. Yes, the people still spat, and pushed and yelled, and some of the shit they wore! But the architecture was astounding, even wreathed in rain and smog. Neon-lit tomorrowland tower peppered the horizon. And the city’s energy was both palpable and contagious.

Here was a city with a complicated history  – once a quasi-colonial national humiliation, then birthplace of the Communist party before being shunned by it – roaring back into poll position in the race to remake China, and the world. Shanghai in 2016 is a city of luxury shopping malls, innovative internet solutions and chic art museums, one that can singlehandedly set real estate markets bubbling in Vancouver or crash the price of bauxite in Africa. Yet it is still also in a country with a GDP per capita of 400 US dollars.

The city’s Subway Line Two sweeps like a triumphal avenue from the gleaming tomorrowscape of Pudong to the city’s West, connected to a labyrinthine swarm of lesser lines, and with a major international airport bookmarking it at each end. Here though, planes often wait for hours to take off on the congested runways. High speed trains disgorge immigrants from the countryside and holidaying urbanites returning from the provinces. Crowds push and hustle.

Shanghai is grey and gritty, but effervescent, a city of bright lights and even louder voices, a city which is on the move and waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

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