I used to tutor at a community college in downtown New York that catered to an immigrant population. My Chinese students, on learning my nationality, would smile and say knowingly, “Brother nation” or “Best friends.” The warmth was infectious and I’d respond in kind, the state-sponsored friendship a balm during a busy workday in a relentlessly busy city.
Naturally, then, I pounced at the opportunity to visit Brother Nation this past October. It was to become the latest of the father-daughter trips that, since I was 10, the pair of us have indulged in.
But Brother or not, Pakistani tourists visiting China are permitted to travel only in groups “arranged through a qualified local travel agency.” And so our father-daughter trip of two came to encompass 78. And just as well: our brothers couldn’t understand a word we said, or the other way around. We were utterly beholden to our guides.
Brother or not, we were required to show our passports to check-in at hotels and board local trains. Though, earlier in Beijing, our guide kindly stroked our egos by saying that when the strict security at Mao’s mausoleum saw our green passports, they’d be “nice” (an incorrect assumption ultimately, as one of our party managed to get detained there).
On a breezy late evening, one of the guides, Alice, tells us matter-of-factly, “Shanghai is the future of China.” Standing on the deck of a cruise boat making its languid way along the Huangpu River, it doesn’t seem like a controversial statement: the illuminated skyscrapers studding the river’s bank cost the city one million yuan per day to light up the sky. But Alice deals primarily in hyperbole, and continues, “Better than London … Better than New York!”
The Huangpu, which divides Shanghai into its eastern and western districts, makes a literal symbolic divide: British colonial era buildings, including a clock tower reminiscent of Big Ben, line one side of the river; on the other, new China’s skyscrapers house its banks, offices and five-star hotels.
Each tower boasts a different roof; some slanted, some domed, some spired, some curved, and my personal favourite — one shaped like a bottle opener. The skyscrapers along the Bund, as the central waterfront area is known, are by law restricted in height. Capped at 36 floors, this, in Shanghai, is considered restraint.
In 1958, when Mao launched his Great Leap Forward campaign for rapid industrialisation, he pledged to “surpass Britain in 15 years.” Though the plan produced only the most worthless steel and snuffed out 45 million lives, Alice has plenty to feel smug about on this balmy evening. (Amid the grandeur, it’s nice to notice that Shanghai shares our desi penchant for silly names. Inside the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a 469-metre structure which looks like a futuristic rendition of the Eiffel Tower, exists an eatery called The Pearl Oriental Coca Cola Happy Restaurant.)
Twenty-five short years ago, none of it was here. The area along the Huangpu’s eastern bank, known as Pudong, was little more than soggy farmland. In the late 1970s, when Shanghai’s population was at a mere six million (today it hovers around 25 million), the Chinese government decided to turn the city into an economic zone, in part due to its proximity to Hong Kong, as well as its temperate climate.
Since the 1990s, when construction began, the city has developed at breakneck speed. Our guides have reminded us more than once that China is a communist country, but Shanghai is a capitalist’s dream. Overpasses five levels into the sky carry gleaming cars high above the land. Streets seem like highways, train stations like airports (of which Shanghai has two).
Development by its nature doesn’t take everyone with it. In the uncompromising light of day the next morning after the river cruise, I see squat, dishevelled blocks of two-storey housing huddled together in plain view of the high-rises. They seem almost like dormitories, with several doors opening out to a long balcony. The windows of some are broken; the muddied white paint is peeling. Even bits of the roofs look partially caved in. What can be discerned of the insides seems sparse and simple.
“Very bad housing,” Alice informs us. “Many families on one floor, all sharing a bathroom or a kitchen.” Another guide, Jeffrey, later remarks, “In China, people don’t laugh at you for being poor, they laugh at you for being lazy.” (I hoped they weren’t laughing at us in Gwadar.)
The residents do not want to leave. Though they would receive some measure of compensation for doing so, the government would relocate them to a distant suburb of the city, far away from their lives. And it isn’t only the old, low-income families that struggle for space in this ever-growing city.
Most people have to commute an hour-and-a-half to work each morning to the city’s hub — buying a flat in a high-rise in a coveted part of town costs about 20,000 US dollars per square foot, according to Alice. Since the Communist Party owns all the land, “buying” really means entering into a 70-year-lease, the longest available.
And yet, having done away with the messiness of democracy, China has lifted more people out of poverty — and fast — than anywhere else in the world. And it’s culturally evident it likes its cash: the frog symbolises wealth. The money dragon, most auspicious of symbols, only eats gold but “doesn’t go to toilet”, hoarding the riches in its belly instead. The concept of feng shui (literally meaning wind-water, together implying scenery), began with the business community, who believed that arranging their homes a certain way would invite economic prosperity.
Xinyuan Market strips Chinese commerce of its romanticism and cuts to the chase. It is Shanghai’s biggest “fake market”, a multi-storied labyrinthine shopping mall housing stall upon stall of luxury knock-offs of fairly good quality. It is their Zainab Market or, in truer reflection of our bilateral friendship, perhaps Zainab is our Xinyuan.
Like our own shopkeepers at Zainab Market who will break into French, Russian, Spanish, as necessary, these salesmen enthusiastically bark prices, pitches, compliments or pleas at my father and me in English. They pull at our shirts as we walk away, grab our sleeves, beg us to punch in a final offer on their calculators before gasping at our tightfistedness.
A common tactic is to exclaim “Don’t be angry!” should one refuse the initial price (in general, one pays between 10 to 30 percent of the asking). This flusters the customer, who feels obliged to defend himself and suddenly finds himself in a position of weakness. We have been warned, however, and my father diligently shouts back, “You don’t be angry!”
“Me, I’m not angry!” a woman selling coats exclaims, tugging at his arm.
“But why are you so angry?” He is enjoying himself.
“Me? No, no!”
Later on, he makes a friend. Before closing the deal, the short, 30-something shopkeeper smacks him approvingly on the behind. As we leave, three faux luxury handbags in tow, he shakes my hand and says, “Your father — he a good man.”
Talking money, the universal language, we are for the first time understood in this foreign city. Alice shuttles the lot of us out, equipped with the one Urdu word she needs to do her job — “Chalo! Chalo!” [Come! Come!] A chorus of shopkeepers return the chant, “Chalo!” and wave us out.
Later, we are taken to a “real” market — Nanjing Street, 27 metres of pedestrian shopping. International chains like H&M and Zara and Hugo Boss line the streets. We could be anywhere, Oxford Street or Herald Square. The only difference is the Japanese-inspired street fashion, girls in thigh-high socks and pigtails flashing ‘V’ signs at smart phones.
We are bored, but consumerism is a part of the deal. Though the trip to Nanjing Street isn’t mandatory, other shopping excursions have been — by law, as foreigners we were required to visit a pearl factory and tea retailer in Beijing, a jade factory in Xi’ian and a silk factory here in Shanghai. In each case, an attractive young woman explains the art of cultivation, whether of pearls from oysters or silk from worms, inviting us to touch the un-spun silk or dead oyster shell.
Then the (considerably less charming) sales assistants swoop in and the exchange begins. For my part, the factories were a useful, if extended, opportunity for a bathroom break.
On my last day, I am given a respite from concrete and commerce. Sitting in the Yuyuan Gardens, in the old city, I have time to reflect on my brief time with our new friends-not-masters.
Originally completed in 1577 by a government official as a peaceful place for his parents to enjoy old age, it’s various pagodas, rockeries and ponds are a testament to filial love. Watching the white and orange carp swim by, I decide that I’d prefer licking Chinese boots to Arab ones. At the very least, we’d save our birds. It simply wasn’t fair being a security state without any of the shiny stuff this one had. I sensed a great cultural shift coming, and soon after I return to Karachi I see the proof: in an old book store in Defence I find Feng Shui for Cats, “the first book to consider the subject from the all-important feline view.”
The writer is a staffer at Herald magazine
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, December 31st, 2017