This first appeared on May 11, 2010
How do you describe a land as vast and varied as China? The contrasts are so great as to leave you stranded, straining for a hook, a theme, an easy summing up. There are lovely green farms so painterly perfect. Miles and miles of earth and river darkened by industrial indifference. Brilliant new architecture under the Shanghai sun. Faceless old stone high-rise apartment buildings one after another after another that rise and fall at artless intervals with depressing repetition out the window of a passing train. Are they the grim handiwork of communism? Or merely another variation on the human condition stacked in concrete shelves? If there is toxic waste here, and there appears to be plenty, yet this, "the oldest continuous major world civilization" according to the U.S. State Department, is now investing more money in green technology than the United States. And, indeed, is predicted by the experts to surprass the U.S. as the world leader within fifty to one hundred years. Do not take your eyes off China.
Shanghai is the promised land here; just as my friend Boyi Yuan had described it: Look one way, old city; look the other, new city. There I am, a few photos up, in front of a new skyscraper that took my breath and heart away, a radiant sliver of soft blue floating skyward. Love at first sight. In my book of constructed wonders on planet earth, there is the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, the Frank Gehry Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and now this transcendent marvel in Shanghai. And take a look at the cosmetics store above, it felt like floating through -- what? I groped for words. Suggested Boyi, "crystal." The photo hardly captures the sparkle. It makes Macy's San Francisco look rather average. High sophistication is on the rise in the Middle Kingdom.
You'll discover small things of large significance, like the subway above, without the imprisoning doors between cars, granting a wonderful sense of open-ended freedom from one to the next. (try enlarging the photo on your monitor to get the full impact.) Safe city, too. Maybe something to be said for social harmony? I was shocked to discover, however, under a crumpled blanket in a doorway, an actual homeless person. I am told the country is rife with a homeless population reaching into the millions, although millions more have been in recent years lifted out of poverty.
Taxi rides are as exciting as carnival rides, the way these fearless cabbies dart in and out and around all manner of humanity on foot or wheel at schizophrenic intersections. Must be in their DNA. Dining is a delight, the food so fresh and rich, and more than enough for two people for as little as from six to ten dollars! So good that only once did I defect to an American option, and only for the novelty -- fries and a chicken burger at MacDonald’s -- very good facsimile.
With Boyi, who launched the idea of our taking this trip over a year ago, every footstep is a photo op. He is a sort of camera-ready actor, improvising as he goes: This was surely the two most photographed weeks of my life ever.
Here we are at the ERA Intersection of Time in Shanghai, ready to take in our first of three acrobatic shows. This production cast the artists in a circular setting, unlike most Chinese troupes that perform on a stage. In its surreal reach, spiritually akin to the Cavalia horse show, I found it fairly mesmerizing. Indeed, it was more a creative manifestation of the Cirque du Soleil way than an outright imitation. But Boyi was left unmoved by a venture evidently too artistically heavy for his tastes, much favoring the next two shows we saw -- one, the totally unimaginative, very old fashioned Charming Shanghai Acrobatic Show in a rundown theatre (he thought the performers did more with their routines); the other, in Beijing, a fantastically compelling performance of primal exotic energy, tautly paced, called the Flying Acrobatics Show. We agreed that it was the best of the three. What a marvelous original score by Guo Feng, and what stunning production values. More about this in a future post.
As was our custom, we paid for the cheapest tickets to see the Flying Acrobatics Show, and landed VIP seats!
Riding overnight rails: The trains we rode were pleasantly oldish and a little folksy (except for the sleek semi-high speed D32 from Shanghai to Beijing). Following widespread advice, we took snacks aboard and avoided the diner, a big disappointment for me because I love this aspect of rail journeys. A relaxed sense of community prevailed throughout the train. Generally, I found the Chinese people to be very warm and unpretentious. Inside a coach car ahead, I glimpsed the entire aisle crowded with people who had paid to stand and maintained their respective positions with polite decorum. Something about that scene touched me.
In our four person sleeper from Guangzhou (Canton) to Shanghai, remarkably, everybody easily settled into respecting each others' space, and you can meet interesting people. For all I knew, two of these guys (Boyi is second from right) could have been college students.
Such natural camaraderie unfolded among us. They wondered if I knew the song "Hotel California." I tried humming it, and failed, a failed hippie. As it turned out, these guys were all businessmen returning from the Canton Fair! Wong King, left, manages a factory; "Eagle" finds factory labor for outside businessmen; and Jordan, who dreams of visiting America, is a Sales Rep for Shanghai Jiatai Machinery & Electrical Equipment Co. What a difference the lack of a suit and tie can make.
Here we are on train T15, Beijing to Guangzhou, co-inventors of a new board game called Can't Stop Shopping, playing it for the very fist time! So you could say we opened in China.
A poetic highlight of our journey was ending up, back in time, at Boyi's old house in the farming village where he was raised outside Taishan in the Guangdong province. To get there, we rode this bounce-happy two seater box powered by a motor bike, then continued on via a serene walk from the village where Boyi went to school -- now a cow barn -- to his own village at the grand arch under which, several photos below, he exultingly stands. So soft and lyrical a place and a walk, as if time stood still. Now and then, a figure quietly at work, along a stream, through a field unchanged. And how reassuring a contrast to other parts of the country apparently molested by the expedient forces of modern production.
Boyi's house, built by his great great grandfather. He hoped to find some toys he had left behind in a desk drawer when his family immigrated to New York in 1998. They were still there! He took most of them back to the states. And here are some of his neighbors stepping in for a visit. In all the time I was in China, I never felt like I were looking at the Chinese people, never felt overwhelmed by another ethnicity. With Boyi, I felt more like I was one with them, even though I do not speak their language.
A land both ancient and modern at the same time ...
Of the hundreds of photos snapped by our respective cameras, these are a few of my favorites.