Saturday, March 17, 2012

March 13th – Acrobatic Shanghai

The last time we were in Shanghai in 2010, the whole city seemed like one massive building site as the city got ready to host the 2010 Expo. Now, even though there are still plenty of building sites around the city, there's a much more settled feel to the centre of the city. The Bund (the old colonial waterfront) has really been smartened up, and a lot of the traffic has been removed from it by an underground tunnel.

Apart from an improved urban environment, the other difference I noticed was that the shopping appears to have got even more Westernised than it was before – there are even more Western brands creeping into Nanjing Road, and the huge shopping malls dotted around the city.

We walked up to People's Square and visited Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where there was an interesting exhibition of modern Asian art. The theme of the exhibition was that Asian art is under increasing threat of being swamped by Western art and culture, and that the Far East is in danger of losing its identity and traditions. It's an interesting take on the world – we in the west seem to be increasingly preoccupied with the fact that the Chinese (plus Japan and South Korea), are the new economic superpower, and will eventually take over the world. But, the China that may one day take over the world, could by then, be just an imitation of the westernised, commercialised, consumer-obsessed world we inhabit today.

Anyway, the art was really thought-provoking; and, inspired by this, we went onto to Shanghai's main art museum, housed in the former headquarters and grand stand of the Shanghai Racing Club (People's Square is sited on the old Race course from colonial times). For me, the building was more interesting than the art, but Tracy is more appreciative of these things than me, so she enjoyed it.

In the afternoon, I did one of the ship's tours that went to the atmospheric Jade Buddha Temple (an oasis of calm in this non-stop city), and then visited a family in their apartment in one of the old Communist 1950s developments. The flat was pretty cold and small, but it was comfortable enough. I asked the lady whether she thought that Shanghai life had got better or worse in the last 15 years (the years that have witnessed the absolute transformation of her city) – she said that many things had got better, but that everything, particularly property, had got too expensive these days.

Property prices seem to be a Shanghai preoccupation these days. When a modest 2 bedroom property in a new apartment block in a middling district can now go for $1M USD, it seems like China is heading for a property crash of western proportions. Whilst a significant wealthy middle class has developed, there simply can't be that number of wealthy people to sustain a property boom like this. It doesn't matter whether the Communists are in charge or the bankers, every property bubble eventually collapses. When it happens to China, it will be fascinating to see what will happen.

In the evening, we went on the complimentary Silversea Experience, out to a theatre to watch an amazing acrobatics show. The strength and agility of the young men and women performers was astounding – it was a case of one "wow" after another. But, the biggest wow of the lot was reserved for the motorbike show at the end of it. A huge metal cage-like globe (a bit like a giant hamster cage) was put out on the stage, and a motorbike drove in through a hatch. In this dangerously cramped space, he drove around at breakneck speed and looping the loop; but, if this wasn't scary enough, a second bike drove in and they began to criss-cross each other. As we watched through our fingers, praying not to see a collision, bike after bike drove in to join them, until an unbelievable 8 motorbikes were circling each other, lights flashing, horns blaring, fumes stinking.

It was total, ridiculous, over-the-top, exhilarating sensory overload – much like the city of Shanghai as a whole.