Travelogue: Shanghai, April 2002

16 April 2002

Few more days and I'll leave China. I am quite sad about it.
Even with all the negative points I love it here and I know culture and beauty is just under a thin crust. Wonderful people can be met, places can be seen, everything is possible. And I can see how China is changing, and where it could go, but also where it could maybe go if only.... there is a lot that can be done here, some catalytic scalpel-like interventions, that could do a lot of good.
Definitely amid the countries I've seen in Asia, this is the one that so far interests me the most. The one I need to come back to.


Shanghai, Over the Sea.
Haven't seen any sea yet.
Expected to find the blueprint of Singapore. Found something along those lines.
Or maybe the other way around.

The Hangzhou train gently deposits me in Shanghai south. I wade across people
and foreign language until I manage somehow to reach the guesthouse.
I discover it's both expensive and far away from the conference center.
I wonder how much it would then cost a hotel near the conference center....
I decide I don't want to know.

The day after the arrival, conference starts. They say Shanghai is the showcase
of China. Pudong area is the showcase of Shanghai.

Towering skyscrapers all around. Bizarre how such hyperpopulated buildings can
look so devoid of life, so sterile, so barren. Emerging from the everlasting
mist as abandoned relics of a remote future. Modern inheritage.

I walk around and I am cheated by some brown coloured signs into thinking there is a genuine sightseeing site nearby. As I walk into the witches' windowed wood I eventually discover that the Hai Long, Sea Dragon, Sea Palace, is nothing but a restaurant on the river. Back on my steps, wandering across the widows' widgety wood, wondering....

Conference starts, the best point is that here speakers feel somehow less obliged to make jokes during the talk, in respect to other conferences&talks I've been at.

The second conference days finishes early and I have some time to wander around. As I emerge from the underground on the other side of the river, supposedly what should be the "old city", I suddenly feel a shopping fish navigating through colourful advertising waves in the ocean of products.

But it's not too difficult to swim further and enter Parallel Shanghai. Parallel Shanghai lies in parallel streets. Just by sidestepping it's possible to avoid the westernized shopping avenue and find increasingly thick figments of life.

The man at the corner of the alley, repairing shoes, the fruit market, the golden watches market, the cooker of baozi (small steamed buns with meat or vegetable filling) that with expert hands folds them one by one, tiny miracles flowing marvellously as a thread of perls.
People eating, people walking, people spitting, people crying.

I prefer it there. I prefer parallel China. These streets parallel to the big malls. Cities like Hangzhou parallel to Shanghai. Provinces like Yunan, parallel to other richer and more westernized ones. Villages buried in remote valleys, parallel to the exposed China.

The hidden parallels, where I don't get to see copper statues of people (in the style of the Budapest sitting princess) that seem to infest the center of Shanghai. Why these statues? And why nearly all of them represent white people?

Without entering parallel China it's impossible to see China, a part from the blurred image of the western world reflected on chinese patterned foil. It's like driving around the world on highways, carefully constructed to allow you to cross an entire nation without seeing absolutely nothing.

My best moments in this city are when I enter in conversations, in random moments of the day, with random people. Also here in Shanghai they look at me much less, they are used to foreigners. I love being able to communicate, that's one of the major motives I learn new languages.

It's a pity that almost always conversations drift on the money argument. There's an obsession with how do I get the money, how much money I will make with my future work, how much money does it cost this or that, why on earth would I have any intention to come to work in China when salary is so low....

Today morning Shanghai is in rainy mood. From the wet streets a pungent smell attacks the nose, adding to the usual attack to the ear provided by the metropolitan noises, the clacsons, the works, the rasping throats, the cellular phones....

I get out of the campus, ready to cross the city (through bus and metro), ready for my hour of commuting (and thinking to those conference participants which got everything paid by their institution and hence are staying at the luxury hotel side by side with the conference center).

But today I have a medicine. Mr. Jascha Heifetz brings once more to life and delivers to my ears the beautiful notes of my friend Ludwig van. Violin concerto through the headphones, through my head. The world softens, the grey gets coloured, the noises get smoothed, the people's pushes become caresses, I feel good.

I move as a spirit among the city, nobody can see me, nobody can reach me. The hour is gone, the concerto is finished but leaves me vibrating inside, resonating for long.

I find myself at the conference site and I find my place among the faithfuls, participating to the scientific mass, sharing the mistery of the new religion, amid worshippers of the gene count, believers of the molecular machines, in the cathedrals of knowledge.

Once more I get to hear that only a minor part of the genome is coding and we are interested in it; the rest is no more (luckily) referred to as "junk dna" but still it's regarded as lowly important. Why are we so obsessed by content forgetting the importance of form? Why are poets spending so much effort in crafting a visual layout for their words? If the form of the message is not important, then

In a different session I am taught how some researchers inserted a mutation in mice that induces a lot of horrible symptoms just three weeks after birth. Since many of those symptoms are shared by old humans, they study these mice as a model system for human aging. I don't know if laughing or crying at their roughness and cruelty. The stupidity of the reductionist approach and the absence of empathy. Once lager experiments on humans. Oh! The horror! No more, no more! Then vivisection on animals. Oh! The horror of it! No more, no more! Then, why can't we ever learn? Isn't it horror to cause cancer in cats and breed baby senescent mice?

Most will fade, some will endure.
The world buzz - the neverending violin harmony.
The modern hype - the everlasting pervading life, mocking us all.

Shanghai, 4^2/4/2++2

Joseph A.L. Insana

Last modified: Thu Apr 25 14:58:37 BST 2002 First appearance: Thu Apr 25 14:58:36 BST 2002