Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Do You Love Most About Shanghai... the question I most dread while Stateside (where I have been these past few months.)

What, if anything even, do I love about Shanghai?

Do I love the food? Not especially & sometimes not at all.
The people? Only a statistically insignificant percentage of the population.
The air quality? Like Rick about the waters in Casablanca: I was misinformed.

Makes me feel like a complete curmudgeon.

So, in the face of The Question, it was a very good thing that, yesterday, I went for a walk.

(Actually it was a few days ago but technology has stymied me: the photos below are meant to be the slide show found here.) 

Because, as I walked, I was reminded that there really is a thing I love most about Shanghai & it's also the thing that the Cabinet of Curiosities is about.

The walk that I walked was mapped by the artist Petra Johnson for her multi-city project Walk with Me. Accompanied by another walker, usually a stranger to her, Petra walks a predetermined route. At 15 fixed points or "islands," her companion is given a small slip of paper with a prompt that frames the next section of the route: "observe a moment of kindness" makes the street a very different place from "identify a moment of tension" (which was marked on my walk by two parked bicycles suddenly falling over of their own accord.) The responses to the prompts are noted down & kept in an archive called the Composition of the Ordinary.

Starting at a kiosk on Shaoxing Lu, a very sweet street, well known to me as the street where Petra lived when I first came to Shanghai (& she was among the very first people I met here & was often a guide in those early years as well...) we wended our way thru streets unknown to me until, finally, we arrived, several hours later, at the Power Station of Art, the former power station that now houses the Shanghai Biennale & other mega-sized shows of contemporary art. Skirting new high rises, flashy commercial developments and broad traffic-filled roadways, the route ran like a hidden river, along streets & lanes seemly unchanged since I first encountered Shanghai 10 (!?!) years ago.

I walked with Petra (top photo) and sinologist & curator Anja Goette in real time but while I walked in Shanghai, they walked in Berlin. Anja opened the prompts in Berlin, & by way of WeChat, we overlaid the two cities with moments of surprising synchronicity. This world is a strange and mysterious place.

What startled He-Whom-I'm-Trailing & me the most, and constantly, when we were newly here was the intimacy with our co-inhabitants that the city imposed upon us: a man scrubbing inside his boxer shorts at a fire hydrant, a woman at the curb washing her hair, a child testing the aerodynamics of scrap of  paper in the sprawling sidewalk chaos of his family's fruit stand, sleepers of all genders & ages sprawled on cots & lounge chairs, escaping airless rooms for the slightly cooler air of the street... The line that divided private space from public space seemed hardly to exist.

But with the modernization of Shanghai, that feeling of intimacy subsided. The sense of a being one in a "school of fish" that I loved in the daily swarm of bicycles (see post re: Little Pink) disappeared with the advent of metro lines & automobiles; the open-air street life shuttered up into glass-fronted shops & air-conditioned mega-malls. Mobs of trendy(ish) young couples trawling for international brands replaced the small posses of card-players with their undershirts rolled to air their bellies in the summer heat.

And so it came upon me with a rush of feeling when I found that curious and disconcerting intimacy in tact & thriving on the streets of Petra's walk. It raised in me a revery of tenderness towards the city & its details, toward particular individual lives. It returned to me the sense of wonder & amused affection with which I began the Cabinet of Curiosities, the desire to preserve various small moments of extreme & delightful ordinariness, to build a collection of physical objects that would trigger this extraordinary mundane of which I already anticipated losing track. 

As seen on WeChat, Berlin, a vibrant place in my imagination, seemed quiet, historical, spare of objects & beings, almost stunningly so. Helsinki, on my first visit there recently, with its calm & order & the purity of its design sensibility, had me nursing a secret nagging wonder: wouldn't I, over time, feel lulled into boredom there? 

But Shanghai: the sheer busy-ness of what a Chinese friend calls "the not-so-organized" space, the unpredictability, the constant (or incessant & unremitting) stimulation. To walk out the door & see: a plastic basin of eels tip over, eels slithering by the dozen down into the sewer drain; slightly dated dresses catching the breeze on a laundry line, perhaps those of one of the park's ballroom dancers, a woman trying to retrieve the opportunity lost for lipstick & high heels during the androgynous monotony of the Cultural Revolution; a family on low stools, shelling peas, their son fully concentrated on his homework at a card table, the scrawny cat at his feet working over a fish head; a net sack full of bullfrogs 3 times the size of my hand. So many very particular details so very close, so available to one in a flood of strangers.

Petra's walk returned to me the opportunity here for ceaselessly just plain noticing. The crazy density of textures - not necessarily of beauty or culture or history - just of everyday life. The closeness of all these individual souls living out their individual days as part of a huge anonymous blob of 22 million beings living all together in this one spot. 

So now next time someone asks the dread question I've got the answer...

(Much thanks to Petra for designing the opportunity & to Anja for the company! That really was a great walk!)


  1. Thank you Christina - this is beautiful writing. I know I will soon take a walk around my taken-for-granted neighborhood, and work on seeing it with fresh eyes.

    1. Thank you!! That's the best compliment to me: to have someone feel like they have new eyes for something because of something I made. Enjoy your walk!

  2. Loved it loved it loved it as a shut in here in New Mexico with only clean air, open spaces, and wonderful summer rains....

  3. Yea, rub it in a bit. Apply to Swatch & come take pictures here for 6 months!

  4. Hi Christina, I love this post. It made me long to walk the streets of Shanghai again. I love the image of the vegetables on the concrete.