“Xiao gu niang, yao bu yao mai yi ba shan?”, asks the wizened little old lady on Nan Jing East Road. She’s clutching a bag full of foldable umbrellas and calling out to the passersby who are hurrying along in the drizzle that promises to turn into a downpour very shortly. She’s like a packet inspection system placed in the flow of traffic, looking for potential customers. Anyone who is not armed against the weather gets a foldable umbrella waggled in their face and a scolding for carrying on with such reckless disregard for their health.
But I’m a packet with no writable fields. I’m tottering back to my hotel after taking a real shredder of an exam and I barely notice the rain, barely notice anyone. In this surreal bubble of sleep deprivation and euphoria, time is out of joint. Brain dribbling out my ears. It’s been a tough few days, juggling travel across eleven time zones and last minute exam revisions, but it’s been worth it. I passed the exam. My brain is still capable of a few creaky acrobatics, apparently.
Nan Jing East Road is the famous shopper’s paradise of Shanghai, a broad pedestrian mall with the big brand names prominently displayed in the signage. The major shopping districts in every major city worldwide are filled with the exact same franchises; they are practically indistinguishable from each other these days. Same high couture, same fast food joints. Partly due to cultural homogenization, partly due to improved goods delivery systems and open markets. More people want the same things these days.
In the smaller back roads around Nan Jing East Road, crowds queue up to buy delicious local food. Steamed dumplings (shenjian) are the signature dish of Shanghai. Now, that’s something you can’t get just anywhere. Often imitated, never duplicated.
Stalking through the city via the exact same route yesterday, nobody bothered me, presumably because I looked like a grubby backpacker with no disposable income. If you want to ensure that you can get from Shanghai Pu Dong Airport all the way to the central business district in Pu Xi completely unmolested by anyone who might try to sell you something, I suggest that you carry a huge backpack and wear a travel-stained Dead Kennedys t-shirt. Even the barkers just outside the Arrivals gate at the airport glaze over slightly when you appear, and they only resume their incessant calls of “You need a taxi, sir?” when a more likely target appears in view. They know that shoestring backpackers always take the subway; why waste saliva on you? They’ve flagged that packet.
Today, I must have dressed in the dark. I am inadvertently stylish. The touts keep trying to hand me flyers for clothing stores. I have to repeatedly refuse the sales pitch from another middle-aged lady who proffers laminated photos of imitation Louis Vuitton handbags. She dogs me for half a block before giving up with a piqued sigh. These little old ladies are short; they only come up to my shoulders. A generation who grew up during the lean postwar years without proper nutrition. The lunchtime pedestrian traffic spills out of the numerous restaurants and fast food joints. The younger generation is tall, well-fed. Height-wise, they fulfill their genetic potential.
A short walk to the south, another shopping area on HuaHai Middle Road. The engines of desire are on display with Tiffany’s, Apple and Burburry selling the big ticket items. Lots of couture. The exact same products they sell in any other city in the world. The same jewelry, the same iPhones, the same handbags. Franchising. The postmodern successor to colonialism. One ring to rule them all. China has the most franchises in the world.
But the city is full of little shops with local ownership. JinLing East Road, lined with wholesalers selling mass manufactured lace and buttons and ribbons; stores selling western musical instruments. Pianos, violins, electric guitars and drum sets. In a store full of Chinese instruments, a woman is tuning a qin, which is a sort of zither.
In the next store, one of the young sales clerks laughs when he sees me. We are wearing the same Joy Division tshirt, the distinctive cover from Unknown Pleasures that shows pulses from PSR B1919+21, the first radio pulsar ever discovered. He tells me he is studying to be an architect; this is just a part time gig to pay the bills. He wants to build green buildings that are energy efficient. There’s an ambitious urban renewal plan for Shanghai. At the top floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, one is tempted to reenact Godzilla stomping (insert megalopolis here) on a gigantic scale model of The Shanghai Of The Future. There is going to be lots of construction in Shanghai in the next ten years. But the store clerk has no money and no connections; he will have to rely on skill and education to succeed professionally.
I tell him about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered PSR B1919+21, and how she built her own radio telescope and had to deal with a discouraging professional environment. He grins and says, yeah, you cannot be dissuaded by the untrodden path. You have to know what you want, and then go get it, I say. And suddenly I remember why I am sleep deprived, and I smile and head back to the hotel for a nap.