Phase Change

I descended into Shanghai through thick brown air. My first view of China was this undifferentiated haze, the color of spent cigarette filters. The plane made its approach, but the scene never changed until the wheels hit and I found myself at Pudong airport, some miles outside of the city. The second impression was better: a thoroughly modern airport, connected to the metro by Maglev train. Reaching a top speed of 430 km/hour (270 miles per hour), and leaning into turns, the train, like much in this modern city, is as much about propaganda as efficiency: it drops passengers at the end of a subway line – another 20 minutes to reach the center of the city.

Feet on the ground, my first impressions of Shanghai were mixed. Everything here is in-process. Every block is either under-construction or being demolished. 90-year old “shikumen” lane houses succumb to the wrecking ball (or, more likely, a team with sledgehammers) with little fanfare. It seems that respect for the recent past is rare, and potential jewels of the historic urban landscape are demolished without a thought — or worse, rebuilt as high-end commercialized simulacra, clearly out of reach of their earlier inhabitants.

At least as these old buildings are torn down, we’re afforded cut-away views of their structure…. I’ve seen some inhabitants dutifully hanging laundry from their half-destroyed homes….

These “shikumen” blocks are often replaced with endless fields of identical towers… but no one really seems to mind. If the past must be jettisoned to fuel the future, so be it. In the end these are only different modes of being, and Shanghai is a city in transition…

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