SHANGHAI, China – The bricks on the sidewalk beneath my feet are perfectly aligned—newly laid for the World Expo; I can still smell fresh paint on the walls and highways. As night falls, sparking LED lights illuminate luxury brand storefronts, glass skyscrapers glisten with swirling neon patterns, and trees along the street alight with glowing magenta orbs and flashing silver teardrops. A bright orange Bugatti sports car drives by, and a woman, pale and willowy as a porcelain doll, peers at me from the passenger seat.
It is 8:00pm and, I am working as an intern at a PR firm, staffing a fashion show for a high-end retailer’s centennial celebration. The spotlights and camera flashes are blinding, as VIP guests glide across the red carpet. Women with designer handbags slung casually by their waists and men with silk pocket squares barely acknowledge me as I scan their invitations and welcome them to the event. The fashion show and after party are a whirlwind of models, champagne and booming music.
On the surface, Shanghai is a dazzling neon-metropolis. But behind the newly erected walls glistening with fresh paint, are the shikumen of old Shanghai, the slums, the homes of the laobaixing, the common people. Like Beijing during the Olympics, Shanghai hastily tried to hide “less desirable” aspects of the city from the swarms of tourists and international media for the World Expo—but at what cost?
A few days before the fashion show, I was wandering only a block away from the most cosmopolitan streets and shopping areas when I found myself in one of the neighborhoods that the city was trying so hard to hide—in a different Shanghai, where the most common modes of transportation are not luxury sports cars, but bicycles, three wheeled carts and mopeds. Strings of bright laundry on lines took the place of neon lights. Skyscrapers and department store windows were replaced with open market stalls from which fried buns sizzle on giant cast iron pans, lantern-red crayfish scurry in crates by rolling vats of spicy broth, and farmers with tan skin and straw hats lounge by pickup trucks full of watermelons.
I walked past a woman in pajamas and slippers is carrying a plastic bag of warm buns and a group of men having a drink on three legged stools, into a restaurant built beneath a family’s home. The menu, handwritten in cursive Chinese scrawl, was stained with soy sauce and the food was served on mismatched plates, but the flavors and aromas awaken fading memories of my own Shanghainese grandparents.
In a few years this neighborhood will probably be gone, replaced by another skyscraper or mall, and the woman in the slippers and the family who owns the restaurant, relocated. As China hastily races to embrace modernity, I can’t help but think, that the quintessence of this nation may lie not on the next new development, but beneath the trail of the bulldozers.
Amy Sun ’12, a Crimson circulation manager, is an economics concentrator in Quincy House.