Two weeks in China have flown by. Through the course of the last few days, I have witnessed slices of this country that are constantly changing my overall opinion of it. From the somber hutongs (streets) of Beijing to the cities in the skies in midland China (Chengdu and Chongqing) to the urban, international metropolis of Shanghai – Commercial China has been, overall, steeped in new money and quick development. The developing China left me impressed but there was still something missing to tie me inherently to the country. In Thailand, the history and markets of Ayutthaya were the trigger; in Cambodia, the ruins of Angkor Wat; and in Spain, the vibrant oranges of Sevilla.
In my last two days in the Land of the Pandas, I have found that trigger – it’s called a tiny city of Shanghai. This city is the perfect blend of modernism, Europeanism, and ethnic Chinese culture. And there is a further element to it that renders it a perfectly suited city to my sentiments – its love for art and architecture. Ranging from an exposition on Miro’s modern swirls to ancient Chinese urns, sweeping from wooden houses of old China to Nuevo-Greco architecture brought on by European colonizers, the flavor that Shanghai gives is that of historic east blended with aspects of the west.
What sweetened my already favorable opinion of the city was seeing the place through the eyes of a local Shanghainese. My friend and I had the goodfortune to meet a friend of a friend who is from a smaller town in China but has spent about 10 years is Shanghai. He showed us bits of the city here and there to indicate why this city really has a character that is truly its own. We went to an area in Shanghai that was less accessed by tourists – cobbled roads, narrow streets, intricate wooden buildings. And within these structures lay galleries, artisans, and restaurants that were so unique (and some, so Chinese) that we spent hours roaming a very small circle
A perfectly spiced lunch was fueled by conversation that for both my friend and I was riveting. For the last 12 weeks, we had been studying Modern China and its business growth diligently. We had spent the last 2 weeks in country visiting stalwarts like Intel, Johnson and Johnson, and Baidu to better understand growth, government, and, to an extent, stagnation. We had even had the opportunity to meet with the Chongqing government (currently in the center of global media frenzy due to the sacking of a top official, Bo Xilai). Getting a perspective from our friend, a budding entrepreneur in a country where innovation is now a top priority was a fascinating cap to our ideas. Through him, we saw a China whose young people were passionate, driven, worldly, and above all, very confident in their country’s future prospects.
The China that I got to see in two short weeks is one that has an underlayer of tradition and order while opening its arms to embrace modern ideas and thoughts.
The youth wore the latest designers but in their own unique way, the buildings (especially those in Shanghai and Chongqing) could give some western cities a run for their money, and the interior street- and food-markets, selling a vast array of animals and vegetables that I had never seen consumed before. It was an interesting visit and in Shanghai, I felt that pang of saying goodbye before one is ready to do so.