Shanghai, Singapore, Similar Cities
It felt like a 6 hour bus ride to a future extension of Greater Singapore, a city in a city, but I was in Shanghai, a drab-grey city, where I looked a part of, but felt so estranged from.
The problem with city-traveling is how similar a pscyhe they all have. Most cities are laid out in a grid-like fashion and the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers while its underbelly hosts the tension between the old and the new. In cities, similar gated enclaves thrive: the expatriate community and their exotic re-imaginations of home; shoppers in the malls dominated by global brands; tourists in the cultural districts and their attempts to encapsulate history, time and culture in one broad stroke. This was my problem with my six-day trip — Shanghai was a jaded expression of my impression of the city state, and as if reflecting my state of mind, the weather was foggy and I hardly saw the sun. In fact, the most colourful moment I had was when it rained — the streets were filled with all sorts of colours, the people brandishing their umbrellas and raincoats as if in some theatrical performace to wash off the grey that enveloped the city.
The Great Wall of Consumerism and Capitalism
To call Shanghai a modern facade of China would be a bit too harsh, but this expression is well-manifested in how it arranges its residential and commercial spaces. The facade facing the streets were shops, while in between every few shops one would find “弄”, an equivalent to alleys, that led to residential homes. It’s as if China built a modern wall of consumerism and capitalism to protect its culture and identity inside. What the people did in the residential spaces was private, gated and protected by a security guard who could sniff out residents just by looking at you. Or so I thought. I never dared trespass.
What was clear to me was that Shanghai lacked the strict urban discipline that so exemplifies Singapore. There was an air of spontaneity to the distribution of spaces, I could be standing along a street of old shops and the next corner I would find a office tower.
I am a Chinese lost in China
While I looked the part, a Chinese in China, I had never felt so alien and silent. Shanghai was probably a much more modern view of China today, but even so, my comfort in American and European culture was seriously exposed during this trip. I was always taking an extra effort, or reacting a second slower to my surroundings. I felt like a Singaporean Chinese, and this expression only serves to expose the absurdity of the racial model we have here; of this desire to paint imagined roots to a Chinese culture that is no longer recognisable to China’s.
During my trip, I also spotted and heard many Singaporeans. Yes, we do have a look. There came a point during a jaunt in a cafe where the table across mine hosted two Singaporean couples back-to-back. In their words, “Wah piang eh!” One thing I never figured out was what stereotypes the Chinese had of Singaporeans. In a strange way, knowing stereotypes gives us a sense of comfort in the day-to-day dealings with people, as if some identity theater, where you knew what the expectations were and how you could exploit them to your advantage.
Mao for sale
One thing that struck me was how commodified communism had become in China. Popular culture had appropriated a failed ideology into fodder for pop-art, and one could find it all over its clothings and art. And as if a nod to its newfound art in piracy, even the paintings for sale in galleries that I came across were copies! Two images are striking: one was revolutionary paintings plastered with brand names, while another was photos of grey Shanghai spaces photoshopped to accentuate the colours of certain items. To me, they were respective artistic responses to my observations of the commodification and greyness of the city.
And so that is what I can make of my short stay in Shanghai. I never felt like I traveled somewhere different, merely somewhere further. To the person, who told me that Shanghai was at least two years ahead of Singapore, I’m not sure what you meant. The future development of a city like Singapore? Then I’ll disagree, because Singapore is ahead.