Shanghai: a mix of old school Asian culture and Westernized ‘modernism’

Posted by Bao on Wednesday, January 4th, 2006
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Shanghai seems to be a neon echo of many other major cosmopolitan Asian cities: Foreign investors stake their claim on the skyline with towering, eclectically designed skyscrapers; city life is a mix of old school Asian culture and Westernized ‘modernism’; Sex and the City wanna-be’s rub elbows on the sidewalks with beggars; and Caucasian men of every age and nationality seem to have an Asian girlfriend or partner.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived two days ago was the Asian faces on billboards, ads, television. Well, maybe not for ads from companies like Bulgari, which here in Shanghai still feature white girls… but by and large, it’s strange to be in a place where the majority of mass media features Asian people – faces, eyes, hair like mine.

The flip side of this is that people here see my face and they speak to me in Chinese. Let’s face it, around the world, when people say “American”, they mean white American. A face like mine is not necessarily the first image that pops into people’s heads when you say “American”. Over these past three days, my face and my tongue are telling people very contradictory things.

Though I’ve never been here, Shanghai feels familiar – forgive my Westernized mind, but if I was to describe this city through my reference points, I would say it reminds me of New York, Sai Gon, and every Chinatown I’ve been to in the United States, all jammed together.  It’s futuristic yet modern, fast yet comfortable, unique and common at the same time.   That is to say, it is as complicated and contradictory a mess as any major city in the world.

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen happen in the city since we got here: yesterday some of us were wandering around, and in an area where street vendors sell steaming food right next door to KFC’s and other Western food chains, I saw a very pretty, cosmopolitan Shanghai gal in a spiffy pink peacoat buying a strawberry ice cream sundae from a streetside Mickey D’s counter. In stark contrast to her highly urban yuppie self were her two parents, dressed in drab dark blue and black and grey, who couldn’t have appeared more country if they were rolling down the block in a tractor.   She excitedly bought the sundae and spooned some for her mother to taste, whom slowly leaned forward and apprehensively licked some of the soft serve ice cream and bright red strawberry mixture from the stiff plastic spoon.  She immediately grimaced, as if to say, “that’s what the big deal is all about?

The project is going well so far- we’ve been kicking it with Gary a.k.a. DJ V-Nutz, which stands for Vinyl Nutz because he was so obsessed with expanding his vinyl record collection back in the day.  No mean feat, as apparently vinyl records are almost impossible to get in Shanghai.  A General’s son turned DJ, he was referred to us by Liana Chang as the ‘Godfather of Hip Hop in Shanghai’, and though he seems far too modest to claim such a title, it’s easy to see why others would call him that.   He reminds me of a lot of elder hip hop heads back in the states: knowledgeable, opinionated, talented, been in the game for longer than most, and grumpy as hell – you know, one of those cats who can’t believe that the young fools listen to 50 Cent so much.  He’s struggling to secure a location so he can create a spot where Shanghainese residents can come practice using turn tables, musical instruments, and learn about hip hop.  He’s a smart, amicable, funny guy who also happens to have great taste in interior design: you should see his crib.

Tomorrow we hang out with Sarah for the first time: we already visited her store, where I saw three De La Soul action figures (circa Bionix) proudly on display – a good sign. More tomorrow.

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