Richard Cope Shanghai

At first Shanghai feels disconcertingly and disappointingly western – especially when you’re staying in ‘Times Square’ and walking to work past an endless parade of Zaras, H&Ms, C&As and Burberrys. Having a drink at the former Shanghai Club – hangout for moneyed western merchants in the 20s – it’s easy to ponder how much has changed and ask ‘where’s the east?’ One answer might be ‘behind the neon facades’ – after all the Chinese are increasingly buying up ownership of the world’s luxury brands for themselves and unashamedly glorying in their glitz.

Even the city’s Huangpu river dazzles like an electronic billboard, reflecting as it does the new money edifices of Pudong: the crystalline Jinmao tower, the Thunderbirds style Oriental Pearl Tower and the World Financial Centre. A trip to the summit of the latter – all digital countdowns, bowing uniformed hostesses and glass floors – feels thrillingly futuristic in a 2001 fashion.

However, it’s only down on the ground in the back streets that the real China – and the lessons it might offer to the west – begins to emerge. Beneath the bankers and away from the brands, where a hearty meal of fried dumplings and duck blood soup costs a pound, the street markets present some fascinating propositions.

For one, the Chinese enjoy a much closer relationship with their food than do westerners. The street markets of Dajing Lu crawl with crabs and shrimps, whilst doomed fish and ducks wait resignedly in their buckets and baskets. This takes food provenance to its logical end and promises freshness and a degree of natural purity. This hands-on approach to animal husbandry and food preparation is often preached by western TV chefs to middle class urbanites, but here it’s a fact of life for people who haven’t yet lost their butchering and cooking skills. The same intimacy with food is apparent in restaurants, especially at Xia Xie where you don plastic bib and gloves before diving into a tray of crayfish. Here the ‘feel’ of food becomes as important as its taste, which might explain why so many Chinese people take pleasure in the sensation of a sea slug slipping down their gullet.

The sad thing is that traditional neighbourhoods like Dajing Lu are rapidly being razed to make way for westernized luxury gated communities and tower blocks, the locals being uprooted to peripheral new builds. Of course this is simple economics, but it does raise concerns that the ‘real China’ is vanishing from central Shanghai.

The state’s suppression of sites like Facebook and Twitter is impressive in its effectiveness, but it can be circumvented with a non-Chinese smartphone. This briefly makes iPhone ownership feel rebellious and alternative rather than simply sheep like, until you learn that the Chinese are perfectly happy with their own social networking sites like Douban and Weibo. The government might fear controversial video uploads and the slim prospects of becoming ‘another Libya’ but its embracing of connectivity puts other countries to shame: central Shanghai’s sidewalks are punctuated with phone boxes converted into Wi-Fi hotspots.

A trip to the Propaganda Poster Centre offers a colourful crash course in 20th century communist sales and marketing and especially that of the ‘anti American’ variety. Fast forward to today and the cultural battle is still going on: the government permits a meagre 25 foreign cinema releases in China each year. However, the state can sleep safely in the knowledge that the juvenile nature of Hollywood’s Transformers fare is unlikely to have its youth slashing the seats and protesting in the aisles.

In fact youth culture feels tangible by its very absence. Besides a few skateboarders, there’s little tribalism on view or anything we might recognise as a ‘leisure economy’. There are some independent fashion boutiques springing up in the French Concession area and it will be interesting to see how they fare and whether they nurture a more expressive, colourful youth culture in the city.

Shanghai’s streets bustle with cyclists and each morning its parks are filled with people doing their daily tai chi exercises – occasionally accessorised by a sword. At the Shanghai Museum, employees are ushered out on to the steps to perform their morning work outs to an audience. The raises questions about whether western companies might ever embrace similar practices as a means of maintaining the health and productivity of an aging workforce.

It’s interesting to ponder what the west might glean from China’s longer-term approach to healthy lifestyles, or its intimate relationship with food. What’s troubling though is that westernisation of diet and lifestyle is threatening these traits and traditions, raising the question of whether the west can learn from east before the east disappears.

Richard Cope and the Inspire team are Tweeting their findings as they trend hunt globally over the period of three weeks – follow Richard on @Richard_Mintel and #InspireOnTour to keep updated!

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