This is an eyewitness report from the NowPublic member rumana husain who was on the scene.
Lost in translation
rumana husain | October 26, 2009 at 08:19 pmby
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My fourth visit to China in the last two years coincided with the celebrations on October 1, when China turned 60. A two-and-a-half-hour long, outdoor super-show was put up in Beijing. I watched this, together with my two-year old granddaughter in Shanghai… on television of course.
Mao Zedong looked on from his large portrait hanging on the main gate of the Forbidden City, as military parades with colourful floats and accurate formations of troops and performers serenaded down Chang’an Avenue, passing in front of Tiananmen Square and the Gate of Heavenly Peace. China’s economy this year is recovering, not so much from a recession as from a slowdown. However, the country seems bent on holding spectacular pageants, spending billions of yuan. The Beijing Olympics in 2008, the 60-year celebrations of the People’s Republic of China in 2009, and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010…What next? Well, many in the world are hailing this as the ‘China Century’, and this country, with all its greatness and its drawbacks, is indeed an extremely fascinating place.
Shanghai’s transformation continues at a frantic pace. My visit has happened after a hiatus in Karachi of just one month, but it is difficult to keep track of all that is being pulled down and the hundreds of high-rises that are coming up in this city. On the previous visit, as also now, I can see the multifarious preparations for the World Expo taking place full-speed all over the city. There is hardly a stretch of pavement or road that is not being reconstructed. Bamboo scaffolding can be seen on all those pavements where old neighbourhoods are either being given a face-lift, or are being torn down. Walking around town, I find rows of shops and eating places whose days, unfortunately, are numbered. Buildings have literally been pulled down from within like a house of cards, and people are running their small enterprises along the remaining road-front facades.
Much of this is in preparation for next year’s extravaganza, which will begin in May and last until October, but Shanghai also continues to change and morph on a daily basis as a routine. The aspirations China has had for Shanghai in the past two decades have now become all too apparent and familiar. Nevertheless, within this development paradigm, there is a problem: The ongoing temptation for mega-projects and high-rise developments that cry out ‘modernity’ leaves little time to worry about preserving traditional Chinese culture or architectural heritage. In fact, these very projects are ringing the death-knell of the old culture at a mad pace.
There is an obvious discord here between the physical aspects of development through rapid change and the centuries-old way of life of its people. It is still not uncommon to see people walking down the street in their pyjamas any time of the day, or older people lounging on the pavement, washing their dishes in an outdoor sink, or groups of men and women playing Mah-Jong around a table set up on the pavement. On the other hand, today’s youth and the younger children seem to have taken to the modern life-style like fish to water. Driving and riding modern cars, dressed from head to toe in designer-wear, they can be seen sipping coffee at Starbucks and stuffing chicken and burgers at the neighbourhood KFC or McDonald’s. Ironically, such is the pace of change that this is the only way of life they seem to have known.
There is, however, a flip-side to this irony. Shanghai’s hyper-growth has attracted scores of prominent foreign architects, who have been collectively instrumental in designing one of the world’s most extraordinary skylines. Many of these buildings are located in Shanghai’s financial district of Pudong. For the record, a mere two decades ago, there was little more than rice paddies and small factories in the Pudong area, which is across the Huangpu River from Puxi, the older part of Shanghai, which is also the cultural and entertainment centre of the city. Today, nearly half of this city of seventeen million is on the Pudong side.
My visit has also coincided with the Moon Festival. Recently, for eight long days, the entire country was on holiday. Appreciating the bright autumn moon and marking the end of the harvest season has been a custom since the Tang Dynasty. A popular legend has it that moon-cakes were used by the Han people to smuggle in secret plans for a rebellion against the Mongol invaders in the 14th century. Besides family get-togethers and exchange of gifts, many varieties of the traditional moon-cake are baked, sold and savoured. From modestly priced small, round cakes, to four-digit fantasies stuffed with delicacies and packed in tremendously ornate, gold and red-coloured boxes — the two favourite colours of the Chinese — these moon-cakes are made and sold everywhere. In Shanghai the favourite filling is red bean paste.
Throughout the Moon Festival week, fireworks could be seen and loud firecrackers could be heard, even on the 30th floor of my son’s apartment in downtown Shanghai. As parks and shopping malls were overflowing with people who were entertaining themselves during the holidays, we were forced to spend most of our time bonding at home. Like most working people, our three hard-working, regular, punctual and honest Chinese ‘Ayis’ (who work as ayah, cook and cleaning lady respectively), were also on leave, hence there were chores to be done and two little girls to be looked after.
Part-time and full-time Ayi (meaning ‘aunt’ in Mandarin, the same as our ‘Maasi’) is a common phenomenon here that the South-Asian community living in China is all too familiar with. However, some expatriates find it difficult to accept the idea of servants waiting upon them in the privacy of their homes. Nevertheless, they soon overcome their western ideals, and begin to enjoy time off from household responsibilities. Ayis are generally unable to speak any English. If her parents are not at home, I now rely on my granddaughter, who already speaks impeccable Mandarin complete with all its intonations, to translate the Ayi’s Mandarin into English or Urdu. Except that a little toddler cannot always be trusted to be in the mood for two-way communication. The Ayi and I therefore use a lot of sign-language, together with my drawing skills, turning our dilemma into a guessing-game, having some fun instead of being frustrated.
After repeat visits, I also realise that one either becomes a China-fanatic, or wants to take the next airplane out. I am fast becoming more of the former.
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