Sunday, May 2, 2010

Just Finished: Shanghai--The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City

Nearly 5 years into my Shanghai habitation, and I'm just reading this book. No excuse whatsoever either as a copy has been on my shelf for the better part of 3 or 4 years. But now I have read it and I am labeling myself an official expert of Shanghai between the years of 1842 and 1949, which I'm sure you'll agree, is quite the accomplishment after having completed this 294 page book.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I'd give this book a 3. The author, Stella Dong, seems to have done her research and provided a good view of the formation of Shanghai; however, I sometimes felt like her writing was trying a little too hard and some of the intrigue and rapid changes (that make Shanghai Shanghai) were hard to follow--there were so many Chens and Chiangs. I live here and I couldn't keep them all straight. I admit that this is not totally Dong's fault, but still, the names piled up like bodies on the shore of the Huangpu (or Whangpu has it was then called.)

As I read the annals of the city--the rise of foreign powers, the corruption, the urbanity, the alliances, and betrayals--I was consistently struck by how similar old Shanghai is with the present day version. The elite foreigners, impoverished "outsiders" (i.e. non-Shanghainese), rickshaws, the Shanghai attitude and aesthetic, debauchery, smelly creeks, working conditions, and red lights are all aspects of the city that are alive and well today. I got to wondering, is there a foundation built here in this city that continues to be built upon today? Sure, the negative things are a part of many, if not all, cities--yet this city seems to me to be unique in the way it flaunts itself and often turns a blind eye to its flaws. Foundations can be undone though and perhaps change is coming. It is up to the people in the city to do it. As the Expo ushers in myriad Chinese and foreign visitors, perhaps the concept of a Better City, Better Life will be a tiny spark that encourages the people of this metropolis to examine the things on which they put importance. Will it be things or people? Will it only be people like you or people in need? Whatever the case, it will certainly be passed down to the generations to come.

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