On my first morning in Shanghai I was woken up by drums. It sounded like a military parade, but the roads I could see from the window of my 16th-floor hotel room were still choked with traffic. Then immediately below me I saw a playground full of tiny creatures marching. They paused and saluted and moved as one. This is a country where you can’t miss a beat.
It’s a country collectively holding its breath as it rehearses a greater role on the world stage. It’s a country, in fact, auditioning to be the star. As Beijing tries to shoot away its smog, and trains its workers to smile and cheerlead and clap in preparation for the Olympics to end all Olympics, government officials are pondering the future of the world. Chinese industry, like its economy, is booming (and belting out carbon), and ‘Made in China’ is becoming less of a boast than a threat. But can it, in an age of communism heavily laced with capitalism, but without that little luxury called political freedom, do culture?
In Shanghai, at least, they’re desperate to prove that they can. The city that was irresistible to greedy British traders and greedy French traders and greedy Chinese traders, and that provided a super-glamorous backdrop to a world of pre-war decadence (one gorgeously portrayed in Ang Lee’s visually stunning Lust, Caution) has been musing on such issues, and it has come up with a solution.
Officials from the Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation have joined forces with the Shanghai Pudong New Area Government, the Communist Youth League Committee, a raft of regional government bodies, and a range of international partners — the Pompidou Centre, Ars Electronica, MIT in the US and the British organisation Made in China — to put together Shanghai eArts, the biggest digital arts festival in the world. I went to see it, and to see Shanghai, too.
The first surprise is the size of the city. Arriving in Pudong, the gleaming megalopolis which has, in ten years, sprung out of nowhere, you can only gasp at the scale. It’s like ten Manhattans arranged in neat rows next to each other, but here, between each towering glass temple to Mammon, there’s more green space — and sky. This, after all, was created as a financial and scientific district, and it’s now China’s commercial hub.
In the Pudong New Area Library I saw an exhibition of digital work by students from the New Media Department of Hang Zhou Fine Art Academy. Away from the books, screens filled with rivers or forests, according to my touch. A touch recorded my voice and played it back to me. A rubbish bin chased me and a television changed channels according to the weight of my steps. It was certainly interactive.
So was ‘Digital Art and Magic Moments’, an exhibition at the ultra-modern Museum of Science and Technology, and so, indeed, was ‘Global Fire’, a multimedia installation on the edge of a traffic island. As dusk fell, and the neon lights around us sprang into life, I watched flames flicker around the base of a giant globe and rise up until the fireball faded into mushroom clouds of smoke. By lighting a flame — a flame that acted as a thermostatic trigger — I could even end the world myself.
And at the ‘New Vision E-concert’ at the Shanghai Oriental Art Centre that night I saw a spectacular mix of technology and tradition: cubes of green light which flashed and danced like fish on what looked like a rippling river; musicians playing old-time instruments to an eerie electronic soundtrack in front of a screen swarming with pinpricks of light; a woman decked out in the brilliant robes and make-up of traditional Chinese opera, singing her strange, squeaking song as black lines were apparently (and with the help of the 3D glasses) gathered into a screen to form the outlines of mountains.
All impressive stuff, but the digital world has its limits. So I went to 50 Moganshan Road which, I had been told, was Shanghai’s Hoxton, a rabbit’s warren of former factories and warehouses on the banks of the Suzhou Creek. It was there, in a large industrial space displaying avant-garde Chinese art of the Eighties (art that was swiftly crushed by the government), that I had a rare conversation, with the young curator, about censorship and oppression. You can talk about money in China. You can talk about art. But you can’t, unless you’re very sure of your company, talk about politics.
Money and art, of course, go together in President Hu Jintao’s ‘harmonious society’; and here there is the kind of poverty that sees some Chinese families sending offspring into factory conditions not far from slavery. In the People’s Park, I saw China, old and new. First, a trip to MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the first privately owned contemporary art museum in Shanghai. Wherever you look inside this dramatic glass structure, you can see both art and trees. And when you’ve had enough of the art (a little too cutting-edge for my taste), you can watch the matchmaking parents in the park. The bits of paper hanging from the bushes are, apparently, their children’s CVs. Even in a boom economy, some things don’t change.
And even in a boom economy — one in which people juggle their mobiles and their Wiis as they dash home to watch their HD TV — you can see people playing Mah-jong or drinking tea in alleyways zigzagged with lines of washing and full of rusty bikes. In the markets, you can still buy lifesize buddhas and Maoist propaganda and giant terracotta warriors (though possibly not the originals). You can shop in sweetshops which also sell dried fish. You can nip to the chemist and buy ‘whitening’ gel. And if you brave the bazaar and the Yuyuan Gardens (not an experience I’d recommend at a weekend), you can still see people selling dumplings or soup or spicy cakes or ancient, dirty sneakers.
You can dine in fancy restaurants in the former French concession, in leafy boulevards dotted with mansions. You can sip a soya latte in Starbucks, now springing up everywhere, or nibble patisserie at Paul’s. You can shop till you drop in the neon-lit highway to consumer heaven, the Nanjing Road. Or, like Noël Coward, or Charlie Chaplin, you can sip cocktails on the Bund, the old colonial embankment that has some of the finest art-deco buildings in the world. In those days, you would look out at a blackness broken only by the stars. Today, you see a Blade Runner skyline of soaring towers and flashing lights.
And, of course, you can eat. You can pick your fish or lobster or prawns from a bubbling tank. You can have it marinated or braised or shredded. You can pick your animal and you can pick your body part. You can have duck tongue or chicken feet or goose webs or pig’s trotters, or duck blood or grass carp or beef tripe. Or, if you’re more conservative, you can stick to spare ribs and drunken chicken and pickled pumpkin.
Can Shanghai do culture? Well, it can do digital arts. It can do the contemporary visual arts. It can do architecture. And if food were classified as an art form, it would win the Biennale. What it does most of all, however, is offer a fascinating, and slightly scary, glimpse of the future. When it comes, please don’t make me beat a drum.