City thriving on modernity and tradition

Phillip Chao
What has not changed – which is more important to the city's memory – is the old and low skyline that never makes one feel dwarfed.
Phillip Chao

When my cousin first visited Shanghai several years ago, he was not very impressed by this “oriental Paris.” In fact, according to him, Shanghai looked more or less like a copy of his hometown, New York, with its skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowds. This summer I returned to Shanghai after two years of study in the US. The city where I was born and raised was still expanding, accompanied by symptoms common to all mega-cities.

However, I also sniffed something new in the air. I seemed to be witnessing a shift in development, from simple physical expansion to a more nuanced change stressing cultural distinctness by preserving and renovating its architectural heritage.

One example testifying to this shift is the Great World. One of the best-known amusement parks in the city, it reopened last year after extensive renovation.

I had often heard of this park from my parents, but never had the chance to visit it. According to them, it used to be a must-see destination, with some claiming that if you have not been to the Great World, you have not been to Shanghai.

They mentioned the noises redolent of a quintessentially Chinese amusement park — the clashes of gongs, the roll of drums and the slightly grating sounds of the erhu (a stringed, bowed instrument). They particularly talked about the crowds jostling with each other to get a glimpse of traditional Chinese performances that were about colorful costumes, heavy make-up, and all and the sundry theatrics. Captivating — although I was in for something very different when I visited two weeks ago.

In a sense, the place remained the same. Notwithstanding the expensive restoration that lasted many years, the iconic hexagonal tower and much of its original face had been preserved, with the restoration of the magnificent overpass overlooking the center stage. The new Great World incorporated several exhibitions, showcasing some traditional art forms practiced by local artisans, including homemade bags of potpourri, works of embroidery, block prints and the famous Jinshan peasant paintings.

More exciting, for a price, tourists can take part in the creation themselves, making pouches of scented herbs or blowing up animal forms with slimy malt sugar. In this way, the exhibition had become dynamically interactive.

An innovative use of technology was virtual reality. The technology will probably appeal to younger audiences. As a matter of fact, before leaving the park, I got to see a VR introduction to the Great World’s complete history. I also got to experience a VR soccer penalty match against an AI goalkeeper.

I also saw some of the plays in my parents’ memories, although they were slightly different. To attract a younger audience, the original long opera was adapted into 10-minute episodes that were a mixture of tai chi, martial arts and dances set to traditional music.

It was undoubtedly a cultural enterprise, although somewhat different from what it was a long time ago. Yes, many older people still relish the old days when it was more boisterous. But, times change. What has not changed — which is more important to the city’s memory — is the old and low skyline that never makes one feel dwarfed. Unlike my cousin, this time I saw a distinct Shanghai — not a copy of New York — that thrives both on modernity and tradition.

And the story does not end in the Great World. If you go to suburban Shanghai, you will see lots of bucolic villages prospering with paddy fields and rows of farmers’ houses with white walls and tiled roofs.

In Zhangma Village, Zhujiajiao Town, you won’t be able to tell economy hotels from ordinary farmers’ houses. Unlike in some other regions in the past, tourism developers for rural Shanghai do not bulldoze traditional farmers’ houses to make room for new and fancy hotels. Instead, they rent farmers’ houses, keep their outer appearances and do minimum indoor decoration. When you stay in such a hotel, you actually live a rural life with farmers as your neighbors. You either watch them toiling and sweating in the field, or just join them and lend yourself to the care of the earth.

Shanghai is no longer a synonym of skyscrapers. It’s becoming lower and lower, ever closer to history and a way of life in the arms of nature.

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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