| Shanghai shoppers
If Xian is the past, Beijing the present and Shanghai the future, as they say in China, the totality recalls the Bengali saying about a Hindu convert to Islam gorging only on beef. In their great leap forward from communism to capitalism, the Chinese have lost sight of the middle way of democratic socialism to which Zhu Rongji, the outgoing premier, paid desultory tribute when the National People’s Congress opened.
The true patrons of this bustling society are not Mao Zedong’s Long March veterans or the NPC delegates who were invited to gloat on the world’s highest number of fixed line and mobile telephone subscribers. Its deities are the British taipans, Chinese compradors — still a damned word in the communist lexicon — and Parsee and Jewish merchants who made fortunes in the Opium Wars, history’s most notorious instance of gunboat diplomacy.
They created booming Shanghai where a countdown clock now ticks away with the quaint pledge, “Keep the pace with the Times/ Blaze the new trails in a pioneering spirit.” Shanghai is preparing frantically to host World Expo 2010. The world has been here before for in the continuum of history, Shanghai ranks with Calcutta, Singapore, Alexandria and Rangoon from which the once beneficial, if not always benevolent, hand of Pax Britannica has withdrawn.
I was reminded of Upper Canada Village, a colonial mock-up near Montreal, where the tourist officer, decked out in the apron and frilly cap of a Victorian housekeeper, was quick to notice my interest in an ivory inlaid table. “If anything seems familiar,” she intoned, “remember that the British ruled much of the world in those days.They moved from place to place in the empire taking their possessions with them.”
They also took their Anglo-Indian lingo, witness Shanghai’s famous Bund. The wide promenade is like Simla’s Mall — once the exclusive parade ground of rank and fashion, now packed with hoi-polloi. The Shanghai- nese are indifferent to a past that marginalized them. It took Shiv Shankar Menon — our ambassador in Beijing and grandson of the legendary K.P.S., India’s first representative in China — to tell me that not only does the Long Bar, where dogs and Chinese (in that order) were forbidden, still exist, but that an old barman still slides a full glass along its length without spilling a drop.
The White Russian quarter where Kalimpong’s Kazini Elisa-Maria Dorji lived for a while, “Sanctuary Shanghai” where Jews fleeing Nazi pogroms found refuge, or the older tall redbrick terraces of Baghdadi Jews from Calcutta and Bombay also survive. Mao founded the Communist Party in a house among the gables and pediments, villas and chalets of the French quarter, while the Soong sisters (Remember — one loved money, the second power and the third China') lived in another. Noel Coward wrote “Private Lives” in the Peace Hotel with its art deco lobby by the Bund.
Sir Jacob Sassoon built the hotel. Also the Ohel Moishe synagogue, which is now a museum, the community having dwindled to three forlorn souls. Long-dead Ellis Abraham, friend and colleague, impoverished descendant of the Calcutta Sassoons, who spent some childhood years in Shanghai, tramped the ghetto with me. In Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, another Calcutta Jew, Jael Silliman, described how they moved from Calcutta to Singapore to Shanghai, never knowing the difference for they lived always only among themselves.
Today, foreigners are pursued with relentless avarice. The same smart young hustlers sidled up day after day amidst the razzle-dazzle of Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue — Champs Élysée, Piccadilly Circus and Times Square all ablaze together — to suggest live demonstrations of Chinese painting, and grinned engagingly when their bluff was called. Less polished touts thrust bunches of “Lolex” watches into your face on the Bund.
Tourist guides are the most rapacious. Kevin — English names are in fashion — provided another glimpse of the new meaning of progress when he would not let us cross the threshold of the house in Shanghai where Mrs Sun Yat-sen (the Soong sister who loved China) had lived and which I had expected to be a museum. “That was 10 years ago,” he said in contemptuous dismissal of the profit-less past. “It was state-owned then. Now the economy has opened up and you must buy something there.”
Like all those others who care not for the colour of the mouse, Kevin saw no half-way house between state and shop. What bothered him was that his tourist agency did not have an arrangement with this particular shop, so that he, our chauffeur and the agency could collect no commission from it. He shepherded us into other shops that pretended to be museums, or jade, pearl and silk factories, handicrafts workshops and traditional tearooms. His colleague, Christy, swore in Xian that the same terracotta figures being sold in the street outside her favoured emporium for a fraction of the price would crumble in hours. Her supposedly government emporium gave no receipt.
I had expected to be overwhelmed by native pride in the wonders of 5,000 years of civilization. If shopping was mandatory, I wanted to dawdle at the stalls lining the lane that winds to Xian’s Great Mosque or in the sprawl of Beijing’s Dirt Market. They were ruled out. Commission was the primary reason. But I also suspect that Kevin and Christy, and, to some extent, 23-year-old Lewis in Beijing, all children of party cadre with no interest themselves in politics, were probably more keen to show off the new neon-lit emporiums.
MacDonald’s, KFC and the French Carrefour’s chain which is driving small grocers and butchers out of business were their temples of modern China. John Kenneth Galbraith’s justification of post-office socialism for essential services is powerless against the profit motive. Since profit contributes to efficiency, there can be no objection to the promise this year of private banks and privately-run water, electricity, sewage, transport and other urban utilities. But Britain’s railways are so chaotic because privatization has meant different companies owning the track and stations. Air travel in China might become even more hazardous if the civil aviation authority makes a habit of its decision to sell Yichang airport, 30 km from the Three Gorges Dam project, to a business group.
The guanxi (networking) system of distributing licences and permits does not guarantee transparency. Nor are the influential taiziding (princelings), the sons and daughters of high functionaries, necessarily honest or efficient.
The MacDonald’s Generation is the lesser elite. They were born in the Eighties, flaunt jeans and t-shirts, devour hamburgers and worship Bill Gates. But they lack guanxi or taiziding contacts. The official estimate of 4 per cent jobless excludes hundreds of thousands of educated youths like them and at least 150 million surplus rural workers. Graduates account for 5 per cent of China’s population. Their numbers are growing as universities churn out more people than the market can absorb. Even if per-capita income is also rising (official figures strain credulity), the average reflects wealth at the top. Not the fears of hundreds of young Shanghainese carrying bundles of paper through People’s Park to an employment fair.
Kevin explained smugly that he did not need to join their ranks since tourism is a growth industry. His English was halting and his knowledge of history scanty, but he and Christy often got the better of clients.They grumbled when there was no purchase, claiming the commission was their sole earning. So, we braced ourselves for another reprimand on the last day in Beijing when young Lewis, who skipped boyishly down the Great Wall, whipped out a form on which we had to name the shops not on his list where we had bought anything.
“I have to say something,” he announced solemnly. “This is not my fault. It’s my office.” As we took this in, he added, solemn as ever, that he had something else to say. “Please don’t forget me.”
Not everyone epitomizes hard-sell commercialism.