Thursday, 13 January 2011

Shanghai from the books

It's always strange to travel to somewhere I have read a lot about in fiction, especially when the books I'd read were set in the past. On one hand the place is alive in my mind, but on the other hand it doesn't exist anymore, not as I imagined it anyway. When I eventually make it to Russia I expect to be a little surprised by Moscow and St Petersburg, as I've read so many books set there in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I know on a rational level that Stalin and even the USSR are long gone (which is a good thing), but thanks to the Bronze Horseman Trilogy, Child 44, and Kate Furnivall's books to name a few, the Moscow and St Petersburg in my mind feature the Stalinist system rather than the Putin-sexy-spies-Russian Mafia one.

The Pearl Tower - clearly not around in the 1930s
This was the case with Shanghai, as the only times I had read about Shanghai the book was set in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Ishiguro's fabulous When We Were Orphans, and in Belinda Alexander's White Gardenia. I knew on a rational level that Shanghai's notable features had morphed from opium dens, a French concession filled with the French, and Russian emigres to skyscrapers, shopping, and more sky scrapers. Going there, though, I still hoped to find some of the Shanghai from my imagination. At first glance, I was out of luck. Shanghai is home to some of the most impressive sky scrapers in the world, some of which Tane blogged about here. The subway is impressive, and the train to the airport reaches over 400 km p/h. The Bund, Shanghai's famous river walkway, was also a million miles away from what I imagined.

Lucky, then, that we happened to get lost. We were trying to find the subway station that took us to the Expo, and took a wrong turn. After walking through some vacant lots and a part of Shanghai that was much like Canary Wharf, we found ourselves, quite by accident, in the old town. It was fabulous - quirky, picturesque, crazy and interesting. Not only that, but with the right amount of imagination, I could also imagine the Shanghai I'd read about.

I'd been told that old Shanghai doesn't exist anymore, but it turns out I was told wrong. It's a lovely city where the new parts are shiny and impressive, and the old places still exist. I just hope that when I do go to Russia I have a similar experience in terms of seeing some historic infrastructure, and catch a glimpse of what I imagined it to be like from the books.

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