Wednesday, December 05, 2007

City for Sale

I got that phrase from Ross Terrill's biography of Mme. Mao - The White-Boned Demon. It was used to describe Shanghai in the 30s, and seems every bit as apposite now. If anything, the rampant capitalism, with all its bizarre inequalities and contradictions (known as "Chinese characteristics") seems even more extreme than it was when I was here two years ago. Certainly the number of people who accost me on the street with a heavily accented "Hello - watch-bag-DVD?" has increased many-fold; although the targeting of the foreign devil has still not quite reached Indian or Zimbabwean proportions. The pimping, on the other hand, is in a league of its own. "Want girl? Boy?" is the frequent mantra on the open street. Prostitution is supposed to be illegal in China. But the activity of the pimps, and the ads for "massage" in classy ex-pat magazines like Talk Shanghai suggest the city isn't far away from its 1930s position in this regard either. When Lan Ping (later Jiang Ching) came here in 1933, one person in 130 was a prostitute (compared with London's one in 960, and decadent Weimar Berlin's one in 580).

I spend much of the day trundling around the place, watching its extraordinary way of living, as I wait for more crucial meetings tomorrow. I find my way back to the Foreign Languages Bookshop on Fuzhou Road (long famed for the Yifu theatre, where I saw the Yueju performances two years ago, for books and art, and in the 1930s for the inevitable brothels, though those have now gone underground). It was here I found the hilarious World Talk CD, which we used for the language-learning scene in Dis-Orientations, and which sadly got lost along the way. I'm not able to replace it precisely, but I do find an English-language CD produced in Shanghai (called Real Talk), and a really promising couple of tapes called One Breath English Speeches, which promise such delights as "How to break up peacefully" and "How to live a colourful life". Since talking to Ruihong and Director You yesterday, I've been fired up creatively by the now very real possibility of bringing the show here, and I want to move it forward, both to make it inherently stronger and to make it more readily understood by a Chinese audience. More Chinese language, for a start, I suppose. Maybe I'd better start taking this language-learning business seriously myself!

I find a much needed oasis of calm in the Yuyuan Gardens - a Ming garden which somehow survived the Cultural Revolution. Spaces like this, the occasional sight of people doing Tai-chi in a city park, or the yueju itself, are little reminders of the still spiritual heart of Chinese culture, which is still there, buried under the surface of wild cupidity. It's this tension which fascinates me, and which I want to explore through the piece. The search for real value.

Then I get onto the Metro at rush hour. Big mistake. This is a city of 17 million people. Most of them were in the same carriage as I was.

No comments: