Day Five: Tensions of urban space - The China Chronicles

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By Deena Dajani · 7 June 2013
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Reveling in the pleasures of Shanghai and the massive privilege of narrating the city on our own terms and in our own language, we are struck by the tensions of urban space.  The beauty of the city is tangled in political questions.  The Monument to the People's Heroes in Shanghai, for example, was impressive. Beneath the stone representation of three rifles leaning against each other pointing towards the sky, carvings were etched in a semi circle. They depicted a narrative of struggle, oppression, the stifling of intellectuals, workers and peasant men and women. They also showed redemption through unity with the people looking to the future. 

Yet, what interested us was less the stamp of modernist communism, than how the nearby space was used. Close to this monument of martyrdom, couples were dressed in formal attire. Women wore long flowing dresses in bridal and bridesmaid style and men wore buttoned up suits.  Having their photo taken studio style in this location was obvious. We wonder if this towering monument of the nation also has relevance for the couple using it as a backdrop to their studio photo shoots? 
 
We are still struck by the romance of those who frolic on the streets: young people enjoying their strolls in the lighted boulevards, parents with young kids, couples in love and fashionable teenagers filling the streets until late at night. Still, we wonder how the city changes when all the lights are off and the shops close? Is it by night that the poor take over the streets? Where are the beggars? Where are the urban poor?  We travel uptown and continue to remark upon the tensions of urban space. 
 
A rather different impression of Shanghai meets the visitor in a former industrial area following the river upstream in Western direction. This part of the city became home to artists' workshops and galleries long before it was 'discovered' as an attractive potential site for high-rise residential development. Now art galleries of three floors stand next door to thirty story glass towers and between them are unidentifiable gaps of unusually empty space walled with graffiti. Are these more building sites? Walking around, one feels a little like holding your breath,waiting for high-rise Shanghai to close in.   Perhaps, the betrayals of high rises are nothing new. Philologists for example, suggest that ‘tradition’ and ‘betrayal’ share the same root 'tradere', to ‘hand over’, from which some derive the English term ‘trade’.  Betrayal was supposedly used to refer to the surrender of a city by a representative who would surrender and ‘hand over’ to the enemy the flag or the key of the city itself. It was therefore not surprising to find in that market several invented and 'betrayed' Chinese 'traditions', which were exposed, commodified, and 'traded' for the curiosity of western travellers. 
 
Yet, our senses are not betrayed by the daily joys of sustenance.  We are among the very lucky.  Food offers a rare chance to enjoy the unusual. Our dinner-time desert of many coloured beans, glazed in frozen condensed milk looks more like a vase or a sculpture to us. The taste suggested ice cream, but the texture remained unfamiliar, like velvet or snow. We are delighted to find that mealtimes deliver a regular and predictable dose of the irregular and unpredictable.
 
- The Oecumene Team, 6 June 2013

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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