*Construction City: Shanghai and the Race to be ‘World Class’

The Race for World Class:  Shanghai, 2009.  Photo:  Vinay Lal

The Race for World Class: Shanghai, 2009. Photo: Vinay Lal

Construction Cranes and Highrises, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

Construction Cranes and Highrises, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

Shanghai and Beijing, it has been said, together account for 75 per cent of the world’s construction cranes. Shanghai alone, I have read somewhere, has something like 50 per cent of the world’s cranes. Perhaps the figures are exaggerated, even grossly so – but if they were, and Shanghai accounted for even a quarter of the world’s cranes, it would still be a remarkable factoid. Some will say that in the frenzy of getting Shanghai ready for Expo 2010, the Chinese authorities have swung into relentless action and many of the cranes will disappear after the Expo is over. First there were the Beijing Olympics, now there is anticipation of the Shanghai Expo. What will feed the adrenalin rush after this? What new achievement of the modern Chinese state remains to be promised to the Chinese people and to the world outside?

Beijing and Shanghai began to refurbish themselves long before their successful bids. China has been enthused with the idea of being ‘world class’ since at least the mid-1980s, and Shanghai is an attempt to showcase a ‘world class’ city without any equal. ‘World class’ is one of those terms has entered into the lexicon without our even being aware of it, and the race to be world class is now in full swing. I have seen all of India wrapped up in the same race. Indian cities are now awash with world class malls, even as the basic infrastructure that makes a city everywhere lies in complete shambles. The government has announced plans to launch world class universities, even as primary education lies in ruins and village schools have been allowed to go to seed. Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai can now proudly claim dozens of world class hospitals – by my own count this last summer, Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, had at least twenty hospitals, at least a handful of them world class – which have transformed India into a mecca of medical tourism, even if the vast majority of India’s own population is without access to basic medical care. In this scheme of things, countries such as India and China do not find it amiss that they are attentive to the rest of the world much before they allowing themselves to worry about the well being of their own people.

The modern world has given birth to many mantras, among them progress, growth, and development. World class is the newest entry in this grammar of despotism. In the name of development, common people could be sent to their graves: if a country had to make progress, and be admitted into the community of civilized nations, it was deemed necessary that some people be called to make the ultimate sacrifice. In its attempt to become world class, Shanghai has razed much of its past: to be sure, parts of the old city remain and, most likely, will not to be obliterated. No modern city can do without some relics of the past: not only do they draw in the tourists and allow the city to make claims to its heritage, they are a pressing reminder to the citizens of everything that has been left behind and the blessings of modern living. In Shanghai, even the word ‘excess’ seems to too tame to convey the enormity of what has been wrought since China adopted a course of economic reforms.

More than anything else, Shanghai can perhaps be termed construction city. The city is, it seems, home to more skyscrapers than any other place in the world, and good parts of the city might well be mistaken for a metropolis in the modern West. One of the city’s tourist brochures proudly declares that the main drag that runs through the French Concession, the Middle Huaihai Road, is comparable to New York’s Fifth Avenue, London’s Kensington High Street, and Paris’s Champs-Elysees. And yet the feeling of drastic incompletion persists, and not merely because the cranes are to be found everywhere. Is anything at all meant to endure? Is modern Shanghai built on the very idea of obsolescence, and if so, will it furnish the notion of world class with a new set of meanings?

*Stones do an Epic Make: Musings on Visiting a Classical Chinese Garden

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

I heard the eminent Chinese artists, Liu Dan and Liu Sola, talk about ‘stones’ today. Sola has written the music to the ‘Stones Project’, conceived by Liu Dan as something of a testimony to the critical importance of stones in Chinese landscape – and in representations of Chinese landscapes in painting, art and music. Yesterday, on a visit to Yu Gardens, the finest specimen of a classical Chinese garden in Shanghai, I was struck by the placement of stones in the garden landscape, their immense numbers, indeed their grandiosity. Water meanders in and around stones, breathes life into them, and gives shape to them; and yet the stones, standing forth as sentinels, as humans, half-humans, or animals, seemed to have enough of a life of their own. Stones have chiseled out the trajectories of rivers and streams, bending water to their will. Water and stones, together, create a swirling symphony in the classical Chinese garden.

When one writes music for stones, does one do so with the understanding that they are mute? Or perhaps with the awareness, as my friend Teshome Gabriel has written in his moving, lucid and characteristically suggestive meditation on stones [in The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century], that stones speak a language that we do not understand? What kind of continuum is there between stones and humans? The story of Ahalya, first encountered in Valmiki’s Ramayana, comes to mind, though Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas is more apposite as a parable about not remaining stone-faced while thinking of stones. Brahma created Ahalya as the most beautiful of women: so beautiful was she that even the gods lusted after her, not least of them Indra. Ahalya is tricked into bedding Indra for the night; in his rage, her husband, Gautama Maharishi, condemns Indra to the woefully embarrassing display of a 1,000 vulvas on his body. (Indra, who could not henceforth venture out into the open, lest he should become the laughing stock of the world, performs severe penances and wins the approbation of Shiva, who agrees to transform the vulvas into eyes. But this is another story, with all the usual variations found in Indian traditions.) As for Ahalya, with Gautama’s curse she is turned into stone. Many years later, it is said, Rama and Lakshmana, as they are wandering around the forest, come by Gautama’s hermitage and are apprised of Ahalya’s story. Rama touches the stone with his feet, Ahalya – now absolved of her sins — springs to life, and Rama blesses her.

Humans work on stones and so make epics. That, at least, is the received narrative, and the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, and the Taj Mahal stand forth as testimony to this view. Human labor is transformative and we have long been accustomed to thinking of stones as inert and inanimate, requiring the labor and love of human beings to tweak some meaning out of them. That stones can move humans is amply clear, and the Kaaba and the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem equally suggest the manner in which stones themselves move through history. Increasingly, then, it seems to me that stones do an epic make. One Palestinian youth throwing a stone would be merely a miscreant; a few hurling stones would be viewed as a social nuisance; a few dozen of them throwing stones are treated as criminal elements, a threat to the social order; and thousands of them flinging stones become a wave that cannot be stopped. Thus was the Intifada of 1987, stones hurling through space and time and creating a revolution. The first lines of W. Hone’s “Canticle of the Stone” (London, 1817), seemed to have been written for the Palestinian Uprising: “O All ye workers of Corruption, bless ye the Stone: praise it, and magnify it as a Bullet for ever.”