Arriving in Shanghai often becomes an exercise in neck craning. The city rises from floors of asphalt to ceilings of steel and glass in moments. Horizons which glowed in Earth tones for generations are sealed into shadows more quickly than rice fields can give way to IPhones. The city is now in the grips of a cultural evolution. This is not is not the slow process of adaptation or the widening chasm of a gap between generations. A cataclysm has struck this city, it is an extreme mutation, unheralded by the slow changes of previous lives, and there is a daily struggle to stay ahead of the curve.
The Shanghai of Mao’s time did not grow. It did not age or decay, it did not reach upward toward awe. It multiplied, from gray to gray. Concrete buildings split like zygotes, and new identical buildings filled with new identical people. Equality spread through the absence of architecture. And as the city grayed it did not age, it became ageless. It shed its statues and monuments for status quo. History hid itself in the spaces between walls and windows. Colors crept back into the city one carpet, or vase, or porcelain piece at a time. Money began circulating slowly, the old world of empires and mandarins and emperors pulsed through its racketeering.
Everything that the residents of Shanghai were denied by facades was compensated by collection. Then the dams burst. The avenues of gray roiled in seas of red and gold. The verdant pastures around the city became the ring of a long, loud dusk. The small steps toward memory were demonized, and the brigades of students poured through the concrete spilling all of its secrets onto the street. The Shanghai of the cultural revolution was cracked open and its treasures were sealed to the same fate as a library sacked by the torches of an illiterate horde.
But today’s Shanghai poses a new threat to those that are graying inside the concrete; progress. It is the new state religion, and requires as much faith as any of its predecessors. The new religion though, does not require disciples or liturgy and its churches are not the icons of mason’s minds. Progress requires only the erasure of the past, and requires it at exponential speeds. It is as if the world has quickened its rotation ever so slightly that the population has to brace itself like a commuter grabbing a subway handrail as the train takes a turn. Life adapts, as it always does to survive, but the pace has accelerated to such a degree that questions of what has come before and what is being surrendered no longer manage to form on the lips between gasps.
When we arrive, we see skyscrapers, but between every skyscraper, high rise apartment complex, and imitation Wal-Mart there is a valley of rubble. There is a courtyard of broken bricks scattered by wrecking balls and bulldozers, punctuated by rivers of garbage and broken glass. It is not a construction site, but it is the purgatory of progress, the spotted apocalypse between the third world and the first. The tithe to the new religion was the sacrifice of the old equality. Wherever these gray ghosts haunt the clergy of construction come to exorcise.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, a few buildings remain. They pump thick smoke from their chimneys, and old women serve lunch to the construction workers who are waiting for the order to tear them down. It is a mortal capitalism, like massaging the arms of your executioner. There is no figure against which the matrons and retirees can rebel, it is only a burden borne. At the place where the destroyed meet the still standing, a new wind brings more than a chill to the next row of Shanghai’s antiquated inhabitants. Just as one row disappears the next is marked for demolition with a sigh from the mortar, from the foundation, and from the eyes between the window blinds with the realization that a way of life is ending, that the existence of the past is a barrier to the future.
Many of the refugees of progress are compensated, shuffled to haunt the hallways of a high rise. Many are happy to leave their decaying homes. Some though prefer to stay. Some prefer to think that pain and joy, revolution and relaxation are the true shades of their dark shelters. Some who have walked through hell no longer wish to choose between the bright red of the past and the endless dark of some new unknown. The choice, however, is no longer theirs. So within Shanghai as all of China’s old cities, its inhabitants writhe and slide along the trajectories of girders and glass.
Shanghai has become the Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. It is destroying and remaking itself into a prism of architects recurring dreams. Though no one has thought to ask the question of what happens when the snake sheds its skin.