Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reflections on China

In modern Shanghai, the new overshadows the old. Photo by Monte Lazarus

In modern Shanghai, the new overshadows the old. Photo by Monte Lazarus

Shanghai – 1980

We’re leaving Xian, bound for Shanghai. No one can possibly find the Xian airport without a guide. It’s off an unmarked road heavily guarded by the military. Our non-stop flight is scheduled for two-and-a-half hours.

However, there are some muckety-mucks on the flight, and they want lunch. So, we plunk down at Chengchou, get off the plane and have lunch in the terminal.

After we re-board our old Soviet Antonov 24 we find out that we’re making another stop at Nanking. On our flight there are two fascinating experiences: my Chinese seatmate has a large, live duck in his lap for the entire trip; and the seats were oversold by oneÉbut instead of off-loading one passenger they simply put a folding chair in the aisle and seat a Chinese gentleman in what may be called a super-super-super saver fare seat. Apparently they have never heard of weight and balance.

The Chinese Air Force is apparently on maneuvers. At Chengchou there are about thirty Mig fighters and at Nanking about the same number of Iluyshin fighter-bombers. I take lots of photos (with permission of course!).

The Nanking terminal is shiny and new. As we taxi in, a band is playing Hawaiian musicÉ very appropriate for us.

Finally, we’re off for Shanghai, and our short flight becomes five-and-a-half hours. When we land we have to go to an open shed to find our luggage. It’s a lot like Page Field in Ft. Myers, except that Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world!

On the twenty-minute drive into Shanghai, China changes dramatically. There’s



European architecture, lots of sycamore trees, no dust, and people wearing something other than Mao suits. There aren’t many hotels in Shanghai, so we’re at a place called the Ruijin Guest House.

It’s spectacular, dating back to the infamous Soong family (Mme. Chiang Kai Shek) and was later taken over by Mao for his own use. Since it is in the old French Concession it was spared during the Japanese occupation, and the Red Guard didn’t dare touch it during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The plumbing works, the walls aren’t peeling, the grounds are gorgeous, and the piano is in tune. A rare find ? a functioning refrigerator with beer and the omnipresent orange drink.

In the nineteenth century the major powers claimed “concessions” in which they carved out pieces of Shanghai, exempted themselves from Chinese law, and kept Chinese people out of several areas unless they had specific invitations. Each concession had its own architecture (very distinctive) and electrical system.

When we traveled by trolley car we stopped periodically, as we traversed from concession to concession, in order to switch electrical systems!

In touring the city it’s clear that all the staunch bastions of colonialism are gone. The old Cathay Hotel (1928) is now the Peace Hotel. Many of the taller buildings (none qualify as skyscrapers) have been turned into nests for the bureaucracy.  Shanghai is very sophisticated. The people dress differently; many women wear dresses and some have Western-type hairdos.

The main drag, the Bund, runs along the waterfront, and there’s a fairly long park in which the Chinese perform their daily Tai

These two photos were taken in 1980. Submitted

These two photos were taken in 1980. Submitted

Chi. It’s very attractive, and we hope it will be preserved when and if the area is redeveloped. To us, it seems clear enough that Shanghai should be the main focal point of commerce as China moves ahead, while Beijing will probably remain the main hub of central government.

We have good discussions with our guide, Mr. Sha, about China’s economic and social structure. He does not like the vast bureaucracy of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), and he says he does not like socialism’s built-in lack of economic incentives for individuals. He believes a more fundamental reward system (including pay) is necessary to make workers more productive and cooperative. Economics and Sociology 101.  Right on, Mr. Sha!

The tourist sites in Shanghai are magnificent, from the museums to the Arts and Crafts Institute (housed in the pre-World War II German Embassy). The ancient artifacts are astounding, and the modern crafts are unbelievably beautiful.

After a few days exploring Shanghai, we board a Trident to go down to Guangzhou (Canton) and thence to Hong Kong.  Our flight is unusual. The flight attendants serve tea, orange drinks, and beer!  There’s a rumor that CAAC flights have one dirty towel over a handrail. I go back to check. It’s true. Oh, one final point: My seatbelt has no buckle. I tie a square knot.  The flight attendant thinks I’m hilarious.

Shanghai – 2010

We’re entering the Shanghai harbor on our cruise ship and what we see (after thirty years) is startling. The harbor is teeming with ship traffic. Even from the ship we

A Shanghai Buddha. Photo by Monte Lazarus

A Shanghai Buddha. Photo by Monte Lazarus

can see modern gleaming skyscrapers everywhere.

We debark and start touring. Any visitor will immediately be struck by the profusion of cranesÉ we’re told that one-sixth of all the world’s cranes are currently in Shanghai. There are now thousands of skyscrapers in this huge city. The Shanghai area now contains thirty million people, so housing projects abound.

In spite of the modernization of Shanghai, they have preserved quite a bit of the old culture. One section that abounds with shops is in the shadow of a very modern high-rise. There are a number of old Buddhist temples, including one with a magnificent white Buddha (photographs verboten).

The famous gardens that I visited so many years ago seem the same, even though memories are known to play tricks. The Bund has been preserved fairly well, although the waterfront itself has been built up and the appearance is not the same.

Somehow the people of Shanghai seem different from people in other cities, just as they did in the 1980s. They appear to be dressed differently, more Western, and their pace appears to be much faster. The roads are clogged with traffic, just as in Beijing and Xian, but we notice even more upscale cars.

The street salespeople are everywhere (“How much you pay, lady?”) and you can buy a genuine-fake Rolex or Omega for about $4 U.S. (Mine, believe it or not, is still running after about a month.)

There are now many fine hotels and restaurants. In all, Shanghai has grown out of the Third World into a major commercial center. But, what will the future be with expansion that seems unlimited?

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