Thursday, March 8, 2007


Southeast Asia is infested with western backpackers. China is different. I stayed in a hostel in Shanghai for a week, and didn’t have a substantial conversation with a single westerner. Instead, the most common hostel guest was Chinese. Especially in the past decade or two, as people have made more money and it’s become easier to travel (while remaining very difficult for the vast majority of Chinese to get visas to “developed” countries), Chinese people have taken to tourism in their own country. (Many people I’ve talked to, though, desperately want to travel the world, but are held back by visas and money.) In China the problem I mentioned in an earlier post, of western backpackers just hanging out with each other, is not so serious (though interactions are usually limited to fellow Chinese travelers who can speak English). In my room the flow of travelers, apart from Chinese, included Koreans and Japanese. What’s more, though everyone spoke at least some English, the language of choice among East Asians was Mandarin. Is this a glimpse of the future?

I’m still waiting for the purported excitement of Shanghai to kick in. It seems to me that contemporary Shanghai, like the mythical Shanghai of the early twentieth century, is at its best for people who have money. An average salary for a Chinese coffee shop employee in Shanghai is about $120-150 a month (usually that includes lodging and maybe some food), while an entry-level office job usually brings in less than $400 a month. A night in Shanghai’s bars and clubs would cost at least $5 to $20, depending on where you go, so the nightlife is really intended for the city’s rich and its expats (of which there are many). I went to an informative talk on Art Deco the other day at a glamorous bar overlooking the Bund, the center of Shanghai’s former International Concession area. The place was filled with expats wearing black and drinking wine who were in love with Shanghai’s architecture. But the negative forces that enabled the creation of that architecture (which is indeed amazing), such as imperialism, were not mentioned. This glaring silence seems to too often be a feature of Shanghai expat life.

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