Shanghai isn’t the real China,” one of its residents told me. With its gleaming high-rises, smooth traffic and well-dressed Shanghainese (taller, fairer and better-fed than most out-of-towners), it presents a vision of China that the country wants most foreigners to see. But still, I could find glimpses of an older and a more rural China — in the elderly retirees playing cards in the parks (young people are more likely to be on their phones), the semi-outdoor lives of people in the few remaining shikumen-style housing areas (elsewhere, the city has been pushed indoors into high-rise apartments and gated housing blocks), and the family routines of the restaurant-owners near where I stayed, all migrants from elsewhere (places like Shaanxi and Xinjiang).
I would have liked to go further inland, in search of the “real” China, but could only make it to Shaoxing (where the writer Lu Xun and the Communist Party veteran and China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, came from) and Beijing, both very different from Shanghai. I was told that it was for the best, the interiors “are not very developed”, or, in other words, not like Shanghai. Things have been improving for most ordinary Chinese over the years, and they have expectations from the Communist Party that this will continue.
I was recently in China for two months, one of 13 writers awarded fellowships by the Shanghai Writers’ Association (SWA). It was difficult to explain to most people where I come from; some thought the “Northeast” was above Delhi. When I landed up in a Shanghai hospital to show my knee, after all the walking had aggravated an old injury, the English-speaking orthopaedic doctor asked me, only half in jest, “Are you original Indian or Chinese Indian?” On the flip side, I met Chinese people who said, laughing, how they had been asked if they were from Manipur or Nagaland in Delhi and Mumbai.
The average person on Shanghai’s street is admirably helpful, with most going out of their way to look up maps on their phone or translating for the benefit of a shopowner. One could still see traces of the old Communist tradition of looking after foreign guests, to create a favourable impression.
It was such human connections that gave one pleasure, like the smiles on faces when I spoke the few Mandarin words I’d learnt: meiyou (no), chao fan (fried rice), tabo (packed or take away). When it comes to food, China isn’t all that mysterious for people from the Northeast. Bamboo shoots, sichuan pepper (called mejenga in Assam), fermented soybean (axone/akhuni, much loved in Nagaland), pork and beef, various greens, dried chillies, rice flour: there was much that was familiar. Only the technique of cooking, usually in a vat of bubbling broth or in a wok above a high flame, and ingredients like allspice, were different. I loved the way the vegetables always had a “bite” to them.
Food is serious business in Shanghai. People break for lunch around 12 pm, while dinner starts by 6.30 pm. Dinner is the main event, especially when people get together in groups. Several dishes are ordered, and meals can go on over conversation for two hours or more. At formal meals with the SWA, a full range of dishes would appear: slices of “drunken chicken” (marinated in rice wine), succulent chunks of caramelised pork, sweet -and-sour beef, fried eel, batter-fried fish, whole steamed fish, stewed pork, crab cooked in a variety of ways, sautéed vegetables, and slices of watermelon at the end. In the private rooms of restaurants, people talk, drink and smoke around banquet tables as the waitresses keep bringing in the dishes. More than once, I was reminded of Delhi’s Punjabi business class: make money during the day and eat and drink with gusto at night.
What I came to enjoy were the small restaurants outside our apartment on Wulumuqi Road (north); the mala tang place, where you could choose your vegetables and meat to be cooked in a broth, the small dumplings or jiaozi with a chilli-vinegar sauce at the place run by a couple from Shaanxi; the grilled lamb skewers outside the Uighur place; and hun tun tang, the fish-and-shrimp dumplings in a light broth (similar to our wonton soup), just around the corner.
Shanghai was once a fabled cosmopolitan city, with its fair share of vice. Through the upheavals of the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-45) and the War of Liberation (1945-49), and then events such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the opening up of the city to the outside world in the late 1990s, there has been tremendous change. That, perhaps, explains the nostalgia I sensed in much of the writing by Shanghainese writers: an eternal search for the past.
Across the Huangpu river, is the area known as Pudong, and the older part to the east of the river is Puxi. The Pudong area, till three decades ago, was nothing more than marshy land, rice fields and homes for the poor residents, who would catch the ferry to Puxi, with their cycles, to work in offices and factories.
Today, the Pudong waterfront bristles with skyscrapers (including the Shanghai Tower, the second-tallest building in the world, and the iconic Pearl TV Tower) and houses most of the financial district. Day and night, there are people on the riverside bund taking photos of that skyline. Behind them are the stone-clad colonial-era buildings, and one can see the symbolism of it is so important to the Chinese: the new towers of steel and glass looking down on the buildings of the old masters.
It was only after visiting a photo exhibition at a gallery on Tianyaoqiao Road that I understood how much Shanghai had changed. Black-and-white photos from the 1980s and 1990s showed communal living in the shikumens, with life going on outside, almost like the old quarters of an Indian city. In just 20 years, after the decision had been made to open up Shanghai to the outside world, virtually the entire city had been remade and the residents moved indoors. Still, there are places like Wenmiao and Qiaojia Road where one gets a glimpse, amid the reconstructed shikumens, of the old street life, with people sunning themselves outside their small houses and going to the neighbourhood fishmonger or noodle maker.
As I made my way back home in stages — first smog-filled Delhi, then Guwahati and then Shillong — I couldn’t help but notice the inadequate infrastructure, the civic problems left hanging for years. If this were China, I thought, they would fix it in a week. But maybe it isn’t right to compare the two countries. What is needed is more understanding, more people visiting each others’ countries. As a friend from Arunachal Pradesh says, “Why should India and China fight? They are both bania countries.”
Ankush Saikia is the author of the detective Arjun Arora series.
This article in the print edition with the headline, A New Deal: The past is glimpsed fleetingly in Shanghai