Dispatch from Shanghai
You’ve no doubt noticed that David does the heavy lifting on our blog. I average about a post a week, but this week my post is coming in a bit late. My work has been known to make me travel from time to time, which really screws up the posting schedule. On this occasion, I find myself in Shanghai. Paris of the East. Pearl of the Orient. It’s a hell of a place.
(And I’ve been here for quite a lot longer than one night.)
Over the past few days I’ve had cause to travel across the city, seeing parts of it that foreigners (even expats) rarely do. I’ve been in people’s homes and enjoyed their hospitality. It’s not like any place I’ve ever been.
There is a definite tension between past, present, and future here. Some of Asia’s tallest buildings, limned in neon light, tower over centuries-old temples housing Buddhas and more esoteric entities carved of centuries old jade. And on the streets below, the trendiest kids in mainland Asia, sporting Mohawks and Parisian fashions, stand on every street corner, their gazes fixated on the devices in their hands, looking for another hit off the iCrackpipe.
In fact, no place I’ve ever been better exemplifies Gibson’s axiom, “the future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed,” than Shanghai.
I’ve been on a cyberpunk kick lately, thanks to our Shadowrun game and the recent trailer for CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 game (anyone else notice Alt on the posters in the background? Nerdgasm). Short of Tokyo, Shanghai is about as cyberpunk as it comes.
First, imagine a city sprawling out from a central financial district full of towering skyscrapers. This configuration is not unusual in the world’s cities. But imagine an unobstructed view from a soaring skyway revealing a city that sprawls to the horizon, and that the cluster of towering skyscrapers around you is one of dozens sprouting from the cityscape. Between those tower clusters are seemingly endless neighborhoods of tightly packed residences, 5 to 8 stories tall, filled with closet-like apartments. Old neighborhoods, their architecture gradually being updated to accommodate an increasingly swelling population, look like warzones, with the rubble of the old scarcely pushed aside before giving rise to the new. Twenty-three million people take a lot of space, unless you stack them like cordwood. Then they take just slightly less.
Next, imagine that anything you want is practically at your fingertips. Besides the mainstream and luxury shopping, which is about as abundant as you can find outside of the U.S. or Western Europe, shadowy underground malls offer the discerning shopper practically anything you can imagine, legit or otherwise. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that these are exactly the kinds of places our protagonists go to get their wares and wires. I will be posting about my experience on the seedy side of commerce next week.
Finally, there are the people. Twenty-three million of them. With so many people vying for space, surrendering the advantage is never an option. On the road, on the subway, on the sidewalk, or in a line at the store, hesitation is a sign of weakeness. These mercenary instincts are not the product of malice, but basic necessity. That said, within a given neighborhood, the sense of community is palpable.
Mega-corps, check. Overcrowding, check. Dizzying wealth and astonishing poverty, check. All that’s missing is the chrome. Over my next few posts, I intend to highlight some of my observations in Shanghai, focusing on the rising nerd culture, and the clash between past, present and future. Stay tuned.