Destinations: China (1982): Shanghai

We again took a train at Hangzhou to go to Shanghai. The distance was about 180 kilometres and the train took around two hours to cover the distance. As I recorded earlier, those days the Chinese trains were more or less like what we had then and perhaps continue to have even today. Hangzhou and Shanghai are today connected by high speed trains – a number of bullet trains run between the two covering the distance in around 45 minutes touching the speed of about 350 kilometres per hour.

At the massive Shanghai Railway Station we had to wait for our baggage. These had to be retrieved from the baggage van. We, therefore, were taken to the waiting hall – an enormous hall that had numerous sofa sets, well-cushioned and well-upholstered, partially covered with covers of fine lace work and were arranged in clusters. The hall had wall-to-wall Chinese paintings of unimaginably massive proportions. As is their wont, they paint nature with great skill using their calligraphic technique. However, a few were thematic and were on workers and peasants. Today the decor surely would have changed as Shanghai station is now a massive one and should be a tourist site by itself.

As would be obvious, Shanghai in 1982 was not like what it is today. It is now an example of urban renewal, expansion and modernisation. Aspirational cities desire to emulate its modernised civic amenities. Mumbai was one but never succeeded because of the greedy builders and venal politicians. A Hindi film named “Shanghai” exposed the sleaze and gore of the whole process that failed the well-intentioned proposal.     Even in 1982 Shanghai was the largest city of China but it appeared more like a colonial commercial and financial centre. In parts, especially on the Bund along the river, it looked like the Fort area of Mumbai – the buildings with more or less of similar architectural design, solidly built and of three stories or so. After all, it had that ubiquitous British influence for more than a hundred years, the British extracting concessions after the first Opium War that ended in 1842.

Here, for the first time, we saw shop-signboards in English and many people, including local government officials, could speak fluent English. Elsewhere we had seen English being taught only on TV and yet, barring the interpreters and hotel receptionists, not many could speak the language with ease. The British legacy, it seems, had hung on in Shanghai. It was a bustling town but easily negotiable. Here, too, vehicles were not many but far greater in number than what we had seen elsewhere.  

The tallest building appeared to be that of International Industrial Exhibition Centre – of a neo-classical Russian architectural style. The high-rises of Pudong were still in the future. The Exhibition was probably intended to put out products that the country made at that point of time for display to outsiders. The city was a commercial hub and was also the biggest port of China. What was most attractive at the Exhibition was the huge jade statue of Buddha. We were told it was made of one piece of rock. In that event, it must have been a massive rock that was cut and chiselled to fashion the statue.

One of the programmes included in our itinerary was a visit to a nearby commune. A few miles out of Shanghai it was a village community that lived by their cooperative effort. After all, everything belonged to the State and, as I understood, people only productively worked the prescribed system for the common good. Yet they lived in separate houses and had their respective establishments. We were shown how the people, though poor but in the usual tunic, lived. I happened to notice that even in their poverty they were aesthetes and had artistically decorated their living quarters.

On our way back I happened to notice a few Chinese men and women sitting on the ground in the open air praying at a shrine. The shrine was that of, I presume, laughing Buddha placed in a rock cut. Some were in deep meditation and remained un-distracted by the traffic of heavy vehicles passing by. Obviously, despite several years of communism people were still religiously inclined.  

This was also noticed in a temple which we were taken to in the what-would-now-be-called the downtown area. As we were getting into the temple I heard a guide talking in English about an Indian prince who left home to eventually obtain Enlightenment. She was giving her audience, a clutch of Western tourists, the lowdown on Buddhism. We went and saw the image of Buddha in “abhay mudra”. It was beautiful and the atmosphere around it was serene and peaceful. Again a large number of Chinese were seen going through the rituals.

The local Communication officials staged a circus for our benefit. As is well known, the Chinese are great athletes and acrobats. In a local office building they displayed to us their acumen in various acrobatic feats, jugglery, sway over well-trained animals like giant pandas and so on. It was quite fascinating.

With Shanghai our 4-week sojourn in China came to an end but not before rounds of banquets with lots of Mao Tai – hard liquor that is distilled out of sorghum. We had a very pleasant time and though it was sort of a conducted tour, we saw much, learnt much, ate much and tasted different types of Chinese soft and hard liquor. We got a glimpse of the Chinese way of life that was still mostly traditional but governed by the basic tenets of the governing party. Discovering the Indian connection in temples and pagodas was heart-warming. That the country was making determined efforts to open up to the outsiders was palpable. We were all happy to be there as the Chinese played real good hosts. With somewhat of a heavy heart we left for Tokyo. 


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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