Dancing at Sunrise – Shanghai, China

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"You must see the Bund at dawn," a British photographer in my hostel told me several times over the course of my week in Shanghai.  I was no stranger to the Bund, that beautiful facade of early twentieth-century colonial architecture along the Huangpu River, having walked there often both night and day.  But I had never gotten up to see it at dawn.

I had arrived in Shanghai having read up on its history from the mid-nineteenth century to World War II.  Stella Dong, in her book Shanghai: the Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, had this to say:  "At the peak of its spectacular career the swamp-ridden metropolis surely ranked as the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid, and decadent city in the world."  This Shanghai of the past was a place where an American business once brought several slaves from Mississippi to cook grits for breakfast, where the richest man in town was an Iraqi Jew by the name of Hardoon, where tens of thousands of White Russians sought refuge after the communist takeover in 1919, where another group of refugees—20,000 European Jews—landed during the rise of Hitler while the rest of the world was closing its doors, where Chiang Kai-Shek, who would later become the Nationalist leader of Taiwan, frequented brothels and executed citizens with whom he was at odds.

And it was in regard to this same Shanghai that Nebraska's Senator Kenneth Wherry, speaking in 1940, uttered this disturbing sentence: "With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City."

I also had arrived in the city knowing that the old Shanghai was gone, swept away by China's phenomenal economic growth.  Three hundred new high-rises were under construction in 2003, and the streets were bumper to bumper with cars (a Shanghai-based manager at General Motors told me that the growth rate of China's car industry was exploding at sixty percent, compared to three percent in the Unites States).  Adding to the city's changing appearance, the majority of the people occupying the high-rises and driving the cars had shed the bland Mao suit coats so common in earlier decades, preferring instead to wear stylish designer labels.

The entire look of Shanghai had transformed.  The city had forsaken its sultry history to become China's twenty-first century showcase.

On my last day in Shanghai I forced myself out of bed and, in that disheveled early morning state common to people who are not morning people, I stumbled out of the hostel, quite unconvinced that that I must see the Bund at dawn.  But nonetheless I knew I should give it a shot; the photographer who advised me to rise early was too wise-looking a man to ignore.

At the Bund a fiery sunrise was underway.  Mist hung over the river and the mournful sound of barges and tugs drifted up and down the banks.  Against the red-orange sky, the scores of Chinese doing tai chi were nothing but dark silhouettes.  The beauty of their slow-motion martial arts movements, done in unison and with meticulous attention to detail—and set against the towering high-rises behind them—was beyond my wildest expectations.  One could be forgiven for thinking that Earth itself was being born now, and that Earth in turn was giving birth to civilization: to skyscrapers and people, movement and sound.  At this primordial hour of dawn, speed had yet to be invented, and urban noise was nearly absent.  Now was the time for morning to stretch her limbs, and for the people to do the same.

Before businesses opened and streets congested, before the city began a new day in its frantic pursuit of wealth, before the sun was taken for granted because it hovered so high above the people, this was Shanghai:  a city of middle-aged and elderly Chinese, their faces focused in disciplined movement, their persons stretched out along the length of the Bund.  Old tape decks churned out classical Chinese tunes to which groups, ranging from two to 100, moved in a silent rhythm. Some held swords or flags in their hands, others held nothing.  Some flew kites—one in the shape of a Chinese jet fighter—and danced, tugging on the strings as though the kite were a dancing partner.  One man, probably in his seventies, was on roller skates and occasionally did circles on one leg.

But it was not until I was halfway down the Bund that I stopped in my tracks and crouched down for the next half hour to watch the couples around me as a zoologist might look upon a species he only now has learned exists.  There were about fifteen couples, most dressed in sweaters or suit coats, and they danced ballroom-style across the street from the old clock tower.  Wrinkled, experienced, and in the latter years of a long life, these men and women had climbed out of bed while the sun still slept and came two by two to dance before the dawning of a new day.  What beauty lives in a man's hand gently placed upon the small of a woman's back, or in a grandmother's giggle as her husband spins her out and then pulls her close.

Some of the people dancing had probably lived through the Japanese bombings of the 1930s, the brutality of the Chinese civil war that ended in 1949, the destruction of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and most recently the city's economic transformation.  They had experienced so much, and now their lives were winding down.

I thought of Holocaust survivor Victor Frankel.  Frankel, whose wife did not survive the Holocaust, warned against searching for an abstract meaning to life and argued that "the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.  What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment."  This morning on the Bund, in the hour of sunrise, the meaning was clear: to dance.

Shanghai seemed like two separate cities.  During the day and night it was a consistently energetic and youthful metropolis, too busy to spend time in reflection.  But this was not the case at dawn, when the morning mist contained a wisdom, and the people understood life's meaning.

The sun rose further and began to burn off the mist.  Speed and noise were picking up on the streets and soon the morning magic would altogether lift from the Bund.  I returned to my hotel and picked up a copy of the Shanghai Daily.  I had enjoyed reading it each day this week and had learned much about our world.  Beijing had its first snowfall.  The Afghan Supreme Court condemned Miss Afghanistan for shamelessly wearing a bikini at a beauty pageant.  Palestinians were killed in Gaza and a Blackhawk helicopter was downed in Iraq.  The condom manufacturer Durex released survey results indicating that Chinese couples have sex 132 times a year compared to the global average of 127 (which perhaps explains the proliferation of lingerie shops in Shanghai).  The body of a Merrill Lynch executive was found rolled up in a carpet in a Hong Kong storage room (the authorities suspecting his wife of the deed).  The biggest news, however, was in today's paper, which offered heavy coverage of tonight's Mariah Carey concert, her first in Shanghai.

Odds and ends of every sort make the news, but some of our world's most profound events do not.  Which is why, if one day the editor of the Shanghai Daily were to call me and ask what the next day's headline should be, I just might offer something a little unorthodox.  Borrowing the words of a wise English photographer, I would tell him: You Must See the Bund at Dawn.

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About the Author ()

I'm a freelance photographer and writer who focuses on travel. I sell my work on istockphoto -- www.istock.com/jcarillet -- and have published a book called 30 REASONS TO TRAVEL: PHOTOGRAPHS AND REFLECTIONS FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA

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