Better City, Better Life

Recently, I had the fortune of guest writing a piece for the blog China Beat, a high profile blog about all things China (anyone who has the time to read my blog, by the way, should also take time to read theirs). Since I am really excited about the topic I wrote about, I decided to reproduce the blog here:

Shanghai has had a history of personality cults that permeate the visual landscape of the city. However, today, Mao’s presence, ubiquitous only 40 years ago, has all but faded —though you can still find some reminders that he was once omnipresent, such as the big statue of the Chairman that continues to stand on the East China Normal University and the kitsch items for sale at Shanghai souvenir stalls (though these are aimed largely at foreigners). Even the pervasive symbols of American consumerism Colonel Sanders’ and Ronald McDonald’s are not as common as they once were—though each of them have some statues as well, standing (the Colonel) or sitting (the clown) near the entrances to venues selling buckets of chicken and Big Macs, respectively. Today, the latest personality to overcome Shanghai's visual landscape is quite different, a symbol of neither Communist Revolution nor capitalist consumer culture. His name is Haibao.

Haibao, a bright blue wave with a face, is in constant public view. His animated likeness looks out at you from TV screen advertisments in subways, his picture looms down on you from the walls of construction zones, his statue is an even more popular photo subject at the Yu Gardens than the Ming architecture, and he is even often seen dancing on a giant LCD screen that moves slowly up and down the Huangpu River on a barge.

His cult of personality displaces all others, including those of the Olympic Friendlies (not so last year) and Barbie (whose pink allure is celebrated in the city now that it is home to the world’s first megastore devoted to the doll), and he brings with him a simple message: the World Expo is coming to Shanghai, and with it a new chance for Shanghai to become internationally recognized as China's most progressive and global city. The important word in that last statement, the one that draws the distinction between the message of the Expo and of the Olympics (mega-events that have been linked in various ways, including similar roles for countdown clocks and promotional videos featuring Jackie Chan), is the word “city,” not “country,” and this distinction illustrates a lot of underlying issues regarding Shanghai's own self understanding.

The slogans for both events, the Olympics and the Expo, illuminate this distinction. Whereas the Olympic slogan reads “One world, one dream,” connecting China to a world of nations, the Expo slogan reads “Better city, better life,” putting Shanghai on the map of globalized cities, not countries. Creating this type of identity for Shanghai is not difficult either, as Shanghai historically has always seen itself as connected, yet separate, from the rest of China, a gateway through which China connects with the rest of the modern world.

This is similarly emphasized in academic discourse. It is no accident that many books about China’s search for modernization are almost entirely concerned with Shanghai and present the city’s modern history as unique (though other treaty-ports sometimes get a look in as well). Leo Ou-fan Lee and Yeh Wen-hsin, along with countless others, have demonstrated that Shanghai was the birthplace of the modern Chinese nation because of its unique cultural connection with the outside world at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I did my senior thesis research about the magazine Ling Long, a Shanghai women's magazine from the 1930s. The layout and message of this magazine very clearly demonstrated the way that modern people, specifically modern women, should look and act. These modern Shanghaiers lived a unique lifestyle of "East meets West," a lifestyle that could be lived in Shanghai but no other Chinese metropolis. At the same time, Shanghai’s city landscape and unique institutions gave way to this lifestyle, and also fed the belief among Shanghai people that they were the leaders of the modern world in China, and even in Asia as a whole.

The current campaigns for the Expo play upon this Shanghainese notion that it is the center of Chinese urban modernity. One particular advertisement that seems to run on constant replay on twenty meter high screens on the sides of skyscrapers depicts Haibao’s journey through China. He first stops in Yunnan where he is greeted by the Miao people, in traditional costume (the Miao costume includes a very large and distinct white and red headress), who offer him local gifts. He then moves onto Xinjiang, where Uigher girls in flowing country dresses offer him grapes (a regional specialty) and play traditional Uigher instruments around him as he smiles and dances. Then, suddenly, we see a man in a light cotton button up shirt and slacks and a girl in a Western sundress, and they run along a road lined with modern skyscrapers and they take pictures of Haibao with their digital cameras.

The distinction between the “traditional” and “modern” is accentuated by the fact that our modern Shanghairen (Shanghainese) actually watch the “traditional” scenes on a TV screen on a skyscraper (where, in real life, this whole advertisement is played), making the "traditional" elements seem like a movie, not the real and modern Chinese world (in Shanghai). This advertisement sends a clear message: Shanghai is the end of the natural progression from traditional to modern, and therefore the logical place for the world Expo—the contemporary counterpart to the World’s Fairs of old, the first of which were held in London and Paris when those cities represented state-of-the-art modernity.

Furthermore, while also making the dichotomy between a traditional lifestyle and a “modern” lifestyle, the advertisement also implies that all of China’s elements, its diversity, celebrates Shanghai’s greatness. The advertisement actually ends not in Shanghai, but in Hong Kong, as Hong Kong people wave and welcome Haibao. While this could be interpreted in many different ways, what it seems to symbolize in this context is Hong Kong recognizing Shanghai as the new urban center of China, just as all of China’s different minorities recognize it as well. In a sense, there are many forces at play here: the dichotomy of tradition and modernity, the stark contrast between China’s minorities and Shanghai’s urban elite, and even competition among China’s urban centers. But as all of these places and peoples greet Haibao, they are in fact greeting Shanghai’s coming of age. China is essentially centered around Shanghai.

However, Expo public advertisements don't just glorify Shanghai’s place in the modern world, they also strive to present Shanghai as a place where good behavior is on display. For example, on the subway one day I ran across a person dressed up as Haibao, and he was surrounded by people in vests that read “Make this city better, be a loveable Shanghaier.” Along with being cute and loveable, however, the most common adjective connected with expected “Expo” behavior is wenming I have been in Shanghai now for nine months, and within those nine months more and more small signs, specifically in very public places, have popped up, telling people how they should be behaving. For example, most escalators now read “stand on the right, walk on the left, use the escalators in a wenming way.” Or, “Don't spit on buses, be more wenming.”

Wenming is difficult to define. Most dictionaries say it means “civilized,” but this definition carries as many problematic connotations in Chinese as it does in English. Leo Lee, in his book Shanghai Modern, traces the development of this word in modern Chinese. The term was originally borrowed from the Japanese, who used the same characters (pronounced differently of course) in the late nineteenth century to define behavior that was specifically “modern” and “Western,” thus maintaining the same connotations as “civilized” in English. This was picked up by China at the beginning of the twentieth century with similar effect.. The Nationalist government in the 1930s emphasized wenming behavior; it was often used in publications promoting the New Life Movement put forth by Chiang Kai-shek, a movement which encouraged people to be more hygienic and well mannered in terms of clothes, food, behavior, and deportment.. If we look at textbooks affiliated with the drive to improve weisheng (hygiene or health)—another complex term, whose links to visions of urban modernity are the subject of an important recent book by Ruth Rogaski we see them using similar language: calling on readers to raise the level of China’s weisheng by being wenming in the way they use the bathroom, stand in line, and so on.

According to Lee, this word shifted in connotation after 1949 to mean “manners” rather than “Western defined behavior.” However, it seems to me that in today’s usage, the meaning still carries this kind of “civilized” meaning. The term tells people not to do things that are considered uncouth or uncivilized by the international community, and by “international community” the reference remains Europe and North America (with Japan or Singapore getting an occasional look-in as perhaps honorary members of the Western modernity club) In this sense, the Expo is connected with making the lives of Shanghai people better, (hence the “better life”) which is inextricably tied with a population that maintains “modern” and “civilized” behavior.

Other public advertisements emphasize Shanghai’s “coming of age” as it becomes a modern part of the Western world in 2010. At Hongqiao airport, for example, a large mural depicts Shanghai (represented by the Oriental Pearl Tower) as it is connected with the rest of the world. Representations from outside China include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Coliseum, and the Empire State Building. A friend from Hong Kong with whom I was traveling bitterly commented, “So I guess Africa and South America don't count?”

While this may seem a somewhat simplistic way to read these advertisements, representation of the third world are almost always absent in images of the “global community” (and you’ll look in vane in such visual representations for any sign of India, which constitutes ¼ of the global community). And a final illustration of this phenomenon brings us back to one place you see Haibao, which is on the interactive TV screens located in many Shanghai taxis. While riding in these cabs, people can watch sponsored advertisements (including ones for the new Barbie Store) or play “Expo” games, ranging from a Dance-Dance-Revolution-like one featuring a gyrating Haibao to trivia quizzes that test (and thereby try to increase?) your knowledge of the “world,” via answering questions like “What utensils are used to eat pizza?” and “What type of wine is served with fish and spaghetti?” I’ve only seen one non-Western country even mentioned in these games, and it was Japan, and it only figured in one of the many trivia games on offer in the taxis. The message that this sends is that modernity the West, and Shanghai is ready to become a major player in the modern global community. And this will happen with the Expo, the ultimate symbol of Shanghai’s crossover.

With the Expo less than a year away, Shanghai has a lot of preparation still ahead of it (the most pressing of which are the massive building planned in Pudong). But philosophically, Shanghai has been waiting for this opportunity to regain its status as the center of gravity for China’s modernity for decades. To Shanghai people, this has always been Shanghai’s legacy, and current advertisements feed this sentiment by both naming Shanghai as China’s most modern city and tying it to the Western world, creating, in a sense, a two-dimensional modern identity, both national and international. And while these messages include a certain amount of nationalistic fervor, the real star of the show is not China, but China’s most modern city, its gateway to the rest of the world.

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