Shanghai is mad.
After several weeks marinating in its unique energies, I’ve deemed it the futuristic progeny of a billboard-lit orgy between Vegas, George Jetson, and a God that surely knows how to code, birthing a child prodigy fed on only neon, atavism and blinking eights.
I like big cities: the vast, glittering landscape, the deep valleys of glass and steel, the rhythm and hum of constant movement, where everything and everyone moves to an unseen but omnipotent driving beat.
But there’s big. And then there’s Chinese Big.
I’d spent a few weeks in smaller Chinese cities, and the pace there, compared to my sleepy Aussie home town with a few hundred inhabitants, cow crossings and farmers markets, was a fair departure.
But Shanghai was blasting off into the stars. It’s capitalism with seventeen turbochargers, nine intercoolers, European styling and no brakes. Apple, Louis Vuitton, Rolls Royces and Ferraris merge seamlessly with chicken feet, straw-broom street sweepers and glowing coals cooking delicious street food. Silent delivery bikes flit past like giant deadly wasps. You have to look eight times, whipping your head back and forth like a speed-freak at a tennis match, whenever you cross the street.
It moves faster than anything I’ve ever seen, beginning with the 430 kmph Maglev from the airport and only accelerating from there.
Everywhere is an unrelenting circus of blasting noise and frantic movement, as 25 million people do their thing in quintessential Chinese fashion, gloriously unburdened by the opinions of others. Jackhammers, horns, millions of air conditioners and shrill bursts of whistles from brave traffic cops twist into a jagged din that never leaves you. It spirals its way in to your synapses, compelling you to move. Just like everyone else.
This endless swarm imbues every millimetre, bastes every possible thought, in an ever-present carnival of motion. You Must have a destination, Human, or you will be trampled flat by the surging hordes into a useless pulp of tragic entropy. Foreigners trade wild-eyed bewilderment as they ride the human rapids through these lucent labyrinths of extruding civilisation, merging torrents sweeping them briskly into the unknown.
Its metro is superb. Trains are jet-like, plentiful and air-conditioned. As you weave through the cavernous subway stations, the pouring hordes fill the space like four burst dams and suddenly you’re a goldfish tossed in a confluence of tsunamis. But, somehow, it all just Works. Some stations have 20 different exits, each depositing you into a different universe located on opposing sides of rivers of uncrossable, honking steel.
Money is King, Queen, God, Galactic Lord. Shanghai wants your Yuan, your Dollars, your Euros, Pesos, and anything else you’ve got, and it will get it, with a foxlike smile. Special price for you, Mister.
The exposed midriffs are not of the teenage female variety, but middle-aged male, as they air their guts with unfettered aplomb.
Twenty five million meat machines means Shanghai pulses with a colossal, implacable need. For everything. When paired with a ravening desire for yuan, the result is every conceivable variety of store and product a consumer could possibly covet. Shanghai is essentially one giant food court; the skyscrapers and blasting labyrinth of the subway are merely its servants.
The daily forecast mins and maxes are so close they may as well be the same: high 20s with smog, humidity and fat grey clouds that hang lower than a basset hound’s belly, condensing everything into a thicker and thicker soup of bedlam.
The skyscrapers are ludicrous.
They are Gorgeously silly. Overwhelmingly kitsch. Proud, elongated, and impossibly spectacular; phallic swords of light. They scrape the low skies, tips sheathed in cloud, bodies slashed in glowing red Mandarin, flashing steel glowsticks. The evening view from the Bund is an acid-dosed dragon’s hoard of pilfered treasure, its epileptic twists joyously orgiastic. It’s a rainbow Monopoly game on DMT. A dazzling Oz of LED breakdancing in languid opalesence. It is young sexy capitalism, coiffed, proud as it struts around in its fluorescent leviathan tiara.
It is Bread, Circus, and an endless river of pouring neon flame; China with flashing rabbit ears, playing to her endless crowds.
Everyone is plugged into their glowing rectangle, faces aflame in a swiftly disseminated swarm of magic. People don’t have pets; they have apps, fields of little squares sat watchful and ready to serve. They are lucent skeleton keys, buying noodles, opening gates and giving directions and they unlock everything simply by scanning one of the billions of QR codes littered around this megatropolis.
Everyone looks down into their enveloping worlds, and up spirals ever more data, up through their corneas and into their cortexes, rewiring their neurons into something more like the glittering glass swords of Pudong. They skate their fingers artfully across their screens like conductors crafting some VR opus, guzzling down an endless supply of bandwidth, as more of the physical world twists down the virtual plughole.
Shanghai is a dragon, clad in fake Gucci and dripping in jewels, its wily smile lit by its glowing smartphone as it sips on a bubble tea.
It is the centre of the Brave New World. It is terrifying. It is glorious.
It is mad.
And I quite like it.