How is Expo 2010 changing Shanghai? One blogger’s perspective.

Just got off the phone with a reporter interested to know how the Expo (ie, World’s Fair) is changing Shanghai. No offense to this particular hack, but I’ve been having that conversation a whole lot recently, and it usually goes something like this: “Lots of new infrastructure, great new subways, but please stop demolishing all of the old neighborhoods that were among the best reasons to visit Shanghai in the first place.” In other words, so far at least (and despite the keening and hollering from long-term expats across Shanghai) it hasn’t really had much of an impact on (my) day-to-day life (my professional life, that’s another matter).

[UPDATE: A reader emails to remind me of last year’s posts about the Expo-related face-lift that my apartment building received.  How quickly I forget!]

My friends in Shanghai’s visual arts community have a distinctly different perspective (more on that soon), and those in the city’s burgeoning indie rock scene, well, they have some legitimate complaints. But I’ll leave those to them, and make this about me. So, from the perspective of someone who spends most of his time indoors, hunched over a keyboard, and overlooking (for now) the demolitions, here – typed over breakfast – are the most noticeable changes that Expo has brought to my Shanghai:

  1. My favorite pirate DVD store is now a sporting goods retailer. To access the DVDs, I’m required to slip between a rack of warm-up jackets and then through a hidden door. The hidden door is opened only when a look-out nods – presumably to assure all involved that the coast is clear.
  2. Related: not seeing many new DVD releases in town. Last batch came in just before Oscar time. Tired of watching A Serious Man.
  3. A small uptick in the number of Caucasian foreigners in Shanghai. However, they all appear to be employed by Expo pavilions. Otherwise, no more foreigners than usual in these parts.
  4. Suddenly, the Shanghainese are waiting for the walk signal at crosswalks. This is incredible.
  5. Related: they are giving dirty looks – and berating – foreigners who don’t do the same [this, after years of training me in the fine art of zen jaywalking, ie, “just go, they’ll stop.”]
  6. Noticeably fewer scrap peddlers on the streets, presumably chased off by Shanghai officials concerned that small-scale recyclers will hurt the city’s image with foreigners. You know what else hurts Shanghai’s image? Trash on the streets. [Shanghai authorities, mark my words: this decision will haunt you].
  7. Related: noticeably more consumer-generated recyclables on the streets [Shanghai authorities: just you wait]
  8. Yesterday I was asked to show my passport before I could enter the subway [given, this could’ve been related to the Moscow subway bombing – but still]. Upon further reflection, I’m okay with this so long as the various stations start stamping exit-entry info into said passports [but please, no visas].
  9. Related: the 14-year-olds the city hired to staff the baggage x-ray machines installed at the city’s subway stations are now awake for their shifts, and supervised by 18-year-olds. Previously, they’d spent most of their time asleep or – if they were ambitious – texting their friends.
  10. Due to restrictions on blade sales during the Expo, I have been forced to put off adding to my fencing rapier and fruit knife collections until November.
  11. My landlord, when negotiating my new lease, used the Expo as an argument for raising my rent. In response, I told her that if she ever decides to rent in Minneapolis during the annual month-long Holidazzle, the price is double.

And I’ll leave it at that. Comment thread open.

[UPDATED: Based upon a couple of emails, let me be clear: the new subway lines are terrific. Thank you, Shanghai. More, please.]

The Fruits of Recycling: Cancerous Take-out Containers.

Late last week the China Daily and other news outlets reported on a recently released study by the Hong Kong-based International Food Packaging Association (IFPA) showing that roughly half of the disposable dishware (think: plastic and paper take-out boxes) is substandard, and often can be found “with excessive amounts of chemicals that can cause cancer.” The source of these boxes is described, by China Daily, as follows:

Dong also said that less than 10 percent of the disposable dishware sold in the market is made of paper pulp, which is generally safer but more expensive. The foam and plastic boxes each take about 45 percent of the market share.

China has banned the sale and use of disposable dishware made of foam, as it is more likely to be made of plastic wastes.

As for the plastic boxes, Dong said a large number of them are actually made in small plants that do not have production licenses.

This caught my eye. Last summer I spent several days traveling in one of China’s major plastics recycling zones for a story that was eventually published in the American recycling trade, Scrap as China’s Plastics Frontier (subsc. only) in November. To protect the individuals who introduced me to, and and traveled with me in this region, I referred to it (and still do) by the pseudonym Guibei. It is a remarkable place, with anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 separate plastic recycling plants manufacturing materials for some of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers – and some of North China’s take-out food palaces. During my first afternoon there, I got some sense of the latter industry, of which I wrote:

Guibei’s infrastructure is still primitive, thus we’re grateful for a fourwheel-drive vehicle that can negotiate the muddy potholes that run between farm fields. As we pass one village where plastic bags twist and swirl in the wind and get tangled in the trees, our driver begins to laugh with his colleague in the passenger seat: Apparently, some of the businesses in this area manufacture plastic bags that they market as suitable for food use, when they’re most definitely not.

My photo of that facility is a blur (the SUV was bouncing), so, below, an image of a nearby facility that was pretty much indistinguishable from the one mentioned in the piece, and hundreds of others engaged in the business in this region.

The question that naturally arises is: how can this happen? Continue reading

It ain’t no handstand: last [updated: not] thoughts on the USA pavilion at Expo 2010

Last year, Clive Grout, the Canadian architect commissioned to design the USA pavilion for Expo 2010, spoke to a US trade journal devoted to theme parks, about his design:

“The building is designed here the way we’d do it if it was in downtown Philadelphia or in Los Angeles,” he explains. “It’s a model for high-density, low-rise development in our cities. We have a very prominent site and it is the USA Pavilion. People will find it. We have not felt the need to do an architectural handstand to get attention.”

$61 million later, this is the result – as of yesterday (click to enlarge):

To put this design in perspective, I encourage readers to click over to William Bostwick’s “Exporting Architecture: the Rise and Fall of US World Expo pavilions” over at Fast Company. For those who’d like to better understand how the US settled on its 2010 design, you might click over to my recent Foreign Policy piece, A Sorry Spectacle. After the jump, images of several Expo 2010 pavilions within a ten minute walk of the USA pavilion (each of which cost less than $61 million, by the way). Continue reading

Shanghai Eats Itself: Scrapping Dongjiadu

For those not familiar with it, Dongjiadu is a lower middle-class neighborhood south of the Bund, near the last remains of Shanghai’s old city. It’s old by Shanghai standards – some of the building might date back three centuries, I’m told – and poor. It’s also in the way of Shanghai’s ongoing redevelopment and bulldozers – in recent weeks, for better or worse (and often, much to the worst), it’s been disappearing. I think there’s rather too much wailing and gnashing of teeth by preservationists who couldn’t be paid to live in those leaky and miserable tenements; on the other hand, there are pieces of history in there worth preserving, and they won’t be preserved.

I was down there earlier this week and the change is startling: a giant eraser seems to have been rubbed across whole city blocks. The other thing I found startling? The recycling.

Above, workers load bundles of pencil-thin re-bar ripped from the concrete and masonry that used to hold up the buildings that stood where they now work. Before it could be bundled, it had to be cleaned, of course – which means that somebody – many somebodies – were paid to pick off the masonry and concrete that still adhered to that steel. I asked the foreman where the steel was going – nearby Bao Steel? – and his answer surprised me: it was on its way to be re-melted at a nail factory. Possibly, some of those nails will return to Dongjiadu, where they’ll be used to secure moldings in the expensive residential highrises to be built in place of the old tenements. Continue reading

Italians painting Byzantine icons in Shanghai.

Yesterday afternoon I was invited to visit the almost-completed new fresco in the 150-year-old Dongjiadu Catholic Church (aka, the Jesuit-built St. Xavier Church) in Shanghai. The church is 150 years old, and it’s in the midst of what was once one of Shanghai’s most Catholic neighborhoods (now, mostly demolished – more on that in the next day or so). Anyway, the fresco project is privately funded, and very quickly accomplished: according to Juan Pablo Civíl, the leader of the team of one-dozen artists commissioned to do the work, it required a mere four days of drawing, and nine days of painting (and affixing of gold leaf). That’s quick, I’d say, and proof perhaps that – at least when it comes to frescoes – the Europeans can compete with Chinese production rates.

The fresco is an authorized copy of a design by Kiko Argüello who, I’m told, passed through town recently to inspect and sign it. The design is unapologetically Byzantine (Russian Byzantine, in fact), with a few Chinese characters inserted into the Book of Life (held by Christ in the center of the painting), for obvious reasons. Anyway, not the sort of thing one sees happening in Shanghai (or anywhere else, really) very often. A few more photos after the jump … Continue reading

The Artist is flexing: A brief note on the stained glass windows of Shanghai’s cathedral

The three leading reader questions received via the Shanghai Scrap contact form are:

  1. Can you get me into the Expo grounds? [What do I look like? A ticket broker? No.]
  2. Will you ship your large inventory of e-waste to me? [I don’t have any e-waste (except for that Dell in the closet). So, no.]
  3. What is the status of the project to restore the stained glass windows of St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai, and can you put me in touch with the artist?

Well. Long-time readers of this blog may recall a series of posts that I wrote back in late 2008 covering the installation of several dozen new stained glass windows into Shanghai’s century-old Catholic cathedral (here, here, and here, among others; my lengthiest treatment of this project in traditional media is this 2006 piece for the now defunct LA Times Sunday Magazine). As commissioned by Shanghai’s bishop Jin Luxian, these windows aren’t restorations of the windows destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, so much as they are an entirely new cycle of stained glass that merges Chinese characters, idioms, and artistic traditions with Western liturgical art and stained glass. The artist entrusted with this unprecedented commission is Wo Ye, Beijing born and bred, trained as a traditional Chinese painter and, later in life, trained in Catholic liturgical art in Italy and the United States. There’s really nobody else with her background, and training, anywhere, and that not only explains the commission, but why she is – best as anybody knows – the only woman or Chinese to ever get such a commission.

In any event, not long after completing that late 2008 series of windows, Wo Ye took a one year leave of absence from the project for personal reasons. Her leave – and the absence of visible progress on the cathedral’s windows – led many to wonder if the project was halted. It wasn’t, and it’s not. As proof: this morning I paid a visit to Wo Ye in her studio not far from People’s Square, where I found her as strong as ever (the photo, below, is meant to convey that), and getting ready to resume work in earnest:

With a little convincing, she submitted to an exclusive interview. Here it is:

Shanghai Scrap: Do you want to say anything about your upcoming plans for the cathedral windows? Designs, anything like that?

Wo Ye: [laughing] No!

Rumor has it that the second level nave windows are next. More when I have it.

Travel Week – Offline Until March 22 [UPDATED]

I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in an aisle seat, hoping that there’s nobody in the window seat. I may tweet here and there, but at the moment even 140 characters seem daunting.

A couple of quick hits.

  • Patti Waldmeir of the Financial Times did a fine piece on Shanghai’s small-time scrap recyclers, here (recommended not because but in spite of the fact that I’m quoted in it).
  • Greennovate and Enovate just issued an interesting report on Chinese youth, environmental awareness, and brand behavior. It’s a nice, green corrective to the standard, incorrect depiction/stereotyping of Chinese youth as money-grubbing materialists.
  • I enjoyed Ryan Pyle’s run-through of his favorite Expo 2010 (that is, World’s Fair) pavilions, here.
  • I did not enjoy Elaine Kurtenbach’s lame puff piece on the US pavilion, here.
  • Because it ignores many of the less pleasant facts surrounding the pavilion, as recounted here.
  • When I have a spare moment, I’m reading “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,” Ethan Watters’ innovative account of how Western notions of mental illness, and its treatment, are being exported into non-Western cultures. China-based readers will take a particular interest in the passages exploring treatment of anorexia in Hong Kong.
  • And I’ve been spending lots of time listening to Allison Moorer’s beautiful and ghostly new recording, Crows.

[UPDATE 3-16: While I’m busy traveling and not blogging, I did want to blog very briefly on Jonathan Watts’ excellent piece in today’s Guardian, “China defends detention of lead poisoning victims who sought medical help.” I like everything about this story – everything except the headline, which is utterly false. If the editor who wrote the headline had bothered to read the story, he or she would have noticed that it wasn’t some monolith labeled “China” that detained the poisoning victims, but rather several small-time local government officials exposed in a Beijing newspaper subject to national government censors. That is, “China” didn’t detain anybody – some local government thugs did. The national-local dynamic is a rather simple distinction, I think, and one that the Guardian should understand: for example, no editor at the Guardian would write a headline claiming that “England detains protesters” if the mayor of Manchester, on his own volition, ordered the detention of protesters. So, one would hope – I would hope – that the Guardian would exercise the same care in writing headlines about a country at least as complicated as the one that they call home.]