Sunday, November 23, 2008

"The Streets of Shanghai"

Reading James Fallows on contemporary China has inspired me to post here two pieces I wrote about our time in the PRC in 1981. (The next will appear in a subsequent post.)

Go here to read a post about a 21st century visit to China.




Some of us who have been around a while are accustomed to any number of things which on first sighting seemed rather strange.

I was reminded of this by an acquaintance who arrived at the airport around 10 p.m. He said the cab ride from the airport to his room at the Friendship Hotel had been one of the most scary experiences in his life.

The reason, he said, was that all motor vehicles speed along without their headlights on except for an occasional blinding flash from a car or truck approaching on the other side of the road.

'why?", he asked. "I don't know," I replied.

(from China Daily, July 4, 1981)
Todd Marlowe

Like many Americans, I complain a great deal about the careless, lethal driving of my fellow city motorists. I am seriously concerned, for example, over the change in meaning red traffic lights seem to be undergoing in the symbol systems of American drivers: in Jacksonville, Florida, where I recently lived, red now seems to signal not that one should stop, but rather that two or three more vehicles may still go through. It is worth one’s life to drive in American cities.

Last year I taught in Shanghai, in the People's Republic of China, serving as a "Foreign Expert" in the English language at one of Shanghai's universities. During my three months in China's largest city (at least eleven million people), I crossed and crisscrossed its busy streets again and again, sometimes in public have been to Rome and Paris and have witnessed there, as have other Americans, I buses, more often in taxis (like most foreigners, even "resident aliens" like myself, I did not and could not drive in China), and what I saw there has made me more hesitant to criticize my fellow American drivers quite so harshly. I maniacal European driving, but I have never seen driving such as I encountered in Shanghai. I have come to call it "totalitarian."

Mao Tse-tung vowed that the People's Republic would never develop a system of transportation like that which exists in the West. He believed that there should be no private ownership of motorized vehicles, for private cars, Mao was convinced, would contribute to the sort of individualism that could eventually bring about the end of a truly communist, classless society.

Today, thirty years after "Liberation," there are still virtually no privately owned vehicles in a city like Shanghai, although its streets are extremely busy and inordinately noisy. The average Shainghainese gets around on the city's very crowded, but quite efficient and inexpensive, bus system, or by means of China's most popular means of conveyance: the bicycle. Shanghai's streets are a congested and confused mix of buses, bikes, pedestrians, and other motorized vehicles such as pedi-cabs and small three-wheeled tractors sometimes used as passenger carriers. The number of pedestrians alone is colossal. So large are the crowds on Shanghai's busiest shopping street, Nanjing Lu, that two of its four traffic lanes have been commandeered for pedestrians and railed off for their use, thus making the street incredibly narrow.

But for all their strength in numbers, Shanghai's bicyclists and pedestrians have few rights end must yield at all times to oncoming vehicles. There is, as experience reveals, a kind of logic to Shanghai's rules of the road, although it may not at first be apparent: if the masses of pedestrians and f bikes did not automatically move, no car or bus would ever be able to cross the city's busiest intersections; Shanghai would succumb to permanent "grid-lock." Nevertheless, the streets of Shanghai appear chaotic and devoid of logic, and I quite frightening, to all but the most hardened observers.

The tourists now descending in large numbers on Shanghai witness its perpetual clash of steel and flesh only from a privileged position, for they I are chauffeured about town in beautiful, new air-conditioned buses, whose comfort and luxury the Chinese themselves will never experience first hand, or in taxis which, because they carry "foreign guests," move with a kind of regal bearing through the streets, only occasionally (when stopped at a rail way crossing for example) permitting a true encounter between their precious cargo and the Chinese crowds. The tourist buses, operated by Luxingshe (China Travel Service), carry tourists from train station and airport to hotels and major attractions along carefully plotted routes chosen to assure the maximum possible favorable impression of Shanghai as a healthy, wealthy, successful modern city. Tourists who take taxis cannot be quite so easily blinded by Luxingshe, for taxis follow common routes which take them throughout all parts of the city.

Westerners find Shanghai’s taxis inexpensive compared to thaw in theft home countries--so inexpensive, in fact, that they are able to pay to have their driver wait for them for hours while they shop or sight-see. But most tourists never realize that in Shanghai there are actually two cab companies, each serving a different clientele. To understand the "division of labor" on which this two taxi system is based is to get to the heart of the conundrums of the streets of Shanghai.

Tourists use "Friendship Taxis"--usually newer, spacious vehicles which are much more expensive to hire (usually double) because they must; they are simply not permitted to use the cheaper "People's Taxi" company's cars. As a resident alien, able as part of my perquisites to spend real Chinese currency (Renminbi, or "People's Money") rather than the Foreign Exchange Certificates given to all tourists, I was allowed to hire a People's taxi when I needed a car, and I was even given discount coupons with which to pay the driver.

Outside all hotels and tourists attractions in Shanghai only Friendship cabs can be found. People's Taxis are not even permitted to enter the grounds of hotels like Shanghai's famous Jinjiang. When I needed to order a car from the Jinjiang's lobby, as I often did, I had to use a special phone to call my taxi company, not the regular phone at the hotel's cab stand provided for tourists, whose operator, normally very polite, would refuse indignantly to even call a People's taxi for me--for to do so was to him an unacceptable breach of the order of things. And after I had managed to order a cab, I then had to wait outside the hotel's gate for the car to arrive, for the gatekeeper would not allow such a plebeian vehicle as a People's taxi to enter the grounds I of a luxury hotel meant as a show place for foreigners. (In the same way, ordinary Chinese cannot enter China's showplace "Friendship Stores" unless accompanied by a foreigner.)

Such ridiculous rules and regulations seem especially absurd in a supposedly classless society. But the paradox of the taxis is not the only unaccountable] thing about Shanghai's streets. To a Westerner, as the above quoted letter from China Daily (the country's first post--revolution English language daily newspaper) makes clear, the ways of China's drivers seem almost entirely inexplicable. The paradoxes of Shanghai's streets range from the peculiar (such as the Chinese's reluctance--mentioned in the above letter--to use headlights at night); to the annoying (the perpetual horn honking of all Chinese motorists); to the political. Yes, the political. For Mao's vow to prevent American style automotive individualism has produced, in an historical irony, an aristocracy of the automobile, not the only, but certainly one of the most glaring, of the "contradictions among the masses" apparent throughout Chinese society. In a city dominated by the pedestrian and the bicyclist, at least in strength of numbers, those Chinese able to drive have found it one of the few aspects of life in the People's Republic where the human ego can still have free reign. Shanghai's drivers are, almost without exception, tyrants.

On Saturday mornings the Foreign Experts at East China Normal University were taken across town in a mini--bus (made in Japan) for our weekly shopping trip; it was on these odysseys into Shanghai's streets that I observed most clearly the peculiarities of Chinese driving.

Our driver on these occasions (until he broke his arm in a soccer match) was a young Chinese man, perhaps in his mid twenties, whom the other Foreign Experts called "The Kamikaze," and for good reason. Like nearly all Chinese drivers I witnessed, "Kamikaze"--whose Job assignment was as a full-time driver for the university--was to my way of thinking, incredibly reckless. He showed seemingly no regard for pedestrians, often barreling down on crowds or single individuals crossing streets as if he had every intention of flattening them and leaving their squashed corpses behind in his wake. The pedestrians, miraculously, invariably managed to escape. Seas of people would part automatically at precisely the last possible moment, as if these encounters between man and machine--which so terrified me that I often covered my eyes with my hands--were secretly choreographed by some higher power (perhaps the "Great Helmsman" Chairman Mao himself?).

Kamikaze's exploits as a driver were legendary among the other, veteran Foreign Experts. Once, I was told, he had approached a crowd of people blocking a Shanghai street and literally shoved the crowd with the front of the bus (a full-sized bus on that occasion, not a mini-bus), knocking several people down. Turning to the Foreign Expert who sat behind him he proclaimed loudly and proudly, "First you must frighten them." The typical pedestrian in Shanghai seems to have already "reaped this first lesson of the streets at an early age. In Shanghai the pedestrian is always wrong, and it is absolutely amazing how compliant he is with the wills of automobiles and their drivers.

Bicyclists, too, are always wrong. As we left the Friendship Store grounds one Saturday morning, we could see that ahead in the entrance way there had been an accident. A "Red Flag" limousine, a huge, very heavy, official car with curtains in the back to protect the privacy (a real luxury in China) of the "Cadre" (a high government official) who rode within, had hit a female bicyclist. The woman, it seemed, had been moving in quite normal fashion down Zhongshan Road outside the store when the limousine had turned directly into her path while making a left turn, and her bicycle had bounced off the right side of the car. As we moved quickly by the scene, we caught only a glimpse of the accident's aftermath. The woman, who lay on the pavement, appeared shaken but not seriously injured, but the driver of the limousine was already out of the car and screaming violently at her for daring to be so pushy as to have placed her one hundred pound body and one hundred pound bicycle in front of his three ton vehicle with its precious, aristocratic contents.

Red Flag limousines, John Fraser observes in The Chinese, are "vast and sinister automobiles . . . far larger than any equivalent vehicle a 'feudal comprador capitalist exploiter' could have had in Shanghai during the thirties." Like other vehicles in Shanghai they are presumed to have the right of way. As Fraser notes, the horn blast of a Red Flag limousine is normally "sufficient I to alert the masses that greatness is descending upon them." Outside the Friendship Store that morning, however, the signal system had broken down, and there was no doubt where the fault lay--with the bicyclist. It was then I realized that the Chinese rules of the road are essentially totalitarian.

Cars confer status on their users; every American teenager, eager to impress a date with a fancy car, grasps this essential fact. And it is no different in China. One of my students, formerly a driver, like Kamikaze, for the university, described for me once the sense of power he himself felt behind the wheel. It made him special, he explained, in a nation where specialness is at best discouraged and at worst criminal.

Drivers of cars in Shanghai are, to use the perfect Black slang label for their egotistical, domineering, pompous behavior, "Honkeys." Their perpetual command, voiced by constant horn honking and through the unvoiced language expressed in the motion of the machine they control, is "Get out of my way. I am bigger and more important than you. I possess more personal power (that is, horsepower).

I do not mean to imply, I hasten to add, that Americans are not "honkeys" as well. But the universality here of the experience of driving and car ownership makes us a little less obnoxious as drivers than the Chinese, though, paradoxically more murderous (Perhaps: the lower accident race in China can be explained by the fact that drunk driving can be explained by the fact that drunk driving is virtually non--existent and the rate of speed much slower--seldom over thirty miles per hour).

Once, a few years ago--long before I visited China--I was crossing the parking lot of a grocery store in Florida when I looked up to see a Cadillac traveling at least forty miles per hour (in a parking lot!) heading right for me. I do not know what possessed me--other than a personal hatred for bullies--but I stood my ground in a kind of social experiment to see whose sense of rightness would prevail. The car did stop, of course, but its driver glared angrily at me as if I had violated his freedom. Now in China the same situation would probably have had the same result--after all, I had seen even Kamikaze stop for pedestrians once or twice, although always at the last possible instant and only when they simply could not get out of his way. But the Chinese driver in such a situation as I faced in that Florida parking lot would have made me feel guilty, whereas here in the United States it would ordinarily be the driver who felt the guilt, despite any bravado show of anger he might use to mask his true feelings.

In Beijing and Shanghai it is now possible for Chinese to have their photos taken beside a limousine (the same kind which, if it carried a Cadre, would, it seems, remorselessly run over them if they got in its way), as if the status symbol was really their own. In Shanghai, citizens could often be seen sneaking similar photographs beside prestigious cars parked along the street--even a taxi might attract them.

China will not and cannot ever entirely become a nation like our own, of the auto, by the auto, and for the auto. How could One billion people ever expect to own a car? (Imagine rush hour in totally automotive Shanghai.) Yet in the 1980's in Shanghai there are already preliminary indications that more "pedestrian" means of transportation--walking, riding a bicycle--cannot camp compete with the power, enchantment, and status of the automobile. Oh Brave New World that has such potential for technological tyranny within it!

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