Post-China Post 3
Chimney Blown Up
A 206-metre high chimney owned by Baosteel was blown up on Monday. The structure was the tallest ever to have been blown up in Asia. The chimney, which weighed 1,500 tons, took just two minutes to demolish. The structure was demolished because it was no longer needed.
Shanghai Daily, Metro section, Wednesday 5 November 2014
1. Babylon: Shanghai 2014
Years ago I walked into the Pergamon museum in Berlin. I entered a room and looked up at the Ishtar gate. The effect it had was made up of conflicting feelings and a posture, as I scanned the images on the bricks and the archway. I leaned back and kept staring. I wanted to approach it and to go through it – and to keep a distance at the same time. The snake-dragons and the bulls that stood out of the facades of the columns on each side faced inwards, towards what would have been the city. I looked these up on my phone, finding that the dragons were called sirrush and the bulls were called aurochs.
Their forms were set in ranks, alternating between dragons and bulls, with the limbs of each one tensed against the planes of its own ground. The gate was approached through a section of ceremonial corridor. Here the blue-glazed bricks showed lions whose mouths were open and whose forelegs were veined and muscular. The lions were the animals that Ishtar herself loved most. They looked even more present than the dragons and the bulls. They urged you along, with the museum’s explanation saying that the whole thing – the approach along the corridor, the blue lapis lazuli bricks, the lions with their mouths, the blocks of the gate with their stacks of bulls and dragons – was meant to intimidate. Helpful.
Welcomed by a crowd, captured people would have walked along that corridor, towards the open mouth of their new home. The gate led to the temples to the city’s gods.
It hovered in your way, like those moments after which you know your life will change. Those moments that call you forward, and you obey them, even though you want to turn around.
The inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler who made the gate, mentions the water table. In a place infused by the waters of two large rivers, it seemed this affected how deep the foundations could go. Like the Sumerian ziggurats, his structure was made of bricks – bricks instead of huge pieces of cut stone, as many Assyrian monuments in the north were. But in the inscription he boasts about his “pure blue stones”. Along with his power there is insecurity. In case one might be uncertain about what to feel whilst beholding his gate, he clarifies.
I, Nebuchadnezzar, laid the foundation of the gates down to the groundwater level, and had them built out of pure blue stone. Upon the walls and the inner room of the gate are bulls and dragons, and thus I adorn them with magnificent splendor for all mankind to behold in awe.
After that trip I had to make a decision about where to live. Deciding to move to China – and preparing to leave – took half a year altogether.
The summer that I was readying to go, in 2014, the Islamic state attacked northern Iraq and Syria. By the following year, they had committed to looting and selling the heritage of the places they occupied. They decapitated an 82-year old antiquarian in Palmyra who wouldn’t help them do it. Assyrian stone ‘Lamassus’, too big for the black market, were blown apart and lost their heads. There was an irony to these guardian ornaments being the only pieces of an ancient city still intact. It was also not hard to spot that, by rampaging across Mesopotamia, putting tribes to death, enslaving women and decorating their gardens with the severed heads of men, the Islamic State was behaving as the Assyrians did.
The Assyrians and the Babylonians and the others – all attained their prominence in the ‘tough neighborhood’.
The chariots of Ashurbanipal, plunging into the blood of his enemies ‘as into a river’, were a blitzkrieg made for a territory where few natural boundaries can be hid behind. Out there, an attack can come from anywhere; the racing moves of the jihadis in their American Humvees and cars and trucks used the landscape in the same way.
But who believed that the caliphate would last very long? The Yazidi survivors on the mountain reaching out to the helicopters were sure to be heard in the end. Anything that IS held would be obliterated from the sky. Time to quote Percy Shelley.
Now we can remember the IS pioneers from their snuff movies, which are more likely to last forever than anything made of stone.
An older memory: when I lived in Lebanon (2011), the carving of a Babylonian general on the cliff above a river; the dog river (Nahr-al-Kalb), which as it nears the sea is the place of one of the fordings that frame the port of Beirut. These rivers (the Litani is the other one) became so integral to the histories of conquest there that armies began to carve or attach records of their passage on the cliffs, the list including the Egyptians, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, the Greeks under Alexander – and the Second Empire French, much later.
The rivers are still important. The Litani River gave its name to one of the Israeli incursions into Lebanon after the start of the Lebanese civil war. The Babylonian at the Nahr-al-Kalb was recognizable from his pleated beard; other carvings had been chipped off, maybe by other invaders, or else carried away by locals. One thing was easy to see: imperial powers had reached that shoreline, then found that their brute force could not go much further.
In fact it was the Phoenicians that had pushed eastern culture west for a thousand years, picking their way along the beaches through transactions. Making chains of exchange, they put life into new parts of the Mediterranean. Alexander ransacked Phoenician Tyre on his way to becoming a god-man, but the trading routes would keep working after him – and the Carthaginian logistical corridors stayed on, even after the Romans ended that Phoenician city.
Carthage, a colony that outpaced its metropolis, already meant ‘new city’ in their language.
If the Babylonian portal represents the pose of dominance, the Phoenician traders give an example of an alternative way of relating to other centers.
The mercantile, instead of the military way of enduring ‘forever’.
The new design of China’s ‘empire’ is made up of so many monumental gates and corridors – the reopening of old trade paths, including the Silk Road, and the addition of news ones, to make what the leaders insist is ‘One Belt, One Road’. The news of the turning of the machinery of China outwards towards the world has still not reached many people in the ‘first’ world, but it has been an urgent matter for everyone else for years. America and its middle eastern debacles have taken up the space marked ‘events’ for two decades, even as we were all walking backwards towards China’s gates.
The last item could be the epilogue to the story of Carthage. Carthage, its mercenary dependence being a fine example of a people being better at commerce than war, was not only annihilated by Rome. It was made to suffer the indignity of being brought back to life. A second, Roman ‘Carthage’ was founded down the coast, to take advantage of the trade links made by the first, which were the main reason the Romans had resented it so much.
The destruction of the city isn’t the point – but rather its strange resuscitation.
The Romans copied Carthage to death – and even copied it after death.
I think I can remember reading that wealthy romans would sometimes visit the neo-Carthage for their holidays.
There they must have contemplated exhibitions of purple dye and learned about the purple-making process, eaten local food and had their portraits painted in Phoenician garb.
They went there to gloat.
A lot of places have been Roman Carthage. Han Chinese tourists in Lhasa, wearing camouflage sun-hats or dressing in Tibetan costume for portraits in front of the Potala Palace, might be more likely to see themselves as gifting the local economy than celebrating a conquest, but the two ideas could also be held at once. They form the long tail of the victory. In Tibet, as in Xinjiang, some of the contemporary work of victory is done through urging intermarriage – a quieter way of effecting ethnic removal.
In the latter province the tactics are at a more extreme pitch. Recorded human history hardly gives us an idea of how many groups of people have been obliterated or scattered, or taken away as captives like the Yazidis. But no one has been openly observed to death before – the digital present allowing them to be filmed everywhere they go, recorded in every detail including their genes, until they stop existing.
Theme parks to Xinjiang’s aboriginal traditions will surely be built later on.
Created in 1983, the Shanghai Economic Zone is the biggest subnational planning entity in the world, encompassing the metropolis and five adjoining provinces with an aggregate population almost as large as that of the United States.
Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso 2006, p.6)
A week after Christmas I left Shanghai forever. Some six hundred former internees, mostly women and children, sailed for England in the converted meat carrier. My father and the other Britons staying behind in Shanghai stood on the pier at Hongkew...
When we reached the middle of the channel, working our way through scores of American destroyers and landing craft, I left my mother and walked to the stern of the ship. The relatives on the pier were still waving to us, and my father saw me and raised his arm, but I found it impossible to wave back to him, something I regretted for many years. Perhaps I blamed him for sending me away from this mysterious and exhilarating city.
J.G. Ballard, The Kindness of Women (1991, p.71-2)
Many places have been Babylon.
An African guy in a bar in Shanghai asked me where Babylon was. I said “Iraq” and he laughed. “This is Babylon,” he said. Next time he asked me again and I said “London.”
“Everywhere is Babylon!” We played the game a few times.
He would greet me saying, “Where is Babylon today?”
I would name a different place.
I don’t remember his name or which bar it was exactly.
Standing on the Bund and looking to Lujiazui – which has no footbridge leading to it – you could have one of your obligatory exile moments.
To compensate for what had this improbable mess of spires been hurried into the sky above that point bar of riverbank? If you ever go there, by the way, the river is really something.
Arrival into China felt like an incredibly prolonged event. The experience of driving into the city for the first time, moving around inside its banks and metro stations and entrance halls, looking for shelter and work and friends, was exposure to an unending series of gates.
The first room I stayed in by myself I found online. It turned out to be in a tower that was grouped with others in a gated settlement of such towers, called Hongrun Gardens. The primary occupant was Indian; he told me that he was in Delhi, which was a surprise, and he directed me to the place via phone call. His voice, with Indian street sounds behind it, came to me through a small Nokia. I pressed it to my head while I shuffled through a darkness sliced up by beams of light from restaurants. He was cut off. This was in the south west of the city, near the Shanghai Stadium. He had not answered when I had called him first, the Indian, and as I pulled my case and bags down a wrong turn, under a flyover and into dark old apartment compounds, getting lost, the wind became wet and it had started to rain. I was angry when he called back.
The wheels on the bag squeaked, the bag dipped into cracks and flopped over. Some teenaged girls said “Hello,” and went away giggling. The Indian said that I had to return to the metro. Find another alley he said, and then Hongrun Gardens would be there. I wouldn’t let the Indian hang up. He kept telling me not to worry. At Hongrun Gardens, he told me, the towers would be green. There was a guard there when I eventually arrived, in a little box. The Indian told me how to say ‘building number nine’ in Chinese. A flimsy white plastic barrier, whose cheapness wouldn’t repel an invading child, flipped up. The ‘garden’ was in the middle of the towers, looking like a plaything for terrapins. Ramps of paths with dripping shrubbery on each side curved up and down, and a playground was there for the elderly. The little exercise machines were so dinky, they seemed as if they would hardly do anything; but one would appear to be being active by moving their handles around. The entranceway to the Indian’s tower had imposing locks, and a thumb scanner with a bronze frame. Everything to do with the door was dented or broken. The outer door swung free, the lockable part looking as if once twisted by a crowbar, and the scanner part of the thumb-reader, set into the bronze outline of a hand, had been ripped out. The inner door opened with a thin handle.
On his floor (the 30th?) there were no keyed locks, but a speaking door handle with a keypad whose thick buttons I needed two hands to depress; meaning I put one finger to a button and used my whole other hand to press it in. Because the buttons were so crude, the talking door handle rejected me a few times, in a voice that sounded like a talking cricket in a toaster. Then it opened and the keypad had a subservient tone, saying “Please come in. Thank you.”
The Indian’s housemate was a Chinese woman in her thirties, not there when I came in, but very present, with her shoes and creams and photographs mustered in all the main areas. She had a red puffy coat hanging from a steam iron.
The Indian’s room was bleak, with red Ikea lamps that nearly broke when they were handled, and nicked white chipboard cupboards, like a porn set that would put off anyone who tried to climax there. Still with me, through the Nokia, he directed me to open the cupboards. The far one was his, he said. I opened it. His boxers were hanging on one clothes hanger. He told me that he ran a clothes-importing business.
In the morning, the view showed me a daunting arrangement of towers like the one I had climbed, leering upwards in all directions, into the distance. I stayed there a week, after which I would have a job and a new place, but the casual misery, and the infinity of other rooms and towers seen through the window, that was the foretaste.
During the week, Nadia visited. She was prowling through town and visiting as many people as she could before leaving. She sat on the windowsill in the Indian’s bedroom drinking a beer, laughing at my innocent comments.
The Chinese housemate complained to the Indian that I had had a guest.
The broken thumb-scanner, the talking door, were first tastes of the Chinese addiction to security accouterments. Cameras were tacked onto all ceilings. A small fruit shop might have five. Likewise a Buddhist temple, an ATM, convenience stores, doorways anywhere. I saw police with shoulder cameras; yet the cameras often looked broken, despite being a new thing. You wondered how long a lot of new gadgets , including surveillance gear, would last. I pondered who could be surveying the infinity of footage.
Always, moving through a door into somewhere important meant the likelihood of being recorded; empty spaces were filmed.
As well as the gates, there was the omnipresence of the useless guardians. I found that everything important made use of the processional approach: to get from the street to the front entrance, of a skyscraper or big bank, was to step across spreading fans of material, then to have to take symbolic steps up a staircase, then to face the guardian. This could be a woman at a desk, or a uniformed man at a doorway. Their purpose was to be the symbol of a guard; they were also reminders of their own uselessness, seeing as ram-raiding a bank or forcing entry into any edifice in a Chinese city would be one’s last act of Dadaist hilarity for quite a while.
China is a place where crime is usually private. This was not the case in old Shanghai; rich residences in the French and other concessions that remain intact usually have their features veiled from the street by protective walls, which are mementoes of how laden with vice the treaty city, when criminals could evade arrest by flitting between the constabularies of the concessions. The home of JG Ballard was of this type. The entrances to banks and towers, as well as overseen by security men or soldiers in uniform , are flanked by stone statues, often (especially for banks) of lions.
 The soldiers outside the American and Iranian embassies in Xuhui are made to restrain their bodies and faces
to total inertia, even in the middle of the night. I sometimes made eye contact with them and gave a
sympathetic nod when I passed; their eyes usually moved, but not the heads. Sometimes an inclining. Was it a
Entering into the vertical environment each day, by passing through an apartment door, felt like being the first person to put their head out of a shelter after a catastrophe, but with toxic growth instead of barrenness around. Seeing the parallel and perpendicular lines, and hearing the sound of metal saws and jackhammers, made it desirable long before the end of each day to hide in comfort with one’s back to the window.
Hiding away with one’s intimates in small spaces within the vastness, like a larva in a honeycomb, is often a way of enjoying togetherness, especially for the older people, who have been carried along and relocated without consultation as to their preferred way of living.
In older family apartments of a few stories they seemed to spend time coexisting in their pajamas, rarely using the exercise machines set out for them, the men leaning on the machines to smoke, waiting to eat and drink again. The old women would set up speakers in the street and dance like tranquilized patients doing aerobics, with faces devoid of inspiration.
If I was among foreigners at night, and we came across the exercise machines, I would hop on the swiveling seats or stand on the cross-training pedals and start spinning.
The dancing women. I often felt like trying to stop them, or prank them somehow, because of those slackened faces, but getting near I would see how delicately they moved.
Later on, as work began and stress appeared, I sometimes felt like taking a Dadaist kick at their speakers, but I never did.
Then I read how the practice was sometimes brought up as the object of a possible ban. I felt sympathy for the dancers, but still felt nauseated by their stares.
There was distraction in hundreds of bars and thousands of restaurants. Like everyone I took photos of deranged menu-English and sent them home. The veteran expats dazzled us new people by shouting Chinese into their phones to summon taxis and by blaring orders at waiters. They smoked and ate and drank a lot and were focused on their choices about where to engage next in these passions. People gained weight here, I was told. Everything is fake. The alcohol might be fake. Don’t trust anybody.
I would meet nice people. I would meet them once. We would bond, dance, maybe play on the old folks’ tinkertoys and they would spin into oblivion, their numbers inoperative the following week.
In the fundamental things I had to act alone.
A first job interview took place by Zhongshan Park, a metro station which is a manifold exhausting thing, so unlike any park. It is on a crossroads. Business structures with malls at the bottom and offices above are at each axis. There might be a park somewhere. Motorways intersect in the middle, and the noise during rush times is like Gotterdammerung. On the motorway arms, away from the business towers, are ogre-like, sometimes pink, squatting residential buildings, set back from the street, with decorative touches along their faces making them like military barracks redecorated by a depressed wedding planner.
Before the interview I tried to walk to find the ‘park’ but the heat, and the taste of car exhaust, dissuaded me from walking very far along the arms. It was around the time of the national holiday, in Autumn 2014 (‘Golden Week’), and red flags were on the roads. Special stores had opened to sell hairy crabs, the Autumnal food. The crabs crawled on each other in deep piles in the stacked tanks, and the shops were plastered with pictures of the crabs’ faces, close up, their mossy front claws and the ‘Lake’ that they were supposed to come from. An article would explain how the producers interpreted the food authenticity rules (whether it was a law, or an unspoken thing related to actual taste, wasn’t clear) that meant the crabs should “come from the lake”. They were reared in tanks, then brought to the lake for a week and allowed to scurry in lakewater inside cages. This meant they had had a “bath” in the lake; such crabs were inferior to “genuine” lake crabs.
The tutoring agency interviewed me in a glasswalled room. A man, a chubby Australian–Chinese manager, asked questions about teaching that sought to imply that the company had high standards about how it should be done. The hourly rate was important; I was asked about my “expectations”. I said 300 RMB per hour, which a friend had insisted was a going starter rate. He assented. After I signed a thin sheet of paper, a series of four women came into the room. Each in turn gave me her business card. Each wanted to give me their students, for whom they acted as brokers. All of them complemented my impressive CV. All of them had ‘good news!’ – meaning work for me, straight away. I began to perceive that they were in competition with each other rather than cooperating. None of the students, they were all sorry to say, had signed up to pay enough to earn me 250 RMB per hour.
‘I am so sorry.’ The most I could get commitment for was 200 RMB p/h.
The second trip to Zhongshan Park was to try to satisfy the second major need, a place to live.
This quest got me into a phone call with an unknown voice that only squawked useless directions and haywire questions, listening to nothing that I said. The voice seemed to be an amplified and concentrated version of the surrounding chaos.
“Where are you? Where are you? You see station? Go by station, find shop opposite, go past exit door line four, [inaudible] turn right by door, you see right gate, white wall? Where are you?! Where are you!?”
Real estate there, like the jobs of the teacher-brokers, works on competition ladders and commissions and days of pitiless turnover. Over the years, I saw so many. Young guys (of course I never viewed a luxury home that might have had a senior broker) with their bad black suits and their half–hearted pitching. They would look sad when you turned them down. Always put a cigarette in your mouth and light it once you’d exited the building, and then light their own.
As I looked for the voice, the station was speaking. It was islanded in the crossroads had more openings in it than a shoulder of coral, all of them flickering with activity, an object waving thousands of tongues. The malls and walls and gates on every side looked even busier than normal ones. During the call with the voice I walked up and down each of these motorway arms, with the traffic sound increasing. Every time I gave up on one arm and returned to the station to try a different direction, it made the voice impossible to hear at the crucial moments.
I finally tried to ask the voice in Chinese to manifest as a person, to collect me at the station, but this didn’t make sense to the voice.
It was getting dark and I thanked it, then cursed it, and then hung up.