Sunday, July 01, 2012

Back from China 2

I mentioned that Kunming had disarmed the scruples I'd brought with me, but that isn't quite right. I brought much more than scruples, and Kunming was aided by the helpful perspective of C, an old schoolmate in Hong Kong. As the trip to China approached I found myself remembering trips behind the Iron Curtain in Europe, going into a police state as a citizen of an enemy nation. I was thinking this because, it became clear, our trusty New York Times has taught me there is a cold war, economic as well as political, between the US and China, as if I were going to North Korea. It is a one-party state, it's true, and they wouldn't have let us near the more restive Tibetans. And yet, as C - a man who grew up in Guangzhou and ended up in Hong Kong as a child, and has studied and worked in the US - reminded me, "America and China have never been enemies."There was other baggage I brought with me, too, this more positive. China may be Christianity's future, and one of our Queer Christianities panelists thinks China will nurture a less sex-negative Christianity. And I was to be in Hong Kong in time for a meeting of gay Asian Christians!
So I went to China expecting vertiginous experiences. It was more than a relief to find that I could roam freely through Kunming and to get my bearings. The freshly builtness of Shangrila gave me a kind of vertigo, too. And then there was the world's tallest TV tower in Guangzhou (=Canton) with its view across the Pearl River to the city's new "CBD."
Its LEDs ripple rainbows come evening, though I was to hear that my colleague's assessment of Chinese gay-friendliness was at least visionary, if not fanciful. (Still, I wonder if the one-child policy might not have laid the groundwork for a post-patriarchal post-reproductionist society.)
Some other scenes from my one-day tour of Guangzhou: the (19th century, rebuilt post- Cultural Revolution) ancestral house of the Chen family, where we witnessed a massive downpour, a street restaurant which had not had a foreign customer before; wedding portraits

in an old western-style building in Shamian, Cantonese opera in a historic tourist district, one of many bronze statues sprinkled around the city, a roast pigeon which interrupted a near-aquatarian dinner, and American mommies and new family members at the Garden Hotel.
The trip to Guangzhou was the idea of C, so I would see more of the Chinese miracle. I had already planned a quick trip to Shenzhen - the poster child of Deng Xiaoping's "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" - but I'm glad he added Guangzhou. The 14 million-strong megacity
which came from nowhere in 30 years is demographically anomalous (all migrant, all young - for now); the key question may be what continuities with the past survive or are reconstructed as the Chinese economy and cities explode, and for that Guangzhou was good to have seen first.
What is there to see in Shenzhen? I suppose I could have gone to the sparkling new highrises, the famous community of oil painting reproducers, or the Apple factory. I wanted to see one of the "villages," surviving land with agricultural status which have become little ghettos.

In the end, beyond the subway and the buildings from train and taxi windows, I saw little of the city. I settled for two destinations: OCT LOFT, a design district designed to have the character of the converted warehouses of western cities, and the theme park "Splendid China."
I admit I was expecting to scoff, but I found myself taken in by both. The winner at OCT LOFT was the Old Heaven bookshop-café, which I found an utterly charming and convincing mix of old and new, Ostalgie and global hipsterishness. Whether it inspires creative design I can't say.
As for Splendid China, our indignation at the prominent position of the Potala and snickers at the anachronistic Three Gorges gave way to real enjoyment of the cultural wealth of China; the three giant Buddhist mountain carvings - I entered mini-Dunhuang - blew me away.

One could, I'm sure, do a devastating cultural critique of the theme park (and we didn't even go to the minority ethnic village activities), but I wasn't in the mood. However crass and commercial its intent, however contrived its premodern Chinese Liliput, Splendid China complements in a strange way the landscapes of new building running roughshod over actual historical districts in most places, creating new historic districts in a few others. Are contemporary Chinese condemned to live with no more than a theme park past, whether in Lijiang or Shenzhen? Does that make them modern, even hypermodern, postmodernity with Chinese characteristics? Or is its ancient tradition, a tradition which includes more than its share of wholesale destruction and rebuilding, stored up even in these kitschy forms, waiting for a new day to unfold in new-old forms? Zombie, immortal, Disney, arhat, queered Christianity, the Way?
I don't know the answer but after my first trip to China I find I care.

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