Shanghai teems with raw energy while Beijing sinks under Olympics sanitization.
Beijing - Based on pre-Olympics reports in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, CNN and more, I wouldn't have been completely surprised to see children smoking in Beijing restaurants, red-arm-band-wearing grandmothers turning their grandkids over to the secret police, and green-uniformed People's Liberation Army soldiers ripping the cameras off my tired shoulders.
Instead, Beijing has been surprisingly smoke-free, and the people wearing red arm bands mostly keep order on subway platforms and ensure that the men of this sweltering city don't walk around in their underwear or shirtless. And I've managed to snap photos freely, from police making an arrest to soldiers on manoeuvres.
But of course, all is never as it seems. Once outside Beijing, it's clear just how much the government has sanitized the capital city.
A few exciting days in the hustle and wild whirl that is Shanghai give me a taste of a rough-and-ready China full of cigarette smoke, horking cab drivers, street hustlers, beggars and unimaginable wealth. The city is an out-of-control frenzy, kind of like Manhattan in the 80s before the big cleanup.
They've gone too far in controlling Beijing. The architecturally magnificent Olympic Green proves soulless without a critical mass of people in it, leaving the crew of NBC-TV's Today Show to broadcast at the base of the Olympic TV Tower to empty sidewalks.
Mao in the marketplace. Photo by Barb Hefler
Because of the security, sprawling acres of sidewalks and roadways surrounding the Olympic facilities are barren even when the gigantic "bird's nest" stadium is hosting 90,000 people. And even Beijing's relatively rowdy hutongs - single-storey, alley-way-threaded mini-neighbourhoods - are tamer than Shanghai's delicious chaos.
Shanghai may be hosting some Olympic soccer events, but nobody seems to have read the cleanup memo. While Beijing's incredibly inexpensive taxi fleet was replaced in the last two years with shiny red ones, Shanghai's cabs range from sleek to scary, with almost every allegedly smoke-free ride reeking of nicotine.
And I've only been a few minutes in the amazing art deco Bund neighbourhood - an architectural gift from the European powers' otherwise devastating occupation of this city in the early 20th century - before street hustlers are whispering, "Watches, Rolex, bags?" in my ear as they brush by.
A hustler tosses shoe polish on my sneaker and then offers to clean them before I chase him away, and a mother waves her baby at me demanding cash, "Okay, boss, okay?"
The streets are packed closer together in Shanghai, blocks of thriving hutongs side by side with new, glimmering skyscraping masterpieces.
Street food vendors offer a spectacular range of first-rate fare from their carts, while the only boulevard bites available in Beijing are the fried crickets, centipedes and scorpions for sale at the tourist-attracting Night Market. Shanghai men roam around in their pyjamas or boxers trying to beat the killer heat, and laundry hangs from every lamppost and balcony.
Topless men. Photo by Michael Hollett
But the city also drips sophistication, not just sweat, the former French Quarter being one of the slickest club- and gallery-rich neighbourhoods in town. As in Beijing, everyone I speak to is only too happy to talk politics, the overriding message being that as long as freedom and personal wealth remain on the steadily rising arc of the last decade, they're in.
To most, the impossible excesses of the disastrous Cultural Revolution seem a distant memory. Chairman Mao endures as a Chinese Mickey Mouse, a kitschy reminder of an unreal world. Original revolutionary posters denouncing U.S. imperialism and celebrating farmers bring top dollar at local galleries, while Chairman figurines wave Little Red Books in fish tanks, and a Beijing nightclub will rent you Mrs. Mao's 21-metre-long limousine to go partying in.
Block after city block in China features dozens of stunning new buildings, any one of which, in Toronto, would become the hottest building in town, delivering a city-wide artistic rush as vivid as our now old new City Hall once was, and just as empowering.
As we endlessly dither about a future that is increasingly dim, the Chinese get on with it. In Shanghai, they're even tearing down an eyesore expressway, a move termed "too utopian" in T.O.
While Toronto can't even construct a rail link to the airport, Shanghai has a space-age friction-free train that runs by "magnetic levitation" at speeds of over 350 kilometres an hour. I gasp as it zooms by on its way to the airport and read longingly of plans to build another line linking Shanghai and the city of Hangzhou. Imagine a train running between Toronto and Montreal that could make the trip in less than two hours.
While political freedom is still in short supply, China's "can do" attitude is reminiscent of the U.S. when it was still an ascending power. There's an excitement and determination that feel non-existent in our "better check for a pulse" town.
I go to China to see the Olympics, but I get a lesson in dream fulfillment along the way.