Thursday, December 01, 2005

Not So Fast

The positions on a Hollywood blockbuster production seem to me finely defined, and the pros work with great efficiency and precision. Because of that efficiency, people idle on the set when their services are not called for.

Last night in Lujiazui, the skyscraper central of Shanghai’s Pu Dong district, there’s much idling during the night shooting. I had a long conversation with a 40-something European crewmember to kill time. He, let’s call him Paul, had traveled widely and was very curious about China’s development. He asked me many questions on the political processes and the latest cultural changes in China. I played the role of a China expert, which I detest others doing but secretly enjoy when I had the soapbox to myself.

Our conversation took a sour turn when he started commenting on the ugliness of the suburban development around Shanghai – the drab high-rise apartment buildings, the non-stop construction, and the pollution. He then made another typical statement, “Someday the Chinese will realize what they have done and regret having destroyed the past.”

I asked him to elaborate. He mentioned the beauty of the small town near Jiaxing where we had shot on location. He said people used to all live in towns like that, have close relationships with their neighbors and buy organically-grown vegetables in the local markets. Alas, the good old days.

I ventured that people living in towns like that probably had been dying to move into a drab apartment building so they could have their own toilets and avoid neighbors’ gossips. They probably wanted to visit supermarket so they could have more choices even if the choices are soaked in preservatives. Paul replied that people often don’t know what they want; their desired are being manipulated by big corporations!

It’s the same argument made by many expats in Beijing. Many love a casual walk once a year in the old hutong (narrow alleyway) area. But the only ones I know living in that kind of neighborhood are those who can afford a completely renovated courtyard compound with modern toilet, washer and the whole place to him/herself, with rent going at least $3000/month (that’s just my conservative guess).

I’m all for living with style and character, and I have many many problems with China’s development. But I’m wary of preserving the past for aesthetic purposes only. And I’m cynical of the same old liberal criticism from Western Bobos who could afford the high culture, the leisure and the freedom to choose their lifestyle. They seem to prefer China remain the old exotic China in their fantasy, yet somehow have the poverty and lack of economic freedom masked from their comfortable tourist itinerary.

Yes, given enough money and education, we would all live in New York (or Paris or London), read New Yorker, shop at organic grocers, drive to the summer house in upstate New York (or in Connecticut or on the Jersey shores) for weekend getaways in the summer, and buy expensive North Face jackets to wear when we rush to the neighborhood coffee shops to get our lattes in the fall.

Mind you - the most popular chit chat topic last night was the price that the crew members paid for their knockoff North Face jackets at the popular outdoor Xiangyang market.

Trying to change the conversation topic, I asked where Paul lived. Not surprisingly, he lived in Los Angeles and still keeps a house in Europe. He enjoyed hiking and wilderness. As far as I could tell, the North Face jacket he wore was real.

I’d love to have a life like that. But then I wouldn’t have the chance to be a China expert of any sort.

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