The Mobile Age - Part Three: Post-Globalism

The modern archetypes of mobility were the nomad and the settler, whose degree of mobility were established by preference, and the refugee and the prisoner, for whom mobility was determined by external forces. Globalization made a hybrid experience of being a settler and nomad, a seamless blending of home and away in many lives. In this third essay on mobility, Timothy Taylor journeys to the crossroads of Shanghai to peer into the future, exploring and imagining what happens to human experience when the sense of place begins to disappear altogether.
Azul Viva Tapas Lounge is down in the French Concession on Donping Lu. And while I’ve only been in the city 24 groggy hours, Shanghai delivers a moment of insight here.
The mix of people contributes to the effect. Our host, Peruvian/Canadian Eduardo Vargas, has invited a dozen of us this evening to taste-test new Azul Viva dishes, and the Conde Naste Shanghai Restaurateur of Year in 2006 is quizzing us after each bite: frogs legs with chili mayo, thin sliced beef filet with horseradish and crisp onion, foccacio with dipping oils, another beef dish with chimichurri.
Cameron Bertalli is pouring a pinot noir from Penbro Estate, his family’s vineyard in the Yea Valley north of Melbourne. You wouldn’t necessarily think such a rootsy vintage would fit the bill – Bertalli’s great great grandfather Guiseppe first planted vines in Australia in 1860 after emigrating from Italy – but somehow it meshes with the flavors perfectly.
Table volume rises as the dishes and the wine go around. Yvonne, Shanghainese, is talking about her English boyfriend to the American chef of a diner-style restaurant over in Xintiandi. (Pork roast, meatloaf, family-sized platters.) An Oglyvie ad-guy at the end of the table is on the phone. “The smartest local brands are building a base here first before going international,” he’s telling someone.
“How’re sales?” I ask Bertalli, who has just returned from Changzhou filling an order for the Iranian owners of a pizza chain.
Not bad, he says, although there are challenges selling their kind of product here. Penbro is handmade on a eco-sustainable 1500 acre farm that irrigates with rainwater. 80% of their Chinese customers have only used wine previously as a shooter after wedding toasts. Sprite and chardonnay. Coke and cabernet. “There’s some education involved.”
His comment throws light on the gathering. I had first thought of us sitting down to dine here together – with our intensely varied backgrounds, interests and plans – merely as a pinnacle expression of internationalism, that blending of the home and away experience which we referred to as Globalism in our last essay in this series.
But as the flavors and ideas and accents wing in from all corners of the globe at once, it occurs to me that an entirely new experience of mobility is being illuminated here in the low and groovy light. Azul Viva is not global. A place of expat and local mingling, a hugely popular retreat from the insane bustle of booming Shanghai but neither of the city nor of any single place outside it either, Azul Viva is post-global.
We head out into the fragrant Shanghai night – cooking oil, exhaust and the layers of human scent – up around the corner past the US Consulate into Fuxing Xi Lu to Lounge Tara 57 which is more like Vegas 1990. Pink gauzy curtains and curved red couches pulled into plush enclaves. Tequila sunrises and whiskey sours. The bartender pours the American chef absinthe, which glints green evil in the squat glass. Eduardo gets a White Sand, silky and white in a martini glass. “Lychee,” he announces, swallowing a large mouthful, then leaning over to speak.
“I’ve very famous in Peru, but…” he starts.
I sip my scotch and listen, which is what you do with men like Eduardo. Big guys, generous with their wisdom. He has 700 contacts in his PDA. Wine guys with cellars in old bomb shelters. Designers, architects and chefs. All the people converging here and turning this town into the new thing that it is becoming. All the people he wants me to meet.
Which I appreciate. Although at that moment – cigarette smoke spindling up into the slate light, the music pulsing, that endless House of night – I am also able to appreciate Eduardo and the whole scene around us as something rippling outward. A new experience of mobility, yes. But one that is steadily changing us all, wherever we live.
“…but if I were to do a Peruvian restaurant in Shanghai?” he continues, returning to a question I’d asked much earlier in the evening. “I’d do it only 5% Latino. Not just ceviche, but a raw bar. Serve lots of vodka. Peruvian, but more. Peruvian food for the masses. And everyone would come.”
He’s right too. Everyone would come. And not just for the raw dace carp, the Pertsovka infused with bhut jolokia “ghost” chilis. Eduardo’s culinary sensibility is tuned more subtly to a cultural moment, references to place never encumbered by nostalgia for roots. He feeds a population that is in constant restless motion both physically and in imagination. The masses. Expats thousands of miles from home in the newest hot spot on the planet. Locals with a suddenly exploding sense of what the world can offer.
So it is that the experience of Azul Viva seems not to stem from globalization at all – that wide distribution of previously ‘local’ ideas, that sense of a world where the distance between distinct places is shrinking. Instead, it seems to belong to something beyond locality itself, something beyond place.
It’s true of Shanghai more broadly too. You can read the phenomenon in the city’s architecture. In Pudong, with its space-age Oriental Pearl, its comic-book megalith, the 88 story Jinmao Tower. But through People’s Square and Jingan too, where every building bids for attention with a competitive architectural flourish: a canopy cantilevered out hundreds of feet above street level, a bold undulation in a curtain wall, a fifty story spray of green lighting. It’s a skyline that repudiates context, a cluster of drawing board ideas making as much intrinsic sense here as it would in Johannesberg, Dallas, Copenhagen.
“Shanghai wants what Hong Kong had in the eighties,” photographer Greg Girard tells me, squinting a little skeptically as he remembers his own years spent in that formerly frenzied hub of the post-national. “Shanghai wants it all.”
I find the phrasing astute. We’re sitting around the corner from the Starbucks in Xintiandi. The neighborhood is an old-world-styled boutique mall, built around a few square blocks of restored shikumen longtang brick houses. These structures were once ubiquitous, defining the Shanghai social landscape, but are now being plowed under by the acre to make room for the construction sites, for the new forest of towers.
Girard’s work has made this churning physical landscape one of its central concerns. In his newest book, Phantom Shanghai, a typical photograph depicts an exotic piece of rococo European architecture, poised in the moments before destruction, adrift in the rubble of its former neighborhood, while the gleaming spires and cranes of skyscraper-land catch sunlight in the distance. Here your view wraps up the vanished, the preserved, the emerging and the fait accompli, all in a single glance, all of these folding towards and around one another in a single ideogram that represents the Shanghai future.
And our own future more broadly, I find myself thinking, looking at Girard’s photography, or around myself in Xintiandi, or remembering Azul Viva. Because in this setting, where people and cultural ideas and degrees of freedom swirl endlessly, none of us are distinctly nomads or refugees, settlers or prisoners. The diagram of our experience wouldn’t bi-sect neatly into four compartments (as in modernism) or even yield up that one nomad/settler hybrid (as in globalism).
Our moment-to-moment experience in any one place, instead, becomes one of endless, complex combination of those mobility experiences: mobile and rooted, in situations chosen or forced upon us, in settings intensely varied in cultural tone or entirely familiar. Our position shifting as if in an infinite sphere of experiences, with every sight, every sound, every word exchanged, every flavor.
Certainly the intoxicating flux of international culture that is the Shanghai expat scene seems to reflect this new reality. “Basically any place is OK as long as you can leave,” Girard told me near the end of our conversation. As settled an expat as I will meet who yet betrays a trace of the prisoner-nomad axis with a crooked smile.
“9 years is an unusual length of time to have been here,” says Jennivine Kwan, echoing Girard in her own mixed feelings, her own sense of a potential plummet from freedom: “It’s the amount of time just before it’s too late.”
Kwan’s experience of mobility is even more layered than typical among expats here. Born to Chinese parents in Calgary, the 30 year old green building specialist adds the push and pull of an ethnic identity seemingly shared with her host country. Camouflaged by language and appearance, her cultural rhythms are tuned to the city in a way unavailable to most other expats I’ll meet, no matter how long they have stayed, no matter how perfect their mastery of the Shanghai hustle or the four tones of Chinese language.
But over lunch at a vegetarian mock-meat restaurant around the corner from the Shanghai Centre, Kwan candidly reveals the existential challenges for an outsider in a city going through change at this pace, no matter how insider you might appear. In fact she reveals a slow-growing yearning to move, to leave.
“The environment works on you,” she says, face to the window, her own features reflected against a sea of passing Shanghainese. “I bite my cheek a lot. People often say to me: welcome back to the motherland. I don’t say it, but the truth is: this isn’t my motherland.
Imprisoned or adrift? Or ultimately free? That night I have dinner with a senior technology executive and come away with a parallel feeling. In Asia for over 10 years, his writes and speaks like a local. He negotiates our way into the busy Guyi Hunan Restaurant in Fumin Lu with a practiced patience. “Smile and repeat,” he says, with a slightly weary smile, on the topic of negotiating in Shanghai. “Never become upset.”
He bought a longtang house in Jinan himself. Gutted and architecturally reinvented. All Chinese tradition on the outside. All high-European modernism on the inside, concrete and tile and high end appliances. Beyond place.
“Yes, it is nice,” he says, when he takes me to see the space later. We stand in his small high-walled courtyard behind his house. An almost unheard of luxury in Shanghai terms, he even has a tiny lawn. Fifteen or twenty square feet of Kentucky Bluegrass. “Of course,” he continues, “Every time I find myself with nobody sitting around my dinner table, I have to wonder why I’m here.”
I end my visit the next day with an afternoon drink with Kwan and some of her work colleagues at the famous expat bar Malones. Here the post-place experience is given a North American pop-cultural sheen. Musical Youth on the stereo. Tip conscious Filipino wait staff. Coors Light. Pass the Dutchy on the left hand side…
Most of Kwan’s colleagues are near her age, but much less seasoned. And the mood is effusive, full of the excitement of the fresh experience. But even among these newest expats, a recognizable current flows. “After three years you lose your professional contacts,” says one knowing younger man, resigned to the sacrifices his stay here will represent. “After six years you lose your friends.”
Kwan will not be deflated today, however. She shares her latest good news in private. A request for a transfer to Chile has been granted. Off to Santiago. Better air quality, better snowboarding. And… tango!
“First thing we’re doing is finding a house,” she tells me, breathless. “Then a Latin dance club. Oh, I should have been born Latina.”
Which may well be true, I think, heading west again on the Yanan Dong Lu in a cab. Homeward bound myself and intensely grateful too. I’m just over my jetlag. Freed of my biorhythmic connection to home. My inner nomad is busting out all over and yet, and yet... I look up into the towering, competing architectural objects that fly past my window. I wonder whether I am envious of those I’ve met or truly relieved not to be one of them.
And then I realize that, of course, I am both. And as we inch to a standstill in gridlock traffic, imprisoned as we head down the off-ramp towards the tunnel, I look back, and up. And I see the most improbable thing. A kite. Flying way up there. At about the 60 floor level. Someone on a roof top somewhere, I think, smiling now. Someone feeling the enormous tug of invisible gusts, enormous forces. Someone pulled upward by complicated post-global forces and straining towards the sky.
Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2007 9:00pm