Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Misnomer, Modernization

I draw my inhalation into the grounding of my feet and my body rises upwards quite naturally. My breath is deep, my heart rate quick, and my body invigorated. I exhale strongly, opening my eyes. They adjust to the light and my gaze drifts towards the windows, positioned diagonally from where I stand. The yoga studio is on the second floor and the windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling, enhancing the dimensions of the already large mirrored room.

The studio is based in an area called Xiantiandi (New Heaven and Earth), a collage of cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, and graceful tiled roofs that evoke a colonial era while lending it a Western cachet. Through the window I can see a man-made lake with a few token swans floating about. Surrounding the periphery of the lake are dozens of high-rise luxury apartments with personal drivers waiting in the parking lots. The tenants are diverse; some are wealthy Chinese who became rich by working hard, some are wealthy Chinese who became rich by engaging in illicit businesses, some are wealthy Chinese who became rich by oops!, accidentally having access to stakes in recently privatized businesses, some are wealthy foreigners, but most are foreigners whose companies pay for their housing as part of the expatriate package.

What is striking is that in the mid-ground are old, dilapidated buildings from the 1930s that are waiting to be razed (to make room for more high-rise buildings), and in the foreground are temporary blue and white flimsy apartment blocks that house migrant workers (who raze the buildings to make room for more high-rise buildings). Note the irony?

Maybe one day we will see a graceful melding of old and new as Shanghai steams toward its third decade of hyper-growth. In the interim, I stare at the old buildings - crumbled bricks scattered on the roof top, gardens dried and withered, windows shattered and replaced with shreds of tape, and neighborhoods no longer. I suddenly see a few pieces of recently washed laundry flittering in the wind and smile, knowing that at least one family is fighting to maintain its home.

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