Friday, June 09, 2006

Travels to a Caffeinated Shanghai

Odd things happen when you travel. While in Australia, the books I was reading kept bringing it up, whether it was because characters ended up there or the person writing the book wanted to use it as an example of an economy (for example, did you know that the Australian ecosystem can support about 9 million people, and that’s all. Despite a land mass larger than the size of the US it is mostly unusable for agriculture). The population is 18 million, so they got some things to work out.

I was reading a book ‘The Undercover Economist’ by Tim Harford and the author dedicates an entire chapter to China. Since most of what is happening in China is happening on the east coast, and Shanghai has replaced Hong Kong on the east coast as the #1 destination of investment capital, etc., it becomes the focal point of his thesis on China (and soon to likely be the focal point of the entirety of the Asia Pacific Region). I was struck when I read “Now that we have Starbucks in Shanghai…” .So, I was reading his book about all this change happening in the universe, essentially sitting right in the middle of his thesis, I thought he was going to come up and tap me on the shoulder and smile.

But that is not the point of this entry. Instead, it is the description by Douglas Coupland in his new book jPod when the main character ends up in Shanghai, page 260:

“Immigration Procedures were essentially non-existent. Kam had arranged for a driver to pick me up, and we wormed our way through the traffic on a dull grey Asian morning (ed. note: all megalopolis Asian mornings are dull grey, from Thailand to Tokyo), My first impression was that there wasn’t a square inch of land that wasn’t being used to grow defeated-looking crops of spinachy plants. The city was an endless Sim-like blend of shacks, bikes, more bikes, and still more bikes, tour buses, black windowed Mercedes Benzes and gaunt people smoking and standing around in front of concrete apartment buildings, most of which looked like they were built out of grey playing cards and seemed seismically unequipped, dreaming of the day gravity would take them back to Mama. And the air! Okay, imagine that you’ve built a bonfire of telephone poles—the ones dripping with creosote—and throw in a fax machine, a photocopier, some asbestos stacking chairs and a roasting chicken. That pretty much sums up the air quality, though it changes moment to moment depending on where you go. Turn a corner and—thwack!—different items are thrown into the flames: a load of running shoes, four thousand plastic bags, hog carcasses and a Dumpster of barbershop floor sweepings. And it’s thick—a few blocks down the street, buildings vanish like in a fog in a memory impaired videogame from the early 1990’s. And it’s humid, and I hate humidity”

Now, I haven’t decided whether I like the novel or not. I suspect, like most novels, I won’t like it. I won’t like it because I spend reading not to fill the empty space of my life but to actually learn something and I find most novelists intellectually unstimulating. I’d much rather read a book that actually took some thought into weaving the truths of life into, (if you’re name is Kurt Vonnegut you may take a bow). The first half of jPod left me unimpressed but amused at his little video game company escapades of jPod. It reminded me of something an adolescent boy would be slightly impressed with, but since real life is far more interesting than his characters lives its odd to think about why I would want to spend my time reading about them. But then, things started to pick up, observations become clearer and more astute, and I find myself looking forward to reading more.

From a Starbucks somewhere in Shanghai,


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