“Ten Days That Shook The World” was a blockbuster Hollywood movie that told of the final downfall of the Romanov dynasty in Russia, ushering in the new world order of socialism and communism.
That was what would go down in history as the October Revolution of 1817. The event came to my mind on August 29 as the bus that fetched us from the Pudong airport finally entered the city proper of Shanghai, about an hour and a half after the Philippine Airlines jet that brought us from Manila touched down.
Going through the labyrinth of infrastructure that characterizes Shanghai today, I inevitably ended up wondering how much harder the Chinese people must have struggled to achieve their socialist aims.
For one thing, if the Russians needed just 10 days to overthrow the old feudal Russian setup in 1817 – “not a single shot fired” according to one account – the Chinese took all of 29 years of bloody life-and-death struggle to bring down the Kuomintang rule and the western imperialists to which it paid total puppetry. The Chinese Communist Party which took up the brunt of the Chinese Revolution beginning in 1920 marched its forces into Shanghai in 1949, ultimately asserting power over all of the Chinese mainland.
The trip from Pudong airport offered sights of unpretentious skylines, and this went well with one’s preconceived images of austere socialist China. For kilometers one can see buildings of striking oneness of design. I thought this indicated a one track-mindedness in the pervading culture, or that those aspects of social life that needed designing went through a single mind.
At no point in the whole stretch of highway edifices was there an image of a rundown house or structure, much less of an informal settler’s shanty that is a distinct characteristic of many a Metro Manila community. Even those structures that manifest touches of upper-middle class housing subdivisions appear to follow a distinct singleness of concept that either one subdivision developer had cornered the housing industry or government is on top of it all. This would be confirmed later in our visit in the city
Yao Yi, our tall, youngish-looking host from the public information office of Shanghai, confided that the government (actually referring to the state) owned both land and buildings in Shanghai (except those edifices which are on some kind of special arrangement with the state over question of ownership of both land and structure).
According to Yao, the people are allowed to own their domiciles for 70 years, after which these will be used by others.
“So what happens to 70-year-old house occupants, they are thrown out into the street?” I threw the question in a manner characteristic of Filipino humor, but it elicited a reply that struck me hard for its candor.
“Yes,” said Yao, indicating he didn’t quite realize the implication of his answer. I seriously doubted, though, that he meant anything close to what his answer indicated. If people get thrown out into the streets to fend for themselves, then Shanghai should be teeming with hobos and similar social scums as are the ugly blights of western societies. Nothing like these did we encounter throughout our five-day stay in Shanghai.
About the only instance we saw people who looked poor was on the third day of our visit, when after lunch with executives of Liwayway Corporation, Limited we were treated to a tour of the Old Town, the site of ancient Shanghai. The town is similar to what Intramuros (Old Manila) was before it was ravaged by MacArthur’s returning forces in 1945. The Old Town, built on both banks of a tributary of the Huangpo River, has been preserved in its medieval grandeur, the houses made of bricks and stones mostly topped by the distinct Chinese pagoda roof that today is mostly done to picture the elegance of old China.
Entering the town through a river edge alley, one would recall his entry into Manila Chinatown by way of Gandara, traversing the river edge from Plaza Sta. Cruz. It was in this area that we found a handful of folks vending farm products, vegetables and root crops, as well as homemade food items. But we could not even count 10 of these folks, so that if their continued existence in Shanghai were to be indication of anything at all, it was that poverty in Shanghai is down to near-zero.
Now, from the Pudong Airport, you would notice the thickening of vehicular volume flowing down the highway. Recalling the terrible nightmare that is Metro Manila traffic, I asked if traffic is a problem in Shanghair. Our tour guide, a guy named Chang, who spoke good English with a heavy British accent, admitted that as in most highly-developed cities in the world, Shanghai experiences traffic problems. And when the flow of vehicles came to a halt at one section of the highway, you knew you were finally entering Shanghai city proper.
Chang, who would turn out to be ubiquituous in khaki pants and checkered polo shirt, explained that in addressing its traffic woes, Shanghai had embarked on a massive infrastructure program over the years, constructing a multi-level network of circular highways around the city, with two straight ones to boot, connecting north and south of Shanghai.
Chang, whose features betrayed traces of Caucasian lineage, informed us that in addition to the overland highways, Shanghai boasts of a subway that cuts across the Hungchou River, joining up north and south of the city.
In the trip from the airport, Chang said the subway had 52 exits. However, Chen Qi Wei, Editor-in-Chief of Ximin Evening News, who hosted a dinner for us, clarified that there were only 19 exits. But in the trip the next day, Chang, though standing corrected, maintained that in his reckoning, the subway exits numbered more than 19, including exits to malls and other such places.
I thought maybe it would be very beneficial for the Philippines if it copied Shanghai’s subway system to solve the country’s perennial traffic problem.
Early on in the trip from the airport, I expressed desire to go through the subway and witness first-hand the workings of its network of exits. But ours was a guided tour from which we were not expected to make any unscheduled detour.
Our group of eight – Estrella “Star” Torres of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Christine Herrera of the Manila Standard, Catherine Pillas of the Business Mirror, Paolo Romero of the Philippine Star, Boy Galvez of the Philippine Information Agency, Fil Sionil of the Manila Bulletin whom Paolo, after the dinner hosted by Chen, humored as the “de facto spokesperson of the group”, Zhuang Ming Deng of the Chinese Commercial News, the group organizer in the Philippines, and myself – were invited by Ximin Evening News for what I would take as an exposure to some of the city’s significant economic concerns.
This offered some difficulty right away because even before we could start the scheduled trip, we were advised to desist from asking highly politicized questions. In undertaking the Shanghai sojourn, therefore, I had to ascertain the answer to this question: Could I digress from set parameters?