For years together my sister has been complaining that I never come to visit her, forgetting that her typical evening consists of flying to Paris for a spa treatment and onward to Barcelona for dinner followed by dancing until dawn in Buenos Aires, while mine is spent fashioning a sliver of soap out of lime scraped off a wall, and standing in a tiny trickle of brown water between 7.30pm and 7.31pm in an effort to clean the lice out of my hair before settling down to a dinner of old roti seasoned with dust.
Some of that might be a very little bit exaggerated, but it is completely true that she complains about my not coming to see her. It’s really my loss, because she lives in very interesting places—at the moment, Shanghai. (In the time-honoured tradition of university undergraduates she enrolled in college to study medicine, but graduated with a degree in Chinese language and culture; her profession and personal life have kept her hanging about China and its environs ever since.) Anyway, I have resolved to go and see her this year after the Olympics are over, if I can sell enough little slivers of homemade soap to afford the fare.
Pretty much all I know about Shanghai is that it is a large port city with many gleaming skyscrapers and cheapo labour, and that it has lent its name to the verb ‘to shanghai’, which means to force someone to join up as a ship crew member by underhand means (and in general, by extension, to coerce someone into doing something against their will).
I also know, courtesy a Chinese government website, that “Most people in the city seldom worry about to be robbed when they walk on the streets while burglaries are also not easy to be heard, watched or read from media reports, say nothing of being killed by guns or pistols…Up till now,” adds the website in what looks like a direct poke in the ribs of the Delhi government, “people haven't got the news that foreign women insulted or hurt by criminals in the city. But still try to avoid to those unfamiliar places, such as small dark lanes, and the suburbs of the city. It won't hurt if a woman is accompanied with her colleagues, boyfriend or husband. After all, it is not a city of Eutopia.”
The site nevertheless warns against giving in to the temptations of drugs, gambling or commercial sex, because “Though policemen won't check your room unless they get your permission or have a search warranty, it will be wise enough for you to fence out from those troubles.” I once heard a story about a man who was executed on the spot during a train journey in China for stealing the laptop of a fellow passenger, so apocryphal or not, I don’t plan to get involved with searches, warrantied or not.
I will try and make some extra soap slivers so that I can also visit Beijing, which is the site of the Olympic stadium known as Bird’s Nest, and the Aquatics stadium nicknamed The Cube. These are both brilliant-looking bits of architecture, especially the former, which is at once beautiful and deeply disturbing. But that’s what you have to expect from artist-designer Ai Weiwei, who once curated an exhibition called “Fuck Off” (“Uncooperative Approach” in Mandarin) which included artists walking around town with blood dripping out of plastic tubes implanted in their viens, an artist wearing a diaper and floating down a river in a plastic bubble, and an artist cooking and eating a foetus.
Now that’s what I call a cultural revolution.