STEVE INSKEEP, host:
All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been exploring Shanghai. It's considered the most exciting city in China - one of the fastest-changing countries on the planet. Shanghai's transformation is the stuff of novels. So we finish this week with three writers who draw inspiration from the city.
Here's NPR's Louisa Lim.
LOUISA LIM: I'm sitting on a terrace over looking the Bund - Shanghai's famous waterfront. And from here I can see massive, monolithic, gray buildings from Shanghai's colonial past. They are facing off against ultra-modern, sleek skyscrapers and architectural wonders, symbolizing the city's future. It's sights like this that sum up the city - this amalgam of East and West - the sort of mix of its faded glory and its towering ambition. And it seems fitting that I'm joined by writer Brian Castro, the author of “Shanghai Dancing.”
Now Brian, your father and his family grew up in Shanghai and you grew up on stories of this city. What sort of personality did it have in the stories they used to tell you?
MR. BRIAN CASTRO (Author, “Shanghai Dancing”): Well it was a complete romantic kind of story, because I was only a child crawling under tables while my father was telling stories of Shanghai. And it was a mythical place for me. And it was a kind of dream world for him, because he was a playboy, and this was a place where you could be a playboy in the 1930s. And they would have these parties out on the pier, on the river. And his great-grandfather would actually kind of shower the rickshaw drivers who brought the guests with money. I mean, can you imagine how obscene that is? But nevertheless, that was the kind of magical scenario that I was brought up with.
LIM: Shanghai has undergone great changes. Does it feel like a completely different city yet again, or do you think the essence still stays the same?
Mr. CASTRO: Buildings change, you know, the skyline changes and I think the loss of certain locales is a bit sad, because these are lost worlds that never reappear again. And that was what I was writing about in “Shanghai Dancing.” But also the fact that it's constantly changing makes you think about transience, and how memory and forgetting works, and how cities sink and rise. So you know, I'm seeing Shanghai rising at the moment. It's kind of like a star rising.
LIM: Is there a particular place that evokes for you the spirit of Shanghai today?
Mr. CASTRO: It's still the café at (unintelligible) Hotel. And there's still the jazz band, played by very old Chinese gentlemen - and not very well, but still - and the polished floors. And you can actually see the ghosts of my father and his friends dancing there.
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LIM: I have now come to a dance hall-turned-hotel, perhaps in itself an indication of Shanghai's own transformation from the carefree decadence of the 1930s to the center of commerce in the new century. And I've come here to meet Qiu Xiaolong, an author whose thrillers are very much rooted in Shanghai's here and now. His best-known series stars Chief Inspector Chun, a poetry-loving detective whose investigations take him across the city.
Now, Mr. QUI, you say that you have a Shanghai complex. What sort of a role does Shanghai play in your book?
Mr. QUI XIAOLONG (Author, “A Loyal Character Dancer”): It's definitely symbolic. Shanghai is like, you know, quite representative of the fast change in China today. And the chief inspector is caught in this kind of transition, and the city is also caught in this kind of transition.
LIM: The physical change of the city is something that's quite clear. How is that mirrored in the changes in the character of the chief inspector?
Mr. QUI: He's had to change with the time and with the city as well. But at the same time, he cannot help missing the old ways, older lifestyle and old valued system. He does not have like a clear-cut answer, like whether this is good or this is bad. He just, like, feel perplexed and confused. He even gets lost.
LIM: As Shanghai changes, do you think the essence of the city remains the same?
Mr. QUI: For me, I think, you know, Shanghai, in China is always very open, changing, always with new trends. So I don't think that kind of essence is changing.
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LIM: I've come to one of the many Starbucks cafes that are sprinting up all over Shanghai, a sign, perhaps of its openness to the outside world. And I'm joined here, by a Shanghainese author who represents the cutting edge of modernity, and whose work speaks to a younger generation of Chinese readers. Mian Mian's books feature drug addicts, gangsters, slackers and artists. She herself is a reformed heroin addict. Unsurprisingly, her novels were banned by Beijing, who criticized the underground decadent lifestyles they depicted.
Mian Mian, you've described Shanghai as a beautiful bitch that loves money. Isn't that a very harsh judgment on the city?
Ms. MIAN MIAN (Author, “How Sensitive We Are”): I think Shanghai is very female, and Shanghai has a very strong history that I still feel (unintelligible) is very young female. Shanghai, I think, almost everything has to work for money.
LIM: Is it a shallow city?
Ms. MIAN: Yes, Shanghai is very superficial. It's very, very superficial city. This is Shanghai - it's super superficial.
LIM: Do you think that growing up in Shanghai made you more, sort of, open to foreign influences?
Ms. MIAN: Yeah, I think Shanghai is the most open city in China. (Unintelligible) get in touch with the whole world and we've been more brave, we've been more open. I'm very lucky to be a Shanghainese if I want to be a modern writer. You know, if I want to be more contemporary, it's great to be a Shanghainese.
LIM: You've mentioned how much the city has changed over the past 10, 15 years. Do you think it's suffering from an identity crisis?
Ms. MIAN: The whole country changing too fast. In the ‘90s, Shanghai is like a small town. The downtown of Shanghai is like a very small town. Everyone know everyone and everyone quite positive about the future, you know, a lot of possibility. And it also has the space - not packed, like now. And now is everyone is pushing and running for the business.
LIM: And Shanghai is rushing headlong into the future, even as its inhabitants struggle to deal with the present. It's racing to become a showcase settlement, a paragon of modernity. And yet, in building a new tomorrow, it risks forgetting, or even erasing, its own past.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And you can read about Brian Castro's playboy father and other excerpts from the authors featured in this report at npr.org. That's where you'll also find all the previous stories in Louisa's series on Shanghai.