Saturday, 16 April 2016

The BBC's REAL Shanghai Tour: the dwindling currency of authenticity

The REAL Shanghai is an audio-tour that can be downloaded for free from the BBC. When I was in Taipei recently, I had an interesting conversation about the theme of authenticity and the tourist's experience. I was thinking back to those words as I walked from the metro station to the start point of the audio tour and passed all manner of 'REAL' sites such as these improvised panel walls. I was wondering if the idea of the real city, that the BBC were about to present to me, was going to be any more real than what I was already looking at. 

After an upbeat jazz intro, the tour began uncertainly. According to the map, the cream coloured building on the right was the start point. I listened to the narrator talk about the history and architecture of Broadway Mansions and he said it was an impressive art deco building with commanding view. Yes... a view of a minor road bridge. While it is OK, I couldn't see why he thought it was so very special.   

It turned out that it was marked incorrectly on the map, really quite far off at that. Not only was number 1 quite some distance off, as a result of mistaking waterways, but numbers 4 and 6 were also a little imprecise. It is surprising that this managed to happen and never got corrected. BBC what is going on?

All this would not have been such an issue if it were not for the fact I was walking at a snail's pace. I had woken up in the morning with an intense pain at the top of my right leg. It was as if I had been attacked in my dream and had badly pulled a muscle defending myself. I tried to soldier through the paid but increasingly wondered whether I should I seek medical attention, massage, acupuncture, or something altogether more esoteric. I was getting slower and slower: just lifting this dead lump of a leg and placing it in front of me became a great effort and climbing up or down steps was positively painful. 

I was struck by how inappropriate this dolphin topiary was seeing as how The Yangtze River, which Shanghai sits at the delta of, was until ten years ago the unique habitat of a now extinct species of dolphin. These leafy creatures jumping out of the bushes are not some sort of memorial to the Baiji, these are stereotypical cute dolphins. Memorials tend to be created to benefit someone or something in the present and driving the Baiji to extinction is probably something that there is more desire to forget than remember. By a complete coincidence, when I got home and looked at this picture, I realised that standing in the background is the missing wayward point 1 of the tour, the REAL Broadway Mansions! Completing a tour is, in a way, a similar pleasure to finishing a jigsaw so I was happy to see I had in fact, inadvertently, covered the 9 points of this tour.

Moving onto The Bund, I then ducked into this park, the site of the former British Consulate.  Stepping into this park I got the same immediate sense of discomfort I get when I am in  places like Whitehall. The British ruling class and their bureaucratic representatives have generally felt more like adversaries than friends to me. I took a picture, turned around and immediately walked away. I wanted nothing to do with them, not even with their memory.

Hobbling down the road as quickly as I could, I spotted this interesting poster. The meaning of it, if I understand correctly, is that you should only trust officially registered guides working for reputable companies and should avoid the unregistered people who offer you tours on the spot. Having been on a number of rather typical Chinese tours given by registered guides, I have the feeling the official ones are not necessarily any better than the private ones. They almost inevitably drag you into 'consumption traps' as part of the tour.

Next stop was the promenade with a view of the iconic architecture. Maybe this is the REAL Shanghai in the sense that it is the image of the city that has come to represent it. The problem with it, however, is that these towers are unrepresentative. There are still a majority of poorer and middling neighbourhoods. This is very much the image the city wants to project rather than what the city generally is. Another thing worth mentioning is that this sort of picture is usually 'fixed' today using photoshop to adjust the keystone, as it has been below. While the first is what the camera actually saw, the second is probably closer to how we picture it. The more closely I search for reality, the more I start to realise it can be constituted in very different ways. 

Next came a proper dark tourism site, the scene of the New Year's Eve 2014 stampede in which 36 people died. As far as I could see there was no memorial left behind. These deaths were, like the Baiji, embarrassing to those who control the space and thus not selected for remembering. There is indeed little official embrace of dark tourism in China, the only real exception being the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. The country has a disturbing history of stampedes including the world's most deadly ever (Chongqing 1941) and a string of recent ones too. It is no surprise that city officials are sensitive about this issue and from what I could see, crowd control has been stepped up and has become a far greater concern. Of course, none of this was on the BBC audio track which simply told us how the building in the background was a masterpiece which Charlie Chaplin once stayed in.

Moving down The Bund the narration settled into describing the banks that line this former colonial drag. The narrator was rather lazy in how he arranged it; he only had two or three sentences to say about each building so he strung these together and told me to look out for these various banks as I made my way to next point.

This tour was essentially one of the Western-styled architecture that can be found on The Bund, which struck me as a rather self-congratulatory sort of tour for the BBC to offer. One way in which authenticity can be understood is that something is original and not a copy of something else. Viewed in those terms, these buildings can be seen as being about as fake as Shanghai Disneyland, which recently opened to feed kitsch to a new generation of China's youth. It is possible that The Bund gains some aura of authenticity with age, namely, the period these buildings were put up in was a unique time in the city's life. But, what I think he was really cracking away at was an idea of this being REAL because it falls into a narrative of Shanghai being a city that always looks to the future. If that is the case then the older neighbourhoods don't have much hope of making it to 2050 and the city is nothing but an oversized sponge for whatever is trendy. I think there is more going on here than just that. The BBC has a big reputation but a tour is only as good as the guide who designs it and this one was so flimsy that one cough would blow it away. Reality is a fragile thing indeed.

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