Ten Reasons Why Big Cities are Grand (Especially Shanghai)

 I have spent most of my adult life living in and exploring cities. Cities I’ve lived in or near for a fair chunk of time have included Boston (grew up in nearby Acton, 1970s-1987), Taipei (twice, in 1988 and 1993-4), New York (for most of the 1990s), Seattle (and nearby Tacoma, 2001-2), Sydney (2002-7), Beijing (1996 and 2007), and of course, Shanghai (1996-8, 2000-1, 2007-today). Of all the cities I’ve lived in, I’d have to say that I know and love Shanghai the mostest and the bestest of them all. Well, I’ve written three books about the city and its life (including one set of translations of stories by a man who knew the city well in the 1930s), particularly its nightlife, so of course this should be the city I know and love the most. Not to mention that my wife is a Shanghairen, and so I am married to this city in a very palpable way.

Then again, one thing I love about Shanghai is that it always remains a mystery in so many ways, and it’s always changing. I can say with certainty that I’ve never lived in a city that changed so much, and with such rapidity, since I first lived here twenty years ago. Watching, witnessing, and documenting these changes has been a fascinating and extremely rich and rewarding (spiritually if not monetarily) part of my life and my career.

Going back to my own childhood, when I was in the fifth grade, our teacher, Joseph McInerney at McCarthy-Towne School in Acton, Massachusetts (who remains one of my most important teachers of all time), showed us a series of paintings made by a European artist, capturing the view from a certain location in a certain city in Europe (I believe it may have been either in the Netherlands or Germany). The artist would go to the same location every five years and paint the scene—and thus document the changes to city life over a long period of time. I was fascinated with that series and what it told us about how cities change over time. You couldn’t do such a project in the countryside or in the small town of Acton where I spent my childhood years, which remains largely the same as it did when I left to go to college 30 years ago (which is one reason why I always love returning to Acton—the consistency of the place over time). 

When I was young and living in a small Massachusetts town, I used to love visiting Boston, where I built up my collection of record albums and books (mostly in and around the Harvard Square area). Since we had family in New York City (my uncle Dick, aunt Jutta and cousin Nicole), we visited them regularly and I loved being overwhelmed by the greatness of that city compared with the smallness of me. I also made frequent trips to Washington D.C. where my dad Jeff Field lived and still lives (in that area at least), and have very fond memories of walking around his neighborhood between Dupont Circle and the “Lion Bridge” leading to the zoo (and buying more books and records at places like Kramer Books and Afterwords, still one of my favorite bookshops on the planet). I think I knew even then that I wanted to spend my adult life living in cities, and perhaps even then I had a sense that I’d spend much of my adult life researching and documenting them. 

If I were asked to write down a list of the top ten reasons why I find cities so fascinating and such wonderful places to live, it would not be easy. Well, here goes anyway:

  1. Cities are always changing, and always renewing themselves.
  2. You meet such a wide variety of people in cities.
  3. Cities are dense concentrations of human cultures and they serve as melting pots of cultures, always creating new forms and styles.
  4. This is true especially in the realms of music and arts—it’s difficult to think of a musical or artistic trend or movement that did not originate or else find its full flowering in a major city.
  5. Cities are full of new discoveries—they concentrate all of the material things that the world has to offer into the largest marketplaces.
  6. Cities are endlessly inventive—they are where you go to see the latest devices and contraptions that move us around or light up our nights.
  7. Relating to 5 and 6 above, you can always find the goods and services you need or desire in a big city, in proportion to the size and globality of that city (as well as your own pocketbook of course).
  8. Cities find ingenious ways to incorporate “nature” into their environments, whether through gardens, parks, ponds, rivers and canals, trees, beaches, bays, harbors, or cliff walks (I’m thinking Sydney here), there are always ways to commune with nature even if it’s an artificial experience (and in this world of human domination, what isn’t?).
  9. Cities are zones of constant and rigorous experimentation in the creative fields of commerce and industry, arts and culture, architecture and design—to see what works and what doesn’t in a complex field of human relations, needs and desires, and government regulations.
  10. One can be anonymous in cities, and even reinvent oneself in them—much harder to do in smaller towns and villages where you and your family are known. There you go, an off-the-cuff on-the-spot Top Ten. I’m sure I could rethink this list and come up with many alternatives, but I think it’ll do for now. And I believe all of these themes resonate quite clearly in the books I’ve written on Shanghai, as well as my journal entries on this website over the years.

What motivated me to write this entry? Well, today was a gorgeous Sunday, and this morning I took our teddy bear poodle Peipei for our usual Sunday walk around our neighborhood (yes, you will have to imagine the ridiculous image of big old me walking a petite little poodle around town by a colorful leash). I have to say that we live in one of the finest neighborhoods in the city, right in the center of town near to where the two elevated highways meet. You’d think this would be a highly urbanized area full of tall buildings, offices, shopping malls, and dense neighborhoods, and indeed it is. However, in its infinite wisdom, the city government came up with a plan nearly twenty years ago to “green” this area of the city, and in fact all of the areas of the city to ensure a certain percentage of greenery would be distributed throughout. 

In the four directions working outward from the knot of twisty roads that makes up the nexus of the elevated highway crossing, they built small parks or green spaces. I remember when all this building was going on nearly twenty years ago. So it turns out that when I walk out of my own neighborhood, I can go in many directions and still be in a green space 绿地, and I must say that these green spaces are very nicely designed with small creeks running through them under canopies of trees and criss-crossed by delicate bridges. You can walk or run for several kilometers through these green spaces, which connect across the divide of the elevate highways. So they took what might have been a very ugly urban space and turned it into something quite useful and beautiful for the local residents and their dogs. It goes without saying that many original residents were moved out to make way for all of these new developments—which is the dark side of the story of constant urban change for those unfortunate to be in the way of the bulldozers (I will get back to this topic later in this essay since my wife’s family has suffered the same fate).

After my walk in the park with Peipei, I cycled over to the neighborhood of the Music Conservatory 音乐学院, where I had a lunch date with local blues legend Matt “Cadillac” Cooper, whom I’ve known now for over twenty years. Matt is a legend in the live music scene here in Shanghai, where he performs regularly with the members of the Cotton Club band. Speaking of which, on Friday night, I attended a performance of the band members, including guitarist Greg Smith, drummer Francesco, bassist Jorland Paulino, Dennis on blues harp, and special guest performer Dave Stone (a fantastic slide guitarist and singer). It took place at the Pearl, a nightclub on Zhapu Road which used to be a Japanese Shinto shrine back in the 1930s and 1940s. The band is legendary because the Cotton Club was one of the longest running and most influential live music houses in Shanghai (as discussed at length in our book Shanghai Nightscapes). 

The Cotton Club was a small bar and live music house located on the corner of Fuxing and Huaihai road in an otherwise nondescript little building that housed a hot-pot restaurant and a couple of Taiwanese eateries. For over twenty years it featured a house band presided over by Greg Smith and including numerous guest musicians. They served up a blues-based concoction of funk, rock, folk, and jazz. Unfortunately, earlier this year, the Cotton Club was given a month’s notice that the building and the club would have to shut down. In March, I was fortunate to be able to attend and film part of their final performance at the original Cotton Club before it shut down the following day. Since then, the band has been without a home, and so it was nice to see them get back together along with such a loyal audience gathered to see them perform, even if it was in a former Shinto house of worship turned cabaret and not the original Cotton Club.

The main reason Matt and I decided to meet for lunch was to talk about an idea I have had recently to make a documentary film that tells the story of the Cotton Club. I’ve been filming bands and interviewing musicians in that club for well over a decade now and it would be great to pull together a film that captures the history of this now legendary space and its influence on the cultural and social life of the city over its twenty-year reign. But instead, we ended up talking for two hours about a wide range of things, including the vicissitudes of the music scenes in both Beijing and Shanghai. 

I first met Matt Cooper over twenty years ago, in 1996 to be precise, when he was performing at a bar located across from the Zhaolong Hotel in the Sanlitun area of Beijing. Matt moved to Shanghai in 1999 and has been gigging here ever since, though unlike many of the musicians in the scene he has a demanding full-time day job that has nothing to do with music. Anyhow, we were talking about the various phases of both Beijing and Shanghai’s live music scenes.

We both agreed that Shanghai’s live scene has taken a hit lately, especially with both the JZ Club and Cotton Club (located so close to each other on Fuxing Road) moving or shutting down recently. In addition to the House of Blues and Jazz, these two clubs have been the mainstays of the city’s live music scene, especially its jazz and blues scene. JZ has continued to operate in a new location in a sunken mall area which happens to be located in a small park near my neighborhood where I was walking our dog earlier that morning. Matt told me that he much preferred the crowd of Cotton Club stalwarts at the Pearl on Friday night to the usual crowd at JZ who mainly come to flash their cash at fancy tables rather than engage with the musicians and their music.

Matt claims that a big reason for the lack of interest in live music in general is the heavy presence of club scenes in the city which feature DJs and electronic music. Not only do these clubs suck up the attention of the young clubbing crowd but the DJs are easier to manage than live bands (I would presume, though I’m sure there are exceptions), and also these clubs are making money hand over fist by renting high-end table and lounge spaces to high-rolling customers (a trend that we cover somewhat in our book Shanghai Nightscapes and even more in an article that James Farrer and I are publishing in a upcoming volume).

This gets back my observation that cities are places where various cultures are concocted and services are offered, tested out in a marketplace and left to sink or swim in the competitive urban environment. Seems that live music (as performed by musicians on more “traditional” instruments than laptops and MP3 players) in this town is currently in a sinking phase, which would be a great shame for the city if that is indeed the case. Not that I’ve anything against electronic music per se...

After our lunch at the western restaurant called Element Fresh on Donghu Road, of which Matt is a shareholder and one of the original founders, I cycled around the neighborhood of the old French Concession as I made my way in leisurely fashion back home. There is nothing nicer than cycling around Shanghai’s former French Concession on a sunny Sunday afternoon with sunlight streaming through the canopy of plane trees lining the streets.

I passed by the old park on the corner of Xiangyang and Huaihai Road, and stopped for a moment to observe the old folks dancing up a storm amidst a colonnade of plane trees leading into the park. This was a classic Shanghai moment for sure, and it was nice to notice that if live music is taking a hit these days, at least the old folks are preserving Shanghai’s culture of dancing (which I fear is also disappearing at least among the younger Champagne-binging club crowd).

Before heading home I stopped in at Garden Books (grateful as always to see that they still stock copies of my first book Shanghai’s Dancing World) when I bumped into Graham Earnshaw. Graham is helping me out with my latest book project on indie rock in China, and I caught up with him briefly as he prepared to—speaking of live music—give a performance at the bookshop. Graham is a singer and songwriter and guitarist who helped jumpstart China’s rock’n’roll movement in the 1980s when he was performing with a band in Beijing. Among the folks who went to see them were a couple of youngsters named Cui Jian and Liu Yuan—and I will tell that story and many others in my book.

I had to return home quickly though, since my younger daughter Hannah was waiting for me to take her to a birthday party, which was happening at a department store in the nearby Jing’an district, right next to Jing’an Park. We arrived by taxi to find that the chosen spot on the fourth floor of the building was a pottery space, full of youngsters from her class spinning clay and making pots, bowls and cups. What a lovely way to spend a birthday! I was also pleased to find a wonderful Chinese bookstore located on the same floor, which I will have to explore further another time. Discoveries—some large, others small, which make city life so grand.

However, I had to rush home to ferry my older daughter Sarah to her math lesson. Her mother recently signed her up for extra math lessons at a night school on Sundays to boost her math skills. This is very common in Chinese society—in fact it’s highly uncommon for children not to have a lineup of extra classes outside of their regular school time to develop their skills. The school (where I now write this entry) is located in a shopping mall in the Hongkou district, and inside are small rooms separated by glass partitions, where around 50 students get tutored one-on-one by teachers at any given time. 

As I told Sarah while driving her over here, this very spot where the shopping mall now stands used to be a dense neighborhood of row-houses, where her mother was raised forty years ago. Around the year 2000, word had it that her neighborhood was going to be knocked down, and fortunately she was able to help her parents buy a new apartment in the Zhabei district right near where a new subway station was going to be located. And that’s where we spent the first eight years of our now ten-year stay in Shanghai, and where Sarah was basically raised, along with her younger sister Hannah before we moved into the center of town two years ago. Changes and vicissitudes, highs and lows, goods and services, ebbs and flows, gatherings and dispersions. All part of the grandness of life in the big city.

 

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