This week in Shanghai I met friends in a debate insisting that the city is “elegant”. I understand them. They are mostly engineers. And it is normal for people who have not really seen anything, that it is easier to notice a chronological change than choosing a lateral comparison. And Shanghai of course changed a lot in the last few years. Even they noticed that.
I like Shanghai. It is a metropolis and a world city. But elegant (lat. eligere = sophistication of choice) is not the right word to describe it. In opposition to my friends, I would for example say, that the large penetration of luxury brands are the opposite of “sophistication of choice”. And as the managers of luxury brands also become less picky on their customers, their houses’ future design ability is questionable anyways. Since the Chinese new rich conquered their customer base, there is not much hope that these brands will play any role in creating something interesting. Of course these customers have the money to buy expensive things. However, most of them are still so much involved in improving their social skills and personal hygiene, that their contribution to elegance is questionable.
But the main reason why I think Shanghai is not elegant, is because the speed of life has been picking up there over the years. Speed and elegance do not go together well. Elegance, grace and dignity are closely related concepts. Wossen-Asserate says in his book Manieren, that “Hurry is the enemy of grace”. I guess nobody who is in a rush can be elegant or contribute to an elegant environment. This is why for example Hong Kong is not more "Asia's World City" than a chicken stable. Gomez Davila is quoted to have said that before talking about abstract issues of “human dignity” we should just do everything slowly. What makes it even worse in Shanghai is that the ratio between actual speed versus hectic is quite odd. Like in many Chinese cities you can just look at the traffic as a metaphor for the state of the society: everybody tries to gain a few meters by shooting with his car into the next gap and as a result everybody gets stuck. The one who is more aggressive wins a meter and in the end everybody looses.
It is hard for a business city to be elegant, as business people are usually not elegant. Of course there are a few exceptions. But in the development stage Shanghai is today, the majority is just in the "landgrabbing phase". How can they do sophisticated choices when they are busy all the time and their narrow stream of conciseness is driven by margins, shipments, real estate prices and the stock market?
Often when elegance is brought in context with Shanghai it refers to the time before the Japanese invasion. The pictures of Shanghai Calendar girls are still selling hot in tourist shops. Whether the corrupted Mafia city of the 1930s was really elegant is hard to say. But travellers of that time have stated it in their writings very often. However it really was, it seems that elegance is a memorable attribute. So, it is a good idea for Shanghai to develop a new era of elegance. Some small plants are already rising. But the big picture is still not visible for me.
The refurbished old Slaughterhouse in Shanghai