Why Shanghai is Like a Monet

By Jillian Smith

I once saw the painting “Water Lilies” by Monet on display in a museum. The piece was comprised of hundreds and thousands of tiny swirling dashes of color that all seemed to swim about the canvas like drunken fish. Up close, those dashes of color made the painting chaotic and almost overwhelming. Once I stepped back, though, all of those dashes suddenly made my eyes lock to a pattern that revealed the elegant water lilies Monet sought to capture. This is how I felt when I arrived in Shanghai.

It would be an understatement to say that Shanghai is overwhelming. As the most populous city in the world, and the most populous country on earth, it is a city that makes you realize how big humanity is and how small you are as a human. Motion seems to never stop. People snake around you in a neat constant mass on foot. They zoom past you on bikes and scooters. And they downright nearly kill you in cars.

Shanghai is a city of contradictions. A super modern, ultra sleek skyline greets visitors. Some of the visitors may have come in on one of the world’s fastest trains (it goes 30 miles in seven minutes). The next street over, though, provides bent old men hawking raw seafood in stalls and bartering in the way residents of this city have done for centuries.

I got coffee at a Starbucks in a chic luxury-shopping plaza. Here, it was hard to believe I wasn’t in America. While I never knew China before, it was evident that it had gone through a significant change. Communism seemed almost like an afterthought as commerce whirled all around me. People of middle and upper class echelons bought designer labels and snacked at upscale Haagen-Dazs with the enthusiasm of the nouveau riche.

Later, dinner at a dumpling stall on Yanchang Road was a markedly different experience. Warming my hands over the steamer, at the corner of a street where people have no problem pushing each other aside roughly to get out of the way of a rogue scooter, a young woman solemnly rolled up the dough with meat and spices with her bare hands. The dingy stall had poor lighting and I questioned the safety of my choice, but let me tell you that dumpling was delicious.

The diversity of the city is also dizzying. I had this idea in my mind that the city would be Chinese only. I was instead shocked to find Indians, Norwegians, Russians and Nigerians all on my first day in the city. Islam has been in Shanghai for over 700 years, the vibrant Jewish community has established synagogues all over and the French Concession is home to a strong Catholic tradition.

Walking the streets of the city, it was hard not to go into information overload. There are massive Chinese characters from an eye level that display a web of unintelligible red streaks. People shout and push past each other in a language that makes unaccustomed western ears feel numb. Dogs and cats run underfoot, Google Maps just doesn’t work and the streets are laid out in a network that is an affront to my grid pattern accustomed sensibilities.

But as I step outside of myself and observe Shanghai for what she is, I can’t help but admire the design of her form. There is orderliness to this chaos. There is, contained within all of the movement, a startling moment of clarity in seeing the patterns of human life being played out on such a grand scale.

Here is an ancient city that supports more than 24 million people. Here is a place that is brimming with the life energy of a massive piece of humanity, each day hosting that humanity’s respirations, thoughts and actions. Here is a place where the elderly grandmother practices Tai Chi while facing the Huangpu River. Across the street, a young businessman can talk brusquely on his iPhone. It is a place where a Brazilian can get Turkish goods while meeting his Australian counterpart.

Welcome and join me as I spend the next four months digging into this fascinating Monet painting.