Hidden Treasures: Shanghai Just Like Kansas City?

Joel Carillet's picture

     As the U.S. presidential election draws near, pundits and partisans have their ears perked for any gaff, odd statement, or misstep that could be used to call the candidates’ character or judgment in question.  Like children – like all of us – politicians say the darndest things sometimes.  But here’s a more interesting thing to ponder:  what things might they be saying today that everyone thinks is normal and right but which, in a generation or two, people will look back on and shake their head with disbelief.

      Take for instance these words of Nebraska’s Senator Kenneth Wherry, spoken in 1940:  “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”


Joel Carillet

Morning on the Bund


      Now, this sort of sentence requires one to pause and absorb each and every word. In the process one may wish to laugh, cry, choke, get bug-eyed, or just quietly stare with his or her mouth slightly ajar.  Shanghai just like Kansas City?  What if a Chinese politician were to enthusiastically roar that China will transform, say, Flint, Michigan so that one day it is “just like Guangzhou.”  Kind of runs against the grain, doesn’t it, or at least sounds a bit presumptuous.

      Not to give Senator Wherry too hard a time, for all of us are limited in our outlook and worldview, and there are things about us – our words, our 1980s hairstyles, our gas-guzzling lifestyle – that future generations may find reason to smirk at.  And so we should cut the senator some slack.  But if visiting Shanghai, it will be fun to take his unusual sentence with you, running it through your head as you look out on one of Earth’s most vibrant, expanding cities.  Shanghai in 1940 was a commercial center but also was very much under the stress of the conflict that would soon expand into what we now call World War II.  Japan’s occupation of the region – particularly in the nearby city of Nanjing – was often conducted with incredible brutality.


Joel Carillet

Waiting for a bus


      But the Shanghai of 2008 has thrown off its past as it rushes toward the future.  It is home to some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers that leave Kansas City looking dwarfed (were the two side by side).  During my visit there in 2003, three hundred new high-rises were under construction and the streets were bumper to bumper with cars.  A Shanghai-based manager at General Motors told me that the growth rate of China’s car industry was exploding at 60 percent, compared to 3 percent in the United States.  Adding to the city’s changing appearance, the majority of the people occupying the high-rises and driving the cars had shed the bland Mao suit coats so common in earlier decades, preferring instead to wear stylish designer labels.


Joel Carillet

These ships belong to the Indian navy, which was making a port call.


      People travel, but so do words through time.  And in the words of Senator Wherry, one might feel he has discovered a modest hidden treasure.  They are a treasure because they remind us how limited our worldview can be, and just how much Shanghai has changed.


Joel Carillet

Shanghai can feel like a frantic city at times, but plenty of folks find time to slow down and enjoy the finer things in life, too.


 Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.