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The world changes in many aspects with the passage of time and the development of technology. It is therefore a continuous process that is inevitable in many areas. The structural history of the world has also been on a continuous arc of change. China is one of the countries that is rich in both cultural and modern experiences. The country is famous for its rich heritage that has stood the test of time. There are numerous sites, tastes, sounds and experiences that can be enjoyed today as they have always been hundreds of years ago. Intertwined in this hugely cultural community is the latest technology that is also driving the country and its people to new levels faster than ever before. In Beyond the Neon Lights, Lu Hanchao takes us through the lives of the Chinese middle class, in a riveting account, following the fall of China's last imperial dynasty.
China as a country has embraced the upsurge in technology development and it has benefitted a lot in many sectors. Communication has evolved to an extent that anyone and any information is just but a click away and is easily available to the larger population. Trade and industry has flourished in the last decade due to the ease in communication between business people from foreign countries. Trade has also benefited from the onset of the easier production in the factories due to the evolvement of machinery that assist in production. This has pushed the country into new heights in terms of growth and development of infrastructure. Shanghai is one of the major towns in China and the world that has seen the largest growth pattern in the last couple of decades. Shanghai is a key area in China since it holds many areas of significant importance for China and the entire region. It is a central trade area and is filled with businesses that bring in the much needed trade with international partners.
China and Shanghai in particular have had numerous books, journals and other different types of literature written about them. This is because of the diversity of all things found in the town. From the people to the history, one cannot quite get to see everything in a day. As such many writers have taken us through literary journeys into Shanghai. The picture that these kinds of books have portrayed is of an old town riddled with all the vices and imaginable scum of the earth; Bankers, prostitutes, gangsters, crime, wild adventures especially for the expatriates’ and much more. One would tend to believe that this is the life in Shanghai since every other book would turn out to bear the same picture and horrid description of this Chinese town. It has been unfortunate that this is the literature that most people have been able to access in regard to this town. Even with the escalation of new technology, the better placed information centers’ have not been able to sent a clear image of the real life on the ground in Shanghai.
"Beyond the Neon Lights" has been a blessing in disguise since it fills this very large gap in a sensational yet appropriately compelling way. The first thing that one notices once on the streets of Shanghai is the structure of the neighborhood lanes that give definition to the whole town. It is a blend of the traditional and the modern structural tastes that have been able to blend powerfully yet beautifully to bring a new aura to the whole setup that makes up the streets of Shanghai. In his book, Lu takes a critical look at what this streets and their art history have contributed to being the arteries that feed the city from the homes around it. Lu states that the preservation and continuous use of the Shikumen architecture mainly used through the 1920’s complicated the communities that live together there. Lu also touches on the cultural and structural changes that have occurred as a result of the onset of the modern lanes. These modern lanes have given rise to the incorporation of modern amenities like private indoor plumbing systems and high-rise buildings.
“Beyond the neon lights” is also a celebration of the co existence of the old and the relatively new in one seamless union. Lu takes the reader through a tour of the town and right between the high-rise buildings, he points out the presence of an old-style convenience store, which is basically a combo-store of a "tobacco and paper shop". Interestingly, there is also a tailor and a shoe-repairman, all housed under the same store running their own different businesses. This is not in any way described as a shanty looking store, but in the contrary, every other Shanghai born person can attest to being a reflection of the Chinese dynamic spirit. There is also the constant presence of the itinerant peddlers’, who sell and repair any sorts of goods and can also be seen buying what some would call rubbish. These, according to Lu, were the kind of jobs that most of the housekeepers of the middle class people relied upon for their livelihood. The streets of Shanghai have not changed though and even the visitor today walking the modern streets of Shanghai cannot fail to notice the presence of the peddler in the streets hawking their wares. The only thing that Lu says has changed, are the things being hawked around.
The roving peddlers can still be seen plying their trade in Shanghai but they carry with them electronics and other more modern wares for sale. According to Lu, they can be easily distinguished by the songs they sing to attract their customers since they are loud and repetitive thus are not easy to ignore. Lu says that he wakes to the melody of one of these peddlers who hawks rice along his lane everyday pushing his cart past his window. Seasonal vegetables signaled the presence of fruit sellers and the used electronic buyers who also frequent Lu’s street and are the reason that Shanghai is what it is today. Lu says that it is unimaginable just how much contribution these seemingly small business people contribute to the essence of the city of Shanghai. To the tourists, these peddlers present a new and exciting experience and cannot quite be ignored although it is not uncommon to see the local Chinese walk past them in total oblivion of their presence. Most Shanghainese would however attest to the fact that they make Shanghai, Shanghai.
The migration that led to the people who were originally from other places outside of Shanghai to end up becoming Shanghainese, is also well documented in this book. Lu takes the reader through the times that pushed the presently high class people from Ningbo, Hangzhou and other parts of Zhejiang Province, while Jiangsu and Yangtze produced the lower class people. The formation of the slums to cater for the despised "Jiangbei" people is also deeply retraced. The writer leaves nothing to chance when he traces the origins of the unity that saw people from different areas live together on the famous lanes in harmony and even create different businesses that operated under the same roof. Lu says that what was witnessed in the 1920’s on the main streets of Shanghai became possible mainly due to the parochial attitude of the Shanghai people that went on to be cultivated in the lanes that housed these once different people. The strong bonds that were used to keep these people in unity also became the strong foundations of the city that have held it together up to now. It is the hope of everyone who loves the city of Shanghai that the same will keep happening and the attitude that build the great city of Shanghai will prevail long after the lanes have vanished.
The growth of major towns is still in progress and even the Shanghainese know for certain that their town is in for some major face lift in the future. The Jiangbei people have been seen to hold vengeful motives and are in the frontline to get rid of the famous lanes to make way for their futuristic visions for Shanghai. "Beyond the Neon Lights" poses some arguments as to why Shanghai's rapidly vanishing lanes should be preserved for the sake of the future generations. It is my personal opinion that everything has its time and place. The time for the lanes is past and they should make way for the next big thing. These have made their mark and contribution to the society and the world but there must come a time when we move on. History has held and carried many things safely for us to read about the life in the past and the same will happen for the lanes. Change is inevitable and all the materials and literature that has been written in regard to the lanes and early Shanghai will be there for any future generations to ponder upon.
“Beyond the Neon Lights” is a compelling read that opens the Pandora’s Box on an issue that is sensitive to the people of Shanghai. While educative, Lu has also incorporated major facts that most readers did not know about the city of Shanghai and its dwellers. After reading this book, one would feel more enlightened and aware of the plight of the dwellers of Shanghai in the 20th Century. The book looks at Shanghai through a lens in an analysis to create awareness on some of the broader institutions present in modern China especially as it immerged as a trade warehouse coinciding with the growth and development of Western domination and semi-colonialism in the larger China.