WHAT I DID IN CHINA
Upon arriving in Shanghai, I found it was truly the Forbidden Kingdom: you cannot access Facebook, Google, Google Maps, Instagram, etc. No Uber or Grab. The alternative is Didi. It reduced my fancy iPhone to a sudoku handheld device.
I did my work first and devoted 2 days (Thursday and Friday) to trawling the huge SNIEC halls and met with many leading display companies. Like Guangzhou 5 years ago, I was again mindblown.
I went to the mosque on Friday. I was way early for Friday prayers, I think I was the first one to reach at 11.55am. I started reading my way through Juz Amma alongside with the translation. It is said (in a book I read later on Sunday, that the verses of the Quran are renewed every single time you read them. You never read them the same way twice, such that it has the same meaning to you when read again.) I rediscovered the verses and their meaning in the empty hall. Surah Al Fajr in particular stuck a wrench in me and rendered me defenseless.
A few old men started walking in, they stared at me. I said Assalamualaikum to them. Their expressionless faces broke out into toothless grins with faces lined with years of experience and wisdom. “Pakistan?” they ask. “Pu she. Xin jia po.”
Many more filtered in as we came closer to 1pm. The imam came breezing in like an old friend, greeting many in the congregation heartily. He took the pulpit and started talking about ‘Zhongguoren’ and ‘Ummatu’ and how they were one and the same. There was no translation or subtitles, but similarly to how I sat through various sermons in the Egyptian tent in East Timor, all you had to do was absorb the meaning through inflections.
There was one part where the imam talked about ‘wo men de ____ Musa alayhi salam’ where ____ is the word for prophet that I cannot now recall. But upon hearing that part in the sermon, I felt goosebumps rise and tears swell to my ears. For Musa, or Moses, is ours. Ours. Collective. As a whole humankind. Not for the Jews, or the Arabs, or the Malays, or the Indians or the Chinese. He was our prophet. Vocalised in a land thousands of miles away from my own that suddenly pierced my heart as if it was a juicy tomato, and the tears rolled out unannounced.
I felt chastened.
In the trains and the buses, I watched practically everyone glued to their phones. We are all connected all the time. Except those who are disconnected. I saw a man at Nanjing East put down a stool and started singing in an off-tune manner. No one paid him any mind. He seemed like he was having fun. I almost wanted to join in, because I shared the same talent. I felt I’d regret not doing so. I already do.
I went to many bookstores and even the Shanghai library, where I signed up for a library card. I plunged headlong into books. I read a couple from cover to cover and speed-read my way through a number more. I read Malcolm Gladwell talk about Nicholas Nassim Taleb in ‘what the dog saw’ and then heard directly from Nicholas Nassim Taleb in ‘fooled by randomness’ and then swirled the last of my cappucino before I downed it. I sat in a stupor and reflected on what I had just ingested. It made sense. It made new sense. The rubber band has been stretched. It never returns to the same proportion.
Down to the final day. I had visited many different areas of the city, yet each one had a different heart, beating a different drum. I couldn’t pin it down to a single tune. Unlike Ho Chi Minh, or Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, or Paris, or Rome, Los Angeles or New York, Shanghai was indefinable. It refused definition. It will not pander to your tourist dollar. It had character and will not explain itself to you. It had hunger, pride, drive and heart.
Jack Ma, Alibaba, Ant, AliPay.
Pony Ma, TenCent, WeChat, We Pay.
Population of 1.4billion Chinese, making up almost 20% of the world’s population. Marketplace. One Belt One Road Initiative and how it’s going to revolutionise how we trade globally.
It was light years ahead. The train to the airport goes above 400km/h and traverses 50km in 7 minutes flat. At that rate, you can go from SG to KL in 40 minutes. They’ve done it already. We want to do it in what? 5-8 years time? As we speak, they are now building a line from Shanghai to Beijing that will travel at 4000km/h.
I stumbled upon a conservation project: a house of a writer and newspaper editor who lived through turbulent times in China’s past and used his pen to further the cause back in the day. The doors were wide open and a lady greeted me as I walked past: ‘Ni Hao’
I hesitated and went in. I looked at the books and newspaper clippings and pages preserved. I took the spiral staircase to the house he stayed in. The table where he pored over his work till the wee hours of the morning. To avoid disturbing his wife, he will pull out a spring bed and sleep in his study. I stood there staring at the table. What do we really leave when we go? I looked out of the window in the study to the garden below. I glanced at the windowpane and half-expected to see a reflection of the man in the chair at the study table.
Disturbed, I turned to leave.
At the exit, I saw a plaque on the wall.
“Time is both cruel and merciful. It has taken many things away from me and also given many things to me. Life is a great book that can never be finished. Life is limited, and everyone can only read part of it, so they should read carefully.”
I walked out and it was raining lightly. When I walked past the entrance doors again, it was bolted shut.
I looked around and there was no sign of activity in the building. I briefly wondered if it was all just a dream.