Nothing seemed French about the French Quarter, with its shops selling marinated barbecued meats and waiters setting afire the asparagus on my plate, and nothing seemed Chinese about the large mall, which could easily have been in any large Asian city. Nothing seemed authentic when a hawker offered me a Montblanc pen that looked exactly like the Montblanc pen in the shop behind him, where it was sold for a hundred times more. Nothing seemed ancient in a city where each building was a skyscraper taller than the one next to it, and shone like it had been just unwrapped. And nothing seemed modern in a city where on weekends in a public park hundreds of men and women talked animatedly, exchanging photographs of their sons and daughters, arranging their marriages the way their parents had arranged theirs, and their parents theirs, and so on, uninterrupted, generation after generation. Despite the apparent spontaneity of those conversations, the moves were rehearsed, the dialogue planned, a bit like the city itself, where the centrepiece at the museum of planning was a miniaturized model of the metropolis, as though everything, including this sudden growth, was exactly as the Party intended and the city had planned.

Modern times: In the Shanghai of high-rises, the past can be found in museums. By Thinkstock

I was with my delightful friend Tina, who has lived in Shanghai for over a decade now, and enjoys startling the locals by speaking in perfect bursts of their language (as a Singapore-born whose parents moved to that island from Sri Lanka, she is used to multilingual, multi-everything places). Tina is a litterateur, the spirit behind the city’s literary festival.

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She took me to Siming village, named after a bank now forgotten, the village itself set away from the bustling thoroughfare that marks the border of what was the French Quarter. At one time, Sikhs and Vietnamese guarded these streets. The street had identical two-storeyed shikumen houses with brick walls of a muddy hue that was unsure if it wanted to be brown or red, the street spotlessly clean, where a father had taken his son out for a stroll. The father ambled; the son was riding an electric scooter, which the father manipulated with a remote controller, occasionally surprising the son by changing his course. He was always in charge, while giving the child the illusion of being in charge of the toys that the father’s prosperity had brought—almost a metaphor for modern China.

Neighbours stared at the father and son—and us—as Tina led me to a wall with a plaque full of Chinese names—of actors and academics—written in elegant calligraphy. One name stood out; it was in English. It was Rabindranath Tagore. And things fell into the pattern Tina had planned. In the year of Tagore’s 150th anniversary, and the centenary of Sun Yat-Sen’s republic, in this most independent-minded city of China, she had given me this wonderful gift—taking me to the lane where Tagore often stayed at the home of his friend, the poet Xu Zhimo, who lived with his wife in house No. 923 (alas, now gone, to make way for that thoroughfare).

As we walked down the street, we saw more plaques, with words written in Chinese, some with graceful drawings on the side—many were Tagore’s poems; others, verses by Chinese poets. It was a calming street, a soothing interlude away from the noise and babble of Shanghai, taking me to an older, quieter time when this city of commerce valued a bearded poet from a distant land (Tagore’s message of the intransience of nature and impermanence of borders was probably ill-timed; the young, radical Chinese writers and artists were seething over the handing over of Chinese land to the Japanese in the carving up of imperial possessions that followed the Treaty of Versailles after World War I). They hated old virtues, including the Confucian ones, and they were critical of Tagore’s universalist message, which they saw as escapist naturalism.

Later that evening we went to the Bund, with its colonial buildings lit up and transformed from banks and trading posts to art galleries and restaurants, upscale shops and hotels. And across the river was the futuristic Pudong, with skyscrapers looking alike, like a permanent expo pavilion on display.

But this is China; there are rules. Even celebrations must end on time. And almost like that father turning off the remote controlling device, the lights went out, stopping lovers mid-kiss and reminding families to go home and sleep soundly, and dream patriotic dreams.

After I returned to London, Tina sent me a postcard: It showed a sketch of the compound in which Tagore had lived—it was the same spot where the modern hotel where I had stayed now stood, oblivious of that past. The large mural inside was of Zheng He, the eunuch admiral who left China in the 15th century to trade with the world.

Now the admiral is an object of art on a wall, as the world has come to trade with China, oblivious of the admiral’s journeys.

Write to Salil at

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