Letter from Shanghai

Somehow, I found myself in Shanghai, or Pudong to be exact, and I have a few hours in a posh hotel with free internet access before my next appointment; so here I go again, scribbling you something for what they would be worth.

My last job, last paid job that is, required me to go to China, mainly Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta Area, as often as I could. Looking back, Pudong was just picking up and the airport there was only recently opened then. I also recalled a visit by my father-in-law to Hong Kong during which Rosita took him to Beijing and Shanghai when I had to go to some other places. It was a time she was still fit to travel by herself; and father and daughter decided to search their roots and to meet some relatives they had not seen for a very long time and probably would never again, at least for a very long time.

Some people have said that there are commonalities between big cities, such that one can see similarities between London and Hong Kong, or Paris and Shanghai. Well, Shanghai is not exactly one monolithic city block with one feature, except for the 50km of highway connecting Pudong Airport and the city itself. The giant hand of central planning is very much evident and visible. People all over the world converge on Shanghai and people all over China came here to try to make a life for themselves and for their future generations. Some made it, but many did not.

As I look out of the window from a high floor of the hotel across the river, I see haze and mist all over the place. It had been raining, or drizzling rather, somewhat unseasonably early they said, making the city look more miserable and dirtier than it really is. I see high rises and tall buildings all around, and as I approached the city from the airport, I saw many expensive looking residential blocks well occupied, and with more coming up. Shanghai and Pudong in particular, is determined to succeed.

On CNN and BCC, news of the unrest in Tibet continued alongside with the Dalai Lama’s threat to resign as Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile, and together with news of two big names in the fictional and entertainment world respectively.

The first one is Arthur C Clarke, or Sir Arthur rather, who came to fame in 1968 when one of his earlier short story, “The Sentinel” was made into a film “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick. Sir Arthur had written more than 100 fiction and non-fiction books, and his writings are credited by many commentators as having given science fiction a human and practical face. When he said in the 1940s that man would reach the moon by the year 2000, nobody listened to him. He died at 90.

I vividly remember watching the movie in the late Sixties and the first visual impact. I have since watched it a few times, including once in a hotel a few months ago which showed the film continuously on one of its channels. I woke up in the middle of the night, flipped to the channel and stayed with it because of the music. Much of the film’s initial impact on me had faded, including the symbolism, the acting, the cinematography, the computer and HAL’s voice, but it was still a great film. It was the Sixties, when so many things happened in the manner and fashion that young people in their twenties today could never imagine.

The other one is of course Anthony Minghella who died suddenly after some surgeries, at the rather young age of 54. Minghella was a writer turned director, shot to fame by his film “The English Patient” which won nine Oscars including one for himself as best director in 1997. He had made many good movies, including Truly, Madly, Deeply, Cold Mountain and Talented Mr. Ripley. Jude Law, who had worked with him on three films, said he was deeply shocked and saddened, adding that he was a brilliantly talented writer and director and a sweet, warm, bright and funny man.

Many celebrities and movie stars spoke of the shock from his premature death. Perhaps the sentiments could be summarized in what his friend Lord Puttnam, who is also a film producer, said, “He started as a writer; he was not a stylist as a director; he saw himself as a storyteller and his films were very well told, beautifully made and beautifully acted.”

Even UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown had something to say. He said, “He was one of Britain’s greatest creative talents, one of our finest screen writers and directors, a great champion of the British film industry and expert on literature and opera” Minghella had directed in a Labour Party broadcast before the 2005 General Election.

“English Patient” is one of my favourite movies. I had a DVD along with other numbers kept by the bedside so that I can watch bits of it when I woke up in the middle of the night. One theme running in the film is ownership and being owned. Who owns what and what are being owned by whom? After the two main characters Katharine and Almasy had slept together, Katharine asked Almasy what he hated most. His reply was ownership and being owned. He told her to forget him when she left his house. However, such aloofness and detachment was rather short-lived; and Almasy began to demand ownership of Katherine, claiming for ownership of her shoulder blade when he touched it, and then went on to claiming other parts of her anatomy, as if it were a proclamation that his love for Katharine would entitle him to ownership of her.

Such development is not uncommon and could even be natural, fictional though I have started it. And I suppose I can present such a situation through the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, or simply, cause and effect. The affair was precipitated as follows. The attraction between them had given rise to desires, desires to own, desires to be together, to have sex and so on. Such desires led to attachments and cravings which fed on themselves, resulting in more desires. Whether such desires had led to love is neither here nor there, without first dissecting or examining the conditions that had given rise to those desires in the first place and without looking into the commitments and responsibilities of each to each other and to the people to whom they owed such commitments and responsibilities, socially, legally and morally. In the end, it gave rise to more sufferings and eventually death, and so on and so on. As I had said somewhere before, love and hate are on the same side, which are no more than feelings and a far cry from the loving-kindness type of love which is unconditional, always there and sacrificial.

Ownership and the desire to own could well be a root cause of human conflicts and discontent. I watched a recent BBC documentary which presented in numbers the average food and resources a person consumed and owned in one life, beginning with a suggestion that our early average ancestor would typically own no more than a loin cloth and a stick. In the wake of the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, CNN told us that the USA initiative is costing the country US$12 billion a month and has caused numerous civilian deaths and other casualties. Now there are at least 4 million refugees roaming the streets of Iraq; and the UN has described the situation as phenomenal.

I wish you all out there a Happy Easter ahead.

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