A City of Contrasts & Contradictions
There’s something about the brand spanking newness of this megalopolis fused with its ancient history that is both glamorous and intriguing. Now on my 4th visit I am trying to fathom what it is about this city full of contrasts that lures me in, and with equal vigour, spits me out again. Equally shaped by its past and present, Shanghai has a unique and defining character – visiting Shanghai is not really visiting China, as I have been told.
Amidst the ultra modern skyline of gleaming skyscrapers lies a bedlam of tooting horns, gridlocked traffic and 24 million people pushing their way to get somewhere. The volume dial is permanently set on high. Dialogue between locals can sound more like a violent disagreement than a simple conversation. Spitting on the street is still commonplace and perfectly acceptable.
Considerably less polluted than the capital city Beijing with its legendary images of smog and mask bearers, the Shanghai index occasionally alerts us to ‘poor air quality for sensitive types’. Organic ‘farm to table’ produce is increasingly available and popular though I have debated the benefits of walking to the store inhaling toxic fumes rather than settling for the non-organic variety.
There’s a palpable energy to the city that is rising, or should I say resurrecting, at rapid speed. Futuristic buildings pop up on the horizon between visits. The proliferation of technology allows me to buy dried fruit from a street side vendor or rent one of the thousands of bikes lining the streets instantaneously, at a single swipe of my phone.
Though the costs of home comforts are rising at a comparable rate, the availability of low cost manpower makes for access to simple luxuries: excellent massages at all hours, the Ayī who eagerly grabs my yoga mat and wipes it for me after each class and laundry services that don’t break the bank, to mention but a few. The city can be comforting, exciting and abrasive in equal measures!
The Chinese are generally reserved and less expressive, tending to hold back from outward expression of emotion. In a culture that feels closed and exclusive it took several visits to establish some connection and prove my ‘street cred’ with the locals. After multiple visits I was greeted warmly at the milongas and promptly invited to the floor by acquainted tangueros; a far cry from my first tango experience in the megacity.
My first visit in July 2016 was timed with the Shanghai Tango Marathon. While the milonga and workshop packed agenda promised 5 days and nights of dancing in the old world charm of the luxurious Peace Hotel, my reality was somewhat different.
The festivals attract competent dancers from across the region including Korea, Singapore and Beijing. The formalities of the gala milongas are challenging for cabaceos. Experienced dancers tend to flow within their own groups, less inclined to circulate with outsiders. Despite my best efforts, I felt invisible and conspicuously foreign.
For serious dancers, the after milongas are where the action takes place. Usually held in the dance studios of the respective organizers, these can be crowded, sweaty and intense - but then which really good milonga isn’t? This is where the formalities relax just enough for locals to notice and engage with the newer ones amongst us.
With some persistence and an increasing level of familiarity I have managed to break through the cultural barriers to enjoy some beautiful shared expression with the locals. Our exchange is often limited to an acknowledging nod and an awkward smile as few locals speak English or lack the confidence to try.
The standard of dancing is relatively high and the style is traditional. The Chinese are disciplined and the serious ones are technically adept. Shanghai’s population is made up of many ethnic groups, so the image that all Chinese are short was debunked within my first few milongas. Shanghai milongas also host resident expats and business tourists. The budding and competitive community attracts a consistent stream of visits from A-list maestros.
It is in this city of contrasts, wrapped in many a close embrace, that I reached a deeper level of appreciation for the connection that is tango. My mandarin doesn’t go beyond ni hao, xiè xie and an interpretable pronunciation of my street address so I can barely exchange a word with the non English speaking natives. The collective interpretation and expression of letras de tango, becomes the only dialogue that transcends the language and cultural divide.
Tango Highlight: The local milongas are particularly strong around the festivals. The influx of tangueros and top name DJ’s creates for an energetic albeit exhausting few days. The milonga venues range from grungy to glamorous and everything in between, representing Shanghai in her true likeness.The Sunday milonga especially is an absolute treat. The setting is evocative of belle époque Shanghai with an uncanny resemblance to Buenos Aires in days gone by. Located upstairs from a small Taiwanese restaurant the music spills out of the velvet-curtained windows and beckons from the roadside.
City Highlight: The contrast of modernism in co-existence with ancient traditions and customs. The architectural intrigue and oak tree-lined avenues of the trendy former French Concession. Oh and the outstanding massages on hand most hours of the day to keep the weary feet inexpensively rejuvenated.
More on Tango in Shanghai: There are two almost rivalling organizers of note here. Tango Bang, who organizes the July Festival and Tango Go who organizes the November Marathon. The label ‘marathon’ in this case is misleading, as it’s very much a festival with workshops by leading maestros.
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