When my husband and I stood at the Bund in Shanghai a few weeks ago, it struck me that the word bund had to have been distilled from Hindi. A quick check on my iPhone after I walked into a WiFi hotspot got me my answer. The word bund was attributed to Hindi which had purloined it from Farsi. Bund refers to an embankment or a raised platform running along a harbor or a waterway.
I learned that Jews from British strongholds such as Baghdad and Bombay settled in Shanghai in the 19th century and built their businesses in banking, shipping and utilities by the Huangpu River. The term bund seems to have been a natural choice for a name along the lines of the bunds and levees in Baghdad by the Tigris River.
In Shanghai downtown today, the Bund refers to a waterfront area that stretches over a mile alongside the river. It is a dramatic, panoramic stage by day; it is a live and happening son et lumière by night.
On one side, beyond the waters, is the gleaming metal and glass of the new China. On the other side of the raised promenade, just abutting the road, is a distinguished sweep of consulate buildings, real estate firms, insurance offices and banking institutions that are maintained with deference to history and heritage. These old edifices with stunning mosaics, friezes, capitals and colonnades harbor tales of a China that once traded in opium, tea, silk and cotton. They evoke an epoch when Shanghai was one of the largest ports in the world.
When you stand on the Bund, and swivel around for a 360° degree view, you can feel a nation’s evolution. You almost understand why the government has squelched any literature on the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests; you almost condone those moats around Google and Facebook; you begin to turn a blind eye to the frequent military drills in the heart of the city. Instead all you see is this: China has been on a 10% per annum growth in the last 34 years; its gross domestic product (GDP) is 9.3 trillion U.S. dollars making it the second largest economy in the world and in 2013 it contributed 28% to the GDP growth globally.
My husband and I were drawn to the Bund several times in a two-day period because it had a different appeal by day and by night. Still, I really could not see the need for more than a couple of terrific photographs. “Excuse me, the Oriental Pearl Tower looks just the same from a second ago,” I said to him. “It hasn’t moved. Can you please stop taking photos? And please may we leave?” He didn’t listen. I drifted off to a bench to rest my tired feet. Later, when he and I met again after a ten-minute interval and began walking back, he told me of having been propositioned, several times in my absence, by women and men, with the promise of a “massageeee.”
“Well, what did you expect?” I asked. This was China where you had to be savvy enough to not press the “massage” button on the hotel telephone pad unless you wanted service in your room, which, if and when you opened the door, could have far greater consequences than dialing room service for tea and cookies.
Perhaps that was why our host, Chen, preferred to never leave us alone. He made sure we had locals to guide us in Beijing and Shanghai. In Hangzhou, Chen escorted us on a public bus to a village where he then led us up an endless number of steps towards miles of terraced tea gardens growing Longjing tea. Later, after lunch, he ferried us to the lush Xixi Wetlands Park where, for two hours, we lounged on a shallow wooden boat. We listened to the call of birds. We sipped green tea. The only thing that knifed into the stillness: the cell phone trill of the boatwoman.
Like China, Chen was always on the go. During the week with us, he hosted several foreigners with different needs and plans, ordering elaborate meals for his guests of many dietary preferences, hovering over us with a bottle of maotai, juggling calls from his wife, planning the logistics for a tech conference, delegating his underlings to pick up visitors at the airport and spewing confidently to delegates double his age on technology, China and the world. No wonder he was a sweat factory: he was always wiping his face and dabbing his head and mopping his nose and blotting the dampness off his glasses and his brow.
A half-hour before we boarded our bullet train to Shanghai, we stood at the spanking railway station in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. Surely, this took some ten years to build, I said to Chen. “No way! This is China!” he proclaimed proudly, dabbing his forehead with a tissue. “That’s too long. One year. 1.5 years at most! We have 1.3 billion people.”
I was computing by Indian standards. We had manpower in India too; but a two-line metro in Chennai had taken over four years and according to reports, its opening would be delayed. We faced another challenge in India—that of maintenance of public facilities. Wherever we went in China, upkeep of the old and the new dominated the national psyche. Inside Hangzhou station, uniformed staff in blue walked behind me with broom and rake, gathering the dust exuded by my shoes. The station, with its thirty railway lines, was as grand as an airport in vision and implementation. In the far distance, eight uniformed staff clicked past us, spiffy in stiff skirts, formal blouses, bow ties, badges and polished black shoes.
Chen motioned for me to place my luggage on the conveyor for security check. “Yes, exactly like you would at the airport,” he said. “And go ahead, pull out your passport and ticket.” This was the China of intense scrutiny where everything was forbidden until sanctioned.
I scooted through the security gate. The alarms sounded. A security officer put up her hand and walked up towards me. She groped me in places that hadn’t seen light since the day I was born. I remembered that this too was China, the country with an anal disposition—in just about everything that it set out to do.