Thursday, 1 October 2009

Sixty Years Later, Starbucks and the Museum of the First Natioinal Congress of the Chinese Communist Party

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Communist rule in China, with big parades and much talk. Things have changed since then, but sometimes it almost seems that history is doubling back.

I am reminded of the visit I took to Shanghai when I was working on my book Green City a couple of years ago. Karl Marx and Mao Zedong were still present in Shanghai then, but in a way that neither would recognize.

For example, on the Sunday afternoon in April when I visited the former girl’s school where the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China met in July 1921, teenagers were brandishing a red banner at least two meters by two and a half meters (6.6 by 8.2 feet). But they were laughing and joking, full of high spirits as they waited for their leader to buy tickets for the museum.

Then they rushed inside, leaving behind them a wake of excitement and hormones. Of course the thirteen delegates to the Congress more than eighty years previously weren’t much older than they were: the youngest was nineteen, most were in their mid-twenties and the future Chairman Mao Zedong was only twenty-eight.

The two-storey building where those historic meetings were held has been refurbished. Its blue-gray brick façade set with four ornamental courses of red brick has been cleaned and the semicircles of bas relief above the doors are carefully painted. Inside, exhibits presented the history of the Chinese people during the century of submission to Western capitalist interests from the 1840s to the Communist Revolution. On display were clubs used by police, paper money issued by foreign banks, the Communist Manifesto in Chinese with a portrait of Marx, and photos of starving peasants. So were the simple but graceful chairs and table around which sat the delegates and two European visitors from the Comintern. To read the captions on all the exhibits (posted in both English and Chinese) could take an hour or so.

But the kids roared through. The only place they paused was before a diorama showing life-size figures of the delegates deliberating. Mao is standing in it, the others listening, as in Michelangelo’s “Last Supper.” Then the youngsters were off to the rest of their Sunday adventure, to their own lives.

Maybe, even, to Starbuck’s for coffee.

Yes, the Seattle chain has an outlet just around the corner. The museum is at the entrance to Xitiandi, a completely reconstructed area which mimics traditional housing for the tourist trade. Starbucks is there, as well as McDonald’s and another half dozen or so restaurants where you can get seven different non-Chinese sorts of cuisine.

What would Mao think about that?

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