“I’ve seen the future.”

So said a colleague of mine here, as he recounted his experience of visiting Shanghai the weekend just past. Of course, having returned from Shanghai a full week earlier, the Guy, the Kid and I were experienced veterans, nodding wisely in reply.

But later at dinner, the three of us wondered aloud among ourselves what exactly he’d meant by his pronouncement. The Guy and the Kid thought he was being utopian, as in “Shanghai is a city of amazing, colourfully illuminated skyscrapers and bullet trains and astonishing, bright, shiny wealth and luxury. That is how I imagine the future. Hence, having seen Shanghai, I have seen the future.”

Well, maybe. I’m sure lots of people have that experience of Shanghai. For me, it was a different vision of the future, a less utopian one.

I mean, all the Jetsons stuff is there, alright. The bullet train to Shanghai is astonishingly fast and efficient. It travels 300 kph with nary a bump or a jiggle. Inside, in air conditioned comfort, passengers recline in plush bucket seats, electronic devices charging, as uniformed attendants offer tea and cakes. On the screens overhead – movies and reports on the train’s speed, distance from its destination, etc.

But, look out the windows. There, the landscape between Nanjing and Shanghai is 1960s industrial. Big, square, grey buildings. Smokestacks, factories, cramped lodgings with laundry and cooking outside. The occasional hill, and occasionally a small temple on top of the hill. But, otherwise, everything is grey.

This cheek by jowl juxtaposition of the technological advancement and concomitant comfort of the bullet train with the hardscrabble existence of the poor is emblematic of Shanghai. It’s a city of contrasts – old and new, wealth and poverty, East and West.

I’ve never seen such wealth in my life. The rich in Shanghai are very, very rich, and, for them, there are five star hotels, French champagne, Dolce and Gabbana and Jimmy Choo. But the poor are extremely poor.

The first evidence of this is the cheapness of the labour. In general, Chinese litter and spit more readily than most Westerners do. However, the streets of Shanghai (like the streets of Nanjing, and, one presumes, every other Chinese city) are extremely clean because there is an army of poor people always near to hand to clean up other people’s messes. Many of these are salaried workers – either for some level of government or for a private store, etc. These uniformed workers are ubiquitous – constantly cleaning up litter, sweeping, wiping people’s spit off floors. (Seriously. At an upscale mall near our Nanjing apartment, there’s a uniformed old woman with a cloth whose sole occupation is to key an eye out for spit on the floor, and wipe it up when she finds it. Alas, this task keeps her busy.)

In addition to this “regular army,” there are also guerrilla cleaners – unsalaried entrepreneurs who hover near the garbage cans to sort through and remove any recycling. So far as I can tell, I never pay a deposit when I buy a tin of beer or a bottle of pop. So, I don’t think these people make their money by redeeming these things for their deposits. Besides, their huge, always-overflowing carts and bags of recycling are really diverse – not just bottles and tins but broken things of all shapes and sizes and materials. When we first arrived at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport weeks ago, we were astonished to note that the signs on the recycling bins picture not just bottles and cans, but also shoes and umbrellas. At the time, we wondered how we’d know what to put in the recycling and what to throw out. We need not have worried. Essentially, so long as it’s not food waste, the recycling people will take it, regardless of where you put it. Indeed, most areas in Chinese cities only have garbage cans and no recycling bins. But, someone like me who always obsesses about putting recyclables in the blue bin can be confident that any recyclables in the garbage here will be recycled because there’s always a salvager lurking nearby, waiting to sort through the garbage. Indeed, in Shanghai, the Kid, the Guy and I started simply handing our recyclables to these people, who beamed with gratitude for our having saved them the digging-through-garbage step. While we were happy to cooperate with them, it was, of course, difficult for us to feel that we were being very munificent. That’s one of the weird, disturbing, discomfiting things about Shanghai. You can hand a person inconceivably poorer than you your refuse and, as a consequence, receive their gratitude.

But these people – the salaried cleaners and the independent recyclers – aren’t the poorest of the poor. In Shanghai, the very poorest people are those who are physically unable to sort through garbage – very old people, and people with severe disabilities. These people survive by (often aggressive) panhandling – now that I’ve typed it, that term feels too North American for this context, but I’m conditioned not to say “begging”, the term of choice around here. Public areas are full of people with missing limbs, twisted bodies, chemical burns, and misshapen, crying babies, variously pressing themselves upon visitors – especially foreigners – with their metal cups.

I wondered to myself whether an allegedly communist state has a social safety net for such people, and why they aren’t using it. Then, I saw a news report on CCTV about a Beijing man currently facing charges for defrauding the Beijing medical system out of 70,000 yuan of services for his sick wife. On the discussion panel that followed the report, one expert explained that people’s health and senior citizen’s benefits are attached to their province and city of citizenship. China tightly controls internal migration. It is extremely difficult for rural peasants to receive official approval of an application to move to the city. Of course, the cities need the cheap labour of migrant workers; so, they come illegally nonetheless. But, when they get old or fall ill, they fall between the cracks. They can’t afford to go back to their official home, and they aren’t entitled to any benefits in the city. I don’t know if that explains all of it. I have no idea whether the social programs within any Chinese jurisdiction are adequate to provide decent health care and a dignified old age for legal citizens. There are so many people here, and life is (in some respects at least) so cheap, I’d be surprised to learn that social programs are very good. But this is merely a hunch, not a reliable report. What I can report is that even in wealthy Shanghai, it is rare to see a wheelchair or (hence) a wheelchair ramp. It is a country of stairways and narrow streets. Not remotely “accessible”, to use the North American term.

At the train station, we are panhandled by (inter alia) a young man who is missing an arm, a woman who looks 55 but who might be 30 and who is carrying a photo of her severely disabled daughter, and a very old man dressed all in black who has the mien of a proletarian and looks old enough to have been there with Mao from the start.

In addition to the cleaners and panhandlers, there are of course the touts and hawkers. One tout makes the Guy for a likely target and follows us for ten minutes until we shake him. Some hawkers have their wares spread out on the ground – outside the metro, inside the metro, in the train station, at the park, near the museum, lining the streets. They sell knock-off designer sunglasses and purses and watches, kitschy souvenirs, toys – gadgets that convert your shoes into disco roller skates, brightly lit spinning tops, handheld laser shows, extravagantly-shaped foil helium balloons. And animals too! A basket of improbably coloured puppies, a bike overladen with songbirds, baby bunnies and chipmunks, each crammed into its own tiny bamboo cage – the birds appear stoic, the rabbits are overheated and in despair, the chipmunks work to McGyver their way out. Festooning the pet-bike – countless smaller bamboo cages each housing a chirping cricket. In the international language of gesture, the Kid asks the merchant if she can take some photos; he shrugs in the affirmative. He looks as depressed as the rabbits. When the impromptu photo shoot is done, he climbs onto the bike and begins to slowly work his way through the crowd. I wonder how many smotheringly hot Shanghai back alley storefronts house more rabbits and birds and chipmunks (and other things)? How many in Beijing? How many in China?

Somehow, it’s easier to think of all the unseen, overheated animals than all of the sick, the poor, the disabled people. But, it’s very difficult to think even of the animals for very long. The enormity of the suffering, and our helplessness in the face of it, is overwhelming. In the case of the bunnies, of course, there is the additional paradox that the rabbits are bred and kept captive in inhumane conditions because of people’s fondness for them. If Chinese children didn’t feel their hearts soften when they see them, the market would dry up. I’m reminded of that old carnival attraction from my childhood wherein you could insert a coin in a machine and watch a duck or a chicken dance to tinny music. I used to pop one coin after another in the slot, delighting in the duck’s antics. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the duck was dancing because inserting the coin set off a mechanism that ran an electrical current through the metal floor on which it stood. How many children paid to torture ducks, I wonder?

But this is the past. What about the alleged future that one can see in Shanghai? It is most obviously present in Pudong.

Shanghai is more or less divided in two by the Huangpu River. To the west of the Huangpu is Nanjing Road, the French Concession, the Old City, the Bund. Across the river to the east is Pudong, Shanghai’s Mississauga. Pudong is rich – nouveau riche – in a way distinctively Chinese. On a chunk of land jutting into the river and probably occupying not much more than a square kilometre is crammed countless gleaming skyscrapers in implausible shapes – this one is a skewer of multiple illuminated spheres, this one is a handbag. Each of these buildings is colourfully illuminated, usually in multiple trailer park Christmas tree colours, many of them with lights blinking on and off in patterns that create an animated effect. We didn’t get the full force of this at first. We took the metro to the Pudong side of the river before sunset and spent a long time on an abortive effort to find Shanghai’s Sex Museum. The Guy was reluctant, but the Kid and I didn’t want to miss it. Alas, our two Shanghai maps allotted different names to the very same streets, and none of these corresponded with the names on the actual street signs. And, we didn’t want to ask for directions because doing so would bring even more touts on us. So, we spent a long time wandering the streets of Pudong, seeing it in daylight from just below.

Eventually, we gave up and crossed the Huangpu using the so-called Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. I say “so-called” because it is impossible to engage in any Bund Sightseeing in the underwater tunnel. Instead, passengers – six or eight to each automatic, unattended bubble car – are treated to an LSD lightshow complete with trippy sound effects and giant inflatable wavy arm guys – the kind you see at used car lots. Large flatscreens project images of molten lava, space, deep sea weirdness. The effect, I think, is meant to be awe. We just giggled.

Emerging on the west side of the river just as the sun set, we saw Pudong as it wants to be seen – by Shanghai. The sight was literally breath-taking. Pudong may be tacky, but (or maybe “so”) there’s no taking your eyes off it.

We climbed the stairs to the wide elevated promenade that runs parallel with the river for the length of the Bund. There, we were treated to a vista likely unmatched by any city on the planet. To the west, stretches the Bund – the centre of colonial, 19th century Shanghai. Monumental, grey stone buildings such as one finds in Paris, London, Berlin, New York. The only hint that you’re in China is the occasional Chinese flag flying from a rooftop pole where once flew a European flag. To the east is garish, sci-fi Pudong. I can’t think of anywhere else on the planet where one can straddle two such distinct, but equally ambitious, visions – one of a stately empire upon which the sun never set, one of a Buck Rogers future where the party gets started when the sun goes down. The effect is utterly unique, and utterly unforgettable. The promenade itself is a mass of festive people, mostly Chinese, posing for photos, laughing, playing, eating, drinking. And, weirdly, no touts, no salespeople, no panhandlers. There’s no other public place in Shanghai like it. Below us, on the water, brightly coloured tour boats decorated to look like junks sail alongside dark barges.

When we descend the stairs to head back to the metro, we only have to go a couple of blocks before we come upon a large pool of what can only be blood, some unidentifiable shredded animal tissue mixed in with it, in the alcove of a building. One or two people stop and look at the puddle. As they realize what it is, they exchange glances with us. Very briefly, we share in the horror of imagining what happened. But there’s nothing to be done. We hasten our pace. Someone will be along to clean it soon.