The Asian Wall Street Journal
Weekend Journal
August 21-22, 1998

Shanghai's Zoological Renaissance

by Bretigne Shaffer

SHANGHAI - I didn't know what to expect when a Chinese friend offered to take me to the Shanghai zoo 10 years ago. It was a chilly winter day, with grey skies. The tree branches were bare, and the ground was frozen and muddy. The cages were too small, and they all stank. We walked to the wild cat area and stood by the cage of a large black panther. Tattered and dull-eyed, it paced continuously around its approximately 100-square-foot cement home.

Behind us, a group of people approached, dressed in the usual drab greys and blues of China in the 1980s. They shouted when they got near the panther, and immediately reached down for rocks to throw at the beast. There was laughter as a flying stone caused the cat to jump.

My friend seemed embarrassed. "Let's go," he said, and we moved on.

But wherever we went, we found clusters of people throwing rocks and shouting at the animals. Finally, we ended up in the elephant house. Even though it too reeked of filth, at least we were away from the rock-throwing crowds. Inside, we witnessed an "elephant show," wherein a "trainer" repeatedly hit a baby elephant with a stick until the animal assumed the correct position - standing on its hind legs, and then on its head. I told my friend I was getting tired, and we left.

I have been back to Shanghai several times since then, and have seen the city move from a grandiose ghost town, dominated by decrepit state enterprises, to something approaching a modern metropolis in the span of only 10 years. But I never had any desire to return to the zoo - until a trip I took recently.

I had always held a kind of twisted nostalgia for the slow-moving, impoverished city I visited a decade ago. There was a stagnancy in the air then - a grey ooze you could almost feel as you pushed through it to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. Yet in that stagnant atmosphere floated the dust of history. You could smell the mustiness, feel the ghosts brush past you in lonely hotel corridors, sense the unfinished business left hanging in the air when the city was suddenly stopped in time.

That oppressive stillness is no longer there. Miles of neon now illuminate what were once dark, lifeless streets; current Hong Kong fashion has replaced the drab and monochrome garb of the mainland. Even the less tangible indicators are astounding: customer service has gone from sadistic to helpful. Most striking - and impossible to quantify - are the changes in the faces of the people walking in the streets. Gone are the dismal and vacant looks as people shuffled their way to wherever they were going. Now, the faces seem more alive, more interested, more eager to get to their destinations. This time I started to wonder - what if the changes I was seeing extended to what I had seen at the zoo a decade ago? I decided to find out.

When I got there, the zoo seemed a throwback to the previous decade. There was a stillness in the air, and people moved slowly. I decided to get a snack before heading for the exhibits. I asked the woman behind the counter for a popsicle and she tossed one to me without a word. I paid her, and she threw my change down on the counter. My heart leapt. I hadn't experienced truly surly service on this entire trip. Could this be a remnant of the Shanghai I had once known? A few moments inside reminded me of why I had stayed away for 10 years.

An aquarium, about the size of an ox cart, held two large sea turtles - each at least two feet in diameter. One swam around in the tight circles allowed by the space, while the other simply sat in the corner, its flippers up against the wall, as if seeking an exit. Bottle caps and coins littered the home of the Chinese alligators. Terrariums were crowded with snakes, piled on top of each other - some of them quite obviously dead, their bodies far too withered and grey to be merely shedding.

I remembered the pacing panther from my last trip and moved on to the wild cats display.

A woman approached, carrying one child, and surrounded by several more. She stepped up to the railing and pointed the caged puma out to the child in her arms. Then she pulled apart some bread she was carrying, and, one by one, tossed pieces of it into the animal's cage. The children followed suit, tossing bread and cheese-puff snacks to the wild cat.

After only a few minutes it was clear that what I was looking for was not here. In flagrant violation of the crossed-circle signs warning people not to feed the animals, visitors were tossing in pieces of white bread, candy, and a variety of snack food - a form of cruelty, no doubt, but a less immediate one than what I had seen 10 years ago.

One man climbed over the barrier between the crowd and a cage of wolves, and pushed pieces of Fig Newtons under the bars of the cage. A little boy stood pressed against the first of two sets of bars separating himself from a huge brown bear, and dropped pieces of bread into the bear's waiting mouth. The boy's father looked on, smiling.

As I rode the bus back to the city, I recalled an image from the old Shanghai Acrobatics performance: A terrified panda being wheeled around and around the ring, as loud horns and circus music blared, bright lights flashed, and the audience cried for more.

As the bus lurched through the tangled mass of traffic, horns blasting and bicycle bells screaming for attention, I was filled with ambivalence. I should have been overjoyed that there was no rock-throwing at the zoo. Instead, it just seemed normal. It seemed as "natural" as the Coca-Cola signs that now dot Nanjing Road: just another part of the progress Shanghai was making toward the modern world.

Ms. Shaffer is an editorial page writer of The Asian Wall Street Journal.

Copyright Dow Jones & Co. 1998