Marcel Marsal takes a sip of Chinese tea, nudges his sliding oversized glasses back in place and continues looking at the tea-house activity.
His immaculately slicked silver mane doesn't distract from his keen eyes reflecting the razor-sharp observation skills of a writer and journalist. This sprightly veteran reporter has been to China more than 10 times, four times to cover state visits by the governing French president.
He's seen many changes since that first visit in 1973. While much of it is good, Marsal has a message for city planners.
"Maybe Shanghai has changed too fast for its own good," says the 60-year-old. "I'm just wondering if the city can hold its own and stick to its own unique roots during this process of fast development. Whether it is able to defend its culture or just copy from others."
Marsal is probing into this issue by visiting a full-page list of artists and designers in Shanghai. He will write an in-depth report back in France later this week.
Indeed, Marsal feels the energy and vibe that is at the heart of Shanghai. But he is not alone in this regard. Nor is he alone on this trip. Seven other French writers have joined the French Writer's Tour in Shanghai -- all part of the cultural exchange programs between France and China to celebrate the Year of China in France.
The Year of China, which has already started, runs until the end of next July and gives the French public an opportunity to discover Chinese culture in all its forms.
After their two-week stay in Shanghai, the writers will produce an essay collection inspired by the trip and a bilingual publication.
"When I came here in 2000, I found the biggest change was not only the city's infrastructure, but also people's mentality," Marsal says.
Now gauging the artistic pulse and the potential future direction of the city, Marsal is meeting a group of people. He has spoken with Xu Maoping, a painter who has resided in Japan for six years; Switzerland-native Lorenz Helbling, owner of ShanghART gallery; Zhou Tiehai, a local painter who has switched from a Western style back to Chinese techniques; and Li Xu, director of academic research for the Shanghai Art Museum, among others.
Jean Jacques Viton, a poet and member of the French literary entourage, says that although situated at the two extremities of their respective continental land mass, cultural and commercial exchanges have been active for centuries.
"In the last century, reform and revolutionary currents of thought born of the French Revolution were widespread in Asia," he says. "Dr Sun Yat-sen, who devised his three principles for the people, was inspired by the motto of the French Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."
The two countries also have rich literary histories. Translations undertaken throughout the decades have introduced Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu -- the Age of Enlightenment thinkers -- to Chinese readers. The practice has continued with late 19th-century philosophers such as Auguste Comte and Henri Louis Bergson receiving Chinese translations.
Chinese literature has unleashed its own influence -- the thought of Confucius and Lao-tzu, plus the works by Lu Xun, Lao She and Ba Jin. Writers Chen Baoyi and Dai Sijie are both winners of the Femina Prize, one of the top three literary awards in France.
There are always new things to watch and experience with every trip to China. Marsal says that he now has a plethora of stories to peddle back in France.
It's a big change from his first visit in 1973, a time he recalls as being dreary and everyone wearing the same clothing. In the following years, Marsal visited the country with successive presidents Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Francois Maurice Mitterrand and Jacques Rene Chirac.
"Shanghai is going at this harried pace," Marsal says. "The city's landscape is like a drawing board. With the flutter of an ambitious brush, you tear things down and build things up. But I really hope that it keeps to its roots and characteristics because that is what tells you about Shanghai." Marcel Marsal, who has been to China about 10 times, is amazed by the great changes in Shanghai in the past 30 years.
(Shanghai Daily November 6, 2003)