Shanghai Is Ready For Its Close-Up

China's most glamorous city celebrates its return to the world stage with an eye-popping expo

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Zhou Libo's show at the cavernous Shanghai International Gymnastics Center has been sold out for days, and after I finally get a ticket, I understand why. Sporting a tuxedo and a white bow tie, Zhou, 43, a stand-up comedian, delivers rapid-fire jokes, mostly about life in Shanghai. The theme is "I'm crazy about money," and Zhou riffs on soaring property prices, how much it costs to raise kids, even how much the U.S. owes China. The audience of some 3,700 roars its approval. People are clapping, slapping their thighs, stomping the floor. I manage a smile, but even though I am a Mandarin speaker, I don't really get the humor, and many of my Chinese friends would be almost as lost. While Zhou sets up his jokes in Mandarin, the punch lines are nearly always in the local Shanghai dialect. This much I do get, however: the performance is an unabashed celebration of all things Shanghai and Shanghainese.

For China's most dynamic, most cosmopolitan and sassiest city, this is a time to celebrate. After decades of hibernation following the founding of Mao Zedong's People's Republic in 1949, Shanghai is returning to its roost as a global center of commerce and culture. This year Shanghai, as host of Expo 2010, is squarely in the international spotlight. The fair opens May 1, and organizers expect more than 70 million visitors over six months.

Shanghai's style is to do things big. Its population of 19 million makes it one of the largest metropolises on the planet. More than 750 foreign multinational companies have offices in the city. The skyline counts more than 30 buildings over 650 ft. (200 m) tall. Stroll down certain streets, and you can easily imagine that you are in midtown Manhattan — so much so that on visiting the city in 2007 for the MTV Style Gala, Paris Hilton was moved to declare, "Shanghai looks like the future."

Yet Shanghai is still trying to determine what that future should be. For all the money (local and foreign), the constant building and rebuilding, the international profile — and the pride and confidence all these things engender — you get a sense when you speak with many Shanghainese that the city is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Much of it revolves around whether and how to preserve the past — not just physical structures but also what has always both made Shanghai part of and set it apart from the rest of China. "On the one hand, living conditions are better than before," says prominent crime novelist Qiu Xiaolong, who sets his books in 1990s Shanghai. "At the same time, people feel kind of lost. In my books, people sit in front of their shikumen [stone gate] houses and talk. Nowadays people are shut up in air-conditioning. They want things to be better, but they don't know whether to look forward or back."

A Rich Heritage
Shanghai has been here before. The Chinese fishing and trading port gained global prominence in the mid – 19th century, when after the First Opium War, British forces opened the city to foreign trade. Britain, France and the U.S. carved out concessions. Investment poured in, and foreign businesses built stately temples of commerce along the Bund, the line of early – 20th century buildings along the Huangpu River. The population of foreigners grew to nearly 70,000 in 1932 and more than doubled over the next decade as Russians fleeing Stalin's purges and Jews escaping the Nazis found sanctuary in the city. Old Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East for its cosmopolitanism, but in truth it was more international than just about anywhere else in the world.

All that came to a halt after the communist takeover in 1949, when the foreign community fled en masse and educated Shanghai residents were dispatched to other provinces to help develop the nation's industrial base. China was effectively closed for the next three decades, but Shanghai's worldliness was never fully extinguished. TV host Cao Kefan recalls how his father — who graduated from Shanghai's prestigious, Anglican-run St. John's University in 1949 — taught him English and Japanese as a boy when the languages were no longer offered in school.

After 1949, Shanghai's residents learned some painful lessons in humility, chiefly playing second fiddle to Beijing. "When I studied in Beijing in the late 1970s and the early '80s, the best compliment I got from a classmate was that I did not really seem Shanghainese," says Qiu, the novelist, who grew up in Shanghai and now lives in the U.S. "It was a negative thing." Today, while any idea of inferiority has vanished, many Shanghainese yearn for a past grandeur. Says Cao, the TV host: "The heart of the people in Shanghai is now returning to that of the 1930s and '40s. Everyone wants to return to that former glory."

Shanghai's former glory came on the West's terms. This time Shanghai is doing it on its own, which is why there is such interest in local culture and language. In December, when two hosts on the Shanghai radio station Moving 101 were chatting in Shanghainese between songs, a listener wrote in to express disgust that they weren't speaking standard Mandarin. To the delight of his Shanghainese fans, host Xiao Jun replied that the listener should get out of town. Even longtime expatriates can feel excluded. "I've been here for many years," says Beryl Wang, 50, a designer from Taiwan who runs a trendy shop selling handicrafts. "But because I'm an outsider, I still don't feel like I'm treated the same." Wang stays because the city offers the kind of opportunity she can't find anywhere else. "I was attracted by the energy in Shanghai," she says.

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