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The City of Choice
It's that attitude that promises to make the Shanghai expo such an extravaganza. The event's organizers are adamant that this is not merely a commercial affair. World's fairs may have a bygone ring to them, but as it did with the Beijing Olympics, China is fully embracing the expo. On 2 sq. mi. (5 sq km) of former dockland just south of Shanghai's downtown, stand more than 100 pavilions. The designs range from the exuberant a "breathing organism" that looks like a pink manga character for Japan, a bristling "palace of seeds" that recalls a Buckingham Palace guard's bearskin hat for Britain, a "kite forest" for Mexico to the staid. (The U.S. pavilion looks like a gray suburban office park.) "Most Chinese don't have a chance to go abroad," notes Wu Jianmin, a former ambassador to France who promoted China's bid for the 2010 expo. "But with the Shanghai expo, they have a chance to see how the world has developed."
To spruce up for the event, Shanghai spent as much as $58 billion, according to official Chinese media. The subway was massively expanded, the city's Hongqiao airport added a huge new terminal, and workers spent three years overhauling the Bund, routing traffic underground and widening its famous waterfront walkway. In a nice touch, Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels Ltd. launched the new Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund in March. The company is controlled by the Kadoorie family, whose roots in Shanghai go back to the late 19th century, when Ellis Kadoorie, an Iraqi Jew, moved to the city. To top off the Bund redevelopment, the city has commissioned Italian-American artist Arturo Di Modica to sculpt a bull, like his famous one near New York City's Wall Street, to reflect Shanghai's ambitions as a financial center.
But in the rush for the new, Shanghai is losing some of what made it unique. Wujiang Road, once euphemistically called Love Lane, was a center for prostitution in prewar Shanghai and was later known for its snack stalls. Over the past year, it has been rebuilt into a generic pedestrian mall with Starbucks and Krispy Kreme outlets. "The downside is that over the last 18 months, we've probably lost more old buildings than in the last dozen years. That's the saddest part for me," says Shanghai-based author and consultant Paul French, as we sit in one of Wujiang Road's new coffee shops. Among the destruction French has documented: stained-glass windows smashed out of the former Jesuit Recoleta Mission to make room for beds to house laborers at the expo; the 106-year-old Shanghai Rowing Club torn down last year as part of the Bund's redevelopment; and parts of the city's former Jewish enclave, including the glamorous White Horse Inn, demolished.
French has an old photo of Earl Whaley and Red Hot Syncopators, an all-black band from Seattle that played in the mid-'30s at the St. Anna Ballroom, at the end of Wujiang Road. What's left of the ballroom is now behind a blue fence advertising the expo. Two workmen survey the site in the shadow of a giant excavator. Not even official preservation orders have managed to stop the relentless destruction of Shanghai's beautiful old buildings. The urge to destroy the old isn't new in Shanghai. Its city walls were largely demolished in 1912. But conservationists point to Tianzifang, a shikumen-style neighborhood that has been filled in recent years with stylish shops and restaurants, as an example of how Shanghai can develop while maintaining its old charm though not all residents see it that way. Chen Yuzhen, 90, a retired acupuncturist, says that for all the upgrading of her neighborhood, "we still don't have toilets [in our homes]."
Like the expo, Shanghai's leaders are focused on a better tomorrow. At the same time, the city has been at the forefront of activism by urban Chinese who want to block threats to their quality of life. In 2008, Shanghai residents staged a series of protests against plans to extend the city's magnetic levitation, or maglev, train system, fearing it would harm property values and possibly their health. In the Minhang district, an area of newer apartment complexes with leafy gardens, the air of resentment against officialdom is strong. "Some government officials and interest groups unashamedly misuse land resources and urban space," an anonymous critic recently wrote in an online bulletin board. "It's a crime against us as well as many generations to come." The protests aren't revolutionary, but they are designed to press the authorities to heed Shanghai's wealthier, more self-assured citizens. With China becoming ever richer and more urbanized, other cities will look to see how Shanghai handles its growing pains.
The city relishes the attention. "We Shanghainese are used to being an object of interest," says Zhou, the comedian, during his show. "There are people who are envious of us when we do well and show no sympathy when we are down. To them I would say, 'We Shanghainese would much rather be the object of envy than sympathy.'" The thousands in the audience roar assent. They know their city is back on top, where it belongs.
with reporting by Jessie Jiang / Shanghai