Shanghai: After Beijing Games, Back in the Spotlight

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A friend from Shanghai leaned over to share her shameful secret: "I watched some of the Olympics," she said, in a tone of voice implying that this was a transgression akin to sleeping with her best friend's boyfriend or — even worse in this fashion-crazed city — toting an obviously knock-off handbag. For months, many citizens of China's most populous city gritted their teeth as Beijing got all the glory. But now that the Olympics are over, Shanghai is determined to reclaim the title of China's most happening metropolis. Just four days after the Summer Games' closing ceremony, Shanghai unveiled China's tallest building (and the third-highest on the planet), the Shanghai World Financial Center, a 101-story tower that sprouted from what had been marshland 15 years ago. The point, made with phallic overstatement, was unavoidable. Shanghai is back, and bigger than ever.

Shanghai has always thrived as China's gateway to the world. While Beijing may boast millennia of history, Shanghai owes its prominence to having served as a key trading port for colonial powers. Once China accelerated market reforms in the 1990s, the country's first stock exchange was established in Shanghai, and much of the foreign direct investment that flows into China comes through here. Fashion houses, banks and law firms gravitate first to Shanghai, not Beijing. Still, the last couple of years have not been kind to the city. A cancerous corruption scandal, uncovered by the overlords in Beijing, claimed Shanghai's Communist Party boss and a substantial portion of the city's ruling elite. Shanghai's benchmark stock index has plunged to its lowest point since late 2006, and even the Japanese developer of the Shanghai World Financial Center admits that a real-estate slide has affected tenancy, with just 45% of the tower currently occupied. The hosting of the Olympics by Shanghai's northern rival only added insult to injury, even if local papers hastened to note that Shanghai's athletes broke more world records than those from any other Chinese city.

Still, Shanghai thrives best in those half-light moments when it's not clear whether it's dawn or dusk. Early last century, as the planet veered inexorably toward global conflict, Shanghai opened its doors to the world's refugees — Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, Jews escaping the Nazis, even Chinese communists dodging warlords — and threw one helluva party. The festive mood survives to this day, as the city in September celebrated the opening of three major art fairs, one of which, ShContemporary, showcased not only top contemporary Chinese artists, but also emerging talents from 26 different countries. ShContemporary ranks as Asia's first international art fair, and the fact that it takes place in Shanghai is no coincidence. Shanghai may be in China, but its ambitions have always extended beyond the Middle Kingdom. Note that China's regional bloc with the Central Asian nations — the People's Republic's only formal attempt at international alliance-making — is called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Of course it's simply named for the city where it was inaugurated, but the point for proud locals is that the Chinese government chose to host an important international security summit in Shanghai rather than in the capital.

Because of the city's previous incarnation as a center of global capitalism, the Shanghainese today ranks as China's most ardent conspicuous consumers, equally voracious when buying local or global. Nevertheless, given the somber economic mood worldwide, Shanghai has tried to reign in the excess a bit. October's annual Millionaire Fair, where the moneyed classes can pick up everything from a gold-plated toilet to a private jet, has been rebranded simply as The Fair. But the metropolis still thrums with a determined decadence, a stance borne of having to hibernate during the height of communist fervor. Practically everywhere you look in the historic French Concession, local entrepreneurs are hawking designer T-shirts or handmade ceramics in tiny yet terribly hip spaces carved out of old lane-houses. This year, several luxury hotels will open their doors in Shanghai, including one run by the Jumeirah Group that's behind Dubai's over-the-top Burj Al Arab.

In 2010, Shanghai hopes to throw a lavish party to end all parties, the World Expo. World fairs have lost their luster since the wondrous days of London's Crystal Palace, Chicago and New York. Who even remembers where and when the last Expo was held? (It was in 2005, in Aichi, Japan — thanks, Google.) But Shanghai is determined to revitalize the Expo. While Beijing threw an efficient if, ultimately, rather empty Olympics — because of visa restrictions that kept out many tourists, along with potential demonstrators — you can bet that Shanghai will give a warmer welcome to the world. After all, it was the influx of foreigners during the 19th century that turned a Chinese fishing town into the international hub of hedonism. And that's a status Shanghai isn't going to surrender to its dowdier national capital without a fight.

(See photos of China on the wild side here.)