City On The Make

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ANTHONY SPAETH ShanghaiAll cities are monuments. Athens, Rome, Bangkok stand as symbols of their unique civilizations. Lisbon is a legacy of the Age of Exploration; Calcutta a tribute to colonialism. Twentieth-century Tokyo encapsulates an enduring idea: the triumph of the new over the old. And the ruins of Troy are man's most poignant footstone to war.What then to make of Shanghai, that transcendentally idiosyncratic accretion of rickshaws, Art Deco architecture, pulp-fiction legends and skyscrapers soaring out of control on the eastern coast of China? If there's a category that encompasses Shanghai's successive trysts with destiny--and its accelerated ups and abysmal lows--it hasn't been properly defined. Shanghai, population 13 million, is currently the biggest metropolis of the world's largest and fastest growing nation. Yet it was called into being not by ancient Mandarins but by European and Chinese traders a mere 156 years ago. It grew into one of the world's leading cities in a few decades, tapping a bizarre confluence of energies: foreign robber barons, refugees from Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany, chaotic civil war and the disaster of World War II. China's own communist movement was born in its misery-laden lanes; much of its recent history has been stultification under Maoism.Today, Shanghai is carving out a new identity as, perhaps, the Manhattan of 21st-century Asia, the aspiring financial and cultural center of the region. On bustling Nanjing Road, teenagers roller-skate past Jack in the Box and Haagen-Dazs outlets. Pimps far too young to recall one of Shanghai's earlier sobriquets--The Whore of Asia--are restoring that reputation by oozing alluring proposals from darkened doorways. Along Shanghai's famous Bund, the riverside promenade where rogues averted glances in the 1930s, mobs of tourists are snapping photos below a blimp, ethereally lit from within, advertising Sapporo beer. With their backs to the river, these visitors behold a low city sprouting skyscrapers along its entire horizon, like new teeth coming in behind the old. Turning their gazes across the muddy Huangpu River, they witness an actual miracle of urban ambition: a parallel city has risen on what was farmland and mean coolie shacks. Not content with merely stimulating or overhauling Shanghai, China is actually cloning it on the opposite riverbank.With such thick layers of history compressed so tightly--gunboat diplomacy, Japanese occupation, communism and a late conversion to freewheeling capitalism--urban archaeologists may someday crown Shanghai the ultimate 20th-century city. (New York, by contrast, was a cosmopolitan finance center when Shanghai was but a fishing village.) To those historical currents, add a brand new blast: the meltdown of the Asian Economic Miracle. It comes just as Shanghai prepares for its grand reopening. More than 1,000 skyscrapers have sprouted since 1990, with 500 more under construction. Elevated superhighways lattice the city, and formerly timid taxi drivers have embraced speed and recklessness. The music is already loud at Club Absolute (open until 5 a.m.), Tequila Mama's and Shanghai Sally's. An airport as large as Chicago's O'Hare is scheduled to open in October 1999. The New Shanghai, in short, is ready for business.PAGE 1††|††††|††††|††††|††
But will there be enough business to animate a city that was built largely on spec? A city that was designed to spearhead a China that is sure to see as many economic busts in its near-term future as booms? Will Shanghai become the ultimate monument to mistiming in the overly hopeful 1990s? Or a gloomy memorial to Asian hubris at its perversely optimistic peak--a contagion so strong it even infected communist apparatchiks?In the Old Shanghai of the 1920s and '30s, the girls were from Moscow, Vienna, Manila--sometimes one couldn't tell, or never found out. At Park 97, one of the currently hip night spots, the ladies wear micro-skirts, sport green lipstick and chat about fashion and the stock market. Restaurateur Tony Zhang also knows the score. Born in Shanghai at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang left his hometown for an education at UCLA, where he studied boring old mechanical engineering. On a trip home three years ago, Zhang saw that Shanghai was radically changing. Now he serves fusion cuisine to the city's fatter wallets and, savoring a thick cigar, proclaims: We are creating a new city.Zhang, 33, is swept up in the eddies of the New Shanghai. It's as if a founding spirit of the city had been released from a vault under the Bund--and subjected to a massive updraft. Shanghai was born in the decay of the Manchu empire. It boomed through Asia's worst conflicts and survived on its magnetic attraction for intrepid travelers from afar. From Day One it was a city in China but not entirely of it--a feeling you get today when you see short-time visitors from the countryside marveling at the bright lights and seductive energy. And for decades Shanghai never knew a bust that wasn't a prelude to boom. Says Zhang, who employs a British manager and an Australian pastry chef: The rest of Asia is so dead. I'm convinced I came back to the right place at the right time.When the British man-of-war Nemesis bombarded a Chinese fort on the Huangpu in 1842 in search of a trade stronghold, there was but a small Chinese village nearby. By the end of that decade, the British, French and Americans had extracted treaty rights to use Shanghai as a port, along with their own separate parcels of land. A city sprung from river mud. Property selling for £50 in 1852 was worth £20,000 a decade later. In the 1920s, British architects were shipped in to build the grand structures of the Bund, and the Shanghai of legend came into being. Seven languages were spoken on its boulevards and within its narrow lanes. Opium dens proliferated, and the hoi polloi lived in unparalleled urban squalor. By 1935, Shanghai had become the world's fifth most populous city, the Paris of the East to some, China's intellectual center to others, and had made it. It had even made it into English parlance as an unflattering verb, meaning, roughly, to trick someone into an undesirable position. The range of businesses were distinctly gaudy: opium import, gun running for the Chinese civil wars, finance for colonial railroads throughout Asia. Shanghai had coolies, smoothies of every shade, Shanghai Lillies at every price, gentlemen spies. Industry was supported by slave-wage locals, while everyone seemed to contribute to the vice empires. (Except the missionaries, who opined that if God allowed Shanghai to survive, He owed a big apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.)††|††PAGE 2††|††††|††††|††
God held his fire, although existential writer Andre Malraux found Man's Fate (as he titled his famous 1933 novel) in the combine of revolution, decadence and the world's races thrown chaotically together. Shanghai's cleanup fell to Mao after the 1949 revolution, upon which two new cities were born. Old Shanghai would survive only in memoirs, Hollywood film noir and endlessly repeated tales of refugees who found sanctuary in British Hong Kong. Its immediate successor was a gray, Socialist Shanghai, where women were admonished to love guns and not lipstick. Local writer Pan Ling described the weird, overnight transition: Strange that so contemporary an experience can vanish so completely--the street names changed, the capitalists fled, the glitter faded.Shanghai slipped into colorless hibernation, its most glorious moment a two-month period in late 1966 and early 1967 when local radicals nearly hijacked the Cultural Revolution from Mao and his Red Guards. After Deng Xiaoping started China's economic liberalizations in the early 1980s, Shanghai was left deliberately behind: such potent forces of change weren't trusted in China's old intellectual and business powerhouse. Though still an engine of the economy--in 1981 Shanghai accounted for one-sixth of China's industrial output and 20% of its exports--the city had to surrender up to 80% of its collective income to Beijing. It became grayer, dirtier, more crowded, without hope: a historical shadow.Chen Rong was 23 back in 1981. Life in Shanghai hadn't been easy. Shunted off to live with a childless uncle, he was all but neglected when, a year later, his aunt gave birth to a boy. I was already asking 'why' when I was five, he recalls. I contemplated suicide when I was nine. The turning point came when he was 14: I raised ducks--and earned more cash than my elder brothers. Suddenly Chen found his reason to live. He gave up plans for a career in the People's Liberation Army and opened a clothes shop instead. When Deng started up stock exchanges--the second was in Shanghai--Chen became a stock whiz kid. He now produces equipment for bowling, a sport foreigners introduced to China in 1863. Chen owns a BMW, a Lexus, a stretch Lincoln Continental limo and a Rolls-Royce.The late Deng expressed few misgivings about the momentous events of the two-decade era that now bears his name, including, in the category of lows, the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. But in 1992, Deng did go public with one regret: Shanghai should have been economically unshackled much sooner. Had he possessed the courage to push for that in the early 1980s, Deng conceded, the pace and depth of China's modernization might have been significantly hastened. Then Deng allowed himself to ponder: What if?††|††††|††PAGE 3††|††††|††
By 1992, the aging leader had lost control of his economic reform program, and conservatives in Beijing were backpedaling on reform. His solution was personally to tour the boomtowns of southern China to demand that capitalism forge ahead--and this time he declared that Shanghai be included. A one-man walkabout by an elderly leader with waning powers altered Shanghai's destiny. Beijing started funneling money Shanghai's way and approved huge infrastructure projects. The leadership got serious about Pudong, the wasteland of slums and wharves across the Huangpu, in which Deng demanded palpable changes every year and great changes every three years. The downtrodden Shanghainese were ready too, and lucky. Jiang Zemin, China's current President and Shanghai's mayor for almost four years, had been anointed successor to Deng in 1989, and Jiang eagerly promoted his old bailiwick.To the east of the Huangpu, skyscrapers started rising everywhere; in some areas, entire mini-cities mushroomed, including the Hongqiao Development Zone, a 65-hectare mass of glass skyscrapers. In disreputable Pudong, where shanghaied sailors were once out of the reach of both international and Chinese law, a marble-heavy financial district has been built, along with industrial estates, a concert hall and the much anticipated new Shanghai airport. By itself, Pudong had a GDP of $7.3 billion in 1997, as much as some sovereign nations, and a figure that's rising at the rate of 15% a year.All told, $19 billion has gone into infrastructure development for Shanghai in the last seven years, to build highways, rails, a planned subway system, a pedestrian tunnel under the Huangpu, fiber-optic phone lines, an 80,000-seat sports stadium and, for a new generation of culture vultures, an exquisite museum and a $230 million performing arts house that opened last month. The proud Shanghainese--haughty in the eyes of many compatriots--are reclaiming their former status as China's best and brightest. We may not be as daring and reckless as the Guangdong people, concedes Wang Weiming, an editor at the Shanghai Youth Daily. But we have the smarts. We can catch up with everyone. Agrees Li Bo, a local business consultant: Everyone is confident Shanghai might surpass Hong Kong in a decade.††|††††|††††|††PAGE 4††|††
Hong Kong's recent stumbles--recession, deflating land and share prices--don't necessarily advance Shanghai's ambition. The regionwide economic crisis has already had its impact on the twin banks of the Huangpu: investment from South Korea has dried up, and private building projects are being canceled or delayed. More than 50 foreign financial institutions have set up shop in Pudong, but China's maze of regulations still prevents them from doing much business. Many of the city's new structures are half-empty. The official line is that Shanghai has been built for future expansion, as a parent might buy clothes for a growing child a size too large. It's a spurious argument: unlike larger trousers, hundreds of extra skyscrapers are a drag on the pocketbook, and a real estate glut ruins business for everyone in the market, a detail overlooked by the communist planners. (Commercial real estate prices are 62% lower than two years back.) The Shanghainese are very good at building all the stuff up, says a Western diplomat, but so far there's not much going on inside.Tearing things down has also been a compulsion of today's Shanghai: entire neighborhoods have vanished along with countless landmarks from the past. Of the legendary Old Shanghai, only echoes and scattered artifacts survive. The famous 30-m Long Bar at the Shanghai Club, a rendezvous for secret agents and Ladies From Shanghai between the world wars, was reputed to be the lengthiest bar in the world. Mao dismantled it and turned the club into a seamen's hostel; prosperity has failed to bring it back. In the Long Bar's place sprouted a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet blowing grease into the hostel lobby. The Russian Orthodox Mission Church, a 67-year-old structure with three blue domes, later housed a securities firm on the ground floor and a disco (the St. Peter's Club) under its main dome. One of the quintessential sites of Old Shanghai was The Great World, a kind of funhouse for extremely worldly adults. Hollywood producer Josef von Sternberg visited in the 1930s to find six floors packed with gambling tables, magicians, slot machines, acrobats and midwives. There were call girls on each floor, their dress more daring with each flight you climbed. (There was also a spot on the roof where despondent gamblers could end it all with one final leap.) The Great World is still in business, its staircases tellingly worn, but few visitors pay to see its pale attractions: a Guinness Book of Records display, a kung fu movie and a rock singer in a silk shirt, receiving excited applause from crewcutted yokels in from the countryside.Today's Shanghai offers most of the old pleasures, but in new forms. The bawd business is done in night clubs and karaoke bars. Down-and-out gamblers in the real estate market will be able to leap from giant, empty skyscrapers. Shanghai is an experiment altogether grand, risky, on the edge: qualities that have served the city in the past. Whether it succeeds on its own is but the first question. More momentous: Will resurgent China gain what every truly great country needs, an international metropolis? Deng Xiaoping knew how important that could be, and it prompted his public musing of 1992: What if he had started sooner on Shanghai? Only a decade was lost, so Shanghai still has a chance to make its role in China's future as golden as it was in China's past.††|††††|††††|††††|††PAGE 5