I opened The Shanghai Daily at breakfast this morning to find the police yesterday seized 43 kilos of methamphetamine in a raid on a west side warehouse. Local officials are promising a crackdown on corruption. Real estate developers are being investigated for evading billions of yuan in land improvement taxes. And, below the fold, there is a map of street closings Sunday when 35,000 runners are expected to compete in the Shanghai marathon.
Feels just like home. In ten times the land area of Chicago, with roughly ten times the population (23 million), Shanghai is the world class city Chicago wants to be. Its role as the financial capital of China has spawned a boom in office buildings, luxury hotels and exclusive highrise residences that makes Chicago’s Loop look like downtown Peoria.
Walk down Nanking Road––their equivalent to Michigan Avenue––and you will pass one show window after another filled with high-end European designer fashions. Billboards advertise expensive jewelry, sleek home furnishings, and other luxury items. You think maybe you are just visiting one small section of the city––surely, there aren’t enough rich Chinese to buy all these items–but the modernity extends out as far as you can see, if you are traveling the city in a tour bus on a Groupon coupon.
The Bund Aglow
On our first night in Shanghai, we went down to The Bund, the central city district where western banks and trading houses set up shop at the turn of the 20th century. The Bund––the word means literally “embankment”–– lies along the Huangpu River, the last tributary to the Yangtze before it flows into the Pacific Ocean. It looks across the river at Pudong, a collection of old wharfs and farmlands that, starting in 1993, the Chinese government has built into yet another gleaming new city. The Shanghai Stock Exchange and World Financial Center are located there, as is the Oriental Pearl Tower, China’s tallest building (1,535 feet), only 200 feet short of the Willis Tower. (But it too has a glass floor in the observation deck).
Both sides of the river are aglow in lights. The Beaux Arts facades of the old buildings in the Bund are illuminated and thousands of Chinese walk the promenade along the river every night taking in the sight. Flowers line the wall, hundreds of them, planted in small pots that can be changed out seasonally to create new patterns. There is a Jumbotron at the end of the walkway that displays the last New Year’s celebration there.
Our first stop in The Bund is The Peace Hotel, opened originally in 1929 as The Cathay House by Victor Sassoon, a scion of the famous banking family with a penchant for odd architectural detail. A Christmas tree in the lobby reaches high into a domed ceiling. Around it are metallic bas relief tableaus of commerce along the river in the olden days.
After the Communist revolution in 1949, many Bund offices were converted into party headquarters. The hotel itself was renamed The Peace Hotel in 1957 after hosting a party conference. But the reform movement has changed all that. The hotel was remodeled in 2010 and is now operated (under the same name) as part of the Fairmont hotel chain.
We settled into its famous bar for Happy Hour––the Chinese have taken readily to the 2-for-1 after hours drink special––listening to Frank Sinatra croon Christmas carols. Then we set out down the street to find the even more famous 120-foot bar in the nearby Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
The Fabric Mart
The next morning, my wife wanted to buy some genuine silk, and I was eager to see something in Shanghai that more resembled an old Chicago neighborhood. We found both in the South Bund Fabric Market on Lujiabang Road.
The market itself is a little Merchandise Mart of bespoke tailors and fabric booths, fine silk and cashmere going for pennies on the dollar. The more interesting commerce, to my mind, was in the streets and alleys surrounding it on streets too narrow to accommodate anything but bicycles.
Women sold bundles of rags from piles on the sidewalk. Laundry was hung out to dry on telephone wires. Because this was Saturday, every little shop was open. On one street, you could find a succession of stores selling keys; on another, hardware supplies; on another, motorcycle parts. Hot snacks, cold fruit––anything you could put a price to––was there for the asking.
This was not a poor neighborhood. Commerce was thriving. And yet, you could see women washing their clothes in tubs along the sidewalk. Some blocks consisted of little two-story shacks that looked like they had been cobbled together over decades. Other blocks were anchored by pristine new high rises.
It was not unusual to see merchants selling their wares out of storefronts with a bulldozer in back tearing out the living quarters. And salesmen were everywhere on the street flashing pictures of high rise apartments to come––if only the residents would give up their meager (but valuable) land to allow it to be built.
It’s not clear what I hoped to accomplish by visiting China, or writing about it. This was a vacation, and an affordable one. But I left feeling everyone in America should see China––if only to dispel misconceptions. There are barriers to understanding the Chinese, not the least being the language. Most Chinese don’t speak English, and hardly any Americans speak Chinese.
But the people I ran across seem to have the same goals as Americans, and the same problems––magnified by four because there are four times as many. They do not seem all that engaged in the debate over government policy. The ironclad control the government holds over the press doesn’t leave much room for that. But there’s an optimism in the way they go about their business that would be the envy of every politician in Washington.
And yet, the last thing I see as we fly home out of Shanghai are all these little Lego Lands down below sitting in the middle of nowhere waiting for what? China, it seems, is in a perpetual process of being destroyed and rebuilt. Whether that means progress is yet to be determined. But I can’t wait to go back in a few years and see how it turns out.
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