August 01, 2005

Article at Planet

Shanghai: The Next Interzone?

"Shanghai is an international city pretending to be an international city," says Richard.

We're dodging the neon-lit puddles along Mao Ming Lu, a festive bar-hopping street in Shanghai's old French concession neighborhood. Our destination is Face, a watering hole set in a gorgeous colonial-era villa. There, amid Southeast Asian antiques, we'll sip colorful cocktails by a large bay window, a Portuguese pal of Richard's will offer me hashish, and I'll remind myself that technically speaking I’m still in Communist China — though it just doesn’t feel like it.

l've spent the past few weeks exploring and reading about Shanghai, a city whose semi-colonial history and social-capitalist present fascinate me to no end. Early in the last century, Shanghai was the largest and most international city on the planet, simultaneously glorious and hideous, seductive and cruel, famous and infamous. Walking its streets were kidnappers, obscenely wealthy taipans, English lawyers, beautiful Russian hookers, opium addicts, peasants, thugs, Japanese businessmen, ser-vants, thieves, American architects, entertainers, and curious cruise-boat tourists. Early last century the city was divided into “concessions”, each autonomously ruled by a different Western power.

A public garden in the British concession forbade dogs and Chinese people; gangsters escaped the law of one neighborhood by crossing the street into another. With no visas required to enter the city, all manner of improbable visitors seeking sanctuary bedded with the “whore of the East”

The Communist Party put an end to the city’s excesses — no more drugs, gambling, or prostitution — and promptly initiated one of its own, the most notable being the brutal "Cultural Revolution” of 1966-76. In the '80s economic liberalization heralded Shanghai's slow climb back to international prominence. Shanghai of the 1990s wasn't a showplace city — instead, it was the largest construction project ever conceived, and not much fun to visit. Today, the dust cleared, Shanghai is frequently described as the most booming city anywhere, with a buzz (and hype) rivaling that of Silicon Valley, 20 years ago.

Impressive? Yes. It's a showplace, after all, for the entire Chinese nation. But I keep wondering whether Shanghai is truly international, like New York — a meeting place of cultures, ideas, art, business, and nationalities.

The answer, when I put this question out, is yes and no.

A few days later, I watch humanity pour down Nanjing Road's pedestrian mall, the nation's premier shopping strip. It is, I can't help but notice, overwhelmingly Chinese. I wonder how I'd feel about New York, my current home, if it were as homogenously white as this city is Chinese.

Shanghai has nothing on NYC in terms of people-watching. Only once in Shanghai do I spot an African face. Japanese and Western shoppers can be spotted in this mass of Chinese, but there is no doubt that this is a Chinese city — for, by, and of the Chinese.

Still, it’s not the “real China.” For that, follow the Yangtze inland, where riverside villages, dusty plains, paddy fields, and mountains make up most of the vast bulk of China. This is where the rural Chinese live, fiber-optic years behind their Shanghainese cousins. Shanghai is the result of not just organic development, but also government willpower. It's clean, modern, safe, and prosperous. And while most world cities stagnate or decline, Shanghai's economy is surging. The Grand Prix, a Universal Studios theme park, and the 2010 World Expo (expected guests: 70 million) are all coming to town. Residents here are stuck up, at least to other Chinese. Shanghainese, a dialect of Mandarin, is used as a snobbery tool. At a café in the Huangpu District, a waitress turns surly on us once she realizes that my Chinese lunch companion does not speak Shanghainese

State-directed efforts to make Shanghai an international nexus, howewer, in no way interfere with the fact that it can’t help but be one anyway. Never mind Pudong — just head downtown, to the Huangpu, Jing An, and Lu Wan districts. At a Mexican restaurant called Che, Chinese and foreigners salsa to a live performance. Not far away, a young local band fuses traditional Chinese opera with heavy metal. Brazilian, Swedish, and Canadian artists show off their works in galleries and old warehouses. In a dim-sum joint, twentysomething expats tell me their plans for an international art festival that will “take over the city ance a year.”

Restaurants serve up French, Italian, Singaporean, American, Thai, and Argentinean fare. Along cheerful Nanjing Road, you can buy nearly any product from anywhere, including the New York Times and, wonderfully enough, Japanese mikan juice. Billboards dot the highways and the Huangpu, blaring brand names from the United States, South Korea and Germany. City guides compete for the attention of Shanghai's ever-growing expat community; flip through “That's Shanghai" — the best of the lot — and you quickly realize there’s more fun to be had in Shanghai than most major cities in North America or Europe.

The current hot spot is Xintiandi, two city blocks of upscale bars, cafes, and restaurants. There, amid lighted trees and colonial Shikumen (stone gate) architecture, the moneyed East mingles with the moneyed West. Sitting by the windows in an ultramodern noodle restaurant called Nooch, it’s mind-boggling to think that this is Communist China. Xintiandi translates into “new heaven and earth”, and it certainly feels like it.

In 1989, the English writer J.G. Ballard returned to Shanghai. A boy when the Japanese took over the city, he spent three years imprisoned with his parents at a camp in the Lunghua district. Although decades had passed since he left, he still remembered the old Shanghai, and he wondered how his memories would compare to the reality of 1991.

“Shanghai, which had once been an American and European city filled with Buicks and Packards, was now entirely Chinese. The people looked confident and well fed, couples strolled arm in arm past the Sun Sun and Wing On Department stores. Clearly, capitalism was waiting to be reborn," he wrote.

Twelve years after Ballard’s trip, capitalism has been born and raised. And once again, Shanghai is exerting its natural economic pull. What's being born today is something else entirely, and it just may be the 21st century's most international city. Only time will tell.

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