Shanghai Snapshot

Sharon Mizota
Shanghai under construction
Photo by Oliver Wang

Shanghai's entry into the global market is an ambivalent mixture of imitation and excess. Strolling the parks, a few old men still wear blue Maoist worker's uniforms, but they are anachronisms among scores of trendy young hipsters sporting their own sassy blend of Japanese, American, and European fashion. Shanghai is on its way up, but even in its own eyes, it hasn't quite arrived. The older housing, and the era it represents feel endangered, about to be swept away in a typhoon of construction.

In the lobby of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall is a huge, golden statue of the city. An abstract "greatest hits" of the skyscraper-studded skyline, it rotates slowly on a dais, shining like the latest model at the auto show. Large, raised lettering emblazed on the wall behind it reads, confidently, "Better City. Better Life." Cultural Revolution-style sloganeering now employed in the service of capital.

The product of a new influx of foreign investment, spurred by free-market Special Development Zones, cheap labor, and extravagant tax breaks, Shanghai is growing at an increasingly hyperbolic rate. Ten years ago, the Pudong "new area" of the city was 556 acres of farmland. Now it's a forest of skyscrapers, elevated roadways, and shopping malls crawling with commerce. There's a giddy buzz in the air: the sound of unchecked ambition.

But new Shanghai — flush with foreign money, embarking on an ambitious development program, and host to a truly international urban culture — sounds oddly familiar. It sounds a lot like old Shanghai: the freewheeling, pre-Communist "Paris of the East" of the 1920s and '30s. In those days, the foreign presence was more naked and brutish: the city was taken by force (and opium), and literally divided into "concessions", each independently ruled by British, French, and American powers. Nowadays, foreign influence is welcomed and courted, though hardly less venal. This time, Shanghai has chosen to enter the global market, and the result is an ambivalent mixture of imitation and excess.

* * *

On the third floor of the Exhibition Hall is a scale model of the city. Covering at least 1,500 square feet and surrounded by an elevated walkway with strategically placed "vista points", the model includes every existing (and planned) building, park, and roadway in obsessive detail down to the windows, individual trees, and lane dividers. But most impressive is its overwhelming size and density, a fact that can only be appreciated from the god's-eye view that such models provide. It looks like Los Angeles, if LA were as dense as Manhattan.

The conceit of model making might seem hopelessly old-fashioned — a throwback to the days when unbridled expansion was an expression of civic pride — were it not for the fact that outside the Exhibition Hall, the model is hastily becoming reality. In every direction, long-necked construction cranes turn the skyline into a giant erector set, which is constantly rising and falling (mostly rising) with quirky and astonishing new growths.

The JW Marriott hotel near Renmin Square looks like a sleeker version of the Tower of Barad-Dûr from The Lord of the Rings films. Half way up its icy gray stalk, it flares out vertiginously and ascends to divide into four sharply angled pyramids converging at the top. Not to be outdone, the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall itself is topped by four upturned, interlocking trumpet "blooms" representing magnolias, the city flower. The imposing bulk of the Shanghai Museum echoes the shape of a classic bronze ding, a traditional three-legged food vessel. And down the street, another building is topped by what can only be described as a UFO. And those are just the buildings around Renmin Square. On the other side of the Huangpu River, in the Pudong "new" area, stands Jinmao Tower — the second tallest building in the world — a modern-day, 88-story pagoda that looks like a telescoping origami box.

Not far from Jinmao is Shanghai's most spectacular building, the Oriental Pearl Tower. With its three hot pink disco balls skewered on massive golden rods, the Tower is the perfect embodiment of Rem Koolhaas' delirious skyscraper: the literal joining of "needle" and "globe". Koolhaas' 1978 manifesto on urbanism, Delirious New York, dissected the hubris behind New York City's skyscrapers by identifying the fusion of two contradictory concepts. The "needle", or observatory, provides a bird's-eye view and the accompanying illusion of mastery. The "globe", containing the highest ratio of internal volume to external surface area, is an image of utopian self-sufficiency. A combination of height and maximum interiority, skyscrapers, Koolhaas asserted, are not just an efficient use of space, but also expressions of our desire to master and control our environment. In the Oriental Pearl Tower, this desire is taken to its logical, ridiculous conclusion. Dispensing with all pretense of practicality, the Oriental Pearl is the ideological offspring of the Eiffel Tower and EPCOT Center, an unabashedly flamboyant symbol of power, prosperity, and profit.

* * *

But the transformation of Shanghai into a glittery, Las Vegas-style showcase is constantly in progress, resulting in dystrophic moments where the gap between the haves and the have-nots, or the future and past, come into jarring juxtaposition.

Strolling the parks, a few old men still wear Maoist blue worker's uniforms, but they are anachronisms among scores of trendy young hipsters sporting their own sassy blend of Japanese, American, and European fashion. The textile and clothing industries in and around Shanghai are booming, as is trade in counterfeit brands — Gucci, Fendi, Burberry. Although the real thing is available in department stores and on pricier shopping streets like Huaihai Lu, most people avail themselves of the fakes that are readily offered nearly everywhere else. Such are the vagaries of copyright law in a country that, while it has recently recognized foreign intellectual property claims, does little to actually enforce them. Easy and relatively affordable access to the world's "brand" names enables Shanghai fashionistas to remix styles as casually and irreverently as DVD bootleggers duplicate the latest Hollywood films. Despite the fact that most of the clothing is locally produced, fashion has become more eclectic and global than the men in blue could have ever anticipated.

Interspersed with advertising for multinationals like Pepsi and McDonald's, official city posters advocate good hygiene. Blunt, Communist-style commands advise (in Chinese and English): "Ventilate Your Room Often", "Wash Your Hands Often", and, most viscerally: "Don't Spit". This last is accompanied by a humorous line drawing of a man whose projectile saliva morphs into a bomb just before it hits the pavement.

Although clearly a post-SARS initiative, the campaign also throws into high relief the distance yet to be bridged between the old Shanghai and the envisioned one. Although spitting in public is deemed acceptable behavior (i.e., not rude) in China, it's hardly something an aspiring "world-class" city can afford to condone. With the influx of international capital and its accompanying (and judgmental) expat community, it's unseemly to have streets filled with little old ladies coughing up loogies. While the campaign has the best intentions for public welfare, it also reveals a slight undercurrent of shame. Shanghai is on its way up, but even in its own eyes, it hasn't quite arrived. In an effort to speed up the process, it attempts to pull and push people into their "better" future by a familiar method: blunt pedagogy.

But the most striking contrast is in the city's architecture. In the shadows of sparkling new behemoths sit gray blocks of crumbling tenement housing, where laundry flaps in the breeze and entire families live in one or two tiny, poorly insulated rooms. The contrast is stunning, although not unlike many decaying American urban centers: the place where the richest people work and the poorest people live. What's different in Shanghai is that the city is on its way "up". The older housing, and the era it represents feel endangered, about to be swept away in a typhoon of construction. Although these older buildings are hardly enviable places to live, there's something nostalgic about their frailty. They already look like a memory.

* * *

While it's understandable that the stark, Communist-era housing of the '50s and '60s fall victim to the bulldozer, the simultaneous neglect and fetishization of older Shanghai architecture, both Chinese and Western, is more complex. Little is being done to preserve actual historic structures, save for their resuscitation and re-creation as income-generating tourist attractions.

Yuyuan Gardens, a classic Ming dynasty garden, is completely overwhelmed by the "traditional" bazaar that has sprung up around it. Designed to look like an old-timey village square, the bazaar is the Chinese equivalent of a themed mall, replete with department stores, restaurants, and the obligatory souvenir vendors, all within a structure designed to mimic the lacquered posts and dragon-bedecked beams of traditional Chinese architecture. On weekends, hundreds of people line up in the mall for the city's best xiao long bao (steamed dumplings), while the entrance to the Gardens is all but deserted.

The Duolun Lu Street of Famous Cultural Figures is a similarly ambivalent tourist destination. It's a walking street memorializing the writers of the 1930s May 4 literary movement (of which Lu Xun and Ding Ling are perhaps the best-known in the West). Although not all of the writers were members of the Communist Party, they have been posthumously canonized for creating a modern, vernacular Chinese literature that broke with Confucian and aristocratic tradition. The street is an odd mix of restored Western-style buildings and modern re-creations, populated by social-realist bronze statues of the writers. While it's great to see literary figures lionized in a way rarely encountered in the States, the street is also overwhelmingly and blatantly commercial, full of (again) kitschy souvenir vendors and cafés serving "Western Food".

While hardly different from the nostalgia-as-commerce cultivated by the likes of Disneyland's "Main Street USA", Duolun Lu's nostalgia for 1930s Shanghai is, in effect, colonial nostalgia. Ruled by the lop-sided economics of the opium trade and the opulent lifestyles of firmly entrenched foreigners, 1930s Shanghai was the height of commercial and cosmopolitan excess: luxurious, licentious and utterly lawless.

But this Shanghai of Hollywood legend was built on the fundamental exploitation of the local Chinese population. It's no surprise that the first meetings of the Chinese Communist Party took place in Shanghai, with its huge underclass of oppressed and underpaid laborers supporting the extravagant lifestyles of foreigners. When the Communists took power in 1949, one of their first initiatives was to clean up the city: they turned the racetrack into People's Park, re-educated scores of prostitutes, and eliminated child labor.

It's therefore strange that Shanghai's colonial past is romanticized and re-created in a memorial to "revolutionary" cultural figures. But the ideological content (if not the strident tone) of Cultural Revolution-era propaganda is long-gone, and "new China" is poised on the verge of economic world domination. So perhaps it's not outlandish to invoke Shanghai's history as a world-class city, no matter how colonial and debased. After all, the same mechanisms are at work in contemporary Shanghai: the "invasion" of foreign capital (albeit this time welcome), the extreme economic discrepancies between high-living foreigners and laboring locals, the international mix and clash of languages, technologies and consumer products.

Nowhere is the congruence of old and new Shanghai more apparent than on the Bund, the financial heart of old Shanghai. A riverfront collection of neo-classical, Western-style buildings, it is one of the few examples of "authentic" (i.e., not re-created) Western architecture in China. The buildings themselves are fairly unremarkable. They're the sort of edifices that routinely lend an anonymous, patrician air to banks and insurance companies. But on the Bund they are exotic, even romantic symbols of the glory of old Shanghai, recouped as evidence of the city's pedigree as an international destination. Directly across the river stand the symbols of the new Shanghai, the ostentatious towers of Pudong.

Tourists from all over the country (and the world) come to stroll the manicured promenade that lies between the Bund and the river. They consume all manner of gimmicky souvenirs and over-priced snacks, and pose for photos. They turn with equanimity first one way, then the other, positioning themselves one moment before the regal, historical Bund and the next against the fantastical, futuristic skyscrapers of Pudong. Although Shanghai's two skylines at first seem polar opposites, they are in fact mirror images, monuments, in their respective eras, to the romance of capital and ambition.

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