It sounds like a PR puff and a cliche, but it’s true for all that — Shanghai’s destiny is to one day be once again what it was in the 1920s and the 1930s, the dominant metropolis of East Asia. (No need for Hong Kong to be nervous – the dragon has two eyes).
Shanghai has emerged from a half century of hibernation over the past decade and is racing to recover its birthright. The government and officialdom play a role in this, but the power of the charge comes from the people of Shanghai, who have an unspoken desire to see their city return to where they believe it should be. This is encouraged and compounded by an assumption shared by locals and foreigners – that Shanghai has a special role and future within the China world and beyond.
If you haven’t visited, you’ve got to check it out. If you have been here before, but haven’t been back for a while — you’ve also got to check it out. I promise you, the city has changed since you were last here.
At the heart of Shanghai self-confidence, in spite of all the inconveniences of modern history, is its superb geographical location at the entrance to the east China plain and the Yangtze River valley, its psychologically open approach to new ideas and influences and the snappy flexible approach of its citizens — a holdover from the fact that Shanghai was (like Hong Kong) a city of immigrants fighting to survive.
It has more money than any other city of China because it is a magnet for investment, both foreign and domestic. It is a magnet for investment because its infrastructure is superior to that of any other city in China, and it is better run than any other place in the country.
For more than a century, Shanghai has been a leader of trends for China. Trends of all sorts — political, fashion, social and financial. And this is as true today as it was then. If you see a new style of clothing or hair on Huaihai Road in central Shanghai, you can bet that you’ll see the same thing in Wuxi, Qingdao, Nanning, Kunming and Shenyang before too long. Ripples of influence flowing out from the centre — Shanghai. Beijing is important too, as the political centre of China and as the collection point for more students than anywhere else in the country. But Beijing is not a trend-setter, no matter how much it would like to think it is (except possibly in the minor area of rock music with Chinese characteristics).
What Shanghai has is depth, accessibility, drive and a strong vision of itself. It has a huge advantage over every other city in China – it knows where it is going because it has been there before.
There are many different Shanghai’s – there is the oldest Chinese Shanghai, still visible in outline in the circle of the old city, to the south of the Bund. There is the Shanghai built by the foreign traders in the late 19th century and early 20th century, still visible in the architecture of the period, in the relatively high standards of English amongst Shanghai people, and in the open attitudes. There is the Shanghai of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when the city was used as a base for the extremists who tried to push China down a path of fundamentalist purity and isolation – you can see remnants of this in the bric-a-brac markets – Chairman Mao busts and badges etc. And there is the Shanghai of today – the resurgent Asian megacity, 15 million people running to catch up with the world.
What Shanghai lacks is the sturdy remnants of the past that Beijing and Xian and even Tokyo and Hanoi have – there is no Forbidden City here. But what there is in compensation, is vitality.
The right way to get to know Shanghai is just to walk around the streets. Get a sense of the people, and the personality of the city. It is China, but it is a less inscrutable, more accessible China than, say, Nanjing or Fuzhou or even Beijing. Especially Beijing.
The infrastructure construction and massive urban renewal programme of the past decade has resulted in the demolition of many beautiful buildings. But on the other hand, vast numbers of old buildings have survived – far more than escaped Hong Kong’s orgy of urban renewal in the 1980s.
And the new buildings have character too. For some mysterious reason, a large proportion of Shanghai’s new skyscrapers look suspiciously like landing pads for alien spaceships. And while that is a random flash from a Shanghai-ed brain, what better city for an alien landing?