Thursday, September 18, 2008


We visited Shanghai last weekend, as the Mid-Autumn Festival gave us a useful 4-day weekend. Cherry hadn't been there for about seventeen years, so I imagine the city she has vague, childhood memories of is almost entirely gone.

With the exception of the Bund, with its nineteenth century banks and hotels, the city has been reinventing itself yearly, even monthly since the mid-1990's. Pudong has sprouted shining stalagmites in the new financial heart of the city across the river from the neogothic and art nouveau edifices in the Bund. Pudong was cabbage fields when Cherry last visited this city.

We visited a Turkish restaurants--so that I could get my fix--and ascended the Pearl of the Orient tower to get views, as high-flying scavenger birds might, of the spiny caracass below. We enjoyed breakfast with Uighurs in a beautiful old neighborhood north of Suzhou Creek that has mostly disappeared beneath the hubris and shadows cast by glass-encased towers. I felt very sad to see some of these unique streetcorners vanishing beneath cement and marble facade.

Facade is, in fact, the best way to consider Shanghai. This is a city that sells and buys everything, but half of that everything is a fake. That includes the shining towers that project above the underlying swamp, mist, and miasma. Statistics say that at least 60% of the business real-estate in Shanghai is empty, tenantless. So beautiful and (hopefully) structurally sound, these skyscrapers may be, but they are still mostly false-fronts for a wild west business environment that snares the unwary and the gullible. I imagine--in my more hopeful moments--that this will eventually change, that the real-estate market will eventually slow to more realistically model demand, and that the skyscrapers will fill up with busy little amoebas in suits. I imagine that real-estate owners may also take more pride in the upkeep of their buildings then. Currently it seems that new locations are projects pop up so quickly that landlords have little incentive to take care of their previous acquisitions. Even simple things, like dusting off their glassy hides, just doesn't seem to happen. More worryingly, interior fixtures rapidly crumble because corners were cut and cheap furnishings furnished. Quality has been sacrificed for speed and quantity.

That said, there is also plenty of quality to be found in Shanghai as well. Substance and false-fronts seem to coexist here. Dining with Cherry's relations in a high-class restaurant in the oddly named 'Super Brand Mall' in Pudong, we enjoyed subtle dishes (a nice change of pace from the blaring spice and oil of Chongqing/Sichuan cuisine) and a night view straight across the river to the Bund and the city center beyond. The expat element is also worth mentioning, as Shanghai is one of the few genuinely cosmopolitan cities I've encountered in China. And Shanghai, unlike many others, is very comfortable in its role as a portal between China and the outside world. This is not just a sycophancy upon world trends, an addictive dependancy, or a parasitic seller of cheap goods. Shanghai gives the impression that it will soon (if not already) become a setter of trends, rather than a follower. Shanghai has been given an almost unique opportunity by its history as an international concession where no one sovereign ruled. In more than one way, this is a place where cultures blend, and one of China's very few spots where cultures melt together into something new, rather than assimilate. This is New York in China.

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