After forty years of stagnation, the great metropolis of SHANGHAI is currently undergoing one of the fastest economic
expansions that the world has ever seen. While shops overflow and the skyline fills with skyscrapers, Shanghai now seems certain
to recapture its position as East Asia's leading business city, a status it last held before World War II. And yet, for all the
modernization Shanghai has retained deep links with its colonial past.
Shanghai is still known in the West for its infamous role as the base of European imperialism in mainland China – its decadence,
illicit pleasures, racism, appalling social inequalities, and Mafia syndicates. The intervening fifty years have almost been forgotten,
as though the period from when the Communists arrived and the foreigners moved out was an era in which nothing happened. To
some extent this perception is actually true: for most of the Communist period into the early 1990s, the central government in
Beijing deliberately ran Shanghai down, siphoning off its surplus to other parts of the country to the point where the city came to
resemble a living museum, frozen in time since the 1940s, and housing the largest array of Art Deco architecture in the world.
Yet the Shanghainese never lost their ability to make waves for themselves and, in recent years, China's central government has
come to be dominated by individuals from the Shanghai area, who look with favour on the rebuilding of their old metropolis. In
the mid 1980s, the decision was made to push Shanghai once again to the forefront of China's drive for modernization, and an
explosion of economic activity has been unleashed. In the last two decades, city planners have been busy creating a subway
network, colossal highways, flyovers and bridges, shopping malls, hotel complexes and the beginnings of a "New Bund" – the
Special Economic Zone across the river in Pudong, soon to be crowned with the world's tallest building. Significantly, China's
main money-printing mint is near here, hence the high proportion of shiny new coins and bills in circulation in the city. The
Shanghainese are by far the most highly skilled labour force in the country, renowned for their ability to combine style and
sophistication with a sharp sense for business, and international in outlook. Thanks to them their city is riding high.
Not that the old Shanghai is set to disappear overnight. Although the pace of redevelopment has quickened, parts of the city still
resemble a 1920s vision of the future; a grimy metropolis of monolithic pseudo-classical facades, threaded with overhead cables
and walkways, and choked by vast crowds and rattling trolley buses. Unlike other major Chinese cities, Shanghai has only
recently been subjected to large-scale rebuilding. Most of the urban area was partitioned between foreign powers until 1949, and
their former embassies, banks and official residences still give large areas of Shanghai an early-twentieth-century European
flavour that the odd Soviet-inspired government building cannot overshadow. It is still possible to make out the boundaries of
what used to be the foreign concessions, with the bewildering tangle of alleyways of the old Chinese city at its heart. Only along
the Huangpu waterfront, amid the stolid grandeur of the Bund, is there some sense of space – and here you feel the past more
strongly than ever, its outward forms, shabby and battered, still very much a working part of the city. Today, strolling the Bund is
a required attraction for any visitor to Shanghai, and it's ironic that relics of hated foreign imperialism such as the Bund are now
protected as city monuments.
Like Hong Kong, its model of economic development, Shanghai does not brim with obvious attractions to see. Besides the
Shanghai Museum, the Suzhou-reminiscent Yu Yuan Gardens, and the Huangpu River Cruise, there are few sights with broad
appeal – many travellers leave the city with a sense of letdown. But the beauty of visiting Shanghai lies not so much in scurrying
from attraction to attraction, but in less obvious pleasures: strolling the Bund, exploring the pockets of colonial architecture in the
old French Concession, sampling the exploding restaurant and nightlife scene, or wandering the shopping streets and absorbing the
rebirth of one of the world's great cities.
Inevitably, many of the social ills that the Communists were supposed to have eliminated after 1949 are making a comeback.
Unemployment, drug abuse and prostitution are rife. But the dynamic contrast that Shanghai presents with the rest of China is
one that even the most China-weary of travellers can hardly fail to enjoy.
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