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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

The rise of Shanghai

An explosive expansion is underway in this Chinese port city


If Berlin was the construction site of Europe in the mid-1990s, the construction site of the world today is obviously Shanghai. So much building is underway that it is hard even for the best-informed commentators to be accurate. A recent New York Times story on Shanghai’s building boom, for example, carried a front-page picture of the skyline and identified the building at the center of the picture as a Marriott hotel. Actually, it was the CITIC Square Building (China International Trust and Investment Corporation). The Marriott was on the distant horizon, to the right. Look at any book or brochure on Shanghai and you’ll notice that the cover picture was taken before several towers around you (perhaps even your own hotel) were built -- yesterday, it seems.

Shanghai is not an old city, having become a commercial center only in the mid-19th century and then experiencing its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s when the various “concessions,” or foreign enclaves, flourished and the celebrated Bund was developed on the west bank of the Huangpu River. Now, with a population that has swollen to 16 million, it seems entirely mesmerized by future possibility, using the past principally as a warehouse for ornamental motifs on its space-age skyscrapers.

Still, most visitors will want to see what is left of the old Shanghai, and it’s there to be found in old shops, back alleys (linongs) and venerable sites such as the Yu Garden, built in 1537 by a Ming official for his father. Near the garden I joined young people throwing red ribbons weighted with coins onto a golden “fortune tree” on the day before the Mooncake Festival. (“May all your dreams come true” was the message on mine.)

There are brightly lit, extravagant specialty stores and malls all over Shanghai, especially on the fashionable Nanjing and Huaihai Roads. Some visitors, though, will be more interested in the street markets selling “antiques” and memorabilia of Chairman Mao as well as pirated DVDs (of “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin,” for example, or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). In a nearby alley an elderly gentlemen who had lived there more than 50 years told me proudly about his daughter who had gone to work in Beijing. An 80-year-old woman joined our conversation and boasted quietly of her two sons and grandson who work for the Bao Steelworks in Shanghai. Would she like to move from her old home to her son’s? “No. Why should I? I have everything I want here,” she answered. What someone might want in Shanghai could include crickets, for which not far away there was a two-block-long arcaded market.

The Hong Kong architect Chen Jianbang, in collaboration with the American Benjamin Wood, has designed a compelling restoration of late 19th- and early 20th-century residential life in the Xintiandi (“new heaven and earth”) district. Chen remodeled the ordinary two-story houses with small front courtyards and stone-gate doorways (shikumen) that flourished along narrow alleyways in the French Concession into fashionable restaurants and shops on lovely pedestrian walkways. Special attention is paid to a complex of shikumen where the First National Congress of the Communist Party in China was held in 1921. Schoolchildren are brought to visit the site regularly from an early age.

At a rooftop restaurant on the former Bank of Bangkok, one of the grand old buildings along the Bund, I wasn’t surprised to see a goldfish pool for the entertainment of children. Since 1979, China has had an official policy of “one family, one child.” As a result, children are not only coddled by their parents and grandparents but carried literally like treasures in their arms. Social scientists worry that this will be a generation unacquainted with sacrifice and much less willing to “serve the people heart and soul.” They also wonder how the “emperors of three kingdoms” (the parents and grandparents on both sides) will be able to support their kingdoms in the future.

From the rooftops of the Bund there is a dazzling view of the eastern part of the city, Pudong, which 10 years ago was farmland and rice fields. Now a number of the city’s 25 five-star hotels are here, as well as the landmark Oriental TV Tower, which has signaled the area’s dramatic ambitions since 1994. Nearby is the tallest building in China, the Jin Mao Tower, designed by [Adrian Smith] of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It is 1,380 feet tall and houses the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the lobby of which is on the 53rd floor and its rooftop bar on the 87th. (The vertiginous atrium has become one of Shanghai’s greatest tourist attractions.) Like many of the other recent buildings, it gives you the sense of an architect dipping into a toolbox of possible tricks to seek distinction for his building. Soon it will be overshadowed by the Shanghai World Financial Center next door, 234 feet taller, which is being built by the Japanese developer Minoru Mori and will look rather like a high, torn silver sail. Altogether, there are almost twice as many skyscrapers in the city as in New York.

Perhaps the best place of all to get a sense for the explosive expansion of Shanghai is at the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall on the People’s Square in Puxi -- the western, and older, side of town. The museum houses a 600-square-meter model of the Shanghai of the future. Here visitors can study landmarks of the city today as well as buildings planned for the World Expo in 2010 on the southern banks of the Huangpu. (If you look closely, you can find St. Ignatius Cathedral, where Fr. Thomas Lucas of the University of San Francisco is supervising a highly ambitious, 2,000-square-foot stained-glass window program to be executed by Theresa Wo Ye and three artisan nuns.) The museum also has impressive models that show the way the Pudong International Airport will be developed, where the nine new subway and light rail lines will be located, and -- perhaps most dramatic of all -- how the Yangshang Deepwater Port will be built, with its 32.5-kilometer Donghai Bridge.

The same north side of the square offers a rather forbidding city hall but also Jean-Marie Charpentier’s striking Shanghai Grand Theatre. (The exterior is futuristic, all soaring steel and glass, but the auditorium is intimate and warm.) On the southern side is Xing Tonghe’s Shanghai Museum, which has a square foundation to symbolize the earth and a circular top to symbolize heaven. Inside, in beautifully scaled and expertly lighted galleries, is treasure after treasure: an extraordinary collection of bronzes, delicate jade, gorgeous ceramics, classic sculpture, Ming and Qing furniture, and the arts and crafts of the many Chinese ethnic minorities.

If Beijing is preparing furiously for the Olympics in 2008, its larger neighbor to the south has its eyes firmly fixed on the Expo two years later. By then, it is likely to have been transformed beyond what any visitor today can imagine.

Jesuit Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University in Washington, and a frequent contributor of art criticism to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006   [corrected 03/31/2006]

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