Feature: 21st Century City

At night, downtown Shanghai is a neon blaze, but all is dark in Fuxing Park, a residential district on the outskirts of the city, where my taxi has stopped. The driver says something in Chinese and points to a gate in a high, stuccoed wall. A dimly lit sign hanging over the gate identifies—in Chinese script and English—the place as the Yongfoo Elite Club. Two burly Chinese chaps stand by the gate, scrutinizing the cab and its passenger. Stepping out warily, I point first to the driver, then to the spot where he has stopped—international sign language for “You wait here a minute while I check this out.” He smiles and nods in agreement. But as I move toward the gate, I hear an ominous sound from behind, and, turning, I see the taxi disappear into the darkness. This leaves me with only one thing to do.

The bouncers look me over but do not say a word as I walk past them into a courtyard lit by glowing pools of goldfish. A sprawling colonial-style mansion lies beyond. Oh well, what is the worst that could happen? The place has come highly recommended, or at least I thought it had at the time. “It’s very exclusive, very private,” a new acquaintance promised, back at my hotel. “Just like old-time Shanghai.”

That sounded promising. In its heyday, this city on the Huangpu River was the world’s most freewheeling and cosmopolitan. Dubbed the Paris of the East, it was more exotic than its namesake, a place crackling with sophistication and adventure. On the other hand, it was also the most notorious, riddled with opium dens and brothels, a place where you watched your drink, lest you be drugged—indeed, shanghaied—and tossed onto a tramp steamer bound for parts unknown. More recently, I was now recalling, anyone found frequenting a club for the elite would have been lined up against a wall, or at the very least, sent off to a farm for reeducation.



Trusting this is no longer so, I pull on the door and step inside, blinking against the light and taking in the scene: the paneled rooms, the opulent furnishings, and the smiling young ladies in high-slit silk cheongsams. If this is not the Shanghai of legend, it will certainly do.


I have come to shanghai to experience the boom, the phenomenon that has restored the city’s bygone luster and transformed it, so its citizens claim, into the First City of the 21st Century. After more than 40 years of a Communist-imposed malaise in Shanghai, comparisons with the city’s past were inevitable.

Strolling through the city early one morning, I was reminded of a story Orson Welles used to tell. For a high school graduation gift, his father had sent him to China, and while he was touring Shanghai with an aunt, their ricksha hit a bump. “The dear lady fell out,” Welles would say, “and was never seen again.” Nobody familiar with Shanghai—then or now—would refute his tale.

At every turn, a visitor is reminded that this is a city of 20 million people, two and a half times the size of New York and eight times as densely populated. There is a constant din of car horns blaring, traffic cops blowing their whistles, bicycle bells jingling, chickens clucking from bamboo cages heaped on the sidewalks, and merchants beseeching passersby to come into their stores to peruse their wares. Traffic lights are treated as novelties, on a par with holiday decorations. On Hua Hai road, a main artery through the shopping district, green turns to red, but the taxis continue to press forward, a motorized phalanx against the swarms of pedestrians, rickshas, bicycles, and trikes that fill the street. Here and there, frail-looking old men and women somehow push through the melee carrying sacks of beans and rice strung from the ends of poles balanced across their backs.Every square inch of real estate, it seems, is used for commerce. Side alleys are economic microcosms where hurried Shanghainese can get an open-air haircut; pick up melons and cucumbers; buy underwear, books, and bouquets of flowers; or wolf down a bowl of stir-fry at a folding table. Overhead, like banners at a bazaar, laundry is strung between facing apartment windows to dry in the slanting rays of the sun.

A darker side of the Chinese economy is found in the so-called Fashion Mall, a maze of stands that occupies a full city block. This is no place for the faint of heart, as you have to force your way past the gauntlet of vendors clutching at your sleeve or blocking your way to display their counterfeit fashions, watches, toys, CDs, and electronics.


The real things are available—though at several times the prices—only a short stroll from the counterfeit market in the boutiques by Dior, Armani, Burberry, and Prada. However chic, they are merely the latest iteration of the city’s century-old penchant for fashion. Nearby, too, lies the river teeming with cargo-laden boats that display intricately carved, gold dragon heads at their bows. All of this would appear familiar to someone who had visited Shanghai in the 1920s and ’30s.


But the boom has done more than reawaken the Shanghai of old. To appreciate the New Shanghai, you must stroll to the Bund, the stretch of neoclassical buildings along the western bank of the Huangpu. Here, for a century, the taipans, as the American and European financiers were known, had their banks, clubs, consulates, and hotels. From their porches they could sip their Pimm’s Cups and survey the Western gunboats in the harbor. Farther beyond, the coolies—the term the taipans used to describe the Chinese laborers—tended the rice paddies on Pudong, the sprawl of mud on the opposite river bank, as the natives had done for a thousand years and appeared destined to do for another thousand; the land in Pudong was otherwise worthless and remained so until the close of the 20th century.

Now the rice paddies in Pudong are gone, and in their place stands the world’s most spectacular stretch of real estate. Looming over the jumble of skyscrapers and rhomboids and domes is the rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl TV Tower. More than 1,500 feet tall, the tower contains a space exhibit, a revolving restaurant, and a hotel. Almost as tall is the 1,380-foot-high, pagoda-roofed Jin Mao Tower, home to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the world’s highest hotel, according to the Guinness World Records book. The Grand Hyatt’s atrium is a gleaming hive rising from the 56th floor to the Cloud 9 bar and restaurant on the 87th floor. Here, too, is the glitzy, 10-story-high Yaohan mega-mall, Asia’s largest shopping center, where you can buy everything from soy sauce to Volkswagens.

In Pudong the futuristic becomes commonplace. Three dozen times each day a train departs from Pudong International Airport bound for a station in the new financial district 20 miles away. A hum is followed by a slight lurch as the train levitates from its rails and flies, held aloft by magnetic forces, to its destination at 270 mph. The traffic moves almost as fast along Shanghai’s 30,000-seat Formula One track, which was constructed on a bed of polystyrene.

The city’s renaissance is no less evident in such cultural institutions as the stunning new Shanghai Museum. Shaped like a traditional Chinese ding cooking vessel, the museum houses China’s first world-class collection of paintings, sculpture, and ceramics and an unparalleled display of ancient bronzes. Elsewhere in the city, historical landmarks that lay in disrepair for much of the past century have been restored and revitalized. Among these is the Yu Garden, built in 1577 for officials of the Ming Dynasty. It is entered through a series of zigzag bridges arranged according to the principles of feng shui, a practice forbidden under Mao Tse-tung. A serene compound of goldfish ponds and huge, decorative limestone rocks, with carved animals atop pagoda-roofed pavilions, the garden is a haven from the bustling marketplace that surrounds it.Even more ethereal is the Jade Buddha Temple. Off limits to visitors during the Cultural Revolution—like so many of the country’s treasures—the temple houses two statues of Buddha: One is well over 6 feet tall and carved from white jade studded with jewels, and the second depicts a sleeping Buddha on his way to Nirvana.

Ultimately the real significance of Shanghai’s metamorphosis has less to do with skyscrapers and markets and antiquities than with its political underpinnings. It is one of the great ironies of the 21st century that Shanghai should become the showpiece of Communist China, because its culture is neither communist nor Chinese. Elsewhere in China they speak of a culture 5,000 years old, but Shanghai’s culture is a foreign invention, contrived under the protection of British naval guns in the mid-19th century.

This is not to say that England’s role in the city’s early history was especially heroic. By 1840 the British had become the most reprehensible drug dealers in history. The opium that the British East India Co. purchased in India and sold in China was crippling the country economically and spiritually. In the ensuing Opium War, Chinese junks and muskets proved no match for the modern warships from the West, and by signing the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, China guaranteed British trading rights in the ports of Canton, Ningbo, Foochow, Amoy, and Shanghai.

Before very long, however, the Chinese who had tried to drive the British gunboats from their harbors looked to them for protection from the most rapacious army in Asia’s history: the Taipings. Followers of a religious zealot who styled himself as the Younger Brother of Christ, the Taipings were religious fundamentalists from the south of China opposed to the worldly ways of the ruling Manchu Dynasty. Marching north, they captured Nanking, then Canton, slaughtering 20 million to 30 million of their countrymen as they advanced.

Shanghai’s population swelled, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese, rich and poor, fled to the sheltering British guns. Shanghai’s standing as a sanctuary was cemented when the British commander Charles “Chinese” Gordon dealt the Taipings a conclusive defeat in 1865. Almost overnight a sleepy trading village was transformed into a city of 300,000, while the value of land on the Bund increased from $200 to $50,000 an acre.

The next revolution to descend on Shanghai was industrial. With its cotton and paper mills, shipyards, food-processing plants, canneries and tanneries, waterworks, and 50,000 junks floating in the harbor, this one city had more commerce than the rest of the country. China’s first cars ran on the country’s first paved roads in Shanghai. Here, too, gas, electricity, and running water first appeared in China, as did streetcars and telephones. And the tallest buildings outside the United States were in Shanghai.

By the 1920s, Shanghai had become a city of 3 million, and land on the Bund was worth $1.4 million an acre. Now the taipans enjoyed all of the cultural and recreational luxuries of European and American society, and more: Italian opera and American jazz, British cricket courts and Portuguese jai alai frontons, yacht clubs and cultural salons, white-tie galas with one’s peers and steamy nights locked in the embrace of one’s Eurasian mistress. Luxury liners arrived every day bearing aristocrats and plutocrats from the Old World and the New, all eager to immerse themselves in the mystique of Shanghai.Some saw the city as the model for a new age, a polyglot Utopia free of income taxes, passports, and visas. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Shanghai took in tens of thousands of white Russians. Later, it was one of the few ports to offer shelter to the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Freedoms of speech and of the press were guaranteed.

This enlightenment had its limits, of course. While the Chinese merchants and bankers might do business with the taipans, they did not mix socially. This was not a concern on either side of the social barrier; for Chinese intellectuals, Shanghai was a center of freedom and an escape from the rigidity of Chinese culture. Like no other city in the world, Shanghai could be whatever one wanted it to be, the Pearl of the Orient or the Whore of the East. All it took was money.

But while the world gaped at the mansions and hotels of the taipans, a new ideology was taking seed in the city. The house still stands on Xingye Lu and Huangpu Lu where, on July 1, 1921, delegates gathered to form the Chinese Communist Party. However wealthy the city was making some of their countrymen, the Communists saw Shanghai as the embodiment of decadence, the repository of colonialism and capitalism.

When the Communists took over in 1949, a long night fell over the Shanghainese way of life, as the new government set to punishing the city for a century of hedonism. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of the city’s intellectual and economic leaders were packed off to be reeducated. Those remaining behind to keep the factories running were burdened with the highest taxes in the country while receiving the lowest subsidies for housing and food. Moving to another city was rarely an option, because China’s household registration laws made it virtually impossible to relocate. In 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square, historian Harriet Sergeant wrote, “Communism has covered this city like a sandstorm, burying and preserving. (It) has mummified Shanghai’s appearance in a manner inconceivable to a Westerner. Shopping centers, overpasses, and subways are all missing. So, too, is Shanghai’s spirit.”

Shanghai was not alone in its despair. In the 1980s food was scarce, and the country had embarked on a system of rationing. Nobody—not even the Communist Party boss Deng Xiaoping—could deny the obvious: As an economic model, Chinese Communism, with its central planning, was not working. Even so, Shanghai seemed the least likely choice for a new prototype—the Head of the Dragon, Deng called it. He not only adopted the city’s entrepreneurial philosophy but even reinstated Shanghai as the nation’s business capital. In 1991, Deng returned Shanghai’s tax revenues to the city for the first time in a generation, thereby restoring its fiscal autonomy.

Meanwhile, to prime the economic pump, Deng hit upon the scheme of developing Pudong. One after another, bankers and builders advised the Chinese leader that his plan was impossible, that the cost of draining the marshes and bridging the Huangpu and essentially building a whole new city was a pipe dream. But Deng, then in his mid-80s, was keenly aware of his mortality and conscious of his impending legacy. And so the work began.

From 1992 to 1996 the city launched more municipal projects than it had over the previous four decades. Meanwhile, enticed by the Pudong project and Shanghai’s new economic independence, every multinational corporation decided Shanghai was the place to be. In 1993 alone, the city attracted more foreign investment than it had over the preceding 10 years. Once again, the boom was on, and the smell of fast money hung in the air—so much money that China now boasts more millionaires under the age of 40 than any country other than the United States.For many of Shanghai’s new rich, the question was no longer how to make money, but how to spend it. Nowhere are the riches quite so nouveau as they are in China. Unlike other societies, where either an aristocracy or generations of old money serve as touchstones to taste and refinement, Chinese multimillionaires have no upper class to emulate. Instead, their tastes are the product of mass media. As a survey of Chinese entrepreneurs by the Far Eastern Economic Review indicates, they consider Holiday Inn and Rolex more prestigious brands than Four Seasons and Patek Philippe. This may also explain the habit—popular among some Chinese tycoons—of knocking back some of Bordeaux’s finest vintages in shot glasses or mixing them with Coca-Cola. As increasingly is the case in the United States, cosmetic surgery does not bear any stigma for the modern Shanghai femme fatale. Her surgically rounded eyes and more ample bust are signs of affluence and style-consciousness. “Everyone in Shanghai is trying to reinvent themselves,” says Liu Yan, a fortyish currency trader who was educated in the United States. “It’s worse than L.A. They’re all looking for the appropriate milieu; they all want to be seen.”

For some of Shanghai’s new rich this means table-hopping at the Peace Hotel on the Bund, once the city’s tallest building, or at Cloud 9 atop the Jin Mao Tower on the opposite bank of the Huangpu. For a more select group, it means socializing at the mansion that was once the epicenter of Shanghai society: the British consulate. Modern-day taipans know it as the Yongfoo Elite Club.


“It took us three years to turn it into what you now see,” explains Rudy Butt, the Yongfoo Elite Club’s executive director, as he leads the way through the mansion. “What we offer is something you won’t find at a restaurant or hotel, something more personal.” This more personal something, as well as the club’s aura of richesse and indulgence, comes at the reasonable cost—to its target clientele, at least—of 20,000 yuan (about $2,400) in annual dues that members pay to dine at the club. Its wooden-paneled game rooms are furnished with soft leather sofas, and its dining rooms are lit by massive brass chandeliers. The balconies overlook gardens filled with flowers and, at night, illuminated by the goldfish ponds. “This,” says Butt, leading the way into a room with an antique opium bed, “is the way Shanghai was. And the way it can be again.”


Shanghai has its critics. Some complain that no city with so many Starbucks can have a soul, while the practical-minded ponder the glut of office space on Pudong and shake their heads over what might be in the works: the Bionic Tower, a self-contained, 300-story condo built to house 100,000 residents. Still others fault the city’s resurgence itself, its affluence and progress, saying it is all a facade for a China that does not really exist. This may be so, as the overwhelming majority of the country’s 1.3 billion people still live in abject poverty. For them, the China of levitating trains, soaring skyscrapers, and boulevards crammed with private cars is just a dream. The difference is, a generation ago, these dreams were forbidden; today they are permitted. So if the China seen in Shanghai does not exist, perhaps someday soon it will.

Read More On:

More Destinations