We have just returned from a visit to Shanghai...rest assured, the urban scenes in Star Wars films exist in reality. We have seen the cutting edge
Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with "when China awakes, the world will
tremble!" We can testify that China has awakened and is well on the way to becoming a leader in the world's economic affairs. And this from a communist political system that fully condones the flowering of capitalism!
This reporter's Shanghai visit was inspired by the couple who founded Shanghai-based bambu, inc. (profiled in a 2003 issue of this magazine as "Oregon Couple Goes Global With Bamboo"), Rachel Speth and my son, Jeff Delkin.
We confess that Asia is not on a personal wish list of places to visit, but the
"kids" insisted I should see their milieu. We're glad we did, and we
recommend Shanghai as a world apart from our stereotyped images of Asia. We have lived in Manhattan, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Honolulu and Las Vegas, visited L.A., San Diego, Chicago, New Orleans, Vancouver, London, Zurich, Munich, Berlin and Stockholm...so urban experiences are not beyond our ken. Shanghai tops them all.
Our 16-hour aerial slog from San Francisco to Shanghai deposited us at ultra-modern Pudong jet port, where Jeff introduced us to the swiftest airport
ground link on the planet, the German-built Maglev train traveling at 250+ mph and reaching urban central in less than 8 minutes (the same route by taxi consumes some 50 minutes). This magnetic levitation conveyance rides vibration-free on a cushion of air. Next, a short taxi ride took us to our lodging in a 5-star Hilton hotel. Our 36th floor room featured a curved view window revealing a skyscraper-studded view stretching southeast past the Huangpu river that bisects the heart of Shanghai.
No less than 40,000 taxis ply the streets of this city of 18 million inhabitants, virtually all of them supplied by Volkswagen under the "Santana" moniker and resembling the 4-door sedans marketed in the U.S. as "Jetta." They all look
new and are operated by 7 companies, each fleet sporting a distinct color
scheme. You also see a sprinkling of SUV's for group hire, either Mercedes or BMW. Cab fares are quite low, accounting for a scarcity of personal vehicles on the streets. Buick has a Chinese assembly plant producing the only Detroit labels visible. It should come as no shock that no Japanese brands are seen.
Shanghai is blessed with a plethora of multi-lane thoroughfares, many carried
on overhead spans. On these routes, traffic control is attempted with
electronic tower faces that show green, red and a digital display providing a countdown to the next light change. Cab riding is an adventure that far exceeds any Manhattan taxi tour, with horns serenading sudden lane changes.
Get off these freeways onto city streets and you are swarmed by mopeds and
bicycles that ply both streets and sidewalks. The roadways accommodate city
transit and tour buses...and then there's the Shanghai Metro system, operating
light rail on 5 subway and elevated lines, with 4 more lines under construction
and currently carrying 1.8 million passengers daily.
The Metro system is just another symbol of modernity that has exploded in a
city that emerged some 700 years ago as a shipping port at the conjunction of the Yangtze and Huangpu rivers, opening onto the East China Sea arm of the Pacific Ocean. The British merchant marine began smuggling opium to China through Shanghai in the mid-1700's and the Brits defeated Chinese dynasty attempts to stymie this trade in the Opium Wars that culminated in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which ceded trading rights for both Shanghai and Hong Kong to Great Britain. France and the U.S. rushed to gain similar trading rights, followed by Czarist Russia.
The British and French each established their own settlements within
Shanghai, governed by these colonial powers. The Japanese were the next to move in, defeating China just before the turn of the 20th century. Now
foreign banking and shipping interests established headquarters in architectural edifices in what is known to this day as the Bund (an Asian term for a river embankment). Most of these impressive buildings remain today to
remind us that Shanghai was a birthplace of what is now known as
"globalization." The city's capitalist bent was temporarily stymied by the post-WWII triumph of the Chinese Communists over the Nationalists whom westerners had supported against the Japanese. Chairman Mao Zedong viewed Shanghai as China's ultimate symbol of foreign decadence. However, Mao's death in 1976 ushered in a return to economic health as his successors regained economic sanity by welcoming foreign investment and focused on Shanghai as a financial hub.
By 1992, this port city was the scene of economic liberalization endorsed
by the Beijing government. Thus, in an incredibly short passage of time, Shanghai has been transformed into a glowing showcase for capitalism. In just 15 years, this city has become what we see today.
Skyscrapers like no others
The world's most imaginative architects have been inspired to create edfices
wherever you turn, towers with frills that beggar belief, funded by a planet-wide panoply of international firms. Beneath these spires, beautiful vestiges of the 19th & early 20th century past abound in walled mansions fronting courtyards and restored to grandeur. It is impossible to believe that the French and English concession districts ever looked better.
We dined in several walled garden estates converted to restaurants, and speaking of dining, Shanghai is a world tour. Our cuisine experiences included Thai, Chinese, Peruvian, German, French, Vietrnamese, Japanese and Italian...while we also visited a pair of Irish pubs and a German biergarten, the latter just opened as Shanghai's first microbrewery, and participated in two group wine tastings with appetizers at a new wine bar
owned by an Argentine (see the "Decanting" column in this magazine).
Local history on display
An engrossing historical display buried beneath the Oriental Pearl TV tower
on the far bank of the Huangpu is a must for any Shanghai visitor. Wonderfully crafted dioramas portray scenes from the city's incredibly
colorful history, while scale models recreate the notable estates created by western capitalist titans of past centuries and sepia-toned photoprints adorn
the walls with views of the frantic seaport commerce that grabbed nternational attention and participation prior to WWII.
We were brought to this museum gem by Henry Hong, a Shanghai native
with full command of the English language that brings fiscal success to his Hong's Walking Tours. Our Hong tour began on the Bund, with a backdrop of the ornate yet stolid buildings built by western financial institutions. After only a block's walk, we had to ask Henry how, growing up under a communist regime, he could grasp what has transpired around him. "Those Russians, they never understood what creates economic development...they were blind to capitalism, while we Chinese have always had commercial instincts," Henry declared. He certainly doesn't miss the revolution engineered by Chairman Mao, but welcomes how it has evolved.
(That's all for now, but much, much more will be related in next month's installment of a business story non pareil)© 2007 Oregon Magazine The mag-lev photo is a link to its source.
-- Fred Delkin