Sunday, April 25, 2010

Shanghai short history and description

Our overnight T100 train from Kowloon should arrive in Shanghai at 10 a.m. on Sunday 25 April. We have directions written in Chinese so we can get a taxi from the central railway station to the hotel. The text below is a compilation from various travel reviews of the city of Shanghai to provide an idea of this city we are about to explore. Shanghai is the largest city in China and is the largest city-proper in the world. Population is estimated to be in excess of 20 million within just the metropolitan area.

You will find in Shanghai the inescapable powerful soul of a city launching an assault on the future at a pace and magnitude unparalleled in human history. This is a city spending an average of 8.5 billion US dollars on infrastructure and commercial development every year! It is a vibrant cosmopolitan city with an eye for the future and the motivation to get there.

To explore Shanghai is to explore history unfolding in front of your eyes. Nowhere else is the miracle of the new China better seen than in Shanghai. A walk along Nanjing Lu, one of Shanghai's main commercial strips, reveals numerous shops offering Gucci, Christian Dior, Versace, Chanel, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton. In between sit McDonald's, KFC, and Baskin Robbins, ultra modern ten story shopping malls and department stores flank the sides. And all around brand new skyscrapers of glass and steel rearrange Shanghai's skyline on a seemingly daily basis.

Across the Huangpu River is Pudong, an area of swampland a decade ago. If built as planned, it will display a skyline as impressive as that of New York or Hong Kong.

But don't despair this new China dominated by conspicuous consumption, consumerism, and commercialism. They don't have time for sentimentality, they pave over it. China is a huge, dynamic, growing nation transforming itself into a major economic world power. Shanghai is the epicenter. Shanghai is where China is going, and if China should some day reach the status of superpower, it will be Shanghai that challenges New York as the 'Capital of the World'. Believe it. Nothing to see in Shanghai? Ha! There's everything to see in Shanghai, but it's not in the museums or the gardens or the pagodas. It's out on the streets unfolding before your very eyes. (This is what we are looking forward to! People watching in a big city! Always fun and should be even better than normal here)

Depending on what book you refer to, the name Shanghai either means "up to the sea", "by the sea", or "over the sea". Perhaps a native Shanghai resident can sort this one out, because the guidebooks certainly can't. Shanghai has been inhabited for over 2000 years, but for most of its history it was a small fishing village. In the 16th century a protective wall was erected around the wharf to provide a safe haven from Japanese pirates. With this added security the village grew to maybe 20,000 people and became a textile center as well as a fishing town. It remained that way until 1842 when the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing ended the first Opium War and allowed foreigners the right to settlements in various port cities of China. Modern Shanghai was born.

Immediately came the British, followed by France in 1847, a general International Settlement in 1863 that merged British and American interests, and then the Japanese in 1895. The British and French both expanded their settlements respectively in 1899 and 1914. Much of the city was taken up by these settlements which operated independently from Chinese law. When the world came to China it was through Shanghai. Huge sums of money poured in.

Though many Chinese entrepreneurs shared in the riches, most Chinese toiled long hours for little money. Child labor, slave labor, and forced prostitution were the reality for many Shanghai residents, all of which were more for the advantage of the foreign interests then for the Chinese. Old Shanghai was one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities in the early decades of the 20th century, "Paris of the East" they called it, but to its detractors and many of its residents it was the "Whore of the East". It should come as no surprise then, that it was in Shanghai that the Communist Party of China was founded.

When the Communists took over China in 1949 the all-night party that characterized Shanghai was shut down in a flash. The Communists sought to clean up Shanghai by, among other things, eliminating prostitution, rehabilitating the addicts, closing down the gambling halls and brothels, and ending child and slave labor. Though fairly successful in these endeavors this signaled the end to one of the world's great parties. The tiger was laid to sleep, smothered under a large red flag. It was to remain this way for forty years.

In 1990 came the announcement for the development of Pudong, and with it the rest of Shanghai. The photo at right shows the skyline of Pudong several years ago. All those skyscrapers built since 1990 where once lay a swamp. Shanghai was kicked back to life. Beijing removed the muzzle and let go of the leash. The tiger, asleep for forty years yawned, stretched its legs, and looked around. It saw a world vastly different from the one it knew nearly a half century before. Intent to reestablish itself as one of the world's greatest, most cosmopolitan cities, the tiger roared and took off running --- running so hard and so fast it is flattening everything in its path. In its heyday, the success of Shanghai was on foreign terms; this time success is coming on its own terms.

Despite unprecedented growth and modernization, Shanghai is not without problems. Widespread corruption has plagued local government, rapid development has created some of the highest real estate prices in the world, housing shortages contrast with high office building vacancy rates, and the presence of the Asian economic crisis looms heavy over Shanghai's and China's head.

Newly found wealth is once again creating a wide gap between haves and have-nots. Many people, once guaranteed employment under China's state operated industries have since found themselves on the streets as China moves further into a free market economy.

Though residents complain of pollution and traffic, it appears that both are far more under control than some other Asian cities. But unlike some other Asian cities, not only has Shanghai kept pace with the construction of infrastructure, the entire future development plans are already laid out. The future Shanghai is proudly shown on billboards and in architectural models on display at the Pearl of the Orient TV tower.

Not surprising as Shanghai residents have always been the most open-minded and sophisticated of China. Unlike most other places in China, one can more or less disappear into a crowd or walk down a street in Shanghai without attracting an entourage of human leeches. When eye contact is made with residents of Shanghai, more than anywhere else in China, a smile might follow.

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