Leaving dormant Rockbund to its minders, we cross the street and come to the sludgy waters of Suzhou Creek near where it runs into the Huangpu River. Erupting in full view across the river is Pudong, hallucinatory megacity of super-towers. Pudong is the size of 20 Manhattans, conjured from flat farmland in as many years. Here is the Pearl of the Orient TV Tower, a retro-futuristic disco ball on stilts. It looks Soviet and 60’s but was in fact completed in 1994. Dodington recalls the feeling of exuberance at the birth of the boom. “I’d be walking along the embankment and strangers would stop me and point across the river and say, ‘This is the shape of things to come!’ And you’d look and there was nothing there. It was like, ‘Sure, whatever you say!’”
There is a tiny, crumpled piece of trash improbably clinging to the window ledge of my hotel room on the 79th floor of the Park Hyatt Shanghai. The room is impeccably, almost surreally, calming, with a long lacquered table and cream-colored daybed by the window. I’m on the Pudong side now, looking down at the bend in the Huangpu where I was standing earlier. But the exterior reality doesn’t really matter once you’re in this serene cloud city, an otherworldly place of whispered well-being. Up here, the toilet seat in my bathroom raises robotically as I approach, as if in salute. Up here is one of my new favorite places in the world. For pure city-watching thrills there aren’t many views better than the ones out of my wide-angle windows. My gaze floats out past the prickly pagoda peaks of the Jin Mao Tower and down over the blinking Pearl TV needle and the whole clamorous cluster mellows to a silent meditation on hypermodernity.
But for some reason, my eye keeps returning to this little ball of paper teetering just beyond the quiet of my happy space pod. No bigger than a gum wrapper, it looks fragile, an infinitesimal speck of the tactile world below. Then it’s blown away, returned to the great abstraction, a backdrop to be enjoyed over gin and tonics at the 87th-floor lobby bar.
When I’m down there—in the street-level world of close crowds, of beeping motorbikes and laundry hanging in the lanes—life up here in the cloud villages seems just as distant, abstract. Much of my time in Shanghai is spent shuttling between these two abstractions: elevators up and down, taxis back and forth, shifting perspectives, a chance to play up in the clouds.
One night I leave the Park Hyatt with a plan to find some of the city’s best xiao long bao, the famous soup-filled dumplings. Xiao long bao is to Shanghai what pizza is to New York. Which is to say: ubiquitous and not always very good. I’ve been warned that Jia Jia Tan Bao, in the Huangpu District, can sell out of the dumplings, so I am happy to see that the tiny shop is still open. The bad news is they are out of everything except the all-crabmeat version, and these are only available at a decadent (for Shanghai) splurge of $14 for a dozen. The good news is they are easily the best I’ve tried: thin-skinned with a deeply, sweetly crabby rich broth and meat. I don’t need 12, but the two bamboo steamers don’t last long. The place is one small room with about 30 seats, bright cafeteria lighting, linoleum floors, and a clear view into the kitchen where two girls are pinching and steaming the remaining orders of the night. A young man with a spiky New Wave haircut at the next table smiles and asks how I found the place. He is Shanghainese, he says, and this is his favorite spot. We both nod, sweating and self-satisfied like Russians after a shvitz.
I don’t mention to my new friend that the dumplings are mere warm-up for a second dinner later that night. A few days earlier I’d met up with Ming Ming Chen and Jeff Zhou, who run the modern-art gallery Around Space, housed in a bunker-like complex of studios and galleries called 696. As they showed me around the space, talk had turned from art to lunch, and they’d taken me to a restaurant at the top of a mall called One Hundred Families, One Thousand Tastes. After a great, long meal—Yellow River bamboo with ham; translucent gooey balls of summer yam with pork and scallions; lu yu, a river fish with a sour, spicy broth; and many other things, ending with a dessert of shaved ice that tasted like peanut butter turned into a cold whisper—they had suggested I meet them later in the week at their favorite night food street.