Double happiness, as the Chinese like to say. I arrived in Shanghai this past November at a propitious moment. Autumn is the only season when one can partake of the famous Shanghai crab, but the travel gods had arranged additional good fortune. A spectacular new art museum had opened on People's Square and had immediately been pronounced the best in the world for Chinese antiquities. In a proud thrust of progress of another order, the zippy new freeway to the ancient city of Suzhou was ready for traffic.
Shanghai is booming, if you haven't heard. From the window of my 24th-floor room in the Jin Jiang Tower, I count nine construction cranes atop cylinders of glass and steel that lord it over a vanishing mosaic of red-tiled roofs. The view unfolds in a sweeping 360 degrees from the hotel's revolving restaurant on the 42nd and 43rd floors, where I choose my breakfast from a lavish intercontinental buffet before setting out on my street explorations.
I have been here before, but what a difference. Twenty years ago, after the People's Republic called a halt to its Cultural Revolution, blaming the madness on a Shanghai clique, the Gang of Four, I was an honored guest on a surreal adventure known in the parlance of the day as a friendship tour. Sipping tea in reception rooms at factories and communes across the country, our delegation smiled and nodded through improbable production statistics and tired slogans uttered by Responsible Persons who were visibly suffering a crisis of faith. We all came down with terrible head colds. Shanghai, our last stop, was a relief. European architecture soothed and beckoned; young women were already exchanging their blunt bobs and Maoist blue cottons for perms and bright colors.
In those days private enterprise was restricted to ancients selling cups of tea on the street, but even a stranger could sense the yearning. Buoyed by the famously independent Shanghai spirit, one guide whisked me to a workers' restaurant for an intimate dinner, a breach of collectivism for which he gladly submitted to a criticism/self-criticism session.
Shanghai has always been a risk-taker's city. British gunboats opened the port during the shameful Opium War of the 1840's; French and American concessions were carved out cheek by jowl near the walled Chinese quarter. Fortunes made in the opium trade were parlayed into vast real estate holdings. White Russian émigrés sought a foothold among hustling Germans, Hungarians, and Swedes. A raucous metropolis of trade and skulduggery arose, with a grand European harbor, leafy boulevards, brothels and dance palaces, a British racetrack, and a sylvan park where posted regulations barred dogs and Chinese.
In the 1920's and 30's, the dissolute port of tycoons and coolies, gangsters and singsong girls, hated compradors, gambling dens, and foreign missionaries of every persuasion captured the world's imagination. (The world seemed unmindful that in a single year more than 5,000 corpses, of the unfortunates who succumbed to exposure and starvation, were removed from the city's streets and wharves.) Such was the magic of Shanghai's wicked allure that Josef von Sternberg, who had actually passed through, embellished his memories in two Hollywood classics, Shanghai Express, with Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily" and The Shanghai Gesture, set in a casino run by the madam of all madams, Mother Gin Sling. On the other side of the equation, the real Shanghainese were captivated by foreign imports and new ideas not on any official bill of lading. The city became home to its own thriving movie industry; emancipated women wrote novels of alienation; and the founders of China's Communist Party held their first secret meeting.
No other world-class port in modern memory experienced a heyday so vivid and so brief. Shanghai's bright lights dimmed during the bloody interregnum of World War II and a brutal Japanese occupation. After the Communist triumph of 1949, the foreigners fled and the city receded into the shadows, kept on a leash by the rulers in Beijing and their policy of isolation. Meanwhile, 800 miles down the coast, British Hong Kong usurped Shanghai's place as the glittering Asian port for international commerce. The irony is lost on no one as Hong Kong returns to mainland control in July.
Considering that I speak not a word of the language besides the equivalent of "Hello" and "Thank you," the ease with which I am able to bop around town is amazing. My hotel provides a tourist map, and I clutch the Passport Shanghai guidebook with a fervor that the Red Guards once reserved for the "Little Red Book" of Chairman Mao. Taxis are plentiful and cheap, the drivers are courteous and helpful, and elevated ring roads circumvent the worst of the traffic. When it suits my needs I take the modern and spanking-clean subway. Station signs are marked in English and trains run often, but the route as of now in this city of over 13 million is limited to a handful of stops. Bicycles, scooters, motor-bikes, a few cars, and overflowing vintage trams are the regular modes of transit. At dusk the convoys of cyclists heading for home are a sobering sight.
My shortcoming as a confident gadabout, I blush to admit, is the eight-times table. This is a mercantile city, and I want to buy things, or at least to price them. Considering the fairly stable exchange rate, I should be able to divide 100 yuan by eight and arrive at $12.50simple math for a grade-school child, but not for me. After "8 times 3" I start to flounder.
I excel, however, in other directions. Undaunted by crowds, I love to mingle with the hordes of shoppers. Map in hand, I stroll to busy Nanjing Road and follow the throngs all the way to the Bund, the curving European street on the western bank of the Huangpu River.
Bund, which sounds Germanic, is an Anglo-Indian word for "quay" or "embankment." The Customs House clock tower smack in its middle bears a resemblance to London's Big Ben. Waitan is the Chinese name for this world-renowned waterfront, but its future, despite a popular new concrete promenade, is uncertain. Across the river lies Pudong, destined to be the new financial and industrial center of greater Shanghai. To underscore the point, Pudong already boasts one of the world's tallest TV towers, the Oriental Pearl, which dwarfs the Bund's clock tower with the brash, questionable charm of a Lego construction. It's hard not to kid about the Oriental Pearl, which pops up disconcertingly, banded in pink glass, from various vantage points around the city. But then, people once jeered the Eiffel Tower.
I regard the pink Pearl through the grillwork casements of the Dragon-Phoenix, the restaurant on the eighth floor of the Peace Hotel where I sample my first Shanghai meal. The Peace,at the junction of Nanjing Road and the Bund, was formerly the Cathay and once the city's finest place to stay. No longer. The grand old hotel with its Art Deco fixtures has the look of a mausoleum, but the Dragon-Phoenix, done up like a red and gold Chinese temple, is just dandy. With great anticipation I order the Shanghai crab. Also known as hairy crab and river crab, this celebrated boiled delicacy is available only in the fall.
"Just one crab?" asks the waiter.
"One," I reply.
My crab arrives, a wee hard-shell, along with a nutcracker and a metal pick. I flip it onto its back and tentatively poke its distinctive black blotches. Then I surreptitiously look for clues from the other diners. There is an art to cracking the Shanghai she-crab, and to extracting the delicate sweet meat in whole morsels, but I'm afraid that I don't quite master the technique at first try. Nonetheless, I can report that it was delicious, and rather pricey at $20.
Nanjing Road reportedly gets a half-million shoppers a day. It's the place to come from all over China to buy clothes and appliances at the No. 1 Department Store, and to taste such exotic treats as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Big Macs, and $3 dishes of Häagen-Dazs rum raisin. At night I discover that Nanjing Road takes on an unexpected glow. Up and down the avenue the utility poles are ablaze with Pepsi signs in the shape of bottle caps, a soft-drink forest.
Frankly, Nanjing Road by day or night is too honky-tonk for my pleasure. Along with the better-heeled Shanghainese, I prefer to do my window-gazing on Huai Hai Road, the former Avenue Joffre in the old French Concession. There, amid the fashion boutiques, Chinese apothecaries, and movie theaters, I find Western-style bakeries and pastry shops that specialize in cream cakes, a renewed tradition.
Wedding photography stores, of which there are several on Huai Hai, are the latest craze. Behind a store window in full view of passers-by, self-absorbed young brides in rental gowns are fussed over by makeup artists and coiffed with hairpieces, while nervous grooms manfully submit to a blow-dry. The assembly line is a prelude to the elaborate studio shoot, conducted behind curtains against an array of props and backdrops. Judging from the pictures on display, an ornate carriage is a popular setting. The wedding photography service, which includes a repeat performance on the actual day of the wedding banquet, plus a photo album, duplicate prints, and souvenirs for the guests, can cost a year's salary, an extravagance that probably explains the grooms' distracted expressions.