China's biggest city, once the Paris of the Orient, faded after the Communist revolution. Now, at last, it's taking a great leap forward
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.
The entrance fee for foreigners at the new Shanghai Museum on People's Square is 60 yuan, but I don't begrudge it. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, the construction went $24 million over budget, so every yuan helps. Museum director Ma Chengyuan and his deputy, Wang Qingzheng, labored for 10 years, seeking out Western expertise, overseas Chinese benefactors, and government funds to achieve their vision, a pageant of all that is great in Chinese art. The old museum, established in 1952, occupied a former bank owned by Shanghai's legendary mobster Big-eared Du. I remember the creaking floors and dusty display cases, and the handwritten Chinese descriptions on faded index cards that left me clueless.
The new museum's circular form resembles a ding, a three-legged cooking pot with vertical handles. Dings made of clay or bronze were the cookware used throughout Chinese antiquity. In bronze they often assumed the proportions of giant cauldrons, so the building's design is both witty and emblematic.
I wander through 11 galleries on three levels. Not wanting to go into cultural overdrive, I concentrate on the hall of sculptures, then the gallery of ceramics. The latter traces the art's evolution from incised, painted pots of the Neolithic era to Ming and Qing porcelains. Other galleries hold jades, huge bronzes, painted scrolls, ethnic costumes, and carved, inlaid furniture.
Even though some of the collections are beyond my comprehension, it's exhilarating to walk through a grand museum that is both high-tech and user-friendly. Approach a Tang dynasty scroll secured behind glass and the lighting automatically brightens; step away and the illumination dims to protect its colors. Contemplate a 2,000-year-old terra-cotta Han dynasty figure, a man playing a bamboo flute, and sense how the dark blue carpet and muted red walls set off the musician's joyful expression. Admire as well the accompanying clear English text.
"Pottery belongs to all mankind," says a wall installation, "but porcelain is China's invention." In Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng's powerful memoir of her six years in prison during the Cultural Revolution, she vividly describes how the Red Guards broke into her house and started smashing her porcelain treasures. Plates and vases that the Guards didn't destroy were warehoused under her name, in a nice touch of legality. Preparing to exit the country when travel abroad again became possible, Nien Cheng donated 15 choice pieces to the museum, for which she received a certificate of merit and a very good lunch. A tale like Nien Cheng's has more resonance for me than the goodwill gestures of some of the museum's present benefactors, the families of the business tycoons who fled in 1949 with their fortunes intact.
After a respite in the second-floor tearoom for ginger nibbles and cookies, I head to the antiques gift shop, already acknowledged as the best in Shanghai, and purchase a Qing dynasty dish that catches my fancy. Suddenly the museum is overrun with scampering schoolchildren, clean-scrubbed and uniformed, all wanting to practice their American hellos. I delight in their sense of entitlement but figure it's time to go.
People's Square, like nearly everything else in Shanghai, is undergoing a major renovation. Soon, a new opera house will join the museum as further proof that this city has more on its mind than commerce and money. There is something else here that I must check out. A Shanghainese friend in New York had told me not to miss it.
Convinced during the sixties that China was facing imminent nuclear attack from Russia or the United States, Chairman Mao ordered the construction in every big city of underground shelters with the hortatory slogan "Dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere, and avoid hegemony." In 1977 our friendship delegation had toured the extensive tunnels beneath People's Square. I remember the eerie brickwork, the dim bulbs strung on wires, and the sacks of grain, and I remember thinking, What a sad, terrible waste of human labor.
That was then, this is now. The tunnels have been transformed into a subterranean shopping mall of glitzy boutiques, accessible from the street and the subway station. In a bow to the port down the coast that Shanghai wants to emulate, the upscale arcade is known as the Hong Kong Mall.
Malls, malls everywhere, but no fantastic bargains. My friend Joyce Johnson, the writer, who is traveling with me, announces that the city is suffering from a fashion gap. Designer boutiquesFendi, Versace, Ralph Lauren, et al.seem empty of customers and no less expensive than they are in New York, and the fur-collared leather jackets and high-heeled platform shoes in the shops may be Shanghai chic but they're not yet in the same league as ours.
Joyce goes on a spree at Dong Tai Lu, a government-sanctioned flea market in the old Chinese quarter. We pick our way past old mahjong sets made of bone and teak, ivory opium pipes, 1930's cigarette posters featuring pouty China doll beauties, Chairman Mao badges that are already relics. Joyce is soon laden with a Chinese wedding basket, a red wooden dish in the shape of a duck, a celadon bowl, two pretty black-glazed cups with an autumn leaf on the bottom. Song dynasty, the vendor assures her, but it's buyer beware at Dong Tai Lu. Joyce instinctively knows how to bargain: she walks away and the vendors come after her with a price that is half what they originally asked.
It helps to have an English-speaking guide at Dong Tai Lu, and one soon presents himself: an elderly gentleman in a threadbare suit. He follows us from a distance until he determines that he can be of service.
"What's this?" I inquire, pointing to a bone cylinder with a latticed cap.
"Ah! A cricket holder." I'm confused, thinking of the British sport. "For keeping your pet crickets, to hear them chirp."
"And that?A soap dish?"
"For holding dry ink."
Mr. Shui learned his American-accented English in middle school and used to work in a bank. "To them my knowledge was rubbish," he says, referring to the government after 1949.
"And now it is better?" I gently prod.
He considers his answer. "Now I worry that the young people only know how to worship money."
At the hotel we meet Julie Chu, a Chinese-American businesswoman who divides her time between San Francisco and Shanghai, where she stays at the Jin Jiang Tower. Julie suggests we take a taxi to Pudong via the Nanpu bridge. She tells me that Deng Xiaoping, the great patriarchal leader who put China on the road to economic recovery, came to Shanghai in 1992, looked at the marshland across the Huangpu, and said the equivalent of "Build it and they will come."
The Shanghai Stock Exchange is in Pudong, and as high-rises replace the crowded alleys of central Shanghai, the uprooted residents are relocated to Pudong. Meanwhile, new corporations wishing to do business in the city must now make Pudong their headquarters. All international flights will arrive and leave from there as well, as soon as they build the airport.
Joyce and I decide we've seen enough glass towers and concrete plazas. Instead we hire a car and a driver for the day and head for Suzhou on the new Hu-Ning freeway, a breeze of slightly more than an hour past rice fields, cabbage patches, and clusters of farmhouses with winged roofs. Some of the houses look no older than our four-lane toll freeway, which continues to Nanjing. Just before Suzhou we stop at a lake encampment where peasants are hawking their private catches of eels and hairy crabs.
Suzhou, whose name used to be spelled "Soochow," is known for its gardens and silk, but slapdash development has not been kind to the picturesque ancient town of canals and bridges. However, several of the once-private gardens have been restored. My favorite is the 16th-century Humble Administrator's Garden, with its bonsai and ponds of water lilies.
At another garden, the small Master of the Nets, a movie director with a megaphone is shooting a low-budget quickie definitely not slated for Cannes. We watch the emperor's guards burst in on a hall full of mandarin scholars, in caps and queues, who disperse in trembling confusion. Take three. Take four. The mandarins are having trouble getting their part right. I give the exasperated director a broad thumbs-up sign for enlivening our day.
On our last night in Shanghai, Katherine Schiffeler, a friend and business associate of Julie's, takes us to the Shanghai Mei Giao Club. The Mei Giao serves the best Chinese dessert I've ever tasted, a rice pudding with red bean paste, raisins, and slivered almonds, and a wine that can rival that of California vineyards. Dragon Seal, a new joint venture between Tsing Tao beer and a French vintner, has two whites and a Cabernet Sauvignon. We choose the vin blanc de Chine, and are very happy.
In eight kaleidoscopic days I've taken a crash course in Shanghai's past, its present, and its roaring leap into the future. There are many tantalizing remnants of the bygone era that I've glimpsed only from a speeding taxi: an Art Deco flatiron apartment building that has laundry drying on its elegant balconies; a turreted mansion that serves as the present headquarters of the Communist Youth. Yet it is the city's energy that most excites me. People are creating a better life for themselves than they ever had before, and perhaps all the wild swings of the pendulum of the second half of the 20th century were needed to generate the momentum.
Bill Wu, an art historian I met, made an observation that I copied into my notebook. We were laughing about the round-the-clock demolition and construction that even someone like Bill, who was born in the city (his family left in 1949), finds disorienting. Then he said, "Anyone with a conscience will not regret the demise of old Shanghai."
I told him I'd quote him, and I have.
Taxis are plentiful at the Shanghai airport. The 40-minute ride into town should cost between 40 and 60 yuan on the meter. Once you're in town, the typical short hop runs 14.40 on the meter; cabdrivers are appreciative if you round it off to 15 yuan.
Shanghai is uncommonly liberal about awarding five stars to its new hotels designed for business travelers. Meanwhile, the refurbished grand hotels are depressing. I suggest you stay in the neighborhood of the former French Concession, which still has some charm. My two top choices are listed below. All hotels add a 15 percent service charge to room rates.
Garden Hotel Shanghai 58 Maoming Rd.; 86-21/ 6415-1111, fax 86-21/6415-8866; doubles from $250. Shanghai's one true luxury hotel. Built and managed by the Japanese Okura chain, the Garden ingeniously merges the old Cercle Sportif Français with the modern, soaring façade, and retains some of the original Art Nouveau decoration inside. There is a big garden on the seven-acre grounds. The lobby lounge, subdued and tasteful, was my top choice for afternoon tea.
Jin Jiang Tower 161 Changle Rd.; 86-21/6412-1188, fax 86-21/6415-0048; doubles from $190. Chinese owned and operated in a prime location on a pleasant corner in the former French Concession, two blocks from the Garden Hotel. I liked its convenience to Ruijin and Huai Hai roads, my favorite streets for walking.
Portman Shangri-la 1376 Nanjing Rd.; 86-21/6279-8888, fax 86-21/6279-8872; doubles from $240. I've been happy at Shangri-las elsewhere in Asia, but the Port-a-man, as the doorman at my hotel pronounced it, is set within an "international financial center," a concrete plaza of office towers. Approach it on foot at your peril via huge ramps above an underground garage.
Shanghai Hilton 250 Hua Shan Rd; 86-21/6248-0000, fax 86-21/6248-3848; doubles from $250. A pleasing sunlit atrium café on the lobby level, an excellent Szechwan restaurant on the 39th floor, and great views. But as soon as you leave the entrance of this lively meeting place in the business district, you're swamped by noisy traffic and office towers.
All the five-star hotels serve Continental cuisine at one or more of their restaurants. The popular spots for expats, such as the Atrium Café at the Hilton, and Shanghai Jax at the Portman, fly in guest chefs from some occidental part of the worldItaly, Canada, Germany, Spain every month for food festivals that are way overpriced and slightly ridiculous. Prices shown here include tip but not tax or drinks.
Dragon-Phoenix Peace Hotel, 20 Nanjing Dong Rd.; 86-21/6321-1244; dinner for two $70. Shanghai crab will up your meal price considerably.
Meo Giao Club 120 Jin Xian Rd.; 86-21/6256-4168; dinner for two $65. A restaurant that looks from the outside like a private club, near the Jin Jiang Tower and the Garden Hotel.
Sichuan Court Shanghai Hilton, 250 Hua Shan Rd.; 86-21/6248-0000, ext. 8686; dinner for two $60. I loved the spicy Szechwan food and the terra-cotta horses on pedestals between the tables.
WHAT TO SEE
Shanghai Museum People's Square; 86-21/6372-3500. An audio tour is included in the admission price. Open daily from nine to five.
History Museum 1286 Hongqiao Rd.; 86-21/6275-5595. Near the airport, and one of Shanghai's best-kept secrets. Displays trace the city from its raucous beginnings as a treaty port up to 1949. Old photos, a cobblestoned street, and sound effects-- foghorns, trolley bells, clock-tower chimes-- make the experience eerily real.
The car and driver for the ride to Suzhou cost $120 for the day. Have lunch at the Bamboo Grove Hotel.
Passport Guide Shanghai by Lynn Pan (Passport Books) A good introduction to the city.
Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (Penguin Books) A rare first-person view of the infamous Cultural Revolution.
Shanghai Museum of Art (Harry N. Abrams) Photographs of the most beautiful porcelains, bronzes, and paintings in the museum's great collection.