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Shanghai's Boom

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.


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