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Shanghai Surprises

Shanghai, China's largest city, has a population of more than 13 million; countless shops, stores, malls, and street markets sprawl over the city's nearly 2,500 square miles. But it's easy enough to find the absolute epicenter of Shanghai's consumer culture: just follow the street signs pointing toward the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China, near Xingye Road.

The Chinese Communist Party, which came to power in 1949 and still governs the country without democratic elections and with a disregard for human rights sufficient to incur international reproach, was inaugurated in a two-story brick building that was once a residence and nowadays is a state-of-the-art museum. Documents and photographs demonstrate how—as an introductory note stenciled on the wall reads—"the founding of the Communist Party of China is the inevitable outcome of the development of China's modern history." Life-sized waxworks re-enact the fateful meeting at which the party came into being, with Mao Tse-tung standing at the center of a long dining table, wearing a blue robe and gazing before him with visionary insight, while a dozen or so colleagues lean forward animatedly, smoking cigarettes or sipping tea, their placement echoing da Vinci's Last Supper.

But Xingye Road is also at the heart of a 560,000-square-foot retail and dining complex called Xintiandi, which since it opened in 2000 has become a destination for affluent young Shanghainese and tourists alike, with high-end boutiques, expensive restaurants, and bars with great lighting and complicated cocktails. Xintiandi might also be described as the inevitable outcome of the development of China's modern history, though not one that Chairman Mao would have predicted or, it is safe to say, approved of.

Xintiandi covers two city blocks in the French Concession district of Shanghai, an area that was originally developed in the 1920's, during Shanghai's colonial period, when the city was a cosmopolitan, louche trading port. The French Concession is distinguished by tree-lined streets of two-story, gray-brick houses that have stone arches for doorways and terra-cotta tile roofs. Narrow alleyways intersect the streets, giving passage from one to the next. After 1949, the buildings in the French Concession were turned into communal dwellings, with as many as 10 families living in a house intended for one, and the area became known for overcrowding and poor sanitation. Much of the neighborhood still consists of multipledwellings, and a walk through its streets invariably involves navigating laundry lines strung between lampposts, ducking under flapping shirts and, in winter, dripping pairs of thermal long johns (buildings in Shanghai, as in all Chinese cities south of the Yangtze, have no central heating, and the winters are cold and damp), and skirting chairs draped with quilts that, according to Chinese custom, have been brought outside for a daily airing.

Xintiandi, however, displays none of the messiness of real lives being lived. Owned by a developer from Hong Kong and designed by the New York-based architecture firm of Wood & Zapata, it follows the festival marketplace formula established in America at Quincy Market in Boston and the South Street Seaport in New York. The façades of the most significant buildings have been preserved, and design elements from the original structures have been incorporated into the new ones. To make way for Xintiandi, hundreds of residents were compelled to relocate to suburbs or high-rise apartment blocks, the kind of housing that has proliferated in Shanghai as far as the eye can see—which, given the pollution and typically misty, moist weather, isn't very far. Xintiandi is a kind of Shanghai-land: alleys run between buildings just as they did in the old days, although rather less narrow spaces have also been opened up to allow for open-air cafés selling French pastries in an atmosphere of rather more graciousness than is historically accurate. There are boutiques selling jewelry and boutiques selling scented candles—signature objects of late capitalism. There's even a Starbucks at Xintiandi, serving grande lattes—indistinguishable from those available in the States—to a nation of tea drinkers. The only place at Xintiandi where there aren't any stores is directly opposite the museum, political sensitivities having determined it inappropriate to place commerce and Communism in such close juxtaposition. There are art galleries on that block instead—a peculiar substitution, since Mao was about as fond of artists as he was of businessmen and landlords.

One store, Layefe, is owned by one of China's best-known contemporary artists, Chen Yifei, who started out painting images of young women in traditional dress and has now become something like the Terence Conran of China, publishing his own magazine and selling clothes by local designers along with fancy items for the non-communal home. Layefe is opulent and filled with objects of desire: woven-fur scarves, your choice of rabbit or mink, and a sweeping, glamorous reversible wool coat that Rei Kawakubo might have designed. The men's department gives a clue that the clientele is not entirely local Chinese: that handsome black coat hanging on a tailor's dummy would swamp anyone shorter than six feet tall. Shopping for women's clothes in China is especially hard, unless you happen to be a size two or smaller. If you're tiny and lucky you might find an off-the-rack fur-trimmed silk dress for about $200 in one of the many stores on Maoming Road; larger Americans seeking the Suzie Wong look are advised to allow a few days for a custom job.

Around the corner from Layefe is a store—called, in English, Simply Life—that could be airlifted in its entirety to SoHo without the need to change anything but the prices, which are about a third of what they would be on West Broadway. Simply Life sells highly covetable household items such as linen sheets and silk coverlets, as well as an extensive range of fiery, red-glazed, rough-hewn ceramics that you may be able to get shipped back to the States in bulk if you can communicate your desire to the friendly but rather hapless staff. After decades of relative isolation from the outside world Shanghai aspires to be a global city once again, but its retail businesses seem to be hanging on for the inevitable day when Chinese rather than English is the default international language.

The local Chinese were initially skeptical about the Xintiandi concept, according to Delphine Yip, an architect with Wood & Zapata who was involved in the project. "Everyone said, Those are poor people's houses, they are dirty, they have no toilets—who would want to have a meal there?" Yip recalls. In fact, Xintiandi's restaurants are an even bigger draw than its boutiques. There is, for instance, Ye Shanghai, which serves high-end Chinese food on lazy Susans and features a well-meaning but deafening Shanghainese jazz band as an homage to the city's wicked past. The city's wicked present can be sampled in one of Xintiandi's several bars, or with a visit to a karaoke palace known as Cashbox, which is located in nearby Fuxing Park and is thronged until late at night with young Shanghainese all waiting for their turns to impersonate Frank Sinatra or George Michael or George Michael's Cantopop equivalent. Cashbox has dozens of private karaoke rooms, each of which is equipped not just with a karaoke machine and wraparound couch but also a private bathroom, to ensure that—karaoke often calling for the consumption of emetic quantities of alcohol—any given party can keep its vomit to itself.

When Mao died, in 1976, he left behind a China that had been largely insulated from Western-style capitalism and consumerism. While Americans, in the decades following World War II, were engaging in an unprecedented spending spree, buying cars and refrigerators and other goods, the Chinese had been undergoing the Great Leap Forward, an enforced economic modernization program that organized agricultural workers into enormous communes to disastrous effect. The subsequent Cultural Revolution saw the dismantling of the educational system, with intellectuals and artists exiled to the countryside and forced into manual labor, and dissenters executed. These days China has become an economic powerhouse, thanks to ever-increasing degrees of reform that permit private ownership and foreign investment and encourage international trade, and a new wealthy elite is belatedly discovering the allure of shopping.

In China the old is generally razed rather than restored, and glitz is appreciated far more than antique gentility. On Huaihai Road, one of the main thoroughfares in the city, there are several huge malls, including one called Shanghai Times Square, which is much more upscale than the real, cleaned-up Times Square: it houses the stores of Marina Rinaldi, Ferragamo, and Gucci, among others. At another mall, Plaza 66, shoppers can find the latest offerings from Cartier and Hermès, names that meant little in China until recently but now are charged with the glamour of modernity. The goods are pricier than they would be in New York, Paris, or London, and the customer base is drawn from that growing class of Shanghainese who want to look as if they shop in those cities, even though they can't actually get the necessary visas.


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