Shanghai: On the Cutting Edge of China’s Economic Miracle

Shanghai: On the Cutting Edge of China’s Economic Miracle

By Steenie Harvey

Shanghai: On the Cutting Edge of China's Economic Miracle
The skyline of the Pudong section of Shanghai reflects the dynamic economic growth the city has experienced. Photos by Steenie Harvy

Although not the traditional China of pagodas and pavilions, Shanghai conjures up all the mystery of the Far East. A past of colonial adventurers, shady ladies, and opium dens, it now has a shining future as Asia ’s major hub of economy and trade. Many multinationals whose regional headquarters were in Hong Kong and Singapore have already relocated here.

China’s most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai is also its richest and largest. Although estimates vary, general consensus puts the population of its greater municipal area at around 18 million people. And that’s truly beyond megalopolis.

Even for a city at the cutting edge of China’s economic miracle, the pace of change has been astounding. Back in 1985, for example, Shanghai possessed one skyscraper.

Now its skyline is crowded with around 3,000 buildings that tower 18 stories or higher. Everybody knows about the air-conditioned megamalls — a new one seems to spring up every month — but it was only about 11 years ago that the city’s first convenience store opened. Today it has more than 5,000.

Western supermarkets, such as Carrefour and Wal-Mart, international schools, hospitals and clinics, top-class restaurants and posh hotels abound where you can blow China’s average annual rural wage in just one night. Factor in the booms and busts of Shanghai’s highly speculative real estate market, and it’s easy to forget that you’re in a Communist country.

Though shackles have loosened, information remains tightly controlled. Throughout my 18-day visit to China, it was impossible to access the BBC news website even once.

The old section of Shanghai, known as Puxi
The old section of Shanghai, known as Puxi

Opium for Tea and Silk

Separated by the Huang Pu River, Shanghai divides into two slices. The west side, home to the city’s older quarters, is known as Puxi. The east, all brand-new, is called Pudong New Area.

With a sci-fi skyline fronting the river, Pudong is the location of Lujiazui, Shanghai’s business and financial district. Its most extraordinary edifice is the Oriental Pearl Television Tower. It puts you in mind of a hypodermic syringe spearing a giant pink onion.

It’s no doubt unintentional, but the syringe image seems apt for a city whose fortunes were founded on opium. In the 19th century, Britain’s gunboat diplomacy forced China to open up to foreign trade. As one of the country’s major ports, Shanghai was on the front line.

Trade figures concerned the Victorians as much as they do today’s politicians. Flooding China with opium from the poppy fields of the Indian subcontinent, the British were more than happy to see Shanghai’s people puffing themselves witless. They justified their drug trafficking activities on the grounds that opium was the only commodity China would buy in exchange for tea and silk. By 1870, opium accounted for 43% of China’s total imports.

France and other colonial powers wanted a piece of the action, too. As a result, Shanghai was divided into foreign “concessions,” where Chinese law held no sway. Reveling in its sobriquet of the “Whore of the Orient,” the city attracted fortune builders and ne’er-do-wells in equal measure. During its 1930s heyday, Shanghai rocked like tomorrow would never come.

The good times crashed when the Communists took power in 1949. They closed down the brothels, gambling palaces, dance halls, and opium dens, and rounded up the gangsters, gamblers, drug-smugglers, and profiteers.

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in this building.
The Chinese Communist Party was founded in this building.

Colonial Edifices
Today’s Shanghai still has its shady places — according to local sources, karaoke bars are often fronts for various forms of vice. But for most visitors, yesteryear’s decadent glamour exists only in the imagination.

And one’s imagination has to work hard. Much of the old city has already been bulldozed in order to transform Shanghai into a shiny high-rise metropolis. A few teeming pockets of back-alley life remain, but the best places to see the remnants of pre-communist Shanghai are in the leafy streets of the former French Concession and along the riverside area known as the Bund. Here, imposingly grand edifices built during the colonial era gaze across to the futuristic towers of Pudong.

With wide sidewalks and attractive parks, much of downtown Shanghai seems surprisingly spacious. The only place I felt the pressure of madding crowds was in the Old Town bazaar and the Yuyuan Gardens neighborhood that lies southeast of the Bund.

The Old Town bazaar is undoubtedly photogenic, with its fishponds, zigzag bridge, and wooden shop houses topped by traditional curved roofs. But it is touristy, and you’re not seeing the real thing. The area was renovated into a few blocks of touristy theme streets in 1999. Unless you’re into novelty shops, ersatz antiques, and teahouses where you cannot get a seat, you can safely give it a miss.

The New Decadence

Whether it’s Swarovski crystal or designer boutiques, Shanghai’s newly affluent have embraced consumerism as enthusiastically as their 19th-century counterparts reached for the opium pipes. Shopping is definitely the new decadence.

With air-conditioned malls and flashy department stores, the city’s premier shopping street is Nanjing Lu. It’s partly closed for pedestrian traffic only, and at night the neon-lit signs dazzle as brightly as those in Hong Kong. Prices for Western designer brands seem even higher than back home, but you can get great buys on shoes. While I was browsing, my husband picked up stylish leather loafers for the equivalent of $13.50. One big annoyance is the hordes of fake Rolex and Prada handbag merchants that attach themselves like limpets to any passing Westerner.

“Boo yow” — I don’t want it. If you learn only one Chinese phrase, this is a good choice.

Another view of the Pudong skyline
Another view of the Pudong skyline

More popular with locals, Huaihai Zhong Lu is another major shopping street arrowing through the French Concession area. If you’re still not satiated, take the under-river train through the weirdly psychedelic Bund Tunnel to Pudong. You’ll emerge almost beside the monumental Super Brand Mall. With a floor of restaurants, juice bars, and coffee shops, it’s also a great place for lunch. I paid less than $5 for a noodle hotpot and a beer.

For items like silk, calligraphy brushes, porcelain tea sets, and handicrafts, the best buys are often in the markets. But if you’re looking for jade or antiques, be careful. Guidebooks warn that at least 85% of goods at Dongtai Lu Antique Market (on the eastern edge of the French Concession) are fakes.

Before buying any high-value item, take a look at the genuine objets d’art in the state-run Shanghai Antique & Curio Store (196-246 Guangdong Lu). Prices are high, but you’ll get an idea of what a real porcelain vase or jade dragon should look like. But note that you may have to relocate to enjoy your treasures. Genuine antiques more than 200 years old cannot be exported out of China.

Mao memorabilia is everywhere. I succumbed and paid 5 yuan (60 cents) for a red-tasseled dangly thing with a portrait of the Great Helmsman embossed in gilt. I undoubtedly possess the tackiest car decoration in the west of Ireland.

Expat Encounters

Although competition is far fiercer than a decade ago, some individuals have carved out a Shanghai niche for themselves. One evening, I met International Living subscriber Mario Cavalo in a French Concession bar called Senses, with low lights, comfy couches, and an extensive wine list.

When not indulging his passion for playing jazz piano (catch him on the keyboards at Senses on Thursday evenings; the bar is at 515 Jianguo Xi Lu near the American Consulate), Mario arranges conferences and corporate training. He’s set up his own company, Vision to Victory, and his latest gig is for Shanghai’s German Chamber of Commerce. He’ll be taking clients to the silver-sand beaches of Sanya, the premier resort on Hainan Dao, China’s tropical vacation island.

To be a successful entrepreneur, you’ll need to emulate Mario and learn Mandarin. Although TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teachers are keenly sought throughout China, merely having a degree and the ability to speak English isn’t a guaranteed passport into Shanghai’s job market. For one thing, huge numbers of home-grown graduates who have learned English are now in the workplace.

Most expatriates are on company assignments. Management-level employees usually get “the full expat package,” which includes private health care, luxury-level rental accommodation, and private schooling for kids. Dawn Brandenburg of Savills Property Services estimates that Shanghai has between 50,000 and 60,000 Western expats, 100,000 Japanese, and another 200,000 “compats” from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Take Your Earplugs

The three-star Metropole Hotel seemed a good choice when I booked a double room for a discounted $81 through (Shanghai hotels are expensive.) Built in the Art Deco 1930s, it’s less than a 10-minute walk from the Bund’s riverside promenade.
Unfortunately, its soundproofing is disastrous. The cacophony of horn-blaring starts before first light. Bicyclists, peddlers with handcarts, a tailback of cars heading toward People’s Square… each frustrated driver seemed intent on making enough noise to wake an entire neighborhood of ancestral spirits.
Look for other unique Shanghai hotels and interesting Shanghai tours online.

Useful Shanghai Online Resources

Steenie Harvey is the author of many books and articles on travelling, living and retiring abroad. She is also an editor at International Living.

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