It's Not Your Grandfather's Shanghai

By Jock O'Connell


This is the author's text of an article that appeared in the Forum section of the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, August 13, 2000.

SHANGHAI --- Margaret Wong has an enviable window on the New China. Literally. Her West Sacramento- based trading company, McWong International, has a branch office on the 16th floor of a new commercial complex in this city's Pudong district. From this lofty vantage point, Wong gazes out on what may well be the most ambitious urban redevelopment project ever attempted anywhere.

After languishing for decades under a regime bent on punishing China's most populous city for the sin of having been too cosmopolitan and too Western, Shanghai is now moving fast to recapture its past as the nation's commercial and financial hub. Shanghai's resurgence can be traced to the day in June 1989 when former mayor Jiang Zemin was elected President of the People's Republic of China. Almost immediately, billions of infrastructure dollars started pouring into Shanghai under the direction of another former Shanghai mayor, Zhu Rongyi, then head of the State Economic and Trade Office and now China's Premier.

The physical changes that have transformed Shanghai's skyline are especially stark to those of us who have not lately revisited the city. Back in 1980, when I had last stood on the Bund, Shanghai's famed riverfront esplanade, and gazed across the Huangpo River toward Pudong, it was a bleak warren of rundown warehouses, decrepit factories and fetid slums. Today, that same view (see photo) is of a cityscape that resembles nothing so much as the set for a George Lucas sci-fi epic.

Restraint is not a word that comes to mind is describing the new Shanghai. When I was last here, the city's loftiest building was the 22-storey Park Hotel. Renowned as a den of intrigue and decadence before the Communists came to power in 1949, the Park now does not even rank among the tallest 200 buildings in town. (Civic boosters in Sacramento might be humbled to learn that, of the no fewer than 70 buildings in Shanghai that are taller than any Sacramento high-rise, not one existed a mere ten years ago. )

To a Western eye, Shanghai's skyline presents some jarring aspects. By far the most outlandish structure in town is the Oriental Pearl television tower, a bulbous, syringe-like edifice 2 times taller than Seattle's Space Needle. Not far away stands the imperious Jin Mao tower, looking like a cross between a mechanical pencil and a pagoda. At 1,380 feet, it's the world's third tallest building. Among its unique features is a 32-storey atrium -- that starts on the 56th floor. Here and elsewhere throughout the city, there is a evidence of a distressing propensity for crowning rooftops with architectural confections reminiscent of the chapeaus my late aunt Euphrasia sported back in the 1950s.

Still, as stunning as the panoply of newly-built bridges, tunnels, subway system, airport, and upscale shopping areas are, it's hard to escape the impression that today's Shanghai may be the most grandiose Potemkin Village ever devised. Central government financing and generous tax incentives encouraged the erection of scores of soaring office towers without much regard for economics. Frequently, new buildings opened with vacancy rates as high as 90 percent. Even now, despite a rate of economic growth in the region that is twice the national average, some 40 percent of the city's office space remains unoccupied. In many instances, construction has been slowed or halted on several prominent high-rises --- including one, the Shanghai World Financial Center, that was planned to be the world's tallest office building. It was to rise some 1,509 feet visualize a skyscraper nearly four times taller than Sacramento's tallest building, the Wells Fargo Center on Capital Mall. Well behind schedule, there are serious doubts it will ever be completed.

Despite the over-building of the new Shanghai and the persistence of the old Shanghai's mass poverty in the alleys just a couple of blocks behind the neon-lit boulevards, one can't help but be impressed with the audaciousness that characterizes the city's commerce and industry. Most memorable for me was an encounter one evening with a young quick-yuan artist who approached me on the Nanjing Road with a tantalizing, if illicit, offer. For a mere five American dollars, I could have a freshly-pirated copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- available in Shanghai a full week before it went on sale back home.

Copyright 2000 by J. A. O'Connell