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Date Posted: 12:30 15/09/2005

Shanghai High

Is the City of the Twenty-First Century (TM) all it's cracked up to be?

JADED RESIDENTS of Shanghai might have become rather tired of the hyperbole that has surrounded this muddled yet magnificent metropolis over the last few years. We have heard it all by now, especially since the city took its rightful place in the roster of World Expo hosts, along with London, Port-au-Prince and Plovdiv.

Before the war, Shanghai was the Paris of the East and the Pearl of the Orient. By now, it has become the heart of the new China Epoch, the 'Eye of the Dragon', and the City of the Twenty-first Century.

A team of fifteen correspondents with The Guardian arrived in Shanghai last Autumn, and were soon overwhelmed by what they described as its Blade Runner-style buildings, or by the blind surges of human energy that swept along its high streets in rush hour, or by the way thousands of its residents, like, drove cars and drank coffee and stuff, just like normal folk.

One of the intrepid but awestruck hacks offered the thought that the city embodied a new 'Third Way', which seems to be characterized by the fact that, erm, lots of 'Second Way' people had used 'First Way' methods to earn truckloads of cash that they then spent on luxury villas.

But curiously, even while the city quickens the pace of its reinvention, something of Shanghai's old mystique survives. In the execrable Michael Winterbottom movie, Code 46 (2003), a subdued Tim Robbins plays some kind of genetic inspector who wanders into various drearily space-age high-rises in Pudong. Painful though it is to try to recall the plot, it seemed that Shanghai had become a sort of sci-fi city that had lost its memory. Human virtues had been smashed under the weight of high-tech excess.

Its vacuous, simpering soul-searching aside, the film did at least tell us something about one of the roles Shanghai now plays in western culture, and about the way the same fears of anonymity and moral deracination seem to prevail in western eyes, just as they did when WH Auden visited the city in 1936.

But Shanghai could always stir the imagination of a certain type of foreign artist and writer - the sort that is easily bewitched by the idea of tainted, decadent exoticism. Things have changed, of course, but in the minds of many, the city has still been prefigured, somehow, by old movies like von Sternberg's Shanghai Express. They still think of a city that was on the itinerary of each and every member of the decadent rich. They think of gorgeous, cheongsam-clad pleasure girls pouring grog for pock-marked, opium-shot hoodlums. They think of sing-song girls, shoe-shiners and the Green Gang.

It is fair to say that they don't tend to think of Starbucks, or the Kerry Center, or the Fly Ahead! Double-Win English Language Training School (TM) that litters the pavements and overpasses of Xujiahui with its leaflets.

Despite all the bombast about its economic growth, Shanghai isn't, of course, impregnable. Many residents are anxious to assert the city's claims to superiority, and desperate to emphasize their own impeccable Shanghainese lineage. This is particularly important when it is done at the expense of the people referred to, in a peculiarly supercilious piece of local dialect, as shangwanin or country folk. The shangwanin, it should be added, are the ones who are impertinent enough to enter the city walls to do all the actual work.

This insecurity is probably because Shanghai, as we know it now, has very little history. A couple of centuries ago, it wasn't much more than a fishing town, and many of the ancestors of its current population were slogging away in the farms and paddies of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi. During the first Opium War, the perfidious British Navy stretched itself along China’s eastern coast, and saw Shanghai's geographical position at the estuary of the Yangtze as an advantage in terms of trade and, crucially, in the battle against pirates.

Thereafter, and at some speed, the international settlements were created. Many parts of Shanghai were, to all intents and purposes, built by foreigners for foreigners, shielded from the rest of China by the principles of extraterritoriality, and even exempted for the most part from the turmoil of the Taiping Rebellion. The said foreigners didn't even let the Chinese into many of the more prosperous bits, unless you happened to be a sing-song girl, a shoe-shiner or a member of the Green Gang.

It could be argued that Shanghai's hybrid state has served it very well ever since. By having so little history, it has avoided many of history's burdens. It has also remained on the cusp of new intellectual trends and social developments, often - as in the case of the Cultural Revolution - with perilous consequences.

Before the development of Pudong, Shanghai was like a coiled spring. It was pushing at its busted seams and waiting to explode into the chaos of light and energy we know today. Much of the area was still bogs and tenement slums. Now, thanks largely to the aggressive introduction of foreign investment, you see a myriad of gleaming new-concept office blocks, lined with transparent lifts and sprays of neon light. The jagged nightscape had become a kaleidoscope of slogans and logos. It was exactly what a place would look like if a hundred or so young architects were asked to build as much stuff as they could as quickly as possible, which was, indeed, what had happened.

Back in 1993, you could almost feel the latent forces that would bring in the remarkable transformations of the last decade, including, in no particular order, the construction of Asia's third tallest building and the further cluttering-up of the skyline, the proliferation of golf courses and international fast food chains, and the beginning of the cult known as the Luxury Brand. Most significantly, perhaps, we have also seen the return of that old but enduring idea that the city provides hope for the hopeless, that there's gold in them hills, or at least in them fake Rolexes and pirate DVDs. Shanghai, once again, has become a valley of wealth, and like New York before it, a cynosure for the world's indigent but adventurous masses. That, on balance, is probably a good thing, and may alone justify all the hype.

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