After years of stagnation, the great metropolis of Shanghai (上海, shànghăi) is undergoing one of the fastest economic expansions the world has ever seen. Nearly a third of China’s exports come from the area and it attracts almost a quarter of all the country’s foreign investment, more than any single developing country. As Shanghai begins to recapture its position as East Asia’s leading business city, a status it last held before World War II, the skyline is filling with skyscrapers, and there are over four thousand now, more than twice as many as in New York. Gleaming shopping malls, luxurious hotels and prestigious arts centres are rising alongside. Shanghai’s 21 million residents enjoy the highest incomes on the mainland, and there’s plenty for them to splash out on; witness the rash of celebrity restaurants and designer flagship stores. In short, it’s a city with a swagger, bursting with nouveau-riche exuberance and elan.
And yet, for all the modernization, Shanghai is still known in the West for its infamous role as the base of European imperialism in mainland China. Whichever side you were on, life in Shanghai then was rarely one of moderation. China’s most prosperous city, in large part European- and American-financed, Shanghai introduced Asia to electric light, boasted more cars than the rest of the country put together, and created for its rich citizens a world of European-style mansions, tree-lined boulevards, chic café society, horse-racing and exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Alongside, and as much part of the legend, lay a city of singsong girls, warring gangsters and millions living in absolute poverty.
When the Communists marched into Shanghai in May 1949, they took control of the most important business and trading centre in Asia, an international port where vast fortunes were made. Their movement may have been born here, yet they never trusted the place; for most of the communist period, the central government in Beijing deliberately ran Shanghai down, siphoning off its surplus to other parts of the country, to the point where the city came to resemble a living museum, housing the largest array of Art Deco architecture in the world and frozen in time since the 1940s. Parts of the city still resemble a 1920s vision of the future, a grimy metropolis of monolithic Neoclassical facades, threaded with overhead cables and walkways, and choked by vast crowds and rattling trolleybuses.
Yet the Shanghainese never lost their ability to make waves for themselves. The present boom dates back to 1990, with the opening of the “New Bund” – the Special Economic Zone across the river in Pudong. Ever since, the city has enjoyed double digit growth, and what was once a sleepy suburb of rice fields now looks like a city of the future, quite literally – when sci-fi film Code 46 was shot here, no CGI was used.
Although most parts of Shanghai that you are likely to visit lie to the west of the Huangpu River and its colonial riverfront, the Bund, the most easily recognizable landmark in the city is on the east side – the daft, rocket-like Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The best way to check out both banks of the Huangpu River and their sights is to take a splendid Huangpu River tour.
Nanjing Lu, reputedly the busiest shopping street in China, runs through the heart of downtown Shanghai. Headed at its eastern end by the famous Peace Hotel, the road leads west to Renmin Park, which today houses the excellent Shanghai Museum as well as a couple of decent art galleries. The other main sights lie about 1500m south of Nanjing Lu in the Old City, the longest continuously inhabited part of Shanghai, with the Yu Yuan – a fully restored classical Chinese garden – and bazaars at its heart. To the southwest of here lies the marvellous former French Concession, with its cosmopolitan cooking traditions, European-style housing and revolutionary relics. The energetic eating and nightlife centre of Shanghai, Huaihai Lu, serves as the area’s main artery.
Farther out from the centre remains a scattering of sights. Just west of Shanghai Zhan is the fascinating Moganshan Art District, an old factory full of art galleries and studios. North of Suzhou Creek is the interesting Lu Xun Park, with its monuments to the great twentieth-century writer, Lu Xun, while Duolun Culture Street, with its quirky museums and shops, is a lovely place to while away an afternoon. Finally, in the far west are two of Shanghai’s most important surviving religious sites: the Longhua Si and the Yufo Si.
Contrary to Western interpretations, Shanghai’s history did not begin with the founding of the British Concession in the wake of the First Opium War. Located at the confluence of the Yangzi River, the Grand Canal and the Pacific Ocean, Shanghai served as a major commercial port from the Song dynasty, channelling the region’s extensive cotton crop to Beijing, the hinterland and Japan. By the Qing dynasty, vast mercantile guilds, often organized by trade and bearing superficial resemblance to their Dutch counterparts, had established economic and, to some extent, political control of the city. Indeed, the British only chose to set up a treaty port in Shanghai because, in the words of East India Company representative Hugh Lindsay, “the city had become the principal emporium of Eastern Asia” by the 1840s.
After the Opium Wars, the British moved in under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, to be rapidly followed by the French in 1847. These two powers set up the first foreign concessions in the city – the British along the Bund and the area to the north of the Chinese city, the French in an area to the southwest, on the site of a cathedral a French missionary had founded two centuries earlier. Later the Americans (in 1863) and the Japanese (in 1895) came to tack their own areas onto the British Concession, which expanded into the so-called International Settlement. Traders were allowed to live under their own national laws, policed by their own armed forces, in a series of privileged enclaves that were leased indefinitely. By 1900, the city’s favourable position, close to the main trade route to the major silk- and tea-producing regions, had allowed it to develop into a sizeable port and manufacturing centre. At this time, it was largely controlled by the “Green Gang”, the infamous Chinese crime syndicate founded in the 1700s by unemployed boatmen, which by the 1920s ran the city’s vast underworld. Businessmen and criminals who flouted the Green Gang’s strict code of behaviour were subject to “knee-capping” punishment – having every visible tendon severed with a fruit knife before being left to die on a busy sidewalk.
Shanghai’s cheap workforce was swollen during the Taiping Uprising by those who took shelter from the slaughter in the foreign settlements, and by peasants attracted to the city’s apparent prosperity. Here China’s first urban proletariat emerged, and the squalid living conditions, outbreaks of unemployment and glaring abuses of Chinese labour by foreign investors made Shanghai a natural breeding ground for revolutionary politics. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in the city in 1921, only to be driven underground by the notorious massacre of hundreds of strikers in 1927.
Inevitably, after the Communist takeover, the bright lights dimmed. The foreign community may have expected “business as usual”, but the new regime was determined that Shanghai should play its role in the radical reconstruction of China. The worst slums were knocked down to be replaced by apartments, the gangsters and prostitutes were taken away for “re-education”, and foreign capital was ruthlessly taxed if not confiscated outright (although Chiang Kai-shek did manage to spirit away the gold reserves of the Bank of China to Taiwan, leaving the city broke). For 35 years, Western influences were forcibly suppressed.
Even since 1949, the city has remained a centre of radicalism – Mao, stifled by Beijing bureaucracy, launched his Cultural Revolution here in 1966. Certain Red Guards even proclaimed a Shanghai Commune, before the whole affair descended into wanton destruction and petty vindictiveness. After Mao’s death, Shanghai was the last stronghold of the Gang of Four in their struggle for the succession, though their planned coup never materialized. During China’s opening up, many key modernizing officials in the central government came from from the Shanghai area; Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji were both former mayors of the city.
As well as an important power base for the ruling party, Shanghai has always been the most fashion-conscious and outward-looking city in China, its people by far the most highly skilled labour force in the country, and renowned for their quick wit and entrepreneurial skills. Many Shanghainese fled to Hong Kong after 1949 and oversaw the colony’s economic explosion, while a high proportion of Chinese successful in business elsewhere in the world emigrated from this area. Even during the Cultural Revolution, Western “excesses” like curled hair and holding hands in public survived in Shanghai. Despite the incomprehensibility of the local Shanghainese dialect to other Chinese, it has always been easier for visitors to communicate with the locals here than anywhere else in the country, because of the excellent level of English spoken and the familiarity with foreigners and foreignness.