Thursday, 1 March 2012

Travel: Shanghai ~ Past continuous, present positive

The skyline at the Bund
Maglev: the world's fastest train in 2009, at 431 km.p.h
“HAVE you heard of the legend of Shanghai? We’ve created the world’s most exciting city since the Chinese economic reforms began in 1978,” smiles Qi, our 20-plus guide, as we board the Maglev at Pudong airport for our ride to the Greenland Julong Hotel. “My grandparents swore by Chairman Mao, my parents believe in Buddhism and Deng Xiaoping. But my generation worships only money.”

As the Maglev, the world’s fastest train, whizzes us into town in merely seven minutes in May 2009, touching 431 km.p.h., we take in a phoenix-like city. China’s commercial centre, Shanghai is currently home to 18 million. That’s besides two million migrants employed in 1,200 construction fields as it gears up for the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a far cry from the village upgraded to a market town in 1074.

The traditional collides head-on with the futuristic at this entrepot, strikingly so at the glitzy Bund. On the Yangtze’s west bank, shimmering with lighted tourist cruise boats, stand colonial buildings, reminiscent of old Calcutta or Madras. Is that a Gothic façade? Do we spy Art Deco architecture, next to a Baroque office? We spot the HSBC headquarters, the Shanghai Club, even the green-steepled Peace Hotel!

An elevator zooms us to the observation deck of the 88-storey, 410-metre high Jin Mao tower in the heart of this financial district in just 45 seconds at 9.1 metres/second. Through its glass frontage, the eastern Pudong bank across the river calls Manhattan to mind.

By December 2008, its World Financial Centre was the mainland’s tallest building at 492 metres, while the Shanghai Tower in progress aims at 632 metres amidst 932 completed skyscrapers! When a 13-storey Shanghai construction collapses in June 27, 2009, we mull over whether Indian cities should try to emulate Shanghai.

We search for the people who make a city, perhaps more buildings do. Busy feet make tracks down wheels-free Nanjing Road, the main shopping thoroughfare, where we bargain for footwear and chopsticks, jade and freshwater pearls. But other roads seem strangely deserted by Indian standards. 

                              Tai Chi on the footpath on 7 a.m.

At 8 am, outside our hotel, groups of women or the elderly gather on the pavements with portable music systems to practice Tai Chi, their silhouettes reflected surreally in upmarket store windows. Like the laundry drying between buildings a la Mumbai, does this signal apartments too compact to exercise in? Even the Shanghai restaurants tend to close by 10.30 pm, though we did not check out the nightclubs that rock till 1 am!!

Could these street signs signify a disciplined Chinese work ethic? Or the fact that 22 per cent of Shanghai’s population is currently over 60, triggering a government invitation to parents from single-child families to have a second child, thus ensuring a future workforce? Or could it be Net-addiction, with an estimated 338 million Chinese users, including 92.5 percent internet-enabled village telephone lines? No clear answers emerge during our three days in Shanghai.

                                       Inside the Jade Buddha Temple

Bigger. Faster. Higher. Shanghai’s current mantras seem to stem from these, perhaps state-inspired, aspirations. Yet the exquisite Jade Buddha temple celebrates religion, where Qi guides us past young lamas and worshippers by red incense sticks to a souvenir shop on the premises.

Beyond outlets that sell imitation Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags, commerce and conservation yoke folk art stalls to the classical Yuyuan Garden. Its two hectares date back 400 years. Created by Sichuan provincial administrator Pan Yuan-Duan under the Ming dynasty, its serene spread includes pavilions and towers, even rosewood furniture in a calligraphy room. Its open air opera stage has an ornate domed ceiling rich with 28 golden birds with outspread wings. By teeming red koi fish in a stream (positive Feng Shui), ancient magnolia and gingko trees overhang Pan’s favourite view – of Yu Lin Long or the Exquisite Jade Peak, transported from Suzhou lake, an hour away by train. A towering rock, local lore hints at smoke emerging from its 75 natural interlinked holes from incense lit at its base.

Inside the Yuyuan Garden

The Yuyuan Garden market

East and west come full circle by the calm Taipingqiao lake at Xintiandi (‘New Heaven and Earth’), the pedestrians-only lifestyle hub that offers Asian cues to futuristic redefinitions through restoration. Its clubs, boutiques and restaurants are in two to three-storey shikumen (stone gate) courtyard-centric buildings from the early 1900s in narrow cobbled alleys, resembling 80 per cent of Shanghai homes of yore. Re-imagined through a $170 million project by American architect Benjamin Wood, the centre fuses the local with the global seamlessly.

Though tourists, expats and well-heeled locals have been Xintiandi’s mainstay since 2002, it offers comfort zones to all comers. Within its 30,000 sq. m., Starbucks rubs shoulders with a jazz club, silken Shanghai Tang garments vie for attention with the Xintiandi museum, a Vidal Sassoon salon beckons those sipping Bavarian beer or tucking into delicate sushi. 

A summer stroll through Xintiandi


Families chill out by the Xintiandi fountain

Grandparents (masked to ward off swine flu) bask in the twilight by a Xintiandi fountain, while their children mull over contemporary practices at an exclusive gallery, aware that Shanghai leads the Asian art market. Qi’s generation, toiling hard to match global aspirations, party hard at night. Nothing less than fine food, flashy lifestyles and consumer havens make them smile. 

A shikumen building 
Ironically, though these aspirations were opposed strongly by Chairman Mao, he adds value to Xintiandi. Just minutes away from this former French concession area stands a shikumen building, where he and his comrades set up the Communist Party in July 1921. Passersby stop by this door to ponder China’s historic and cultural legacies. As Indian travelers, we cannot but ask: would similar redefinitions of, say, Moore Market in Chennai or the Victoria Hotel in Bengaluru, have added value to their sites?  

Past requiem time, Qi and her peers love Xintiandi as much as her parents approve of Deng’s economic experiment. As its land prices soar from 5000 RMB to 15000 RMB per sq. m. in merely 15 years, Shanghai awaits 17 million visitors to its Expo next year. Opening out, looking in, this city on the move appears undeterred by the global recession.  

Would Mao have approved of this showpiece of the world’s fastest growing economy? Indisputably so, if you ask young Qi for insights into contemporary China.

(Originally published in The Hindu Business Line, December, 2009)

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