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Shanghai's facelift unveiled

2010. 19 March

up to $45 billion has gone into sprucing up China's financial capital in preparation for Expo 2010
Workers are seen at the Luxemburger Pavilion on the Shanghai World Expo site in this month. Photograph by: Aly Song reuters, Canwest News

by Aileen McCabe

( The wraps are finally coming off the gargantuan facelift China's financial capital has suffered through for the past year - and more.

Later this month, the 1.8-kilometre, newly marbled walkway along the Huangpu River will be inaugurated. It offers the best views of the city of Shanghai - past and future. Turn one way to see the "super talls" as they call the buildings more than 88 storeys across the river in Pudong. Turn the other, and the graceful neo-classical and art nouveau buildings along the Bund that once inspired people to call Shanghai the Paris of the East are at your feet.

Well, almost. You still have to cross a six-lane road to truly explore the architectural gems left behind by the British and French from the days when Shanghai was the busiest port in the Far East, but that's five lanes less than before the "restoration" began.

Two new metro lines have already debuted and a third opens in April, giving Shanghai 11 subway lines covering 420 kilometres. That's more than London or New York City.

Another new air terminal will open for business later this month, too, at central Hongqiao Airport. It's not as imposing as Beijing's dragon-like Terminal 3, but add it to the two terminals already operating at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport and the city has world-class travel connections.

Several new bridges, roads and tunnels are already in use and large swaths of downtown Shanghai that have suffered through a Potemkin-like paint job to cover the wear, tear and grime of long neglect are finally emerging from the bamboo scaffolding.

It has been a lot of preparation for a World's Fair, a seemingly B-class event that many think fell off must-see lists a decade or two ago.

Not so, says Sean Rein, founder and managing director of China Market Research Group.

"The Shanghai World Expo is critical for China, and especially critical for Shanghai," he maintains. "The Shanghai government has spent a lot of money in creating a large infrastructure for Shanghai. They've invested a lot of money in tunnels, roads, clearing up high-polluting factories ... to really create their vision of a modern business hub.

"So the World Expo is really a way for Shanghai to become an international player, and really the stepping point for foreign companies and Chinese companies to be able to target and tap into the fast-growing Chinese economy."

Viewed that way, the billions - as much as $30 billion to $45 billion by several estimates - spent sprucing up this city of nearly 20 million people is an investment in a future that is already dawning here.

At ground level, that's a bit of a hard sell, however.

Rebecca Catching, a transplanted Ottawan who is director of OV Gallery in downtown Shanghai, happily leads a tour through the exhibition she organized to find out what local artists think of the massive changes that have been wrought upon their city in advance of Expo.

"The renovations are changing the city," she says. "The metro lines are great, but then certain neighbourhoods have to be torn down and old buildings are being taken away for Expo.

"We're seeing a lot of history going by too quickly."

Overall, the impression the artists leave is almost uniformly disturbing, starting with the barbed wire and search lights covering the front of the gallery, reminding a viewer of all the extra security that is being laid on for Expo 2010, which runs May 1 to Oct. 31.

Expo and, of course, the stepped-up surveillance is more and more evident around the city.

Scanners operated by 600 security staff will soon be ready to scrutinize each and every passenger before they board the metro trains. And, as the weather begins to improve this month, the 800,000 "security volunteers" that the city recruited are quickly becoming a part of Shanghai's crowded street life. They are an army of the elderly and easily identified by their red armbands.

As the city's new look comes together, it's not only new additions that people are noticing. There are things that are obviously missing, too. One of the city's most popular food streets, Wujiang Lu, where people used to stand in long, snaking lines to buy cheap, delicious Chinese barbecue, is gone.

The bamboo poles that sprouted from every window in old residential areas are all gone, too, replaced by shiny chrome ones distributed free by the city. Unlike in Beijing during the Olympics, Shanghai city fathers at least seem to recognize that laundry hanging out windows on poles is part of the traditional cityscape - they just didn't like the weathered bamboo-look, it seems.

Missing too are many of the "Chinglish" signs that so amused and charmed foreigners in Shanghai. So long to the metro notices that read: "If you take the phone on your waistband, as if to send money to the thief," and "If you are stolen, call the police at once."

But perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of the facelift so far is the crazy paint job the city commissioned - and paid for - in the older areas of the city. When the tiers of bamboo scaffolding started to come down, people suddenly noticed whole neighbourhoods were the same colour. All the houses in the lanes off Shaanxi Nan Lu, for instance, are now pale grey. On a nearby street, the buildings, one and all, are a cream colour.

The affect is to create a Potemkin village seemingly full of empty facades out of some of Shanghai's most picturesque neighbourhoods.