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Shanghai, charmed to meet you

2010. 15 June

The World Expo in Shanghai has highlighted the charm of a vibrant and innovative city that shows the visitor the face of China that’s emerging as a dynamic Asian powerhouse

by Karim Raslan

( FOR those who fear the rise of China, its capital city Beijing can present a disturbing set of impressions.
It sometimes seems chauvinist, authoritarian and dominating.

However, with this month’s World Expo in Shanghai, a slightly different perspective of China went on display.

There are many parallels between the two cities: like how the Pudong’s area was extensively developed and the estimated US$50bil spent on the Expo itself. However, Shanghai’s personality and history are quite unlike Beijing’s.

Shanghai’s strategic location at the mouth of the Yangtze River, as well as its relative youth and more cosmopolitan character have long made the city a dynamic business centre.

Moreover, the role of Shanghai’s individual citizens is more pronounced. The balance of power between the people and their leader’s shifts subtly from Beijing’s preferred top-down model here.

Instead, individualism is celebrated through consumerism.

Needless to say, Shanghai is my favourite Chinese city. Part of the reason is that my first sight of the city was via the sea, having come from Hong Kong. The romantic view is an enduring memory that will remain with me as long as I live.

Dawn had just broken on the Huangpu River as I sailed in, enjoying the rare sights. The city was stirring as our ship slowly steamed past dockyards, granaries, warehouses, tenements and factories. This was Shanghai’s lifeblood: the heart of a vast industrial metropolis of some 19 million people.

There were barges to the left and right of us - carrying coal and scrap-metal. Ferries were also crossing the river at different points.

Passing under the elegant Yangpu Bridge, you follow a bend in the river, only to be presented with a sweeping view of both Pudong’s modern skyscrapers and the famous Shanghai Bund’s pre-war magnificence.

Between now and October, some 70-100 million visitors (mostly local) are expected to visit the Expo site. They will get the chance to experience this extraordinary view albeit from a different angle.

They will also be able visit both the various national pavilions (the British, Polish, Finnish and Russian outposts are amongst the most impressive according to online reports) and other sites showing off Shanghai’s ambitious modernisation. This massive effort is part of China’s attempt to chart a sustainable, urbanised future - dubbed “Better City - Better Life”.

Indeed, the Expo further reinforces China’s rise to the forefront of global affairs. The shift of economic power to Asia becomes ever more pronounced as Europe (with Greece requiring an IMF-style bailout) is hit with an unending series of financial crises.

Of course, there are slightly ridiculous aspects to China’s re-emergence - such as the much-reported attempt to stop local inhabitants from wearing their pyjamas on the streets. Certainly, if you’ve ever experienced Shanghai’s summer heat you’ll understand why!

Still, Shanghai as mentioned is a young city and hence livelier. It lacks Beijing’s historical baggage. This makes the city more open and accepting. For example, I’ve noticed that non-Mandarin speaking ethnic Chinese are less likely to be hassled in Shanghai than they are in the capital.

Shanghai, ironically rose to prominence during a period that most Chinese consider to be deeply humiliating. It began with the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, whereby European powers were first allowed to establish enclaves in the city.

The city hence emerged as a mix of foreign commercial interests, international politics and local energies that saw it become Asia’s leading commercial centre in the first half of the 1900s.

What Shanghai lacks in terms of an Imperial past is more than compensated by the city’s modern experiences. As the Qing dynasty crumbled and China underwent a period of protracted instability, the city became a haven for new ideas and national reinvention.

This, along with its youthfulness means that Shanghai represents China at its most open.

Indeed, Shanghai was where many of the 20th Century’s most important innovations and industries like advertising, mass media, cinema and popular music arrived in China. This engagement with Western cultural forces was to have a profound impact on the city’s cultural life.

Artists ranging from Xu Beihong, Liu Haisu and Lin Fengmian experimented with Western techniques (especially oil painting) as they sought to synthesise China’s ink and brush traditions with foreign styles.

At the same time, graphic arts as well as a dynamic publishing industry changed the way traditional Chinese saw themselves, leading them to challenge accepted norms.

Fashion and modernity were actively encouraged. Women began to wear the modern cheongsam.

So as you tour Shanghai - which you must do, remember that this city gives you a glimpse of China’s future: lively, individualistic and fun. Let’s hope this will indeed be the face of the China that will emerge in the decades ahead.