Shanghai Surprise Pt. 1

Where? Shanghai, People's Republic of China
When? 11/24/02 - 1/6/03
Why? Goin' home for the holidays
Who? The Wang Familiy - Myself, mom, dad and sister Jess. Plus 16 million Shanghainese.


"Army or academia?" A friend asked me this recently when I was sharing how much my family has moved around. Since my birth in 1972, my parents have lived in: Ann Arbor, Boston, San Diego, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Taipei and now, Shanghai. Usually, you only jump around this much if you're in the military or a professor but in this case, it's insurance. My dad works for insurance companies and as he's worked his way up the corporate ladder, it's brought him across the U.S. and now, Asia.

My parents moved to Shanghai in the fall of 2002 (they were in Taipei for about five years prior to that) and I spent my first two weeks in Shanghai, ever, over the Christmas holidays that year.

all photos are by author

In speaking to people who had been to Shanghai prior to arriving here myself, I noticed that there were two distinct camps: people who LOVE the city and those who don't think much of it. There's no real ambivalence in those opinions and after spending some time here, I have a suspicion why.

For starters, Shanghai is a city for people who love cities - they love the pace, the intensity, the density, the constant feeling of motion and the sensory overload. If you like Shanghai, it's because you're attuned into this frenetic vibe that it exudes - the swirl of stores and restaurants and people that collide on every corner you can see. Many compare it to New York, which is only apt given that there's no other American city that's remotely in the same category but it's not a perfect fit either for reasons I'll try to make clear later.

The other thing too is that Shanghai is, by far, the most Western city in China (Hong Kong notwithstanding since it only returned to Chinese rule a few years back) and especially in the last 10 years, much of it feels - in style, technology and infrastructure - exactly like any big, modern city in the U.S. You hardly feel out of place here coming from somewhere like the Bay Area.

I suspect this is the exact reason why others don't like Shanghai as compared to other Chinese cities. It's too new, too Western, too "un-Chinese" in a certain way, especially compared to other cities like Beijing or Suzhou which are older and more "traditional". I get the sense that some visitors find those cities to be more like "the real China" and are less enamored with Shanghai because they find it trying too hard to be Western. I can understand that wariness - Shanghai is incredibly driven by material desire and there's a despairing lack of cultural vibrancy for such a thriving economic city.

That being said, I'm a city boy at heart and have no real expectation or investment in the idea of a "real China" to discover. I don't confuse Shanghai with representing the whole of China anymore than thinking San Francisco is a stand-in for America. At the same time, I don't take for granted the fact that I've traveled halfway across the world to someplace that is different. And that in itself - the exploration of this city and attempting to wrap my head around it - has been nothing but an immense pleasure.

In a sense, Shanghai and Beijing are like New York and Washington D.C. The latter city in each pair may be the country's political seat but the former power the forward momentum of each nation. Shanghai's Western influences - what the more generous might call its cosmopolitanism - is largely a product of the parade of colonial powers that trampled through the city over the last 150 years. It began with the British, following the Opium Wars, and continued with the US, France, Germany and eventually Japan. In fact, prior to the 1949 Communist Revolution, Shanghai was passed between more hands than a college pigskin on New Year's.

At one point in its history, namely around the 1920s, Shanghai was a cultural, political and economic metropolis, called by some "Paris of the East", others dubbed it the "Whore of the Orient", reflecting different perceptions about the city's decadent past. WWII and Communist rule slowed the city's development but it continued to be a leading propellent in China's politics with many of its leaders, including Mao and recently out-going President Jiang Zemin having held seats of power here prior to their national ascension.

More than anything though, Shanghai is now the economic motor of China. Hong Kong is in the midst of a disastrous recession that they may never completely recover from but Shanghai is blasting off at a dizzying speed. In 1990, the Chinese gov't designated the city's Pudong district as an economic development zone, not only funnelling in gov't money but also actively encouraging foreign investment. This has literally transformed this city dramatically in the last decade. I hear the statistic that 1/5th of all the world's building cranes are in Shanghai and this is reflective of the city's insane growth, which has turned the city into China's most populated and one of the densest in the world, with roughly 7.5 million crammed into the 136 sq. miles of the city's main center.


Shanghai is basically divided into two sections by the Huangpo River. The older part of the city, which has been well-developed since the early 20th century, is west of the River and is so designated by the name Puxi. Pudong literally means "east" and takes it place to the east of the Huangpo and extends to the Pacific.

During my trip, I meet a young, 24 year old rapper from Shanghai named Wang Fan, aka BlaKK Bubble (more on him later). Fan was born and raised in Pudong and has seen his neighborhood undergo a transformation that has no parallel in the U.S. He shares that prior to 1990, Pudong was literally farmland and the joke was that people "would rather rent a room in Puxi than own a house in Pudong." The main thoroughfare that runs through the city now, Dongfang Lu, used to have a different name (which I've forgotten) that translated into "Graveyard Road" - so named because it was flanked by cemeteries. Now, Dongfang Lu has countless high rise apartments, hotels, skyscrapers, mega-stores, and subway stops jutting alongside instead of gravestones.

I land at Pudong Int'l, which is a relatively new airport (built in the last five years). I'm a little nervous going through customs since I brought out 35 CDs of mine to sell and I guess the officers must have picked up on this since they pull me aside to search my luggage. Indeed, one officer looks at my CDs, and reads off the label, "O...dub", to which I reply, in Chinese, "that's me." He looks at me appreciatively, says, "you're a DJ?". I nod. He smiles. I leave, feeling amused and relieved at the same time.

When I get out of customs, I realize that it's going to be a little hard to spot my family considering that everyone looks the same, which is to say, Chinese. Yeah, yeah, I know it's a stereotype to say we all look alike, but in terms of hair and clothing, middle class Chinese kind of have a homogenous thing going and staring at five dozen people who all sort of look like my dad and mom throws me for a bit. Luckily, my sister manages to ID me amidst the crowd.

My parents and temporarily staying at the Ascott Pudong, a service residence hotel in the middle of the Liujiazui financial district which sits just south of the Huangpo. The building claims to be 40 stories, but that's a little misleading since there are no floors with the number "4" here. Why? In Chinese, the number "4" is pronounced very similar to the Chinese word for "death" and for superstitious reasons, they avoid anything with the number 4 in it. This is also why it's very bad luck to give someone a clock in China - the word for clock is similar to another Chinese word for death. I guess if you wanted to intimdate someone, instead of sending them a fish wrapped in a bulletproof vest, you'd give then a clock permanently set to 4 o' clock.

Anyways, there's no 4th floor, no 14th floor, no 24th floor and even if it went that high, there sure as hell wouldn't be a 44th floor. There is a 40th floor however, apparently since it would be a little strange to go from floor 39 to floor 50. In a nod to Western superstition, there's also no 13th floor though this is apparently at odds with Chinese tradition. For example, the Jianmao Tower, tallest building in China (and third tallest in the world) is 88 stories divided into 13 segments since 13 is considered a fortuitous number in Buddhist culture.

I arrive in Shanghai well after dark so even though I have a spectacular view of "downtown" Pudong with its many skyscrapers, I can't really gauge much else besides the lights of the high rises. That has to wait until morning when I open up my drapes and stare upon the unfolding metropolis.


It's a little hard to describe what Shanghai looks like if you've never been outside of the U.S. After having been to Hong Kong and Taipei, I've struggled to figure out what sets these cities apart from American and European cities and it finally dawns on me that the sheer density of these Asian cities is off the scale compared to even the biggest American metropoles.

For example, looking across the Huangpu into Puxi reminds me a little bit of standing on the shores of Queens, looking West into Manhattan across the East River. The difference is that if you turn around, the skyline flattens instantly whereas here, it's development 360. Concrete and steel dominate the landscape in every direction to the brink of the horizon - no patch of green goes unmolested.

In the heart of the Liujiazui financial district, I find myself surrounded by 50, 60 story skyscrapers, all steel and glass with futuristically designed towers that spread and jut into the hazy sky. Past these towering behemoths, building cranes dot what seems like every other building. I count at least a dozen in one glance and everywhere you scan, it's more and more buildings going up, few lower than 20 stories. What's mind-boggling to understand is that NONE of this existed 10 years ago. Imagine if San Francisco or downtown LA or Manhattan sprung into existence during the 1990s. The mind reels.

I get down on the street and it's a striking contrast. Obviously, not all of Pudong is as extravagant and right below the Ascott sits dilapidated tenement housing. Varying between two and four stories, their dingy walls, makeshift construction and dead trees would almost lead me to think they were abandoned buildings but every apartment has laundry hanging outside. Down at street level, these open air alleys - which is an apt way to think about them - are mini-communities in themselves, with some shacks operating as makeshift clothing marts and restaurants. I walk down one alley and then turn around and like a mocking irony, one of the newer skyscrapers rises above the tenement rooftop. My sister tells me that all this is supposed to be torn down in the next few months - more fodder for Shanghai's economic appetite.

The contrast between old and new Shanghai is also obvious to the point of cliche if you take a walk along the Bund. This is a 2km strip running alongside the Huangpu River on the Puxi side. On the west side of the Bund is a collection of some of the older, more stately buildings in Shanghai, most of which were built in the 1920s or so and reflect a blend of French, British and other European architectural influences. To the east is the skyline of Pudong, even more futuristic and imposing from a distance. You'd swear to god some of these skyscrapers are modeled on rockets as more than a few look ready to blast off into space. It couldn't more blatant a dichotomy between tradition and progress but that doesn't make it any less impressive either.

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