American Culture

China, Day Three: Shanghai, the new dawn for China

Third in a series

Shanghai wakes up quietly, as if it doesn’t want to rouse its inhabitants.

The Shanghai skyline at night along the west bank
of the Huangpu River.

In Yu Yuan Park, not far from the touristy section of town known as The Bund along the western riverfront, hundreds of people gather after first light to exercise. They give each other enough room to maneuver and then, all in slow motion, they outstretch their arms, shift their weight, pivot, pull back, swing, shift. For observers as uninitiated as I am in tai chi—the ancient art of shadowboxing—it’s hard to describe, but to watch is to see grace and discipline in motion.

The streets had been virtually empty all night. The ever-present blaring of car horns and the wails of emergency vehicles remain noticeably absent—a marked change from any major American city, like New York or Boston, where I’ve stayed.

When drivers do use their horns, it means “Get out of my way because I’m coming through,” not an expression of anger. “Road rage,” one Western ex-patriot told me, “does not exist here.” Even though traffic frequently looks like swarming insects instead of cars, the get-out-of-my-way system apparently works.

The streets do eventually fill up. What amazes me most is the number of people on bikes and motor scooters. Each street has a restricted lane for them. The bikes come in all shapes and sizes and ages. I see a few that must be so old they look held together with duct tape. It’s not surprising to see a man pedaling down the street with huge bags full of cans or Styrofoam lashed to the back. The heaps of bags dwarf the drivers, but onward they pedal, taunting the laws of gravity.

Construction noises join the soundscape: jackhammers, excavators, hammers, diesel engines, men yelling to one another. The entire city, it seems, is a construction zone. In May 2010, Shanghai will host the World Expo, so China is putting on its best face in much the same way it did when it hosted the Olympics in Beijing in the summer of 2008.

Shanghai, in many ways, is China’s showcase city. The central government made the choice several years ago to turn the city into a major world financial center similar to New York, London, or Tokyo, which explains the pro-business environment in the area. Fifteen years ago, the skyline on the east side of the Huangpu River, which bisects the city south to north, didn’t exist. Now, it’s home to the World Financial Center, the country’s tallest building—China’s answer to America’s World Trade Centers.

The Pear Tower rises out of the gloom on a morning clouded by weather and smog.
The Pearl Tower rises out of the
gloom on a morning clouded by
weather and smog.

A couple blocks away stands the Oriental Pearl Tower, a Space Needle-like structure with two giant orbs skewered on it. At more than 1,500 feet tall, the building serves as a giant broadcast tower, although it has observation decks for tourists, too.

In fact, the city boasts a lot of remarkable skyscrapers. Architects apparently tired of the traditional high-rise boxes so typical of the seventies and eighties seemed to lighten up and get creative with the designs. “There are buildings here that look like they come right out of the Jetsons,” says my colleague, Darwin King, an accounting professor who’s on the trip with me.

In some spots, the skyscrapers are densely clustered, while in others, they’re spread out a bit, with crops of apartment buildings growing in between. As we drive northwest out of the city on Friday afternoon, one student looking out the bus window marvels: “It’s just buildings as far as you can see.”

We also see plenty of things familiar to us: logos for Dairy Queen, Dunkin Donuts, Papa Johns Pizza and even Hooters, all written in Chinese and English. We see the dueling entities of world domination, Wal-Mart and Starbucks. The first ad I saw off the plane was for HSBC. “I wonder if they have a Park-N-Shop,” a student laughs.

The Chinese seem as curious about us as we are about them. Several parents bring their small children up to me to wave. “Hel-lo!” the parents say, holding their babies up to see the American with the Hawaiian shirt.

Jeff, one of the students with me, stands six-six. On several occasions, people stop him to ask if they can have their picture taken with someone so tall. He towers over them as they all smile and the camera flash goes off. One old man came up to him and stroked Jeff’s arm hair and laughed.

“Obama!” says a smiling woman to another group of students. She waves a newspaper with the president’s picture on it. “He from Hawaii!” The conversation can’t go much beyond that because the woman doesn’t know enough English and the students don’t know any Mandarin.

We cap off the day with a cruise on the Huangpu River. The buildings on both shores put on a magnificent light show, and the skyline is ablaze with colors. The top of the World Financial Center sparkles with lights like a thousand flashbulbs going off. The side of the Aurora building shows moving pictures—a humming bird! a flower!—nearly a hundred stories tall, and nearby the Citi Bank building flashes with a full-length screen that shows groovy Nuevo-psychedelic designs.

The boat makes its loop downriver then up, passing low-lying work barges, hulking just above the water with no running lights. A trio dressed like a mariachi band plays standards on electronic instruments. As the boat begins its final approach to the docks, the band strikes up “Home on the Range,” which cleverly transforms into “Auld Ang Syne.”

As I listen to the song, I can’t help but wonder if those “old acquaintances” that might be forgotten might not be a part of China itself. Shanghai represents everything new and modern about one of the oldest cultures on earth.

Today might be ending, but Shanghai represents a new dawn for all of China.

2 replies »

  1. Thanks, Chris. Your instant impressions are a great help to someone like myself, who is unlikely to ever visit China.

  2. I remember when I was stopped for a photograph, I felt cool. Then a few days later someone stopped my friend Seth and got a picture with him and actually called him a “Cool American”, suddenly I was the second coolest American in China.