New spin on Shanghai

A culture evolves behind the blazing emblem of economic strength

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / September 10, 2006

SHANGHAI -- Stand on the concrete promenade of the Bund, a once-chaotic river wharf at the very center of this city, and spin: The horizon towers for 360 degrees. Neon streaks in blue, red, orange, and green. Silver apartment buildings merge at the edge of sight. Turn after turn, the fantasy of the Oriental Pearl Tower and the certainty of the 88-story Jinmao Tower punctuate new Pudong, a district sprung from swamp and farmland .

If the goal were simply reinventing the physical face of a place, then the game in Shanghai has been won: In the blur of a dozen years, hundreds of acres of low, lane-linked neighborhoods have surrendered to skyscrapers. So many people in this city of 18 million have scrambled from their torn-down homes and traditions into dizzying new terrain of 2,000 towers and more. Individual lives react again as Shanghai leads China's charge from closed communism toward free-market modernity, stopping who knows where. Politicians and planners cite statistics and strategies to debate whether Shanghai, and China behind it, will conquer or crash.

It is better to enter this place, senses alert, at street level: There lurk subtler signs of progress and peril.

Nearly lost, less than a mile south of the Bund on an open riverside lot littered with bricks and timber of tumbled homes, stands a solitary three-story building. A windbreaker hangs from a clothesline outside a window, and a shaking staircase leads to a door. When he answers a knock, Lu Wai Ming opens it only a few inches. Soon the thin man with thick black hair steps over the threshold and points at four white sheets of paper posted on the outside of the door. The typed Chinese characters announce repeated warnings of eviction from Shanghai Qili Moving Co., Ltd. At the bottom of one page, Lu penned a response in blue ink: "Do you think you are doing moving work? What kind of flag are you holding? What, exactly, are you doing?"

Most of Lu's neighbors were happy enough to take cash or a new apartment, lifted from decayed dwellings to new heights of comfort, if 20 miles toward the city's edge. The movers offered Lu too little money, he says. Then, he says, they beat him.

Lu was born in 1957. His school years dissolved amid the anti-intellectual insanity of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966. Lu is too weak, he says, to work in one of the hundreds of Shanghai factories that make magnets and metals, plastic toys and premium packaging paper for use around the world. Nor is he strong enough to get a hand in the city's building boom. He cares alone for his 84-year-old father, who was born 11 years after the fall of China's last emperor, in 1911.

As Lu talks, his father waits, silent and unseen, in the dark of the apartment. Lu mentions cans of gasoline, kept inside in case the movers try again to force him along.

"I will sacrifice myself," he says.

Change comes in frequent, epic turns to Shanghai, a city that two centuries ago was a regional seaport at the mouth of the Yangtze River. War and treaties divided the city among British, French, Americans, and Chinese, culminating by the 1930s in the boom town decadence that earned Shanghai the nicknames "Pearl of the Orient," and "Whore of the East." Attacks from Japan ended the party, though European Jews found refuge during World War II. With the 1949 victory by Mao's communist forces in the civil war, Shanghai began more than a quarter-century as the over worked, under fed economic engine of the country.

After Mao's death in 1976, Beijing leaders tested free-market reforms and foreign investment in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and other southern cities. In 1990, they began their ultimate economic experiment here.

Many of the classical buildings along the Bund, home to banks and trading houses during Shanghai's earlier international days, have been retrofitted for modern times. In one, a former British social club, celebrity chefs from Singapore, France, and Australia toy with the tastes of miso cod, foie gras served with lavender jelly, and tea-infused chocolate truffles. Across the river, guests at the Hyatt rest their heads on pillows 80 stories above the city. Foreign bankers emerge from apartments in the French Concession and swing into Starbucks for blueberry muffins and venti lattes. Tom Cruise leaps from Shanghai's real towers in the imagined world of M:i:III .

It can be easy to forget that beneath it all a local culture evolves.

In a renovated warehouse tucked in a northern district of residential high-rises, Kunbu Lei, stocky and smooth from shaved head to black T-shirt and baggy trousers, turns from his easel in the center of a high-ceilinged loft. His studio is one of dozens in a complex of old warehouses once used, among other things, to mill flour. Several years ago, artists began turning the area on the concrete banks of Suzhou Creek into a thriving community. The city government took control, allowing the artists to stay, but in a more structured setting.

Kunbu sits on a couch and slowly breaks leaves of pu'er tea into a clay pot to make a smoky brew.

"In my works," Kunbu says, "people are laughing."

All around him glimmer those bright faces: hairless, life-sized caricatures that look not unlike the painter himself. On a canvas hanging behind Kunbu, a smiling, gap-toothed Chairman Mao waves from a distorted past. On another, a chubby Shanghainese woman in a red, side-slit qi pao dress, symbol of the 1930s, strides boldly from a sea of skyscrapers.

It is an illusion, though, this image of unlimited freedom emerging with the steel-and-glass frontier. Along the neon- lighted commercial canyon of Nanjing Road, for example, it can seem Shanghainese shoppers can have whatever they want. But if one were to hoist a banner calling for democracy, the police, so long unseen, would come running.

Liu Jun, Kunbu's girlfriend and a painter who explores abstraction of line and color, takes a seat beside him. The artists, both in their 30s, migrated to Shanghai among the millions who have come from China's interior. Kunbu is an ethnic minority from a remote valley in mountainous Yunnan; he does not speak Mandarin so strongly. Liu, from Guizhou Province, does most of the talking. She describes younger friends in Shanghai who grew up watching their physical surroundings change dramatically from day to day; they think anything is possible. Liu knows the boundaries of her art.

"Of course," she says, "we cannot make jokes about the leader of the country."

President Hu Jintao was smiling when he came to Shanghai in June. Hu used the city for a broader political and economic project, welcoming leaders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Iran for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The five-year-old alliance, named for the city but concerned with global affairs, worries Western leaders with its attempts to build power in Asia. For one night, at least, the group's meetings shut down central Shanghai. Celebrity chefs could not get to their kitchens, a reminder for locals and tourists alike that the city booms with Beijing's blessing.

Leaders in that city, also being torn down and built up again in time to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, know that millions of poorer Chinese, stuck in urban neighborhoods or clamoring to get in, cannot find a home in this new economic terrain. So the central government issued new building rules nationwide. One calls for 70 percent of residential units to be smaller than 810 square feet. Down payment minimums were raised to discourage real estate speculation. And this: no more new luxury villas.

Such news should give pause to Yu Bo, 36, a designer of high-end dreams. Amid the routine industry of a weekday afternoon, Yu sits in the sparse conference room of an architectural office.

Yu's father, also an architect, was banished from Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and sent to a manual job in an industrial town in Shandong Province. The younger Yu, after returning to study in Beijing, worked as an architect in Singapore and Tokyo. He then came to Shanghai in part to bring Chinese character to a cityscape redrawn with an international eye.

"In the color, the material, the urban planning, we can make it local," Yu says.

It's not too late?

Yu, his clothes loose and his hair long, concedes that the foundations have changed.

"We have to follow the new lifestyle," he says.

Yu's colleague, Song Zhaoqing opens a laptop on the table and shows photos of the single-family luxury villas Yu created for a development west of Shanghai. Then Song clicks through a slide show detailing the intimate angles of a suburban shopping center, conceived last October, then designed, built, and opened for business by May.

As the two architects talk about poverty and excess, it is unclear whether or when the new building rules will curtail the work they do. Yu describes their more immediate reality.

"For the Chinese local developer . . . all they have is money," Yu says. "They need the land to change to beauty. And the beauty to change to money. Then they can have more money."

So stand again on the concrete promenade of the Bund. This time, turn only a bit. Face not the facade, but the sidewalk throngs, citizens of the city. It is rush hour, and the taxis and Mercedes, bicycles and buses jockey for position. The pedestrian crowds glance at the way ahead. Frantic? Eager? Unsure? They shift and surge.

Contact Tom Haines at

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