SHANGHAI — Back when Shanghai was known as the Paris of the Orient, part of its skyline was dominated by two huge cartoon figures.
"High overhead a giant Chinese baby was shown at its mother's breasts, refusing to suck," Barbara Walker, a chronicler of the 1920s scene, wrote of the neon baby-formula advertisement. "It turned away with a grimace of disgust, then complacently accepted a long drink of patent milk, which glugged visibly in the bottle. Finally, the giantess' milk was squirted out of her nipples in a fireworks display of stars."
Wild, exuberant, lusty, sinful, fabulously rich and disgustingly poor, Shanghai was the preeminent Western gateway to China. The greatest financial center of East Asia--and the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party--it was fabled as an adventurer's paradise.
The 1949 Communist revolution seemed to end all that. The foreigners were expelled. Prostitutes were rounded up and assigned factory jobs. Opium dealers faced execution, and capitalists lost their fortunes. The neon lights came down. Night life died. Shanghai's history was pilloried as one of unmitigated decadence and corruption.
But today, with backing from central authorities, the city has suddenly reclaimed its old pride, passion and flamboyance.
The gambler's spirit of Shanghai's people powers a reborn stock market. Construction crews are furiously building the core of a modern city in the Pudong special economic district, just across the Huangpu River from the grand 1920s-era European buildings of the bustling old riverfront Bund.
Foreign participation is eagerly sought to help transform this 135-square-mile formerly rural zone into China's most important center of trade, industry and finance. Total Chinese and foreign investment in Pudong is projected to hit $14.5 billion for the six-year period ending in 1995.
With 13 million people, half in its urban core, Shanghai has the weight to influence its entire region.
"Shanghai should become the 'dragon's head' for the economic development of the Yangtze River Valley--when it moves, the body follows," said Zhang Puxian, a spokesman for the Pudong Development Office. "Our goal is very clear. We hope that early in the next century, we can restore Shanghai's status in the world."
After senior leader Deng Xiaoping rose to power in 1978, he authorized south China's Guangdong province to take the lead in reforms, including establishment of several "special economic zones" with quasi-capitalist policies. Guangdong raced forward.
Meanwhile, Shanghai--traumatized, confused and locked in the chains of central planning--stagnated for another dozen years.
Shanghai got its big boost a year ago, when Deng visited and declared that his "biggest mistake" had been failing to include the city among the special economic zones set up in 1980.
By eliminating lingering doubts about the political correctness of capitalist-style reforms, Deng's comments set Shanghai free to make up for lost time. Commercial districts boomed and Pudong raced forward. "It was as though the lock had been turned, the door opened and out rushed the people," a Western diplomat said.
"It's amazing to see how people are spending," said a foreign banker, who like the diplomat asked not to be named. "There are fur shops in Huaihai Road where you see people--Shanghainese--buying furs at between 2,000 and 20,000 yuan ($350 to $3,500). They've been craving for these things for so many years. Even if they had jewelry, they hid it. . . . All of a sudden there's no more control. No one tells them, 'Do this, do that.' The Communist Party just tells them to get rich. . . . The new religion is money."
Shanghai Mayor Huang Ju, in an interview with the official New China News Agency, said authorities are determined to boost Shanghai's economy by at least 10% a year to make it "one of the world's economic, financial and trade centers by 2010."
The city's economy grew 15% in 1992, with industrial output up 21% and exports up 22.5%, according to official statistics. Top growth items included telephone equipment, cars, household air conditioners and video recorders.
The new commercial spirit is most visible along Nanjing Road, the premier street of pre-revolutionary China, which in the past year has recaptured its former glory. Remodeled gold jewelry shops and fancy department stores are packed with goods and jammed with customers. Neon lights have sprouted again, electrifying the evenings with energy and excitement.
At the Rong Hua Chicken Restaurant, music blares on an outdoor loudspeaker while a neon signboard flashes news, cartoon-illustrated slogans and the day's stock market closings. Food and clothing stalls in the city's night bazaars do a booming business.
The scene is reminiscent of the city's flashiest years, in the 1920s and '30s. Ruth F. Weiss, 84, a longtime resident of China who was born in Vienna and lived in Shanghai from 1933 to 1937, recalled in a recent interview how the neon lights then were "a fantastic sight."