Shanghai — Gritty and crowded, Shanghai has a vibrant street life and a history of intrigue, but most of all it has a proven capacity to reinvent itself -- something I had heard was now happening at a maniacal pace.
The city, home to 15 million, is the heart of China's burgeoning economic development and has become one of the world's fastest-changing places as the government heaps millions into the economy and permanently alters the skyline with a host of new skyscrapers.
It has been nearly 10 years since my family and I left Shanghai. When my firm assigned me there in 1988, I regarded the city as a hardship posting: It had foul air and a byzantine business climate, and it was under communist rule. But when I left five years later, my attitude was changing, and so was this city on the Yangtze River Delta.
What is Shanghai like today? We decided to retrace our steps as expatriates, discovering the profound changes that, we heard, were restoring Shanghai as East Asia's preeminent capital of commerce and culture.
My wife, Lynn, teenage daughter, Lindsey, and I arrived at Shanghai's new Pudong Airport in late August. Our taxi crossed the Huangpu River, delivering us into the city. On the right was the new Pudong "special economic zone"; on the left, the Bund, the row of Old World buildings and banks that remain from Shanghai's heyday.
We were dismayed to see that so much of the old city had been leveled to make way for skyscrapers. But we remembered what the city once was and envisioned it unfolding, block by block, one age merging into the next, as we taxied west and back in time. From the Bund, the heart of the onetime international settlement, we traversed what remains of the French Concession; Shanghai's nickname, "Paris of the Orient," stems from this area's graceful tree-lined avenues and Gallic style of architecture. Continuing back in time, we entered the Jing An district with its Ching- and Ming-era temples.
A series of reincarnations
Shanghai, which translates to "above the sea," was an outpost for the cotton trade until the British won the Opium Wars in 1842, forcing China open to international commerce. The city, at the juncture of the Yangtze and the Pacific, became the fulcrum of business activity in the region. Autonomous foreign settlements were formed, business flourished and the glamorous assembled. Shanghai became both the "Paris of the Orient" and a capital of vice.
The city's decline came with the World War II Japanese occupation, the civil war and Communist takeover in 1949. Shanghai transformed itself into a communist urban model. And with the death of Mao Tse-tung and the emergence of the more moderate Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, Shanghai reincarnated again, evolving into a free trade and tourism powerhouse.
A good night's sleep was on our minds when we arrived at the glittery Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel, in the Shanghai Centre complex. Opened in 1990, the Centre instantly became a symbol of a new and reemerging Shanghai. It is a 50-story city-within-a-city catering mainly to the foreign community, developed by Atlanta architect John Portman. There are two apartment towers, a retail mall, a theater, the hotel and U.S.-style businesses such as Starbucks and the Hard Rock Cafe. We lived in an apartment there in the early '90s.
Climbing out of the taxi, we experienced a familiar sensation: Shanghai's oppressive August humidity. After checking into our small but elegant room, we dropped into the Long Bar, a favorite expatriate hangout on the second level of the complex. Still displayed above the bar were small plaques commemorating some of its first patrons, among them Reagan-era Cabinet members Caspar W. Weinberger and Alexander M. Haig Jr.
Our first morning, in 90-degree heat, we walked a few blocks west on Nanjing Road to the Jing An subway station, opened in 1999. It was easy to use and even provided helpful signs in Chinese and English, like "Do not leap into the tunnels." Two stops and 17 cents later, we exited the Renmin Park station bound for People's Square.
Nearby is the new Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, the perfect place to become oriented to Shanghai's past, present and future. This modern building, which resembles an ancient Chinese pavilion about to take flight, features a pictorial history of Shanghai's architecture and a Disney-like "main street" with a traditional Chinese pharmacy, teahouse and other reminders of what Shanghai was like not so long ago. But the most fascinating feature is a massive scale model of the city. Studying it, one senses the monumental scale of current construction.