I’m trying to imagine Shanghai under a clear blue sky. Above me, painted on the concrete ceiling of a bomb-shelter turned-shopping-mall, fluffy white cumulus clouds fleck a deep azure sky. I had set out earlier from my hotel, seeking a little exercise to ward off jetlag, when the scent of steaming dim sum lured me underground. Not only is this fake sky a welcome contrast to the permanent haze outside, it also offers a glimpse of this city’s sunny future.
From May through October, Shanghai will host Expo 2010, a world’s fair showcasing more than 200 nations in as many pavilions. The highly anticipated event will serve as a kind of coming-out ball for China’s biggest city. In preparation, the municipality is cleaning house – shuttering factories, halting construction and restricting traffic – in an attempt to clear the notoriously smoggy air and project a squeaky-clean image for the anticipated 70 million visitors. (In fact, the cleanup effort has been underway since before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Shanghai Stadium served as the official soccer venue.)
In a way this mall, located under the People’s Square at the geographic centre of the city, neatly encapsulates the past century of Chinese psychology. In the heady days of the 1920s Jazz Era, the square was a racecourse surrounded by colonial mansions. In 1949, when the Communists took control and frivolities such as gambling were banned, foreigners fled and the site became a propagandist parade ground. Later, Cold War paranoia prompted construction of a warren of bomb shelters beneath the square to accommodate a million people.
Today, as I wander the surreal labyrinth of retailers selling knockoff watches and lurid comic-book costumes, it’s clear China is in the midst of a shopping spree.
Back above ground, in the neon chaos, I meet with architect Spencer Dodington. A Shanghai resident for 14 years, he has kindly offered to distill his experience into a few jam-packed days. “Shanghai was a cow town,” Dodington explains in his charming Texan drawl. “In 1845 the population was only 25,000 people. It was the end of the Silk Road and there were literally camels in the streets.”
It’s precisely this provincial image that organizers are aiming to dispel with Expo, for which the theme is “Better City Better Life.” Home to 20 million people, today’s Shanghai shimmers with the trappings of the nouveau riche: chic restaurants, bars and brands convey that the Shanghainese are worldly and urbane – qualities the city wants to emphasize with its heavily orchestrated spring cleaning.
This desire to keep up appearances (versus losing face) is a deep-rooted particularity of Eastern custom. So too, I soon learn, is feng shui, the practice of manipulating physical space to harness good luck.
“The Chinese believe your fate is largely predetermined by your birth and your place in society and family,” says Dodington. “You can only tweak it by orienting your environment.” Feng shui is taken so seriously it’s even written into the building code. In the Urban Planning Museum, Dodington and I stand before a vast scale model of Shanghai and witness the evidence. Since bad luck (not to mention arctic winds and marauding Mongols) arrives from the north, the main entrance of every building in the city faces south. This practice doubtlessly surprised many of the international architects of Expo. How the British pavilion (which resembles a giant fibre-optic dandelion), the United Arab Emirates pavilion (designed in the form of a sand dune) or the Swiss pavilion (with its living alpine meadow) adhere to feng shui remains to be seen.
Back out among the blare of horns on Tibet Road, Dodington and I head for the sanctuary of the French Concession. In the 1860s, after China lost the second Opium War, it gave each of the victorious French, British and Americans a slice of land along the Huangpu River on which to settle. The gesture was intended as a slight, given that flooding turned the terrain into a swamp for much of the year. But the tables were turned when an army of Britain’s civil engineers created a barrier to keep the water out. The levee held and, to China’s dismay, foreigners, instead of water, flooded Shanghai.
Next, we make our way through avenues lined with plane trees and thick with swerving bicycles, stopping occasionally to take in strange and wonderful streetscapes of Art Deco masterpieces and stately apartments. When we reach Huangpu River, we find the original embankment still there. The Bund – Shanghai’s legendary waterfront road that calls to mind the Champs Élysées or Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue – is the Urdu word for levee, said to have been bestowed on the boulevard thanks to the influence of the Iraqi-Jewish Sassoon family, who were prominent in Shanghai during the late 1800s.
The Bund may not take up much space (in fact, there are just 52 buildings along its length), but it is here that one of the most remarkable Expo makeovers is taking place. “Even 10 years ago, the Bund was derelict,” shouts Dodington above the hubbub of traffic. “This building was a recreation hall full of ping-pong tables.” Now the space he’s referring to, known as Three on The Bund, is a multi-storey shopping, entertainment and gallery complex outfitted by design guru Michael Graves to house the likes of Jean Georges restaurants and Giorgio Armani boutiques. And soon, Dodington will no longer have to shout over the street noise. Four lanes are being rerouted underground, reducing traffic to a trickle and creating a waterfront promenade.
This prime piece of real estate was the Wall Street of Shanghai in its early 20th-century heyday, and many of the buildings still reflect this gilded financial past. The Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, a neoclassical icon, was the second largest bank on earth when it was built in 1923. Many others await their transformation into hotels: Fairmont, Waldorf Astoria and Peninsula are just a few of the brass-nameplate brands that will grace The Bund in May.
In the meantime, cement-spattered tricycles laden with building materials stand forlornly in porticos where limousines will soon idle. If the calibre of high-end hotels already springing up throughout the city is anything to go by, these future properties will usher in another round of economic halcyon days.
The Langham Yangtze Boutique, my plush home for the week, is an Art Deco jewel on Nanjing Road, a few blocks west of The Bund, built in 1934 as the Yangtze Hotel. It reopened in May 2009 after a vast renovation at the hands of German design firm Duncan & Miller & Ullman. Much like for Expo itself, no expense was spared. The centrepiece is a sweeping staircase leading to the mezzanine bar under a stained-glass roof. Design elements throughout the 96-room hotel reflect the various architectural styles that reigned in Shanghai during the height of European influence here. The in-room bathtubs are the size of plunge pools. In the Chuan spa, flaked ice falls from the ceiling to rest in a marble plinth for the sole purpose of providing cool rubdowns between steam treatments. T’ang Court, the hotel’s signature restaurant, has already been awarded two Michelin stars (no doubt thanks to its renowned hairycrab tasting menu, a seasonal delicacy that the Shanghainese are crazy about).
As the sun begins to set over the Huangpu River, Dodington and I cross The Bund to watch its amber light play on the Pudong skyline. “The river carries all the negative energy downstream and dumps it when it makes a sharp turn,” my companion explains in another reference to feng shui beliefs, making a sweeping gesture towards the water. He directs my gaze to the Oriental Pearl TV tower, which to my western eyes resembles a rocket ship out of The Jetsons, and explains that the structure is actually a giant talisman. “It symbolizes a dragon with a pearl in its mouth, making it impossible for the dragon to spew forth bad energy,” explains Dodington with a twinkle in his eye. “The superstition previously condemned this area. So now it’s problem-solved.” As if on cue, the tower erupts in a gaudy syncopated light show.
This is another face of the new Shanghai: loud, brash and glitzy. Fortunately, there’s still room for the unassuming Shanghai of old. Early in my stay at the Langham, I had met with Tony Wang, the hotel’s director of communications. He wore a monogrammed silk shirt and an exquisitely tailored suit in a delicately pinstriped cashmere charcoal. Versace? Helmut Lang? Prada? The answer was none of the above. I headed for the old Dongjiadu Road fabric market the next day with three things in my possession: the address of Wang’s personal tailor, a dog-eared copy of GQ and an invaluable bargaining tip.
“Always seek the oldest person in the store,” he whispered before I left. “They’ll either be the owner or a long-term employee. Either way, they’ll have more authority to reduce the price.” For what I’d normally pay for a jacket, I bought an entire suit and five silk shirts – all monogrammed, of course.
On my last day, I head to Zhujiajiao, a frozen-in-time village outside the city, to get an idea of just how far Shanghai has come. Somewhat fittingly, the freeway passes over the Expo site, where a thicket of building cranes marks the spot. The whole area was recently used for steel factories, shipbuilding and coal depots. With them gone, so too has the black heart of Shanghai’s heavy industry. The vast metropolis gives way to rice fields surprisingly quickly and, in just over an hour, I arrive at Zhujiajiao, one of a handful of traditional water towns that surround the city. Places like this survived largely unchanged through the colonial period by supplying goods to local Chinese that colonialists didn’t want, namely fish and rice. Formed 1,700 years ago, the small town has 36 stone bridges and a network of canals plied by the Chinese version of gondolas, whose owners paddle their boats with a single oar as though stirring a giant cauldron.
Away from the main street, where vendors sell jade bracelets and an assortment of tourist tack, the lanes yield an astounding array of traditional wares. Leaf-bound sticky rice, sugared pork hocks and candied lotus root spill from every storefront. In a pickle store brimming with all manner of vegetables in giant glass orbs, I submit to a sample: my tastebuds are flooded with the delicate floral sweetness of pickled . . . well, I’m not sure what exactly.
Further along a narrow lane, I stumble upon the oldest Qing dynasty post office, recognizable by the ornate dragon post box out front. I cross the Fangsheng bridge, fending off touts who sell goldfish for tourists to set free in the canal. Eventually I find myself in a Chinese chemist staring at a vast wall of drawers. On the counter, a calculator sits alongside an abacus. Once again, I’m reminded of how, in Shanghai, the ancient and the new eternally co-exist.
Even in this remote place, Expo’s reach is felt. In a darkened doorway somewhere between the chemist, Kezhi Gardens and Yunjin Monastery, I discover the event’s fibreglass mascot, Haibao. It resembles Gumby, only far better fed and painted a joyful, optimistic blue – the colour of a sky just emerging from the haze.