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Shanghai’s Latest Global Turn

Is Shanghai’s resurgence a tale of East-meets-West, East-meets-East — or something altogether different?

May 7, 2007

Is Shanghai's resurgence a tale of East-meets-West, East-meets-East — or something altogether different?

This Shanghai-is-back-as-an-East-meets-West-metropolis storyline first gained prominence in the 1990s, as skyscrapers shot up in Pudong (East Shanghai) across the river from the grand neo-classical buildings of the Bund built three-quarters of a century earlier.

But it was during coverage of turn-of-the-millennium developments that the narrative gained momentum.

In 2000, it was trotted out when the city's first Starbucks opened. In 2002, when an international touring company brought Les Miz to the sparkling new Grand Theater, the first Broadway show to reach an urban center whose residents circa 1930 considered theirs a New York-like metropolis.

And again in 2004, first when an Armani store opened on the Bund, and then when China's first Grand Prix was held in Shanghai's new state-of-the-art Formula One stadium. The Grand Prix stories were particularly interesting to place into a long-term perspective.

Seven decades before the Asian edition of Time Magazine played up the arrival of Formula One racing in a cover story on New Shanghai's becoming the world's "most happening" city, Fortune Magazine had run a special feature on Old Shanghai that also used a race track — one for horses — to symbolize the port's ability to bring Occidental and Oriental features together.

The sequel approach to Shanghai's resurgence is certainly seductive (especially given the city’s many links to cinema) and it captures some aspects of what is going on. But the Shanghai-is-back-as-a-Paris-of-the-East line can obscure some key contrasts between past and present.

One big difference is that Old Shanghai was subdivided into Chinese-run districts and foreign-run enclaves, but New Shanghai is a unified metropolis.

Old Shanghai's internationalization could thus not be a source of pride for the Chinese nation, but New Shanghai's can. And it was a sign of the times that only foreigners could join Old Shanghai's Racing Club.

A second difference is a subtle, but telling shift in the way Shanghai is now compared to major Western cities. During the treaty-port century, when it was likened to Paris or New York, the implication was that it was the Chinese city with the best shot at someday catching up with those ultra-modern places.

Now, it is sometimes described as outpacing both the French capital and the Big Apple, and treated as an excitingly or dangerously ultra-modern locale. It now has more skyscrapers than Manhattan, a maglev faster than France's TGV, and a new media nickname, "New York on Steroids," that implies a worry about excess.

The final difference is that Shanghai's current internationalization is as much an East-meets-East as an Orient-meets-Occident phenomenon. Consider Japan's role.

Before the first Starbucks arrived, a Japanese chain of coffeehouses had already begun reintroducing café life to Shanghai. By then, karaoke bars had made their mark and sushi bars weren't far behind.

And downtown Shanghai is now saturated with giant television screens advertising products — or simply celebrating the city itself. A New Yorker may find this reminiscent of Times Square, but the screens are not limited to just one district, so it is more like a visual nod to Tokyo's urban style.

An even bigger East-meets-East story has to do with the current influence of Hong Kong and Taipei investors, tourists, and sojourners. I've been keenly aware of this before.

In 1996, for example, I learned that Hong Kong developers were behind the building of some of the glitzy new department stores that had sprung up in the eight years since I had last been to Shanghai.

And during a 2000 visit I heard that the management team in charge of the new Starbucks franchises was based not in Seattle but Taiwan.

Never, however, have I been as aware of East-meets-East phenomena as during my trip to Shanghai earlier this year. This was due in part to two sites I took in: the Chedun film studios outside of the city, which contain replicas of treaty-port-era streets, and Xintiandi, an entertainment district filled with newly built but old-style structures.

These places seem at first symbols of Shanghai's East-meets-West characteristics. Hollywood actors have walked the streets of the faux treaty port at Chedun (I was inspired to visit the studio by accounts of the making of "The Painted Veil," a joint U.S.-Chinese production).

Western press accounts of Xintiandi, meanwhile, often stress that American architect Benjamin Woods designed it — and one reason I decided to revisit it on my recent trip was to see how its branch of a famous dumpling restaurant, Dintaifeng, compared to the outlet I like to go to on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

In each case, though, I came away convinced that an East-meets-West approach doesn't do either site justice. One also has to make room for their East-meets-East and riotously hybrid All-Points-on-the-Compass-Collide elements.

At Chedun, I learned that the films made there included "Kung Fu Hustle," the wildly popular movie made by and starring Hong Kong's Stephen Chow.

Moreover, the only famous actor I caught a glimpse of at Chedun was a Taiwanese star doing scenes for a Chinese television drama.

And the big news at the studio was the building of a new cluster of World War II-era Shanghai storefronts and apartment buildings, specially created for a film by the Taiwan-born and now U.S.-based Ang Lee.

At Xintiandi, meanwhile, I should note that its branch of Dintaifeng was not the second but the third one whose dumplings I sampled. The first had been in Taipei: Dintaifeng originated as a Taiwanese purveyor of Shanghainese cuisine.

When I ate at the Xintiandi branch, my window provided a view of a decidedly East-meets-West sight: a giant billboard featuring basketball players. Looking in the other direction, though, I saw a restaurant wall covered with caricatures of Hong Kong celebrities, including Stephen Chow.

This set of juxtaposed views sums up Xintiandi pretty well and says much about Shanghai's latest global turn. Xintiandi is nothing if not a site of jumbled references and influences.

Designed by a U.S. architect, it was bankrolled by a Hong Kong development company, The Shui On Group, and its eateries include a bar called "Che's," the décor of which promiscuously trades on both the radical chic of its Argentine namesake and nostalgia for the hedonistic allure of good old, bad old cosmopolitan capitalist Havana.