When building projects grew scarce in the United States a few years ago, the California architect Robert Steinberg opened an office in Shanghai. He says he didn’t understand the city until the night he dined with some prospective clients. “I was trying to make polite conversation and started discussing some political controversy that seemed important at the time,” he recalls. “One of the businessmen leaned over and said, ‘We’re from Shanghai. We care only about money. You want to talk politics, go to Beijing.’ ”
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When I visited Steinberg’s Shanghai office, he led me past cubicles packed with employees working late into the evening. “We talk acres in America; developers here think kilometers,” he said. “It’s as if this city is making up for all the decades lost to wars and political ideology.”
Over the past decade or more, Shanghai has grown like no other city on the planet. Home to 13.3 million residents in 1990, the city now has some 23 million residents (to New York City’s 8.1 million), with half a million newcomers each year. To handle the influx, developers are planning to build, among other developments, seven satellite cities on the fringes of Shanghai’s 2,400 square miles. Shanghai opened its first subway line in 1995; today it has 11; by 2025, there will be 22. In 2004, the city also opened the world’s first commercial high-speed magnetic levitation train line.
With more than 200 skyscrapers, Shanghai is a metroplex of terraced apartments separated by wide, tree-lined boulevards on which traffic zooms past in a cinematic blur. At the 1,381-foot-tall Jin Mao Tower, whose tiered, tapering segments recall a giant pagoda, there’s a hotel swimming pool on the 57th floor, and a deck on the 88th floor offers a view of scores of spires poking through the clouds. I had to look up from there to see the top of the 101-story World Financial Center, which tapers like the blade of a putty knife. The Bank of China’s glass-curtained tower seems to twist out of a metal sheath like a tube of lipstick.
The last time I’d been to Shanghai, in 1994, China’s communist leaders were vowing to transform the city into “the head of the dragon” of new wealth by 2020. Now that projection seems a bit understated. Shanghai’s gross domestic product grew by at least 10 percent a year for more than a decade until 2008, the year economic crises broke out around the globe, and it has grown only slightly less robustly since. The city has become the engine driving China’s bursting-at-the-seams development, but it somehow seems even larger than that. As 19th-century London reflected the mercantile wealth of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and 20th-century New York showcased the United States as commercial and cultural powerhouse, Shanghai seems poised to symbolize the 21st century.
This is quite a transformation for a port whose name became synonymous with “abducted” after many a sailor awoke from the pleasures of shore leave to find himself pressed into duty aboard an unfamiliar ship. Shanghai lies on the Huangpu River, about 15 miles upstream from where the mighty Yangtze, the lifeblood of China’s economy for centuries, empties into the East China Sea. In the middle of the 19th century, the Yangtze carried trade in tea, silk and ceramics, but the hottest commodity was opium. After defeating the Qing dynasty in the first Opium War (1839-42), the British extracted the rights to administer Shanghai and to import opium into China. It was a lucrative franchise: about one in ten Chinese was addicted to the drug.
Opium attracted a multitude of adventurers. American merchants began arriving in 1844; French, German and Japanese traders soon followed. Chinese residents’ resentment of the Qing dynasty’s weakness, stoked partially by the foreigners’ privileged position, led to rebellions in 1853 and 1860. But the principal effect of the revolts was to drive half a million Chinese refugees into Shanghai; even the International Settlement, the zone where Westerners stayed, had a Chinese majority. By 1857 the opium business had grown fourfold.
The robust economy brought little cohesion to Shanghai’s ethnic mix. The original walled part of the city remained Chinese. French residents formed their own concession and filled it with bistros and boulangeries. And the International Settlement remained an English-speaking oligarchy centered on a municipal racecourse, emporiums along Nanjing Road and Tudor and Edwardian mansions on Bubbling Well Road.
The center of old Shanghai was known as the Bund, a mile-long stretch of banks, insurance companies and trading houses on the western bank of the Huangpu. For more than a century, the Bund boasted the most famous skyline east of Suez. Bookended by the British consulate and the Shanghai Club, where foreign entrepreneurs sat ranked by their wealth along a 110-foot-long bar, the Bund’s granite and marble buildings evoked Western power and permanence. A pair of bronze lions guarded the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building. The bell tower atop the Customs House resembled Big Ben. Its clock, nicknamed “Big Ching,” struck the Westminster chime on the quarter-hour.
Beneath the opulent facade, however, Shanghai was known for vice: not only opium, but also gambling and prostitution. Little changed after Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China supplanted the Qing dynasty in 1912. The Great World Amusement Center, a six-story complex packed with marriage brokers, magicians, earwax extractors, love-letter writers and casinos, was a favorite target of missionaries. “When I had entered the hot stream of humanity, there was no turning back had I wanted to,” the Austrian-American film director Josef von Sternberg wrote of his visit in 1931. “The fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story tellers, balloons, peep shows, masks, a mirror maze...and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks.” Von Sternberg returned to Los Angeles and made Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich, whose character hisses: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”