Shanghai Gets Supersized

Boasting 200 skyscrapers, China’s financial capital has grown like no other city on earth – and shows few signs of stopping

The view from 87 stories up includes the Oriental Pearl TV tower, center, the terraces of the Jin Mao Tower, left, and a metroplex growing to fit 23 million people. (Justin Guariglia)
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Nobody arrives at Xintiandi on a Flying Pigeon, and Mao jackets have about as much appeal as whalebone corsets. “Shanghai is a melting pot of different cultures, so what sells here is different from other Chinese cities,” says fashion designer Lu Kun, a Shanghai native who numbers Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham among his clients. “No traditional cheongsams or mandarin collars here. Sexy, trendy clothes for confident, sophisticated women; that’s Shanghai chic.”

Xia Yuqian, a 33-year-old migrant from Tianjin, says she knows “lots of Shanghainese women who save all their money to buy a [hand] bag. I think it’s strange. They want to show off to other people.” But Xia, who moved to the city in 2006 to sell French wine, also relies on Shanghai’s reputation for sophistication in her work. “When you go to other cities, they automatically think it’s a top product,” she says. “If you said you were based in Tianjin, it wouldn’t have the same impact.”

In Tian Zi Fang, a maze of narrow lanes off Taikang Road, century-old houses are now occupied by art studios, cafés and boutiques. The Cercle Sportif Francais, a social club in the colonial era and a pied-á-terre for Mao during the communist regime, has been grafted onto the high-rise Okura Garden Hotel. “A decade ago this structure would have been destroyed, but now the municipal government realizes that old buildings are valuable,” says Okura general manager Hajime Harada.

The old buildings are filled with new people: Nine million of Shanghai’s 23 million residents migrated to the city. When I met with eight urban planners, sociologists and architects at the Municipal Planning, Land and Resources Administration, I asked how many of them had come from outside the city. They greeted the question with silence, sidelong glances and then laughter as seven of the eight raised their hands.

Pudong, the district Deng had in mind when he spoke of the enormous dragon of wealth, was 200 square miles of farmland 20 years ago; today, it is home to Shanghai’s skyscraper district and the Shanghai Stock Exchange, which has daily trading volumes of more than $18 billion, ranking seventh worldwide. The jade-colored stone used for curbing around the Jin Mao Tower may strike an outsider as a bit much, but for Kathy Kaiyuan Xu, Pudong’s excess is a source of pride. “You must remember that ours is the first generation in China never to know hunger,” says the 45-year-old sales manager for a securities company. Because of China’s policy of limiting urban married couples to one child, she said, “families have more disposable income than they ever thought possible.”

Materialism, of course, comes with a cost. A collision of two subway trains this past September injured more than 200 riders and raised concerns over transit safety. Increased industry and car ownership haven’t helped Shanghai’s air; this past May, the city started posting air-quality reports on video screens in public places. Slightly less tangible than the smog is the social atmosphere. Liu Jian, a 32-year-old folk singer and writer from Henan Province, recalls when he came to the city in 2001. “One of the first things I noticed was there was a man on a bicycle that came through my lane every night giving announcements: ‘Tonight the weather is cold! Please be careful,’” he says. “I had never seen anything like it! It made me feel that people were watching out for me.” That feeling is still there (as are the cycling announcers), but, he says, “young people don’t know how to have fun. They just know how to work and earn money.” Still, he adds, “there are so many people here that the city holds lots of opportunities. It’s hard to leave.”

Even today, Shanghai’s runaway development, and the dislocation of residents in neighborhoods up for renewal, seems counterbalanced by a lingering social conservatism and tight family relationships. Wang, the business reporter, who is unmarried, considers herself unusually independent for renting her own apartment. But she also returns to her parents’ house for dinner nightly. “I get my independence, but I also need my food!” she jokes. “But I pay a price for it. My parents scold me about marriage every night.”

In a society where people received their housing through their state-controlled employers not so long ago, real estate has become a pressing concern. “If you want to get married, you have to buy a house,” says Xia, the wine seller. “This adds a lot of pressure”—especially for men, she adds. “Women want to marry an apartment,” says Wang. Even with the government now reining in prices, many can’t afford to buy.

Zao Xuhua, a 49-year-old restaurant owner, moved to Pudong after his house in old Shanghai was slated for demolition in the 1990s. His commute increased from a few minutes to half an hour, he says, but then, his new house is modern and spacious. “Getting your house knocked down has a positive side,” he says.

When Zao starts talking about his daughter, he pulls an iPhone out of his pocket to show me a photograph of a young woman in a Disney-themed baseball hat. He tells me she’s 25 and living at home. “When she gets married, she’ll get her own apartment,” he says. “We’ll help her, of course.”


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