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History meets the future in this glittering boomtown - Tony Parsons laps it in Shanghai
By now, it has to be the most famous skyline in the world – the view across the Huangpu River to the glittering skyscrapers of Pudong, a vision of modernity that is dominated by the old-fashioned sci-fi architecture of the Oriental Pearl Tower.
That’s Shanghai for you. Tall, brash, modern – and yet never quite tall, brash and modern enough, at least not for the locals.
It is likely to be the visitor who cherishes Shanghai’s incredible history – the Shanghai that existed until the lights went out in the Second World War, and remained out during the next half-century of communism. That was the Shanghai of gangsters and Russian chorus girls, the Shanghai of colonial splendour on the Bund, the Shanghai where you could get opium on room service. The romance of that lost Shanghai still exists, and it can be felt in the city’s energy, avarice and appetites. Carved up by foreign powers, despised by the comrades in Beijing, and then reborn as China’s economic powerhouse, Shanghai’s eternal spirit somehow endures. This place was always wilder than the rest.
Parts of old Shanghai still exist, most famously in the bar of the Peace Hotel, where the elderly gentlemen in the jazz band are the same musicians who were playing when the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Shanghai in 1941.
The locals are not remotely interested in the good old days. With that curious Chinese patriotism, they rarely stop boasting about their city’s latest wonder, even if it is not particularly wonderful – like the German-built Maglev train that goes at 266mph and runs from the airport to, er, the middle of nowhere. The end of the line for Shanghai’s Maglev is a handy 30-minute taxi ride from the city centre, but the locals don’t care.
Before your bags are in your room, someone will tell you that Pudong, the business district that has come to stand for a symbol of China as a new superpower, was full of rice fields just a couple of decades ago, or that Shanghai now has more Starbucks than Miami – as if that was a good thing.
Yet Shanghai retains its old racy magic. There may no longer be 20,000 Russian chorus girls, but the nightlife here is among the wildest in the world, even if it’s not especially cool. Nobody cares what you wear. The dark, noisy, crowded joints on Tong Ren Lu, Maoming Nan Lu and Julu Lu are almost exclusively about drinking, dancing and meeting members of the opposite sex. The music runs from Mando pop to hip-hop to dad rock. There isn’t much posing in the bars, pubs and clubs of Shanghai, and it’s all the better for it.
Not everyone is impressed. ‘If Shanghai is such an important city for business,’ one sceptical Hong Kong lawyer asked me, ‘why are the bars still full at two in the morning?’ But Shanghai is a gold-rush town. Armies of dreamers, foreign and Chinese, come here to get rich quick, and they end up dancing to Eminem in Judy’s Too on Tong Ren Lu.
The only sign of communism in the city is the roads – massive multi-lane highways where pedestrians take their lives in their hands. But off the main drags, Shanghai is a great city for walking. Stroll the tree-lined streets of the old French Concession, promenade down the Bund, with its colonial buildings, or roam the groovy new area of Xintiandi.
Hidden among the funky little shops and restaurants of Xintiandi is the building where Mao Tse-Tung founded the Communist Party, an event immortalised here in waxworks. You’ll find few Chinese tourists in Mao’s old haunt.
The markets are a revelation, especially the stalls around Dongtai Lu, where you can buy everything from a green People’s Liberation Army coat to bootleg merchandise pirated from Disney and Microsoft. It’s here that you see the true face of the Shanghainese. Hard-working and fanatically entrepreneurial, there was never a people less suited to communism than the citizens of Shanghai.
When you have worn out enough shoe leather for one day, the city has restaurants, spas and hotels of such sumptuous luxury that even the most spoilt, seasoned traveller will find their jaw dropping.
Glittering boomtown, concrete jungle, futurist vision and city of chancers – whatever you have heard about Shanghai, it’s likely to be true, and it always has been, long before the old boys in the Peace Hotel jazz band learnt to play a note. If nothing gets your blood pumping like the bright lights of a big city, then Shanghai could be the love of your life. Just avoid that high-speed train.
Tony Parsons’ My Favourite Wife (£17.99, Harper Collins) is out now. British Airways flies to Shanghai from London Heathrow. Visit ba.com