Quick, catch a glimpse of Shanghai vanishing

For a web slide show produced for this article by the International Herald Tribune, please visit this URL: http://www.iht.com/slideshows/2006/04/05/asia/web.0405shanghai.php?index=0
Letter from Shanghai – Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
SHANGHAI Come to Shanghai. Come to Shanghai, now! No, this is not a travel industry advertisement, nor a paid promotion of any kind. It is a warning, and those who don’t heed it soon will forever miss what has made this arguably Asia’s greatest city, as its leaders gird to complete a breakneck and all-but- declared bid for the title of the world’s greatest.
The remaking of this city, which is well under way, ranks as one of history’s greatest urban transformations. With 4,000 already, it has nearly double the number of skyscrapers as New York, and another 1,000 are due to rise within the next 10 years – all within a single generation.
The overall result is sure to be stunning. “The future Shanghai will have smooth transportation, a beautiful central city, with charming historical and cultural depth, but it also needs to be energetic,” said Tang Zhiping, a senior city planner.
In another era, Shanghai was China’s one international city, its window on the world, and its principal port. In many ways, it remains the country’s showcase, outshining even Beijing – although officials here find it impolitic to come right out and say it – which is undergoing a massive transformation of its own.
The reason you must come to Shanghai now, if cities remotely interest you, is that the work here not only constitutes one of the world’s great urban transformations, it also involves one of history’s great disappearing acts. An old city of organic communities, with intimate, walk-up buildings and extraordinarily rich street life, is being replaced, almost in the blink of an eye, by a new city of expensive high-rises, underground parking garages, and lifestyles based on sheltered, closed-door individualism.
Last year alone, 8.51 million square meters, or 91.6 million square feet, of property was demolished here. From 1990 to 2000, a decade of what could be called wholesale clear-cutting, another 25 million square meters of property were demolished. What is left of old Shanghai is under imminent threat, and – like a rain forest whose perimeter has been logged, drying it out and degrading the ecosystem – extraordinarily fragile.
By China’s ancient standards, Shanghai is a relatively young place, dating “only” to a fourth-century river town settlement. The city that is being destroyed today is far younger still, a relic of the 19th century mingling, often under unpleasant circumstances, but with an unexpectedly delightful legacy, of East and West.
The result was China’s first expression of modern urbanism. As recently as the early 1990s, during a visit here, Eric Lye, then the dean of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, declared that “in China, there is only one city, Shanghai.”
Though huge, Beijing was, historically speaking, more of an imperial village, developed for the convenience of Manchu rulers. Precious in its own right, if for entirely different reasons, especially its unique old world feeling, that city was ravaged in a previous Chinese wave of mania for the modern, beginning with Mao Zedong’s assumption of power in 1949.
In a famous speech from Tiananmen Square, he scanned the horizon and proclaimed that it should be filled with factory chimneys.
Soviet-inspired planners finished off much of the old city back then, and the real-estate gold rush that began in the 1990s has all but completed the job.
Shanghai benefited from being left alone. The city’s roots in the global capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries put it in bad odor among the Communists in Beijing. Their cure for Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism was to let the city stagnate, which in the long run meant that what was old was simply left to molder.
Walk the old neighborhoods today, beyond the Bund, which is where too many tourists end their explorations, and you will be transported to another era, when workers were flocking to Shanghai from all over China in a previous wave of globalization, in hopes of finding industrial jobs and tasting, for the first time, a modern lifestyle.
One sometimes hears the superficial complaint that Shanghai is not the “real” China, because of the abundance of old European architecture and fantastic postmodern architecture, but a walk of this kind will give you as Chinese a feeling as you can find anywhere in this country.
Soon, though, this kind of experience will be all but gone. The city’s approach to protecting what is truly unique about Shanghai smacks of tokenism: the preservation of a few hundred buildings deemed historic, with 12 diminutive districts dwarfed amid canyons of skyscrapers, elevated highways or other new developments.
A forerunner to another misguided approach is the much-touted development known as Xintiandi, an ersatz old town surrounded by luxury high- rises with pretentious names.
The Dutch author Ian Buruma has written about how this phenomenon of destroying the old and replacing it with sanitized imitations has swept much of Asia, with disastrous results, calling Singapore, for example, “Disneyland with capital punishment.”
One after another, the remaining old communities, full of life and atmosphere, are being razed, sending their low-income residents to rebuild their lives far from the central city. To be sure, one of China’s signal achievements in the reform era has been to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Through this approach, though, many others are simply moved out of sight, helping sustain the idea of a China miracle.
“They just want things that superficially seem modern, but in my mind it’s not modern,” said Zheng Shiling, a veteran urban designer who has been deeply involved in the remake of Shanghai, quite often as a brake and a grating conscience for the planners and developers. “I’m always urging people to think more deeply about modernity.”
On Tiantong Road, in the heart of one of Shanghai’s menaced old neighborhoods, Jing Lun, a 78-year-old man whose neighborhood is set to be cleared soon, put his concerns differently. “This is my home,” he said. “It’s where I grew up, and now they say you have to move.”

One thought on “Quick, catch a glimpse of Shanghai vanishing”

  1. I’m a native of S’hai now living in NYC (a NYTimes reader at that. Excellent reporting, Howard, btw.) The pix are sad to me, as the remind me of the part of S’hai already vanished, the 1928-erected apt in the old French Concession where I spent all my life before leaving for the US, for example. Thx for taking them, tho. You may want to select some good ones and put out a pictorial some day. I’ll certainly buy a copy.

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