« BehindTheMedspeak: Special Bizarro World Edition - 'How To Remove Your Own Brain Tumor' | Home | Dot-Com Bombs »

November 7, 2004

Shanghai - 'It's the most vibrant city in the world'


Last Friday's USA Today Life section cover story was all about the exploding playground of the world's most dynamic country.

You know I don't like to let more than a week or so go by without posting something China-related; this story'll do just fine, methinks.

Some highlights from the article by Veronica Gould Stoddart:

• In the past decade, a forest of skyscrapers - nearly 3,000 buildings over 18 stories tall - have sprouted along the banks of the Huangpu River

• 2,000 more are in planning or under construction

• At one time, over 25% of all the world's construction cranes were busy in this boomtown of 20 million people

• The city has been nicknamed "The People's Republic of Starbucks," it has so many coffee shops

• Chinese editions of Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire sell like hotcakes

• The city now has the world's tallest hotel - the 87-story Grand Hyatt

• It boasts the world's fastest train - a 270 m.p.h. mag-lev bullet that takes passengers from Pudong Airport to downtown and back

• Future landmarks include the world's tallest building and the world's largest Ferris wheel

Evian has just opened its first-ever spa outside France in Shanghai.

Philippe Caretti, general manager of the Pudong Shangri-La Hotel, who's worked all over Asia for the past 21 years, said in the story, "Shanghai is becoming the in place to go and be seen. It's the most vibrant city in the world."

Here's the USA Today story.

Shanghai's sizzle makes it China's new glamour spot

In a recent balmy weeknight at the Shanghai Grand Stage, pop icon Elton John - flamboyant in a floor-length red satin skirt and trademark shades - takes to his piano.

For the next 2½ hours, he pounds out one classic tune after another for 10,000 Chinese fans who crocodile-rock in time to his infectious rhythms.

Over on the city's fabled art deco banking strip, called the Bund, Chinese yuppies and expat dealmakers fiddle with their Blackberrys over foie gras brûlée with pistachio coulis in the hushed recesses of the city's latest dining sensation: the Jean Georges restaurant (yes, that Jean Georges).

And all week long, the city buzzes with euphoria at having that most elite of sports, the Formula One Grand Prix, make its Chinese debut that weekend for a sold-out crowd of 150,000 at a new $315 million track built just for the occasion.

This, despite the fact that there are no Chinese Formula One drivers.

No matter. As this sprawling, nominally communist city of 20 million races into the future at F1 speed, it is embracing the symbols of capitalism with decadent abandon.

China's richest, hippest, most sophisticated metropolis, it seems, has been Shanghaied by the West.

Start with the skyline, as tall and flashy as Houston Rockets star Yao Ming, who hails from here.

In the past decade alone, a forest of space-age skyscrapers - nearly 3,000 over 18 stories tall - has sprouted along the banks of the Huangpu River in a scene straight out of The Jetsons.

They pierce the sky with their globes, rockets, spires, crowns, ziggurats and crescent peaks in a jaw-dropping showcase by the world's top architects.

With a staggering 2,000 more in planning or under construction (at one time, the city had one-quarter of all the world's cranes), residents struggle with an ongoing sense of disorientation.

Not so, however, the willowy fashionistas in their Gucci and Prada (or knockoffs, at least) who strut along Nanjing Road, Shanghai's Fifth Avenue, or sip mocha lattes in one of Starbucks' ubiquitous cafes, prompting the nickname People's Republic of Starbucks.

They peruse newsstands overflowing with Chinese editions of Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Bride's and Good Housekeeping.

Or shop at Lancôme's first-ever "concept" store or the three-story mega-Benetton or the just-opened Armani flagship on the Bund, where model-chic English-speaking salesgirls hover discreetly.

It's not just the caffeine kick or high-fashion passion that has turned Shanghai into New York on steroids, either.

"Shanghainese like everything new, they go crazy over that," says attorney John Sun, one of the new generation of Shanghai movers and shakers.

"It is growing so fast because it's not China's Shanghai anymore. It's the world's Shanghai."

And to make its mark, it's demanding superlatives: the world's highest hotel (the 87-story Grand Hyatt), longest suspension bridge and fastest train - a magnetic levitation wonder inaugurated this spring to speed passengers from Pudong Airport to downtown at 270 mph.

At the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, a 100-foot-long scale model of the city (the world's largest, of course) shows what Shanghai will look like in 2010.

Future landmarks include the world's tallest building with its doughnut-hole top, the world's largest Ferris wheel and the high-tech complex of the 2010 World Expo.

"Everything is exploding here," says Eleen Chua, head of Hertz for China.

"The people want to learn fast."

At the same time, "appearances count a lot."

Hilda Looi, spokeswoman for the year-old Four Seasons hotel, agrees.

"Young people associate themselves with the West," she says. "They want to be hip."

That may explain Plaza 66, a gleaming five-story chrome-and-glass emporium of virtually every high-end designer on the planet - from Armani to Zegna.

Or the 6-month-old feng-shui-perfect Evian Spa, the first outside of France, where New Age music wafts through a soaring sky-lit atrium while patrons luxuriate in the latest holistic treatments.

"When I arrived three years ago, people didn't know what a spa was," says Malaysian Veronica Ann Lee of the Westin Shanghai hotel.

"Now they're popular."

The changes - whether great leaps forward or not - have so far bypassed pockets of old Shanghai.

Remnants of its days as a mercantile powerhouse and louche playground for European colonialists remain.

In the leafy French Concession - one of three independently run foreign enclaves until the communist revolution in 1949 - broad avenues, stately mansions and some of the city's best restaurants recall the days when Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East.

In the Old Town, side streets are as chaotic as ever.

Lined with shabby walk-up tenements, they teem with vendors hawking live chickens, hanging ducks, squirming eels, jumping frogs, baskets of crabs and clams, unidentifiable roots, tubers and herbs - and even tubs of coagulated pig blood.

Like much of the city, the neighborhood is loud, boisterous and pungent with the exotic odors of outdoor cooking.

But it's being bulldozed with the speed of a Chinese pingpong game, displacing thousands.

In no danger of the wrecking ball, thankfully, are the Yuyuan Garden, one of the best-preserved Ming dynasty gardens in China, and the 400-year-old Mid Lake Pavilion Tea House, the city's oldest.


With their traditional Chinese architecture, they offer a quiet oasis just steps away.

"On the surface, it's very Westernized," says Lee.

"But underneath, the Chinese aspects come out."

They make for jarring juxtapositions: a new Rolls-Royce surrounded by a phalanx of the city's 9.5 million bikes; an antiseptic Häagen-Dazs parlor near a hole-in-the-wall food stall displaying pig snouts and chicken feet; restaurants that fly in live lobsters from Boston not far from squatting street peddlers hunched over bowls of noodles, chopsticks in hand.

In this land of the double-take, elderly Chinese practice slow-motion tai chi in quiet parks while an office tower blasts frenetic video images from an oversized neon screen.

Most ironic of all, the room where Mao founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 now anchors a yuppified entertainment complex of restored traditional houses called Xintiandi.

It was designed by American architects, no less.

Tourists, expats and moneyed Shanghainese, palming cell phones, pack its hot jazz clubs and cooler-than-cool eateries to dine on risotto of mud crab with black Chinese truffles. What would Mao think?

"The people here are party animals, because of its history of being open to foreign influences," says Lee.

They're also friendly, energetic and driven, as they return to their roots as an international trading center.

The Pudong area on the east bank of the Huangpu, for example, was nothing but farmland a little more than a decade ago.

Today, it's a high-rise financial district on its way to becoming the next Hong Kong or Wall Street.

And the hotel industry eagerly has extended two white-gloved hands to the business crowd.

Nearly 20 luxury lodgings now welcome visitors, including a Ritz-Carlton and a St. Regis.

"Shanghai is becoming the in place to go and be seen. It's the most vibrant city in the world," says Philippe Caretti, general manager of the Pudong Shangri-La Hotel, who has worked all over Asia for 21 years.

"The people want only the best."

That's just what's on display at the Shanghai Museum, an elegant repository of the finest Chinese porcelains, jades, bronzes and paintings (all with good English signage).

Symbolically shaped like a giant rice pot, it's considered one of the best museums in Asia.

Chinese goods of another sort beckon at the Xiangyang Market, the mother of all knockoff bazaars.

Urgent young touts, barking "Gucci, Prada ... very good price," drag shoppers through a maze of stalls overflowing with faux Rolexes, Hermès scarves, Vuitton bags, Dior sunglasses, $1-apiece pirated DVDs and more.

Style-conscious Shanghainese who can't afford the real deal at least want to appear like they can.

After all, this is glam central for China.

Singaporean Jereme Leung, one of Asia's hottest chefs, knows about glamour.

After cooking for the elite in virtually every Asian country, he chose Shanghai for his swanky new Whampoa Club restaurant.

"It's dynamite," he explains with a grin.

"This is really like a playground."

November 7, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Shanghai - 'It's the most vibrant city in the world':


Speaking of brands in China, IKEA's supposed to be upmarket there, and I'm sure its not the same in States. And so is Oil of Ulan(if it doesn't sound familiar, think 'Wet & Wild' brand). In Shanghai malls, their positioning seems to be of the same status as Chanel.

I remember spending my first Renminbi(RMB) on an Evian which cost $15RMB, and I was drinking halfway when my China colleague asked if Evian was my preferred brand. Apparently, Evian's supposed to be 'branded', considering the fact that the local 'Wawa' brand cost about $2-3RMB. By the way, Wawa means 'Doll' in Mandarin :)

Ok, I admit I felt stupid after that.

Shanghai, an exploding playground? My impression - The people seemed to be out for the blood, from flyer distributors who would shove flyers right into my pocket (they don't take NO for an answer) to the businessmen aspiring to be the next Hai'er that penetrate the malls of Walmarts and Sears.

For a change I think I may just stick to strolling by the river in Hangzhou during my next trip, not forgetting a chinese fan in my hand and a wine glass in another of cos.

Posted by: TheDoll | Nov 8, 2004 10:20:39 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.