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Sunday, 18 February, 2001, 03:25 GMT
Shanghai: Old meets new
Shanghai's skyscrapers
Shanghai's modern skyline dwarfs the older buildings
By Shanghai Correspondent Duncan Hewitt

The Chinese city of Shanghai was fabled in the 1930s as the Paris of the east, China's most modern metropolis, a haven for gangsters and intellectuals, colonials and radicals, the new rich and the ultra-poor.

The communist revolution changed all that, and the city's famous vitality was largely stamped out. Even in the late 1980s, when other parts of China were modernising fast, Shanghai lagged behind.

Yet in a decade, it has changed again - though the past is never far away.

Modern city
The new train
Shanghai has a new levitation train link

For a city with a legendary history, there's a shocking newness to Shanghai. It's not just the forest of skyscrapers in the gleaming financial district Pudong, which now dwarf the old colonial waterfront across the Huangpu river.

China's most modern museum and post-modernist opera house are situated in Shanghai, as is the country's newest underground system - soon to be linked to the new French-designed airport by the world's first commercial magnetic levitation train, capable of reaching 550km/h (340mph).

The train was deemed too expensive to build in Germany, where it was designed, but for the Shanghai government it was the ideal symbol.

Above all, Shanghai has a newness of the mind. Raymond is a typical example - a snappily dressed estate agent in his early twenties, a mobile phone earpiece perpetually glued into his ear.

New look

"Do you have any older houses?" I asked him, after he showed me a list of brand new apartment blocks.

"Aha," he said, "I've got just the place." A few minutes later the taxi drew up outside a pair of distinctly modern 20-storey towers.

This very newness, this rush to embrace the modern, is itself part of Shanghai's historical tradition

Raymond must have noticed my surprised expression. "Well," he said, "You asked for an older place - this was built way back, about 1994."

In a sense he was right. Seven years is a long time in a city which has reinvented itself in the past decade.

In the late 1980s, Shanghai lagged behind brash sisters like Guangzhou, hampered by decades of neglect and continuing suspicions about its colonial past.

Now Pudong, with its Buick factories and microchip parks, has grown out of the Huangpu mudflats. A million people have interactive TV, and China's most sophisticated city has risen again.

It can be hard to keep up with just how fast the locals have adapted. "Don't you have any Chinese beer?" I asked a waitress in a small restaurant after she offered us a choice of Heineken or Carlsberg.

"Yes," she said, looking at me with some sympathy for my ignorance.

"Carlsberg - well, it's made in Shanghai," she added persuasively.

Mirroring history

And yet this very newness, this rush to embrace the modern, is itself part of Shanghai's historical tradition.
It is hard to find houses over 10 years old in some areas of Shanghai

The young people drinking lattes in the city's coffee bars or pouring into the foreign clothes stores, sporting fashions and hairstyles which wouldn't be out of place in Tokyo or London, are doing much like what their grandparents did in the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course in those days, they were bobbing their hair not dyeing it orange, and wearing crimplene not plastic leather.

Shanghai then was the cradle of China's interaction with the outside world, home to its first movie studios and its first popular press.

And that legacy of openness - while mixed with bitter memories of colonial oppression, civil war and Japanese invasion - was never fully wiped out, even by decades of political movements.

Today's Shanghai youth are the grandchildren of old men who still greet you in the streets in curiously formal 1930s English, of old women who smoked imported cigarettes in their youth, of people who still eat what the Shanghainese call Russian soup, and walk with the aid of what is still known as a "stick" in the local dialect.

Links to the past

And the physical traces of that past are still all around. Despite a decade of reconstruction, there is arguably more history left here than in China's cultural capital Beijing.

Turn into an alley behind one of the glitzy shopping streets and you will find yourself amid stone tenements and red-brick terraced houses reminiscent of post industrial revolution Lancashire, where old men still walk through the streets at dusk, ringing bells to announce that all is peaceful.

City planners seem to be realising that in Shanghai the past can't be completely erased

In the leafier avenues of what was once "Frenchtown" are Victorian-style brick villas, 12 storey 1930s mansion blocks which were Asia's first skyscrapers.

The occasional art-deco gem nestles behind what the locals call French plane trees.

In some of these buildings, you'll find the original pre-communist era occupants - old couples living in fading splendour, in houses restored to them after the ravages of the cultural revolution.

"You can't imagine what these people suffered to keep this house," said a friend, pointing to a vast crumbling mock-tudor semi-detached villa, which looked as though it had been airlifted in from Surrey.

Yet most of the old houses were divided up after the revolution. Each one is now home to half a dozen or more families, crammed in among the dark wood panelling and the yellowing walls.

Modern blocks

Shanghai nightlife
In some ways, Shanghai's youth culture mirrors that of two generations ago
The Shanghai government is planning to knock down another eight square miles of these buildings in the next few years, and re-house three quarters of a million residents in modern blocks.

Conservationists say there will be regrets. Yet city planners seem to be realising that in Shanghai the past can't be completely erased, and some old houses are now being preserved and restored, their gardens opened up to public view.

And unusually in today's China, low-rise housing, modelled on the old terraces, is being built in some areas.

One Shanghai businessman proudly showed me a catalogue of the new villas he was thinking of buying in the suburbs. It was a hard choice, he said, between the French chateau and the mock-Tudor villa.

Even in Shanghai's race to newness, history has its echoes.

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27 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Shanghai shuts cybercafes
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