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Page last updated at 14:43 GMT, Friday, 15 October 2010 15:43 UK

The Real Shanghai

Christopher Pitts
Travel writer

Pudong from the air
Shanghai's futuristic Pudong district was farming land as recently as 1990

There's no place in China quite like Shanghai.

There are no summer palaces, fog-enmeshed temples or cliff-side Buddhas here. Remnants of traditional culture remain, but to dwell there would be to miss the point entirely. Shanghai has never been about what has already happened - it is about what is going to happen.

For millions of Chinese, Shanghai is more than just a city. It is a symbol of change, opportunity and sophistication.

While Beijing may pull the country's strings, Shanghai is the pacesetter. It revels in its glamorous airs and entrepreneurial flair, in its global reach and ability to synthesise and adapt new ideas to home-grown tastes.


Tangled together with these positive associations are the memories of the foreign concessions.

Established after the First Opium War (1839-1842), they were loathed by many as centres of imperialism and exploitation, but simultaneously valued as havens of intellectual freedom and stimulation - a place to break with stifling Confucian mores and learn about the world outside.

Those looking to introduce change in imperial China - whether social, political or technological - flocked to them.

The Chinese government aims to make the city an international financial centre to rival Hong Kong by the year 2020.

Despite the positive changes that came out of the concessions, Shanghai was no paradise, with high levels of poverty and crime. The birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949 marked the end of both Shanghai's depravity and splendour.

Cleaned up and reined in, Shanghai fell into a deep sleep.

It wasn't until three decades later that Deng Xiaoping lit the spark for China's current economic explosion, casting aside ideology in favour of pragmatism - famously summed up in his earlier declaration, 'It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice'.

Special economic zone

Although Shanghai was initially passed over in favour of special economic zones that were easier for Beijing to control, it eventually got the green light to accept foreign investment in the 1990s.

This is when the blueprint for the city's future was first laid out. Today's frenzied rate of change is all part of a plan by the Chinese government that aims to make the city into an international financial centre to rival Hong Kong by the year 2020.

What at first seemed like an errant fantasy no longer appears to be so far fetched. At a social level, Shanghai is hardly an international city that can compare with Hong Kong or Singapore - China has been insulated from the rest of the world for too long.

Built from scratch

A couple eat in the window of a restaurant in a pedestrianised shopping mall in Shanghai
Many more people in Shanghai embrace a Western lifestyle

But overall, anyone who has seen the transformations of the past fifteen years - both the efficient metro system and the entire financial district of Pudong were built from scratch - cannot help but tip their hat.

And while some bemoan the destruction of traditional residences and historic buildings, no-one is complaining that the overall living standards have risen dramatically. More than any other place in China, Shanghai is electrified with its youthful optimism and prospects.

The best way to get acquainted with Shanghai past and present is to take a walk down the Bund. Originally a towpath for dragging barges of rice, the Bund waterfront became the seat of colonial power in the early 20th century, when it was home to the city's landmark hotels, banks and financial houses.

Mothballed during the Communist years, it is only in the past decade that the strip has become re-enamoured with its stupendous real estate value. Today the old buildings house designer restaurants and the flagship stores of some of the world's most exclusive brands.

Facing the Bund is the stupendous skyline of Pudong, the 'dragon's head' or financial hub not only of the Yangtze Basin, but of all China. The Bund is at its best in the early morning, when the locals are out practicing tai chi, or in the early evening, when both sides of the river are spectacularly illuminated.

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