My wife, Julie, and I went walking along Shanghai's Nanjing Road one night last year as a gentle rain began to fall. The street was a kaleidoscope of neon: greens, reds, purples and blues. The lights rolled up and down like curtain blinds, moved in and out like accordions and spun around like pinwheels.
Filled with glowing Chinese characters and advertising everything from Omega watches to Haagen-Dazs ice cream, the electric fireworks display rivaled anything found in Las Vegas or Hong Kong. In the puddles along the damp pavement, the colors softened and spread out into an impressionistic canvas of light and water.
We had been to Shanghai many times in the past, but this was the first night spent walking along Nanjing Road, the city's famous shopping street. We'd always avoided it before because of the traffic, the narrow sidewalks, the sweat and the exhaust fumes. In the fall of 1999, city leaders turned several blocks into a walking street in advance of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Since then, Nanjing Road has been transformed.
On weekdays, scores of Shanghainese sit on benches eating box lunches in front of a giant video screen that documents the roller-coaster ride that is the city's stock exchange. In the evenings, tourists stroll past fixtures from the nation's planned economy, such as the state-owned Shanghai #1 Department Store, and pose for photos with the life-size bronze sculptures that dot the street.
One sculpture depicts a Western family, including a woman in a sundress, a man with a video camera hanging from his neck and a child on his shoulders holding several balloons. The man's arm is polished and shiny from the perspiration of all the Chinese tourists who have grasped it while posing for pictures. Many Chinese still have little access to the outside world and find foreigners -- even inanimate ones -- exotic.
Nanjing Road's recent makeover mirrors the evolution of Shanghai, which has long been overshadowed by the capital, Beijing. With the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and a picturesque stretch of the Great Wall, Beijing is usually the first stop on any tourist itinerary in China. Shanghai is sometimes an afterthought.
The city of more than 14 million lies an hour and a half flight south of the capital near the mouth of the Yangtze River and the East China Sea. With ambitions of becoming the New York of Asia, Shanghai is a sprawling, muscular port and financial hub.
An uninterrupted string of boats, ships, containers and factories line both banks of the Huangpu River as it winds 16 miles from the city center to its confluence with the Yangtze. Like other major Chinese cities, Shanghai radiates out in all directions from giant office towers to the mammoth apartment blocks in its decidedly urban suburbs, which bear no resemblance to their green, leafy cousins in the West.
In the past decade, Shanghai has risen from a four-decade, Communist-imposed slumber and tried to recapture some of its glory. The pace of change has quickened in the past few years with the development of an eclectic restaurant scene and thriving nightlife. Recent construction projects include an art museum, an opera house and the Jin Mao Tower -- the country's first world-class skyscraper outside of Hong Kong.
Some of the sleek new veneer complements the Western colonial architecture that remains from Shanghai's heyday in the early part of the 20th century, when it was among the most exciting cities on the planet. Back then, Shanghai was a freewheeling port city filled with gamblers, prostitutes, gangsters and foreign businessmen who, by virtue of government treaties, lived by the rules of their home countries or none at all.
Known at the time as the "Whore of the Orient," Shanghai has the distinction of being not only a destination but also a verb. Webster's Dictionary defines it as "to kidnap, usually by drugging, for service aboard ship."
SHANGHAI FOR VISITORS
Last fall, when Julie's father, Nick, and stepmother, Anita, told us they were coming to visit from Towson, we decided to show them the city's new face. Ordinarily, booking a room is easy. Shanghai has hundreds of hotels and some are first-rate. I usually call the Peace, a legendary art-deco hotel that sits along the riverfront and has stained-glass windows and bellhops in pillbox hats.
This week, though, Shanghai was playing host to an international tourism festival to give travel agents a glimpse of its new incarnation. After about 15 phone calls, we stumbled into the Central Hotel Shanghai, which overlooks Nanjing Road. Nick's and Anita's room was on the 23rd floor. The window curved around to give them a panoramic view of the pulsating street. They stood by the glass and marveled at the energy below. The trip was off to a good start.
We decided to take Julie's parents on an abbreviated "Best of Shanghai Tour." Over two days, we ate lunch at M on the Bund -- a trendy restaurant overlooking the waterfront -- strolled through the old French Concession, dined at an Italian restaurant atop the Jin Mao Tower, browsed through an art gallery, shopped at an antiques market and visited the Ming Dynasty-style Yu Gardens. Had we had more time, we would have visited other places, including the Shanghai Museum, which has a terrific collection of Ming and Qing dynasty furniture, and the Grand Theatre, the city's new opera house in People's Square.
We arrived at Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport on a Wednesday night and grabbed a taxi. Enveloped in traffic from the tourist convention for about half an hour, we finally broke free and sped up onto the Yanan Road elevated expressway. Five stories above the ground, we rolled past Shanghai's futuristic skyline, which looks like a forest of razor blades set against the night sky.
As we approached the city center, the driver banked into a turn and we dropped down onto the Bund, an imposing stretch of neo-classical architecture that lines the banks of the Huangpu.
One day -- when Shanghai and China are much wealthier -- the Bund will join the waterfronts along the Seine, the Hudson and the Thames as among the world's greatest. At night, with the neglect of decades of Communism hidden in the shadows, it is still striking. Footlights illuminate the soaring Greek columns and molded balconies juxtaposed with signs in sloping Chinese characters.
Foreigners, who controlled much of Shanghai for more than a century, built the Bund in the early 1900s. While European architecture remains the city's signature, the government leaves no doubt who runs Shanghai today. Red Chinese flags fly atop each building, from the dome above what used to be the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank to the clock tower of the old British Customs House.
As we strolled along the Bund the next morning, its grandeur dissipated under the harsh light of day. Many of the old buildings are boarded up and crumbling, their smog-stained walls covered with vines.
HIGH STYLE ON THE WATERFRONT
Several buildings, though, have been nicely renovated. The old Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank building, which is now home to the government-run Pudong Development Bank, captures the high style of Shanghai in the 1920s and the bank's then-global reach.
Pushing through the heavy, iron revolving door, we stepped into the past. On the ceiling were hand-inlaid tile mosaics portraying major cities where the bank had branches: New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Calcutta, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The interior was a mix of marble, polished wood, arching skylights, beveled glass partitions and leather-upholstered benches.
From the bank, we walked to M on the Bund, an art deco, Western restaurant that opened several years ago on the seventh floor of a building overlooking the river. The food was tasty. Julie had seafood soup with lobster and chili. I had a "xiao bao" ("small bag" in English): hot peppers and goat cheese wrapped in thinly sliced eggplant.
The best thing about M on the Bund, though, is the view. After lunch, we stood on the patio watching scores of barges plow up the Huangpu in what looked like an industrial regatta. Loaded with dunes of sand, they pushed along the river, muddy water churning just below their gunwhales. A red buoy divides the Huangpu into upstream and downstream lanes, but no one pays attention, because this is Shanghai and everybody is trying to hustle their way out of the developing world.
An acquaintance of mine here once said that Mao Tse-tung's greatest feat was suppressing the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit. Shanghai is a case in point. After the Communists took over China in 1949, they turned out the lights on the city, which had been a bastion of capitalism.
Shanghai began to revive in the early 1990s when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to unshackle the city to push along the nation's flagging economic reforms. The renewed vitality and modern attitude makes for a striking contrast with some of the city's remaining Communist relics.
After lunch on the Bund, we walked through Fuxing Park in the city's French Concession. We happened upon two couples in white tuxedos and satin wedding dresses posing for photos in front of a sculpture of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Communism nearly poisoned Shanghai. It is hard to think of two men with whom the young people would have had less in common.
At the park's back gate, we looked inside ShanghART, one of the growing number of galleries in the city that offers provocative images of China in transition. We were struck by a pair of eight-foot-tall, framed photos of Chinese tenements with laundry-strewn balconies. They would have been depressing, urban images, but the artist had hand-painted each floor in a bright color, giving the buildings a rainbow-like quality. The use of color was refreshing because so much modern Chinese art is bleak. The gallery, which like most here targets wealthy expatriates, wanted $800 for the photos. That was more money than we had. It is also more than most of China's 900 million peasants earn in a year.
PICTURES TELL A STORY
For more selection and lower prices, we made our way to the city's antiques market, much of which is housed on three floors of a large, unheated building near Middle Fangbang Road. Amid the sound of slurping noodles and clouds of cigarette smoke, vendors sell their wares from hundreds of tabletops. Buyers begin by offering half or a third of the asking price.
Some of the items -- there are tens of thousands -- come from the city's colonial past. They include clocks, eyeglasses, typewriters and photographs. Some of my favorite finds, though, are old pictures and artifacts from the Communist Party's propaganda machine.
During one visit, I found a photo I'd seen at a friend's house: a black and white picture of a meeting of the party leadership in the early 1960s in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Unusually candid, it shows Mao, Deng and others looking tired and wearing grave expressions.
At this time, the country was still suffering from a massive famine, which Mao helped create with the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Like most of its mistakes, the party has never really owned up to this one, which led to the deaths of perhaps 30 million people.
Later, at an antiques market in Beijing, Julie found the perfect complement to the photo: a hand-painted poster portraying the same meeting and printed by the Communist Party. In this version, Mao's face has a healthy red glow. He appears buoyant and confident. On his left stands a grinning Deng.
The contrast between the two images is hilarious and a little spooky. It would be as if Norman Rockwell had painted an Oval Office scene in the midst of Watergate in which all the president's men were portrayed laughing and joking.
It's a small measure of how much China has loosened up that you can find such official and unofficial images at markets here and no one cares. Shanghai and China have come a long way since the dark days of orthodox socialism.
While in town, I picked up an issue of Shanghai Talk, an English-language entertainment magazine that has tripled in thickness since I first visited in 1997. Inside were listings for all kinds of restaurants: Greek, French, German, Indian, Korean, Thai, Mexican and Italian. There was even a notice for the long-delayed opening of a Gold's Gym.
Sometimes, all the progress and energy in Shanghai blinds you to the fact that the good life is still available to only a small percentage of the people here. And for all its aspirations to regain its position as an international capital, Shanghai still lacks a key ingredient: genuine freedom. Most people are still careful about what they say and frustrated that they don't have any say in how things are done.
One evening, we headed off to dinner in a taxi along a section of Nanjing Road still open to traffic. Glowing red, white and blue Pepsi signs hung above the sidewalks. It might be tempting to see them as garish victory medals in yet another Cold War triumph for the West. But that is only part of the picture.
"Shanghai's beautiful, huh?" the taxi driver said.
"I think life in Shanghai is getting better and better," I answered.
It still has a long way to go, he said. "There is no democracy."
AN IDEAL DAY
9 a.m.: Browse through the voluminous antiques market at Middle Fangbang Road and South Henan Road.
10:30 a.m.: Take a walk through the Yu Gardens, a Ming Dynasty-era garden filled with bridges, ponds and pavilions.
Noon: Lunch at M on the Bund. If the weather is nice, get a table out on the terrace overlooking the water.
1:30 p.m.: Stroll to the Pudong Development Bank on the Bund and admire the renovated interior, a sight most tourists overlook. Continue along the Bund's promenade and enjoy the view of the neoclassical buildings.
3 p.m.: Visit the Shanghai Museum in People's Square, the most modern of its kind in the country. Be sure to see the bronze and Chinese furniture exhibits, among the museum's best.
6 p.m. Choose from several restaurants -- including Italian and Japanese -- for dinner on the 56th floor of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the tallest hotel in the world. For dessert, try Cloud 9, an after-hours club at the top of the Hyatt.
8 p.m.: Stroll along Nanjing Road and take in the blitz of neon and the crowds.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: United Airlines flies from BWI to Shanghai with a connection in San Francisco. Round-trip flights begin at about $1,000. Travel to China requires a visa, which can be obtained at the Chinese Consulate in Washington by calling 202-338-6688.
Prices listed below are official rates; rooms can be had for considerably less.
The Grand Hyatt Shanghai, Jin Mao Tower, Pudong. Phone: 86 21 5049 1234. Online: www.shanghai.hyatt.com. Rates: $175-$320. Modern art deco hotel set in the world's third-tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower. After dinner at one of the restaurants on the 56th floor, stop and look at the atrium that soars more than 30 stories skyward.
Central Hotel Shanghai, 555 Jiujiang Road, just off Nanjing Road. Phone: 86 21 5396-5000. Online: www.centralhotelshanghai.com. Rates: $160-$350. The 27-floor hotel is conveniently located downtown.
The Peace Hotel, 20 East Nanjing Road. Phone: 86 21-6321-6888. Online: www.shanghaipeacehotel.com. Rates: $160 to $1,000. For the authentic Old Shanghai experience, this art deco haunt along the Bund is unbeatable.
Shanghai is filled with good restaurants. For an overview, pick up Shanghai Talk, the city's English-language magazine, at M on the Bund, or visit www.shanghaitalk.net.
M on the Bund, 7/F No. 5 the Bund: A bit pricy, but pleasant for lunch or afternoon tea. Phone: 86 21 6350-9988.
1221, 1221 Yanan Xi Lu: A chic, inexpensive Shanghainese restaurant, among the most popular in the city in recent years. Call for reservations: 86 21 6213-6585.
Cucina: Grand Hyatt Shanghai, Jin Mao Tower: A modestly priced Italian restaurant 56 stories above the Bund. Call 86 21 5049 1234 for reservations.
One of the best books on the city is "In Search of Old Shanghai," by Pan Ling, who also writes under the name Lynn Pan in U.S. editions. The book is filled with color, history and context.
Another good book is Pamela Yatsko's "New Shanghai: The Rocky Rebirth of China's Legendary City," published by John Wiley & Sons in Singapore. Although the book seems more targeted toward regular visitors to the city, it provides a detailed overview of Shanghai's re-emergence while debunking some of the city's self-generated hype.Copyright © 2015, CT Now