Riverside tower

Riverside tower: The Oriental Pearl TV Tower dominates the Pudong area of Shanghai. (AP Photo / April 1, 2001)

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.