Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

CHINA; Future Is Now with Nod to History, Busy Shanghai Is Determined to Keep Pace with Progress

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

CHINA; Future Is Now with Nod to History, Busy Shanghai Is Determined to Keep Pace with Progress

Article excerpt

Byline: Judy Wells, Times-Union staff writer

SHANGHAI -- If Beijing is China's Washington, Shanghai is its New York City. Leaping into the 21st century on speed, it is an architect's paradise where nothing is too extreme, and labor is cheap enough to include design elements that would be impossible elsewhere.

Shanghai is a perpetual-motion machine -- from the boat traffic in its harbor and the high-rise construction on every block to the shoppers on Nanjing Road and the trucks, taxis, scooters, buses and bicycles jockeying for space on its streets. Pauses only come when 12 lanes of traffic from two two-lane streets try to funnel into the two-lane tunnel connecting downtown Shanghai with Pudong across the Huangpu River, the mushrooming new center for hotels, office and apartment buildings and mega stores with the futuristic Pearl of the Orient TV Tower as its hub.

How else could its port go from 20th-most-active in the world in 1995 to fifth in 2002? Industry observers expect it to jump to third in half that time, outpacing its top two competitors, Hong Kong and Singapore, as the world's largest container port.

Visitors are awed, intimidated and/or invigorated. Awed by what's there already and how its 17 million inhabitants cope, intimidated by the thought of plunging in and keeping pace and invigorated by prospects for the future.

Because Shanghai is determined to be the future. Now.

It didn't start that way. As a city, Shanghai, which means "above the sea," is a newcomer by Chinese standards although people have lived here for at least eight millennia. It is situated on the same latitude as Jacksonville and its river is about the same width as the St. Johns, but there the resemblances end.

Of little importance during China's great dynasties, Shanghai began to shine as an international trading port after the British East India Company scouted it out in 1832. By 1845, the British had established themselves as the financial lords of Shanghai; their banks still command the choicest plots along the Bund, although many now are run by other nationalities. In 1848, the Americans controlled the warehouses, although these have long ago been replaced, and by 1849, the French Concession had laid claim to the city's cultural heart, its mansions, its art, its chefs, its nightclubs. West had met East and liked it here, especially when treaties after the Opium Wars gave them power and control far beyond their actual numbers (the foreign population went from fewer than 600 in the 1860s to 10,000 in 1910). Out of 4 million residents in 1935, a mere 60,000 were foreign.

There is still an enthusiastic community of expatriates and an even larger community of global commuters who consider this one of their headquarters. You will spot many of them (some with southern accents) in Xintiandi, the city's latest entertainment and commercial hub. Hong Kong-based investors; Wood Zapata, a Georgia-born architect and his Ecuadorian-born partner; plus a Hong Kong-born contractor are turning a once-scorned area, unique for its Shikumen houses of brick, into the hot spot for daytime working and shopping, nighttime dining and partying and full-time living. When completed it will preserve its architectural heritage yet be bigger than downtown Miami.

Touring Shanghai invariably begins or ends with the Bund, a mile-long pedestrian promenade along the Huangpu River originally built as a dike against seasonal floods. Across the street is the seat of the city's international establishment. You can chart its history by the architectural styles. Across the river is the fast-rising Pudong. You will find people here from early morning, when the exercisers come out, to late evening, when the party-hoppers are cruising. The statue isn't of Chairman Mao as most people think; it's the city's first mayor. The bright, new Olympic Games sculpture is a focal point for photographers.

After making sure a cruise of the Huangpu is on your to-do list, stand with your back to the river to get a feel for the city's layout. …

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