Saturday, August 18

The world's 7th largest city


More than 18.6 million people live in Shanghai - officially its population is 13.42 million but another five million undocumented people are estimated to reside at any time. This evening I think met most of them soaking up the neon sights of Nanjing Road.

Nanjing Road sits in the heart of the city. It's Shanghai's main shopping precinct. In recent times several blocks have been converted into a bustling pedestrian mall attracting up to one million people daily. At night the street transforms itself as an endless array of neon signs and flashing lights smother the facade of every building. The scene is reminiscent of Kabukicho, Tokyo's equally dazzling neon district.


A truly mind-boggling clutter of buildings also line its length including the rather odd Radisson Hotel. This high-rise building features its own UFO-shaped structure on the roof. It's hard not to imagine George Jetson flying in for a cocktail at any moment. Other equally futuristic buildings frame the horizon in all directions.

Walking down Nanjing Road you can believe that Shanghai is China's wealthiest city (setting aside Hong Kong). For 14 consecutive years it has recorded double-digit growth. In other words, since 1992 the average GDP of its residents has increased three-fold. The most recent data, published in 2005, reported growth of 11.5% in a single year. This is a city on the rise.

This evening I didn't linger on Nanjing Road. It became apparent that single, white males are a magnet for Rolex watch hawkers and sex venue touts. I swear I was approached at least a dozen times in the first five minutes. It leave you wondering what sort of reputation Caucasian businessmen have established over the years. I've since read that solo travellers like myself are regularly targeted for scams and extortion rituals.

I quickly made my way through the thronging crowd to the Bund. This stretch of the Huangpu river bank is home to block after block of early 20th century architecture, ranging in style from neo-classical to art deco. These buildings stand in stark contrast to the modern metropolis on the opposite side of the river, known as Pudong.


I'm fascinated by the story of Pudong. At late as 1990, the far bank of the Huangpu River was little more than farmland and countryside. Overnight the Chinese government decided to set up a Special Economic Zone and transform this rural area into China's new financial hub. Today it's home to broad boulevards, parks and a maze of modern skyscrapers. Pudong's most prominent landmark is the Oriental Pearl Tower. You have to see it to believe it. Imagine a series of Christmas baubles skewered on a concrete stick and you have yourself a rather close approximation of the real thing.

Behind the Oriental Pearl Tower sits the Jin Mao building. At 88-stories it's China's tallest office building. However, this title will soon pass to its neighbour, the new World Financial Centre. When completed the top of this massive building will become the third highest roof in the world. I took a closer look at it this evening and was fascinated to watch clouds occasionally enveloping its upper floors. Incredibly, the same clouds sat comfortably above the brightly lite Jin Mao building. Mark my words, it's tall!


Earlier this week a small fire broke out on the incomplete 26th floor. Smoke rose dramatically up a lift well to the 80th floor before dissipating. No serious damage was done but the photos in every local newspaper were unnerving to say the least. This is simply the latest in a series of dramas faced by the US$910 million project. Its been plagued by a financial crisis, controversy over a design that evoked memories of the nation's brutal Japanese occupation during World War II and enforced changes to its previously approved height which robbed it of a place in the record books.

You'd think that a city featuring a UFO-clad hotel, a Christmas bauble tower and an eerie cloud covered monolith couldn't be any more surreal. You'd be wrong. The most unusual highlight of my evening was the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. This tunnel consists of automated silver carriages that snake their way under the river between the Bund and Pudong. As you glide along your sense are assaulted by strobing lights, impressionist video images and a synchronised sound show - which includes an ensemble boldly titled "Heaven and Hell." This is kitsch at its best.


Afterwards I sensibly caught the Metro home. At least I thought I was being sensible. As my train pulled into the platform I suddenly realised than the entire population of Nanjing Road was joining me for the homeward journey. For the next five stops I endured my own version of heaven and hell crammed into a carriage with thousands of sweaty, jostling locals. I'm sure a psychedelic sound show would have worked just as well here.


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