Shanghai Rising: Change Comes Fast in a City Racing Toward a World's Fair

A city both ancient and modern is quickly paving over its past. But its character remains.
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Shanghai is on the clock.

349 days 12 hours 5 minutes 8 seconds.

The eastern Chinese city is counting down the rotations of the Earth until the start of Expo 2010, the world's fair expected to draw 70 million visitors over six months.

349 days 12 hours 5 minutes 3 seconds.

It's the first time the large-scale, high-profile international event has been held in a developing country. Beijing, take a seat; now it's your sister's turn in 349 days 12 hours 4 minutes 52 seconds.

Throughout the city of 18.8 million people, oversize clocks loom on plaza squares and inside public buildings. Many visitors, especially Chinese, stand beneath them, straightening their spines and grinning for the camera as Shanghai gets a few ticks closer to opening day.

Expo clock-watching would be a sport here, if Shanghai knew how to kill time. But the city, an economic renegade in the communist country, is dialed to high speed, trying to be the first to reach some undefined finish line. Drivers disregard speed limits and red lights; pedestrians move with the force of an undertow; futuristic-looking buildings materialize nearly overnight. Even the steamed dumplings are ready before you've had a chance to unfold your napkin.

While Shanghai fixated on the next horizon, I wanted to take a few steps back, to return to the past before catapulting toward the city's future. But first, I had to drag myself away from that clock.

* * *

For a crash course in Shanghai's chronology, find a spot on the Bund, the scenic quay along the Huangpu River, and spin 360 degrees. During that whirl, you will take in tourists snapping pictures and eating cotton candy; 19th-century neoclassic buildings once lorded over by Western traders and bankers; and, across the water, the Jetsonian skyline of Pudong, the most recent district to spring from Shanghai's soil. In that wide-angle gaze, you will witness the old, the new and the now.

"It's an ancient city and a modern city," said Zhu Tao, a student I met at the City God Temple, a Taoist shrine that was built almost 600 years ago and has been destroyed, reconstructed and repurposed many times since. "Now, it's an international city and the heart of Chinese economics."

Unlike other Chinese destinations, the former fishing village near the mouth of the Yangtze River was significantly shaped by Western influences, a consequence of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which opened the port to foreign trade. Europeans and Americans streamed in, unpacking their tastes from home, such as horse racing, cabarets and red meat. They staked out settlements (the Brits and Americans in the International Settlement, the French in the French Concession), leaving the Shanghainese with a small patch of land now called Nanshi, or Old Town.

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