Hong Kong handover: New Shanghai swings to the old rhythms

Teresa Poole on the Chinese city which is reinventing itself under communism's glare

At The Gap restaurant in central Shanghai, no expense has been spared to create the sort of cosmopolitan atmosphere expected in China's style capital. The food may be strictly Chinese, but there are red London phone boxes, walls covered with reproduction Gauguin murals, waitresses in American Country and Western checked shirts and private dining rooms where, surrounded by copies of Millais and Stubbs masterpieces, you can treat your business partners to a feast of Shanghai's famous "hairy crab" specialities for 10,000 yuan (pounds 760) a throw (drinks extra).

The Filipino band offers Kool and the Gang cover versions, until at 9.30pm the resident troupe of sing-song girls - that potent symbol of old Shanghai - takes to the stage to the tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Ask the supervisor how he would describe the style theme for this cultural minestrone, and he answers bizarrely: "It's Luxembourg."

Shanghai's vibrant spirit is back, with all its blithe excesses, and the Shanghainese who can are making the most of it. As Hong Kong prepares to revert to China on 1 July, Shanghai is doing its best to make sure that it can hold its own against its brash cousin. Once again the city is a magnet for the young and ambitious - including Hong Kongers, for whom it offers new opportunities.

Kenny Tang, 33, is typical of Hong Kong Shanghainese who are coming back to the city which their parents fled in 1949, when the Communists took control. This year he opened the YingYang jazz club in a basement which used to store electronic goods. "I want to make Shanghai like it was 60 years ago, a great city," he says. "But a great city needs culture and more artists."

Shanghai's new restaurants and bars are packed, and most of the customers are locals. But it is not just the night life which gives Shanghai the feel of a re-emerging world city; economic reform has spurred a cultural renaissance. Last autumn, the stunning new pounds 45m Shanghai Museum opened in the centre of People's Square, in a Chinese-designed building which resembles an ancient bronze ding vessel. In December, it was the turn of the new Shanghai Library, with storage for 10 million books. Under construction is a flamboyant French-designed opera house, which will be the largest in Asia, and a massive cantilevered sports stadium.

It has all happened in a belated rush. Until 1990, Shanghai was in the slow lane of Chinese reform, overtaken by southern China. Then came the central government's decision to develop the Pudong zone on the east bank of Shanghai's river as China's future financial centre. Foreign invest- ment poured in, and the construction boom has been so overwhelming that since 1991 the city has been sinking by half an inch a year, twice the rate during the Eighties. Here, too, Shanghai cannot help but vie with Hong Kong, with an official "three-phase action plan" to be China's national financial centre before 2000, Asia's regional financial hub by 2005, and a global financial centre in 2010. There are currently about 9,000 building projects.

The younger generation is thriving, with lives reinvented just as swiftly as the skyline. Lin Dongfu, 40, gave up teaching to be a reporter for Real Estate Information, and then found fame hosting a popular TV game show, Test Your Talent. Along the way he became the "voice" for Sean Connery and Gregory Peck when their films were dubbed into Chinese. His great passion now is his bar, Blues and Jazz. "Shanghai - we call it an international city, but we are still short of things," said Mr Lin. But less so than before. "Five years ago, there were no jazz bars in Shanghai." Now there are a dozen, and not only for foreigners. "Chinese also come; they cannot enjoy the music very deeply, but in time . . ."

At the YingYang, Mr Tang agreed that Shanghainese preferred jazz to rock and roll. "Shanghai people are more sentimental and educated than Pekingers," he said. They are also brimming with self-confidence, even arrogance. Professor Shen Weibin, a 60-year-old history professor at Fudan University, explained: "Shanghai people think that if you want to succeed, you have to come to Shanghai for a while and be recognised here," said Professor Shen. Or as Mr Tang put it: "Shanghainese think that people from other Chinese cities are like peasants."

Success is again something to be flaunted - just like Hong Kong. Joining the Shanghai Race Club was the status symbol of old Shanghai; nowadays it might be a $94,000 (pounds 57,000) life membership of the new Taiwan-financed Tomson Golf Course where, according to the hype, the bunkers are filled not with sand but with pulverised white marble.

With this revival, however, has also come uncertainty. The excitement and glamour are back, but so are old social problems. Mr Shen has witnessed the city's ups and downs and describes the mood of Shanghai people these days as "hope mixed with doubts".

The contradictions are everywhere to see; a hardline municipal communist government is determined to maintain control over a capitalist eruption which is enriching half the population while throwing hundreds of thousands of state enterprise workers on to the scrap heap.

A yawning wealth gap has opened up between those fashionably dressed Shanghainese and the legions of newly sacked textile workers. Unemployment among the population of 14 million is chronic as near-bankrupt state enterprises jettison staff, especially older people who find it difficult to adjust.

Zhu Junyi, director of the Shanghai Labour Bureau, has admitted a further 750,000 city workers are expected to be laid off in the next four years. Meanwhile, about three million migrant workers have flooded into town, the work fodder for a city which is being rebuilt by men with spades.

Looming over these contrasts is the might of the Shanghai Communist government. Behind the superficial "anything goes" atmosphere, the old apparatus is still firmly entrenched. The glistening 12-storey New World City department store, for instance, boasts of itself as "the aircraft carrier in the shopping sea". But venture on to the 9th floor administration area and the corridors are lined with doors marked "Communist Youth League", "Party Committee", "Trade Union Committee", and on and on.

Freedom of thought is no more welcome in this neon-dazzled city than anywhere else in China, and over the past three years virtually every remaining Shanghai pro-democracy or human rights activist has been sent to jail.

The city's cultural and material renaissance is taking place within strictly definied limits: while the spirit of Thirties Shanghai may be on the way back, there is little hope of it being any more democratic than its illustrious predecessor.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam