It was unnerving now to pull in at the train station and notice, winking at me from across the city, a brand new 1,500ft tower. Apparently, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a rocket-like structure on three legs supporting a giant purple globe in the sky, has been conceived as an icon of modernity, China's Eiffel Tower for the 21st century. The future is here, it proclaims, in purple, with flashing lights.
Elbowing through the encamped mass of peasantry outside the train station, the next element of that future to hit me was the recently opened metro line, which reminded me what a Dickensian thing the London Underground is. As the shining silver train slid silently to the marble platform, my only difficulty was with the newest batch of sunburnt, shock-haired peasants in town, who were trying to rupture the doors before they had opened. They then fought for seats, apparently under the illusion that this was the start of an epic train journey across China. In fact it was a sedate tube ride to Huaihai Lu, the main boulevard of the old French Concession.
One seriously French thing about the old French Concession today is the presence of bakeries selling croissants and pain chocolat. Another is its international chic: Ever more fabulous department stores of marble and smoked glass, packed with Louis Vuitton handbags, seem to be flinging open their doors daily to an adoring public. "Shops are great!" I overheard a fat Chinese businessman in a crumpled Pierre Cardin shirt saying. "They don't need to cheat me and I don't need to cheat them!" The shop I visited was staffed by Japanese-style store attendants waiting in lifts and at the tops of escalators, vigorously bowing to arriving customers. Except that they hadn't quite got the facial expression yet; with clenched teeth and half-closed eyes they seemed to be wishing all shoppers dead. A resurrection of class hatred?
I wondered how far Mao Zedong's communist Shanghai was really going to be dismantled. Turning off Huaihai Lu, down a lane of terraced and shuttered brick houses, soon brought me to the site of the so-called First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party - actually an informal meeting of Mao and a few friends in 1921. By contrast to the staid British areas, the French area was always a playground, enjoyed by mobsters and political activists alike. Today, the house still attracts visitors: A crocodile of schoolchildren in uniform were being trundled around the exhibits as I walked in. "Hi kids," I said pleasantly, just as I noticed an axe in a glass case, labelled in English: INSTRUMENTS USED BY FOREIGN CAPITALISTS TO TORTURE WORKERS. The children began tittering sweetly, until their teacher told them in a radio announcer's voice to "show a little respect to the foreign friend".
Mao's China seemed deader than the China of the foreign capitalists. The area south of Huaihai Lu still reveals blocks of European-style housing: avenues of leafy trees and suburban houses, tasteful 1930s properties lifted from deepest Surrey, miraculously marooned in the middle of a Chinese city. Red rooves, attic windows, fake timber, covered porches, gardens - these museum pieces are inhabited by crowds of cooking, squabbling families who live like Goths in the ruins of ancient Rome. They might be the lucky ones though: anyone in anything smaller than a Surrey Mansion is in imminent danger of relocation.
Walking east along Huaihai Lu, amid slow fleets of cyclists, I became aware of the colossal new north-south viaduct darkening the sky, slashing the city down the middle, stomping vast concrete legs over what used to be residential areas. This viaduct then flies around the city, spanning the Huangpu River on two of the world's largest cable bridges.
It began to seem as though Shanghai's entire stock of old working-class housing was being demolished overnight. But down in the Old City, boxed into a gap east from the French Concession and south of the Bund, I finally discovered a few cramped and sooty lanes, the kind of places where for years the Shanghainese had lived communally in danwei ("work-units"), the bedrock of post-1949 society. Thirty years ago the danwei held weekly political meetings to discuss things such as how frequently its members should be having sexual intercourse. Amid the smoke from cauldrons of frying tofu I still noticed hovel-like houses and traces of communal existence: Rows of children brushing their teeth on the pavement, men without shirts slinging mahjong counters uproariously onto a table. Coming back later, I saw them all again, sleeping on straw matting on the pavement. Next year they'll be sleeping on the 30th floor of tower-blocks beyond the ringroad. The heart of the Old City has already been torn down and replaced with a giant, kitschy market area, complete with flying eaves and pagoda-style rooves, and surging with the biggest, happiest human invasion that the world has ever seen - the liberated Chinese tourist and his one billion brothers and sisters, free from poverty at last.
I met a bewildered British backpacker who seemed to have been overtaken by history: he told me how depressed he felt seeing Chinese tourists everywhere and communities being bulldozed for them. But a Chinese couple who later invited me back to their new tower-block flat told me of the change in their lives. "We don't have neighbours nosing into our affairs any more," they explained. "We have air-conditioning and no mosquitoes. We sleep well at night now."
Had that restful, mosquito-free future yet penetrated as far as Nanjing Lu, Shanghai's premier shopping street, I wondered? Strolling up here from the Old City, I became aware that perhaps this wasn't the point. Jackhammers were pounding from glorious new construction sites. Rivers of compliant, well-dressed citizens surged effortlessly under the neon, interspersed by elegant young couples emerging from taxis, in series, outside the doors of McDonald's. And there was no obvious escape from this economic maelstrom: every side street for miles around bobbed with the massed heads of consumers.
I finally emerged, dazed, on to the Bund at the eastern end of Nanjing Lu beside the Peace Hotel. There, cowering under the Oriental Pearl TV Tower across the water, the grey granite structures of the old Bund were also looking a trifle dispirited. Monuments to European greatness? They looked more like how I felt, the stodgy leftovers of a by-gone era, the equivalent, perhaps, to hovels in the Old City. Except that the Bund is never going to be demolished. The Shanghai authorities have instead decreed that it be preserved as a relic - a quaint relic - while a new Chinese Bund, infinitely grander than its predecessor, arises on the opposite side of the river in the area known as Pudong.
Darkness fell. I began pacing the waterfront, gloomily absorbing the idea of the colonial tables being turned, until - with China on the verge of world hegemony - I unexpectedly found a bar called the Amber House, covered in Picasso murals and teeming with young Brits on R&R from the rigours of English teaching in Japan.
This perked me up. We big-noses were soon ordering sweet-and-sour-pork and jugs of beer, while Chinese kids with floppy haircuts and innocuous smiles on neighbouring tables were going for vodka and live shrimps wriggling in chilli sauce. Later, in a cheerful college disco atmosphere, the tables were cleared, dancing began to the sounds of Go West, and even the Chinese youngsters came up to watch. "Ah, you Europeans," one of them confided in me from the shadows. "You know how to enjoy life."
In other words, we Europeans were in our final, decadent phase. By midnight the bar staff were grumbling about us not spending enough money. But then suddenly there was a Chinese girl in black at the bar with a Carmen-like sneer, big eyes and savage make-up. A benign lad with a degree from Sussex University gravitated inevitably towards her and then she was dancing with her whole lean figure, her hands fluttering and rippling up and down her sides. Prostitution at a college disco? The Sussex lad, never likely to bridge this cultural gap, backed nervously away.
Perhaps Shanghai's frantic modernisation revealed nothing more than a Freudian desire to recapture its corrupt Western childhood then. Who could tell. Trudging back to my hotel at 2am I noticed chandalier lights from the Peace Hotel, dimly visible on the Bund. Old women were frying fragrant dumplings on a charcoal burner while a smiling man practising Tai Chi slowly chopped nothingness. From across the black waters of the Huangpu River, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower gave another of its impassive winks.
Visas of one month's duration (extendable) can be obtained from the Chinese Embassy at 49-51 Portland Place, London W1N 3AH (0171 636 2580). If attending in person, applications take 2-3 days to process. Otherwise, three-month Chinese visas can easily be obtained in Hong Kong.
No direct links to Shanghai from the UK. Options include flying to Beijing or Hong Kong, then proceeding by train (17 to 30 hours) or by plane. Cheapest return flight to Shanghai from London starting April with Aeroflot (0171 355 2233) at pounds 440 plus tax, via Moscow. Air China (0171 630 0919) also sell cheap tickets.
The budget Pujiang Hotel just to the north of the Bund has back-packers' dormitories costing about pounds 4 per head. The historic but inefficient Peace Hotel (00 86 21 6321 6888) on the Bund, despite its splendid art deco fittings, is over-priced at pounds 100 for a double, but worth a visit. The smartest hotel is the Garden (00 86 21 6415 1111) which has doubles from around pounds 130; there is also a Hilton and a Sheraton.Reuse content