This is no place for the weary. Shanghai—ever frenetic, always evolving, perpetually on the make—calls for energy and agility. Nothing here ever stands still. Buildings rise and fall as abruptly as the stock market. Yesterday’s quaint traditional neighborhood is today’s throbbing-neon skyscraper district. Don’t even try to find that odd little tea shop you discovered in a secluded alleyway last year. It’s gone, replaced by a stylish Internet café where you can get 34 types of noodles while you listen to chest-thumping Asian trance music. Tomorrow the café might be replaced by a tattoo parlor or a little boutique selling next-generation iPhone knockoffs. You either adapt or get left behind.
Attitudes change just as quickly as the skyline does. Shanghai’s entire recent history, in fact, has been a saga of ideological U-turns. Nowhere is this clearer than in People’s Square, the city’s central park. Back in the 1930s, when Shanghai was a licentious international enclave, this was the site of a racetrack, a center for gambling and other demimonde diversions. But once the prudish Communists took over, Shanghai morals made a quick about-face. The racetrack was replaced by a bleak, concrete parade ground, where Red Army troops could march, and where dissidents and intellectuals could be ridiculed for their decadent Western views. Nowadays, with wealth and worldliness no longer anathema, People’s Square has been reborn as a cultural/shopping center, an urban showplace of ultramodern museum buildings, the flamboyant Shanghai Grand Theater, and a tangled underground mall.
Of course, such swift changes in ethos are typically engineered by the powers that be, and the Shanghainese are not always so willing to go along. Take for example, the glittering new magnetic-levitation train from the airport: The government wants this technological wonder to be a symbol of the brave new Shanghai, the state-of-the-art city that will soon play host to the 2010 World Expo. But locals won’t cooperate. Despite the maglev’s breathtaking speed (trains travel at up to 430 kph), it’s regarded as too inconvenient and expensive; few besides tourists can be persuaded to use it. These days the city government can’t even get its obstinate citizens to cross streets at the corner—despite the constant pleas of numerous uniformed crossing guards tasked with maintaining order.
Such rebelliousness is actually Shanghai’s most endearing trait. Party bosses may try to play the stern father here, but their unruly charges defy parental controls. Limits are being tested everywhere—in business, in politics, on the Internet. Even the physical city seems to be undergoing a kind of defiant adolescence. Shanghai today has the gangliness of a teenager growing too fast and too recklessly. Its infrastructure groans; its streets reek of sweat, prawns, and chalk dust. The city’s new aesthetic, meanwhile, seems absolutely pubescent: The futuristic style of those wild, overdone skyscrapers sprouting up everywhere might appeal most to 13-year-old boys weaned on sci-fi computer games.
Still, behind the brash exhibitionism and the pretense of Western sophistication—away from the boho galleries of Moganshan Road and the high-end boutiques and restaurants of Xintiandi—an older Shanghai still lurks, a world of quiet gardens, laundry-draped hutongs, fortune-tellers, and backstreet vegetable markets. Despite the constant renovation, tradition somehow persists here. Those elders practicing tai chi on the Bund, after all, seem blissfully indifferent to the nearby offerings of Giorgio Armani, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and their ilk. They apparently realize that the opulent internationalism that now holds sway in Shanghai will also prove to be a passing phenomenon—just another fleeting stage in the city’s never ending metamorphosis.
GARY KRIST is a novelist, critic, and historian. His most recent book is The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche.
Shop National Geographic