There are some cities which are regal, some cities which are vibrant, some methodical beyond imagination but there are those rare cities where stepping out on the streets makes you realize that a new world power is emerging. I have never been to any city in the developed world of the West but my travels have taken me across the orient and the so called emerging economies and never have I felt what I felt the moment I stepped into Shanghai.
Nothing in Shanghai at first sight is unique, but the combination of modern architectural miracle with a Nation’s ambition is something worth mentioning. The skyscrapers look as majestic as they should and they fit their role as the future beehive of the financial world. Around 1990, China proclaimed that Shanghai would be the focus city and they developed Pudong. For years, the vacancy rates of the buildings at Pudong were alarming and yet as it expected of a culture dating back thousands of years, the Chinese waited. And the millennium got Shanghai what it hoped to achieve. The world set up shop in Pudong.
I stood on The Bund on a cold, rainy December evening, freezing to my bones and I beheld a Skyline beyond anything I have ever seen. Dubai and Singapore looks like mere child’s play with Lego blocks in front of The Bund. The TV Tower, the high rises and the river all come together in what can be termed as impressive but not majestic. This is what George Lucas showed in Star Wars as his city of the future. This is how cities will look like. I remember a young boy I had met once, who had honestly dreamt of urban city planning as a civil engineer. He wanted to build cities. The boy is no more. (Well, he is very much alive and happy but he’s a different man like most of us now.) But if he was still alive in some distant dream, he would be able to wonder at what has been achieved in Shanghai beyond just the financial buildings and the multilevel flyovers. However, the curse of urbanization remains evident with people cooping up in pigeonholes just like they do in every metropolis across the world.
I love Mumbai. One of my best memories will remain sitting on the steps of the NCPA and watch the Queen’s Necklace light up as the sun sets on the Western Coast of India. But as much as I romanticize with my Mumbai memories, possibly the only road worth mentioning in the city is what an average side street in Shanghai looks like. As the cold biting wind hit me with its gusts of spine chilling rains, I saw Pudong light up in the night. And I knew I was looking at a Nation that in all probabilities will dominate the world in the years to come and it will not even need the help of the world’s largest army. On how many buildings on Marine Drive would you see the Indian tricolour flying? Once the awed foreign tourist turns back from The Bund, she will see another line of magnificent buildings all proudly displaying the National Red Flag.
With Power come problems. And Shanghai’s dark underbelly is as active as any other city’s. Whether you are a tourist at Pudong or on Nanjing Road walking around what claims to be Shanghai’s Times Square, you will be accosted by pimps and prostitutes. Like many other cities, prostitution is illegal and your hotels will have big warning signs and just like many other cities the police turn a blind eye.
Apart from that, there are the standard scams that are characteristic to a city. If you are spotted as a single tourist, someone will come up to you and offer to take your photograph. Once she has started a conversation with you, she will then offer to show you around as she “loves to talk to people from other countries”. Since hearing flawless English is rare, people often fall for the student so willing to help. Then you will be invited for a cup of tea and before you know, the bill is at least 500 Yuan.
Shanghai amazed me. But Shanghai can’t be completed over four nights. It requires going back. It requires another indulgence over a hotpot and another post over the food.