CHINA: SHANGHAI CITY PORTRAIT

INTELLIGENT TRAVELLER Shanghai’s modern skyline would be recognised immediately by Buck Rogers. The ever taller and preposterously capped skyscrapers look like they’ve been designed en-masse by a comic-book illustrator from the 1950’s. It is, quite simply, a wonderful twenty-first-century futurama of both beautiful and ugly architecture.

Nothing epitomises this better than the Oriental Pearl TV Tower: a building of such cartoonish proportions, it looks set to take off once its engines are warmed up. The equally outlandish Grand Hyatt Hotel in the Jinmao tower might also be preparing for count-down. This superannuated hostelry has an iconic atrium soaring over thirty stories. But rather than elicit architectural awe, I found the vertiginous drop nauseous. A head for heights is essential in this ultra-modern world. At night the city becomes even more futuristic. Electronic billboards fifty-stories high radiate colossal messages to the twenty-two million denizens down below. Skyscrapers attempt to outshine each other with super-lurid illuminations and the constant fluorescent blinking puts Piccadilly Circus and Times Square to shame.

Even though the place is so vast, it’s easy to get the hang of Shanghai. The aerial roads that interlace the city are more super-highways than flyovers and provide an oddly detached view of the busy streets below. The immense Nanpu Bridge curls like a giant watch-spring each side of Shanghai’s main artery – it is the only span that crosses the Huangpu River. A garish tourist tunnel on the Bund promised all sorts of silly adventure underneath the water. Instead I took the local commuter ferry for 2 yuan (somewhere in the region of seven pence) across the stream and marvelled at the sheer scale of the place.

It struck me that the megalopolis is essentially about contrast; day and night, extraordinary wealth and solid utility. Neon-rich massage parlours and beauty salons in the French Quarter evoked a seediness and decadence that I found enticing. Blind masseurs gave an agonising foot massage for just a few quid, while in the Saladin Club, rent-boys played cards and vied for an altogether more expensive trade.

Outside, broad avenues, narrow streets and winding alleys belong to the romantic Shanghai of the 1930’s that both Charlie Chaplain and Noel Coward would have known. Deco mansions and occasional Edwardian suburban houses left by ex-pats decades ago looked faintly incongruous. Laundry tied between balconies and trees on criss-crossed sticks were like so many fabric mobiles and the complicated webbing of phone-wires and electric tram cables only added to the glorious visual confusion.

Perhaps fusion is the key. I saw a Prosperity God beaming from a shop window; except this golden local deity owed as much to Father Christmas’s well padded guise as he did to a more traditional get-up. Two distinct cultures were simultaneously (if unintentionally) encapsulated – east and west – in a God for all seasons. Likewise, urban fashions embraced the latest in microfibre sportswear and silk brocade cheongsams – the girls in Shanghai looked sleek and chic in both. Punkish hairstyles contrasted with classical black polished bobs.

Beneath the bright lights, but still central to the city is Yuyuan district – another intriguing ward in this charismatic sprawl and something of a time slip. Here the lights are dim and byways that much more mysterious. I sat in a simple, steaming restaurant packed with locals and feasted from an aluminium cauldron filled with chilli chicken. As I got nearer to the bottom, a child topped it up with hot water making a soup into which I threw mushrooms, herbs and noodles. A bottle of Beijing Two Pot – liquor that is a startling 55% proof – was the perfect, if some what potent accompaniment to a meal that cost not much more than a pound all-in.

I stumbled back to my hotel, another exotic cloud-grazer near the Bund. The Westin Shanghai typifies this city of extremes. An enormous cantilevered glass staircase dominates acres of marble flooring in the lobby – a place staffed with improbably beautiful people. Cocooned on the twenty-sixth floor in understated luxury, I imagined an origami expert had made up the bed and a feng shui specialist had arranged my tatty luggage exquisitely on a low mahogany table. This is the type of glamour that only serious money can buy. It would cost something in the region of a month-and-a-half’s salary (about 5000 yuan) for an ordinary Shanghai resident to stay the night.

The Fake Market still continues to ply its designer contraband. Even though the superpower luxury-goods conglomerates have threatened to bankrupt the traders and close the place down, the racketeering flourishes. The amazing hustle and hassle of the place was punctuated by surreptitious petitions: “Watches, bags, DVDs?” became a constant mantra from spivs clad in dodgy Burberry macs. Mont Blanc pens were sold wholesale – a fiver could bag you a dozen – and bogus Gucci sunglasses were virtually given away. One enterprising old man attempted to drag me to his stall and muttered: “Ming dynasty, cheapy-cheap”. It was hard to resist such blatant chicanery.

But no visit to this exciting uber-city would be complete without a trip on the German-designed and Chinese-built Maglev – short for magnetic levitation railway. This is the fastest commercially operated train on the planet, whisking passengers to the airport at over 430 km per hour and in a shade under eight minutes. I met one man who regularly took a taxi to the airport just so he could take the space-age ride back into town. London felt crushingly third-world on my return.

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