February 19 – 20, 2012
If you will only consider how much Shanghai has changed over the years. Everything, everything has changed and changed again. There are parts of this city I once knew so well, places I would walk every day, I now go there and I know not which way to turn. Change, change all the time.
Such was a spot-on description of Shanghai, a city that was dynamic almost to a fault, by a Shanghainese character in a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Although the fictional story was set in 1930s Shanghai, the observation held true in real life, today. Blink and you would find the skyline altered, your old neighborhood replaced by a pocket development. When I lived there, there were only three metro lines. A decade later, the number would rise to a staggering 14.
At the forefront of the city’s development was Pudong, an erstwhile rural area east of Huangpu River. When I first arrived in Shanghai in 2001, it was inconceivable that, just a decade before, Pudong had nothing to show for the city’s millennium-long history other than rice paddies. Since the real estate boom in the 1990s, otherworldly towers and glistening skyscrapers had risen at a frenetic pace in Pudong’s Lujiazui District, the Asian Financial Crisis later in the decade notwithstanding. The skyline was a statement as much as the area was a functional business district. After centuries of proud seclusion, China had flung open its impervious door, symbolically the mouth of the Yangtze, to compete with the world’s dynamic economies.
I gasped the first time I saw Pudong’s sci-fi skyline from Puxi, the older half of Shanghai at the other side of the river. Lujiazui was not the China I had expected to see, although it didn’t take long for its post-modern architectural aesthetic to look decidedly Chinese: traditional forms manifested by relentlessly modern technology.
The distinctly odd and oddly pink Oriental Pearl Tower, reportedly inspired by pearly beads dropping onto a jade dish, took the surreal cake in this futuristic world. Much maligned by the foreign community as a study in tackiness, the radio and TV tower had nevertheless achieved iconic status as the symbol of Shanghai, the quirky pearl of the Orient. For some reason, I never went up the tower, one thing I shared with most Shanghainese.
The pagoda-inspired Jinmao Tower, erstwhile tallest building in China at 88 floors, housed Shanghai Grand Hyatt Hotel, which used to be the highest hotel in the world. I had gone up to the hotel lobby on the 54th floor on a whim, hence the lack of pictorial documentation. As it had always been, the building’s slender steel-and-glass frame looked aloof and forbidding at high noon, growing warmer at sunset’s golden hour.
When I left the city in 2003, the Shanghai World Financial Center was just a hole in the ground. In my 2012 visit, it had dwarfed its neighbor, Jinmao Tower, and at 101 floors, it had become the most conspicuous addition to the skyline. Its distinct feature, an aperture at the top reducing the effects of wind pressure, made the skyscraper look like a sleek bottle opener from afar. The post-9/11 joke back then was that the hole would allow terrorist-hijacked airliners to fly through the building without impact.
The time I lived and worked in this ultra-modern milieu felt like distant past. The sky seemed shrunken, eclipsed by newly-erected skyscrapers vying with the clouds and constellations for the heavens.
Shanghai’s urban sprawl had gotten more sprawling in the intervening years of my absence. To scrimp on money, I rented a Chinese-style apartment well beyond the central location of Lujiazui. Huamu District was the end of the bus route, and by then, only a handful of passengers, mostly working-class Chinese, were left on the bus. In my last visit, I was shocked at how unrecognizable my old neighborhood was. Perhaps my old apartment had long been bulldozed in the name of progress, brought on by a new metro line, pushing the city limits to the suburbs.
The district had sprouted its share of quirky and high-end development, notably the forest-inspired Zendai Himalayas Center. The lower facade conjured up a prehistoric forest, the upper a futuristic world wholly lit up as digital billboards. The sprawling Shanghai New International Expo Centre and the chichi Kerry Parkside added premium to the suburb that had been gentrified well beyond my budget. I realized the neighborhood had outgrown me.
I considered Shanghai as my second home, albeit one that constantly updated the furniture and expanded the perimeter. As I walked through its streets, familiar yet foreign, I made my peace with the city I had called my own and subsequently abandoned. It was not only the city that changed, but its people as well. I echoed the sentiments of another Ishiguro character, a Britisher who had escaped to Shanghai for a change of environment and left with a change of heart.
I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow’s sky.