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Shanghai surprise

Continued from Page 3

And why not? "Frankly, every other kind of vision's been used to rebuild Shanghai," observes Robert Mackenzie, Canada's consul-general in Shanghai. "Why not this one? Paris has its Eiffel Tower. Something's going to stand out, and it's not going to be refurbished warehouses."

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Speaking of sluts, they're everywhere in Shanghai. This has been the case in China as long as there have been arranged marriages. But the old itch has taken on new scratch in the dollar-mad dynasty.

In the late 1990s, according to Pamela Yatsko, the author of New Shanghai: The Rocky Rebirth of China's Legendary City, foreign businessmen kept so many young Chinese women as mistresses — "canaries," in Shanghai parlance — that they began to buy flats for them together in the same buildings, which immediately became known as "birdcages."

Now, Chinese men are getting in on the action. And not just any men: Crinkly old whackers in their 70s who look like garden gnomes with parabolic bow legs now sport 25-year-old honeys on their arms. Newspaper columnists in Shanghai lament the trend, but it's a lost battle.

"A lot of girls in Shanghai," a businessman in his 50s tells me, "they're looking for a rich, older boyfriend. And it actually helps the economy. The whole economy is now, in China, looking at how to make money and get ahead — instead of looking at moral standards, which are pretty low. But people are getting rich. Some of these girls are making 2,000 yuan ($300) a night. While the girl working in an office, with a university degree and taking work back home, she's making 2,000 yuan a month.

"There's a whole lot of people like that in China. You look at your neighbour, he has air conditioning and a condominium. You have air conditioning, but you're afraid to turn it on. Your neighbour goes out to dinner, but you can't afford it. And pretty soon your wife is saying, 'Why him, and not us?' And this pressure comes from making comparisons. But that's capitalism. And now it's changing China a lot. Now that they can make money, they don't care how they do it."

Why not, why not, why not?

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Like the residents of any massive metropolis, people in Shanghai breathe real estate. Shanghaiers are less than 1 per cent of China's population, but they do 15 per cent of its real-estate deals.

"The first thing people in Beijing want to do when they graduate is buy a car," a young woman named Jin tells me. "The first thing a Shanghaier wants to buy is an apartment."

The most common sight in Shanghai is entire blocks of soot-grey, three-storey shikumen (Shanghai-style laneway homes, built as long as 100 years ago) being demolished brick by brick — while families continue to live in the unsmashed rooms, pink underpants afly for all to see, and a 35-storey replacement goes up next door.

This is the most massive of all Shanghai's projects, to replace the city's housing stock with comfortable Western-style apartments. Chinese politicians don't have to win the approval of local councils, after all: They talk about x building bridges and neighbourhoods as if it were just another item on their day's list of chores, right after "Buy rice."

How else could Shanghai decide to create a Formula One track in 2002, and then — two years, 1,000 workers and $300-million later — stage the first-ever Grand Prix of China at a facility so breathtaking (the racecourse takes the shape of the Chinese character shang) that Ferrari's Michael Schumacher calls it the best track he has ever driven?

Shanghai built a 12-kilometre elevated highway straight through the downtown in a year and a half without ever closing the roads below. To accommodate 400,000 visitors a day to the World Expo in 2010, an event city officials vow will far outshine the Beijing Olympics, it has to relocate 20,000 people, and build five subways, two more tunnels under the river, two new bridges and maybe an extension of the magnetic-levitating train — "2,068 days to go!" the lads at the Shanghai World Expo office will tell you, smiling like hell.

The rebuilding here is often likened to Georges Haussmann's 19th-century redesign of Paris, but compared with Shanghai, Baron Haussmann merely paved a few driveways.

Until recently, land deals between the government and its favoured developers were notoriously opaque, and often dirty. In 2003, Zhou Zhengyi, a 42-year-old former noodle-shop owner who became one of Shanghai's richest men, with a real-estate fortune worth $400-million, evicted 2,160 residents from a desirable Shanghai neighbourhood.

When the residents tried to sue him, their cases were thrown out of court, and their lawyer was tossed in jail.

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