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Shanghai surprise

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Shanghai's motto these days is "Why not?" Why not go out to eat at 3 a.m. every night? Why not publish a novel in text-message chapters sent to cellphones? Why not have a maid, or spend a month's salary on a pair of shoes? Why not put up signs everywhere that say, Building the splendour of the metropolis?

And why not silhouette buildings in neon? Even 40-storey skyscrapers get the treatment, and sometimes the colour changes, pink to purple to green. It's a nice effect if you're not a purist, and in Shanghai, hardly anyone is. The Chinese come up to the roof bar at Three on the Bund, the most glamorous and Westernized joint in the city, to look at the lights and see what life will be like when everyone's rich. They like to have their pictures taken.

Some want to be photographed in front of the Jin Mao Tower and the other teetering trinkets erected in Shanghai in the past 10 years in the greatest urban makeover in the history of civilization. But most prefer the 50-storey Coke and Nikon ads that blink and swirl across the Huangpu River.

"In the new China," a young woman says to me one morning, "you are what you have."

Richard Xavia, the general manager of Three on the Bund, watches the people pose most nights, sees them smile in happy bursts of flash.

Mr. Xavia's a New Zealander, a motivation expert who has worked all over the world. There are a lot of people like him here now. But even Mr. Xavia has never felt anything like the eagerness to change that is swelling here by the day.

"This is like Berlin in the Twenties, and London in the Sixties," he says. "The Chinese government wants Shanghai to be one of the leading cities in the world. I know the Shanghaiese are going to be able to do it. Because they get up every morning and see this, see what they have done. And they think, 'If we can do that, we can do anything.' There's no brakes on here, man."

Shanghai will soon be to China and the world what New York is, what London was — an imperial city, a global megalopolis. It is the city China presents to the West, the city Beijing disdains, what the rest of China would like to be, the kind of place anyone who is 25 and adventuresome will soon want to move to. It's a hell of a place.

But most of all Shanghai is the id of China — a city caught between what it wants to be and what it's supposed to be. If you want to know what convulsions Communist China will go through as it becomes a haven of capitalism, look no further than Shanghai: It has 17 million convulsions every day.

Which is when you notice the flapping noise on the roof bar. Thirty feet away, on the roof of the next building along and every other building as far as you can see, nattering in the dusk like a disapproving maiden aunt, is the red-and-yellow flag of Communist China.

Mr. Xavia sees it too. "Yeah," he says, glancing over, "the only time I remember I'm even in China is when I see those flags."

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These days, Shanghai loves stories about ambition. Anyone could be tomorrow's millionaire. A current favourite is about a woman, a university graduate, who worked for a government-run hotel that went out of business. She tried selling snails, a local delicacy, but failed. In desperation, she begged foreign companies to let her clean their toilets and their offices — the ultimate loss of face by Chinese standards, because she made herself lower than the low.

That was in 1998. Today, she has 6,000 employees.

To know what's considered valuable at any given moment in Shanghai, watch what people carry on their bikes:

2 propane tanks;

8-foot-long aluminum extrusions;

2 refrigerators;

2 crates of tomatoes;

150 kilos of scrap foam sheeting.

This last load consists of two massive bales of compressed foam, each the size of a sofa, balanced on either side of the back fender; two more bales the size of TVs on top of that; and half a dozen panes of plastic and some PVC tubing tied crossways through the bike's frame.

The man who spent the last four days gathering this booty has to walk his bike for an hour and a half to the yard where his tottering tower will earn him the equivalent of $54. He already owns a cellphone. "It's not good money," a woman collecting brown kraft paper in a wagon tells me one night. She is tiny, and smells sharply of tobacco. "But many people who started out this way have become rich."

But to really see the backbone of Shanghai, its capacity for work and punishment, you have to go to the suburbs, to Shanghai Sigma Metals Inc. and Tony Huang's scrap yard.

Behind a metal fence in a residential neighbourhood, past a security gate mounted with stone busts of Marx and Lenin (an ironic touch, salvaged from a scrap yard in Russia), is the inferno of China's ambition — and its sharpest rebuke, where China takes what the West throws away and turns it into a more valuable future. By the middle of August, China had bought 65 per cent of the copper scrap exported by the U.S. And this is said to be a slow year.

Here, against the rev of loaders and the din of scrap smashing to the ground, under the sour tang of vast buckets of molten aluminum melting in furnaces, in the hot dust and the filth amid ridges of chrome faucets and valleys of hubcaps and giant meatballs of residue and massive doughnuts of old wire, are entire warehouses filled with fist-sized chunks of grey metal.

And over these fields of gnarled and knuckled waste, like hordes of nimble locusts in turquoise company overalls, gloves and thin cotton surgical masks, crawl 700 young Chinese women, sorting the scrap by hand. In Europe, million-dollar mechanical separators and flotation tanks do the job for the equivalent of $124 a ton. Mr. Huang's women do it, and do a better job of it, for $19 a ton.

For this, they earn $125 a month. "It's a tough job for not much money," Mr. Huang acknowledges. But this is the Wild Wild East. "Maybe for people in the Western world, this is torture. But for the women, if I use machines, then 700 people would not have a job."

Their $125 is better than the $50 a month they earned as farmers (if they were lucky) before they came to Shanghai; many of them stay with Sigma for eight to 10 years. And it's twice what Mr. Huang paid them 10 years ago, when he opened the plant.

"China's labour costs are going up very rapidly," he says. "That's a double-digit salary increase, 14 to 15 per cent, on average, every year. Do you get a double-digit increase every year?"

When he advertises 50 openings for scrap pickers, 500 women apply. They can live free in Sigma's company dorm, "but most of them don't like to stay here, because there's no freedom here. They have to be in bed at 9, turn out the lights at 10. But if they live four in an apartment, they can spend time with their boyfriends, or stay out all night.

"Westerners come here the first time," Mr. Huang says, "and you think this is a Communist country with no human rights. But people who live here, they hear you talk about human rights, they say, 'What are you talking about? Communism was 20 years ago.'. "Today, it still says Communist Party, but even they call it 'Chinese-style socialism.' You know what Chinese-style socialism is? It's capitalism. But they don't want to admit it."

"It looks different from the West," I say as we drive around the scrap yard in a golf cart.

"They had hard lives," Tony Huang says. "But now they're happy. They've got all the freedom they can handle."

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Numbers define Shanghai the way history defines London and money defines New York. Begin with the 17 million people who make it bigger than any other city in China: Shanghai's a place where "follow the crowd" really means something. From there, the numbers quickly become unreal.

The average density of the city proper is 15,500 human beings per square kilometre. Downtown, it's 50,000, and can rise as high as 120,000. (Toronto's downtown density is 6,732 per square kilometre, which is marginally higher than Manhattan's.)

Even the city-planning department doesn't know exactly how many buildings there are: Its best guess is 7,000 over eight storeys high. Nearly all of them were built in the past 10 years.

Twelve million trips are taken on some form of public transportation in Shanghai every day. Eight million fares ride 18,600 buses (the fare is one yuan, or about 15 cents, unless the bus is air-conditioned, in which case it's two yuan). Another million and a quarter use the subway. There are 46,000 taxis, somewhere near a million cars and trucks, a million scooters and motorcycles, 10 million bicycles.

With the exception of the bikes, this is all new to Shanghai, part of what makes it feel so progressive and filthy and noisy and modern, so intense, so awake, so much like unstoppable destiny.

There's an intersection downtown, for instance, crossed by 14 separate raised overpasses. "You have to pay 300,000 yuan [about $45,000] if you kill someone," my taxi driver tells me one morning. "But if you disable them, you have to pay until they're 60 or 70 years old." His implication is clear: Financially, it's smarter to kill them.

The air is revolting, lung-dissolving, grey with soot by noon. But the city is deep green and lush with landscape; elevated expressways downtown are lined with window boxes. It rains a lot here, the way everything happens in Shanghai — loud and sudden like a corner fight, then forgotten.

At rush hour, the traffic wardens blow so hard on their whistles that they sound like flocks of birds. You see more of them in Shanghai than you do actual birds.

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Shanghai has always been a slut, eager to bend to the whim of outsiders. Curled on the lip of the mouth of the Yangtze River, it was a commercial city by the 10th century AD. When the leaders of the Qing Dynasty tried to stop foreigners selling opium into China in the late 1830s, the British invaded.

By the time the opium wars ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking, Britain had picked up trading rights in five Chinese cities and some prime real estate along the Huangpu waterfront that later became the famous Bund. (Shanghai means "on the sea.")

The foreign concessions — which soon included France and the United States — operated under their own laws, and Shanghai was even more of a whirl of trade, finance and philandering — the richest and most decadent city in Asia. When the opium trade began to fade after the turn of the century, the interlopers dealt weapons and Chinese slaves instead. Shanghai helped.

In 1949, after the Communists had vanquished the Japanese and Chang Kai-shek's nationalists, the Shanghaiese bent again, becoming model comrades.

Shanghai backed Mao Zedong during the fractious Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s: Some of the intense nose-thumbing that goes on between Beijing and Shanghai today stems from that move.

The city is still home to some of the largest state-owned enterprises in China (making steel, building cars). The 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square didn't spread to Shanghai because the city's huge nationalized factories kept their workers in line.

Shanghai has always taken the path of least resistance. So when Deng Xiaoping said it was okay to be rich, Shanghai changed its stripes again. The city has been eagerly catching up ever since.

This is why Shanghai seems so Chinese and not Chinese at all. It's a city with a thousand years of Chinese history that prefers today's Western styles. It inhales everything.

Even the physical city is split, divided into old Puxi and new Pudong on either side of the Huangpu River. Today's Pudong didn't exist 10 years ago. In Shanghai's exhibition hall of urban planning, there's an astonishing scale model of central Shanghai (the biggest scale model in the world, naturally) that needs a hundred model-makers to keep it up to date. It portrays Shanghai in the year 2020. So far, only 19 per cent of the buildings have been built.

And that's just the centre of town: Things get really wacky in the suburbs. Shanghai's official "one city, nine towns" plan rings the core with nine commutervilles, each with its own international theme. Yes. There's a Gerx man Town and an English Town. And as of this summer, there is a Maple Leaf Town, a.k.a. New Fengjing, modelled on Canada.

Xinqun (Jason) Xu, a 42-year-old Chinese-born partner at Toronto's Six Degrees Architecture and Design Inc., designed an entire town for 28,000, from homes to city hall, in six months ("It's fast," he says of Shanghai), all around Canadian themes.

Large sheets of grey rock represent "the exposed bedrock of the Canadian Shield." The Rockies are depicted by "metal and glass sheets cut to resemble the jagged profile of famous peaks within the mountain range." There are lights that reproduce the Northern Lights. And of course there will be a permanent recreation, "symbolically presented through projected images, sound and light," of the RCMP Musical Ride. The whole asses-out-lances-in extravaganza, reproduced in a Chinese town that for a millennium was home to fishermen and painters! China may never be the same.

Xufeng Pang, the 34-year-old local Community Party secretary and general manager of the project, attended a month-long seminar in urban planning at the University of Toronto last summer before he took on the job of building a Sino-Canadian town from scratch.

"When I visited Canada," he told me one sunny morning in Fengjing, "I was impressed by the cultural diversity, the multipolarity of the country. Many cultures exist on one piece of land. This is something good. And if we can introduce it to China, that's good too."

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.

This is the way things often get done in Shanghai. The rule is no rules, only relationships. As one Shanghai businessman says, "I pick my lawyer based on the judges he knows."

The Zhou case eventually brought about significant reforms in the city's real-estate market — open land tenders and, more recently, land auctions. But penalties are still wildly inconsistent. Mr. Zhou was finally sentenced to three years in jail.

Last July, by startling contrast, Xiao Hongbo, a 37-year-old deputy branch manager at the China Construction Bank, was executed for filching four million yuan ($600,000) from customer accounts to support his eight mistresses (about seven more than was wise).

"If you don't have a strong backer," a well-established Shanghai resident insists, "it's a bullet to your head, and they charge the bullet to your family."

Even today, Chinese journalists here will write out Zhou Zhengyi's name rather than say it aloud in public.

"This is a police state, don't kid yourself," another businessman says. "And the Chinese are obedient compared to others."

Nevertheless, over the past 20 years, 90 per cent of the population of Shanghai has moved or been relocated to new, more spacious digs. The Western press has questioned many of these expropriations, and the way people are replanted in the suburbs like so many cabbages. But Shanghai's density improves as the high-rises rise.

"Foreign journalists didn't understand the crowded living conditions in Shanghai," Sijia Yu, the city planning department's 37-year-old chief, told me one morning. "Sometimes three generations lived in one single room. That means six or seven people crowded into less than 10 square metres. In the early 1980s, the residential space of each person in Shanghai was the size of a newspaper. Now, almost everyone in Shanghai enjoys a space the size of a room — 13 square metres."

One afternoon, walking through the secondhand market in Qiujiang Road — you can buy anything here: a drill press, a bike ($20), a copy of Microsoft Office (60 cents), Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head (75 cents), a DVD of the just-released movie Collateral ($1.10) — I see an old man leaning out of a second-floor window of an old shikumen alley house. He waves me up.

I walk down a dark alley, past a nest of wires and clotheslines, past a foursome playing mahjong, up a steep flight of narrow, shallow steps, through a common cooking room shared by six families and into a small flat.

His name is Zhang Guan Qing. He's 74. The place is spotless. His cuffs are turned up. He lives here with his 72-year-old wife, Sun Ying Di. They didn't always: Back in the 1960s, they lived on Henan Road in Zhabei District, behind his father's house. His father was a factory owner. One day in 1967, the Red Army confiscated everything they owned, to punish him for his father's "bad family behaviour."

The young couple were so embarrassed that they moved here to disappear into a teeming slum, to raise three children in a 34-square-metre, three-room apartment half the size of a small studio flat in Toronto. That was 37 years ago. They never left.

Lots of reasons are given for Shanghai's residential makeover. One that's seldom mentioned is the desire to repair China's past, to brick up the memory of the Cultural Revolution and the pain it forced into so many lives.

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Shanghai's cheap. A quart of milk is 75 cents, a six-pack of Tsingtao beer $2.40. A full set of knock-off Callaway clubs, in a Callaway bag, with Callaway golf shoes in a Callaway golf shoe bag, will set you back $225. You can buy a counterfeit watch in a counterfeit box with a counterfeit warranty.

But civic life costs more and more. The average Shanghaiese makes 7,416 yuan a month, or about $13,380 a year. Most estimates say you have to make twice that to qualify as middle class, which 20 per cent of the city does. But the Shanghai Municipal People's Government auctions car licence plates to the highest bidders: This year, the price averaged more than 40,000 yuan, half the cost of some cars.

The outside wall of the Hongkou District Primary School on Zhongzhou Road bears four words, in English and in Chinese, in foot-high golden letters: HARMONIOUS PROGRESSIVE STURDY INNOVATIVE. But education costs have doubled for the average Shanghai family since 1995. Paying money to obtain entrance to a good school is not unknown, nor is (a new development) paying for good grades.

Hospitals are ostensibly free, but any urgent surgery in Shanghai requires "the red package" — a 50,000 yuan ($7,500) cash payment to the doctor (who makes only $450 or so a month).

"If you pay the guy so little," a long-time resident of Shanghai points out, "you can't expect him to have high morals."

That's a Shanghai attitude. There's more genuine socialism in Alberta.

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Shanghai slows down at night: There are fewer cars, the street lamps wash the city in yellow sodium light, the smell of cooking leaks through the streets. This is a good time to walk and think about what life is going to be like in the West when China controls the world the way America has — what it's going to be like when we work for them, as Noranda's employees soon may.

I see foursomes of young women on their way to a midnight snack (dumplings or crayfish, a Shanghai tradition), linked arm in arm ("I think it's an extension of the single-child policy," Richard Xavia says, "so they all treat each other like brothers and sisters"). Then I think China is the most innocent place on Earth.

Other times, I see people working harder than they ever do in North America — migrant workers welding through the night high up on buildings wrapped in bamboo scaffolding and green netting — and I think, we don't stand a chance.

A Canadian diplomat I talk to, a deeply experienced China hand, puts it more diplomatically. "What is the moral imperative of China's leadership?" he says. "It may simply be that there are a lot of Chinese. But the fact that they want to live as well as they can in a middle-class way in a city, with maybe Manhattan as their model — is that so unfair? Is it unfair of them to want their life expectancy to be higher than 50?"

It is not. It's just that there are a billion-three of them. It's just that China has a habit of giving way to sheer momentum, whether it takes the form of enslaving emperors, opium-dealing foreigners, Communist ideologues or brash capitalists.

"You always hear about 5,000 years of Chinese civilization," Handel Lee says one afternoon, sitting on a black leather couch in his office in front of what looks like a first-century Chinese bronze ding, or food dish.

Mr. Lee is a Chinese-born, American-educated mergers and acquisitions lawyer who also happens to be chairman and co-owner of the $62-million Three on the Bund project. He is 43 years old.

"But what was that culture? It was a civilization based on philosophy and art. Not on the Chinese military or on a political philosophy — merely on art, and history.

"And since 1949, it's gone. Contemporary Chinese culture — well, look at it. It's this rapacious economic behemoth, ripping the place apart. But it's got no heart. It's got no soul."

Mr. Lee hopes that his favourite project, the Shanghai Gallery of Art, will bring that lost culture back to China. The gallery flaunts the most subversive modern art in China today — the work of artists who left the country under the Communists, such as Sui Jianguo's looming polyester dinosaurs (stamped Made In China and sprayed Chinese red) or Xu Bing's sly investigation of tobacco imported so profitably into Shanghai by the British American Tobacco Corporation a century ago (one out of every three cigarettes in the world is smoked in China, where 750,000 die of lung cancer a year).

Mr. Lee hopes that such art will introduce an idea as radical in China as it is these days in Washington — that individual expression and resistance might keep the excesses of both Western capitalism and Chinese authoritarianism at bay.

Of course, no one can truthfully predict how free Shanghai will be of either force — nothing like Communist-capitalist China has ever happened before. You could just as safely follow the advice of a slogan I spot one night on a construction hoarding in Shanghai: Adore The World. Be After It. Be In It.

In a city of 17 million, everything gets to be true at least some of the time.

I leave a couple of days later, taking Shanghai's high-speed train to the new Pudong Airport. The Mag-Lev train covers the 30 kilometres — a trip that can take an hour and a half in a car — in eight minutes.

The station is spotless, and almost empty, like a landscape in a science-fiction movie. It's the first time I've been alone in public in two weeks. Attendants in light-blue dresses stand around and smile.

I sit facing forward, and watch the orange digital read-out in the train record our speed. We are banking sharply through the Sunqiao agricultural zone, land that has been farmed for centuries, when the Mag-Lev hits 408 kilometres an hour.

I look out at the impossible green of China, at the bamboo bent to shelter the growing food, at the rice fields and the human specks tending them. But as soon as I focus, they are gone, while the train races forward to a new surprise.

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