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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."

[-bugs-]

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."

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