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Shanghai surprise

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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."

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