Shanghai Swings!

16 minute read
Hannah Beech

When Alphonso Zhu sauntered into the Paramount ballroom—suit pressed, hair smoothed back with Yardley’s Brilliantine—the scion of one of Shanghai’s richest families would often be greeted with a welcome fanfare from the band’s trumpet section. One of the most eligible bachelors in town in the 1930s, Zhu courted Chinese, European and Eurasian girls with multilingual ease. In his spare time—and playboys in swinging Shanghai had plenty of it—he started up a jazz band with the sons of the Swedish consul general. The music stopped in 1949.

Under communism, Zhu’s family home was confiscated, and he was assigned a menial job. The Paramount, once the hottest joint in town, became the Red Capital Theater, where workers were corralled to watch films on the glories of socialism. Recently, though, a man whose life has roller-coastered along with Shanghai stepped out for a most remarkable event: the grand reopening of the Paramount, where sequined Russian showgirls kicked up their heels and Chinese women swirled by in slinky cheongsams. “This is the greatest city in the world,” says the 86-year-old Zhu, in his precise, courtly English. “And now, I feel, it’s only getting better.”

He’s not alone in that thought. From its very origins a century and a half ago, Shanghai was a mixed-blood metropolis that upended every notion of Orient and Occident. A Western trading port built on an Eastern marsh, its fashions were French, many of its banks and trading houses were British, its security guards were turbaned Indians from the raj and its signature soup, borscht, was brought by Russians fleeing from the Bolsheviks. Chinese refugees flooded the city, too, more than a million of them, bringing acres of bamboo scaffolding and the secrets to making the finest silk. By the 1920s, Shanghai was an exotic stew of Jewish opium traders, Chinese compradors and Viennese dancing girls. Seduced like so many others by this sprawl of humanity, Aldous Huxley wrote in 1926: “Yes, it will all be there, just as intensely and tenaciously alive as ever—all there a thousand years hence, five thousand, ten. You have only to stroll through Shanghai to be certain of it. London and Paris offer no such certainty.”

Communism, of course, stalled the full flowering of Huxley’s brave new world. Shanghai slumbered for half a century. But today, the world’s love child, a hybrid of history, is stepping out again, with not just Chinese but global aspirations.

In 1985, Shanghai had just one skyscraper over 100 meters high; it now has more than 300. A fleet of Mercedes-Benz taxis took to the road earlier this year, while bicycles, that most proletarian mode of transport, were banned from the city’s biggest avenues. The past few years have brought China’s finest museum, a soaring Grand Theater and the Xintiandi entertainment district, where a maze of renovated lane houses offers 30,000 people per day everything from fine dining to hip nightclubs. In the past year and a half, the city has given birth to its first Ferrari, Bulgari and Armani stores, and Louis Vuitton will this week open its largest boutique in Asia outside of Japan.

Across the river from this retail mecca, a futuristic vision called Pudong sparkles as the city’s new financial district on what was mostly marshland 15 years ago. By 2008, Pudong will boast the world’s tallest building, providing Shanghai the superlative exclamation point it craves. This year, the city expects more than $12 billion in contracted foreign direct investment, nearly 40 times that of 1985. More foreigners now visit Shanghai than in the city’s first heyday. Some travel from the new airport on what is perhaps the city’s finest metaphor: a $1.2 billion magnetic-levitation train that reaches 430 kilometers per hour, making it the world’s fastest locomotive—even though the entire trip takes only eight minutes. “I’ve lived all over Asia, and no place has the kind of energy that Shanghai does,” says Rudi Butt, the Hong Kong-born executive director of the Yongfoo Elite, a private dining club in the historic French Concession, where a corporate membership costs $7,000. “Just walking down the street, you feel like people are picking up their pace and making everything go faster and faster.”

But beyond fashioning itself into the world’s greatest boomtown, Shanghai has made itself the symbol of our era. No metropolis better captures the striving spirit of the times—globalization, trade, pell-mell development—than Shanghai. This city of 16.7 million people, built on the mud flats of the Yangtze River, is constantly expanding its horizons, transforming itself into the modern realization of the East-meets-West dream. It is a dizzying spectacle that inspires awe and envy, wonder and bewilderment. This weekend China’s first Formula One Grand Prix will take place on a circuit that used the country’s entire annual supply of polystyrene to keep the track from sinking into a swamp. Three weeks later, the National Basketball Association will bring back Shanghai’s native son, Yao Ming, for a preseason game between the Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings. In hopes of purchasing a ticket, thousands of Shanghainese stood in line for 40 hours.

There’s more. A Spanish bullfight is planned for next month in a specially constructed ring in the Shanghai Sports Stadium. Starting on Sept. 29, the Shanghai Art Museum will showcase what in just a decade has become one of Asia’s premier art festivals, the two-month Shanghai Biennale. “The Shanghainese are quick to adopt foreign and new ideas,” says Zhang Qing, one of the curators of the Biennale, which will focus on the symbiosis among art, science and technology. “The city has an accommodating character, so even though Shanghai might not have the best Chinese artists, it provides a platform for international artistic exchange.”

This renaissance has been spectacularly rapid. When Handel Lee first visited Shanghai in the early ’90s, the 43-year-old American lawyer saw nothing of the city that his father, who studied in Shanghai before joining the overseas exodus in 1949, used to rhapsodize about as the most cosmopolitan place in the world. “I hated it,” says Lee, who was based in Beijing at the time. “It was dirty and muddy, and the people were grouchy. I thought ‘How could this place have been so glamorous before?'” That the Pearl of the Orient had lost its luster was unsurprising, given that the Communists had deliberately held Shanghai back as retribution for its earlier capitalist excesses. Even when Deng Xiaoping kick-started economic reforms in 1979, Shanghai wasn’t invited to the party. It was only in the mid ’90s, after Deng had repented on his decision to restrain Shanghai, that then President Jiang Zemin, a former Shanghai Mayor, was able to grant his old domain the same economic freedoms as other parts of China. “I remember visiting in 1998,” says Lee, “and all of a sudden, it felt like Shanghai was breathing a huge sigh of relief and saying, ‘Hey, we’re back where we belong.'”

Like everyone else, Lee began looking for a way to ride the revival. By 1999, he had found it: a dilapidated building on the historic Bund riverfront that, with investment from Chinese tire magnates living overseas, he hoped to turn into the city’s premier address. Renovations took nearly five years—an eternity in today’s Shanghai—but earlier this year, Three on the Bund opened for business. Transformed by American architect Michael Graves, the 1916 building includes four restaurants, the 1,000-square-meter Armani flagship store and an Evian spa. Despite the stratospheric prices—a ruched scarf at one of the apparel stores goes for $300—half of the building’s customers are Chinese. At the Evian spa, women who once were exhorted to trade “lipstick for guns” sashay past indoor streams (filled with Evian mineral water) to private treatment rooms, while on a different floor the famed fusion chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten offers up such delicacies as a $33 coddled egg with crme frache and caviar to executives from state-owned enterprises.

One floor of Three on the Bund is reserved for the Shanghai Gallery of Art, Lee’s pet project. Previously, much of Chinese top-end avant-garde art was produced by artists who lived overseas and sold their work to foreigners enchanted by neon-hued renditions of Chairman Mao. Some Chinese artists did live on the mainland, often in communes outside Beijing, but their art, too, was largely bought by a clique of expats. Local art collectors seemed to prefer traditional landscapes over these more challenging pieces. But Lee figured he could convince Shanghai’s more open-minded residents to take an interest in modern Chinese art. “Shanghai is a window to the world because Shanghainese have an intense desire to learn about the West,” Lee says. “But in a strange way, Shanghai is also a window into a China that many other Chinese are unwilling to imagine.” In less than a year, the gallery has sold more than $1 million in contemporary Chinese art to local collectors. “This is the city where trends begin,” says Lee, who is now working on bringing a boutique hotel to Shanghai. “We’re sitting on an incredible force that’s just beginning to come alive.”

Every party town has its own beat, and in 1930s Shanghai the city’s heart syncopated to the sound of jazz. The coolest music emanated from the Paramount, host to global jet-setters like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. But the parties at Alphonso Zhu’s house, a Spanish mission-style mansion with two tennis courts and an oversized ballroom, were also the talk of the town. Between waltzes, guests feasted on lobster, drank champagne punch and gossiped in English, Chinese and French. Alphonso’s father had studied at the Sorbonne, and the son would have gone to Paris, too—the “Shanghai of the West,” as the joke went—had hostilities with Japan not intervened.

But even the Japanese occupation of the international settlements from 1941 to 1945 didn’t wreck the party. Sure, the ranks of Westerners thinned—one of Alphonso’s favorite dancing girls at the Paramount, a Russian named Nina, nearly died in the internment camps—but Europeans from neutral or Axis nations still bobbed their heads among the Chinese fox-trotting set. Then China’s “liberation,” as the Communists dubbed their victory over the Nationalists in 1949, changed everything. When the red-cheeked peasants of the People’s Liberation Army marched into town, they were appalled by Shanghai’s depravity. Private businesses were nationalized, and the Zhu home was claimed as the headquarters of one of the Communists’ propaganda bureaus.

By 1952, Zhu was toiling as a lowly purchaser in the power company his family had once owned. One day, local officials organized a day off for the laborers. Entertainment came courtesy of a dire 40-piece People’s Liberation Army orchestra. Desperate to stop the screeching cacophony, the head of the work unit directed Zhu to a dusty piano. The song he chose? Tea for Two. Even the local Party secretary was charmed, and soon after, Zhu was commissioned to play a concert to celebrate Asian-Latin American-African Friendship Day. Zhu remembers that he ended his medley with a Latin-tinged number that went: “Mexicali Rose, stop crying. I’ll come back to you some sunny day.” Hundreds of peasants, in their baggy uniforms, shimmied to the foreign imperialists’ music while the Shanghainese dusted off their rumbas. Zhu recalls: “My piano made Shanghai sunny again.”

The interlude didn’t last. A Party magazine criticized Zhu’s concert for destroying revolutionary spirit. Soon after, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution began in earnest. Red Guards ransacked Zhu’s home, destroying all his instruments and burning family photos. One album, though, was saved for a public display detailing how decadently Shanghai’s lite had lived. Thousands of Red Guards marched past the exhibit, spitting on the floor to show disgust at such opulence. Zhu was forced to walk through, too, keeping his head downcast so the others wouldn’t recognize the pomaded boy strumming a guitar in happier days. Later, Zhu spent 14 months in solitary confinement. On the paper he was supposed to use to write out his confessions, he scribbled the sheet music to his favorite songs.

Today, Zhu and his wife live in a one-room apartment in a fourth-floor walk-up. Most of his family is scattered across Europe, Latin America and the U.S.—a diaspora typical of Shanghai’s venerable old families. But Alphonso never considered leaving. Last week, he joined a group of Shanghainese who had gathered to sing the jazzy hits he was once imprisoned for loving. “Who would ever have imagined,” Zhu marvels, “that we’d hear these songs in Shanghai again?”

These days, Shanghai’s theme song is more percussive than it was in the jazz age. Everywhere you go, the drumbeat of jackhammers heralds a city growing so furiously that no one has any idea what it will look like in five years. From 1998 to 2002, Shanghai tore down 15 million square meters of old neighborhoods and developed more than 80 million square meters of new residential land, an amount equivalent to 20% of the city’s total residential space. More than 10,000 foreign companies have set up shop in Pudong. Construction cranes loom over new luxury complexes with names like Merlin Champagne Town and Versailles de Shanghai, which house the city’s burgeoning nouveau riche, just as Tudor cottages, stuccoed Spanish villas and Art Deco flats did 70 years ago. (A new regulation issued this month, however, requires developers to change all real estate names that are “feudal, aristocratic, foreign and immoral” by next September to those that promote “national dignity.”) Energizing this construction site of a city are 3 million migrant workers, 10 times the number of people that flooded California during the entire gold rush. To accommodate this massive human influx, Shanghai plans to build 11 satellite cities by 2010, several with populations of more than 1 million. “This is one of the fastest urban expansions in history,” says Long Weiding, an engineering professor at Shanghai’s Tongji University.

Shanghai is also luring back families that had fled when the banks and ballrooms were boarded up in 1949. Chief among them are tycoons from Taiwan and Hong Kong, who helped develop the island and the former colony, and are now applying their business acumen to Shanghai. Hong Kong property magnate Vincent Lo shelled out $170 million to build the Xintiandi entertainment district. Down the road from Three on the Bund, at No. 18, once home to the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, Venetian architects are busily cleaning panels of Seravazze marble—a Tuscan stone so rare that the restorers say quarrying stopped in the 1850s—in what promises to be one of the most meticulous restorations so far on the historic waterfront. The project, dubbed Bund 18, is the brainchild of Janette Chang, daughter of a Taiwan investor who spent his childhood in Shanghai. Citizens of Taiwan, 400,000 of whom now live in Shanghai, brought $1.7 billion in investment contracts to the city last year, 10 times what they invested just three years before. Bund 18’s soft opening will take place on Nov. 20, and Cartier and Zegna will serve as the anchor tenants. By late fall, a restaurant helmed by three-star Michelin chefs, twins Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, will offer contemporary French cuisine, as well as hookah water pipes for a postprandial smoke. “With this project we wanted to create something that is modern but not shiny,” says Andrea Destefanis, one of the on-site Italian architects. “Shanghai is an eclectic place with a fusion between Chinese and Western, and we want to preserve that heritage.”

With so much buzz surrounding Shanghai, the city has even attracted what is perhaps the most reluctant group to return: locals who left in the 1980s and ’90s, when the place was still sheathed in gray. Wang Fenghua got his doctorate in economics at Boston University and never really considered coming back until he visited a couple years ago. “In the U.S. you can lead a quiet and comfortable life,” says Wang, now a senior research fellow at the Shanghai Stock Exchange. “But there’s an excitement in Shanghai that made me realize I had to return.” Adds his Boston University roommate, Wang Yanfeng, who is now back running his own tech firm: “You want to be where the party is, and right now, there’s no bigger party than Shanghai.” About a third of the total number of China’s returnees have come back to Shanghai, and more than 90% of them boast either a master’s or doctorate degree. “You can tell this is a world-class city now, because the fashions here are even more expensive than in the U.S.,” says Yu Jiadi, who returned to Shanghai just last month after graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and working at the World Bank in Washington. “What’s amazing to me is that there seem to be so many people who have the money to buy all these expensive things.”

Bales of money, immigrants of every color, fashions of every hue. The energy that today powers Shanghai’s revival cannot help but recall the glory days of the 1920s and ’30s. But the city’s current turbocharged dynamism differs from the decadence of yesteryear in one key respect. Back then, as the opium dens smoldered and the refugee settlements seethed, there was an almost willful blindness in the way people partied. Bombs were falling; warlords were feuding. Shanghai’s response was to put on silk stockings and tango. Today’s Shanghai suffers from no fear that it is dancing on the deck of the Titanic. True, there is talk of a real estate bubble; even municipal officials forecast a 10-15% drop in property prices over the next year. And there are fears that the clique of Shanghai-bred leaders who helped shepherd through policies favorable for their hometown are losing some sway in Beijing.

Nevertheless, there is an almost inexorable propulsion to Shanghai’s current ascendance. The civilization from which it draws strength is five millennia old, full of countless cycles of prosperity and turmoil. But Shanghai, as a city, is only 150 years young, a patchwork of East and West the vitality and optimism of which embody the very essence of the future. Who can deny Shanghai’s role as the 21st century’s most happening city? Not British Consul General Robert Urquhart: “Nothing in the world can stop [it] from becoming a prosperous commercial and industrial power.” Urquhart uttered those words in November 1948. Less than a year later, the glamorous metropolis had entered its deep sleep. Still, the underlying sentiment remained true. Like so many in Shanghai, Urquhart was merely half a century premature in his prophecy. Today, the party has begun. For real.

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