Robert Elliott, trainee, Linklaters
11 March 2010
I first came to Shanghai after my LPC and, though I was only here for a few days, I saw enough to convince me that I wanted to come back for longer so I could get under the skin of the place and see more of what makes it tick at such a frenetic rate.
Shanghai has a contagious energy. Whilst it was once known as the Paris of the East, and its large French Concession with its tree-lined boulevards, quaint coffee shops and classy cocktail bars still allude to that era, nowadays it strikes me as a curious blend of New York and Hong Kong with the relentless ambition of modern China tearing it forward.
I’ve spent almost six months in Linklaters’ office in the heart of the financial district of Shanghai, situated amongst the bizarre collection of architectural anomalies that form the skyline of downtown Pudong, east of the Huangpu River. Here, apparently the more ambitious the design and height of your building, the more likely you’ll get the go-ahead to fling it up in record time. This makes for some stunning views, both across the construction zones that still blight much of Pudong, and – especially as the sun sets – over the river to Puxi, where the lights of the Bund (Shanghai’s most renowned riverside stretch) gleam across at me at my desk on the 30th floor.
Like Beijing before the 2008 Olympics, Shanghai is preparing to reveal its new self to the world in all its glory in 2010. The 2010 Expo, also known as the World Fair, is coming to town in May for a six-month stint. Whilst I’m sure that back in the UK you’ll receive more blank stares talking about an Expo than an Olympics, out here it’s being billed as at least an equal of Beijing’s 2008 event. Indeed, the rivalry between the two cities in competing for the world’s attention has dictated that Shanghai has splashed even more (it budgeted RMB30 billion) on preparations than Beijing. Reports say that over RMB4.5 billion alone has been poured into the widening of the pedestrianised walkway lining the Bund, which is supposed to be completed before May.
But this is not just about the Expo. This is about Shanghai keeping itself at the forefront of mainland China’s thrust into modernity, leaving remnants of the past quite literally in the dust. Its expanding tube network is already second to none on the mainland, and coupled with investment in new roads and tunnels, the authorities are paving the way for the pace of Shanghai life to be stepped up to a new level.
Working in a foreign representative office in the city (no foreign law firms are yet permitted to practice PRC law) opens the door to a fascinating insight into the way business is done here. A number of our clients are foreign entities taking their first steps in investing into the country, or into a particular industry sector in the country, so our role is often to help them negotiate around the obstacles they encounter along the way. Actions that we may take for granted in the UK, such as the transfer of a company’s money to another of its accounts offshore, often require approvals from governmental authorities, the processes for which are developing all the time to try to keep pace with the ever-advancing regulatory regime.
Meanwhile, life as a Shanghainese is also changing. New restaurants, bars, theatres, live music and karaoke venues and clubs are springing up all over the city, to the extent that in six months here I will have only been to a select few favourite places more than once. Every day provides an opportunity to explore afresh. The emerging generation of workers who have only experienced a booming China propelled by Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour of 1992 (when Pudong was still largely pastures), are being spoilt for choice on where to spend the wealth they are able to accrue thanks to an increasing abundance of education and job opportunities.
Shanghai is a city which appears to define itself by changing its face so quickly that it evades any possibility of categorisation. But that is not to say that it loses its charm. After perching on a plastic stool for a lunch of xiaolongbao (Shanghai’s famous little steamed, meat-filled pastry dumplings) and a bowl of beef noodles, all for about a pound from the family-run restaurant around the corner from my flat, nothing is more relaxing than wandering into a park in the French Concession and watching the elderly couples while away their weekend afternoons by dancing to the meandering wail of a dizi (a Chinese flute) on a jukebox, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the crowd of onlookers and indifferent to the pace set by the city around them.