Postcard from… Shanghai

Shanghai is bedazzling; it’s a cliché but it’s true.

I have some pictures in my office taken during a short trip here in 1997 showing Lujiazui, now the financial district with a breathtaking skyline. In 1997 though it was little more than wasteland strewn with the remains of paddy fields. Another picture features the shoppers’ paradise of Xujiahui when it was a residential backwater where the tallest building was the St Ignatius cathedral. I no doubt looked much younger 13 years ago, but certainly the changes are no way as dramatic as those of the city!

Skyscrapers, restaurants, businesses, initiatives are springing up all over the place at an incredible speed. I live in Guanglan Lu area, in North Zhangjiang, a neighbourhood that now boasts five residential compounds, a major elementary and high school, shops, trams and even a metro line but when I first saw the area in 2000 it was little more than a swamp. Time is running so fast that some of the buildings, completed between 2003 and 2005, are now regarded as old, and indeed they are.

Another, sadly true, cliché is the fact that Shanghai has the hardware but not the software. The city has grown so quickly that people are simply not ready to face it, they do not know how they are supposed to do things in their nice new city. Properly trained people are hard to find in every field, from lawyers to secretaries to cleaners. Dealing with a plumber, an electrician, a bank teller or a taxi driver can be quite challenging. Everybody has moved from pure communism to almost pure capitalism in roughly two decades with no time to get used to it – not yet at least. And they know it. Young lawyers at work want nothing more than training; they work hard, are humble and have an almost unquenchable thirst for learning, learning, learning.

The Expo 2010 has been another deadline to get things finished quickly no matter how, and this includes the metro. When I arrived in 2004 there were only two metro lines for the whole of Shanghai. The last line open in April 2010 is line 13, and it is nowhere near enough in a city of nearly 20 million people. Every evening, when I alight from the metro (my home station is the terminus), a number of people carrying heavy luggage get down with me looking around for the airport connection. Alas, there is no airport connection. There is only a loudspeaker announcement and a sign telling you that there is an airport connection but, after 4pm, there is simply no train. What happens next? Passengers getting out of the metro station with any kind of baggage, be it a mere briefcase, are immediately mobbed by taxis, vans, private cars, motorbikes or tricycle drivers shouting “Pudong jichang!”or, the more linguistically gifted, “Pudong ai-pu-te! Pudong ai-pu-te!” Chinglish for Pudong airport, at a two-inch distance from your face.

The metro exit leads to a narrow alley, unbelievably congested with any possibly hireable vehicles, stuck between a crumbling rural village – the remains of a past era – and the construction site of yet another luxury residential compound.  You come out and, after roughly a hundred metres, there is the nice Zhanjiang, with its trees, its gardens, its quiet roads, its neat apartments, its pedigree poodles and its serious schools, the embodiment of its urban-planning destiny.

I like Shanghai, it’s fun.

Hermes Pazzaglini is a partner at Italian firm NCTM currently based in Shanghai.