Shanghai's Coming out Party

I’ve been living in the same apartment in downtown Shanghai for over 2 years, but in the last few weeks my neighborhood has been radically transformed.  Suddenly, across the street a new subway hub emerged. The street itself is still under mutation. Teams of workers are busy planting full-grown trees that have just been shipped in. Welcome to Shanghai circa 2010. Here, if you want to change your surroundings its best to stay still.

Since 2002 when the city won the right to host the World Expo, it was clear that 2010 would be the year that Shanghai would stage its coming out party. In the long rivalry between China’s two great cities, this is Shanghai’s time. While it has yet to make the headlines elsewhere, preparations for the Expo, billed here as the ‘cultural Olympics,’ match –or even exceed – the build up to the Beijing Games. Almost every project announced in the city during the last few years had the same completion date. It had become almost a joke.

Now as the moment approaches– the countdown is ubiquitous, walk through an alleyway, wait to cross a main intersection, go to the library to check out a book and a sign, somewhere, seems to scream out – 138, 137, 136 days left - the city has gone into a frenzy of construction that is unlike anything, any city, anywhere has ever seen.

I’ve been here for most of the decade and have grown accustomed to high-speed growth. I’ve seen neighborhoods vanish and parks and skyscrapers magically appear. Yet, nothing has prepared me for the mind numbing change currently underway.

First, the entire megalopolis is being given a spruce up. Teams of migrant workers are everywhere – hanging from ladders, dangling from ropes. Brick by brick, they are replacing almost every sidewalk, painting almost every wall and fence, recovering every grid, retouching every facade. Scaffolding is all around; roads are dug up, piles of rubble block key passageways. Walking or cycling is often hazardous. Step out of a restaurant, gallery or club –however glamorous – and there they are, hard at work.

From the streets of Shanghai it is no surprise that China has been barely touched by the recession  - its biggest city is one giant stimulus.

Those zones that are impossible to ‘repair’ are being covered up. A huge block at Ulumuqi road and Wuyuan road that is filled with crumbling buildings and overgrown vegetation is still up for rent. Recently a team of workers hid the entire block behind a massive billboard advertising – you guessed it – Expo 2010.

These ‘minor repairs’ are overshadowed by the mega-projects that are currently under way. A few years ago I heard about a plan to bury some of the traffic lanes along the Bund, Shanghai’s iconic waterfront strip. I naively thought it was just a suggestion – something that might be nice some day - but about 8 months ago the barricades went up and the tunnel was dug. The newly renovated Bund is due to open in March.

Every district, every major thoroughfare is due for a similar makeover. Projects that have long seemed dead or stalled have been suddenly set into high-speed motion. In Lujiazui a pedestrian skyway is in the works, in Hongkou district a new waterfront, on Huaihai road, a string of new mega malls, on Nanjing road, a cluster of new super towers - all are due to open in a couple of months.

On Jumen road, which leads directly into the expo site, a once seedy street of disused factories and shady massage parlors has been transformed into a vast ‘creative cluster’ – one of more than 80 already in the city. It too will be ready for 2010.

Long-term residents, who have suffered from the seas of bulldozers, the near constant sound of jackhammers, and the hacking coughs that inevitably arise when living in a film of dust, now have the pleasure of witnessing the city gradually unveil. A major corner at Huaihai road and Changshu road for months concealed by construction was, just a few weeks ago, uncovered to reveal a subway stop with a small park on top. At first the trees were bare and there was nothing but mud. A few days later, however, everything was fully in bloom. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century even the trees are made to keep up with Shanghai time.

Most astonishing of all, however, is the construction of the subway. Surprisingly, for a city as vain as Shanghai, there are no superstar architects involved in the World Expo plans. There is no ‘Birdsnest’ or ‘Watercube’ in the works. Instead, the focus has been underground. The network’s vast and high-speed expansion is rapidly making Shanghai’s subway system one of the most extensive in the world. Subway stops are sprouting all over town revolutionizing every day life for millions of the city’s residents. The latest line, line 7 just opened in December.  5 more new lines are due to open in the next 4 months.

All this says nothing of the Expo site itself, a vast area straddling both sides of the river that divides Shanghai. This long neglected zone – with its factories, warehouses, and giant shipyard – belonged, up until about a year ago, to the city’s industrial past.  Yet, it enjoys a surprisingly central location. Once developed it has the potential to reorient the entire urban landscape of Shanghai. Despite the fact that little is known about what will happen to the site once the Expo is over, the new high-rises that are being built nearby are rumored to be retailing at the exorbitant price of 80 000 RMB per square meter.

True to Shanghai style, the 2010 World Expo is set to dwarf all other World Fairs in every conceivable way. It has an unprecedented budget, the largest area, the most participants and the biggest projected audience (the government claims 70 million visitors over the course of 6 months). Its clear aim is to reanimate the Great Exhibitions of a previous age.

Where all this will ultimately lead is still unknown.  How the surface spectacle of a future metropolis will mesh with the city’s complex reality is impossible to predict. This much, however, is certain; if you want to know what to watch for in 2010, keep your eye on Shanghai.