Shanghai's Got The Groove Back
August 24, 2011
In late March, as I stepped out of a Chinese taxi having survived a hair raising one person race by a nervy female driver, I scanned up the height of the one-hundred story Financial Center that housed my hotel and realized, "I am not in old Shanghai any more". Twenty one years since my last visit to Shanghai and more than thirty since my first trip as a Chinese University of Hong Kong student, I was back for an Asian Summit conference hosted by the International Network of Boutique Law Firms ("INBLF"). The INBLF is an invitation-only global alliance of single discipline US law firms and full service international firms. I had dusted off my exceptionally rusty Mandarin with a newly purchased Chinese English dictionary. Funny how I could remember "I drink beer", but totally blanked on how to say "I drink water". I was ready for the thrill of Shanghai.
Over the next five days, I marveled at how fast, and how profoundly, a city could transform itself. When I graduated from Yale as an East Asian Studies major, Shanghai was shabby, run down and interesting as a historical relic with its Western style buildings on the Bund retaining only a whiff of its former mysteriously wicked self, puzzling for its naivete after having been closed to the Western world for many years. Orange soda was ubiquitous, typos on new signs, business cards and menus the norm. Shanghai was just dipping its toe into foreign joint ventures with only one up-scale hotel equipped with a revolving restaurant. Although the billion consumer potential for business was great, that potential did not translate into reality until the 1990s.
The energy in Shanghai today mirrors that in Silicon Valley in 1999, where everything moves fast, moves big, moves beyond what anyone thinks is possible. It is like being in the vortex of a business tornado--- thrilling but also frightening with its raw potential. If I were a fresh college graduate, I would go directly to Shanghai, as it is truly the "Zhong guo"--the centre of the universe.
In my ultramodern hotel room on the 79th floor, I simply could not believe I was in China. Certainly not the China I recalled, with leaky canteens, a breakfast menu offering "Egg Benedictine," crowds rushing to board and dismount the buses with no concept of a line, replies of "Meiyou"—"Don't have it" or "No" to any request, girls dancing with girls because dancing between the sexes was prohibited. My temporary home in this new Shanghai was a beautiful, sleek, high-tech room that took me and my INBLF colleagues days to decode and figure out its ultra-modern amenities.
Our host firm created glorious opportunities for INBLF members to get to know each other. We discussed Asian business opportunities and observations on China over drinks with the lit up Shanghai Bund view as the backdrop, at the Shanghai museum while viewing exquisite ceramics, and at the numerous banquets highlighting China's world famous cuisine.
The presentations sponsored by our host firm were encouraging, as they involved plans of environmental protection as well as improvement of the food supply through organic, local produce, alongside the plans for development. The statistics regarding China's growth are stunning. Between 1978 and 2010 total foreign trade increased by 85 times from US$20.6 billion to US$2972.76 billion. China has become the 2nd largest trading power in the world. As I listened, I could not help thinking "The U.S. is a declining empire." As a Californian living in San Francisco, every day brings news of mind boggling deficits, budget shortfalls, and deep slashes in every imaginable social service. Contrast this with the positive energy and evidence of growth and wealth in Shanghai—including a mall with a store which sparkled like the diamond as big as the Ritz.
Obviously, on the human rights and freedom side, China has a long way to go. A recent crackdown on activists reflects the lack of democracy and a recent strike of truckers in Shanghai illustrates that the phenomenal growth has not occurred without challenges to individual rights. In theory, however, the economic growth and freedom will eventually lead to greater democracy and rights.
For our last evening, our hosts brought us to an Art Deco banquet room, deep within a large garden compound, which was part of an establishment where world leaders had been entertained. It was a step back into Shanghai's glamorous and slightly wicked history. As very special guests, we sipped our smoky cold tea, admired the calligraphy decorating our fans, and enjoyed the spectacle of a red qipao-clad girl band rocking with their traditional Chinese instruments. A seemingly endless succession of delicacies left me as stuffed as a delicious plump dumpling.
My thrilling, whirlwind return to Shanghai left me yearning to be part of this economic juggernaut. Shanghai's got the groove back and I want to get into that groove.