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Shanghai: Looking Inward
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If you came to Shanghai in the summer of 2010, you would have found a city awash in smiling blue faces. Haibao ("sea treasure") the Gumby-like official mascot of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, was everywhere. His image was beamed onto giant video screens, stood sentry at intersections, greeted passengers in subway stations, and gazed upon the public from shop windows and the sides of buses.

Haibao's ubiquity was not matched by a sense of cultural sensitivity. On the road to the city's Hongqiao Airport stood a "Scottish" Haibao playing bagpipes; a "Latino" Haibao sporting a sombrero, maracas, and wildly rolling eyes; a "Cowboy" Haibao in jeans, boots and a Stetson; and a dazed-looking "Indian" Haibao, a yogi in loincloth and turban. Earlier in the year, Haibao showed up at Hillary Clinton's visit to the groundbreaking of the U.S. Expo pavilion. "I'm originally from Maryland," he said. (The State Department officer hidden inside the mascot costume was feeling chatty.)

Expo organizers helpfully explained the symbolism behind each of Haibao's physical traits. His blue body, shaped like the Chinese character for "person," represented imagination, China's rise, and its potential. (And, rather opaquely, "latitude.") His face showed his confidence and friendliness, his big, round eyes projecting anticipation. His wave-like pompadour showed openness. His hands, clenched into a permanent thumbs-up, showed appreciation and warmth. He was slightly chubby—"lovely and cute," the official description put it—signifying prosperity. And finally, he had big feet, suggesting stability.

This is the image that Shanghai wanted to promote—friendly, innovative, confident, stable and international. Yet it was an image that didn't project far beyond China's shores—quite intentionally. Much like the Expo itself, Haibao's intended audience, in all his stereotypical forms, was domestic. In an increasingly confident China, the criteria for success held by the rest of the world are increasingly irrelevant. What matters is what's happening here.

A Coronation

What's happening, headlines imply, is Shanghai's imminent coronation as the world's next financial and cultural capital. It's not clear yet whether a financial king will really emerge from this process—but there is already quite a bit of crown.

The city's Lujiazui district, home to two—and soon three—of the world's tallest buildings, is presented as a temple of finance. When viewed at night from the Bund, the string of historical buildings flanked by a promenade on the western bank of the Huangpu River, it's easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm. Blinding light displays cover entire buildings and flash advertisements, propaganda and self-congratulatory messages. "I Love Shanghai," one states simply.

It's not the first time the world has seen Shanghai rising. Among the foreign community, there is a tendency to draw comparisons with the city's legendary heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly, the hedonism and anything-goes mentality of that earlier era are alive and well. The city comes to life at night, and one of the best views of Lujiazui can be had, champagne flute in hand, from the rooftop Jacuzzi at the Hyatt on the Bund's Vue bar (bikinis available on the menu). The Bund itself, stretching south along the Huangpu from Suzhou Creek, has been given over to five-star hotels, luxury boutiques, banks and high-end restaurants.

But the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s was a Chinese city in geography only. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking forced the opening of Chinese ports, including Shanghai, and paved the way for carving up the city into international concessions. A colonial attitude dominated. The final chapter of Shanghai: High Lights, Low Lights, Tael Lights, a tongue-in-cheek guidebook written by two whiskey-sodden expatriates in the 1930s, is entitled, "There Are Also Some Chinese in Shanghai."

Today, Shanghai is indisputably Chinese. In 2009, foreigners—most of whom work in foreign-backed enterprises—made up less than one percent of a population of more than 19 million. The city's wealthy elite are not the foreign traders who dominated in the past, but local property tycoons, financiers and government officials.

A Party Town


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