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The Future is Now

A fast–moving urban border zone in a
frenzy of becoming, Shanghai is inventing
itself as the new superpowered
megalopolis of the 21st century and beyond.

By Jaime Wolf
Photos by Peter Bialobrzeski
Shanghai’s gleaming vertiginous skyline shimmers, a glass curtain drawn across the banks of the Huangpu, seductive and imposing, its buildings embodying the boundary of a new polyglot postmodern futurism. Behind this curtain: new modes of urban existence, born from a fusion of West and East, a hive of entrepreneurial mania, new culture, new technology.
     Also behind the curtain: more skyscrapers, sprouting at a rate as dizzying as their height. Until the 1980s, Shanghai’s tallest building was the 24-story Park Hotel; today, the city has more than 4,000 buildings at least that tall, with hundreds more under construction. Everywhere you turn, a new hole

Shopping mall at Nanjing Donglu
in the ground, or a towering skein of bamboo-stick scaffolding and a pack of enormous cranes surrounding some half-built—or half-demolished—structure. (It’s said that in the late ’90s more than a quarter of the world’s construction cranes were here.)
    llustrating Mark Twain, who said that history doesn’t repeat itself but rhymes, Shanghai’s present spree of international development is an unconscious inversion of the imperialism that first established the city more than 160 years ago. Then, Europeans grabbed Shanghai for their own: entering into exploitative partnerships with the Chinese, they erected Asia’s tallest buildings, grand stone structures lining the Bund, and set off a real-estate and business frenzy in which vast fortunes were made and lost.
     Now the Chinese hold the reins on all joint ventures, and even the shrewdest Western partners know they have no idea when they’ll see a return on their investment.
    On the streets, in the shadows of the towers, other frontiers. The frontier of a market-economy lifestyle—in the Xuhui district (the tony former French Concession), incomes average three times those in the rest of the country—and the frontier of a growing divide between rich and poor. In the upscale shopping mall at Xintiandi, security guards discourage poorly dressed locals from entering the fashionable shops and restaurants.
    Beneath advertising billboards featuring film stars Faye Wong, Karen Mok, and Zhang Ziyi, in side streets off glamorous shopping boulevards like the Huaihai Lu, follow the ever-shifting boundaries of intellectual property. Even as brand-conscious Chinese snap up high-priced merchandise with Western logos, they happily knock it off with such alacrity that the copied clothing sometimes reaches the market in advance of the originals.
    One may wonder, browsing stalls filled with pirated

Shops along Honigqiao Road in the shadow of new construction.
DVDs, who among the locals has an interest in seeing Barbet Schroeder’s The Valley (Obscured by Clouds), or a ’60s avant-garde beatnik short film called Chappaqua.
     And only history will sort out what emerges from the present-day intensity. In the overflowing antiques Market on Dongtai Lu, artifacts from different eras vie for buyers’ attention: exquisite gramophones and art deco items from the city’s debauched ’20s and ’30s sit side by side with plastic worker figurines, well-thumbed Red Books, and propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution. All ideology has been drained from these objects; bobbing in the wake of the city’s headlong rush for the future, they're historical kitsch, decorative items for the home. Perhaps even more than the skyscrapers, it’s this free-for-all attitude that is emblematic of Shanghai today. Years from now, looking back from the future presently taking shape, it may seem equally quaint to
consider a time when the city’s contours were still unknown.   

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