Howard W. French: Old Charms Thrive in the New Shanghai

Howard French, former Shanghai Bureau Chief for the New York Times, revisits the city:

Already at this hour, the highway into Shanghai was throbbing with traffic, steadily moving but growing thicker by the minute. As I nodded in and out of sleep, I suddenly realized that much of the roadway was unfamiliar. I’d been back and forth to this airport countless times, but I had been away for a year, and in Shanghai that’s plenty of time to give rise to doubts about the loss of familiar landmarks and the appearance of major expressways.

The pretext for much of Shanghai’s recent change, of course, is the hosting of the ongoing 2010 Expo, an event for which the city has spent untold billions. Most visibly, the money has gone toward the ambitious transformation of the city’s waterfront, where on both banks of the Huangpu River entire neighborhoods and industrial zones have been cleared and lavishly rebuilt. Shanghai has continued to expand and improve its transportation networks, opening new highways and interchanges and, recently, the 12th subway line in what is suddenly one of the world’s most impressive metro systems.

Few foreign visitors will perceive another ambitious push in this city’s makeover. One might call it the manners drive: sanding the rough edges from the behavior and mores of the city’s residents, like the stranger in a noodle shop who struck up a conversation the other day and whose second question, after asking my nationality, was how much money do I make?

Like the push to build new infrastructure, this upgrade effort began several years ago, but as the May opening date of the Expo drew near, it became the focus of an accelerating wave of public education campaigns aimed at topics like eradicating spitting, creating orderly pedestrians and, perhaps most touchingly, getting Shanghainese to abandon the wearing of pajamas in public.


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