Li Xing

Preserve Shanghai's unique heritage

By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-28 06:33
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I spent four days in Shanghai last week and was struck by how the Expo's motto - "Better city, better life" - applies to the city itself.

Shanghai has had a much needed, and well-deserved, facelift, just as Beijing did before the 2008 Olympics. Today, it is nothing like the city I remember from the 1980s.

The first thing you notice is the elevated expressways, which have brought about a huge improvement in the traffic. Just 10 minutes from Gate 3 of the Expo grounds, my taxi turned onto the Yan'an Elevated Road and we were on our way.

"Without the elevated expressways, we'd be stuck in traffic all day," a colleague told me.

It used to take former mayor Zhu Rongji almost two hours to get from Hongqiao Airport to his office, a distance of about 20 km, he added.

Despite their efficiency, however, the expressways tend to hide what is distinctive about Shanghai. Riding quickly from place to place, I saw towering hotels and apartment complexes, but not the dark red roofs of the shikumen, the unique residential structures for which Shanghai is famous.

As in any other city, you must get off the expressway to see what makes Shanghai so special. Of course, there are the landmarks for which the city is justly famous: the Bund; the People's Square, surrounded by the Shanghai Museum and Opera House; Nanjinglu and Huaihailu, its world-class shopping streets; and the futuristic Jinmao Tower.

But I particularly enjoyed a couple of short rides along two-lane roads lined with plane trees, as I was able to catch a glimpse of some small shops and a local park, where elderly people were doing their exercises. I even spotted a few churches that I hadn't noticed during previous visits.

Once you get out of the car, you begin to see the real Shanghai. On Sunday morning, my colleague took me to a small eatery between Wuding and Shaanxi Bei roads, where I enjoyed Xiao Yang-brand pot stickers, a Shanghai specialty. These dumplings are famous among local people for their freshness and flavor.

Of course, all this progress comes at a price. Many of the old shikumen are being bulldozed to make way for soaring high rises or ever-fancier gentrification projects. Many of the small mom-and-pop stores are gone, replaced by department stores with brand name luxury goods from around the world

But there's no doubt the improvements have led to a better city and a better life. As a result of the makeover, many people have moved into larger and better-furnished apartments. Even the traditional shikumen have seen improvements, as the city has paid to upgrade utilities and install baths and flushing toilets.

Still, I must confess I have mixed feelings about the changes. As the roads widen and buildings shoot into the sky, the intimacy of crowded neighborhoods where you'd hear chitchat in the local dialect is disappearing.

Happily, some of the old neighborhoods remain. My colleague lives in such an area with his large family. He told me that the old house where his family lives with other families would be named an historic landmark. Although he is attracted by the modern high-rise apartments, he is proud of the relationships he shares with his neighbors in the shikumen.

I know I'm too nostalgic about Shanghai's past. Shanghai has contributed a great deal to China's growth, and didn't take time to transform itself until the 1990s. I only hope the city will continue to value its heritage and enable visitors to enjoy what makes it unique.