Chen Weihua

Shanghai a world-class city? Please.

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-04 07:58
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With the grandiose World Expo newly unveiled, Shanghai seems to be telling the world that it has everything every major international city has.

Well, not quite.

From the superb Pudong International Airport, the modern Yangshan deepwater port, the Maglev bullet train and the subway network to the numerous skyscrapers and luxury shopping arcades, Shanghai has built more in the last two decades than many cities have done in a century.

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Shanghai has quickly caught up or even surpassed many major cities in infrastructure. It aims to become a global financial and shipping hub.

It is an aspiration truly worth fighting for, both for the city and the nation considering Shanghai's role as the financial hub of the Far East in the 1930s.

However, the Expo's motto of "Better City and Better Life" will not be achieved simply by building a financial and shipping center. Shanghai will never rise as a top global city if it only focuses on being a world-class economic center.

The city must also be a cultural center. This is exactly what today's Shanghai lacks compared with many top cities in the world.

The colorful shows and performances in New York every night make Shanghai look like a cultural desert, despite its state-of-the-art facilities.

The museums, libraries, theaters, art galleries and public sports facilities in the Big Apple outnumber those in Shanghai. New York City, well, puts on a better show.

Let's also not forget the great New York-based newspapers, magazines and TV stations, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and Newsweek as well as ABC, NBC and CBS.

An indisputable top world financial center, New York City draws many people for its culture and history.

The subway system in New York looks antiquated compared with the brand-new lines in Shanghai, yet a trip to the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn makes my rides on every line like a history and cultural exploration, from the mosaics on the wall to the design of stations spanning the last century.

Most skyscrapers in New York also look less modern than Shanghai. Yet many were works of world-renowned architects and each building shows the city's changes over time.

In modernizing the city, Shanghai has regrettably destroyed too many of its historic neighborhoods and buildings.

Stella Dong, author of Shanghai 1842-1949: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, also lamented Shanghai's fast disappearing history, especially what's happening in the North Bund, when I met her last week in New York.

A friend who visited New York last week was amazed to find that bookstores still host book readings. "Who in China is still interested in going to a poetry-reading event?" she asked.

A month ago, my friend, a cellist, and I went to a Carnegie Hall concert by Mali's most celebrated ngoni (plucked lute from West Africa) virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate. It nearly sold out. We both asked ourselves how many Shanghainese would want to go to a late-night concert like New Yorkers do.

In a few days, Shanghai will get its "Charging Bull" on the Bund, similar to the one outside the New York Stock Exchange, created by the same Italian-American artist Arturo Di Modica. Yet imitating others doesn't make Shanghai as great as other cities.

Shanghai needs a clear vision in preserving its history and developing cultural scenes. Doing so may not generate as much profits as a financial, shipping or trade hub, but it will surely make the city and life in the city much better.


(China Daily 05/04/2010 page8)