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A few more memories I’ll take home from Shanghai

I’ve never visited a new city without lingering for a while in front of a real estate office, checking out the listings and imagining the life I might have in this place. Never, that is, until Shanghai—and not just because Mandarin characters make French or Spanish look only slightly less familiar than the words I’m writing to you now. My brain goes into spasm at the thought of life in China’s biggest metropolis, with its omnipresent cranes and pollution haze. Still, I have to admire the city’s heritage of openness and the scope of its current ambitions. Here, a few memories I’ll be taking home. Shanghailights, you might say.

The legend of Jewish Shanghai When supposedly enlightened nations turned their backs on desperate European Jews as the Holocaust loomed, 20,000 refugees found shelter in Shanghai—the only city in the world with an open port. One brave Chinese diplomat, Dr. Ho, personally intervened to save thousands, at no small risk to his career. We learned this dramatic and inspiring story while touring the old Jewish quarter with Dvir Bar-Gal, a formidably knowledgeable Israeli expat journalist who has made Shanghai his home for the past eight years. In narrow streets where Chinese families air their chamber pots and tend their kids, many doorways still bear the nails that once held mezzuzzahs. How dismayingly foreign these overcrowded flats must have seemed to the Jewish bourgeoisie from, say, Vienna. Yet the Shanghainese made their new neighbours welcome, sharing their New Year’s feasts with the uprooted Europeans.

Hidden treasures of Art Deco Shanghai You need a knowledgeable tour guide to point out the storied mansions tucked amid the garish jumble of modern skyscrapers that symbolize the city’s pride as it surges forward into the 21st century and makes a definitive break with the bad old days when Europeans had all the clout. One grand old house is now a hotel, but anyone can wander in and admire its Tiffany window.

Another, once the pleasure dome of a spectacularly wealthy Iraqi Jew, has a politically correct new life as an arts centre for gifted children. As we admired the intricately carved ceiling of a ballroom worthy of Versailles, we kept our voices down so as not to disturb the parents who were taking in a lecture on child psychology from an earnest bureaucrat. Our guide, the tenacious and voluble Henry Hong, made valiant efforts to get us into the master bedroom. where an art class was in progress, but the head teacher firmly declined. Oh, well. Through the open door, we glimpsed an unforgettable sight: a whole roomful of impeccably behaved kids bent over their projects. No farting. No silly faces. No hair pulling. If only our 12-year-old grandson could have seen this!

A celebration of urban progress Back home in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, we’re reminded every day that our provincial and federal governments have little commitment to cities because politicians are too busy currying favour with voters in the sticks. How else to explain our overpriced and inadequate subway system, which was state of the art in the 60s? Or the lack of a high-speed train from the airport to downtown? When it comes to vision and planning, Toronto has a lot to learn from Shanghai, where a permanent Urban Planning Exhibition celebrates the city’s future in minute detail, from the location of future highways and transit lines to the expansion of the international airport.

Shameless boosterism abounds—most glaringly in the 3-D film of Shanghai seen from above. I’ve seldom heard a more annoying soundtrack: chirpy kids exclaiming, nonstop, the Mandarin equivalent of “Cool!” and “Awesome!” In the centre of the theatre, Chinese tourists stand on an elevated platform, snapping photos to capture the wonder of the scene. To foreign eyes, it all seems a tad naive. Yet I find myself oddly moved by China’s commitment to Shanghai, which will host a World Expo next year. The theme, echoed on banners and billboards everywhere, is “Better city, better life.”

Meanwhile, of course, China is massively investing in coal production, neglecting its architectural heritage and displacing citizens from old-fashioned laneway communities that stand in the way of progress. But at least China understands the importance of cities—and is backing up belief with action. I’d like to see more of that gumption back home.

Posted by Rona

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