The heights of Shanghai – and on the box in Beijing

Shanghai shall overcome?

“I got you… under my skin…”

As the train eased into Shanghai’s central station, the strains of Frank Sinatra’s famous song wafted through the carriage. There’s always music in the mornings on Chinese trains – normally it’s something rousingly patriotic to remind passsengers of the bright and glorious future that awaits China… but entering Shanghai is different.

Here, it’s Sinatra.

It fits. Shanghai has all the brash swagger and unerring confidence of “Ol’ Blue eyes” at his peak. I was last here in 2007, but even since then the city has changed – more skyscrapers, more high-end shops, more street-wise kids parading down the pedestrianised main drag.

It’s telling that the smartest museum here is dedicated to the future, not the past. The “Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall” is an amazing reflection of the high-flown ambitions of this very 21st century city. If you believe the hype, within a few years Shanghai is going to be the world’s leading eco-city, the world’s leading digital city, the leading global airport transport hub, an international shipping centre, and a tourist attraction to end all tourist attractions. With the 2010 Shanghai Expo around the corner, the pace of change is if anything increasing.

But all may not be quite what it seems… there are rumours that the Expo is being hit hard by the global credit crunch. Apparently the US has cut it’s investment in the Expo drastically, and the fantastic Access Asia newsletter last week reported some pretty interesting numbers – inbound tourism, fell 11% in January to April 2009 down from the same period last year; hotel occupancy rates were only 45.9% in the same period, down around 10%.

Right now, the buzz is still here though. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens at and beyond the Expo next year.

Beijing takes on the world

If Shanghai is becoming China’s New York, Beijing is sometimes called its Washington DC – a city centred on a powerful polity and burgeoning bureaucracy.

But my experience here was of the creative end of the city – five days in China’s kicking capital passed in a blur. Beijing has the feel of a city that‘s just beginning to realise it’s own global importance.

I arrived armed with an introduction to the owner of the highly successful Plastered T-shirts brand, Dominic Johnson-Hill. A Beijinger of 17 years standing, he is both a resident and a shop-owner on the achingly cool Nanluogo Xiang – a small hutong catering to the growing urban-hip crowd here.

Dominic tipped me off first to the Turner show that is visiting here from Tate Britain. It has become one of the most popular art exhibitions ever held here. After 8 months, the dose of western European culture was hugely welcome.

Next stop was a gig by Carsick Cars, the brightyoungthings of the underground Beijing rock scene. Music’s one of the things that’s pretty hard for authorities to pin down, and Carsick Cars play with words and images in a way that has definitely captured the imagination of Beijingers. Their most famous song “Zhongnanhai” is the name of a cigarette brand – and also the name for the seat of Chinese government. With lyrics like “I love my Zhongnanhai”, the song has become an iconic (and ironic) anthem. This was the launch of their second album “You can Listen You can Talk”. The energy and sense of release at the gig was palpable.

A couple of days later, an enigmatic email from Dominic pinged into my inbox:

“tomorrow i am going to the great wall to be in a chinese tv show – i am in fact in need of a western face to be on the tv show wearing one of my t shirts, there will be a studio audience of 600 people, if you fancy coming along i’ll throw in a free t shirt and cover your expenses…”

It was what’s commonly called a no-brainer.

The show turned out to be the launch of a major new government push behind entrepreneurial activity in China, complete with the top business people in China on a panel, young entrepreneurs from around the country presenting their stories, the top Chinese pop stars providing interludes (including Zhang Liangying in the picture), and a special appearance from Jackie Chan, the darling of the masses here.

It was an amazing event. The five businessmen were all billionaires and included Jack Ma, founder and CEO of, Li Yanhong, founder and CEO of Baidu (the Chinese Google), and the billionaire brothers Liu Yonghao and Liu Yongxing, whose Hope Group has turned chicken feed distribution into billions of Yuan.

Dominic was there for an interview as “the foreign entrepreneur-done-good“, which he conducted effortlessly in Mandarin. I was there to carefully position myself beside him to get maximum exposure for the excellent t-shirt I was sporting.

The whole thing was a fascinating insight into the construction of narrative here – stories of heroes from the countryside were myriad, a sign that the government recognises all too clearly that it has to deal with the thorny issue of a growing urban/rural divide. The idea of unleashing entrepreneurialism in the countryside is a compelling one, at least on paper. And a consequence of one-party government is that when the government says something’s going to happen, it usually does. So watch this space.

I loved Beijing. Other highlights included a day in the 798 Art district, dinner with friends I met in Xinjiang, and a couple of late nights out to sample the vibrant nightlife. It may not be typical China, but it is developing into one of the great cities.

I have a few more days in Shanghai and then move to Hong Kong.

ENDNOTE: Follow-up to the previous post (“Brnads” story)… Plastered T-shirts, mentioned above, is successful enough to attract copies already – Dominic’s attitude is, however, refreshingly pragmatic – “The fakes I couldn’t give a f*** about really – it’s quite flattering. It’s the bastards who try and nick my brand that piss me off…”]


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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, China '09

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