Shanghai: World City
Shanghai is the largest city in China, and the largest city proper by population in the world, housing some 23 million people. It is also China most globalized city, wielding international influence in art, culture and commerce. Situated along the smaller Huangpu River on the south shore of Yangtze River’s massive mouth, it boasts the busiest port in the world, both in cargo tonnage and number of containers.
Shanghai has a famously checkered past as the most freewheeling city in far eastern Asia. In the wild days of the early 20th century, it was anything-goes. The city bustled with commerce and gangsters, with music, art and European-style architecture as people from all over the world poured in during the latter days of colonialism. Known now for the glittering, space-age Pudong skyline, Shanghai is also the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party. This complex, sometimes contradictory and ever-changing narrative is the essence of Shanghai, worked into every cranny of the low-slung Hutongs, and visible from the Shanghai World Financial Center observation deck soaring 1,500 ft. above the choking traffic.
It’s normal to enter Shanghai moving in excess of 180 miles per hour. If you land at Pudong International Airport, about 19 miles east of the city, you’ll ride the Maglev Train into town – a journey that occupies little more than eight minutes. Should you opt for the overland route from a different Chinese city, chances are you’ll catch a cross-country traditional bullet train (that is, one with wheels). There’s a regional network of high-speed trains, including the famed Beijing-Shanghai overnight train opened in June 2011. Once you’ve actually made it in, there’s a wide variety of transit options, including the enormous Shanghai Metro with 11 lines and 278 stations. There’s also taxi cabs, ferry boats, busses and the somewhat bizarre Bund Sightseeing Tunnel that transits the Huangpu via alternate dimension a la.
2001: A Space Odyssey.
Shanghai is one of those transcendently large cities, containing a measure of mystery even for lifetime residents, but a stroll along the Bund is as good an initiation as any. A long row of European-style buildings from the former Shanghai International Settlement sit riverside on the Huangpu, directly across from the bulging Pudong peninsula that has become the emblem of China’s rise. In between, an endless flotilla of barges, cargo vessels and luxury yachts stream by in both directions. Nanjing Road, which contains one of the world’s busiest shopping districts, runs west away from the river toward People’s Park in the heart of the city. The surrounding area contains a large number of historic buildings as well as some of the city’s largest cultural attractions, including the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Grand Theatre and People’s Square. The site of the First National Congress of the CCP is not far away to the southwest.
If the good life is what you’re after, Shanghai is truly world class. The aforementioned Nanjing Road is a Mecca of high-end retail, which includes Plaza 66, CITIC Square and Westgate mall. These sites constitute the three points of Shanghai’s so-called “Golden Triangle” of luxury shopping. Back on the other side of the river, the refined traveler can enjoy fine dining and cocktails in Pudong’s high-flying restaurants and bars. There’s the famed Cloud 9 Skylounge in the Jin Mao Tower, Flair at the Ritz-Carlton and the fantastic revolving restaurant atop the Oriental Pearl Tower. All offer unforgettable views.
But although the high life is not to be missed, the life-blood of Shanghai courses through its myriad streets and alleyways. Five-star Chinese food is something to behold for sure, but there’s nothing quite like the classic oily fare at one of a thousand tiny joints. The recommendation here is really a non-recommendation: get lost, get hungry, trust your nose to lead you to a steaming bowl of noodles. And of course, street vendors peddling dumplings or meat-on-a-stick are always near a crowd, which in Shanghai means basically everywhere.
Shanghai is both the commercial and financial hub on China, accounting for about 4% of China’s national gross domestic product. It is home to the Shanghai Stock Exchange, one of only two in China, and the aforementioned world’s busiest port. It handles one-quarter of the country’s imports and exports, exceeding 30 million twenty-foot equivalent units in 2011 to set a world record. Along with Beijing and Tianjin, Shanghai leads China in per capita GDP at about US $12,000 per year.
The city’s dramatic growth in recent years has come to exemplify China’s economic reform and opening up. Little more than two decades ago in 1990, Pudong had not a single skyscraper – the towering financial district of today is all but unrecognizable.
In terms of market output, Shanghai is very diverse. In 2011, service industries comprised 58% of municipal GDP, the largest components of which are retail/wholesale, financial services and real estate. But despite this, Shanghai is still a crucial part of Chinese heavy industry, accounting for 78% of the city’s industrial output in the same year – China’s largest steelmakers reside in Shanghai. Other important industries include auto manufacturing, plastics, computers and mobile phones.
Unsurprisingly, Shanghai is also the capital of foreign investment in China, and a major investment destination worldwide – around 300 of the Fortune 500 companies have made some form of investment in Shanghai. At USD $12.6 billion in 2011, Shanghai accounted for over 10% of utilized foreign direct investment in the entire country. FDI has been steadily trending upward since the early 1990s, although the economic slowdown in China in 2012 may see some leveling off.
Overall, Shanghai is a very attractive city for foreign business, with easy access to foreign institutions and expertise. And that’s to say nothing of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan vibe and high-energy pace.