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August 11, 2009

Shanghai's World Expo Transformation

Not everyone's getting a new look: A section of jam-packed shikumen walled by commercial buildings.
Photo: badbrother on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Dinda Elliott

Shanghai is a giant construction site. But are there dangers lurking in the city's lightning-speed transformation? The whole place seems to be in a lather, preparing for the World Expo, a giant trade fair that will be Shanghai's coming out party next summer. The Bund has been dug up for a new subway line. The Deco Peace Hotel, whose pre-revolutionary jazz band resumed playing after reforms began in the 1980s, has been closed--but will be renovated in time for the expo. The plaza in front of the Financial Tower, across the river in Pudong, has been dug up, and will become the city's tallest building. The Financial Tower, built by a Japanese company, is the tallest structure today, but the Shanghainese won't stand for being outdone by the Japanese. Everywhere you look, there are cranes.

But not everyone is part of this remarkable transformation. Wandering the back streets near the Dongtai antiquities and junk street market, it's clear that plenty of people have been left behind. Old shikumen, low-rise buildings built before the revolution, have been trashed over the past half a century, as poor families packed themselves in, throwing up jumbled walls and carving the space into the tiniest places you could imagine a family could possibly live in.

These people still live in tiny subhuman spaces, often without basic plumbing. Chamber pots are cleaned in the lanes every morning. As I walk through a lane, I see a group of men in singlets playing mahjong at a card table. Beyond them, an old man is scaling a fish at a concrete communal sink, laundry flapping from a bamboo pole overhead. He has nothing in common with the lucky Shanghainese who are getting rich off of the local stock market, shopping in the glittering new malls. "The differences between rich and poor are becoming so extreme in this city," Mr. Hong, a driver who also trades stocks, tells me, "that if the government doesn't do something about it soon, there will be social unrest."

Further reading:
* CNT explored the neighborhoods behind the skyscrapers in "Secret Shanghai" (Oct. 2008)
* The U.S. economy may still be in a slump, but Hong Kong is partying
* Shanghai: A mix of turn-of-the-century European villas, Deco apartment buildings, and sparkling new shopping malls
* Is Hong Kong turning Communist? Or are the Communists turning capitalist?
* Dispatches: On the road


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The pavilions are so beautiful. and I learn a lot about Shanghai and Shanghai Expo from

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