First impressions of Shanghai

I felt good about my recovery from jet lag yesterday because I managed to stay up all day, from about 8am to 10pm, despite only four hours of sleep. Still, I wasn't completely symptom free. For some reason I thought it was Wednesday and thus ventured all the way up to 138th and Riverside for a kickball game that actually takes place tonight, a trip that wasted an hour and a half of my day.

I awoke at 4am this morning and have been staring into the darkness ever since. Since I fly out to Seattle tomorrow for my annual golf trip to Bandon Dunes, I have another few hours of time shifting left to plant myself in the Pacific time zone. More than a few times during the last two weeks I've felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

New York, all five boroughs put together, feels tranquil and quaint compared to Shanghai. That's how sprawling and dense and manic a city China's economic hub feels. Shanghai contains more buildings over 25 stories high than any other city in the world, and depending on who you ask, anywhere from a fifth to a fourth of all the world's roof mounted cranes call Shanghai home.

One of the first stops during my visit there was the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. On the third floor there is a massive scale model of the city as city planners foresee it looking in 2020. It's stunning in its size and density. My first night in Shanghai, I couldn't see water or trees or anything beyond the horizon in any direction from my 29th floor hotel room. High rises and office buildings and skyscrapers stretched out seemingly to the ends of the earth. The model at the urban planning museum confirmed that my suspicions weren't too far from the truth.

That Shanghai even has an urban planning museum speaks to its developmental aspirations. It's as close to urban planning pornography as I've ever seen. On every floor, massive scale models of some of its most famous sites (like the new Pudong airport; every city in China seemed to have a new airport of steel and glass) share space with 3-D CGI animations flying around, over, and through future constructions, all set to throbbing techno music. Next to the 2020 scale model of Shanghai is a display called Windows on the World, depicting famous landmarks from around the globe, like the Eiffel Tower and NY City skyline; the juxtaposition marks the height of the city's ambitions. A more literal marker is the work-in-progress that is the Shanghai World Financial Center, intended to be the world's tallest building when completed. On just one day-trip, Su took me past the world's first high-speed mag-lev train, up the world's tallest hotel, over the world's longest steel-arch bridge, and under the world's largest Ferris wheel.

Few cities of have grown faster than Shanghai in the past fifteen years, but the extent of the progress is dubious. The skyline is an incoherent blend of gaudy structures, each one more eccentric than the next in an attempt to distinguish itself. Many of them are simply hideous by the aesthetic standards of this era or the next. And as all these high rises and skyscrapers have moved in, the city's low-income citizens and more historic architecture have been moved out and razed, respectively. From the 87th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, every low-lying plot of land in Shanghai looked to be marked for bulldozing. It will soon be so crowded you won't be able to see the trees from the forest; every skyscraper will be flanked by several other monstrosities of equal height.

No building represents the worst of Shanghai more than the Oriental Pearl Tower (images), the most prominent structure on the Pudong side of Shanghai's skyline. Depending on your vantage point, it looks like anything from a sci-fi shishkabob, a spaceship, or the world's largest phallic symbol (Su pointed out that from one spot on the Bund, the Pearl Tower rises up from between two giant globes like...well, look for yourself). Even the few attempts at preserving the city's historic architecture can't dilute the city's epidemic of modernization. Xin Tian Di, a historic redevelopment project that reconstructed some of Shanghai's historic Shikumen tenements, is primarily a collection of fusion restaurants, clubs, and retail restaurants. It's less a preservation than a repurposing of the architecture of the past. Both Xin Tian Di and Yu Yuan (the Yu Gardens), two of the areas in Shanghai that still hint at the city's past, have their own Starbucks.

It's unclear how long this pace of development can last. When the real estate bubble bursts, the crash is sure to be spectacular. Roof cranes all over the city will come to a halt, and the unfinished frames of dozens of skysrapers will litter the city like the fossilized skeletons from some unrealized future.

It's not all bad. The flip side of all this foreign investment and real estate development is a vibrant economic hum. Just after arriving in Shanghai one afternoon, I attended a networking event at Barbarossa with Tony, an old classmate of mine. He's one of the tens of thousands of those who've moved to Shanghai in the hopes of carving out a personal fortune on the back of the macro growth trends there. I met dozens of people at the event, each of whom presented me with a business card and their two-minute fortune-seeking thesis. I felt like I was at a job fair, but the difference is that even the people who didn't have any idea how they'd capitalize on the growth in Shanghai beamed with genuine optimism. Shanghai has replaced Hong Kong as the sexy girl China employs to greet its guests at the door.

A city with a population of 18 million people shouldn't feel small, but the next night I ran into many of the same expats at Bar Rouge, one of the epicenters of the global clubbing scene right now. Nearly everyone I asked about what to see in Shanghai told me this was the club du jour. Su and I planned to head there on Friday night, but she had to fly out to Hong Kong and then back that afternoon simply to renew her Chinese visa, and a series of flight delays found me half asleep in my hotel room at 1 in the morning, watching movies in a bathrobe and fading fast. But just when I was about to write off the evening, she called.

I began to offer a mild protest, but she'd have none of that.

"I've been to hell and back today," she said. "You're coming out and having a drink with me."

When we arrived at 1:30am at 18 on the Bund, a throng of people waited outside, trying to cajole their way past the bouncers. We rang up Sam, one of those guys who's out clubbing so often that he's on a first name basis with every bouncer. He came down, parted the sea of hopefuls like Moses, and the bouncers ushered us in.

Located on the 7th floor, Bar Rouge was hopping. From the outdoor terrace, I stood under a Chinese flag blown sideways by a stiff breeze and looked out across the Huangpu river at the now darkened Pudong skyline. Inside, bartenders stacked martini glasses in a pyramid, then lit some unidentified alcoholic drink on fire and poured it over the glass pyramid so that the stream of fire descended to the bar and streamed six feet across the counter. I made quick note of the fire exit routes.

The rest of the night dissolved in bath of green tea and black labels (the local mixed drink of choice) and shots of one sort or another. All the building lights on the Bund and on the Pudong skyline turn off at 11pm (electricity is at a premium), but the youth remain lit until sunrise.