“Fate also plays a role, ” says the middle aged head of an investment group in the sky lobby of the world financial center as we look out over Shanghai, “just imagine the odds that you and I would be here in this building in this city at the same time and have this conversation.” — Whether it is the result of fate or some of the most genius moves in recent history, I find myself in the world’s largest city, seemingly in the epicenter of the most important place in the world. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” has long been New York City’s motto, but while they were busy singing the same ol tune in the empire state, Shanghai kept chugging right along and one day the world awoke to find that it is now Shanghai where if you make it here, you can definitely make it anywhere. Sorry Frank, somewhere along the way Mao stole your thunder.
The following is a podcast of my reflections and things I have learned during my educational visit to Shanghai this week. Have a listen!
The Dubai to Shanghai Emirates flight is jam packed with people eager to get to the people’s republic. I’m in the aisle seat with two jovial middle aged men to my right. They’re joking about the food or the flight attendant who always ignores their requests for food or drink, they speak with different accents yet they seem to know each other fairly well. The jokes are funny and kind hearted- it is going to be a nice flight.
Along the way more jokes mixed with pearls of wisdom about travel, airplanes, doing business in China as well as life in Zambia. These two gentlemen live in Zambia. One is a native son of Zambia with a fantastic sense of humor and a kindness you rarely see on a long haul flight. The other, to my surprise, is Portuguese, working the last decade or so for a Portuguese construction company based in Zambia. Their destination, a construction vehicle exposition in Shanghai. Because as you should already know and these two gentlemen remind me, down in Africa, it is the Chinese that go for every contract and manufacture some of the most budget friendly vehicles for those big infrastructure projects.
“You never know what you’re going to get; sometimes the projects are done well and you can see it when roads or houses last over the years. Other times the projects are of poor quality; roads and structures are falling apart within only a few years… you have to be careful because choosing the lowest bidder is not always the best thing for the country in the long term.”
Again, themes we hear about in the press and from first hand observers over the past decade. The conversation carries on and each man shares experiences dealing with Chinese development corporations and machinery companies; the good sides, the bad sides, the in between details. They’re both pleased to be coming to Shanghai, a place that is tens of thousands of miles away from home but that plays a very significant role it what happens there in the coming years.
As we made our approach to Pudong Airport, the interesting conversation carried on, moving from Portuguese politics to Zambian politics and the intricacies of each. Pulling into the gate, cards are exchanged, handshakes, best wishes, and off we go to our respective missions in China. I make a mental note, get over to Zambia, I’d like to see that lovely country.
During a presentation today, somewhere in Shanghai in a tall shiny building, a slide went up showing Shanghai’s PuDong skyline in 1990; green, flat, open space; and Pudong in 2014; packed with skyscaper after skyscraper, the new avatar of this megacity. In 24 years it is almost unfathomable how much a place can change. It is pretty. It is cool. Is it good? Surely for somebody. Is it bad? Oh, surely in a few ways as well. But is it real – at this point I can tell you it is very real.
I feel like I grew up in the era where people said China would be an economic powerhouse, and now I live as an adult in that world. But somehow it is always a media story, always filtered through the internet and second hand stories, when you see it up close, that is when the world as you know it looks very different. That is when predictions and forecasts become reality.
“They don’t speak much english,” my fellow travelers often remark about people in Shanghai. — Why should they? It is their world. This one and the big one out there. And the way this powerful wind blows, it is for us to learn about them far less then it is for them to learn about us. Even if both of those would be beneficial to all and fun.
I can’t yet tell you about Shanghai. After seven days I probably still won’t be qualified or capable. But here on the ground in South Shanghai where buildings are low and the streets are empty at night, it is above all an interesting and intricate world. I’m only in the beginning phases of getting to know it.
Since it started some 14 years ago, this website has been a chronicle of some unforgettable journeys to various corners of the Earth. Being able to share observations and lessons learned has long been one of the pleasures of keeping this place running.
This week, another milestone in the adventure category: I’m off to Shanghai, China.
Shanghai, city of legend, city of the masses, this benchmark for both the past and present, and probably the future too. Biggest city in the world. Economic powerhouse. These are the factoids I read and influence how I approach this journey. I expect crowds. I expect noise. I expect dumplings!
Stay tuned. After a sleepy few months, there are going to be travel stories on CTRP again!