Seeking a direction, Shanghai looks west

December 31, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

SHANGHAI, China -- The Long Bar is long gone. Say hello to the Colonel.

During the decadent decades preceding the Chinese Communist Revolution, when Shanghai was known as "the Paris of the Orient" or more accurately "the whore of the East," legions of Western adventurers, traders and taipans (foreign business owners) drank themselves into a stupor over the Long Bar, a 110-foot-long slab of wood in the old Shanghai Club.

More than a mere watering hole, the Long Bar symbolized colonial Shanghai -- a time when China's largest, most industrialized city was carved into profitable, vice-ridden concessions controlled by Britain, France and other Western nations at the expense of the suffering of millions of Chinese.

In many ways, it was Shanghai's rampant capitalism, humiliation and tragedy that spawned the prolonged struggle that brought the Communists to power in 1949. Under socialism, the Shanghai Club became a seamen's hotel. And the Long Bar, according to accounts as recent as the mid-1980s, hung on as a dreary dispensary of ice cream and peanuts.

These days, that venerable piece of hardwood is nowhere to be found. But the Long Bar's name has been appropriated by a posh drinking spot at a new international hotel, office and apartment complex called the Shanghai Centre, a towering symbol of the resurgence of foreign interests here.

Although the dimly lighted seamen's hostel still sits along the Bund, Shanghai's famed riverfront promenade, the space once dominated by the real Long Bar has been turned into a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

KFC's so-called three-piece meal costs the equivalent of $2.50 -- a steep price for most Chinese -- but the Colonel's standardized fare and efficient service have caught on here in a big way.

The Bund franchise is one of six KFC outlets in China. For better or worse, it has obliterated any suggestion of the Long Bar's sordid history -- except for the room's Victorian ceiling cornices, now brightly repainted to conform with the restaurant chain's determinedly cheerful air. One might as well be in Baltimore, except for the unavailability of "extra-crispy."

Shanghai is increasingly like that these days. For the first four decades of communism, China's most cosmopolitan city presented itself as a two-layer cake, a dense cover of stale socialist icing applied over a decaying European base. Now, a third layer -- more modern but less original -- is slowly beginning to emerge.

The best place to take it all in is from the windows of the eighth-floor dining room of Shanghai's premier landmark, the Peace Hotel, formerly the old Cathay Hotel, where Noel Coward wrote his 1930 comedy "Private Lives." That art-deco hall has long offered a splendid view of the Bund, of the endless traffic plying the foul Huangpu River, and, east across the river, of a vast, largely vacant salt marsh known as Pudong. It is a view that has been largely frozen in time.

Now a massive new suspension bridge, its center span claimed as one of the world's longest, arches over the Huangpu to Pudong. China's leaders have designated Pudong's 135 square miles as the focus of the entire nation's development efforts in the 1990s -- the first part of an ambitious, 30-year plan aimed at reversing decades of bleeding Shanghai to pay for the rest of the country's reconstruction.

Foreign investment

Pudong providentially sits between Shanghai and the mouth of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River). China's notion is that heavy investment in Pudong will hasten the spread of development inland along the length of the immense Chang Jiang basin. An estimated $10 billion is needed over the next decade, much of it from foreign sources. In the process, it is hoped that Shanghai will once again become a financial capital of note, perhaps even a northern version of Hong Kong.

As in the handful of "special economic zones" established over the past 10 years along the China coast, Pudong's growth is tTC being leveraged with a raft of new-age foreign concessions: tax and tariff breaks, liberal ownership and management rights. But, in the uncertain investment climate lingering here following the crackdown on student demonstrations in Beijing in 1989, international capitalists have been less than eager to plunk down their cash.

The top-level commitment to Pudong and to revitalizing Shanghai partly reflects Chinese leaders' uncertainty over the political reliability of the previously favored, southeastern coastal provinces near Hong Kong. Rapid-fire development has made these areas more outward-looking than obedient to Beijing's dictates.

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