My last day in Shanghai, it rained. This put a damper on my plan to study the Xiangyang Park market, Shanghai’s Mecca for those hellbent on buying knockoffs. Two days earlier, en route to the French Concession, I’d gotten within a few blocks of the place and had nearly been tackled by frontmen shouting “looka, looka, looka!” and brandishing watches (Rolex), pens (Mont Blanc), and bags (Louis Vuitton). Why these three brands occupied so much of the fake-stuff mindshare was a mystery, but, thinking I had another day to devote to this thriving China industry, I had resisted the men’s attempts to drag me—literally, in one case—into alleyways. Then the monsoon arrived, and I defaulted to Plan B.
Plan B was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, which reportedly features the largest urban-planning model in the world. It’s about the size of a swimming pool, and as you traverse it on a metal catwalk, you can spot present and future Shanghai landmarks, including, perhaps, your hotel. Those staying in the highest hotel in the world, the Grand Hyatt, in Pudong’s Jinmao Building, will immediately note that this 88-story tower will soon be sandwiched between two even taller monsters, one of which, presumably, will allow patrons to gaze down condescendingly at Jinmao’s pedestrian 87th-story Cloud 9 bar.
As suggested by the dozens of as-yet-unbuilt towers in the model, China’s construction industry is still going full-blast. In fact, when you gaze out at the city skyline, you can’t help but observe that today’s most iconic Shanghai feature is the roof-mounted crane. From the Bund, for example, looking across the Huangpu at Pudong, you will count at least a dozen of these, each capping an unfinished riverfront building at least 40 stories high. From my hotel near Zhongshan Park, I could see at least a dozen more.
When reading economic statistics in a Manhattan office, it is often difficult to make the leap from the macro trends—soaring oil, steel, and cement prices—to the micro actions and decisions that cause them. In Shanghai, however, it’s easy: China’s mammoth rate of construction is hoovering up resources at maglev-like speed, so fast that the real mystery is why there is any oil, steel, and cement left. According to the “assistant to Chinese rock stars” who escorted me and the cell-phone entrepreneur to the Peace Hotel, the Chinese saying is that you see big changes every three years and small changes every three days. Indeed, one real-estate-related business, the China Construction Bank, is doing well enough that it is planning an enormous $5 billion IPO later this year, never mind that two presidents in three years have been fired for corruption.
We may not be able to join throngs of Shanghainese making a killing in real estate these days, but we can console ourselves by knowing (as many of them do) how the building boom will probably end. Analysts argue about where China real estate is in the supply-demand cycle. At some point, however, the number of buildings under construction will exceed the number of tenants and residents looking for places to work and live. At that point, the real-estate market will crash, and the dozens of unfinished towers will stay unfinished for a decade or more.
Across the street from the Exhibition Hall, towering above the occasional legless and/or handless beggar, is a building emblazoned with a Times-Square-sized television (playing Shania Twain videos) and the logo, “CapitaLand.” As you pass beneath both, headed for the eight-level mall inside, you can be forgiven for forgetting this is still an ostensibly socialist nation. Inside the mall, at Starbucks, I discover that a grande mocha Frappuccino costs almost as much in Shanghai as it does in Greenwich Village, which doesn’t stop the place from being jammed.
Later, the rain still pouring, I ran a few blocks to complete one of my remaining Shanghai correspondent obligations—food-gawking. The restaurant I chose was Xing Hua Lou, where one can’t miss the ominous sea-water aquarium tanks in the lobby. Upstairs, in a smoky banquet hall adorned with gold pillars, they had an English menu. And sure enough, we were invited to choose from, among other entrees, cold jellyfish, tea-flavored pigeon, oxtail parfait, spiced goose’s web, bird’s nest in coconut water, sea cucumber in abalone sauce, spotted deer’s tendon in earthen pot, stewed duck with Chinese caterpillar fungus, snakehead mullet, tortoise soup, stir-fried ginkgo, and “Buddha jumps over the wall,” a Fujian specialty so exotic that it cost more than almost everything else on the menu combined ($300, if memory serves). The story behind the latter is that the stew is so delicious that when the Buddha caught a whiff of it, he abandoned vegetarianism and scaled a wall to get at the stuff. (I would like to say I tried this and everything else on the menu, but I didn’t: Instead, I wussed out by pointing at pictures that looked something like Kung Pao chicken and a crockpot full of eggplants.)
That evening, following the suggestion of several Slate readers, I took the overnight train to Beijing. As you may recall, prior to my leaving for China, there was a dust-up about whether I might have to share my berth on this train with chickens. Well, I didn’t. I did share it with two Chinese men, one a businessman, the other in a quasi-military uniform.
When I finally arrived at the compartment door, damp from an hour’s slog through the rain and rush-hour subway and train stations, it was rocking with high-volume Muzak. It was a no-smoking berth but reeked of cigarette smoke. The uniformed man had pitched camp on one of the top bunks and was changing into slippers. I claimed a lower bunk and changed into my own slippers, swaying to a synthesized glockenspiel. Exhausted, I had just settled into my bunk when the businessman arrived and indicated (politely) that it is was actually his.
When one will be spending 14 hours with strangers in a 7-foot cube, one wants to make a good first impression. Having blown mine, I was relieved when the businessman blew his, too. After I had finished transferring bunks, while he was stuffing his belongings into an upper rack, the man dislodged a quart of beer, which ricocheted off the compartment light switch and then exploded on the floor. Amid a frantic crescendo of synthesized drums, we were plunged into darkness, save some light reflecting off the foam wave surging across the rug. The uniformed fellow, watching from the upper bunk, was so disgusted that he smoked all night long.