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The saga of Shanghai

Print edition : Jul 01, 2005 T+T-
A view of the New Bund Area in Shanghai at night.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A view of the New Bund Area in Shanghai at night.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Once an obscure fishing town, Shanghai has metamorphosed into a major international city which is a key element in China's economic development strategy.

SHANGHAI has always occupied centre stage in the political, economic and cultural domains in China. Shanghai, which literally means "fare-on-the-sea", was, according to historical documents, a rather obscure fishing town located on a swampy piece of land. By the middle of the 19th century it was one of the "Treaty Ports", with territorial concessions established by various European colonial powers.

By the early 20th century, it had already emerged as a dynamic port city and a major commercial and financial centre of East Asia. It was a city steeped in Chinese history and culture but liberal and avant-garde in its interface between China and the imperial powers. Its location on the fault-line between a China enervated by the decadence of the Qing empire and the rapidly industrialising Western powers probing the Chinese empire for raw materials and markets soon made the city a natural choice for the establishment of Western merchant banks, foreign legations, and trading firms.

Even today, the rollicking period of the 1920s and 1930s is evoked by the many fine art decor mansions that dot the city, especially the former French concession area, with large, leafy compounds. Famous European and American architects were commissioned by wealthy merchants, bankers and many a buccaneer to bring to Shanghai the extravagance of colonial living. The sensuous opium dens and lively tea-houses, the opulent high-walled courtyard homes of the rich Chinese juxtaposed with grimy, deprived neighbourhoods, the innately strong laissez faire entrepreneurial spirit of the local populace and the Western cultural and educational impact together created a smorgasbord of influences, traces of which continue to manifest themselves in the new Shanghai of the 21st century. The spark for many a political, economic and cultural shift in China has, over the past century, found its provenance in Shanghai.

The city was a fertile breeding ground for a host of revolutionary and radical movements seeking to modernise and liberate China in the pre-liberation period. And most importantly, Shanghai became the birthplace of the Communist Party of China in 1927. Its liberal traditions also enabled it to provide refuge to many a persecuted people, first, in the 1920s to the Tsarist Russians fleeing the aftershocks of the Bolshevik Revolution and, later, in the 1930s, to countless Jews who feared for their lives in a Europe besieged by the Nazis. Contacts with talented foreigners made the resourceful Shanghainese uniquely gifted over time, even though it was only after the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made reforms and modernisation the central plank of China's national policies in 1978 that the people of Shanghai were able to give full play to their potential.

The close connection between Shanghai and national policies continued in the post-liberation period. Shanghai was the scene of major political developments at critical junctures in Chinese history after 1949, including during the anti-Rightist crackdown in the late 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the rule of the Gang of Four, the "open door policy" that followed its eclipse, the bourgeois stirrings of the 1980s, and, finally, the economic boom of the 1990s, which continues into the new century at a phenomenal pace.

Shanghai is a key element in the country's economic development strategy in East China. Officially dubbed "the dragon-head of the Yangtze River Delta", Shanghai is today the epicentre of China's most modern manufacturing and services sectors. Its area of 6,340 sq km and population of approximately 17 million people obviously make it very influential. The Pudong New Area alone, to the east of the Huangpu river, where skyscrapers shimmer in the day and dazzle through the night, is almost as large as Singapore.

Until a little more than a decade ago, Pudong was nothing but old warehouses along the waterfront and a vast expanse of paddy fields and small villages in the hinterland. That is how I recall it on my first visit to Shanghai 20 years ago. Today, Pudong is home to more than 250 of the Fortune 500 companies. Its six special economic, financial and high-tech zones contribute in considerable measure to Shanghai's gross domestic product (GDP), which in 2004 was $90 billion. Shanghai alone accounted for actual and realised foreign direct investment (FDI) worth more than $6.5 billion in 2004. Its pillar industries, comprising the automotive sector, electronics and telecommunications equipment, iron and steel, petrochemicals and fine chemicals processing, power equipment and parts, and household electric appliances, are responsible for fuelling its $73.5 billion worth of exports in 2004 and raking in $86.5 billion worth of imports. Throw in the adjacent provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and this "tri-state" area, also known as the Yangzte River Delta, accounts for more than 30 per cent of China's GDP and 10 per cent of its population. Notably, about 35 per cent of the $13.6 billion worth of bilateral trade between India and China is conducted through Shanghai port and other ports in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

No description of Shanghai is complete without mentioning some of the enormous infrastructure projects executed in the past decade or so. The elevated Ring Road and the Shanghai Metro have greatly reduced traffic congestion in the downtown area. Forty-eight kilometres in length, the Ring Road is the longest of its kind in China. The 12-km-long Yanan elevated expressway from the Hongqiao airport to the famous Bund, cutting right across the heart of the city, was completed in less than two years' time in 1999. Pudong and Puxi, on either side of the Huangpu river, are linked by three new bridges and several tunnels. The new sewage treatment plant in the Suzhou Creek area, a vital water body that runs through the megapolis, processes 30 per cent of the city's sewage, contributing greatly to improving the quality of its water and aquatic life. The high-speed toll expressways connecting Shanghai with the provincial capitals Nanjing and Hangzhou in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, have accelerated growth in industry, trade and tourism, as has the 1,262-km-long Shanghai-Beijing expressway, which has reduced travel time between the two major cities of China to just 13 hours.

Shanghai has the largest port in China, which is ranked the world's third largest container port and the second largest in throughput. Shanghai is also one of China's biggest railway hubs. The famous Magnetic Levitation Train streaks through the countryside to the Pudong International Airport at a breathtaking top speed of 450 km an hour. The new runways being constructed at the Pudong airport, the new deep-water container port, an Auto City being built in the suburbs, and the recently completed Shanghai Formula One International Circuit are part of the myriad modernisation programmes in Shanghai. Following its successful bid for the World Expo 2010, the city is renovating its urban infrastructure in a significant way.

OVER the past five years that I have had the privilege of representing India in East China, Shanghai has transformed itself from a generally barren city to one of China's greenest, with innumerable landscaped gardens in every neighbourhood, complete with the transplantation of large adult trees. Close to five million tourists visit the city each year.

Shanghai may be on a roll, ready to lay fresh claim to its pre-Liberation status of being the "Paris of the East", but it faces numerous challenges too. Rising vehicular pollution and renewed traffic jams, an adjunct of the explosive growth in automobile sales, threaten to unravel the achievements of the recent past. Migrant labour, so essential to the execution of the city's enormous infrastructure projects and burgeoning housing sector, creates new stress points in terms of health, education, sanitation and social stability. Real estate prices are sky-rocketing, forcing new measures to curb speculation, especially in home-ownership schemes.

India's connection with Shanghai goes back a long way to the early decades of the 19th century, when the first native traders from Kolkata followed the British for commerce. The Marwaris were soon followed in the early 1820s from Kolkata by Nanji Jekaran Shah, the first Gujarati (and my seventh-generation ancestor), whose family name metamorphosed to "Chinai/Chinoy" after a 12-year sojourn in Shanghai.

There were hundreds of Indians in Shanghai until 1949. The forebears of J.R.D. Tata had a cotton export business in Shanghai and later, around 1904, the company managed several local cotton mills. Apart from traders, Sikh policemen, known locally as Hong Tou A-San (a reference to their red turbans) were a common sight in the British concession area, which had a small gurdwara and a Parsi Agyari (Fire Temple) as well.

Not long ago, Ismail Merchant was in Shanghai on an extended stay shooting for his new film "The White Countess", a period film set in early 20th century Shanghai. He even got a volunteer to act in the film as a Sikh policeman of the 1930s. Unthinkable a decade ago, but possible now given the presence of an ever-growing Indian community in East China in recent years, a melange of entrepreneurs, professionals employed by Indian and global multinational corporations, service personnel and now, hundreds of medical students. More than 50 Indian companies have a business presence in Shanghai. Apart from Information Technology giants Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Infosys, Wipro, Satyam, NIIT and Aptech, other big names of Indian industry such as Larsen & Toubro, Reliance, Raymonds, Sundaram Fasteners, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, and Ranbaxy are also present in East China. An enterprising gentleman from Goa based in Macao, has set a blazing pace for Indian cuisine by opening more than 18 restaurants of his chain "Indian Kitchen", mostly in East China. Some hotels have sought to revive the prestige of yesteryear by having an imposing and turbaned Indian at the entrance. An increasing number of tourists from India find Shanghai a great destination for business and pleasure, a task facilitated by the several flights a week operated by Air-India and China Eastern Airlines.

I came across a poignant story recently, a legacy of history. A Chinese brother and sister, Zhou Zhaoxiong and Zhou Zhaohui, in their fifties, approached me for help in tracing their Indian father's ancestral home and relatives in India. Their father, according to them, was born to Indian parents in a hospital in Shanghai on Christmas Day in 1927. Days later, for reasons that are yet unknown, he came about in the hands of a Chinese man whose wife had given birth in the same hospital around the same time to a congenitally handicapped child who died soon after birth.

The foster parents took the Indian boy home, named him Zhou Xiuting, and raised him as a Chinese. They loved and cared for him very much and believed that he had brought them good fortune and prosperity. In order to prevent anyone from claiming the boy, the foster father never revealed the real story behind his "Indian" son. He took the secret with him to his grave.

Zhou Xiuting grew up like an ordinary Chinese in every way except for his appearance, which was a dead giveaway. As a young man, he married his Chinese sweetheart Guo Suzhen in the mid-1940s, and the couple together had two sons and five daughters. The couple worked together in the same factory, the Shanghai No.3 Coverlid Factory.

In the 1960s, against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between India and China, he found himself a victim of persecution and spent 10 years in prison. He did not speak a word of any language other than Chinese. In 1970, he was set free and in 1986, the local authorities eventually reversed the damning verdict as totally lacking in basis. He passed away in his seventies, in 1998, without ever discovering the truth of his origin.

Chinese culture lays great store by patrilineal genealogy, and Zhou Xiuting's hopeful children, startling in their Indian appearance, showed me the faded contents of an old album, the only association left of their father. Alas, the photos of their father did not reveal much, beyond depicting a very Indian-looking child's passage to adulthood, and then, ending abruptly in the final frames of a frail old man.

Sujan Chinoy is the Consul-General of India in Shanghai. The views expressed in this article are his own, and not those of the government.