“Seen from the river, towering above their couchant guardian warships, the semi-skyscrapers of the Bund present, impressively, the façade of a great city. But it is only a façade. Behind them is a sordid and shabby mob of smaller buildings. Nowhere a fine avenue, a spacious park, an imposing central square. Nowhere anything civic at all.”
– WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood (A Journey to War)
Few modern cities have experienced such profound transformation as Shanghai. At the time of the publication of A Journey to War, in 1939, 75 per cent of Shanghai’s more than eight million residents lived in longtangs [lit “lane interiors”] – tiny laned houses based on English tenements.
Fifty years later, while war and revolution had banished the foreign powers who built the historic Bund, the majority of Shanghai’s residents still lived in such penghuqu [“basic houses”].
In the 1990s, however, Deng Xiaoping’s daring policies of economic reform brought a wave of change to the city, not seen since the days of international settlement.
Low-rise slums gave way to high-rise apartment blocks, while some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers rose in Pudong, opposite the Bund, dominating the Shanghai skyline and signalling its return as an economic powerhouse – this time on Chinese terms.
Yet Shanghai remains a city of contrasts. Despite the extraordinary growth and achievements of the Chinese economy, a gulf still exists between Shanghai’s richest and poorest residents.