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Shanghaied

Blog Entry – March 2010

While still in the throes of jetlag and before the images of this past week fade from memory I wanted to share some of my experiences and takeaways from Shanghai. Before anyone takes offense at the title of this entry, I looked it up to be certain it wasn’t offensive. Here is the definition I found at answers.com:

To be shanghaied is “to be kidnapped & put to work as a sailor on a ship – or die. The term was coined due to the practice having been popularized in Shanghai.”

Now I was not kidnapped but I was captivated by this vast, densely populated, hyper-kinetic city. I was there for a series of symposia and alumni events at the Harvard Center Shanghai, a new venue where Harvard Business School is offering executive education programs for Chinese business executives. With three Mandarin phrases under my belt I set off on my first trip to China filled with anticipation – China did not disappoint.

My only stop was Shanghai but with a population of 19,210,000 in an area covering 2,700 square miles it’s a reasonably ambitious place to start. It feels every bit that large. The Mandarin interpretation of Shanghai is “go to the sea”. It’s a perfect name for this seaport bisected by the Huangpu River – a city built for business that recently surpassed Hong Kong in terms of shipping traffic. Shanghai leaves the politics to Beijing.

What stood out to me were the stark contrasts. Shanghai is at once ultra-modern and ancient. Chic and shabby. Frenetic and calm. The city skyline looks like it was inspired by the Jetsons but stroll a block in any direction from Nanjing Road in the main commercial district and you may as well have traveled back 100 years in time. The high speed Maglev Train blows past cyclists on vintage bikes and mopeds at 268 mph. In the Pudong District, which was covered with rice paddies a mere 15 years ago, state-of-the art high rise office buildings are raised in record time by workers using bamboo scaffolding and hand tools. It is both terrifying and mesmerizing to watch.

The Shanghainese bore stark contrasts as well in terms of education, economic and social standing. There are vast gulfs that divide the wealthiest from the most impoverished. There is rising middle class and a spirit of entrepreneurialism that I haven’t sensed in other places. It really feels as though anything is possible here. One common trait I observed was the work ethic. Everyone, from service workers to constructions workers to business professionals approached their job with single minded energy and enthusiasm. They work all hours every day. Sunday morning? You bet. Construction crews were working away at 8am. Seeing it up close made me wonder how other countries (like ours) will be able to compete with this giant once it gets all of its engines revving in sync.

I guess I sort of expected the work ethic because it goes with communist stereotype. What I didn’t expect to see was families flying kites together in beautifully landscaped parks or communities congregating in garden parks to play cards and chess – things they’ve probably been doing for centuries. I was taken aback by the Chinese citizen’s ability to retreat from the frenetic pace of the city and enjoy their new environs in very traditional ways.

I wanted to chronicle my journey through Twitter but was unable to access it, or Facebook or YouTube because those servers are not accessible in China – a limiting contrast for a country that is trying to get people to know it better.

Bottom line, I loved Shanghai. It’s an exciting city and one that I hope to visit again. I’ve no doubt that whenever I return there will be new things to see.

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