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Namaste Shanghai

`City on the Sea', `Paris of China', and `Queen of the Orient'; city of quick riches, ill-gotten gains and fortunes lost on the tumble of dice; the domain of adventurers, the city that plots revolutions ... Shanghai is no longer a dark memory. Now, history is returning to haunt this city, and, at the same time, to put it squarely back on the map, says THOMAS E. KING.



From a distance, the expanse of Shanghai

IT wasn't long after the defeat of Chinese forces by British soldiers during the Opium War of 1841/42 and the resultant Treaty of Nanking that opened several ports to foreign trade and settlement that British merchants began arriving in Shanghai. Some of them came from India.

After ensuring the ongoing operations of their enterprises in India, British entrepreneurs began departing by steamer from Bombay and Calcutta for new challenges in the Orient. During the years between 1842 and 1949, sectors of Shanghai were designated as "International Settlements". Foreign concessions were granted to British, French, American and Japanese interests. They operated their little enclaves much like mini "countries" with sovereign rights and privileges. For instance, the Chinese were barred from free access to portions of Shanghai.

The British established their own police force to implement their rules, maintain law and order and defend their settlement, indeed, the city from insurrection, incursion and invasion. Some of those recruited to keep the peace and ensure the stability of the fledgling community came from India.

For many years it was common to see turbaned officers patrolling the streets where the British had built their residences. Sikh soldiers and British forces were deployed when rebels and pirates attacked colonial interests.

One of the original boundaries of the international settlement was the Whangpoo river. The British and Indians sailed up the Yangtze and then another 10 kilometres up the river now known as the Huangpu to dock on Shanghai's waterfront called the Bund. Some accounts place the origin of "Bund" as being an Anglo Indian word, meaning waterfront.

It was on this riverbank that the British built their consulate and other western styled buildings. As the French, Americans, Russians, Germans and Japanese also came to Shanghai, they too constructed solid stone structures to house their corporate and financial headquarters in China.

Stroll along the 1.5-kilometre long stretch of riverfront that makes up the Bund today and you'll encounter 52 stately sentinels from the 1920s and 1930s. The grandest of the grand is the massive Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building. Built in 1923, the British at that time boasted that it was "the most extravagant construction ever erected in the region from the Suez Canal to the Bering Strait."

It was from this building that British merchants transferred money to and from India until the Communist revolution in 1949 when there was a radical change in government policy and philosophy.

The Huangpu river flowing in front of these architectural classics divides Shanghai into western and eastern segments. The former is the area where Shanghai has grown from an insignificant fishing village to a world class metropolis with some 17 million residents.

The eastern riverbank, by contrast, was rather neglected although some warehouses, factories and facilities for river vessels had been built. Beyond these buildings was swampy farmland, simple houses, dusty roads and grazing water buffalo.



... and up close, it's a taste of the subcontinent.

The scene began to change in 1990 with the announcement of major plans to develop Pudong, or East Shanghai. Construction continues on infrastructure that is making the Pudong New Area bigger than Shanghai's central city.

Despite the ongoing construction, in what's claimed to be the world's fastest growing city, there are already several eye-opening architectural masterpieces. Soaring 468 metres, the Oriental East Pearl TV and Radio Tower is the tinted pink glass landmark of this burgeoning sector of the expanding city. In an exhibition area within the base of this space age spire, is yet another link with India: a photo exhibition of many of the world's outstanding buildings including the Taj Mahal.

If Pudong is Shanghai's "new baby", then Nanshi is its "grandfather". Contained within the city's oldest district are several attractions, the most visited of which are the Yuyuan Gardens. Built in the 16th Century by a high-ranking official to honour his father, there are 40 picturesque landscaped settings within two hectares of delicately landscaped gardens. This is classic Chinese gardening at its finest with dragon spined walls, glazed porcelain tiles and an abundance of well-pruned plants and peaceful ponds.

Spring and autumn are not only idyllic seasons to see bursts of colour throughout these Ming period gardens, they are also pleasant times to comfortably tour the cosmopolitan city. Regardless of the time of year, however, Shanghai is a popular destination for visitors from virtually every country. Though India remains a noted exception, the recent visit of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and a delegation of business delegates and entrepreneurs (June 22-27) appears to have marked a new chapter in bilateral trade and tourism relations. (In a move that has commercial and political significance, Air India is to operate a bi-weekly service from December on the Mumbai-Delhi-Bangkok-Shanghai route. China Eastern Airlines already operates a bi-weekly flight connecting Beijing and Shanghai with New Delhi, while Ethiopian Airlines flies from Mumbai to Beijing).

When Indians are able to easily travel to China, one place of interest in Shanghai will be the former residence of Madame Soong Ching Ling. She was the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the architect of modern China. Contained among the exhibits in her stylish garden villa built in the former French settlement is a letter from the then Prime Minister of India. Though it was written decades ago to a crusader who devoted many of her later years to the interests of women and children, the candid views of "difficult times ahead" expressed by the Indian leader seem particularly relevant in today's period of uncertainty.

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