May 1, 2011

Laowais (= foreigners)

Like most modern cities, Shanghai draws both international visitors and Chinese nationals. In 2007 I had the great good fortune to travel to Shanghai to see the city before it's old town was lost and Shanghai became a modern city of the 21st century. During my visit it quickly became clear that the true heart of the city appeared at night. From the banks of the Huang Pu River in the Bund district, to the back streets of old Shanghai, this is a city that becomes awash with light, color and character as dusk falls.

Shanghai is a city of contrasts, the modern skyscrapers beautifully lit by neon advertising and light displays.  But head only a few blocks away from the core tourist areas and another world is available to view. Communities live out their lives on the streets, eating, reading and generally catching up with each other.
Shop workers team build by singing and dancing on the pavements outside their premises. Street food hawkers prepare chicken, fish and vegetable skewers of food for fast consumption by people on their way home. Look through any shop doorway and there is life being lived out, better than any soap opera on television perhaps.
Shanghai's skyscrapers and modern lifestyle are often seen as representing China's recent economic development. But for now traditional life can still be found away from these developments, but for how long?  Only time will tell how much this city will change as it embraces the consumer led 21st century that China is banking on as it's future.
Laowais (= foreignerers) in Shanghai are both insiders and outsiders. There are 18 million residents in Shanghai and I believe every one has tried to sell me something. Visually, we stick out like a sore thumb…but actually, foreigners make up a huge ex-pat community.
The French arrived in 1846 and leased land just south of the British Concession's holdings. They established a series of fine residential neighborhoods west across today's Luwan District, branching off Huaihai Lu, the main avenue known in colonial times as Avenue Joffre. The streets in the long, sprawling settlement were lined with plane trees; the buildings, with their mansard roofs and shutters, resembled those of French towns of the time; and these neighborhoods, most now dating from the first 3 decades of the 1900s, remain much intact, although the modern construction boom has laid waste to considerable clusters of the French legacy.

In recent years, a concerted effort has been made to preserve and spruce up many charming blocks of the original French residences, open historic houses, and convert some of the surviving mansions and estates to fine restaurants and retail shops -- all making for a delightful, if spread out, stroll through colonial Shanghai. Refusing to join the International Concession formed in 1863 by the British and Americans, the French had their own electric power, bus system, and legal system within their 10-sq.-km (4-sq.-mile) quarter. It was a neighborhood that attracted not only the French, but international adventurers, Chinese gangsters, White Russian refugees, communist revolutionaries, and pimps and prostitutes as well. By the 1930s, the French were vastly outnumbered here, but their sense of style has endured.

Our project, the restoration of a lovely old villa in the French Quarter as a corporate retreat.

Long live chocolate!

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