Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A return to Shanghai: Part II: The Building That Means It All

The second day in Shanghai was a very special one for me.

This building is pretty important in my life.
Copyright Kohn Pedersen Fox.
My father is an architect, and very successful at that. He works at a large New York City firm, and has worked on a lot of really big mixed-use projects in the Asia-Pacific region. The rise of China basically paid for my college education. And it started from the building in Shanghai I visited; my dad was part of the team of architects that designed it.

The Shanghai World Financial Center is well north of 1400 feet tall, and was, for a short time, the tallest building not counting spires in the world. It is Shanghai’s tallest tower, and a big tourist attraction and office building of the city. It also paid for the educations of most of the children of my dad’s firms employees; it was one of the firm’s most important projects, and garnered a lot of attention – and future projects. This building, and my dad’s working on it, are responsible for my comfortable upbringing and for all the amazing opportunities I had, for which I am ever grateful.

Last time I was in Shanghai, the building had not been completed quite yet. So this time, I decided, I had to see it.

I left where I stayed at 9am, with my bags, and grabbed some custard buns on the way for breakfast. I am seriously going to gain back a good bit of the 25 pounds I lost this past year over this trip. Seriously.

I got there around 9:45am, and got a ticket. But before that, I snapped a photo.

Sorry about the finger. There it is!
First, I went up to the observation decks at the 97th and 100th floors-at the bottom and the top of the hole. I went up an elevator, and arrived and walked around and took pictures. It’s a pretty expensive trip up (about US$25), but definitely worth it. Most people were trying to see Shanghai through the smog, but I was looking at the building.

The lower deck. It's really neat.

Yours truly, and behind me, Shanghai's smog. The smog is like a low-lying cloud that the taller buildings pierce through. This is, mind you, over 1300 feet above the ground. My sour-ish face is from a camera flash. I was grinning like an idiot most of the time.
Good job, Dad. And good job, team. (Sorry, dads get priority.) It’s a beautiful building…very clean lines, very elegant.

It was also totally amazing to be on it at last. I grew up with the building. The project started when I was 2 and finished when I was 17. It was my symbol of pride for my dad, and for the surrogate family formed by my dad’s amazing colleagues, for a long time. The building is basically a buddy. So it was just really awesome to be in it at last!

After the observation decks, I went down to the 94th floor to procure some souvenirs, and to also take a breather. I got a nice poster for my room.

The tourist shop. This is from my phone camera, since my real camera ran out of battery.
Then it was down to the lower floors, which holds a shopping mall with stores ranging from a cheap, ordinary convenience store to a very posh-looking Japanese restaurant. Unlike a lot of other Chinese skyscrapers, the developer seems to have gotten a good mix of stores in.

At that point, I met another friend. Rebecca is a friend of my father’s who lives in Shanghai. Originally from Sichuan, she and her husband are trained, incredibly skilled architects. They are also extremely cultured, and in general are great people.

I hadn’t seen her since 2008, but we were soon talking quite excitedly. Her family and I went down to the building’s food court to eat lunch, and we caught up. The food court in the building is really good, and cheap too. They have really, really good Shanghainese food.

By this time, I had been in SWFC for a few hours. There’s a lot to do there.

Rebecca also updated me about Shanghai, including a long discussion about wealth inequality in the city, which has noticeably widened in the past few years  - even if the widening has slowed in China generally. Shanghai is a huge economic center, but it also has a huge migrant population. It’s also become really expensive on Chinese standards, but the salaries of most people haven’t always kept up.

We actually discussed a lot of things. Rebecca and her husband, Jason, are very curious people, and also knowledgeable about a huge range of topics. They know a good deal about UChicago and had a lot of questions about my time there. Their son, an astonishingly well-behaved, intelligent nine-year-old, was listening intently, although he’s rather quiet. I can tell that that kid has tons of potential.

Then, it was time for me to go home.

My flight back was from Shanghai to Hong Kong-which meant I’d cross and recross the Mainland border to get back to Shenzhen. It’s not that bad.

I took the Maglev to Pudong Airport:

Copyright Viator.
A few years ago, Shanghai opened what is still the only commercially functioning Maglev railway in the world, linking the 30km between Shanghai’s international airport and an area close to the city itself. It was quite a white elephant, but also became a tourist attraction. It’s also the easiest way to get to the distant airport. Originally, it was supposed to extend 200km to the west, to the city of Hangzhou (which I’m going to in a week and a half). But that plan seems to be shelved for now.

I paid the roughly US$8 and got on. The ride was eight minutes, but reached 431km an hour. Going at that speed down a track, tilting, past fields and buildings and industrial suburbs, is nothing less than mind-boggling. 

It’s literally watching the world become a blur.

And then I flew back and crossed the borders and got back home and sat and reflected.

Shanghai is an amazing city. It is a place that really has no comparison, in spirit or in energy. It’s changed, and it will continue to change.

It was good to be back, albeit briefly. It was great to walk around and take the train and know the streets and recognize – and smile at – the idiosyncrasies of the taxis and the awkward format of the street signs.

I definitely plan to go back at some point. When, I don’t know. But Shanghai will, hopefully, continue to draw me back to her, again and again.

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