I never really mastered reading kanji – the ideographic characters borrowed from Chinese – when I was studying Japanese a dozen years ago, but one character I do remember is dai, or big. It consists of two vertical strokes, joined at the top and curving out to the sides at the bottom, with a single horizontal stroke crossing in the middle. It is meant, I believe, to look like a person with arms stretched out; think of a fisherman measuring the one that got away. That character – in Mandarin, da – is the one I’ve noticed the most this last week, all over Shanghai and now in Hunan province.
In Shanghai today, everything is big – but specifically, the Pudong section of the east bank of the Huangpu River. When I last walked along the Bund 25 years ago, none of Pudong existed. It was an area of farmland glimpsed across the river through the haze, with perhaps just a few signs of the construction boom to come. Today it is dominated by a cluster of futuristic skyscrapers, most noticeably the 100-story Shanghai World Financial Center, a shapely glass monolith with a large square hole at the top, and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower — shades of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with two “pearls” on its slender tower, to Berlin’s one. Street-level Pudong also feels a bit like Berlin, specifically, Potsdamerplatz, with its wide streets, open plazas and chunky post-Wall buildings, but a good deal more deserted. This may not yet be a section of town where people actually live their lives, as opposed to conducting business, despite the high-end, high-rise apartment buildings already standing and seemingly increasing by the day.
On the other hand, the relative remoteness served me well in my choice of hotel, the Novotel Atlantis Pudong. Its location, well beyond the existing business center, made my spacious 35th-floor corner room a great bargain at $58 a night, compared to the luxury hotels across the river. Yes, they’re within walking distance of all the major attractions, which would have been nice. But a taxi ride from the Bund to the Novotel cost just over $3 U.S., no tipping expected, to cover what surely must have been the distance from Times Square to my apartment on 158th Street ($25 the last time I looked). And there I had, almost to myself, a 50-foot semicircular pool overlooking the new Pudong – when I could see it, through the yellowish gauze of pollution that permeates the city even on a good day. The first morning, I awoke to find my 35th-floor room completely fogged in, not unlike my brain after a 15-hour flight and a 12-hour sleep. (Both burned off around noon.)
Shanghai is gearing up for its 2010 World Expo, opening in May. The fair’s mascot, Seaboy, could be Gumby’s little blue brother, and his walking stance and outstretched arms in many of the posters and sculptures ubiquitous around town give him, too, the form of the da character. In this city, everything is going big. Even the approach to the serene 400-year-old Yuyuan Garden, a deliberately preserved warren of traditional shops and eateries that was packed with Chinese tourists just after Lantern Festival weekend, is about to go big when the glassy five-story Yu Fashion Garden opens this spring. And in the former French Concession, that dignified 19th-century enclave morphed into an ever-so-trendy center for shopping (Shanghai Tang!) and nightlife, giant billboards proclaim some of the names likely to loom large in the city’s future: Cartier, Godiva and Coach.