Dispatch, China 3: Shanghai surprise

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Ken in ChinaTravel Weekly’s Kenneth Kiesnoski is touring China with Uniworld. The trip includes a Yangtze River cruise on Victoria Cruises’ newest ship, the Victoria Jenna. His third and final dispatch follows.

As I approach his simple bazaar booth at Shanghai’s popular Yuyuan Gardens attraction, local artist Zhang Tao is busily scraping and shaving President Barack Obama’s likeness into a slab of wood.

For good measure, he added our chief executive’s name in both Chinese characters and Roman letters.

But the plaque reads "OBAMAO" not "OBAMA" — a pun referring to iconic former Chinese strongman Chairman Mao Zedong. It’s a tribute to Obama’s first-ever visit to China, a four-day foray that began here in Shanghai.

Thanks to the witty reference to Obama’s popularity among ordinary Chinese, Tao is now enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. This morning, the English-language Chkkchinaobamaina Daily newspaper illustrated an article on Obama’s visit with a photo of Tao and the presidential portraits.

According to a CNN Asia report I read the night before Obama’s arrival, Tao’s work has also attracted the attention of city authorities, who are worried the conflation of Obama’s name with Mao’s might offend the president and his entourage.

In another era, in an earlier China, the attention might have landed Tao in prison, his works confiscated. But here he sits, still carving away as President Obama holds a "town hall" with students at the nearby Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

And the portraits are still on sale. I picked one up as a newsworthy souvenir, after haggling the price down from 188 yuan (about $30) to 90 yuan. This is definitely a new China.

Shanghai surprises me. It doesn’t feel like what I’d expect from a nominally Communist city. Not that Beijing or Chongqing did either, but Shanghai is exceptionally modern, sophisticated, developed, consumerist — even tidy.

At moments, I swear I am in Hong Kong, the city Shanghai is usurping as southeastern Asia’s financial hub. And unlike bureaucratic Beijing, which feels very much centrally planned despite its more ancient pedigree, stylish Shanghai has the organic and intimate feel of a historical world city. kkchinapearl

Parts of the city even have a charming European ambience, the legacy of Shanghai's former French and British colonial occupiers.

Not that nothing’s being centrally planned in today’s Shanghai. Apart from Pudong — where what is to be the world’s second-tallest building is now under construction near the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower — the other big construction project here is taking place at the grounds for the Shanghai World Expo 2010.

Hugging both banks of the Huangpu River for 5 miles, the exposition site occupies more than 1,300 acres, or 10% of downtown real estate. Two hundred forty-two participants — corporations, organizations and national and local governments from around the world — are constructing pavilions, five of which will be permanent and put to other uses after the expo. Subway lines are being extended, bridges thrown up and tunnels dug to accommodate expo traffic.

Li Bin Cheng, director of the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration, tells me over a cup of green tea in his office that the city expects the event to draw 70 million visitors.

Perhaps suffering a little spotlight envy after Beijing’s Olympic tour de force last summer, Cheng and his fellow Shanghainese are making much of the upcoming exposition, which runs May 1 to Oct. 31.

Advertising posters drape the city and official souvenir shops are selling goods emblazoned with the expo’s cartoon mascot, Haibao — a sort of blue Chinese Gumby. According to Cheng, Shanghai even has bought media spots worldwide that promote World Expo 2010, including in the U.S. That’s despite his estimate that only 5% of attendees will come from overseas.

Still, Cheng feels the expo can only raise Shanghai’s international profile and increase tourism arrivals. Tourism accounts for 5% of the city’s annual GDP.

kkchinaexpo"We want Shanghai to be famous worldwide as a city destination, and tourism development will continue even after the expo," he says. "Our message is that Shanghai is safe and welcoming."

Drumming home that point, the official World Expo 2010 slogan is "Better city, better life."

Shanghai welcomes about 6.5 million foreign visitors, businesspeople and vacationers, each year. Some 500,000 are Americans.

If Cheng reaches his expo attendance goals, overseas arrivals will jump by 5.5% in 2010, to 6.85 million. That's still way off his initial predictions even for this year, without the expo — and before the global economic slump and H1N1 flu panic.

"We’d expected 10 million arrivals in 2009. The crisis was one problem, H1N1 another," Cheng tells me. "We had a plan but we can’t control those factors. The only thing to do is to continue to promote Shanghai as friendly and safe."

As I drain my teacup down to the clump of soggy green tea leaves at the bottom, Cheng jokingly acknowledges unexpected help in Shanghai’s promotional efforts from presidential quarters, noting that Obama selected the city for his first stop in China.

"The president is setting an example, maybe?" he ventures, smiling.

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