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Map of China



I recently visited a photographic exhibition on China's 50 golden years of Communism celebration. But through Fritz Hoffmann's photographs, and one has to wonder what the authorities now mean by their catch-all term, "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

Shanghai was the city of firsts for China: the first electric trams, the first stock market, the first night clubs, the first movie industry. It was also the city of superlatives, possessing the tallest buildings, the most banks, the cleverest entrepreneurs, the best products, the freest press, the fullest cultural life, the fiercest gangsters, and the grandest gambling dens.

Its women, clad in body-hugging "qipao" (Chinese costume), were the country's most stylish, and its prostitutes the most numerous. Shanghai grew into China's leading commercial, financial, industrial, and cultural center, thanks to its strategic location, the know-how of its occupiers, and the resourcefulness of its Chinese inhabitants, many of whom had migrated to Shanghai from the provinces. To the world, Shanghai became known as the Paris of the East, and the greatest city in Asia. To traditional Chinese in the interior, it was a den of iniquity bereft of Chinese virtues. To the Shanghainese and their more open-minded compatriots, it was the definition of Chinese modernity.

Before I left for Shanghai, I recall trying to convince families and friends it will be nostalgic to live and work. Inevitably their chin would sink into their neck, their nose would crinkle up on one side and they would ask: "Why?" Their incredulity was based mostly on vague impressions of a Chinese communist country and of students being run over by government tanks in Beijing in 1989. They obviously thought I was completely out of my mind and absolutely crazy to leave the tree-lined streets, sun and sea breezed dwellings and modern comforts of the city, in exchange for that.