Here and There – China – Shanghai

I first went to Shanghai for work in 1998.  I had been to China several times before, my first visit back in 1984, but this was different.  Heading a graduate management school, I was to meet my opposite number, a professor at Fudan University, dean of their School of Management. To say my opposite number is rather misleading.  Fudan University was one of the top five universities in China, a leading global institution, and their school of management offered courses for hundreds of students at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, had a major PhD program, many staff, and a range of research activities.  The Graduate School of Management at RMIT in Melbourne, had a handful of staff, taught a small MBA program, a pipsqueak in comparison.  Today Fudan is one of the ‘Double First Class’ universities in China, a member of the Universitas 21 consortium of leading universities worldwide.   As of 2022, Fudan University is ranked 3rd in China, 7th in Asia and 31st globally according to the QS World University Rankings.  A little more prestigious than RMIT!

I was going to Fudan because back in the early 1980s a wealthy Hong Kong industrialist had donated $HK10m to create the Ma Kam Ming International Management Centre, the money to be shared between Fudan and RMIT.  Why RMIT was included with Fudan was a mystery to me, although I was aware a very entrepreneurial group at RMIT was spending time in China looking for collaboration possibilities.  This was one that had worked.  Almost worked.  I was going to a meeting at Fudan University to get the project back on the rails, as little had happened for a couple of years.  As the new head of RMIT’s graduate school, I wanted to see the project finished, and the university’s share of the donation safely in the coffers.

Back in Melbourne, the Ma Kam Ming Centre existed.  That might be considered a rather generous description.  There was a small room, with a suitable sign on the door for the centre.  However, there were no dedicated staff, just a room with a table, chair, and hope!  The reasons for this state of affairs were still unclear to me as I got off the plane at Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport .

Today Hongqiao is one of the two international airports for Shanghai.  Almost all international visitors will arrive at Shanghai Pudong Airport, but in 1998 it was yet to open (that happened a year after my Fudan visit).  Today Hongqiao Airport mainly serves domestic and regional flights, although it’s schedules do include some international flights too.  In 1998, it was the only place to go, and it was old!  I can remember being rather stunned by the poor quality of the buildings, the furnishings, and just about everything else.  It had opened seventy years earlier.  It served to reinforce what I already and mistakenly believed that China was still far behind the western world in development.

Twenty-five years after my arrival in Shanghai for that visit to Fudan University, it is hard to recall what the city was like then.  I remember the roads were crowded, gridlock everywhere, and the network of raised motorways was only partially developed.  I’d been to Shanghai Hongqiao airport before, which was famous for delays and disappearing flights (aircraft would be taken out of service for no apparent reason).  On one occasion I watched as a group of men arrived in a limousine, stopping beside the plane waiting at the gate for my flight to Hong Kong. They embarked, and it left:  the departures indicator suddenly changed and advised there was a four-hour delay because of the late arrival of the incoming flight:  my plane had been ‘hijacked’, commandeered to take a group to … Beijing, perhaps?

The university was crowded, many buildings were old, but new towers were appearing.  I discovered that Fudan had a room with a sign on the door for the Ma Kam King International Management Centre, and inside and table a chair!  I was told negotiations with the Ma family had stalled, as they expected that their generous donation would lead to their name placed in very large characters on the side of one of the new buildings.  If you visit China, you will know this kind of recognition is common.  Progress over the donation had stopped because Fudan wasn’t going to stick the Ma name on the side of a building for such a paltry sum!

They had prepared a nice brass sign, possible a metre wide and 40 centimetres high, with the name of the Centre and the donor, which they planned to place in the entrance to one of the buildings, along with others identifying other similar links.  Prominent among these was the Nordic Centre in Shanghai, which offered Fudan a joint platform for research and education with 14 universities from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.  Fudan also had a joint Master of Management with the BI Norwegian Business School, the first such external program at the university.  There must have been signs for other links which I don’t recall.

Discussions continued over the next couple of years.  Eventually, a small ceremony was held to unveil that brass sign, which was still where I had first seen it.  Fudan received their share of the donation.  Did RMIT receive their money?  Yes, but it turned out that a ‘substantial’ amount of the funds had already been expended in attempts to build further partnerships in China.  I haven’t checked to see what happened to the sign on the office door in Melbourne, but in its new premises I don’t think there is a room for the Centre.  It was a long time ago.

Some time after my first visit, RMIT received a delegation from Fudan, led by the Party Secretary.  To explain, as was the case for many institutions in China, there was a dual hierarchy in the university, one academic and one party based:  the party Secretary and the President were the two leaders of the institution.  At Fudan, as in many other universities, they managed different areas of the operation, although one or the other was acknowledged as being the senior (a case of primus inter pares?).  The academic head was the senior of the two at Fudan.  At one point in the discussions, I was asked to take the group around RMIT.  The Party Secretary and his colleagues seemed rather uninterested in touring the campus.

A couple of years later, I learnt they had paid a visit to the University of Melbourne, another partner with Fudan University.  Apparently, the Vice Chancellor had greeted them, and almost immediately sent them off on a tour led by a junior staff member.  At least we held our meetings first!  They were shown the latest buildings, including a ‘high-tech’ lecture theatre.  The President of Fudan University told me the group had been angry about the way they had been treated, as if they were a group of students’ parents, but he told me they enjoyed one element of what they saw.  That came from seeing that lecture theatre because, as he told me, the technology was far behind what Fudan had been installing!

Twenty-five years ago, it was still quite easy for Australian universities to build links, joint programs and exchanges with leading Chinese universities, as they sought to establish their networks and their credibility.  However, like Hongqiao Airport, that world has been passed by.  Today Fudan’s Handan campus is huge, littered with modern large buildings.  The Handan Road, that used to run in front of the entrance, was diverted underground, the tunnel some 500 metres long, and part of the university has spread to the other side of where the road once ran.  Too large for that one site, the university now has three other campuses.  It absorbed the Shanghai Medical University in 2000 and has 17 affiliated hospitals. Selective, prestigious, there is little to remind a visitor what it looked like on my first visit.

I was last in in Shanghai in 2018.  I didn’t go to Fudan University.  I was working with a luxury hotel.  In my free time, the first thing I did was to go to People’s Square and the Shanghai Museum.  Completed in 1996, it is a stunning building:  modern, spacious, yet designed around the shape of a ding, the traditional bowl or cauldron standing on three legs, (a design from 4,000 years ago).  Inside, the Shanghai Museum is still one of the great delights of the city.   Each time I have been there, I have spent time looking at calligraphy (one half of one of the five floors), and paintings (another gallery taking up half a floor).  Then a quick drink in the cafe (no, not a cafe, a teahouse), before going to the very tempting museum shop.  The only very familiar limitation was that I would have to carry what I bought there.  I’ve found posting shopping a little unreliable!

I had arrived at Pudong International Airport.  Up until 1992, Lujiazui (Pudong) comprised underdeveloped farmland, wharves, and warehouses on the east side of the Hangpu River, and had a bad reputation.  It was where sailors would visit, looking for drink and women when on leave, but in 1993 Lujiazui was designated a Special Economic Zone.  It is now one of the most important development centers outside of the complex of zones in Guangdong Province.  If you look across from the Bund, the traditional centre of Shanghai on the western side of the Huangpu River, you see a new Manhattan in the making.  The array of massive buildings matches the confidence of the people:  Shanghai is marching forward.

One of those buildings is the Jin Mao tower, 88 stories high, housing the Grand Hyatt on floors 53 to 87.  It has a wonderful Shanghai style restaurant, on level 86, the Club Jin Mao.  Like the museum, the building is emblematic of China’s ability to merge tradition with the modern, as the tower is designed on the theme of a tiered pagoda.  “The 88 floors … are divided into 16 segments, each of which is 1/8 shorter than the 16-story base. The tower is built around an octagon-shaped concrete shear wall core surrounded by 8 exterior composite supercolumns and 8 exterior steel columns.”  Now, you did know the number 8 was considered lucky in China didn’t you, a number for prosperity, success and even joy?

Just one time I was invited to dinner at the Club Jin Mao, by the President of Fudan.  Looking back, an incident that evening was rather symbolic.  The meal was wonderful, the company fascinating.  It could have been a perfect evening, except I managed to put my foot in it!  Behind our table was what appeared to be a rather unusual wallpaper.  However, when I looked carefully, I realised it was pieces of Chinese calligraphy, overlapping and densely written, the whole looking rather like a palimpsest on some kind of parchment or stone.

I asked about the fragments of text .  Were they poetry, or historical tracts, or a commentary of some kind?  The President got up and took a look.  He asked a colleague to join him.  They called over the maître d.  Soon several people trying to decipher what was there.  It turned out that the characters were very old, and the text was largely unreadable and clearlyimpossible to translate.  My host was embarrassed he couldn’t answer my question; I was embarrassed I’d asked it; and by the end half the restaurant was embarrassed at this collective failure in assisting a guest.  With hindsight, I can look back and say it was a moment that captured the change in Shanghai.  Pudong was the new Shanghai, and Pudong stood on top of the old ways, gradually being erased.  Old text was decorative, but nothing more.  As Chinese Emperors had done many times over 2,000 years, you step forward by obliterating the past.

To look at how things had changed, in 2018 I went back to Yu Yuan (the Yu Gardens).  Twenty five years ago, the Garden’s teahouse was a major visitor destination, surrounded by tourist shops.  However, if you wandered into the side alleys you found shops offering silk and leather goods:  at the back of many there would be a not-quite-hidden treasure trove of other tiny stalls selling branded goods, watches, and DVDs, but all were copies.  Some were cheap fakes, but others appeared indistinguishable from the real articles, quite often made in the same factories during an illegal elongated production run.  Bargaining was essential:  you started at a twentieth of the price suggested and worked to a compromise:  you soon learnt which were the quality items.

Now Yu Yuan is a cleaned-up attraction.  The shops and the teahouse have hardly changed, but the illegal stores seemed to have gone, although I might have a few hidden away when I looked carefully.  Buying and selling fakes is illegal; police are more in evidence.  However, the biggest risk for the unwary is from pickpockets and handbag snatching.  Crime flourishes, but it is the same crime you face of the streets of Barcelona or Rome.  Twenty five years ago, the ornate teahouse in the centre of the inner garden was well worth a visit:  today, it is packed with tourists, and now seems rather gaudy, another spot for a selfies on your iPhone.

I don’t want to mislead you:  there is a reverence for the past and traditions in this city.  You see it in in the various collections in the Shanghai Museum.  You see it as you walk along the new pathway beside the river:  the grass is still getting established, but the rocks are already there, some with characters, silent testimonials to the past through the carefully managed combination of permanence and weathering those stones reflect.

To escape tourists, I went to some of the new modern art museums in Shanghai.  The four I visited were all exciting and innovative, but the best was the Power Station of Art which, like London’s Tate and Sydney’s Powerhouse, is situated inside an old riverside power generating plant.  Much to see, and on the top floor the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art had assembled ‘A Beautiful Elsewhere’, with works by leading Chinese artists and others from overseas (including one Australian, Ron Mueck).  The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art was holding its Animamix Biennale: the whole building was a gaming experience, with mini games to be played (and to get out from the exhibition you had to find four hidden numbers!).  Challenging, invigorating, thought provoking art at the leading edge.

Shanghai is a rich business city.  It glows with confidence, even on grey weather days.  Early in the morning, people keep fit by running by the river, jogging appears more popular than Tai Chi.  That was telling:  the Shanghainese are somewhat reserved and individualistic, lacking the sense of warmth you feel in Hong Kong.  Wealthy, the traditions of family and community are less obvious.  Walking up the Nanjing Road pedestrian street, hoping to avoid the beautiful, expensive but characterless shopping centres, I saw luxury brand stores, a couple of Chinese department stores and a random mixture of coffee shops, souvenir stalls, a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Starbucks, and a selection of antique shops for tourists.  You could still find some of the old city if you turned onto one of the side streets.  After a few blocks, you can find noodle shops and old-style dumpling restaurants, in between banks and luxury western hotels.  Higgledy-piggledy, but even there the old is being pushed out by the new.

As Cities become wealthy, they become more alike.  Each city has its own attractions, but the sense of the city becomes more universal.  Melbourne is a fine city, but in comparison Shanghai is great city, loved by the central government.  Charles Dickens’ words seem almost apposite: “It was the best of times, it was the epoch of belief, it was the season of light, it was the spring of hope, we had everything before us, we were all going direct to Heaven”  Heaven?  Even in China, it is the heaven of Mammon.