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Shaghai Dispatch #5

This article is more than 11 years old.

If you stroll through the old French Concession in Shanghai — where Imperial China ceded control to the French a century and more ago — you'll come upon — of all things — a vigorous tie to Boston. A seven-acre patch of exotic old Chinese homes that were made-over, half-a-dozen years ago, into a Quincy Market-style mecca for swanky restaurants and glam retail. It's called Xintiandi, and the Boston connection is not accidental.

The principal architect for Xintiandi — or "New Heaven and Earth" in English — was an American named Benjamin Wood. Ben Wood once worked for Benjamin Thompson, who designed Quincy Market. Wood lived in Boston before he moved to Shanghai - and explicitly designed Xintiandi with inspiration from Boston's famous landmark. They're both what architects call "festival markets" — interesting old parts of a city reconfigured, buffed to a high sheen, and turned into popular attractions. Xintiandi is a gorgeous, evocative, gold-plated retake on old China. Benneton is here. Hugo Boss. Shanghai Tang. Well-heeled foreigners. Nouveau-riche Shanghai shoppers. Plus something Boston really doesn't have: the very site where the Chinese Communist Party first met in 1921. There's a museum that marks the spot. Mao and his compatriots are here in wax museum style, vowing to fight, as they said, until "all class distinctions in this society disappear." Of course, that's a joke today in China, where new billionaires race ahead of a billion Chinese behind.

I won't get into that debate, but — coming from Boston — here's what struck me as missing: Fanueil Hall. By the blessing of history, Boston's festival market has, right in the heart of it a place where great public debates are held. Where leaders answer openly to the people. Where contestants for power debate for voters to decide. Presidents. Senators. Mayors, and would-be mayors. For all China's great strides and great challenges — and we've seen both this week — that, to me, is the thing that's missing. Wise guests on our show in Shanghai have said, give us time. We're working on it. But I don't know. I hope they get there.

Down the road from Xintiandi is real life - not buffed up or fancy. A Shanghai bird market. They sell crickets, too. And turtles and cats. And tadpoles. It's messy and busy. It feels more like the China I know. I get lost in its narrow aisles. It's wonderful.

This program aired on April 18, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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