"If I was to tell you that I live in Shanghai, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Historic China, with old men in pyjamas slurping noodles on stools in the street? Maybe the roaring ‘20s, when expats ran colonial businesses during the day and then sipped cocktails in black tie at the embassy in the evening? Or now modern China, full of sleek high rises, luxury shops, and home to businesses that are keeping the world economy afloat? Shanghai is inevitably all of those things, and many more.
I first visited Shanghai in 2002, during my earliest business trip to China. I don’t remember doing that much business that week, but I do remember that all around me everyone spoke incomprehensible Chinese, I found that there was no restaurant within walking distance of our hotel at which I could actually order a proper meal, and also that there seemed to be construction going on wherever I looked. The whole city seemed chaotic and unruly, and more than anything else hard to comprehend.
Yet China, and Shanghai, grew on me. I visited more and more over the next few years whilst living in Hong Kong, and after a brief interlude outside of North-East Asia, at the end of 2008 I found myself moving to Shanghai. Living in China? I had loved Hong Kong, but living there was fairly straightforward, and the business environment was mature and sophisticated. This time I was on the mainland, which then was still a fairly new market, and with the challenge of managing a team of Chinese colleagues no less.
Right away I realised things had changed. Big new gleaming apartment blocks were up everywhere. I was staying in the same hotel as in 2002, and now there were well-stocked restaurants wherever I looked. Across the road was a brand new 100-storey skyscraper. And was that English that I heard being spoken in the shops? The vibrancy and the passion from before were still very much in evidence, but it felt that this had been channeled more, directed towards progress and rapid development. As the world economy shuddered to a halt during the financial crisis, China was now the place to be; Shanghai was at the front of the charge, proudly showing itself to the planet when it hosted the 2010 World Expo.
I used my free time to explore, to walk around the city and find out what makes it tick, whilst at the same time trying keep up with the changes and development that was racing along all around me. As I continue to work in Shanghai, and still take those walks, I enjoy the dichotomy that I see all around me. My job is in international finance, where China’s influence comes ever stronger on the global stage. If the Chinese economy sneezes, the world catches a cold. The skyscraper I saw in 2008 has now been dwarfed by another next door, which climbs far higher to rank second in the world. Famous chefs come to Shanghai to open their latest restaurants, where they host Formula 1 drivers or touring pop stars. Shanghai declares itself an international destination.
Yet another life co-exists alongside, one that maintains over twenty million local Shanghainese every day. Outside my air-conditioned, manicured apartment complex, I can go and order a huge bowl of tasty noodles for less than USD2. I walk through the back streets and see people sitting in the street getting a shave, having their shoes fixed up, or playing majiang with their friends. China is never just one thing, and Shanghai even more so. Rich live alongside poor, locals with foreigners, international companies trade next to one-man shops. A globally-recognised city that still has its roots in many years of culture, with a reputation that rose, fell, and rose again, and with all aspects of life to be explored down every side street. I enjoy being in Shanghai."
Born in London, an extended stay in America at a young age opened Ian Mote’s eyes to the possibility of the wide world around him. After spending four years living in Hong Kong and two in Dubai, Mote has resided in Shanghai since 2008. His book, From Chicken Feet to Crystal Baths, a collection of stories from his travels around China, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, andAuthorHouse.