Shanghai Vibes

I’ve been in Shanghai for a week now and am having trouble writing this post. This is not because I don’t have anything to say but, quite the opposite, I have to figure out where to start!

The Mandarin lessons are overwhelming. The teachers are good, the teaching method is effective and I’m learning a lot, but there is an incredible amount of information to be absorbed quickly. Every night, I go home, add 30-40 words or phrases to my flashcard application and spend an hour studying them to prepare for the next class.  I think that in the two weeks that I’m here, I’ll have covered as much material as those that take a year of the language in community college. Mind you, I’m in class for 20+ hours a week so it’s not that surprising.

Of course, I still don’t know all that much. I can introduce myself and tell people about my brothers, sisters and children, but I can’t order a meal without pointing.

In my previous post, I included a picture of the modern Shanghai skyline. The picture featured the new financial sector of Shanghai built around 25 years ago.  In contrast, here’s another picture:

Huxingting Teahouse

Huxingting Teahouse

The teahouse (also known as the “Clinton House” because of a past visit), is a key landmark in Old Town.This part of Shanghai dates back about 500 years and is filled with hundreds of food and craft shops. Given the proximity of Old Town to other high-rent districts, it is not surprising that old buildings are constantly being torn down and replaced by modern ones, chipping away at the old quarter.

Incidentally, there is a Starbucks across the way from the teahouse and a McDonalds around the corner.

Last night, we went on a Huangpu river cruise. The boat sails through the “Bund” – an area full of late 19th and early 20th century French and English architecture.  These are remnants of colonial times after the opium war of 1842.

Here’s another shot of the modern skyline, taken from the boat:

Shanghai Skyline at Night

Shanghai Skyline at Night

What you can’t see is that all the buildings are sparkling with light shows. The TV tower’s upper orb pulses with a variety of light effects. The building to its left is, effectively, a large monitor where a variety of video clips are shown.

Shanghai is an exciting place with a long history. There is construction going on everywhere. Crews work through the night, sometimes, especially if they’re building something related to next year’s Expo (in May, I think). The streets are full of business people and shoppers as well as cars, scooters and bicycles. The people are well dressed and everyone has a phone or white iPod buds stuck to their ears. There is a sense that people are happy and excited to be here.

Many of the folk at the school are people learning Mandarin because they need it or expect to need it for professional reasons. I’ve met several people who are working in Shanghai for European firms.  If either of my children were interested in going into business, I’d recommend they do the same.

I’m a huge fan of An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon. This book traces the economic history of the United States and points out, repeatedly, how huge fortunes were made by exploiting key transformative events (westward expansion, locomotives, automobiles, etc.). There is no doubt that the Chinese turn towards capitalism is such an event. Many expect the Chinese economy eclipse that of the US within the next 10-20 years.

It is possible that a collapse of the US currency or some other financial catastrophe will forestall the expected. Certainly, the Chinese still need to deal with environmental, workplace and other issues. Their reliance, too, on exports is ultimately a source of weakness. They have no choice but to lend us money as, without their loans, we might not ultimately be able to pay for their imports. With such a large and increasingly prosperous population, however, it would not surprise me to eventually see China with a negative balance of trade.

If I was in my 20’s, single, and just getting started in the business world, I’d spend a year at the Mandarin House (my language school) and I’d try to find a way to capitalize on the opportunities here. Yes, you can make money trying to find the right niche in the US or in Europe, but right now, China is the right place and the right time.