Whenever possible on visits to Shanghai, I’ve always chosen to fly into Hongqiao Airport, rather than the larger, newer Pudong Airport. Shanghai is the only major city in China with two major commercial airports, and Hongqiao and Pudong couldn’t be more unalike. Or at least that was the case until a few weeks ago, when the new Hongqiao terminal and runway opened. I just flew in and out of this new building, and while it’s an impressively gleaming facility, I find myself mourning the loss of the old Hongqiao.
Hongqiao was always a dowdy remnant of a bygone era in China, built over 20 years ago when the western part of Shanghai was still largely farmland. The first time I went to Hongqiao was 1982, to see my friend Fritz off. He was flying on PanAm Airlines to the US, back when there were very few international flights into and out of China. As I remember it, the PanAm 747 came gliding in like a metallic chimera, over the heads of peasants transplanting rice.
Gradually, the city enveloped the airport and Hongqiao is now one of the few downtown airports in China, a short cab ride to the main business areas in Shanghai about 8 miles away. Its 1980s vintage terminal was also one of my favorite sites in China – a reflection, perhaps, of the fact I rarely get to travel to anywhere very scenic in China, but hop around from booming metropolis to booming metropolis.
The old terminal has a brute, utilitarian ugliness about it, fishhook-shaped, small, cramped and comfortingly ramshackle. It’s so past-its-prime, in fact, it would not be out of place at all in the US, with its outdated urban airports like LAX, Kennedy, LaGuardia, Midway.
The comparison with Pudong, opened ten years ago 25 miles outside the center of Shanghai, was stark. At Pudong, you whizz along long corridors on motorized walkways, and travel downtown on the world’s only commercial Mag-Lev train. If Pudong is glass and steel, Hongqiao was cement and plastic.
But, again, all this now belongs to the past tense. The new Hongqiao Terminal is, if anything, more loudly and verbosely modern than Pudong when it opened. I had no idea it was even being built, it’s so far away from the old facility, on what was the back fringe of old Hongqiao. It’s a 20-minute shuttle ride between the two. All domestic flights now operate from the new terminal, and my hunch is that the old terminal will not be standing for very much longer. Civic leaders clearly came to see it as an eyesore, an embarrassingly “Third World” entry-point for a city busily striving to become the world’s next great commercial and financial capital.
There was a rush to open the new Hongqiao, since next month, the Shanghai Expo opens. The roads leading to the new terminal are still under construction, as is the subway line. Vast expanses of ground in the front and to the sides of the new building are now just barren plots, waiting for parking lots, airport hotels and rental car facilities to populate them. Our cab driver had not been yet to the new terminal and couldn’t find the departures area.
On entering, the first impression is of a very un-Shanghai-like emptiness. The new terminal must be at least ten times larger and three times taller than the old one. The line of check-in counters stretches for half-a-mile. You get a sense of what Jonah must have felt like entering the whale. Everywhere else in Shanghai is so jam-packed that you are part of a perpetual mob scene, breathing in someone else’s exhaust. Not here. It hints at a Shanghai of the future, a city not defined mainly by its enormous and densely-packed population, but by its modernity, efficiency and polish.
That’s just it. What’s most special, and worth preserving, about old Hongqiao is that it belongs to the Shanghai that “was”, rather than the China that “will be”. Even the name itself is a delightful throwback. Hongqiao means “Red Flag”, a name straight out of the Maoist lexicon.
The old axiom is very apt: “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from”. When Hongqiao’s old terminal goes, so too will the last conspicuous reminder of the Shanghai of thirty years ago, a city, ever so tentatively, starting down the road of economic reform.
A tangible part of my own history in China will also disappear. Flying into Shanghai will never be the same.