• Image about Shanghai

Shanghai Son Rises

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming may lay his head in Houston, but his heart is still in Shanghai, his hometown.

A few years back, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming served as an image ambassador for his hometown of Shanghai by appearing in promotional films for the city. In these ads - titled "Countless Yao Ming, a Beautiful Shanghai" - the five-time All Star plays a policeman, a chef, a gardener, and other professions to honor "the spirit of Shanghai residents from all walks of life."

The films' director should have added the role of geography teacher to the shooting list, for 26-year-old Yao not only has put Houston on the map for every average Zhou in the Middle Kingdom, but he's also introduced Shanghai to the American masses.

It somehow seems right that the seven-foot-six Yao hails from Shanghai. This modern metropolis of 16 million is a city of superlatives, where first, faster, bigger, taller, and newer are always better. "It doesn't matter how much time you've spent in Shanghai," says Yao. "Every time you come here, the city will have a different feeling."

In Shanghai, the possibilities are limitless. Want to see a Wall Street district rising out of farm fields? Look across the Huangpu River toward the Pudong District, and you'll see the gleaming skyscrapers of Lujiazui. Desire a taste of Europe? The renovated architectural marvels along the Bund in Puxi demonstrate how Shanghai is, and always has been, China's most international city. Hoping to ride on a maglev train? You can catch one at the Pudong International Airport.

Here, it's even possible to discover an NBA top center. In the "if you build it, they will come" atmosphere of modern Shanghai, Yao's success story doesn't seem far-fetched at all. After all, basketball is what he was born to do. His father, six-foot-seven Yao Zhi Yuan, played for the Shanghai city team; his six-foot-three mother, Fang Feng Di, stood out on the Chinese national basketball team. At age nine, Yao entered the after-school basketball program at Xuhui District Sports School and began the lifelong training that would lead him to the Shanghai Sharks, the Chinese national team, the NBA, and superstardom.

Yao hasn't spent very much time in Shanghai the past five years. After the Rockets chose him as the number-one pick in the 2002 NBA draft, Yao and his parents moved to the suburbs of Houston. Even so, Yao looms large in Shanghai. His face appears on every McDonald's bag; on enormous billboards along Nanjing Road (Shanghai's equivalent of Fifth Avenue); and, on a nearly daily basis, in the Shanghai newspapers, which faithfully report on the Rockets. The city cheered when he was named the Western Conference Player of the Month last November. And in December, when Yao fractured his tibia, the collective intake of breath across Shanghai was sharp enough to cut glass. Although few of the city's 16 million know Yao personally, to all of them, he is Shanghai's favorite son.

And a dutiful one. Every summer, when the basketball season ends, Yao returns to Shanghai. When he came home after his rookie year, in May 2003, Shanghai was in the middle of the SARS crisis. Yao put together a telethon that raised $300,000 in relief. A year later, he accepted the position of global ambassador for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which Shanghai will host this October. And then, of course, there's his role as Shanghai's image ambassador in the promo films for the city. We'll now add tour guide to Countless Yao Ming's list of professions as he takes us through Shanghai.