I have met many tourists who have told me not to bother with spending time in Shanghai. The reasons for skipping it were that it was just a city… nothing really cultural. I heeded their advice, but went anyways and found that I loved it! I have to admit that it wasn’t Chinese at all, and if you want a truly Chinese experience, you’ll have to look further than Shanghai, but at least look at Shanghai for what it is: One of the largest cities in the world, an asian metropolis with a colonial past, and one of the fastest growing modern areas in the Orient.
Shanghai is VERY different than Beijing: It isn’t nearly as polluted, It didn’t feel nearly as oppressive, and it was just more relaxed in pace. The people were friendlier than Beijing and didn’t make me feel like an intruder of their country. The sky was blue, the streets were tree-lined, and they light up the underside of their interstates with neon lights! The city was a lot cleaner as well. Beijing was very imperial feeling while Shanghai seemed to have a modern appeal. Here’s a few enjoyable things that I did in Shanghai:
Naturally the first place I wanted to see in Shanghai was the Bund and Pudong. I took the clean modern subway into the city and came out in the center of The New Pudong Area, beneath the Pearl Tower. This is an area that has been developing at a rapid rate since 1993. At present, the construction of the the Shanghai tower is rising above everything else. When finished this will be the tallest skyscraper in China and the second tallest in the world. I was surprised to see how many more buildings were in Pudong than what I had seen in pictures. Every direction I looked, cranes and construction sites were bustling as the east side of the river grew. Everything was steel, metal panels, and glass. The catwalked pedestrian paths circle over the traffic and the movement of people is in every direction you can look.
This multilevel space-age urban scene is what I found in a lot of places in Tokyo and Osaka as well. But I’m going to digress… hard. During WWII, most of Japan and Germany were bombed to pieces. They had to rebuild a lot of their cities in the 1950’s, and they built in a style of modernism that focused on production and efficiency. So when you go to many places in Germany & Japan, the architecture is cold and utilitarian. I’m personally not a fan. Pudong, on the other hand, has been built up since the early 90’s. So everything is very new, unlike Tokyo. You recognize the difference in scale and also that Pudong is dense, yet it has a sense of drawing your focus upwards. It’s almost light and airy feeling. This feeling is excentuated even more when you look around and ask yourself what’s missing from the skyline: OH! There are no bridges! Shinjuku and Shibuya in Tokyo both feel like they are crashing down on you. I am not sure if this is a difference in architecture stylings from 1950 to today that causes this, or a Chinese style of planning. But I feel that both are interesting to see.
The Bund itself is on the west side of the river overlooking Pudong. Along the river there is this wide spacious boardwalk that offers panoramic views. Again, not seeing bridges feels weird. I sat there several hours one day, reading a book, people watching, and waiting for the city to light up at night. I only got propositioned by three hookers… not bad. Behind the boardwalk is the line of early 20th century grey stone buildings. In the 1800’s-1900’s when the British colonized China, Shanghai was the largest import export harbor city. The colonization of the British, French, Portuguese, Germans, American, etc. built Shanghai into the european feeling city it is. When you are in the bund (which is hilarious to say) you don’t feel like you’re in China at all. The ornamental stone buildings represent western civilizations forcing the culture out of a city that didn’t belong to them. It wasn’t until these nations were occupied with the war efforts in the teens and forties that the Chinese were able to make a move in the Shanghai economic market. The buildings were mostly all banks, but now are high-end retail stores. Still it is interesting to see the difference between the old and the new, the East and the West, all in this impressive setting of Shanghai.
The French Concessions
As I said, the French were one group of westerners who colonized Shanghai. They built communities of French only living quarters called “Shinkumen Homes.” Today this area is known as the French Concessions. After the French left, these massive enclosed living quarters were split into smaller housing and became very run down. Now Shanghai is gentrifying these areas, in the name of preservation, and turning them into shopping districts with modern malls, starbucks, haagen dazs, and boutiques all in one. Whether or not you agree with it, it is interesting to see. One of the areas right across the street from the Xintiandi style mall is still low income housing. It’s interesting to see because clearly these people will be displaced soon to make room for gelato shops and shoe shopping. With graffiti saying “Keep Out” & “No Photo!” it isn’t hard to guess that the area is changed.
Besides the controversial issue of colonialism and gentrification, the French Concessions is also home to the SPPAC (Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center). This was, well…. interesting. It was in the bottom level of a residential complex, building B. In a poor lit cluster of apartments in the basement, you can see some of the last original propaganda posters of Communist China’s Mao Era. Whether the posters are showing the relationship between Mao and Stalin, American’s protesting the Korean War, The Revolution in Cuba, or China striking down American soldiers, it’s fun to laugh about. I found it all a little eerie because of it’s secluded setting, so I didn’t stay long. I got a few postcards that have been censored. I don’t know if the U.S. Postal Service will send them. We’ll see.
The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition
At the recommendation of a fellow blogger, this museum was pretty cool because it showed in scale models and pictures how Shanghai has changed over the years. It displays in model form the restoration process of the Shinkumen homes in the French Concessions. Then the top floors are dedicated to showing how the city is growing and what the Chinese Government plans to do to facilitate it’s growth. From section cuts models showing the expansion of the subway lines, to section cut models showing the burying of electric and water lines, to green home initiatives, this museum shows the city of the future. Then literally on the top floor, it shows you the city of the future. The entire 5th floor is one massive model of what the city will look like in 2030. It’s probably the largest scale model of a city I’ve ever seen. I liked this museum a lot, maybe because of my background, but it was still really awesome!
The MagLev Trains
The Magnetic Levitation Train technology that China has incorporated in Shanghai is one of three Maglev’s in the world serving the public at the time of writing. It uses magnets to levitate the trains instead of conventional wheels on tracks. So the train literally floats. I took the train from the Pudong Airport and it didn’t reach max speeds on it’s 8 minute trip, but still got up to 300kph (186mph). I was told by another tourists that only two trips a day reach max speed of 431kph (268 mph) twice a day. This makes it the fourth fastest train in the world in operation, just behind Japan’s Shinkansen trains. It looked like a train from “The Fifth Element” inside, but I wan’t particularly impressed with it’s performance. It had a lot of “womping” sounds and shaking. This is a controversial train technology anyways and the Maglev in Shanghai is considered a “white elephant.” But with time, we should see a lot more come to public use. I am still happy to say I rode one of the first maglev trains.
So if you are planning a trip to China and are considering skipping Shanghai, I understand. While I was there, I didn’t really feel like I was in China at all, besides the people interactions. But in terms of modern cities, Shanghai is a must see. Studying architecture, I learned that China, along with many other Asian countries, has very lax building codes and cheap construction labor. This allows for massive “let’s push the limits” architecture that would NEVER get built in the U.S. For example: The birds nest in Beijing, the Pudong Maglev, the Shanghai Tower, and countless others. I’m not saying that the buildings aren’t safe, I’m saying that the U.S. is very strict in what it allows to be built. The result is that you see very unprecedented structures in China and other Asian countries. Pudong Airport is it’s own space age city! And I think it’s important to understand China by seeing where they are going in the world. It’s also a little daunting to see how advanced Shanghai really is!
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