Shanghai – where East meets West, where Capitalism and Communism are fighting it out in Starbucks and skyscrapers are multiplying faster than the rats in the less than salubrious noodle joints. This city of contrast and contradictions is alive with opportunities and has become the natural focus for China’s renaissance as the millennium continues to propel the Far East towards globalisation faster than you can say McLibel.
Despite the immensely rapid growth of the ex-pat community and Western inhabitants, there is still an inane fascination by the Chinese for their ‘alien’ visitors. Direct eye contact is as rare in the UK as a seat being offered on the tube, but our Shanghainese counterparts boldly stare and comment, a cultural habit that can prove tedious after a long flight. However, pride comes to the fore and all is forgiven with one lovely lady taking the time to explain her stares – “excuse me, you are so beautiful” – and all snobbery and defensive reactions melt away to mumbles of thanks and embarrassed smiles. This is a city where Western men are praised for their “film star” looks by beautiful Chinese ladies, (yes, this is boy heaven) and our wide eyes and pale skin are features found to be attractive and fascinating; a visit to any department store will tell the tale of the ongoing quest by the Chinese to be more Western in appearance.
Another shock to the unsuspecting Western traveller might be the continuous act of spitting in public places. The Chinese belief that surplus mucus is unhealthy and detrimental to the body’s balance results in the dubious habit of removing such fluids audibly, publicly, and surprisingly often. Lovely. It would appear that the government is now trying to eradicate this habit, and signs around the city remind people to not spit…so maybe hygiene will prevail over chi.
The city is divided by the still working Huangpu river which provides a smoggy, noisy, yet reassuringly industrial spine to Shanghai. The city is, in many ways, a concoction of Western Colonialism. The architecture itself speaks volumes about the decadent past seen by the river banks as British and French concessions began to arrive following the Opium war in 1842, and a second wave of extravagance hit the scene in the 1930′s when the first HSBC bank opened it’s impressive doors on the Bund. Pu Dong, the fast expanding financial epicentre has a skyline that changes as quickly as the architects blueprint maps can be unfurled. Dominated by the essentially modernist Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the dizzying heights of the impressive Jinmao Maison hotel, the East Bank of the city is a tangible testament to vast economic growth in the Far East, providing a Manhattan-esque backdrop and the new Millenium’s answer to the West side art deco buildings of the affluent 1930′s. The truth of the Chinese life, however, can be glimpsed by night in the building sites of these great monuments to wealth. A closer look reveals the local construction workers making homes in the empty structures as they build, working, eating and sleeping in the cold, damp, empty shells of tomorrows symbol of success, a stark and saddening image by contrast.
For the visitor, Shanghai has a wealth of sights, sounds and smells to attack the senses. A taxi ride is the cheapest way to travel across the city of an evening and make the most of the vast array of bars and restaurants, although the onslaught of child beggars as you alight from the cab will be an alarmingly common sight and it’s a battle of conscience to move on. The city is brimming with funky urban bars, restaurants and clubs, and for the visitor dining on a Western budget it’s easy to make the most of the ‘all you can eat’ menus as an alternative to the traditional Shanghainese cuisine, which is in abundance. The appearance of frogs, turtles and crocodiles in a restaurant can be disconcerting, particularly when you realise they are they to be selected for consumption. Similarly, expect to find dog meat and paws on the menu occasionally, a shocker for most of us who regard canines as pets rather than delicacies. Shanghai is, however, a foodies paradise and is home to many top class restaurants of all varieties to appeal to the discerning visitor.
The old Chinese quarter in Shanghai is a tourist favourite, and with the attractions of the Yuyuang Gardens and the Mid-lake Pavilion teahouse it’s little wonder. Coy carp bustle in the lakes and streams winding round ornate Ming dynasty buildings and garden walls. Every corner is a photo opportunity, a real oasis at the heart of an urban jungle and an experience to be mooted over jasmine tea, tofu and quails eggs in the ever-popular tearoom. The old part of town has maintained the traditional Chinese building facades and provides a vibrant gold and red contrast to the mirrored skyscrapers seen in the background. Steaming snacks of dumplings, chicken skewers and sweet corn are cooked and sold on the pavements, souvenirs of teas, jewellery, and silk adorn every gift shop vying for tourist attention. Visitors should also pay a visit to the fantastically hectic street markets north of the old town, where clothes and jewellery can be bought and bartered for, and imitation goods can be acquired for next to nothing; the fun is in the act of bartering in pigeon Mandarin and making ridiculously exaggerated facial expressions whilst playing financial chess using a calculator for communication.
This city can be enjoyed on a myriad of levels, from the cultural to the creepy, the shocking to the sedate. If one of the many art exhibitions doesn’t take your fancy then a traditional Chinese blind massage might; if the glare of the city lights is too bright then make your way to the quieter streets where the residents sit outside and prepare vegetables for supper. There really is so much to be seen, and the overbearing feeling is that this is a city of change…but with change comes a deeper divide in the contrast of Western values with Eastern tradition. Habits we find abhorrent are a way of life here and the visitor or Western resident of this amazing place will struggle with personal values and perceptions in experiencing all Shanghai has to offer. There is so much to be learnt from pushing our own boundaries a little, relaxing capitalist snobbery and learning from a culture that truly believes in balance, that puts the yin to the yang. The traffic may seem set on mowing down all pedestrians, the toilets may be a shock to the nasal passages, but take the time to observe and learn from the hustle bustle of Shanghai, a city that will continue to evolve as the decades roll by.
This piece appeared here on S:VEN magazine waaaay back in 2006.