Shanghai – most people’s true gateway to China. Most people think of Hong Kong as the best window into understanding the mainland, but in Shanghai only can one truly appreciate Chinese policy and influence with the familiar allure of a mega-city. Shanghai’s main draw for the traveler aren’t just the pompous parties and beautiful skylines – there’s a story to be shared behind the draws of a city that was once divided and distributed to various international powers. To truly witness the struggle of a population with its own modernity, Shanghai unveils itself for you.
Some history is probably necessary to understand Shanghai. After the First Opium War, which the Chinese lost, Shanghai was conceded (together with other ports such as Hong Kong) to the British. This led to the eventual formation of the International Settlement and the French Concession, a separate agreement made by the French because they probably thought they were special. The Bund then, is one of the most prominent remnants of the International Settlement, with old colonial style buildings lined up for all to awe at. Some of the buildings have interesting stories to them, especially ‘Big Ching’, based off ‘Big Ben’ in London, that you can see in the picture.
What the Bund is more famous for though, is this amazing view of Pudong. It’s a lot better at night, but Pudong is essentially the Communist Government’s attempt at building a modern financial capital on the mainland away from Hong Kong. It’s been developed in the past 15 years only, causing massive changes in the environment and a very strong boast of the extent of Chinese willpower. Some buildings stand out for their gawkiness and some just stand absolutely majestic, but all in all Pudong from the Bund is a view worth catching.
The French Concession is worth visiting too, it’s picturesque and its roads remind you of the alleys in Paris, with trees forming a shelter over the walkways. It’s filled with boutique fashion shops mostly, but take a trip to Tianzifang nearby and be overwhelmed by the transformation of the alleys to accommodate budding artists and craftsmen. It’s a supposed ‘hipster hangout’, although I’d dare say anyone can find something of interest here.
Along the same lines of conservation and transformation, visit Xintiandi which is just north-east of Tianzifang. Although the eateries in this place are a bit more up-market, stroll around the neighborhood to witness how the old ‘shikumen’ houses (colonial facades with localised Asian interiors) are preserved. Cited as an exemplar of modern preservation methods, this neighborhood feels different from the rest of Shanghai and leaves you to imagine a different time. The site of the first congress of the Communist Party of China is here as well, and with free entry you can gain insight into the rationale behind the formation of the Communist Party and the epic saga that ensued. Propaganda or not, it leaves you enlightened into the mantra spread across the mainland : The Communist Party is a necessary force for China’s freedom.
Take a trip into Old Shanghai, by visiting YuYuan gardens, a beautiful enclosed neighborhood of old style buildings and rock gardens. One can spend a half day here just walking around and admiring the architectural beauty of the place. The Huxinting Teahouse (in picture) has witnessed many annals of history , most prominently being used a base in the Opium War and seeing Bill Clinton drink tea in its premises. You can witness many old Chinese crafts and trades in the Tourist mart, although I’d advise bargaining to around 20% of the price. I managed to knock down a bundle of items from 400 Yuan to 80 Yuan, and all I had to do was to stand my ground. After you’re done with the premises, walk around the extended neighborhood , in around a 50m radius to see more of Shanghai’s old architectural styles and take a whiff of how this city used to look like before Pudong became the standard.
Shanghai cuisine is defined by sweet flavors and dumplings. I never knew how much I loved dumplings till I came to this city. Yang’s dumplings by far command a dominant place in my list of ‘Food I wish I could try again’ . Located in the food street of Huanghe Road, these dumplings are pan fried and hold together a mix of wholesome meat and delicious soup. They don’t skimp on any thing – quality nor quantity , but the best part is that your wallet hardly feels a pinch. You would be foolish to visit Shanghai and not try these.
What is more famously known though, are the Shanghai soup dumplings. Sometimes called the xiaolongbao (although many would dispute it based on the thickness of the skin) , these soup dumplings spill out such rich and savory flavors that you could go for 5-8 at a time. There are many that are famous and there’s even a XLB index out there to help guide your choices although the XLBs near the City of God Temple are a good start. I’ve tried XLBs in Singapore and Taiwan, and the Shanghai ones are definitely royalty .
Many people say Shanghai is just a great city to party and make money. That’s true – I had one of my better parties in Shanghai. Mint, the club I was brought to, had a shark tank in it. I’m not kidding.
But to the true traveler, Shanghai invites a discussion on a shotgun transformation from old city to new. To serve this demand of modernity, people influx from all over the region and what you face is this interesting misplacement of cultures and values in a city that probably requires something else. Notice the taxi driver I caught, stopping his car in the middle of the road and going to take a piss in the probably recently pruned garden.
The young people definitely don’t show any signs of being out of place. They’re raucous, ambitious and above all else, optimistic about the future. Shanghai is their playground, and they will dominate it.
Special thanks to George Mao (for hosting me), Isabelle (aka Rat-Slinger), Karin, Jing, Cooper, Jimmy Zhao, Justin, Alan, Cheryl, Clare and Jing, for the amazing time in Shanghai and taking me off the beaten path. Next post is on Taiwan.