Shanghai changes so fast that the guidebooks are out of date before they have even reached the printing press. Stay for a few weeks and you will see the skyline change as more buildings go up and up and up. The city is divided into two by the Huangpu River, with Pu Xi to the west and the original centre, Pu Dong the east portion and the main site for development.
Pu Dong is more than one and a half times larger than urban Shanghai and is set to grow indefinitely due to the land reclamation process. It is a scary fact but if you look out on the top floor of the Yinmao tower, the fourth tallest building in the world you cannot see the edge of the city. There is no definite horizon as it is blurred by the pollution and the City sprawls on, out and up, leaving you feeling oddly afraid.
Shanghai is one of China’s four SEZ’s (Special Economic Zones) and as such has whored itself out to foreign investors ready to exploit its cheap land and labour. In fact, there is so much foreign investment and so many expats here that it is often said that ‘Shanghai is not real China’. Other parts of China are geared towards domestic tourism, with few people speaking English and a lack of home foods such as dairy products. I felt fairly isolated in other areas of China such as Shenzhen, due to the fact that no one can communicate with you and the only western influences are McDonalds and KFC.
In Shanghai, the large number of wealthy expats has resulted in a multitude of designer food stores which stock everything for the large American palate as well as some more sophisticated specialists such as ‘Cheese and Fizz’. I have searched high and low in China for decent wine, and in most regions it is impossible, yet in Shanghai the land of decadence and indulgence, such luxuries are easily available for those with cash. This is a sign of its affluent cosmopolitan population.
Money here goes a lot further than in London and you can find bars and restaurants that rival those of the highest standard in the English capital. There is no snobbish elitism in Shanghai, and cheaper drinks allow for one to sip lychee martinis in one of the elegant bars on The Bund and get a taste of how the other half live. The Bund is one of the most architecturally surprising parts of Shanghai — almost like walking around South Kensington when wandering along the promenade.
The Bund is home to the embassies and banks, and has always been a natural point of gravitation for foreigners with money and power. More and more of the once important buildings are being converted into fabulous playgrounds for the rich, with galleries, restaurants, bars and hotels on separate levels. This area is reminiscent of the architecturally striking banks in London being converted into trendy wine bars and pizza restaurants, but typically in this city of extremes, the craze has been taken to the next level.
European influences in Shanghai are strong, particularly in the French Concession. You can sip a coffee at Park 97, look out across FuXing park, and easily feel like you are in Paris. The park’s Parisian feel stems from the fact it was landscaped by the French in 1909 using characteristic blooming fountains as the central feature. The sophisticated bar/café is sprawling with French people talking loudly, waving cigarettes and drinking wine. I sat there one leisurely Sunday playing scrabble with some friends and wondered, could this happen in ‘real China’?
The Parisian dream was punctured by the oblivious Chinese people engrossed in all kinds of workouts, from walking backwards to gyrating against trees. This truly is a sight to be behold, where anything goes and the crazier the better. The old women scream at the top of their lungs and men do unfathomable routines in full business suits. Here perhaps, is where the cultural balance can most perfectly be seen.
But if all this just does not seem quite Chinese enough for you then make a trip to the vanishing old town. Take a map because this area is particularly hard to navigate, full of crowded side streets and dirty alleys. The thing which struck me the most in this part of town was the size: the tiny terraced flats are dwarfed by the wall of gleaming skyscrapers in the background. The small shops are more like shacks that sprawl out on to the pavement, most of which are selling food. This is a far cry from the vast designer shopping centres on Nanjing Rd, which are like Bond St in a mall.
However, like the malls, the markets of the old town are probably just for window shopping. Dongtai Lu Antique market is the best place for curios, but the more adventurous may stray into the neighbouring flower, bird, fish and insect market. Unlike the vast majority of Asian markets I have been to, there was not one stall offering fakes.
Unfortunately, the old town itself is full of fake, tacky versions of formerly splendid buildings. The Yuyuan Bazaar is a mock market area, with many silk and dumpling stalls as well as some global giants such as Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs done out in the same faux Chinese fashion.
But, it is possible to find some genuine pockets, such as the Yuyuan Gardens. These beautiful gardens are a refreshingly peaceful alternative to the heaving bazaar. The gardens date back to the sixteenth century and are designed to appear bigger than they are with winding walks and cleverly placed mirrors. Take a picnic or a sketch book and allow yourself time to take it all in, as it has a transfixing meditative quality and you will not want to leave.
If this is not ‘real China’ then where can you find it? If the classical gardens of Yuyuan whet your appetite for more then take the train out of the City to Suzhou. The Humble Administrator’s Garden was my favourite, with long water gardens stretching out forever, bursting with large lily pads and flowers. It is perfect around dusk when the light is drawing in and the full mystical quality of the garden can be appreciated.
Shanghai is unique; nowhere else in China can you experience such a patent mix of east and west. Although the western influences are large, a tourist can still expect to be stared at by locals. Shanghai is a very safe place to travel even for single females; the only trouble you are likely to get into is the daily near death experience on the roads. Although English is spoken here more widely than the rest of China, do not expect taxi drivers to understand you without an address written down in Chinese characters. Shanghai has everything from expensive cocktail bars to cheap hawker stalls and if you venture into both sides of the city and culture you gain a full understanding of this diverse and dynamic city.