I have heard, on so many occasions, that Shanghai is the New York of the east. Whether or not this is true I think will be difficult to say, but I can assert that it is like nothing that I have seen anywhere else. It is a twisted Chinese Paris, a New York that wakes up every day and wonders at it’s own success, a world not yet accustomed to the power that it really holds.
And yet I was under-whelmed when I stepped off of the train; Perhaps it because I was sick, or because of the knowledge that I had nowhere near enough time to fully explore the city, but either way I was initially unimpressed. It certainly had the earmarks of a western city, but I felt like it had no character. Now before all of you Shanghaiites start judging me, lets get along with the rest, as my opinion does change quite a bit.
Our hostel was located in a pretty nice area of the city, and although it wasn’t that close to the subway, the walk was great and I was quickly enamored with the tree lined streets, a perfect and well planned layout that seemed free of the spontaneity I have found so characteristic of other Chinese cities. Beijing, though once a very well planned metropolis, is a sprawling city that seems to have forgotten itself within decades of ferocious expansion. Shanghai, sprawling as it is, appeared to be much more coherent, a very intentional city that still holds so many of the European characteristics that arrived with foreign powers in the early portion of the century. It would not be wrong to say that I experienced a reverse-culture shock, having great difficultly finding much that I could identify as ‘very’ Chinese. The streets were clean, the traffic obeyed (most) of the rules, and every other shop was a boutique selling something that I will never be able to afford. This was nothing like Beijing, and I was not sure what to make of these new surroundings.
At 19 million people, Shanghai is huge. It is merely a wonder that such a large mass of people can identify themselves with one place. How could so many people ever agree on any aspect of the culture that they share? It was clear, at least in the area we were in, that people thought they were pretty darn cool. Snazzy suits and clean fit dresses were the apparent attire for walking the streets, and thought I do not think this represents all of Shanghai, I think it says quite a bit about a big portion. People here were well dressed and able to spend quite a bit more money than I am accustomed to seeing in China. I also noticed that there were far more overweight Chinese here than anywhere else I have been in China, a sure sign of prolific capitalism.
Our first day was not particularly exciting. It was tremendously hot, and we were all a bit tired from the train ride in. We spent a portion of the afternoon out in the Pudong region, home to the well known Shanghai Skyline. Although Shanghai does not have quite the number of massive skyscrapers that you find in Manhattan, they do have a few that are quite a bit taller than any in New York, and they seem all the taller due to the lack of competing buildings in the immediate vicinity. If I were to pick one major difference between New York and Shanghai, it is the difference in space; While New York is very rigid in it’s placement of buildings, often feeling boxlike, Shanghai seems far more open and relatively freeform in the way large buildings are arranged. There is very little semblance of a grid pattern, making it a bit more difficult to navigate early on. Looking skyward, I was grabbed by the huge and strangely pink pearl tower, a piece of architect that has become synonymous with Shanghai. From a distance, it is a great thing to behold, but up close I found that it just seemed to be dirty and outdated, almost a relic of the shift away from socialism (The Pearl Tower was built in the mid-90s, during the upswing of economics). It reminded me of some of the old structures from the World’s Fair in Corona Park, creations that once symbolized the hope for the future, but have since become antiquities, forever locked in a short piece of time.
We took some time looking at the buildings, and headed back to the hostel not too late. It was still hot, but the night air eventual came around and there was no reason to stay locked up inside. We closed the evening taking a simple stroll around the neighborhood, where many of these nighttime pictures were taken. People gathered on the streets just as they had in Beijing, around family business and restaurants, the nighttime summer air drawing out a crowd that had been absent all day. It was in this hour or so that I experienced the personal side of Shanghai- a massive city that has managed to maintain a small town feeling.
Day brought us a good old tourist experience. Starting the day off, we headed straight for the Bund, the world renowned line of buildings left by the foreign powers, the concessions as they were called, that forcibly opened China for trade. While these foreign powers have long since left, the buildings that they created remain, each holding architectural elements of their respective nation. It was at this point that I really saw the grandeur of Shanghai as a metropolis, with the incredible skyline curving around the opposite side of the river. Shanghai cannot possible be a New York, as it is really unto itself. It is Shanghai, and as far as I can tell, it is quickly headed toward the center of the economic world. The walk along the Bund looks shockingly similar to portions of Jersey City and Battery Park, well known places along the Hudson River back at home. There were moments, looking up at the skyline, when I had strong understanding of the fact that I really was in China, walking through this strange city by the sea.
The Pearl Tower no longer looked as foreign as it had the day before-it fit in with it’s surrounding, tying them together. In the background you can see the amazing Jin Mao tower, a gothic-looking steeple of a building. Immediately behind that stands the Shanghai World Financial Center, a very modern skyscraper with an odd keystone-like hole through the top. This building is much larger than it appears in the picture, as it is almost a mile away from where we were standing (it stands at 1,614 feet high). The cost of going to the topmost observation platform was something in the neighborhood of fifteen dollars, and while this would probably have been amazing, we decided that out money would be better spent by going to the bar on the 92 floor. For about half of the price, we were able to have a very nice beer, and sit by a window with a 180 degree view of the river and the city. For miles around us, the city of Shanghai kept at it’s own business, tiny little cars and buses picking up passengers on their way around town. We could see cranes and trucks working on building the new pieces of the city. Lurking in the air around us stood the tops of the few lonely buildings that came even close to our height, a couple of daring giants ignorant to how much higher they stood than the structures all around. Sitting at this almost arrogant height, looking at out the urban sea around us, I had the sudden feeling that my trip to China had begun. I did not come to China to see Shanghai, nor did I want to stay for much longer, but someday, I would not be opposed to going back.