Variously dubbed ‘the Paris of the East’ and, rather less flatteringly, ‘the whore of the Orient’, China’s most populous city provides a fascinating snapshot in to a country that is scrutinised on an unparalleled scale by the outside world. Revered and reviled in equal measure, Shanghai is emblematic – and the best example – of the super cities that have greatly expanded in China as its powerhouse economy has continued to grow. When I visited here a few years ago, I got the impression that, despite the skyscrapers that dominate its skyline, this was a city that had not totally buried its history under an avalanche of 21st century redevelopment.
Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you first catch sight of iconic Pudong, best viewed from the Bund on the opposite bank of the winding Huangpu River. Much is made of how China is the closest thing the USA has to a rival superpower, and the Pudong district can be seen as Shanghai’s answer to New York’s world-famous Manhattan. As someone who has seen both, the dense cluster of Manhattan’s vista is perhaps more impressive by day and night, but Shanghai’s nearby Bund – a grand waterfront promenade dotted with diverse architecture from Shanghai’s early 20th century (i.e. Western-influenced) history – has the edge in terms of grand historicity.
If urban sprawls and decadent colonial architecture aren’t your bag, then fear not. Shanghai has its share of temples (particularly in the Jingan district), gardens and bazaars to satisfy your ‘pearl of the Orient’ fantasies. The narrow streets of the Old Town are the best place to experience such an atmosphere, brimming as they are with hawkers peddling everything from traditional handicrafts to culinary delicacies like sparrow-on-a-stick. It’s true that Shanghai can’t offer, say, an experience of your average Chinese peasant living in rural poverty. But in this day and age, it’s worth remembering that many such people head to Shanghai to escape such a lifestyle and make their fortune.
As is the case with all big cities, Shanghai is a city of contrasts. On the one hand you have its uber-cool modern side, as exemplified by areas such as Pudong and the trendy cappuccino joints that line the streets of Xintiandi. On the other, the Old Town and areas such as the former Jewish ghetto of Hongkou put you in touch with a more traditional side of Oriental life. It is for this reason that Shanghai, whilst perhaps not boasting some of the blockbuster attractions of other Chinese destinations, is in many ways a reflection of where this nation of economic might, curious quirks (committing a cultural faux pas in China is more offensive than just about anywhere else I’ve been) and shifting identity is today, and the direction in which it may head as it forges in to its future.