It goes without saying, as the commercial heart of modern China, Shanghai is the best place to get a feel of the Middle Kingdom’s astonishing pace of development and ascension into a global power. I have averaged a visit every few years, and each time the city appears to be in a state of full-scale transformation that’s both exhilarating and unsettling.
Back in July 2004, I crashed at my friend’s place in Pudong for a week. At an age when I took myself too seriously, I came to the hyped up city with high expectation and came away unimpressed. The pollution, the poor city planning, the unfriendly inhabitants, the general lack of social conscience… all these firsthand encounters made me felt appalled about Shanghai.
I don’t hold such strong feelings about Shanghai anymore; thus allowing myself to see the city on its own term. In my eyes, albeit during a very brief stay over a weekend in the fall of 2011, Shanghai is becoming more self-aware of its status as the gateway to the world’s second largest economy. The cityscape of the metropolis continues to evolve constantly, but there is a subtler kind of change underway. To list some examples: the impressive infrastructure is finally being paired up with a much cleaner public space and rule-abiding drivers, although I am still a little weary about eating in China in general.
That said, from a tourist perspective, I have always believed that Shanghai offers poor value. My main gripe is that its drawing cards do not compare well with other Asian cities:
- Chinese History – Beijing > Shanghai
- Trendiness – Tokyo > Shanghai
- Cost – Bangkok > Shanghai
- Skyline – Hong Kong > Shanghai
- Hospitality – Taipei > Shanghai
As someone who lives in Hong Kong, I can argue somewhat authoritatively that my adopted hometown is not a very interesting destination, and to me Shanghai is on the same boat, only with a worse level of service and more unruly locals. Yet with its ever increasing clout and stature, I will find myself landing in Shanghai time and again, and I am glad that I am finding myself of disliking it much less nowadays.
A recap of our three days in town:
The 1 ½ hour subway ride from Pudong International Airport to Nanjing Xi Rd Subway station cost next to nothing (¥7 per). The ride was smooth other than the train change at Guanglan Rd station when commuters heading toward opposite directions madly dashes forward like they were playing rugby.
We took a cab to the Bund after dropping off our stuff at our hotel. The metre started at ¥13 and the fare totaled ¥26. Since my wife (who kept reminding me that this trip wouldn’t qualify as our honeymoon) had never been to Shanghai, we would hit all the major sights over the weekend.
It was a pleasant walk along the Bund in the cool air. The brief dusk was quickly replaced by the vast darkness of the night, and the clock had yet turned six. Aside from the conjunction with Nanjing Rd, the waterfront walk had a good space to pedestrian ratio, unlike its insufferably crowded counterpart in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui.
A few couples were having their pre-wedding photo shoot, including a pair that had a guy holding a camcorder right up to their faces, but all they did was standing still and making out.
Shanghai Old Street (上海老街) We began our second day at the Shiliupu Dock (十六鋪) where the 140 year old passenger pier was located before being knocked down and turned into another hotel/shopping mall complex a few years ago.
From there we headed west toward Yuyuan Bazaar along the Shanghai Old Street. The tacky shops along the Old Street didn’t catch our interest, but the adjacent old neighborhood that enveloped the Old Street is one of the few places in central Shanghai that resembles the city of an earlier time.
We avoided the tourist trap that’s the Yuyuan Garden and instead went shopping for souvenir. If anyone wishes to take in some classic Chinese gardens, I would wholeheartedly recommend taking a day trip to Suzhou instead.
Before heading off to meet up with a local friend for lunch, we bumped into a Caucasian who sported a mohawk and walking along with his family. After jokingly told me that he charged ¥5 per shot, he posed for a quick portrait for me. I was probably the rare ones who actually asked him for permission first – a swamp of people continuously followed him and snapped pictures of his head with their cell phones and DCs like vultures flying around a piece of dead meat.
“What are these two cats doing?”
From the thrusting movement of the male cat on top, it didn’t take long to conclude that the cats were in the midst of procreating.
“Photos are welcome, but please don’t use flash,” urged a male staff standing at the entrance while inviting the onlookers to take a seat inside. Quite an eye-opener it was to see an attention grabber like this, we walked away feeling both a little amused and disgusted.
We were at Tianzifang, a neighbourhood of Shikumen residences within a network of labyrinthine alleyways. Compared to the similar but more upscale Xintiandi, Tianzifang has not been overly beautified – electricity cables are still strung overhead and air conditioning units are obvious on the outside of the buildings, leading to a more residential and authentic feel to the district.
Popularity always brings along the possibility of gentrification. Many artists had been priced out from the neighbourhood and taken their place were the usual run-of-the-mill souvenir shops.
Tianzifang, jam-packed as it was on this sunny Sunday afternoon, still offered a stroll that’s unlike anywhere else in China.
Day trip to Zhouzhuang (周莊)
The fine weather didn’t last. Without any interruption, it rained for the entire day. The uncooperative weather didn’t stop us from following through with our plan to take a day trip to Zhouzhuang, the most famous of the numerous water villages around Shanghai.
I had spent an afternoon in Zhouzhuang on a cloudless Sunday in July seven years ago. Due to my good timing, most of the tour groups had left by the time I arrived and I could roam along the narrow lanes and bridges freely. To cover the village on feet took around half an hour. I spotted some quiet corners during my aimless wandering, but otherwise what I encountered were long stretches of souvenir shops and restaurants. At some point I thought I was at a reconstructed film set instead of a real village with a 900-year history.
Perhaps to counterbalance my good luck of last time, Zhouzhuang was packed to the gills on this rainy Monday. We got tired of squeezing our way through the crowd almost immediately and left the village after a short two-hour stay.
Zhouzhuang is easy enough to get to from Shanghai to justify a visit – though come with an expectation of “Shopping Alley on Canal” instead of “Venice of the East”.