Personally I don’t think much of Shanghai as a travel destination but I have to admit it is a city of extremes and definitely visiting at least once.
This article from an Australian newspaper does an excellent job of describing the contrast between the new and the old Shanghai and very interesting to read.
“It was just a stone’s throw away, but it felt like a totally different city.
A few steps from Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, China’s premier shopping strip, there are rows of greying three-storey blocks plastered with air conditioners and wet clothes hanging from windows, framed by narrow side streets, where throngs of people sit outside open-air food stalls beside neatly parked motorcycles.
It could not have been a greater contrast to the high-rise glitz of the six-kilometre-long shopping street, which to me was like Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall on steroids.
But China’s financial capital is full of architectural and other contradictions, and not just around the Nanjing Road. Since 1990, when the government decreed Shanghai’s Pudong district was to become a special economic zone, investment poured into the area and older buildings gave way to towering skyscrapers – rising as high as the city’s profit-making ambitions.
Today, Shanghai is a mixture of its eventful past – ancient temples that hark back to China’s imperial times stand beside European colonial-era buildings constructed before the arrival of the communists in 1949, and its modern present – new, shiny towers and shopping arcades erected at rapid-fire pace.
When I arrived in the city on board the recently launched Beijing to Shanghai high-speed train, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I had been told by friends who had visited both the cities that Shanghai was to Beijing what a rich cousin from the city was to his poor relative from the country.
Shanghai, they said, was sophisticated, stylish and friendly. So as I arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao train station and hurried through the security gates, mimicking the other train travellers who were all walking at a quick clip, I tried to be nonplussed about a female train officer zipping about on a Segway.
They are embracing technology, I thought. It’s no big deal. Stop taking photos of her.
But when I emerged into the hazy mid-afternoon air about 40 minutes later at People’s Square station, one of the train network’s busiest stops, I found myself breathing in sharply almost immediately.
For, in front of me, in the largest city of the world’s biggest – and one of the few remaining – communist states in the world, were skyscrapers – towering buildings that have always represented to me the epitome of capitalism, of the desire to conquer the world and touch the heavens like the Bible’s Tower of Babel.
But these were not just your average, dime-a-dozen high-rises. Instead, they were loud, striking structures, all built to make a statement, but without a sense of coherence or message as a whole.
Far away in the distance was the 285-metre-high, 58-storey eye-catching Tomorrow Square, which looked like a fountain pen, or, as someone suggested to me later, a Stinger Missile, and which is home to the American Marriott hotel chain.
Around the corner at the traffic intersection was a tall poster wrapped around a building that featured a western model hugging a Chanel perfume bottle three times her size, while diagonally above her was the word “SAMSUNG” in large, blue type.
Advertisements for foreign brands are not uncommon in China. When I was in Beijing, I had seen “MADE POSSIBLE BY THE AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY” footnotes on signs explaining the history of the structures within the Forbidden City – one of China’s most revered ancient cultural landmarks.
But as I turned onto Nanjing Road, I had to constantly remind myself that I was not in Hong Kong or Singapore – two regional neighbours with majority Chinese populations pursuing capitalist dreams. Here was a poster for watchmaker Tag Hauer, there were McDonald’s and Pizza Hut restaurants, and further down was a stand-alone Nokia mega-store (yes, some people still buy Nokia mobile phones). But possibly the biggest juxtaposition was a large roadside billboard celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party beside an equally prominent advertisement for American fashion label GAP.
By the time I had strolled to the end of Nanjing Road and reached the Bund, an embankment along Huangpu River with spectacular views of the city’s skyline, I had given up reminding myself. Hong Kong will have to do I thought. After all, Shanghai reflected the special administrative region’s “one country, two systems” slogan aptly – communist country, capitalist city.
Facing me was a colourful array of skyscrapers, from the Oriential Pearl TV Tower, China’s second-highest structure at 468 metres, the Jin Mao Tower, standing erect at 421 metres, and the world’s second tallest and China’s tallest building – the 494.4-metre (including spire) Shanghai World Financial Centre. Behind me at the Bund stood lovingly lit and well-maintained colonial-era buildings now home to the Russian consulate, HSBC, the Customs House and the Peace Hotel.
The magic of those pre-revolution buildings did not leave me when I returned to my hotel. Shanghai was once known as the Paris of the Far East, and the art deco Langham Yangtze Boutique Hotel near People’s Square station wholeheartedly embraced that era.
Built in 1934, the hotel was a hotspot for Shanghai’s luminaries, attracting the country’s top celebrities and businessmen. One major drawcard may have been the sprung dance floor – no doubt an essential feature for the ritzy 1930s parties. The building has since been restored by The Langham Hotels international chain to its former glory.
The history of the Yangtze made me wonder about today’s dance parties in Shanghai, and I caught up with two Australian friends who were also in the city. We headed to M2, recommended to us by hotel staff as one of the top clubs and a must-see.
It was a Friday night, and the large club appeared to be in its element. Again the words “on steroids” came to my mind. M2 looked like it was part of a Hollywood set, with its beautiful Chinese and Western clubbers dressed to impress and packed like sardines across numerous sofas and on the small dance floor. Loud music blared from speakers and Lady Gaga-style Western dancers gyrated on stage as the party goers poured their whisky and other liquors into glasses from oversized bottles hanging from metal swings in the middle of their tables.
Five ear-splitting hours later, we staggered out of M2 and into a taxi. I decided to pay a quick visit to my friends’ hotel and as I stepped into the lobby, I felt I was – finally – back in China. Around me, in the lobby of the Salvo Hotel, were the familiar red and gold furnishings of communist China, illuminated by ornate lights and the polished marble floors and pillars.
It was, I reflected, like I had taken a tour of Shanghai’s past, present and future in just a few hours. But here, amidst the red and gold, was a reminder that China was, and is, still home to the hammer and sickle.?”