A FROLIC IN THE PARIS OF THE EAST
I first saw Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, at night, all glitter and glory.
Its name means “above the sea”. Over a thousand years ago, it was just a simple fishing village until the British East India Company began shipping tons upon tons of Indian-grown opium into its port in exchange for tea.
Transformed overnight into a hub of European imperialism – one of the most cosmopolitan and hedonistic cities in the world, then carved up, demolished and abandoned when Mao Zedong came into power, Shanghai is back on its feet.
Now, it leads the national economy as East China’s “dragon head”, the largest metropolis in the People’s Republic, the largest port and industrial base.
As a city, Shanghai is young, just 89 years. Yet, the enigma and extreme contrasts of its turbulent history remains – cobbled streets and pagodas shoulder to shoulder with concrete, low-rise apartments where laundry – and even sides of beef being air-dried – fluttered from windows, glitzy bazaars and makeshift stalls, grandeur and poverty.
It’s a city that wrestles with its Communist present even as it looks forward to a neo-Capitalist future.
As my plane touched down on Pudong International Airport, I made out the outline of Huangpu, its mother river, slithering like a yellow dragon from the mouth of the great Yangtze in Wusong before emptying into the East China Sea.
I could even make out some of the 11 bridges crossing the Huangpu’s banks and imagine the 3 tunnels running beneath, where the city’s 23 million population pours through each day.
The megapolis’ new millennium Wall Street, the East Bank’s Pudong, confronts its colonial side, the West Bank’s Puxi, home of The Bund, across the Huangpu.
Nowhere can you see 21st century ambition facing off as dramatically against its early 20th century version than in The Bund, the centre of Shanghai’s politics, economy and the favored headquarters of consulates, banks and trading houses.
The Bund is a city unto itself, a home away from home which Western invaders established as they walled in themselves from the culture of the East.
Before the 1930’s, the Sassoons and the Rothschilds erected their buildings among the over half a hundred grand architectural masterpieces arrayed here in an unbroken line. It’s a true “World Fair of Architecture”, a mix of Chinese, Neoclassic, Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Classic Revival and Renaissance styles.
No wonder, gazing up at the magnificently lit edifices along the great waterway, I had the odd feeling that I was not in the Orient but in Europe.
On the opposite bank lay Pudong, the new Shanghai, an aggressively modern, planned development with space-age skyscrapers clustered in its Lujiazui Finance and Trade Zone.
The 88-story Jin Mao Tower, the first tallest building in the country, thrusts out of Pudong’s skyline. The giant tiered pagoda of glass houses one of the highest hotel in the world – the Grand Hyatt.
Not too far away, rose the world’s third tallest TV tower, the futuristic 1,404-foot high Oriental Pearl, which consists of 15 spheres of different sizes at different levels meant to represent “large and small pearls dropping onto a jade plate”.
Pudong is also the site of the 2,073-foot high Shanghai Tower which is the tallest in China and second tallest in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
On my first visit, the 1,614 foot Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) dominated the skyline.
Locals fondly refer to the skyscraper as the “bottle opener” for the odd trapezoidal aperture at its top – a squared-off “moon gate” engineered to reduce wind pressure. Its observation deck’s gift shop even sells metal replicas of the building that indeed function as bottle openers.
Briefly, the 101-story SWFC reigned as the tallest on earth until three others displaced it. Now, the skyscraper ranks as the world’s fourth tallest and was the setting of Hollywood’s “Mission Impossible” blockbuster hit.
“You should visit The Bund at least twice,” our local guide suggested. “First, you should behold it at night, in all the glory of its lights. Then you should see it during daytime to appreciate the beauty of its architecture.”
In all, 26 of the original buildings of the Bund survived. The rest of the 56 have arranged themselves along the 1.8 kilometer stretch of the West Bank. Building owners have likewise opened up their roof gardens as viewing decks and cafes.
To top it all, the government lights up all 200 buildings along both sides of the river, creating a spectacular scene on the course of pleasure cruises, from 7-10 PM each night.
From the Bund, we snapped pictures of Pudong’s famous skyline to our heart’s content before strolling under the shadow of Puxi’s art deco buildings – one of the richest collections of such architecture in the planet.
After a lunch of chopped lotus, sweet and sour fish, seasoned beef and a whole range of Shainghai dishes, our guide set us loose in Nanjing Road, one of the world’s most famous shopping streets.
Nanjing was originally built as a route to the horse-race tracks. But after silk merchants and luxury hotels set up shop on the stretch, it was hyped as “ten miles of foreign glamour”.
Truth is, Nanjing is just 5.5 kilometers long but it is lined on both sides with over 600 establishments – Western style boutiques, huge department stores, restaurants, tea houses and dazzling neon – from the Bund to Jiangsu Lu, passing People’s Park and the Shanghai Art Museum.
Thankfully, it is impossible to get lost in this shopping Mecca because it is just one long straight road up and down.
In haste, everyone dispersed. Most scurried away into the Giordano and Zara stores, eager to hunt for clothes on sale. I set out on my own, as usual, drifting with the river of humanity – some of Shanghai’s over 24 million populace, plus foreigners of all colors, on the street.
It was a pedestrian-only thoroughfare with no vehicles allowed except for a trackless sightseeing train running its whole length.
So, I took my time. Nibbling on a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar, I sauntered past Western food vendors – KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and ogled at the shop windows of high-end stores, the likes of Tiffany, Mont Blanc and Dunhill.
Nanjing vaguely reminded me of 5th Avenue, New York, except for the dark hair and sloe eyes of women swishing past in the latest summer chic. To their credit, the Shanghainese have good fashion sense and their pace, though not as frenzied as The Big Apple, is not leisurely at all.
Down the road, I found the Shanghai Number 1 Department Store which carries a full range of consumer products. I strolled by the Shanghai No. 1 Pharmacy, where they sell exotic medicinal herbs like a “spring weed” worth P14,000 per gram for patients recovering from operations or grave maladies, such as cancer.
However, “Being number one doesn’t mean biggest,” our guide noted. It’s just that in the past, buildings were identified by numbers.
Interestingly, the Nanjing boutiques showcased all the pantheons of the Western brands. The jewelry stores are equally interesting though everything was pricey.
Curious at what pleases the Shanghainese palate, I peeked in the food shops and groceries. They sell braised ducks, geese, duck kidneys and duck spare parts, lots of noodles, tofu and exotic looking dried roots, herbs and seasonings though I was saddened to see dried shark fins on display.
About a hundred traditional stores and specialty shops still provide silk goods, jade, embroidery, wool, and clocks.
Eventually, I slipped into the side alleys, where tiny shops and makeshift stalls are tucked in, and bought imitation North Face gloves. They have the whole range on sale, from jackets to backpacks, as well as shirts, scarves, watches and bags.
Yet it was no fun trudging about in the sweltering heat. Luckily, I brought an umbrella for an entirely different reason. Weather forecasts warned of rain and thunderstorms on the day of our arrival.
“Rain is for Beijing, not for Shanghai,” our guide laughed. Actually, the best time to visit Shanghai is September to October, which also happens to be the season for their much sought-after hairy crabs.
Nevertheless, the city has a lot to offer all year round.
For culture enthusiasts, they stage daily ballet and opera performances from June to October. Sports aficionados can have their pick of basketball, speed skating, archery, volleyball, badminton, cycling and dragon boat races, among many others.
Annually, the city hosts two big international sports events – the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix – a round of the Formula 1 World Championship and the table tennis cup.
Of course, this kind of pleasure doesn’t come cheap, our guide warned. For the 3-day grand prix, prepare to fork out P15,000 per ticket. If you want the best seat, you cough out P24,000.