China’s biggest, busiest and most cosmopolitan city fuses the best of the East and the West.
My first impression on seeing Shanghai, from the air, was not how big or crowded or beautiful or ugly it is, but how much space there is for it to expand further. When I mentioned this to my host, who had been living in Shanghai for over a decade, she said that that was what surprised her too. Obviously, getting used to Shanghai’s immensity did not come with time.
I had only a month in Shanghai, a month to know this mega city. I decided that the best way to do so would be to walk around the city. I didn’t want to experience only its hugeness or cosmopolitan air or its frenetic pace of life, I wanted to find places that exist under that, places that are a world within Shanghai, places that mock it through the sheer fact that they even exist. I wanted to find something old and unchanged in this city of constant growth and change.
Of course discoveries and novelties come easily to me, but my only other trip to a foreign country had been to India, which, for all its diversity and uniqueness, has a familiar feel for a Nepali. Thus a trip to the neighborhood vegetable market in Shanghai was a sortie into wonderland. Inside a large warehouse-like building were stalls selling everything from the familiar to the exotic. That the din reverberating inside was of a language I did not speak made the place somewhat enchanting. Even something as ordinary as eggs and vegetables and fruits took on a unique aspect owing to their shapes and colors. Dragon fruit hung in my tongue like a mantra.
One thing that you notice while walking the streets of Shanghai is the abundance of restaurants. They are almost a small scale industry here, transforming the raw materials of vegetables and meats – and the list of what is eaten includes almost every edible thing under the sun – into culinary products. According to the Shanghai Daily, there are over 90,000 restaurants in Shanghai, which means that if you pace the length and breadth of Shanghai, you would walk by scenes of people slurping noodles (or someone struggling with chopsticks) every three minutes. And yet one evening my companion and I walked for over half an hour looking for a place to eat in downtown, going from one packed restaurant to another. At any moment, doing anything in this megalopolis is a reminder of the massive population of China; everyone is competing with everyone else.
But I found Shanghai surprisingly roomy and comfortable for a city of that size. I used to get headaches walking Delhi’s markets and streets; Shanghai’s streets were heady too, but they also had enough room for the loiterer. One place for the unhurried pedestrian – one that even someone in a hurry couldn’t help but notice – is the French Concession. Fronted by London planes, this former French territory has some of the most unique and beautiful architecture standing in Shanghai. Houses built in the mid-19th century remind you of the area’s historic past and add a touch of quaintness and occidental character. Many have plaques saying “Heritage Architecture” on their walls. Artists and writers had lived in some of the houses here. The houses here are “Therapeutic Architecture” for those sick of the sight of high-rises.
Shanghai’s past is buried too far down under its current face. So to get a glimpse of the old city, you need to rely either on serendipity or your own imagination. If you decide on the latter, there are fewer places more promising than the Bund. Going to this place beside the Huangpu River is to go back to Shanghai’s roots. Like most rivers beside which cities have sprung up, the Huangpu evokes the past. At the Bund, imagining the past becomes even more enjoyable because of the cityscape. On the western shore of the river are magnificent old buildings—a signal tower dating back to 1907, the Customs House building with its clock tower and the Waibaidu Bridge. Across the river from these is Pudong, the shiny, sleek, ever-growing world of skyscrapers and eight-figure apartments. When I was there, Shanghai’s tallest building was under construction. Welders’ sparks glowed in the night sky, and, with the low-hanging clouds, looked like mini thunderbolts announcing the ascent of concrete.
It was under the mighty, neck-straining height of this behemoth that I witnessed an amusing instance of things flowing from the rich to the poor. Flowing from the rich into a river and then onto the poor, to be precise. It was like watching a short enactment of Communism. It was the Mid-Autumn Festival, the festival of eating moon cakes. As I walked along the promenade along the Huangpu in Pudong, I came across a small crowd of people standing around boxes filled with water. There was ceaseless splashing in them. Thinking perhaps it was an outdoor market selling fish from the river, I went over to take a closer look.
The boxes were indeed full of fish. But they were not for sale. They had been brought there to be released into the river as part of the festival. The group, which was mostly women, ladled fish out of these boxes and slid them down a plastic incline they had rigged on the railings. It was a nice sight. I took photos and walked on.
Barely a hundred meters from the release site I came across men with hand nets attached to thirty-foot poles. Behind them, near the bushes that separated the promenade from the street, women stood clutching plastic bags. It took me a while to realize that these men were after the fish being released upriver. They were selective, going only for the big ones with mottled skin. The fish, a bit dizzy from being crammed with dozens of others in small boxes, took a while to get going, and no sooner had they shaken off the lethargy and were showing bursts of speed then one of the men netted them, hauled them out, and threw them onto the grass, where the women timidly killed and bagged them. The rich people felt a sense of doing good and the poor got their lunch. It was perfect Communism.
Communism is perhaps as dated as anything in China these days. Capitalism is the new mantra. But dig into the history now pressed under the sheen of capitalism, and you will hit communism. It was communism that partly explained why there were cars inside the Jing’an Temple. Coming from a country where the hallowed space of a temple and monasteries are reserved for the vehicles of gods, seeing sleek cars in the same compound as a twenty-foot censer was repugnant. But I had only to find out what this temple had gone through in its recent history and those cars became less distasteful. The Jing’an Temple, its brochure informed me, had been turned into a plastic factory during the Cultural Revolution. That it today has resident monks and draws hoards of pilgrims and visitors is an achievement in itself.
The Chinese are a people that wake up quickly, Paul Theroux had observed in Riding the Iron Rooster, and it held true in the case of the “waking up” of people to the possibilities that this temple meant. The temple houses a sitting Buddha nearly nine meters high and made from 15 tons of silver. But the temple authorities were not stopping at that. A notice was asking people to donate money for the temple’s next project, which will be a Buddha statue even bigger than the silver one.
Directly behind the curled eaves of the temple, a skyscraper with shimmering windows rises, appearing in every shot of the temple, an eyesore only Photoshop could fix.
Disappointments on seeing temples at the foot of skyscrapers were offset to an extent by Shanghai’s public parks. They are places where I could get in touch with the mellower, classical and, to foreigners, a romantic and stereotypical side of China. Even if all these were effusive sentiments were attached to the place by me, the parks, if not anything else, are calmer and quieter than the city outside its boundaries. Shanghai’s parks are the haunts of the elderly, the last custodians of a way of life that is succumbing to a city where stillness would be taken as an ominous sign. The elderly chat languidly, listen to small radios, perform the watery movements of t’ai chi and hang up caged birds in trees and chat with other bird owners. They are unhurried. It was in these parks – most of them hemmed in by skyscrapers and flowing with people passing through on their way to work – that I felt there was still a chance for the timeless sights in this city where time is the biggest luxury. It was nothing more than mere consolation, but I took them as small acts of defiance, mini victories and a mild dose of quaintness for a quixotic visitor from a third world city in the lap of the Himalayas, where, too, the old fight daily battles with the new.
The Shanghai Museum offers a detailed look at Chinese history through its huge collection of artifacts. Its exhibits include statues from the Warring States period (475 B.C. – 221 B.C.) to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), bronzes from the 18th to the 3rd century B.C., over 500 seals, ceramics from as far back as the Neolithic Age and calligraphy and paintings by ancient masters as well as galleries devoted to minority nationalities, jade, ancient furniture and coins. Sixteenth century grandeur lingers in the Yuyuan Garden. For the pious and seekers of spiritual sites, there are temples like the Jade Buddha Temple, Jing’an Temple and City God Temple. Shikumens, which literally mean ‘stone gate,’ are traditional Shanghainese-style houses enclosed by a high, elaborately designed wall. Although there are nowhere near as many such houses in Shanghai today, a few like the Cité Bourgogne and Tian Zi Fang remain. The shops in the narrow alleys of the latter are worth a visit for shopaholics and aficionados of old buildings alike. Control over certain parts of Shanghai by Europeans from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century has left a rich architectural legacy. The Xujiahui Cathedral and Xujiahui Bibliotheca are two of the most famous buildings from that era. With its regular art shows and exhibitions, the Shanghai K11 Art Mall is the place to get your art fix. Shanghai is a shopper’s heaven. Head to Old Street, known more popularly as Middle Fangbang Road, for things like shadow puppets, jade jewelry, embroidered fabrics, kites, horn combs, chopsticks and zîsh? teapots. If you are obsessed with branded goods but don’t have the bucks for them, try the Fake Market near the Science and Technology Museum.
Where to Stay
Shanghai is an expensive place to stay. There are high-end hotels galore. Fortunately for the budget traveler, so are low-priced hotels and hostels. The Mingtown Nanjing Road Youth Hostel and Mingtown People’s Square Youth Hostel boast of a great location: Nanjing Road, the Bund, People’s Square and Shanghai Old Town are all within walking distance from them. Another interesting place to stay is the Soho People’s Square Youth Hostel, which is housed in a former warehouse.
Eating in Shanghai
Shanghai is a culinary adventure. Begin yours with the Xiaolongbao, a momo-like steamed bun for which Shanghai is famous. Mutton soup goes wonderfully well with them. Another delicacy to try in Shanghai is Bai zhan ji. One of the best places in the city to get this is Zhen Ding Ji restaurant. Finding it is not hard given they have dozens of outlets all over the city. Another restaurant known for the same dish is Xiao Shao Xing. Stereotypical as it may be, one has to try noodles in Shanghai. Cong You Ban Mian and Yang Chun Mian are two of the best noodle shops in Shanghai. Toppings are often the difference between a bland and a sumptuous bowl of noodles. Xue Cai Rou Si Mian, La rou Mian (highly recommended for meat lovers), Ba Bao La Jiang Mian and Hang yu Wei Mian are noodle dishes with some of the best toppings. Shanghai does not disappoint the traveler who chooses to ignore recommendations and likes to discover eateries on her own.