A Brief History of New Shanghai
Shanghai is an entirely different experience than Beijing. Although it has a relatively similar, or actually somewhat larger population, it has a very different feel. Also, a very different history. As our Bike Beijing guide explained, if you want to experience 4,000 years, of Chinese history, go to Xi’an (which we explored on our first visit to see the tomb of the first Han emperor and, of course, the Xi’an Warriors). If you want 1,000 years of Chinese history, go to Beijing. If you want five year’s of history, go to Shanghai.
That’s only a small exaggeration. The city was only a small county seat until the mid-19th century when the Treaty of Nanking opened Shanghai to foreign trade and led to the establishment of the British, then French, American and Japanese trade concessions and communities. With the westerners came the luxury and and the decadence that characterized the city until the Japanese began bombing, and then occupied the city from the late 1930s through the end of World War II. Then came the 1949 Communist takeover. The few remaining foreigners left. The previous symbols of Western decadence–including the mansions and commercial buildings–were divided into tiny apartments. But the exteriors of grand Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings along the Bund and the mansions (especially in the old French Concession) generally remained–ready for restoration as the city began to reopen.
Then, in 1990, China established the city’s traditionally poor Pudong section as a special Economic Zone. The population exploded, corporations and huge sums of investment money poured in. The equivalents of two or three new “Manhattans” sprung up–except they were much taller, much more modern and much glitzier. Then the entire city, along with its roads, airports, hotels and its subway system were all expanded and enhanced in preparation for the city’s showcase event, the 2010 World Expo.
It is the new Shanghai, along with views of the few remaining “quaint” (i.e., old and cramped) lilong alleyways and shikumen buildings (small, attached two- and three-story attached houses fronted by stone gates that were built around courtyards in the mid-1800s) that represent Shanghai’s history and draw millions of businessmen and tourists to the city.
Some of the highlights of the city follow
The French Concession, the large segment of the central city in which the “historic” buildings (typically from about 1880-1920) remain. While many of the largest and prettiest ones have been renovated, many of the others still show their ages.
This section contains many of the city’s primary commercial sections, including:
- The very sheik, very Hauhai Road with stores selling upscale Western brands; and the more
- Chinese-branded focus of the almost Ginza-like, neon lit pedestrian shopping street of Nanjing Road.
Most of the other parts of the city have, over the last 20 years, been torn down and replaced by the thousands of steel and glass towers that now dominate the city and by a growing number of parks. The city is, in fact, a showplace of modern architecture.
Although we are staying in and spending much of our time in this section, we visited some of relatively few remaining “lulongs” or alleys in which the old buildings remain. The lulongs, like Beijing’s hutongs, have electricity and running water, but no toilets (unless they have been extensively and expensively remodeled). They are also in desired locations and very expensive, often 3-4 million yuan for 100 square meter units. Unlike hutongs, however, most of the lulongs are two or three stories and may have their own dedicated courtyards.
Although most of these lulongs have been torn down and replaced by much more expensive high-rises (for which residents are either paid or offered larger, more expensive replacement housing at the same cost, albeit further from the city center), some have been taken over and renovated. Examples include:
- High-end,totally renovated mixed-use residential and commercial developments like the modern, Westernized, and to our eyes, very artificial Xintiandi; and
- More spontaneously developed and much more interesting complexes such as the very large Tien Zi Fang, with its local restaurants and retail and artisan shops.
We also took in one more authentic, and one totally reconstructed cultural sites during the day:
Jade Buddhist Temple is the most historic (80 years old) and one of the most revered religious site in the city, housing about 100 monks. It’s the site of temple built to house a one-ton sculpture of Buddha that the monk brought back from Burma 100 years ago. As an extra bonus, it has a large reclining Buddha carved from marble. The Temple also contains a number of interesting tourist shops, many with master artists demonstrating (and attempting to sell) beautiful calligraphy, complex scissor-cut pictures and hand paintings In which paint is applied with fingernails, fingers, palms and even forearms, but no brushes or other artificial aids. There is also a lovely selection of donated jade carvings that were donated to the monastery and are being sold to benefit the poor. Overall, a very worthwhile stop.
Yu Gardens and Bazaar the bazaar, which is filled with tourist shops, is built around a rather hokey, but still pretty re-creation of a classic Chinese town. The interesting roof angles are especially interesting. The real highlight, however, is another re-creation–this a 30-year old reconstruction of a Ming Dynasty official’s palace and garden. The place buildings, and the incredible garden are so beautiful that you forget and don’t care that it’s a re-creation. Two spots stand out in the garden, the rookery, which is constructed from beautifully eroded rocks placed around a pond, and the tea house. Although the bazaar is optional, no visit to Shanghai would be complete without a visit to the garden.
An evening sightseeing cruise of the Huangpu River. Is one of the classic Shanghai sightseeing experiences. The cruise itself was nice, with the beautifully lit buildings (lit especially for Golden Week) on both sides (especially Pudong) from the River. While it was nice, it was not much better than viewing them from the Bund Promenade and was no comparison–at least from our perspective–of seeing it from the relaxed, elevated confines of the House of Roosevelt roof deck. And this is not even considering the struggle to navigate the absolutely packed Bund, the detours mandated by human police barricades or all of the pushing and shoving in the line to get to and onto the boat during Golden Week. So, take the boat tour if you really want to experience the beautiful light show from the water, but if you don’t have a burning desire to take to the water, stick to the Promenade, or better yet, grab a seat at,a relaxed roof deck bar. And for God sakes, absolutely DO NOT take an evening boat during Golden Week.
Pudong. We spend few hours in this newly constructed “temple” to skyscrapers. The trip began with a rather fun tram ride through what is billed as the psychedelic Bund Tunnel. It consists of a tram ride beneath the river through an array of light effects intended to suggest the creation of the universe and the earth. A little hokey, but fun. We did arrive in a new world, from the stately Neoclassical and Art Deco Bund into a new world of futuristic high-rises and planned, geometrically laid-out communities of 10- to 20-story residential towers in Pudong.
We stopped for lunch at a shopping mall. Not, however, just any shopping mall. The IFC mall is a marble-clad ultra-luxury mall that contains all the brand stores that a luxury Western shopper would expect. And although we are certainly not authorities on malls (we typically avoid them like the plague) or certainly on mall restrooms, IFC has restrooms that put those in a Four Seasons hotel to shame with marble, attendants, private sinks, etc. But we digress. We had a very nice, although quite expensive lunch at the mall’s Lei Garden restaurant–roasted duck in a tasty hoisin-plum sauce (although it did have significantly more fat than at our favorite, Beijing duck restaurant) and sautéed shrimp with mushrooms and green chives.
After lunch, we did the typical Pudong tourist thing–an elevator to the observatory of the modernistic, Chinese neoclassical inspired Jin Mao Tower. Although somewhat dwarfed by the neighboring Shanghai World Financial Center and the already huge, still-to-be competed Tower, the view was still very scenic.While the distant views of the reasonably clear Shanghai sky were blurred by ever-present (but much, much less than in Beijing) smog, the verticality of the city is amazing.
The Bund. The Bund was, by far, our most visited Shanghai destination. We ended seeing the riverfront stretch in virtually every way possible: We
- Walked by, and when they were open, through the beautifully restored Neoclassical and Art Deco buildings and, as discussed below, lingered in some (see below);
- Viewed the sweep of the buildings from a slightly more panoramic perspective, from across the street, both at street level and especially from along the Bund Promenade;
- Saw it from the river, via an evening river cruise;
- Experienced it by drink. We skipped the historic Waldorf Astoria Long Bar in favor of the more panoramic views from rooftop views. While the Peace Hotel (across the street from the Swatch Peace) Hotel rooftop bar was closed for a wedding reception the afternoon we stopped, we more than made up for it with visits to our now-regular hangout at the House of Roosevelt rooftop lounge.
Inside the Bund
The interiors of some of the Bund buildings are even more beautiful than the exteriors. Among our favorites are:
- Shanghai Custom House and especially the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, both of which are lovely on the outside, are supposed to have some of the prettiest interiors. Unfortunately, both were closed for the entire week we were in Shanghai;
- Swatch Peace Hotel (now a Fairmont Hotel), with its beautiful Art Deco stained-glass dome, carved metal historic murals and, when we were there, display on the history of Abbey Road studios, The Swatch, however, also provided our greatest Bund disappointment. We went to one of the hotel’s twice-per-evening Jazz concerts only to find a group which has played together for years, but required a couple minutes between songs to find the music and could still not maintain harmony. Meanwhile, their selections consisted of “jazz” classics such as Strangers in the Night, theme from the godfather and to really liven things up, Beautiful Dreamer. It was the first jazz concert we had to leave early for fear of falling asleep.
- Three on the Bund, not for the architecture or restoration, but for the restaurants–including Jean-George, Laris and the Whampoa Club, at which we had lunch (see below).
This is another wonderful Chinese museum which we unfortunately, had to speed through due to time constraints. We began with the jade collection, which focused primarily on jades up through about the 17th century, rather than the newer, more complex pieces than are created by modern technology. But after watching a short video that described the incredible difficulty of carving very hard jade with primitive tools, we gained a greater appreciation for even these earlier pieces. Our other primary focus was on Chinese porcelains, which we love almost as much as its jades. We spent lesser time in the painting, calligraphy, bronze and native clothing galleries.
We were also fascinated to learn that the museum also had a special exhibit on loan from our favorite small U.S. Museum–the Clark in Williamstown MA. Although the line for the art exhibit, on Impressionism and the Barbizon School, was too long for our limited time, judging from the pictures, we have already seen many of these paintings at the Clark. We did, however, find an accompanying exhibits on Robert Clark very interesting. We knew of Clark and his wife’s deep knowledge of and passions for Impressionist art, but we had not known that he had also led one of the earliest, most comprehensive scientific expeditions of northern China in the early 1900s. Not only did his expedition contribute much to the geological, biological and historical knowledge of China, but he also made big contributions to medical care, offering free care to local tribes. Moreover, while his expedition unearthed many historical artifacts, he turned them all over to the Chinese government, never removing any from the country.