A Travellerspoint blog

Shanghai: A City of Chaos and Contrasts

semi-overcast 25 °C

The rain was monsoonal. It was as if the heavy steel grey clouds were water balloons and incisions had been made allowing the rain to thunder down to the cluttered earth. It’s a challenge navigating the hustle and bustle of the streets of Shanghai at the best of times and that much more of an adventure when having to dodge the usual obstacles in addition to a multitude of brightly coloured umbrellas and flooded streets.

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I went to Shanghai for a couple of weeks to visit VC, a friend and colleague of mine, and to carry out some historical research in the Shanghai library for a journey I am planning through China next year. My time in the very upbeat and cosmopolitan Shanghai was informative and a short trip of discovery; however, getting to Shanghai in the first instance did not proceed very auspiciously.

The flight to Hong Kong was totally uneventful except that as our take-off from Perth was delayed, the connection time for my flight to Shanghai was very much shortened. Hong Kong is probably one of the most efficient and well organised airports in the world and for the life of me, I cannot understand why you need to go through a total security screening process when transiting from one plane to another. Perversity exemplified.

I also cannot understand why people clump together and stand on the moving sidewalks that are provided in airports. Laziness personified or is it the herding instinct? Do they not understand that people like myself need to fly through the corridors at breakneck speed to catch their connecting flights and in doing so need to bump and toss people aside? I managed to get to the gate in time, settle into my seat and catch my breath, only to sit in the plane on the tarmac and stew for over two hours before the plane received clearance to take off. I was told that it was not unusual for the Chinese government to close it's air space for periods at a time.

Shanghai is humid in August and the mugginess hit me as soon as I stepped outside the airport terminal. When I am in a humid environment, my sweat glands ooze after about two minutes causing my t-shirt, pants, hair, in essence my entire being, to droop. I feel that I slowly melt into the dampness. Although so much energy is lost, I appreciated the short term, instantaneous relief when I walked past the open doors of an office building or store, of which there were many. I also found that the entrances to the metro provided an oasis of coolness if I needed to stop and check out my map.

Shanghai houses some 23 million people but, unlike sprawling Beijing, the central section of the city is very easy to navigate and most spots worth visiting are within walking distance of each other. The streets run east to west and north to south in a grid-like pattern. Very conveniently, not only are the street signs in this central area in English and Chinese, the relevant compass directions are denoted on each end of the sign.

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Despite Shanghai being easy to navigate, the city is one giant safety hazard for a walker. It is a city of continuous movement and activity. One cannot just mindlessly stroll down a street. Cars, motorcycles, electric motorbikes, motorized wheelchairs, bicycles and space-age prams impatiently compete for space with each other and pedestrians. Crossing the street entails the ritual of looking right, left, over your right shoulder, over your left shoulder, ahead and behind before you tenuously step into the street. It matters not that there is a pedestrian crossing or that the light is green. Insidiously quiet electric motorbikes creep up behind you on the sidewalks and you only know they are there when the driver arrogantly beeps their squeaky little horn at the last moment causing massive heart palpitations. Drivers cannot be bothered to wait for the light to turn so pull into the oncoming traffic and swing a left hand turn from the right side of the road. Yet despite all this seemingly chaotic activity, there is a certain order if you take the time to observe what is going on around you. The traffic chaos actually begins to make sense and it is then easy to survive the streets of the city.

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There are two major banes of a pedestrian’s life on Shanghai streets: children and smart phones. Yes, the children are cute and they look cuddly. But they also get molly coddled, fretted, tutted and fussed over, and no thought is given to the obstruction or inconvenience they cause if they decide they need to take a pee or throw a wee hissy fit.

Any Shanghainese under the age of 30, regardless of gender or social status, has a smart phone permanently embedded in their hand. A great many people are plugged in with headphones, sauntering with head down listening to music, tapping into WeChat, watching videos, or playing a game while walking with great sangfroid down the street, totally oblivious to their surroundings. Taking a picture of absolutely everything is de rigueur…and if it is a selfie, it is considered a necessity to have the photoshop app on your smart phone which instantly makes a Chinese face look like a featureless marshmallow with moist, westernized eyes.

The Chinese seem to have very much embraced online shopping. China is now the world’s largest e-commerce market followed by the United States. A colleague of VC had over 1,000 pieces of clothing she had bought on the internet over a 12 month period and had only that day bought 18 pairs of shoes on Ebay in one sitting which she very proudly showed us, one by one. We were at a Korean sizzling hot pot dinner that night and I found that the chili in the food helped me with the “oh my gosh, how could you have bought those ones” cough that some of the shoe styles evoked.

One of the first discoveries I made when I arrived in Shanghai was that I was not able to access many applications that get used on a daily basis in Australia: Google, gmail, Google maps, Youtube, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all blocked in China. The restrictions on modes of communication were an eye-opener and I was pretty well restricted to using Baidu as a search engine and hoping my search came up with something in English. I also found I depended very much on my creased Shanghai Official Tourist Map to find my way around the city. Although I fell short on the latest smartphone technology, I was able to maintain phone contact my very outdated Nokia phone as it is very easy to buy a China SIM card at the airport.

Shanghai assails all the senses with the contrast of the old and the modern: sleek, polished Lamborghinis share road space with over-stacked, battered pedal bikes. Animal products in carefully labelled styrofoam trays contrast with green, squirming unidentifiable creatures in the open street market. The hole in the wall shop on the street corner in which you can buy absolutely anything but need to ask the shopkeeper where to find the item in the jumble of goods is a quantum step away from the isles of neatly stacked goods in the western style grocery store. The tightly packed houses of a longtang are a tangle of wires, singular hanging lightbulbs, air conditioning units, laundry lines strung with shirts, pants, knickers and bras and balconies covered in peeling paint. In the same line of sight, the sleek grey glass and aluminium skyscrapers poke their heads into the Shanghai sky. Stalls where noodles are made while you wait contrast with a pretentious cafe that serves coffee collected out of animal poo.

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A feature of the new Shanghai that you cannot get away from is the mass of lights that overwhelm your eyes. Every major name brand is illuminated in twenty foot flashing LED lights: Dior, Chanel, Gucci, Coach, Prada, Louis Vuitton. Unfortunately, it seemed that luxury brand names are so ubiquitous that the brands become mundane and commonplace. It seemed that there were as many Cartier stores as there were Starbuck cafes and MacDonald outlets.

The pedestrian mall of Nanjing Road is a razzle dazzle of green, blue and red pulsating neon lights at night. Walk down Central Fangbang Road, the oldest street in Shanghai, and you are lucky to get a lone light bulb hanging from a sagging ceiling.

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Standing on the shores of the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River which is continuously plied by cruise boats, freighters and barges, gives you a chance to contrast the soaring glass buildings of ultra modern Pudong with the gothic, neo-classic and art deco architecture of the Bund, Shanghai’s historical centre of commerce and finance. It is a must to visit the inside of the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. The bronze lions framing the entrance, the domed, hand made mosaic ceiling in the lobby and the marble columns, each hewn from a single piece of marble, are a tribute to architectural skill and elegance. I also found that my visit to the exhibition of historical Shanghai in the Shanghai Municipal Archives (formally the French Messageries Maritime Building) gave a most informative pictorial overview of the dramatic transformation of Shanghai from the mid 1800s to the present.

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Taking the Pudong Sightseeing Tunnel from the Bund to Pudong is almost worth the cost just to experience a totally surreal tourist trap which leaves you in wonderment as to the reason for its popularity. While the river flows languidly above you, the tunnel carriage conveys passengers through a garish, trippy, pulsing and strobing lightshow with a disengaged voice telling you the names of the various light designs you pass through: names such as Magna Flow, Meteor Shower, Heaven and Hell, and Basalt Water. You pop up near the congested plaza of the Oriental Pearl Tower and you instantly get a kink looking up at the multitude of tall buildings surrounding you. The tallest, Shanghai Tower standing 632 m (2,073 feet) built with a twist, is still under construction. However, you can ride to the top of the Shanghai World Financial Centre, standing a mere 492 m (1,614 feet). The number of each of the 101 floors you pass as you whoosh to the top is shown as a digital image on the floor of the elevator. At the same time, strobe lights flash from the ceiling. Once at the observation floor, you get a wonderful panoramic view of Shanghai in the smog.

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“Madam, my name is Deng Liu. Please tell me your name. You look like a princess and my dancing teacher,” stated the young gentleman who appeared out of nowhere and was suddenly walking next to me as I was strolling through People’s Square. People’s Square is smack bang in the middle of Shanghai. The adjacent People’s Park is one of the number of parks in Shanghai in which you can chill, escaping the vehicle and people traffic and walk peacefully amongst tree-lined paths. A lesser known park I stumbled on is Jing’an Sculpture Park which is the home of the new Museum of Natural History with its architecture inspired by the cellular structure of plants and animals. There is also an array of sculptures scattered throughout the park ranging from reconstructed musical instruments, a giant fox sitting atop red shipping containers, a couple of bronze bulls and a crow alighted on top of a totem of apples.

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Getting to the Shanghai library entails walking through the streets of the French Concession which are lined with cooling canopies of plane trees, charming villas and original art deco mansions. It was during one of my sojourns to the Library that I stumbled onto the Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall on Chang Le Road and discovered hand-printed blue and white nankeen cloth, a traditional cloth made using hand cut waxed stencils and indigo dye.

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The Shanghai Library is an imposing marble building with a rather grand staircase leading to the large, open foyer. I diligently placed my pack onto the security x-ray machine, but as the attendant was busy looking at her smart phone appendage, everything passed by her with nary a glance.
May Gui, the librarian I had been in contact with, met me in the café which amazingly makes a pretty reasonable cappuccino. “The library is the second largest library in China. Did you notice the two pyramids on top?” asked May.

I did not, I had to confess.

“The two pyramids show that the library is place for people to gain knowledge and scale the heights of science and technology”.

So who knew.

I checked out the pyramids when I left the library later that day and personally, they look like an architect’s fancy – a fancy that results in all sorts of weird and wonderful roof adornments that are very commonly constructed on top of Chinese buildings.

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Lamentably, despite the fun of exploring and having some top meals of pork and prawn dumplings, and noodles, my departure from Shanghai was no more auspicious than my arrival. I decided to give the Metro Line 2 a try as it was so conveniently located to VC’s apartment and traveling to the international airport would take me a fraction of time compared to taking a taxi. No English was to be seen, but with the help of a student, I was able to purchase my ticket to the airport. According to the map, all I needed to do was sit until I reached my destination. All went well until I reached Jinke Road Station, which was only four stations away from my final stop. So close. At Jinke Road Station, the metro stopped, I diligently maintained my sitting position, there was an outpouring of people, the lights went off and flicked on just as fast, there was an in pouring of people and we were off – in the same direction I had just come from. I could only sigh.

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Posted by IvaS 21:36 Archived in China Comments (0)

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