May 24, 2012

Three Days in Shanghai

After making the giant trip across the Pacific to Hong Kong, it seemed a shame to just turn around and go home without seeing a little more of the region.  The debate between Beijing and Shanghai as side trips was quickly decided when an email arrived from my old friend Pamela announcing that her husband had accepted a three year position and they had moved with their four teenage children from Raleigh, NC, to, you guessed it, Shanghai, China!

Modern day Shanghai is a study in reinvention.  Once the “Paris of the Orient” a magnet for all things decadent and beautiful, Shanghai fell under Japanese Occupation from 1930 until the end of World War II when Mao Tse-tung became leader of the People's Republic of China.  What followed was the terror of the Cultural Revolution and later the violence of the Gang of Four.  It was not until 1990 that Shanghai became a part of the outside world again and they have been playing an impressive game of catch-up ever since.

Today Shanghai is a thriving metropolis with all the bells and whistles of a cosmopolitan city.  Towering skyscrapers, an efficient metro system, and foreign luxury boutiques are all evidence of the desire to become a “world city”.  But there are still many pockets of the old Shanghai, and many of the older residents and neighborhoods seem frozen in another age.

Arriving at Pudong International was like fast forwarding through time.  This is without question the biggest airport I have ever seen and it seemed deserted.  Transportation to the downtown area is provided by Maglev train – the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation rail system that links the airport to Longyang Road Metro station in 8 minutes traveling at a top speed of 430 km/hr (approximately 267 mph).

Living in New York has left me somewhat blasé about big cities, but Shanghai is nothing if not impressive.  The scene from my 50th floor hotel room was jaw dropping.  The hotel designers must have thought so too as guests had a full skyline view from the bath and shower as well as the living area!

Unfortunately it was a very rainy Saturday morning when Pamela picked us up for our initial walking tour but we set off armed with umbrellas, cameras, and great anticipation.  We started at the cricket market – an enclave of vendors selling caged animals of every sort from birds, fish, mice, squirrels, a few dogs and thousands of the biggest crickets you have ever seen!  Some of the crickets were in small glass jars with perforated lids, and some were in tiny bamboo cages, and all of them were chirping vociferously.

From here we walked over to an outdoor market for typical Chinese souvenirs where we went directly to a young woman who sold silk products like bags, tablecloths and faux Louis Vuitton scarves.  After much bargaining and a lot of laughing too we walked away with shopping bags full of merchandise for what seemed like a pittance.

Our souvenir shopping done, it was time to see some sights so we boarded the Metro to Yuyuan, a classical garden originally created in the 16th Century by Pan Yunduan in honor of his father.  Today the garden comprises 12 acres in the middle of Old Town and is a lovely example of a Ming garden with rock gardens, ponds full of koi, and bridges surrounding corridors and pavilions.

Across the street from the Yu Garden is a large shopping and food area with a few original structures mixed in with the reconstructions.  All this walking had worked up an appetite and a stop at the Huxinting Tea House was just the ticket.  After, it was fun to walk around and watch the vendors hawking their wares amid shadow puppet shows and other entertainment before heading back to the hotel for a rest and to dry out before dinner.

The next day was overcast but fortunately the rain had stopped.  The morning started with a walk down the Nanjing Donglu, a pedestrian shopping street, to The Bund, the waterfront area bordering the Huangpu River.  Formerly the dock area and therefore the commercial heart of old Shanghai, this stretch is now primarily a place to stroll and admire the amazing views of Pudong's skyscrapers.  Facing the avenue are still a few impressive old buildings including the Art Deco masterpiece The Peace Hotel (formerly the Cathay Hotel) where Noel Coward wrote "Private Lives", the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building with its remarkable mosaic ceilings and the former Customs House with its clock tower known as "Big Ching".

It was time to walk back to the hotel to meet Pamela for the next expedition.  The route along Fuzhou Lu was a lovely surprise as it is the area for art supply shops and each displayed magnificent calligraphy brushes and beautiful drawing papers in the windows. But we were going to explore the former French Concession and that involved another Metro ride this time to Huaihai Zhonglu, a very chic shopping street and the starting point for our tour.

For almost a century Shanghai was divided into various foreign territories, or concessions, including the French Concession from 1849 until 1946.  Today it remains a unique neighborhood, very European in feeling, in the middle of the big city.  Shady lanes with boutiques and restaurants invite a leisurely walk, but always being mindful of kamikaze bicyclists and taxis!  Our tour focused on the wonderful Art Deco architecture that despite its present state of dilapidation is a lasting reminder of the heyday of the French territory.

By the end of the afternoon, having reached the former home of Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong May-ling, we had worked up a massive thirst.  Conveniently, and rather amazingly, the area is full of beer gardens serving Chinese brews as well as Carlsberg, Kronenburg and other European beers.  Sitting under the trees surrounded by colonial and art deco buildings, one could easily forget one was sitting in the middle of Shanghai, China!

The next morning we were
blessed with sunny skies and low humidity - perfect for a walk though People's Square to the Shanghai Museum.  Opened in 1996 to house a major collection of Chinese antiquities, the building's exterior resembles an ancient bronze ding tripod (food vessel).  Admission is free and the presentation is truly extraordinary.  Galleries for bronzes, calligraphy, jade, porcelain and furniture are chock full with exquisite examples from every period in Chinese history and contrary to expectations, the explanatory plaques were very well written in Mandarin and English.

The last stop in my Shanghai tour was a visit to the Pearl Market.  With Pamela leading the way, we set off via Metro to what seemed like the suburbs but was still very much part of the city.  Tucked in a corner of a mall-like venue was a purveyor of pearls - black pearls, white pearls, freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls and any other kind of pearl your heart could desire - at prices that seemed ridiculous.  Charles has been in the pearl business all his life, his parents had had a pearl farm, and his passion for these precious objects was obvious.  I came away with a few more pearls than I had anticipated but the experience itself was worth the trip.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in Shanghai - the food, the shopping, the sights and the history have all be fascinating.  I am astonished at how a city of nearly 30 million people, having lived until recently under terrible repression, can function so well and so efficiently.  It is a city of marvels and contrasts where the past meets the present and the future is beckoning all at the same time.  It is the mysterious Orient!

P.S.  With heartfelt thanks to my dear friend Pamela and her family for making this visit so wonderful!

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