It seems appropriate that we’ve left Shanghai for last. This feels like a city more concerned with its future than its past. Western involvement has been substantial since treaties following the First Opium War in the 1840’s resulted in Concessions for Britain, France and the United States, and the influence can be seen throughout the city. We see more Europeans here than anywhere else on our trip. Welcome to modern China.
If you are wondering what old Shanghai looked like, the best place to find this is supposedly the Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, but unfortunately the rest of the city has decided to join us this morning. The gardens are a series of pavilions, halls and rockeries, but the crowds ruin any sense of peace. The Bazaar looks the part, but feels like a Las Vegas imitation.
One of the highlights of the Gardens is usually the zig zag bridge, but today we can barely see it.
We decide to find some relief from the masses by heading to the Chénxiānggé Nunnery, which is an immediate and welcome contrast. I’m initially surprised that there seem to be only teenage boys here, all with shaven heads and working in silence. K quietly points out my error. “Really, all of them?” “Yes, all of them”. Easy mistake to make.
The Bund (meaning embankment) is the strip of imposing early 20th century art deco and neoclassical buildings that housed some of the world’s most powerful banks, trading houses and embassies. These include the Bank Of China building, deliberately built to be taller than its prestigious neighbour, the Peace Hotel (then known as the Cathay), but failing by one metre. The North China Daily News operated the main English language newspaper in China, but managed a typo in their motto above the entrance. For businesses and tourists alike, the Bund is the place to be.
We never find out why, but today seems to have been designated “Happy Couple Photography Day”. Smiling couples gaze on demand through the streets on and around the Bund. I’m sure peace signs are never far away.
If the Bund is the face of the recent past, the face of the near future is just across the Huangpu River. Pudong is home to the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, at 468m the tallest structure in China until 2007, when it was overtaken by the Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC), a near neighbour, reaching 492m. The SWFC has already been overtaken by the yet to be completed Shanghai Tower, which will climb to 632m.
But today, a trip up the Pearl Tower is high enough. It’s a cool day, but clear, so the views from the top should be extensive. We have a minor setback when we’re told that the top viewing deck is closed. I thought the ticketing official was a tad abrupt with me, so I can’t help myself and politely ask why the top deck is closed, knowing full well that she is not in an explanatory mood. “It’s closed!” is her slightly louder response. I calmly reply “Yes, but why?” “It’s closed!” – slightly louder again. K takes my arm before I’m deported. I can be a real jerk given the right encouragement!
A second security check reminds me that I’m not allowed to bring my sword up the Pearl Tower. Fortunately the sword didn’t make the trip today. I somehow end up speaking German to a tourist looking for a cameraman. In a few short minutes I have more German words recognised than I have managed intelligible Mandarin in the last two weeks. The views from the Pearl are as spectacular as hoped, and provide a beautiful view over the Bund and beyond. Arguably less significant to China’s future are the Angry Birds, which form a popular display on the Ground Floor. This will impress my kids far more than any Great Wall or Pearl Tower.
We return to Pudong in the evenings for a spot of decadence. We’ve stayed in some very traditional accommodation in Beijing and Guilin; we’ve eaten dumplings with the students – it’s time to spoil ourselves a bit. How about drinks at Cloud 9, on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao building? And for the next night, how about a few games of pool on the 65th floor of the Royal Meridien? The views were stunning, the drinks not as expensive as feared, the pool was ordinary, the magician was impressive, and the exits were getting harder and harder to find. It’s not often that we don’t have to drive – you have to take advantage of these opportunities.
Without doubt, my favourite place in Shanghai is the Propaganda Poster Art Centre, located in the French Concession. A collection of over 5000 original posters and other political artwork and documents guides visitors through the turbulent history of China from the 50’s to the 70’s. It’s a fascinating insight into the daily lives of everyday Chinese people under the operations of Mao’s propaganda machine.