Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to understand Shanghai. It’s a city with a glistening skyline that would not look out of place in a sci-fi movie. However, there’s also a nostalgic undercurrent yearning for the days when it was looked at as the “Paris of the East,” while traditional neighbourhoods, gardens, and museums seek to celebrate the traditional way of life.
Consider our day on Friday. We woke up bright and early and headed off to the Yuyuan Gardens in what is considered the old part of Shanghai. Although somewhat crowded with tourists, I would say this truly was the pearl of the city. This is what you picture when you think of old China. Quiet wooden buildings decorated with dragons and lit with lamps painted with birds and hanging red garnish stand on stilts over ponds filled with orange, white and black coy. Large, 400-year old trees, bamboo and palm trees add shade and a beautiful green. The garden’s walls nearly block all of the honking on the streets outside (and in Shanghai they honk all the time).
After walking through this garden, we browsed through a nearby bazaar selling all sorts of trinkets, bags, watches and jewellery. Although they do try to get you to buy, it wasn’t nearly as pushy as Turkey with most sellers giving up as soon as you say no.
We stopped at a store at 385 Fangbang Road. Inside, was a celebration of old Shanghai. Gramophones, typewriters, paintings and photos of the city a century ago alongside old propaganda from the early post-1949 period. Upstairs was more of the same, only here we were greeted by an older completely bald man wearing glasses and dressed in a black robe. We sat at a table and ordered tea, which he presented in a tiny tea pot to compliment the tiny white tea cups. Add some delicious pork dumplings, old scratchy music seeming to play through a gramophone, and it was a perfect way to spend a couple hours.
Outside the open windows of our teashop was a clear image of the change in Shanghai that I’ve read so much about. We could see an old street crowded with small shops in front of crammed old houses, small alleyways, gritty roofs and bicycles. Towering behind was a series of newish office and apartment buildings in bland grey.
Leaving the teashop we walked through the Old Town and saw more rough-looking narrow shops and homes and alleyways clustered together. Out in the street you could buy seafood, ducks, chickens, snakes and pigeons – live or butchered with the meat laying out without any form of cooling. We turned a corner and on one side more of the same on the other a massive gaping hole in the ground where a new major construction project was taking place.
That evening we took a strange lightshow tunnel under the Huangpu River across to Pudong (I can’t really describe this, but let me just say it’s super weird). This part of Shanghai is a celebration of new. A fog had descended over the city, making the skyscrapers seem endless, while bright pinks, yellows, blues and red sparkled amidst flashing signs and video screens.
The sights and shapes of Pudong seem super modern, it is clearly meant as an ambitious showcase of money and power, although I wonder if it will just seem garish and overdone 40 years from now.
We went to the Grand Hyatt in the Jin Mao Tower and took three elevators to get off at the 87th floor where we went to a bar appropriately named Cloud 9. If our noon tea seemed to pay homage to old Shanghai, this was a showcase of the new world metropolis. Unfortunately, the fog had made the cityscape somewhat hard to see, just blinking colours and a Pearl Tower that seemed to sparkle. But as I drank my Jameson’s whiskey surrounded by Western businessmen, I could certainly taste the contrast in this city.