Shanghai Travel Guide

After years of stagnation, the great metropolis of Shanghai (上海, shànghăi) is undergoing one of the fastest economic expansions the world has ever seen. As Shanghai begins to recapture its position as East Asia’s leading business city, a status it last held before World War II, the skyline is filling with high-rises – there are well over a thousand now. Gleaming shopping malls, luxurious hotels and prestigious arts centres are rising alongside, while underneath everything snakes the world’s longest subway system. Shanghai’s 23 million residents enjoy the highest incomes on the mainland, and there’s plenty for them to splash out on; witness the rash of celebrity restaurants and designer flagship stores. In short, it’s a city with a swagger, bursting with nouveau-riche exuberance and élan. And yet, for all the modernization, Shanghai is still known in the West for its infamous role as the base of European imperialism in mainland China during the 1930s.

Whichever side you were on, life in Shanghai then was rarely one of moderation. China’s most prosperous city, in large part European- and American-financed, Shanghai introduced Asia to electric light, boasted more cars than the rest of the country put together, and created for its rich citizens a world of European-style mansions, tree-lined boulevards, chic café society, horse-racing and exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Alongside, and as much part of the legend, lay a city of singsong girls, warring gangsters and millions living in absolute poverty.

Then came the Japanese invasion, civil war and the communist victory. With their egalitarian, anti-Western stance, China’s new rulers despised everything that pre-war Shanghai had stood for and deliberately ran the city down, siphoning off its surplus to other parts of the country. Shanghai came to resemble a living museum, housing the largest array of Art Deco architecture in the world. Yet the Shanghainese never lost their ability to make waves for themselves. The present boom dates back to 1990, with the opening of the “New Bund” – the Special Economic Zone across the river in Pudong. Ever since, the city has enjoyed double digit growth, and if present plans for a new economic free trade zone come to pass, it will likely one day rival Hong Kong as Asia’s financial centre.

Yet old Shanghai has not disappeared. Most of the urban area was partitioned between foreign powers until 1949, and their former embassies, banks and official residences still give large sections of Shanghai an early twentieth-century European flavour. It’s still possible to make out the boundaries of what used to be the foreign concessions, with the bewildering tangle of alleyways of the old Chinese city at its heart. Only along the Huangpu waterfront, amid the stolid grandeur of the Bund, is there some sense of space – and here you feel the past more strongly than ever. It’s ironic that the relics of hated foreign imperialism are now protected as city monuments.

Shanghai does not brim with obvious attractions, however. Besides the Shanghai Museum, the Suzhou-reminiscent gardens of Yu Yuan, and the Huangpu River cruise, there are few tourist sights with broad appeal. But the place absolutely excels in all materialistic pleasures, so make sure you sample the fantastic restaurant and nightlife scenes, and budget some time for serious shopping. Perhaps the greatest fascination is in simply absorbing the splendour of a city so extravagantly on the up. Shanghai is also one of the few Chinese cities that rewards aimless wandering, and it’s fascinating to stroll the Bund, explore the pockets of colonial architecture in the former French Concession, or get lost in the old city’s alleys.

Brief history of Shanghai

Located at the confluence of the Yangzi River, the Grand Canal and the Pacific Ocean, Shanghai served as a major commercial port from the Song dynasty, channelling the region’s extensive cotton crop to Beijing, the hinterland and Japan. By the Qing dynasty, vast mercantile guilds had established economic and, to some extent, political control of the city. In the words of East India Company representative Hugh Lindsay, “the city had become the principal emporium of Eastern Asia” by the 1840s.

The Concession Era

Following the Opium Wars, the British moved in under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, to be rapidly followed by the French in 1847. These two powers set up the first foreign concessions in the city – the British along the Bund and the area to the north of the Chinese city, the French in an area to the southwest, on the site of a cathedral a French missionary had founded two centuries earlier. Later the Americans (in 1863) and the Japanese (in 1895) came to tack their own areas onto the British Concession, which expanded into the so-called International Settlement. Traders were allowed to live under their own national laws, policed by their own armed forces, in a series of privileged enclaves that were leased indefinitely. By 1900, the city’s favourable position, close to the main trade route to the major silk- and tea-producing regions, had allowed it to develop into a sizeable port and manufacturing centre. At this time, it was largely controlled by the “Green Gang”, the infamous Chinese crime syndicate founded in the 1700s by unemployed boatmen, which by the 1920s ran the city’s vast underworld. Businessmen and criminals who flouted the Green Gang’s strict code of behaviour were subject to “knee-capping” punishment – having every visible tendon severed with a fruit knife before being left to die on a busy pavement.

Shanghai’s cheap workforce was swollen during the Taiping Uprising by those who took shelter from the slaughter in the foreign settlements, and by peasants attracted to the city’s apparent prosperity. Here China’s first urban proletariat emerged, and the squalid living conditions, outbreaks of unemployment and glaring abuses of Chinese labour by foreign investors made Shanghai a natural breeding ground for revolutionary politics. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in the city in 1921, only to be driven underground by the notorious massacre of hundreds of strikers in 1927.

The Communist era

Inevitably, after the Communist takeover in 1949, the bright lights dimmed. The foreign community may have expected “business as usual”, but the new regime was determined that Shanghai should play its role in the radical reconstruction of China. The worst slums were knocked down to be replaced by apartments, the gangsters and prostitutes were taken away for “re-education”, and foreign capital was ruthlessly taxed if not confiscated outright (although Chiang Kai-shek did manage to spirit away the gold reserves of the Bank of China to Taiwan, leaving the city broke). For 35 years, Western influences were forcibly suppressed.

Even after 1949, the city remained a centre of radicalism – Mao, stifled by Beijing bureaucracy, launched his Cultural Revolution here in 1966. Certain Red Guards even proclaimed a Shanghai Commune, before the whole affair descended into wanton destruction and petty vindictiveness. After Mao’s death, Shanghai was the last stronghold of the Gang of Four in their struggle for the succession, though their planned coup never materialized.

Modern Shanghai

Shanghai’s fortunes rebounded during China’s opening up in the post-Mao era: many key modernizing officials in the central government came from the Shanghai area, and Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji were both former mayors of the city.

As well as an important power base for the ruling party, Shanghai has always been the most fashion-conscious and outward-looking city in China, its people the most highly skilled labour force in the country, and renowned for their quick wit and entrepreneurial skills. Many Shanghainese fled to Hong Kong after 1949 and oversaw the colony’s economic explosion, while a high proportion of Chinese successful in business elsewhere in the world emigrated from this area. Even during the Cultural Revolution, Western “excesses” like curled hair and holding hands in public survived in Shanghai. Despite the incomprehensibility of the local Shanghainese dialect to other Chinese, it has always been easier for visitors to communicate with the locals here than anywhere else in the country, because of the excellent level of English spoken and the familiarity with foreigners and foreignness.

Accommodation in Shanghai

Accommodation in Shanghai is plentiful, and in places extremely stylish, but prices are higher than elsewhere in China. The grand old-world hotels that form so integral a part of Shanghai’s history cost at least US$150 per night, and for comfort and elegance have been overtaken by new arrivals, such as the clutch of boutique hotels. If you want to be near the centre of the action, go for somewhere around Renmin Park or the Bund; there are options here for all budgets. For style and panache, head to the genteel former French Concession, where attractive mid-range hotels are close to upmarket dining and nightlife. For the latest in corporate chic, Pudong has the fanciest options, but the area is rather dull. If you’re simply looking for somewhere that’s good value and convenient, stay in the outskirts near a subway station.

Eating in Shanghai

Food in Shanghai is fantastic; though there is fairly little in the way of cheap street food, most forms of international and Chinese cuisine are widely available and there are plenty of stylish and classy restaurants. It’s hard to believe that up until the early 1990s, simply getting a table in Shanghai was a cut-throat business. Compared to, for example, Sichuan or Cantonese, Shanghai cuisine is not particularly well known or popular among foreigners. Most of the cooking is done with added ginger, sugar and Shaoxing wine, but without heavy spicing. There are some interesting dishes, especially if you enjoy exotic seafood. Fish and shrimp are considered basic to any respectable meal, and eels and crab may appear as well. In season (Oct–Dec), you may get the chance to try dazha crab, the most expensive and, supposedly, the most delicious. Inexpensive snack food is easily available in almost any part of the city at any time of night or day – try xiao long bao, a local dumpling speciality.

Entertainment in Shanghai

Most visitors take in an acrobatics show, but equally worthy of note are the flourishing contemporary art and music scenes. The Shanghai Arts Festival (www.artsbird.com) is held from mid-October to mid-November – though you’d be forgiven for not noticing it – when the city receives a lot of visiting shows. For listings of big cultural spectaculars such as visiting ballet troupes, check the China Daily, but for the lowdown on punk gigs, underground art shows and the like, get an up-to-date expat magazine such as cityweekend, or check smartshanghai.com. The simplest way to buy tickets is at the box office before the show starts, or a few days earlier if there’s any danger that it will sell out. You can also buy tickets from the booking centre behind the Westgate Mall on Nanjing Xi Lu. The contemporary art scene can be conveniently checked out at the Moganshan Art District. The Shanghai Biennale, held in venues all over town, is held on even-numbered years.

Celluloid Shanghai

China’s first movie studios were in Shanghai, in the 1930s, and you can see old classics such as Sister Flower and The Goddess – both surprisingly hard-hitting naturalistic tragedies – at the Old Film Café. The old studios that produced these movies might have gone-but, increasingly, you can find Shanghai depicted on film, most successfully in Lou Ye’s tragic love story Suzhou Creek (2002). The best of many concession-era “lipstick and qipao” films is Shanghai Triad (1995). The brutal end to those days is shown in Steven Spielberg’s decent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic novel, Empire of the Sun (1987). Shanghai is successfully made to look like a city of the future in the neat and twisty sci-fi thriller, Looper (2012).

Shopping in Shanghai

The shopping is great in Shanghai, and it’s a rare visitor who doesn’t end up having to buy another bag to keep all their new goodies in. The Shanghainese love luxury goods, and it’s not uncommon to find young women spending several months’ salary on a handbag, but all those glitzy brand names that give the streets such a lot of their shine are not good value; high-end goods and international brands are generally twenty percent more expensive than they would be in the West. Ignore them, and instead plunge into the fascinating world of the backstreet boutiques and markets.

Made to measure

Getting tailored clothes is a recommended Shanghai experience, as it will cost so much less than at home and the artisans are skilled (provided you’re clear about exactly what you’re after) and quick. At the textile market in the Old City, near Liushui Lu at 399 Lujiabang Lu (南外滩轻纺面料市场, nánwàitān qīngfǎng miànliào shìchǎng; daily 10am–7pm), on-site tailors will make you a suit for around ¥500, including material (you’ll have to barter a bit), which will take a couple of days; a shirt should be around ¥150. It’s all a bit hit and miss, but Jennifer at Unit 237, Andy at 295 and Xia at 326 are all considered a good bet.

If you’re looking for a more sedate experience, or a tailored qipao, your best bet is to head to one of the dozen or so specialist tailors on Maoming Nan Lu, just south of Huaihai Lu. Three shirts in one of these stores should come to around ¥800, a suit will be around twice that.

Central Shanghai

A good place to get your bearings in Central Shanghai is at the Bund, on the west bank of the Huangpu River. To the north, across Suzhou Creek, is the area of the old Japanese Concession; while east over the Huangpu is Pudong, and the city’s most conspicuous architectural landmarks. Nanjing Lu, one of China’s busiest shopping streets, runs west from the Bund, to Renmin Park in the centre of the city, where you’ll find the excellent Shanghai Museum. South and west of the Bund, you’ll find the oval-shaped area corresponding to the Old City, the longest continuously inhabited part of Shanghai, with the Yu Yuan – a fully restored classical Chinese garden – and bazaars at its heart. To the southwest of here lies the marvellous former French Concession, with its cosmopolitan cooking traditions, chic European-style housing and revolutionary relics. The energetic eating and nightlife centre of Shanghai, Huaihai Lu, serves as the area’s main artery. Central Shanghai is pleasingly compact, and it’s not hard to find your way around on foot – though you’ll certainly need to use the subway or taxis to cross from one quarter to the next. Be aware that, with so many tourists about to prey on, this is a particularly bad area of the city for scams.

The Bund

Shanghai’s original signature skyline is the Bund, a strip of grand Neoclassical colonial edifices on the west bank of the Huangpu River, facing the flashy skyscrapers of Pudong on the opposite shore – a backdrop domestic visitors queue up against to have their picture taken. Named after an old Anglo-Indian term, “bunding” (the embanking of a muddy foreshore), the Bund’s official name is Zhongshan Lu, but it’s better known among locals as Wai Tan (literally “Outside Beach”). By whatever name, this was old Shanghai’s commercial heart, with the river on one side, the offices of the leading banks and trading houses on the other. During Shanghai’s riotous heyday it was also a hectic working harbour, where anything from tiny sailing junks to ocean-going freighters unloaded under the watch of British – and later American and Japanese – warships. Everything arrived here, from silk and tea to heavy industrial machinery. Amid it all, wealthy foreigners disembarked to pick their way to one of the grand hotels through crowds of beggars, hawkers, black marketeers, shoeshine boys, overladen coolies and even funeral parties – Chinese too poor to pay for the burial of relatives would launch the bodies into the river in boxes decked in paper flowers.

Great British drug dealers

Jardine Matheson, founded by William Jardine – the man who did more than any other individual to precipitate the Opium Wars and open Shanghai up to foreign trade – was the first foreign concern to buy land in Shanghai. Their former base (they lost all of their holdings in China after 1949), just north of the Peace Hotel, is now occupied by the China Textiles Export Corporation.

The wealth of the Sassoon family, too, was built on opium, but by the early years of the last century, the family fortune had mostly been sunk into Shanghai real estate, including the Cathay (originally known as Sassoon House). The flamboyant Victor Sassoon lived long enough to see his hotel virtually destroyed by the Japanese, including his rooftop private apartment, with 360-degree views and dark oak panelling (it has recently been restored), but also long enough to get most of his money away to the Bahamas.

Huangpu river tours

One highlight of a visit to Shanghai, and the easiest way to view the edifices of the Bund, is to take one of the Huangpu River tours (黄浦江旅游, huángpŭ jiāng lǚyóu). On the tour, you’re introduced to the vast amount of shipping that uses the port, and you’ll also be able to inspect all the paraphernalia of the shipping industry, from sampans and rusty old Panamanian-registered freighters to sparkling Chinese navy vessels. You’ll also get an idea of the colossal construction that is taking place on the eastern shore. Evening cruises offer spectacular views, as Shanghai is lit up like a pinball machine at night.

Cruises leave from Shiliupu Wharf at the south end of the Bund, opposite Jinling Dong Lu at 171 Zhongshan Nan Lu. You can buy tickets at the wharf or at the Bund Tourist Information Centre, beside the entrance to the Bund Tourist Tunnel. You can also book direct with one of the many cruise operators. You can book tickets a few days in advance over the phone and they will deliver to your hotel.

Departure times vary depending on season and weather. Ninety-minute long cruises (¥128) depart at least twice an hour daily between 11am and 9.30pm. Hour-long cruises (¥100) are rarer, usually hourly, and there is one daily three-hour cruise (¥150) at 2pm, which goes all the way to the mouth of the Yangzi and back. Cruises that include a buffet dinner run between 7pm and 9pm (¥200).

It is also possible to take half-hour cruises from Pudong. These leave from the Pearl Dock, every half hour between 10am and 1.30pm (¥100).

Tianzifang

Turning right from the end of Sinan Lu onto Taikang Lu (泰康路, tàikāng lù) will bring you to the latest fashionably artsy shopping and lunching quarter, Tianzifang. The unassuming entrance, an arch over alley 210 on the north side of the road, leads onto Taikang Art Street, a narrow north–south alleyway off which you’ll find an expanding web of alleys filling up with trendy boutiques, coffee shops, handmade jewellery stores, art galleries and restaurants, all housed in converted shikumen houses. At its northern end, Tianzifang exits onto Sinan Lu, but don’t even try to come in from there – the entrance is really tough to find.

Inevitably, Tianzifang gets compared with Xintiandi; but whereas the architecture there is modern pastiche, this is a set of real, warts-and-all longtangs, with the result that it’s quainter, shabbier, more charming. If you’re looking for an artsy knick- knack or accessory, quirky souvenir, tasteful homeware or a designer original, this is the place to come, though try to visit on a weekday as the narrow lanes get very crowded at weekends. For a coffee stop, central Kommune is a local institution.

Yu Yuan

A classical Chinese garden featuring pools, walkways, bridges and rockeries, the Yu Yuan was created in the sixteenth century by a high official in the imperial court in honour of his father. The Yu Yuan is less impressive than the gardens of nearby Suzhou, but given that it predates the relics of the International Settlement by some three hundred years, the Shanghainese are understandably proud of it. Despite fluctuating fortunes, the garden has surprisingly survived the passage of the centuries. It was spared from its greatest crisis – the Cultural Revolution – apparently because the anti-imperialist “Little Sword Society” had used it as their headquarters in 1853 during the Taiping Uprising.

North of Suzhou Creek

North across the Waibaidu Bridge from the Bund, you enter an area that, before the war, was the Japanese quarter of the International Settlement. The area immediately north of the bridge is tipped for a big renovation – you’ll see some flashy new buildings, such as the bulbous International Cruise Terminal, and many more are planned. For the moment, the obvious interest lies further north, in the Lu Xun Park area (also known as Hongkou Park) and its monuments to the political novelist Lu Xun, although the whole district is lively and architecturally interesting.

Western Shanghai

Due west from the city centre there is less to see, with a sprinkling of widely scattered sights, much too far apart to walk between. Moganshan Art District is worth a visit to experience the commercial side of China’s modern art movements; while the Longhua and Yufo temples are two of Shanghai’s most important surviving religious sites.

Moganshan Art District

Moganshan Arts District (or M50) is a complex of studios and galleries located in an old textile mill beside Suzhou Creek, just west of Shanghai train station. Attracted by cheap rents, artists took over the abandoned buildings in the 1990s and used them as studios; then the art galleries moved in, and now the design studios, cafés and arty shops are arriving. It’s an intriguing mix of shabby and sophisticated, jumbling together paint-spattered artists, pretentious fashionistas and baffled locals. Recently a glut of lame commercial galleries have opened, but there are enough good ones left, including those listed here. Many of the galleries are closed on Mondays, and there’s a map on the wall to the right of the entrance. When you’re arted out, have a coffee at the nearby Bandu café.

Moganshan’s galleries

New galleries tend to show insipid copies of the works of famous artists. Here are some established and worthwhile venues.

ShanghART

Buildings 16 and 18 (daily 10am–6pm; 021 63593923, shanghartgallery.com). One of the first galleries in China to show work by modern Chinese artists, now with a stable of more than forty and a reputation for exciting work.

Island 6 Art Centre

Building 6, first floor (daily 10am–7pm; 021 62277856, island6.org). This collective prides itself on its technological nous, and puts together lively multi-media shows.

M97

Second floor, 97 Moganshan Lu (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; 021 62661597, m97gallery.com). The best photography gallery in the area – it’s over the road from the main M50 complex, but worth seeking out.

OV Gallery

Room 207, building 4 (Tues–Sun 11am–6pm; 021 54667768, ovgallery.com). Themed shows from up-and-coming artists, mostly Chinese.

Around Shanghai

Shanghai Municipality covers approximately two thousand square kilometres, comprising ten counties and extending far beyond the limits of the city itself. Very little of this huge area is ever visited by foreigners, though there are a couple of interesting sights – notably the attractive water towns, very popular with domestic tourists – which make enjoyable excursions from downtown Shanghai.

Pudong

Historically, Pudong (浦东, pŭdōng) – the district opposite the Bund on the east bank of the river – was known as the “wrong side of the Huangpu”; before 1949, the area was characterized by unemployed migrants, prostitution, murders and the most appalling living conditions in the city. It was here that bankrupt gamblers would “tiao huangpu”, commit suicide by drowning themselves in the river. Shanghai’s top gangster, Du Yuesheng, more commonly known as “Big-eared Du”, learned his trade growing up in this rough section of town. In 1990, however, fifteen years after China’s economic reforms started, it was finally decided to grant the status of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to this large tract of mainly agricultural land, a decision which, more than any other, is now fuelling Shanghai’s rocket-like economic advance. The skyline has since been completely transformed from a stream of rice paddies into a sea of cranes, and ultimately a maze of skyscrapers that seemingly stretches east as far as the eye can see.

World Financial Centre

The best views of the city are from the observation deck at the top of the 492m Shanghai World Financial Centre, China’s tallest building (at least until the neighbouring Shanghai Tower is complete). In contrast to nearby Jinmao Tower, its lines are simple: it’s just a tapering slab whose most distinctive feature is the hole in the top, and locals call it “the bottle opener”. That hole was originally meant to be circular, but was redesigned as an oblong when the mayor complained that it would look like a Japanese flag hovering over the city.

The entrance and ticket office is in the southwest side. The top level – the top bar of the bottle opener – features hardened glass tiles in the floor that allow you to look right down between your feet. Landmarks are pointed out in the booklet that comes with your ticket, and you can get a photo printed for ¥50. The view is at least as impressive at night.

The Shanghai Museum

The unmistakeable pot-shaped Shanghai Museum is one of the city’s highlights, with a fantastic, well-presented collection. On the ground floor, the gallery of ancient bronzes holds cooking vessels, containers and weapons, many covered with intricate geometrical designs that reference animal shapes – check out the cowrie container from the Western Han dynasty, with handles shaped like stalking tigers. Most of the exhibits in the sculpture gallery next door are of religious figures – boggle-eyed temple guardians, serene Buddhas and the like, including a row of huge, fearsome Tang-dynasty heads. Tang-dynasty figurines again steal the show in the first-floor ceramics gallery, in the form of multicoloured ferocious-looking beasties placed to guard tombs.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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