29 - May 3, 1998
When I left Xi'an I had seen two sides of China already: the monolithic, imperial monster called Beijing, and the industrial wasteland called Xi'an. But late on the morning of April 29 I landed into a side of China unimaginable a decade ago into a city unrecognizable from a decade ago. If China is a Great Tiger, charging into the 21st century, then Shanghai is the tiger's head, jaws open wide displaying glistening white fangs, emitting a thunderous roar that may someday shake the foundations of Wall Street and the fashion runways of Paris. But not yet.
A number of travelers suggested I skip Shanghai, "Ehh, there's nothing to see." Well, that depends. For a city of thirteen million people it really does lack for traditional tourist sights. In Shanghai you won't find much by way of gardens, pagodas, classic Ming Dynasty architecture, natural scenery, or various other symbols of China's past. Except for the Bund, a few scattered neighborhoods across the city, and a few other remnants of Shanghai's colorful history, there is no visible past. But what you will find in Shanghai is the inescapable powerful soul of a city launching an assault on the future at a pace and magnitude unparalleled in human history.
To explore Shanghai is to explore history unfolding in front of your eyes. Nowhere else is the miracle of the new China better seen than in Shanghai. A walk along Nanjing Lu, one of Shanghai's main commercial strips, reveals numerous shops offering Gucci, Christian Dior, Versace, Chanel, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton. In between sit McDonald's, KFC, and Baskin Robbins, ultra modern ten story shopping malls and department stores flank the sides. And all around brand new skyscrapers of glass and steel rearrange Shanghai's skyline on a seemingly daily basis.
Across the Huangpu River is Pudong, an area of swampland a decade ago, if built as planned it will display a skyline as impressive as that of New York or Hong Kong. Already one nearly one hundred story building sits almost finished, and plans are ready for what will be the world's newest tallest building; a building that will surpass Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers by fifty feet.
Around the city teenagers sit conspicuously in the shopping malls to see and be seen. Young women decked out in the latest western fashions stroll the streets, while BMWs and Mercedes pass by. In People's Square young professionals talk on mobile phones working on laptops while their child frolics in the fountain. Young people sport the hippie look, the heavy metal look, the techno look, and a few looks that seem remotely indigenous, something not often seen in Asia where copying western and Japanese styles has long been the norm.
But don't despair this new China dominated by conspicuous
consumption, consumerism, and commercialism. They don't have time for
sentimentality, they pave over it. China is a huge, dynamic, growing nation
transforming itself into a major economic world power. Shanghai is the
epicenter. Shanghai is where China is going, and if China should some
day reach the status of superpower, it will be Shanghai that challenges
New York as the 'Capital of the World'. Believe it. Nothing to see in
Shanghai? Ha! There's everything to see in Shanghai, but it's not in the
museums or the gardens or the pagodas. It's out on the streets unfolding
before your very eyes. This is a city spending an average of 8.5 billion
US dollars on infrastructure and commercial development every year!
Depending on what book you refer to, the name Shanghai either means "up to the sea", "by the sea", or "over the sea". Perhaps a native Shanghai resident can sort this one out for me, because the guidebooks certainly can't. Shanghai has been inhabited for over 2000 years, but for most of its history it was a small fishing village. In the 16th century a protective wall was erected around the wharf to provide a safe haven from Japanese pirates. With this added security the village grew to maybe 20,000 people and became a textile center as well as a fishing town. It remained that way until 1842 when the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing ended the first Opium War and allowed foreigners the right to settlements in various port cities of China. Modern Shanghai was born.
Immediately came the British, followed by France in 1847, a general International Settlement in 1863 that merged British and American interests, and then the Japanese in 1895. The British and French both expanded their settlements respectively in 1899 and 1914. Much of the city was taken up by these settlements which operated independently from Chinese law. When the world came to China it was through Shanghai. Huge sums of money poured in.
Though many Chinese entrepreneurs shared in the riches,
most Chinese toiled long hours for little money. Child labor, slave labor,
and forced prostitution were the reality for many Shanghai residents,
all of which were more for the advantage of the foreign interests then
for the Chinese. Old Shanghai was one of the world's most cosmopolitan
cities in the early decades of the 20th century, "Paris of the East"
they called it, but to its detractors and many of its residents it was
the "Whore of the East". It should come as no surprise then,
that it was in Shanghai that the Communist Party of China was founded.
When the Communists took over China in 1949 the all-night
party that characterized Shanghai was shut down in a flash. The Communists
sought to clean up Shanghai by, among other things, eliminating prostitution,
rehabilitating the addicts, closing down the gambling halls and brothels,
and ending child and slave labor. Though fairly successful in these endeavors
this signaled the end to one of the world's great parties. The tiger was
laid to sleep, smothered under a large red flag. It was to remain this
way for forty years.
In 1990 came the announcement for the development of Pudong,
and with it the rest of Shanghai. Shanghai was kicked back to life. Beijing
removed the muzzle and let go of the leash. The tiger, asleep for forty
years yawned, stretched its legs, and looked around. It saw a world vastly
different from the one it knew nearly a half century before. Intent to
reestablish itself as one of the world's greatest, most cosmopolitan cities,
the tiger roared and took off running; running so hard and so fast it's
flattening everything in its path. In its heyday, the success of Shanghai
was on foreign terms, this time success is coming on its own terms.
Despite unprecedented growth and modernization, Shanghai is not without problems. Widespread corruption has plagued local government, rapid development has created some of the highest real estate prices in the world, housing shortages contrast with high office building vacancy rates, and the presence of the Asian economic crisis looms heavy over Shanghai's and China's head.
Newly found wealth is once again creating a wide gap between haves and have-nots. Many people, once guaranteed employment under China's state operated industries have since found themselves on the streets as China moves further into a free market economy.
Though residents complain of pollution and traffic, my
own impression is both were far more under control than some other Asian
cities. And one can't assume a city like Shanghai, with such extraordinary
rapid growth, won't develop without experiencing some degree of growing
pains. But unlike some other Asian cities, not only have they kept pace
with the construction of infrastructure, the entire future development
plans are already laid out. The future Shanghai is proudly shown on billboards
and in architectural models on display at the Pearl of the Orient TV tower.
Of all the places I visited in mainland China it was in Shanghai that I was most often left alone. Not surprising as Shanghai residents have always been the most open-minded and sophisticated. Though the occasional tout and/or con-artist approached me, I found Shanghai was for the first time in China, a place I could more or less disappear into a crowd or walk down a street without attracting an entourage of human leeches. Except for the heavily touristed Bund, I was rarely stared at and when eye contact was made, more than anywhere else in China a smile followed.
I obviously liked Shanghai. A lot. It's a vibrant cosmopolitan
city with an eye for the future and the motivation to get there. But I
didn't just sit on a street corner on Nanjing
As I commented in the Xi'an page, I was never convinced my plane was going to Shanghai until we actually landed there. The airport, Hongqiao, had seen recent remodeling and gave me no reason to complain about its facilities. It was easy to locate the taxi queue and most unlike Beijing, not one single tout tried to intercept me. The taxi was no hassle at all, taking me straight to my chosen hotel.
It's about eighteen kilometers from the airport to the heart of Shanghai. Though a sprawling city, there is still somewhat of a city core starting at the Bund and stretching west about a mile or two inland. I opted for a hotel in the heart of it, about a half mile from the Bund to the east and a half mile from People's Square to the west. I was paying a premium of about $10 a night for the location but I didn't care. I was in Shanghai to absorb the energy of the city more than anything else.
The ride in was along a modern expressway, I instantly recognized Shanghai for what it is: evolution. Dozens upon dozens of brand new high-rises dotted the skyline with dozens more in various stages of construction. Once arrived at my chosen hotel, the Wu Gong, I was reminded that even in new Shanghai there still exists some old China as I was politely informed that the lowest priced rooms were for Chinese only and the best they could give me would run about $45 a night. Not bad considering I was right smack in the center of Shanghai, and it wasn't a bad hotel, either.
I checked in quickly then headed straight for the pavement.
Unfortunately, my energy was a little sapped. I was in the early stages
of what would become a pretty nasty cold that would prevent me from seeking
out the Shanghai nightlife, reportedly the best in China. Whatever infection
I had, the typical upper respiratory ailment that many foreign visitors
catch, though not enough to keep me in bed by day, didn't leave me with
much energy to go out at night.
My hotel was on Fuzhou Lu, an east-west street that runs from the edge of People's Square to the Bund. It was three short blocks below Nanjing Lu. I made tracks for the Bund, passing by a police station along the way. A dozen people were looking at several glass display cases on the outside wall of the station. On display were photographs of soon to be executed criminals with descriptions of the particulars of their crimes. I snapped a photo of one of the cases and its sad-eyed subjects who by now are probably organ donors.
A few minutes later I was at the Bund. The Bund, called Waitan by the Chinese, is a stretch of plaza along the river much like the plaza in front of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and once Pudong is further developed the view will rival the one seen in Hong Kong as well. The road parallel to the Bund has been renamed Zhongshan Donglu, but the cement plaza retains the name of the Bund. Across the street sits one of the few remaining bits of old Shanghai, the old colonial buildings of the pre-Communist era, one of the most famous being the Peace Hotel. Had I not been running so over-budget I might have dropped a $100 for a room for one night.
At the corner of Nanjing Lu and the Bund, it's a hotel
with a grand lobby that retains all the architectural charm of the 1920s,
supposedly the rooms don't disappoint, either. The Bund is often described
as being the preeminent people-watching place in Shanghai. It's not. People's
Square is far better. The Bund is better for an evening stroll. At the
northern end of the Bund is Huangpu Park, erroneously labeled as the site
of the sign, "No dogs or Chinese". But no sign ever existed.
After an hour or so on the Bund I turned left down Nanjing Lu.
Nanjing Lu, endless shopping by day, endless neon by night. And everywhere, the 'Titanic' theme, 'My Heart Will Go On', played from storefront stereos. 'Titanic' had just opened in China the previous week, and like everywhere else in the world, 'Titanic' fever raged across the PRC.
The sidewalks were jammed with thousands of people. As I came upon a movie theatre a group of school children were leaving, hundreds of them, mostly walking hand in hand. I could not continue walking; forced to stand and wait as an endless stream of uniformed ten to twelve year olds filed by. Many shouted 'hello' or 'ni hao' and many more just giggled at me as they passed.
Once free of this mob, it was time to see one of Shanghai's urban shopping malls for myself. I was also in need of a new daypack as a gaping hole had formed in my old one, a hole just large enough for one new Canon EOS to fit through. I walked into what I thought was a shopping mall. It turned out to be a single department store of about ten, maybe twelve stories. The Number One Department Store, on Nanjing Lu.
I rode up the escalators, higher and higher, in search of the sporting goods section. Every conceivable thing you could want from a department store was here. Eventually I located the sporting goods section somewhere around the seventh floor. This was not going to be an easy purchase. There was the Adidas section. There was the Nike section. There was Puma, Converse, Reebok, and more. There were sections for brand names I never heard of. What daypack did I want? I had about 300 varieties to choose from. Did I need sneakers, a jogging suit? How about a new pair of roller blades? This is China? Communist China? Eventually I settled on a trendy Nike bag.
Then I was reminded again that change in China doesn't
happen all at once. I couldn't pay the clerk for the bag, instead I had
to take a voucher to some counter inconveniently placed off in a corner
somewhere, pay for the daypack, and return with my stamped receipt before
being cheerfully handed my new purchase. This system exists in a number
of places in China. The China Photo Service in Beijing did it, as did
the photo store in Shanghai I purchased film from. I have no idea what
the rationale is except to produce more paper and employ somebody to file
I continued along Nanjing Lu until I reached Huangpi Beilu, where I turned south to walk along the backside of People's Square, and past the brand new gymnasium which looks identical to the building atop Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. In a few short minutes I unknowingly stumbled into what would become one of my favorite people watching spots. No guidebook gives much attention to People's Square except to point out that it's home to the new Shanghai Museum, described as a first rate art museum.
Though the Bund gets raves from the guidebooks for being
a people-watching site, it runs a distant second. People's Square is where
the locals really hang out. It's not an old city park of trees, lawns,
and gardens; but a plaza of walkways, benches, and small clearings. It
gets all the activities of Tiananmen Square: card playing, reading, talking,
board game playing, and a lot of kite flying. It attracts kids with radio-controlled
cars, pull toys, and anything else with wheels. Teenagers on rollerblades
whiz by from time to time but the walkways can get a little too crowded
for it. In one area, crowds gather to feed hundreds of pigeons. Throughout
the square young couples share intimate moments, displaying public affection
far in excess of anything I've seen in Southeast Asia, or, with the exception
of Hong Kong, anywhere else in China.
But for all the activity in People's Square, the best place to be is at the fountain. In a small square in the center is a fountain. The perimeter of this square is surrounded by a small wall of perhaps two feet in height, very suitable for sitting and watching. At each corner of the square are four peculiar sculptures about ten to twelve feet high. Sitting on square platforms, they resemble large champagne glasses. Inside are speakers that play a variety of music each time the fountain is turned on. The music can be classical, jazz, traditional Chinese, modern pop (western or eastern), American country, anything. But whatever style it is, it's always upbeat and suitable for the moment. The fountain is usually turned on for thirty minutes at a time, sometimes an hour. It seems to come on at every odd hour (9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., etc.).
Within the square is a circular area surrounded by dozens
of cement blocks maybe two feet high. They comfortably seat one person
and very comfortably accommodate young couples who avail themselves of
the closeness the blocks provide. Just inside the band of blocks a series
of steps leads down to the fountain. The fountain is circular, maybe thirty
feet in diameter. When the fountain is off many children play on the wet
pavement and in the small puddles created by the narrow crevices cut in
the pavement. They splash each other, roll around, fill up cups and douse
each other, sometimes to the enjoyment of their parents, sometimes to
the displeasure of their parents. When the music begins there are about
fifteen seconds before the water comes on. First time visitors are often
unaware of this and get trapped inside.
No sooner does the fountain come on that dozens, if not several hundred people if it's a weekend, immediately surround the perimeter. The big game is to duck inside the fountain, have your friend take your picture, and then get back out without getting wet.
Overall, People's Square provides some outstanding photographic
opportunities. This was also the only place in China that I met Chinese
photographers who shared my interest in candid photography. In my three
afternoons I met about a half dozen photographers, including several professionals,
who were regular visitors to the square and unlike 99.99% of the population
of China, did not care to shoot stiff posed portraits, but rather appreciated
photography as an art.
I first entered the square from the west side. There were few people until I came upon a large gathering a few hundred meters west of the museum. Here were hundreds of birds, mostly pigeons, and plenty of people to feed them. Occasionally a brave soul, oftentimes a child, would stand still and raise their arms, birdseed in hand. Within a few seconds several equally brave (or hungry) birds would settle down upon the motionless person and have a snack.
Slightly to the south and east, in the center of the square I saw another large grouping of people. A number of kites flew above including two large fishes from a single spool engaged in a kite fight with the aid of an obviously skillful kite flyer. Further to the east a number of walkways extended in various directions. Grassy areas filled the spaces between. On one walkway was a young girl of about nine or ten vainly attempting to get a kite airborne. She was wearing a black dress with cute little white ruffles at the top, her shoes were black, and she wore black stockings. Two shoulder length pig tails sprouted from each side of her head. She ran up and down the plaza ever trying to get the kite in the air. Her father sat nearby focusing more attention on his cigarette than his daughter's activity.
Then from behind me I heard the beginning of some light
jazz music followed by happy shrieks. I turned around just in time to
see the fountain come on. From the center of the square, in a complete
circle, water shot up about four meters into the air. A crowd instantly
gathered around the edge. I walked over, snapping a few photos before
noticing a pair of fortyish Chinese men both with expensive Canons also
shooting candid shots of the people. We exchanged smiles and nods. I tried
conversation, but neither spoke much English. Regardless, throughout the
next hour or so we periodically pointed out to each other various activities
of interest worthy of a photo.
I left the square in mid-afternoon, slowly moving along
the walkways, taking in the surroundings. The same young girl in the black
dress was still trying to get her kite flying and was still having no
success whatsoever. Nearby, a group of teenage schoolboys in light blue
sweat suits had taken over a section of the square for a soccer game.
A middle aged toy vendor walked along, dragging one of his pull toys behind
him. A pedicab driver slept in the back of his cab. Two young women, one
holding a fidgety baby, sat talking on a bench.
I returned to the Bund just as clouds were moving in. Along the Bund I spotted, about fifty feet from each other, two men sleeping. One was sitting upright with his head down, chin on his chest; the other was resting his head on the raised cement wall next to the bench he was seated on. Neither appeared to be homeless. I took photos of both eliciting many laughs from the local passers-by, especially those who had seen me photograph both men.
I sat down on a bench and watched a young girl walk by pretending
to be an airplane. Soon another young girl came along on a tiny bicycle
set with training wheels. I then eyed a mother and young son face to face
from each other moving alternately towards and away from each other doing
some kind of marching step. I got closer for another photo when she saw
me. This was not a problem. Like many parents she was more than happy
to have me photograph her child, but as often is the case she insisted
upon trying to pose her son. "Zirande" (natural) I said, but
it was no use. I still got a cute one of the kid leaning against a pillar
grinning at me with the Huangpu River and a construction crane behind
him. Most photos taken in Shanghai will have a construction crane in them.
I decided to retrace my previous loop and again headed for Nanjing Lu. I heard there was a good photography store about four blocks from the Bund. As I'm coming up from the pedestrian tunnel under Zhongshan Donglu, a young man approaches me. He wants to practice his English on me. Uh-huh. He didn't need practice, his English was excellent but what the heck, I'm game. I have nowhere to go and plenty of time to get there.
I get the usual pitch. He's a student studying traditional Chinese art. He starts by quizzing me about my familiarity with Shanghai. I considered whether to tell the truth (I only arrived that morning), or lie and say I'd been living here a few months, which of course would promptly put an end to whatever scam he was running. In an effort to satisfy my own curiosity, and knowing he's only going to get my money if I give it to him, I decided to stick with the truth.
He continues his pitch. Did I know about the good clubs
of Shanghai? Well, no, I didn't and to be honest, I did want to know;
though all through this day I was being worn down by whatever infection
had taken up residence in my body. What about dinner? Did I know any good
restaurants? No, of course not, I just got here. He made an offer of accompanying
him and his girlfriend to a restaurant later. I had to weigh this one.
I was pretty much under the impression this guy's intentions were not
entirely noble, he did drop that hint about studying traditional Chinese
art, but he also didn't strike me as any kind of physical threat either.
I concluded he was at worst just one more of the countless art sellers
that seek out foreign tourists in the hopes of selling off cheap art at
inflated prices. He told me his name, Roger, and gave me a business card.
Okay, sure. I'll meet you later. I went ahead and told him where I was
staying and to call me later. "Sure thing," he said, and went
I located the camera store and dropped off my film. Further along Nanjing Lu someone steps out of the shadows, "buy smoke?" In front of the Peace Hotel is a beautiful young Shanghai woman leaning against a motorcycle. She's wearing a black leather jacket and tight pants. She winks and smiles at me.
I returned to the Bund. Thick clouds had moved in obscuring
the top of the Pearl of the Orient TV Tower and a few of the tallest high-rises.
I wanted to see the sunset from the Bund and how the skyline lit up but
a light drizzle had begun. With a bad cold coming on I didn't need to
be in the rain. I walked back to my hotel.
An hour later there was a knock on my door. It was Roger.
What was he doing at my hotel? Okay, whatever, come in. He made small
talk for about five minutes before taking out two watercolors, which he
unrolled on the bed.
About fifteen minutes later I went in search of food. I
walked over to Nanjing Lu, which was predictably expensive. While walking
along Nanjing Lu a tall man about my age approaches. He starts by quizzing
me about my lodging, but I quickly cut him off. "Not interested,
only want food," I say.
I laughed and walked away, his voice trailing off in the distance but still extolling the wonders of his restaurant. Not liking Nanjing Lu prices and not wanting to make an expedition out of dinner I took the easy route, returning to my hotel to eat there. It was fine and I got fed for about sixty yuan.
I did find it a little unsettling though, that in the restaurant
were three older ladies pushing carts of snacks, vegetables, and other
edibles, they were good about stopping at every table - except mine. I
contemplated flagging one over, but it was obvious they weren't interested
in the lone foreigner. No stoppey, no money. After dinner I surrendered
to whatever virus was staging demonstrations in my head and I retired
to bed early. So much for Shanghai nightlife.
Sure enough, I awoke the next morning to a pounding head,
running nose, and sore throat. Marvelous. This should make sightseeing
fun. My first stop of the day was a trip to CITS (China International
Travel Service) to get a train ticket to Suzhou. I was planning to go
out there tomorrow evening, spend the entire next day there and return
to Shanghai the morning of May 3 where I would spend the a full day before
taking a late afternoon flight to Guilin. No problem getting a soft seat
on the express train despite the big holiday weekend. Tomorrow was Labor
Day, May 1.
CITS was near the Yuyuan Bazaar and Gardens in what they call the old Chinese city. This is an area of narrow alleys, shops, sidewalk eateries, and old tenement apartment blocks. It's one of the few areas of Shanghai that hasn't been paved over and replaced with glass and steel. The Gardens date from the Ming Dynasty, originally developed under the Pan family (1559-1577).
The Yuyuan Bazaar is a huge collection of shops and restaurants;
one could eat and buy souvenirs all day. It's tacky, but it's not a bad
way to kill off a few hours. I had to laugh when not once, but twice,
some guy came running up to me with a crumpled card bearing a picture
of a vase. "Sir, you buy antique?" Was this guy joking or are
there people that gullible in this world? Stupid question. Besides, if
he didn't make the occasional sale he'd probably have given up and gone
to the Bund to sell pull toys, squeak toys, and slinkys. In one of the
courtyards people were dressed in elaborate costumes and marching around.
I have absolutely no idea what they were doing. It is also difficult to
concentrate when you stop every thirty seconds to blow your nose.
Yuyuan Gardens was quite nice. Though carrying a modest entry fee (15 yuan), the gardens were enjoyable and amount to about the only thing of this nature in Shanghai. Of course just to remind me what city I was in, a quick look through the trees and somewhere I'd see either the Pearl of the Orient TV tower or a few dozen high-rises in various states of construction.
The neighborhood was certainly a change from the rest of Shanghai. A number of narrow alleys were jammed with vendor stalls and whatever space wasn't used up by vendors was used up by customers. The entire area was covered with tarps and other makeshift roofs, I had no idea whether I was coming or going. It was an endless sea of vendors, buyers, and browsers. This is not a place for a claustrophobe.
Eventually I found a street. The streets themselves were equally full of activity. Remnin Lu was a collection of cars, bicycles, and numerous carts of who knows what. I had one occasion to come upon a man reloading his cart after dumping the entire load in the street, the remains of which were being eagerly investigated by four young boys. They naturally caught the attention of my camera much to the amusement of several adults sitting nearby.
I found Shanghai to be the most camera friendly city in
China. I later came upon a group of adults sitting around a table, some
were drinking beer, all were eating. Although they all wanted me to take
a photo, they each wanted me to take a photo of somebody else seated at
the table. Finally I settled on one woman sitting on the left side, laughing
and babbling at me in Chinese and pointing to one of her friends. Once
chosen as the token photo the entire group erupted into riotous laughter,
the woman included.
I returned to the Bund and relaxed for awhile. My head was pounding and my nose was raw from blowing it every thirty seconds. It was early afternoon; I had a bite to eat and headed to Nanjing Lu to locate a Bank of China branch to get more money. I walked up to the teller who politely motioned me towards the ATM machine at the end of the lobby. This was a first, an ATM in China I could use. Oh, yeah, this was Shanghai, duh! I requested 3000 yuan, ($375 US) the machine made a few noises before spitting out 500 yuan and a receipt claiming it gave me 3000. Oh no. Another money adventure. I ran back to the teller half hysterically holding up my 500 yuan and receipt claiming it had given me 3000. I said 'mei you' which means 'not have'. The only other Chinese I could say was 'ni hao' (hello), 'shenzingbing' (crazy), and 'zirande' (natural), none of which were appropriate to the problem at hand, except maybe 'shenzingbing' but describing my present mental state was not my objective. But it was enough; she figured out my problem and fetched the manager. "Have a seat, please, just one moment." Yay! He spoke some English. After twenty nervous minutes of watching them open the machine, remove and count all the money, compare notes, and hold meetings, the manager returned with my remaining 2500 yuan apologizing profusely for the inconvenience.
Funds replenished I took the ferry across the river to Pudong. I parted with 50 yuan and took a ride to the top of the Pearl of the Orient TV tower to see Shanghai from above. In all directions it was an endless sea of high-rises and construction cranes. Huge suspension bridges crisscrossed the river. The old colonial architecture on the Bund below seemed so insignificant when compared to the glass and steel towers that spread out for miles in every direction before disappearing in the light haze that had settled upon the city. The enormity of it all was amazing. From my perch high above the city I could only wonder what old Chairman Mao would say if he could see all this. He'd probably smile.
As you ride the elevator up and down the tower, the attendant
gives a short speech about the TV tower, its history, its size, its functions,
etc. This is given in both Chinese and English. I was the only non-Chinese
person in the elevator on the ride up and again on the way back down.
When the English version began many sets of eyes fell upon me. No problem,
most of the people smiled at me, the lone beneficiary of the English translation.
The speech concluded with a 'thank you'. I couldn't resist, 'your welcome',
I replied, much to the amusement of the passengers and the woman giving
At the ground level of the TV tower is an exhibit on modern
Shanghai. In a large room dozens of photographs line the walls showing
off all that is modern Shanghai. In the center of the room is a large
architectural model of the future plan of Shanghai. It's amazing. Not
only is it amazing to see an urban jungle the size of New York laid out
on a single table, but amazing that they have planned the entire thing.
Back on the street, I walked towards the ferry. Around
me in all directions were vacant lots, lots with steel skeletons, lots
with steel and glass skeletons, and a little further away were some completed
buildings. The entire area of Pudong was in various stages of construction
and I had just seen the plan on the table. Will it take two years? Five
years? Ten years? I don't know, but there was something exciting about
walking through Pudong knowing that the empty lots and steel skeletons
may one day be part of the largest concentration of commercial office
space on the planet. I just shook my head. And to think people in Philadelphia
complained when they built a few high-rises taller than the William Penn
statue atop City Hall.
At 4:30 I was back across the river, it was time to give
up. I was feeling lousy, the best thing I could do was go back to my hotel,
take a nap, have dinner, and go to sleep. Again, so much for Shanghai
nightlife. But first I'd drop off a few rolls of film. On Nanjing Lu,
about two blocks from the Bund a young Chinese woman came running up behind
She was up to something. There were thousands of Chinese
people who spoke her own language that she could have asked for the time,
besides which, I don't wear a watch and I was wearing a t-shirt so my
watchless wrists were clearly exposed.
She pressed on, "Oh, just a drink with me, pass some
time, we talk, get to know each other."
learned later that a scam in Shanghai, usually occurring on the eastern
end of Nanjing Lu, exactly where I was, is for local Shanghainese to approach
lone foreigners, invite them to a meal, run up a hefty tab and suddenly
have no money. Apparently the restaurants are in on this and give the
scammers kickbacks. Had I gone with this young woman we no doubt would
have found her missing friends, had a great meal and some drinks, and
when the bill came it would suddenly be mine to pay; and mine to talk
my way out of it. More often the MO has the foreign mark taken into a
private room or at least cordoned off section of the restaurant making
it easier to strong arm the victim when the bill comes. Knowing myself,
had I gone with this girl, any attempt to get me into a private room and
I'd have been out the door in seconds.
I walked back to my hotel, lay down and went to sleep.
I awoke about seven o'clock, coughed, hacked, wheezed, and stumbled down
to the hotel restaurant. Again the ladies with the carts ignored me. I
returned to my room, watched some Chinese television for awhile and was
asleep by 9:30. Tomorrow I had the whole day in Shanghai before taking
a train to Suzhou at around 5:30 p.m. The next day was a holiday, Labor
Day, May 1.
I awoke about 8:30 having slept eleven solid hours and
was feeling a whole lot better for it. I showered, packed up my belongings
and was ready to leave when the phone rang.
I was going to take my stuff to the train station, put it into a storage locker and then wander the city some more. I stepped out on the street and flagged down a cab that promptly refused to take me to the train station. I flagged down the next cab. He didn't stop. The third cab stopped and did his job.
Like most urban Asian train stations, the Shanghai railway station is a city within a city. It's also new (this is Shanghai, what did you expect?), clean, and has many signs in English. The storage lockers were these new high-tech lockers. Punch in a key code and your stuff is safe. No keys, no humans, nothing. I walked over to McDonalds for coffee and laid a plan for the day. I'd take a shot at Shanghai's new (of course) subway system and return to People's Square for awhile then maybe check out the museum.
I located the subway and had no problem figuring the system
out. Despite the strange country and strange language everything from
buying a subway ticket to finding my stop was remarkably simple. I knew
from a map that People's Square was three stops away but it didn't matter,
they had signs in Chinese and Pinyin so I could always tell where I was.
As a matter of fact, all the subway stations had easy to read signs. You'd
have to truly be an incompetent numbskull to screw up in the Shanghai
subway system. Waiting for the train, some official walked up and down
the platform making sure people didn't stand too close to the edge. Once
the train arrived all Hell broke loose, people did not walk, but they
pushed and ran inside to get a seat. You'd think those seats were money
or something. I just stood there, laughed at them all, casually walked
inside and grabbed a pole. I was happy to stand, I didn't care.
A few minutes and three short stops later I arrived at People's Square (or was it Renmin Park?). I apparently walked out the wrong direction as I emerged on Nanjing Lu near the monstrous department store I had purchased my daypack from earlier. I began walking, or tried anyway, to walk down Xizang Lu, which runs along the east side of Renmin Park, and Renmin park turns into People's Square when you cross a large road.
The sidewalks were mobbed. It was shoulder to shoulder,
front to back in all directions. Many people chose to walk in the street
and tempt fate with the cars. And there were a lot of cars. Along the
sidewalk creating further congestion were numerous sidewalk vendors selling
toys, wallets, watches, cassettes, everything. I made a few unsuccessful
attempts to get a photo of a few vendors amidst the surrounding mob. Surprisingly,
many of the locals seeing me strain for a good camera angle were remarkably
courteous to not walk in front of me, instead some stood patiently and
smiled as I farted around trying to take a stupid photo of someone selling
counterfeit watches on the street. Somewhere in the crowd I encountered
a rare foreigner. A lone western woman was making her way through the
throngs of Chinese; she caught my eye and gave a chuckle that definitely
said, "is this lunacy, or what?" You really haven't experienced
a crowded sidewalk until you've experienced Shanghai.
The crowd thinned a little once I was closer to People's Square. But unlike the previous visit it was still far more crowded on account of it being a holiday. The square was even more fascinating in its crowded state, people continued all the usual activities with seemingly no space to do it; kite flyers, rollerbladers, families, the whole bit. It was a warm and humid day but the sun was bright. I snapped a few photos of kite flyers before heading over to the fountain. The fountain was already on and some cheesy American country music was playing. A young girl of about twelve was trying her hand at roller skates and having a difficult time of it. Around the fountain groups of young teenage girls were hanging out for the teenage guys, mothers were chasing children, folks were running in and out of the fountain.
Across the fountain I see one of the same photographers I met two days earlier. He was engrossed in a conversation on his cell phone but gave me a friendly nod. I continued circling around the fountain looking for photo ops. I came across three teenage girls of about fifteen who had just come out of the fountain. I snapped a few surreptitious photos of them drying their faces and apparently trying to cure stinging eyes. Pleased with the photos I just took I decided to move on, thinking anyway, that I was leaving undetected. Wrong. A few minutes later I am again in the vicinity of the same group of girls but not paying attention to them. "Hello, ni hao, hel-looooo!" I hear. I look over to see the same three girls smiling, waving, and giggling at me, who this time, happily pose for a shot.
A few minutes later the fountain was shut off and a dozen
young children start splashing in the puddles left behind. To everyone's
delight one young boy begins flopping around in the puddles like a fish
out of water. While he's doing this an older lady of maybe seventy (his
grandmother?) begins yelling and hollering and waddling in his direction
shaking her fist and pointing her finger at him. Of course I have no idea
what she's saying but I could pretty well figure it out. All the while
the young boy ignores her and continues to splash around. Finally, the
woman gets to the boy, yells something loud enough for all of Shanghai
to hear and promptly swats him on the rear end. He still ignores her.
Meanwhile this whole episode has attracted a considerable audience all
of whom are laughing along. Next, the woman reaches down, grabs the boy
by the shorts, picks him up and carries him out of the fountain hollering
at him the whole time. Nearby, my photographer friend had been observing
the whole affair, he came over to say hello. We walked around the square
together for awhile taking in the scene, shooting photos and exchanging
limited small talk.
There's a young girl of about seven or eight wearing sunglasses that look like a 1970's Elton John cast-off. Back at the fountain young children fill up cups of water and throw it on each other. On the edge a group of four young teenagers try to look incredibly hip with funky sunglasses, two are wearing what look like white lab coats, obviously meant to be a fashion statement, they seem to be discussing their sunglasses. A young girl in a yellow print dress poses for a photo, she cocks her head to the side as if to say, "Okay, mister, one photo but you better make it good." Back in the fountain another young girl of about ten fills a water bottle and then starts yelling at a young boy for whatever reason.
I turn to my new friend; his name is Wang Zi-Xong, and
make motions about having lunch. He agrees. He asks if I want 'KFC?' Sure.
This is China, everybody loves KFC here. As we hit the street I redirect
Zi-Xong to a camera store, I needed film. He promptly goes in ahead of
me and before I could say a thing he purchased a roll of film for me absolutely
refusing to take money from me. Absolutely refused. We walk a block south
on Xizang Lu and reach KFC. It's packed. No it's more than packed. It's
packed like Xi'an public bus #9 packed. Zi-Xong shakes his head and mutters
something in Chinese. He motions me away. We walk several more blocks
south before he leads me into a fairly nice restaurant. We are seated
at a table upstairs. There are no foreigners, no English menus, nothing,
but unlike other cities in China no one pays any attention to me either.
It's standard Chinese etiquette to order far more food
than you can ever eat. It's to avoid be considered a stingy host. Of course
I had no idea he was being a host and I was being a guest, but it turned
out that way. About seven plates of food appeared, none of which were
finished but all were sampled. It was a fantastic meal and we were actually
able to communicate a bit now. Seated at a table I was able to have my
dictionary/phrasebook available and combined with his limited English
ability it made communication possible. After finishing the meal he says
something to the waiter. The bill appears and he discreetly pays it. I
don't think he wanted me to see what he paid but it was at least 200 yuan
($25), I tried to give him some money but like at the camera store it
was flatly refused, almost aggressively refused. I interpreted this as
being final and any further action on my part would have been an insult.
On the way back to the square I stopped at a stand to buy a Coke, Zi-Xong
practically knocked me over to get ahead of me and pay for it.
We returned to the square just in time for the one o'clock fountain. About eight people got caught inside when they turned it on. Soon a lot of attention was directed to the arrival of a bride. In full western wedding dress she stood at the top of the steps while another young woman fussed with her hair, various members of the wedding party milled about. She instantly attracted every camera in the square.
Soon, several more photographers arrive, they are friends
of Zi-Xong, and I had met one of them two days earlier. He was a photo
instructor at a college in Shanghai; one of the other two was a professional
working for some newspaper. Zi-Xong was a part time professional. He had
a managerial job at some factory but freelanced on the side and had some
publishing credits. The afternoon wore on and in time the cameras were
put away and our group just sat off on the side watching the crowd and
talking. As it came nearer to my departure time we did the typical Chinese
thing posing together in various combinations for the obligatory portraits.
Reluctantly, it was time to go. It was time to go to Suzhou.
I navigated the subway like an old pro, hey, I had done it once already,
and arrived at the train station with about an hour to spare before my
train. Having a soft seat ticket I availed myself of the cozy soft seat
waiting lounge well insulated from the masses. It was comfortable.
My stay in Suzhou was but forty hours, two nights and one
long day. I returned to Shanghai the morning of May 3, a Sunday, at about
9:00 a.m., giving myself five hours in the city before I'd catch a plane
to Guilin. Again I stashed my belongings in a locker and headed for the
subway. This was my third subway trip, I was an expert. I conducted all
the transactions like an old pro and even entertained thoughts of joining
the masses by running onto the train as fast as I could to grab a seat.
It's a good thing I chose not to, the floor was wet. As the swarm of humanity
surged onto the subway about a half dozen people wiped out on the wet
floor, sliding on their butts, crashing into poles, seats, other passengers,
and each other. I showed no shame. I laughed. Out loud.
It was a no-brainer. I was going to People's Square. I arrived at the northeast corner, which was already well populated with kite flyers. In one instance I snapped a series of about eight photos spaced a few seconds apart of one young girl in a light blue frilly dress trying unsuccessfully to get her kite airborne. First her mother shows her what do before handing over the kite and string. The kite, which is almost as big as the girl, is immediately blown over her shoulders and up against her back. The girl escapes the clutches of this evil kite and tries again, however staring at the kite and tugging on the string while it lays on the ground is not going to get the thing in the air. She tugs on it a few times before shouting something at her mother who then comes to help, assisted by several other friends and/or relatives. Finally, the group of three adult women and two young girls get the kite airborne. Thinking variations of light bulb jokes, as in, "How many Chinese does it take to fly a kite?" I walk towards the fountain.
Many sections of the square are fenced off areas of grass and flowerbeds. They are kept immaculate. Signs are posted in the grass, that aside from bearing the Pepsi logo, bear a message incomprehensible to me, but judging by the fact that hardly anybody ever sat in the grassy areas I can only assume it read something to the effect of 'keep off the grass'. So of course there was a young mother taking a photo of her young daughter seated in the grass next to the sign.
Chinese parents are famous for overdressing their children,
and this day, a Sunday on a holiday weekend was no exception. Everywhere
this morning were little girls in frilly dresses and pigtails with equally
well dressed parents, only the women weren't dressed in frilly dresses
but rather were dressed like they were ready for a board meeting. The
fountain wasn't turned on yet, though it would be soon. It was almost
11:00 a.m. Meanwhile one young boy was operating a radio-controlled car,
which he was racing around the square with a half dozen children in pursuit.
The kid operating the car was an expert for it seemed every time one of
the kids seemed poised to catch the car he flipped the thing around and
sent it zooming away out of their reach. Finally after about five minutes
the car was captured, only to be released so the game could resume again.
Soon it was 11:00 a.m. and the fountain was turned on. As I circled about
looking for photo ops another photographer appeared. As he was doing the
same thing I was we exchanged friendly nods and smiles. He spoke absolutely
zero English but it didn't matter. Once again our mutual interest was
enough and we stayed together shooting photos until I had to leave at
Four days earlier I landed in Shanghai, and as with any
place, I had no idea what to expect. Unlike Beijing I didn't have a big
agenda of tourist attractions to see, Shanghai didn't have them. But I
never imagined that perhaps the biggest highlight of three and a half
weeks in China was not the Great Wall, not the karst scenery of Guangxi
province, not the top of a sacred mountain, but a few acres of refuge
carved out of the center of one of the world's largest metropolises. If
one ever needs proof as to the virtues of traveling with an open agenda,
this is it. I discovered People's Square entirely by accident; I was only
there to see the Shanghai Museum. I never did get inside that museum.
We reached the Bund at about one o'clock and had a quick snack. My friend and I exchanged addresses, as I had with the other photographers I met. I couldn't tell you his name though, he wrote it all out in Chinese characters. No matter. He then led me to the north end of the Bund to Huangpu Park. In a section of the park is a small amphitheater with seating for maybe a thousand or so people. Maybe two thousand, I don't know. We couldn't get into the seating area to see what was going on but my friend waved me along and eventually we found ourselves behind the stage. Most of the area was open so we walked right in.
On stage were a group of young girls, all around ten, doing some kind of ballet dancing. In the stands were various marching bands, assumedly from various high schools. I had no idea what was going on and due to the language barrier I couldn't ask anyone what was going on, either. Anyway, we then walked further backstage where several buses were parked. Around the buses were dozens of young people in elaborate costumes making preparations for whatever it was they were going to do on stage. They were mostly women ranging from about age twelve or thirteen up to their mid twenties. Some were in various bright red dresses, adjusting hair, applying make up, others wore gold jackets, some were in frilly yellow dresses, but it was all very elaborate and very busy. I unloaded about twenty photos. None of the people seemed to mind the cameras as there were about a half dozen photographers there.
Soon the various people moved off towards the stage area and we followed. It was now about quarter to two. This was a real drag. Whatever was going on was going to start at 2:00 p.m. The young girls on stage earlier were simply a warm-up act. At 2:00 p.m., I had to leave. I had to go to the train station, get my belongings, and then get to the airport for my late afternoon flight to Guilin. I did not want to leave. I had fifteen more minutes. I saw a group of older teenage girls in gold jackets all standing in a circle. I peered over one of their shoulders and saw another woman holding a baby animal. I have no idea what kind of animal it was. It was mostly black with tan markings on its head. It looked like some kind of miniature bear or something, but it was tiny. It was being held in a jacket and was resting very comfortably. It wasn't even a foot long and probably weighed but a few pounds. The girls saw me peering in with my camera and cheerfully let me in for a closer look.
My final image of Beijing was a half mile long line to see Mao. My final image of Xi'an was a street robbery. My final image of Shanghai not surprisingly is one more split second moment captured on film for eternity. I'm moving through the crowd. Ahead of me is a group of girls in red dresses; most appeared to be about fourteen years old. They were wearing red hats and had on a lot of bright red make-up that perfectly matched their costumes. Then at the edge of the crowd one girl steps out of my way. In front of me with just enough distance for a clear photograph is a girl in bright red costume rubbing the left side of her neck and shoulder with her left hand. She is blankly looking off into space. That would be enough in itself but as I hold up the camera her gaze moves my direction. It was instantaneous. The shutter went at the exact moment her eyes landed upon me and before she could react in the slightest. Perfect. As I put down the camera, she just smiled at me and then looked away, seemingly indifferent. And it was time to leave.
My friend walked with me out to the street, flagged a cab
down for me and told him where I wanted to go. I got in and the driver
went about two blocks only to deliver me to another taxi that then took
me to the train station. Huh? Whatever, he went there, in a straight line,
I think. I retrieved my belongings from the station and grabbed another
cab. The main highway is a circular route that cuts through the center
of Shanghai and loops around to the west coming within a few kilometers
of the airport. On my way in, the driver took me across the northern part
of the loop, which judging by a map, appeared to be the quicker of the
two by a few kilometers. This driver took the southern loop. I didn't
care; it gave me a chance to marvel a bit more at this city. All along
the highway new high-rises sprung up, construction cranes were everywhere.
A new stadium and arena sat next to the highway. I was okay to leave Beijing.
I was happy to leave Xi'an. I did not want to leave Shanghai.
They say to know where China is heading one should not
look to Beijing, but look to Shanghai. If that's the case, then I think
China is heading in the right direction. But this raises an interesting
question: Is Shanghai representative of China today? Is it the 'real'
China? Yes and no. Yes, in that Shanghai is everything China wants to
be: modern, prosperous, efficient, cosmopolitan. No, in that Shanghai
is nothing like the rest of the country. I think many Chinese people would
find Shanghai as foreign to them as the rest of China was to me. As a
westerner it should be no surprise that I found Shanghai very easy to
On the flight from Shanghai to Guilin I spoke at length
to the gentleman seated beside me. He was Chinese, spoke excellent English,
and was on a business trip. I do not recall which was home, Shanghai or
Guilin. Perhaps I never asked. He summed up well the mindset of the different
regions of China: "In Beijing," he said, "people talk politics.
In Guangzhou they talk money. But in Shanghai they talk politics and money."
And like many Chinese I met he was more than happy to freely tell me what
was wrong with China, but he was also sure to tell me all that was right
about China, too.
We were approaching Guilin, I looked out the window at the beautiful karst scenery below, but my mind was still on Shanghai. New York may still be "The Capital of the World", but New York might want to start checking the mirror. In the distance there's a charging tiger coming its way.
2003 Update: If I could voice one regret, it's that despite three additional visits to China, I still haven't made a return to Shanghai since this 1998 trip. With friends there, both Chinese and western, I've run out of excuses other than the fact it's a bloody expensive city to visit. Let me work on this one...
2006: Okay, I made it back... report to follow.
Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.