Characterising Shanghai

14 Dec

As a seven-week old resident of Shanghai, I have to say that I find the city very different from the way it is portrayed in Europe. There, Shanghai equals Pudong, which is the newly developed area on the eastern bank of the River Huangpu. It’s about 10 to 15 years old. The Chinese are mainly to blame. Pudong was (and still is I suppose) their way of saying this is what China is now; modern, economically vibrant and competing with the rest of the developed world.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the city is in fact much more diverse and complex that this simplistic message, especially in terms of its skyline and history. Granted there are plenty of tall buildings and their number keeps increasing, but there also are lots of low rises, mostly in the French Concession but elsewhere too. Likewise, Pudong, impressive though it is from the Bund, feels like a big international showcase. There’s a mega-giant mall, an aquarium, iconic architecture and many offices separated by giant avenues, but the core of the activities and what makes Shanghai one of the most exciting cities to live in or to visit still happens in Puxi (the western side of the Huangpu). This is where historic Shanghai developed and, again, as the Chinese do, we have to recognise that this history does not date back very far. Compared to Beijing, which is millennia old, Shanghai really started developing 150 to 200 years back, but it constitutes one of the key places where the history of 20th century China was shaped. The main protagonists, Mao notwithstanding (I visited his house two weeks ago), all lived in Shanghai at one point and many crucial decisions were made here. Similarly, the power struggle with Europeans also started here and then spread elsewhere.

So there you go, it’s full of paradoxes but it’s fascinating. The extremes constantly juxtapose one another and in a way are quite aggressive, to the eye and to the people. Tall buildings are adjacent to low rises; gated compounds sit next to popular neighbourhoods; historic buildings and residential areas face the internal ring roads; if you like walking as much as I do or just have no other choice, you are bound to cross those same ring roads very often; and with all the money spent on Pudong and other iconic landmarks, some people still can’t afford a bicycle and have to use their own body power to drag their overloaded karts. Yet I am surprised that the city is so safe; that street life, domestic and modest, has not been dampened by the brutalising development process and that Shanghainese, except for the impatient behaviour typical to all big city dwellers, are so stoical and rather friendly when spoken to. In other places, they would just be annoyed if not aggressive towards high-income earners and foreigners.

Two of the best known buildings of Pudong

View from one of the apartments I visited

View from another apartment - this felt especially indecent as this neighbourhood looked particularly insalubrious

This guy manoeuvred his kart from the rear

People playing cards - very common

My favourite street so far - the west side of Fengxian Road

Playing badminton on Fengxian Road

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