Being considered as China’s ‘trump card’ by Deng Xiaoping in 1990, Shanghai has since grown into a mega city of nearly 20 million people. In an effort to become a global financial center, it seems like Shanghai is embracing the look of big global financial centers too. Think the Manhattan in New York, Canary Wharf in London, or Hong Kong. Think vertical cities. Shanghai’s Pudong district is truly a concrete capitalist jungle with a thriving car culture but no remnant of anything Chinese. Its towering glass-box office skyscrapers and sprawling ‘Biotech-Silicon valley’ are devoid of any street life, and abandoned after working-hours. Dense housing blocks and upscale villas pack along highways, flying bridges and road bypasses. But none of my Shanghainese colleagues lives on this side of the Huangpu River. They rather live 2 hours away from workplace and endure gridlock everyday rather than staying in this soulless town. And they all flock to Puxi district at night and during weekends, where the French Concession, Xintiandi, and Nanjing Road draw a huge crowd of both locals and foreigners alike to its numerous shops, trendy restaurants, exclusive bars and pubs on the rooftop of historic buildings on the Bund.
In a city where every working professional seems to embrace the Western lifestyle, starting with their adoption of a dazzling English name such as Crystal, Stellar, Rachel, Candice, Alex, Brian, or Dave, I was not surprised when my colleagues told me that in Shanghai you only need one thing – wealth if you’re a guy and beauty if you’re a woman. Sounds very much like American Reality TV Shows to me. Locals even consider a girl lucky if she gets married to a rich old man who is of her parents’ generation. If you are not beautiful or rich, then life is extremely competitive in this massive metropolis. You need ~$3,000 per month or ~$36,000 per year to have a relatively comfortable life here, a huge sum for a country with a GDP per capita of less than $7,000 per year. And that’s only the team assistants’ standards.
None of my Shanghainese colleagues wants to have more than one kid, even if they are entitled to. It costs too much to raise kids here. They talk of imported milk and baby foods (because they don’t want to poison their little treasure with local products), of piano, ballet and English classes during kindergarten (because if your child cannot speak English when he/she enters primary school, he/she will be considered a ‘loser’, and so are you. ‘Don’t be a loser’ is the modern mantra of all Shanghainese parents). When I visited the Shanghai Museum on a rainy Saturday, dozens of kids had their eyes glued on ancient artifacts while their hands worked on a sketching pad, their parents/tutors standing by and giving instructions from time to time. Another mandatory extra-curriculum activity I guess.
The pace of life here is relentless; you can literally taste it in the air. One day I woke up to a thick veil of fog covering the whole city, only to find out later that it was actually pollution. The pollution index that day was so high, everyone just stayed inside. On the way back to my hotel, the taxi driver opened the window shield just a little to save on air-con, and I could hardly breathe. Beijing is in general much worse than Shanghai in terms of air quality, but the index during that week was better by a mile. The expats were all curious, until a local colleague explained to us why. Thanks to an ongoing big international meeting, Beijing had implemented various measures to cut down pollution in the short term such as temporarily closing down old polluting factories in the city, or allowing cars with odd and even number license plates to operate on alternative days. We even contemplated the thought that maybe Beijing employed thousands of giant fans to blow the polluted air our way that day 🙂
But below the glittering surface, you can see the dark side of a city that grows too fast. People from all corners of China want to be in Shanghai, and everyone wants to get rich fast. Everyone wants to show off their branded clothes, their latest iPhone models, and their ‘cultural’ sophistication by flocking to museums and theatres. But soon you’ll see someone spitting on the streets, someone jumping the queue. Soon you’ll see someone showering insults on the theatre staff when being told not to use his camera inside the concert hall, while all around him people clap their hands. Soon you’ll see someone going to the airport or even a ballet in track suits, totally ignorant of the dress code in such public space. And you don’t have to wait long to see someone in a cinema or a theatre skipping their own seats to take a VIP row at the front, adamantly insisting that they have the right to sit anywhere they want as long as they pay for a ticket. Of course you can encounter similar cases anywhere in the world, but that many in a short weekend proved to be a bit too much for me to take in, especially after a whole week being insulated in the office environment, surrounded by crème de la crème of the corporate elite. Then there is something else. Shanghainese themselves admit that they are widely regarded by their countrymen as arrogant, unfriendly and snobby. I myself find my colleagues humble, open, helpful, and quick to smile. But perception is reality, and Shanghainese will face these misconceptions whether they like it or not.
Well, enough of my jumbling thoughts. Now I’ll show you a few glimpses of another Shanghai, a Shanghai that I needed a second visit to discover.
Destination #1 – Shanghai Century Park
You never expect to find a quiet place in Shanghai, and you are unlikely to find it even in its largest park. I went to Shanghai Century Park for one single reason – to see the famous giant rubber duck. And guess what? Thousands of locals had the same thought. So I ended up being in a big noisy crowd on a Sun morning and got hit by a little kid riding her bike recklessly. But it was a good 2-hour stroll!
Destination #2- Kerry Parkside
This place is right next to my hotel. They always have some cool artists coming around, transforming this small open space outside into something quite eye-catching.
Destination #3 – Din Tai Fung
This Taiwanese chain is supposed to serve the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai. But its xiaolongbao is nothing compared to the giant xiaolongbao that my Shanghainese friend treated us last time. Seriously!
Destination #4 – Tianzifang
Tianzifang is a neighborhood of labyrinthine alleyways off Taikang Road, not far from Xintiandi. But it is much more interesting with numerous craft stores, art studios, hole-in-the-wall street food restaurants, mixed with bicycles, hanging laundry, lanterns, all surrounded by well-preserved local Shikumen architecture.
Destination #5 – Shanghai Cultural Square Theathre
A colleague was so kind to give me a ticket to Le Corsier by Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse. I saw not only the ballet but also lots of drama off stage.