Hello from Hong Kong! Now that I’ve left mainland China, I can finally post freely, so lots to get caught up on.
My initial impression of Shanghai was not what you would call positive. This was largely because I showed up expecting to find Seoul 2.0 forgetting that I was going to China, which is for better or worse, a far cry from Korea. So while my expectations were unfairly off-target, it didn’t change the fact that my first reaction to Shanghai was, “Yikes.”
While you’ll inevitably make the trek to the infamous Bund at night for the fantastic views of the Pudong skyline, brace yourself for a lot of everything: tourists, selfie sticks, trash, pollution, neon lights. Talk about a place to make you believe there are too many people on this earth. This was my first stop when I landed in Shanghai and thankfully, I realized that this is an anomaly in an otherwise surprisingly quiet city.
Hands down, my favorite thing about Shanghai is the old people and the dancing. Walk down any major street or through any park in Shanghai in the late morning or at night, and you are guaranteed to see groups of retirees dancing, doing fan dances, practicing tai chi, writing water calligraphy on the sidewalk, playing mahjong, and most importantly, not sitting in front of a TV. There are some quirks to this practice; the government often issues the boomboxes that these groups of men and women haul out to the parks and recently passed a law outlining which dances are acceptable, as it was ruled that some of these grandmothers were dancing too provocatively in public.
Still, despite the government being a wet blanket, this is such an awesome element of the culture (this happens all over China) and it just makes you happy seeing all these older people out having fun and staying active. Skill levels range from pretty good to pretty average, but no one is at all embarrassed and everyone has a great time. Fuxing Park is one of the more famous spots in the city to see this everyday revelry and Saturday mornings appear to be the height of the weekly social calendar for the retiree crowd. Be prepared that if you come across one of these groups by yourself, you will almost certainly be asked to join in.
One thing that kind of bothered me about Shanghai was that whenever I asked a local where to go to get a sense of “real” Shanghai, almost everyone directed me to the former French Concession. As the name suggests, this area was handed over to the French in 1849 and is now one of the more upscale neighborhoods in the city with its tree-lined avenues, cozy coffee shops, cool bars, tony boutiques, and primarily Western and upscale restaurants. This area is without a doubt beautiful and charming, and there are some fantastic bars; El Coctel and Senator Saloon are both excellent. I spent a full day happily wandering around this neighborhood, but it doesn’t feel very Chinese. It’s an interesting area and an important historical section of the city, but it can begin to feel very reminiscent of France, particularly the bucolic Provence region.
In an unexpected turn of events, a group of GM engineers working and living in Shanghai were the ones who scoffed at the idea that the French Concession was an authentic part of town and suggested visiting the neighboring water towns. I didn’t have time to do this (Zhujiajiao is one of the most popular), but they look beautiful and you definitely won’t see a Gucci store or a Costa Coffee in these towns that probably haven’t changed much in the last century.
What does make the French Concession cool is that while you’ll meet a lot of expats, you’ll meet a lot of Chinese people too, so while you won’t exactly be exposed to traditional Chinese culture, it’s not a tourist trap either. Of course, this neighborhood is an important part of Shanghai’s history, so while it’s very authentic in that sense, it does retain a lot of Western influences.
“Tourist trap” are two words any savvy traveler will avoid like the plague, but on rare occasions, there’s a good reason why everyone flocks to a particular spot and you put up with the crowds and go for it. Tianzifang is one such place. This network of tiny alleys, originally a residential community, dates back almost 100 years and was set to be bulldozed in 2006 when a group of local artists rallied to save it and have since turned Tianzifang into a small artists’ community with lot of boutiques and cafes huddled along its narrow streets. While you’ll find more American bars, t-shirt shops, and Thai restaurants than you might like, it’s impossible to resist Tianzifang because it’s just too damn cute.
At the risk of stating the obvious, China is a place with a lot of problems and a lot of poverty, so if you want to get a glimpse of the non-glitzy side of Shanghai, you’re not going to find anything that’s particularly nice to look at. Some streets are more pleasant and look like this:
But most will look like this:
I go back and forth on the okay-ness (quality word there) of walking around these parts of town. These are people’s homes and while I don’t really feel that bad gawking at someone’s mansion or any other kind of ostentation, I’m not comfortable treating someone’s private property like a tourist attraction. However, in my opinion, you won’t really see Shanghai if you stick to the nice parts of town and I think it’s important to expose yourself to something that’s, frankly, mildly uncomfortable. I should note that Shanghai is a very safe place, so this is not like heading to the south side of Chicago for a quick look-around.
Someone more in-the-know than me could really tell you were to find the parts of Shanghai that haven’t been bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings, but if you take the subway to Xiaonamen and head towards the river, you’ll find one of these few holdouts. For an area that looks otherwise very run-down, the streets are full of life and so long as you’re respectful, people are very friendly and you’ll get a glimpse of what everyday life looks like for most Shanghai residents.
Of course I’m going to talk about the food! Exploring the myriad street food stalls in Shanghai and sampling all the many different Chinese cuisines can be a real challenge if you don’t speak Chinese and don’t know where to go, which is why you have to take a food tour. I can’t say enough good things about UnTour Shanghai, so I’m just going to promote them shamelessly. I did the night markets tour with one of the founders of the company—an American expat who’s been in China for eight years—and she was AMAZING. Jamie did a great job introducing all different kinds of Chinese food and we sampled a good mix of the familiar and the unusual. The pork soup dumplings are out-of-this-world good and the snake wasn’t bad either.
You’ll explore Shanghai’s night market along Shouning Road, famous for its crawfish, and the nearby Fangbang Street, one of Shanghai’s slums. I’ve traveled very little in China, but by most of the world’s standards, this didn’t seem like a bad slum at all. I’m not trying to downplay or romanticize this at all; a slum is still a slum, but I mean this more as a compliment to Shanghai’s relatively high standard of living that I’ve seen far worse slums in other big cities.
If deep-fried snake is a bit much for you, I would also recommend UnTour’s breakfast tour, where you’ll find that breakfast in China looks very different from breakfast in the U.S., but with very predictable ingredients, and you won’t see anything being killed.
For a Shanghai food experience at the other end of the spectrum, the ultimate treat-yourself dinner is a night on the Bund. I’ve mentioned the Bund before and this is the waterfront area in the city famous for its wealthy foreign residents during the early 20th century, when it was also the heart of Shanghai’s financial center. Architecturally, the Bund draws heavily on European styles with its three iconic buildings—creatively known today as Three on the Bund—anchoring the boulevard with their ornate baroque facades.
The restaurants here range from pretty expensive to exorbitant, so from cuisine to price point, it’s up to you to pick your poison. I chose the relatively modest Mercato and had an amazing meal.
Shanghai grew on me, and things that drove me crazy in the first 24 hours, I came to embrace by the end. To paraphrase Jamie, China is not a place where you’re going to find a lot of polite society. I am not kidding, you will constantly hear people hawking loogies while you walk down the street and littering is exceedingly common (despite there being trashcans every 15 steps). Public urination? Go for it. If you’re a kid under the age of two, feel free to take a dump on the street. Honestly, I wouldn’t think any of this was strange at all if it wasn’t happening in the middle of a highly cosmopolitan city that’s trying to become the international economic center of Asia.
Walking down the street, there will be essentially no acknowledgement of your existence from other pedestrians, which means people will constantly cut you off, wander and stop directly in front of you, swing an open umbrella in your face, not-so-gently shove you to get on the escalator, and just in general not have any regard for what we spatially obsessive Americans would call “personal space.”
The rule for crossing the street is the largest thing wins and stop lights are advisory, at best. If a bunch of pedestrians decide to go when traffic has a green light, that’s what happens. Likewise, if cars decide they aren’t going to stop on the red light, you don’t get to cross the street. Compare this to Japan where no one would cross on a red signal even if there wasn’t a car for miles.
All of this sounds kind of horrible, but it’s amazing how quickly you join in. Being passive and clinging to your Western ideals of the right way to act will literally get you nowhere. Within a day I found myself confidently stepping into the street, despite what traffic was doing, and blowing through subway stations without heeding anyone else. I barely noticed when a kid decided to take a leak on the floor of the subway car while his parents passively looked on (I did notice). The only way to get through Shanghai is to do it like a local, so slurp your soup loudly and ramble down the street while never looking where you’re going. It’s actually pretty liberating.
My first night in Shanghai, I wondered how I was going to manage six nights there. By the end, I was sad to leave so soon. Once I learned to embrace the city for all its grime and craziness, it became a really wonderful place. It’s all at once an amazingly modern metropolis with enormous skyscrapers (the not-yet-open Shanghai Tower would impress any New Yorker), a sleepy quasi-European town, and a city that is very much still in the developmental stages.
Again, because of internet difficulties, I am very tardy in posting this, so my next post will discuss my third stop in China, Xi’an.