Shanghai has a way of turning all assumptions travelers have about it on their heads. A long history, a cosmopolitan air that comes from its early (and still strong) dalliance with the West and its sheer size and population make it a city with a character too diverse to fit into stereotypes. It is a city that changes your perception of China.
The one assumption about China that Shanghai dispels is that all Chinese cities are culturally homogeneous. Shanghai is a melting pot of sub-cultures. First, being a financial hub, it attracts people from all over China. Second, it is where China has received the West with open arms. This continual absorption of diverse elements, both domestic and foreign, infuses it with an invigorating energy. As a result, the city has a youthful feel to it, even though it is an old city.
One of the ways to appreciate Shanghai is to acquaint oneself with China’s past. And ancient China, to be frank, is what many of us have always been fascinated with. The Shanghai Museum can be a sort of discovery for seekers of old China. Within its four galleries are thousands of artifacts – stone statues, bronze objects, ceramics, jade works, seals, coins — that reflect the richness and ingenuity of Chinese civilization. Silence is not mandatory in the museum, but something from the second century, B.C., induces it. And that silence, in a city of Shanghai’s noise and rush, is in itself a kind of artefact.
Your choices in Shanghai are not limited to ancient Chinese artifacts and the modern consumer goods-crazed China, between museum and malls. Public parks are Shanghai’s other wonderful feature. A way of life is lived there—perhaps only while people are there. Under the cold gaze of skyscrapers, whose glass surfaces reflect nothing but other skyscrapers, old people play mah-jong and Chinese instruments. In some corners a group of grandmothers perform the watery moves of t’ai chi, and in others old men sit chatting under a tree on which they have hung bird cages from which bird chatter drips. Shanghai’s parks are a No Hurrying Zone.
Visitors seldom go to a megalopolis expecting — or hoping for — tranquillity. Shanghai hardly tries to mask its urbanity. It has a reputation for it. And it is at its bustling, crowded, and artificial-light-illuminated best at the Bund. This promenade along the Huangpu River, with its view of the torpid river and the ferries on it, is one of the places that offer a respite from the city’s speed. This being Shanghai, however, there is no escaping the crowds.
Except the handful of historic buildings, the architecture around the Bund, especially across the river in Pudong, can be depressing—unless buildings vying for the sky thrill you. The French Concession will cheer you up with its European bunga- lows and villas. Lined with London planes, this historic district is the ideal place for a long walk. The quaintness of the buildings is likely to turn the walk into a slow one. Quite a few houses have metal plaques on the walls beside the gates, informing passersby that a certain painter, dramatist, writer or singer lived in them. The French Concession still remains the kind of place that would draw artists and writers.
Shanghai is deserving of its reputation as a cosmopolitan city. Whether it is its architecture, amenities, fashion, affluence or vivacity that reminds you of other great cities, you will remember it for the unique favor it did you by showing you a China you hadn’t imagined.