. . .
How I warmed to the showpiece of 21st century China
. . .
Before arriving in Shanghai for my first visit I had heard a lot about this city. The name “Shanghai” had long occupied an obscure spot in my imagination, suggesting exoticism, danger, turmoil and vice. In my childhood it called to mind rickshaw filled streets bearing damsels in tight-fitting qipao and rakish gentlemen, probably smugglers of some sort, in broad brimmed hats and round, turtle shell glasses lounging in smoky opium dens.
Later, when I was in high school and became interested in world news, I was captivated by videos and photos of Shanghai’s modern skyline, with its sea of neon lit skyscrapers shrouded in mist. It altered all my assumptions about China and the tantalizing factoids leaking from the city piqued my interest. The city was set to become the most populous in the world (it now is) and the city’s language is not spoken or understood by most other Chinese (as someone trying to pick up Mandarin, I can attest to the unintelligibility of Shanghainese).
Since moving to China I’ve visited the city more times than I can count and the city has been brought down to Earth for me. It’s no longer an exotic fantasy realm but a comprehensible space full of real, normal human beings. Through exploring the city I’ve come to discover new wonders waiting to be found in this tremendous metropolis.
I’ll begin with Nanjing Road, a long and broad thoroughfare that seems to go on and on past an endless series of malls, plazas and neon lit department stores before meeting the Huangpu river and the Bund. My first encounter with this street was during the height of China’s National Week holiday in October, when the street was filled to the brim with revelers. The crowds were so intense that formations of policemen lined the intersections in many spots, funneling people along the sidewalks.
Nanjing Road – 南京路 How to get here: You can get to this busy part of Nanjing Road by taking Metro lines 2, 12 or 13 to West Nanjing Road Station and then following the signs.
People’s Square, which you can find along Nanjing Road, was teeming with families flying kites and staring upward at the surrounding towers. I waited in line to enter the Shanghai Museum 上海博物馆 for more than an hour – but I wasn’t disappointed inside despite the chaos. I purchased an English audio guide and wandered among the exhibits displaying celadon ware, calligraphy, Tang Dynasty sancai (three-color) pottery, Shang Dynasty bronzes, landscape paintings and jade sculptures.
People’s Square –人民广场 How to get here: You can take Metro lines 1, 2 or 8 to People’s Square Station. The Shanghai Museum on People’s Square is free all year round and opens from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
On subsequent trips to the city during the off-season I got the chance to explore this long road without the crowds. I had to visit the American Consulate on Nanjing Road on multiple occasions, where the street is lined with chic fashion stores, hotels and gorgeous plane trees that shed their golden leaves in the fall, descending in swirls of brown and yellow.
On one of these trips I wanted to check out the famed Jing’an Temple, one of the city’s landmarks, on a stretch of Nanjing Road that was once known as Bubbling Well Road. Having visited many temples in the past, particularly in smaller cities like Fuzhou and Ningbo, I was expecting something perhaps large and monumental but otherwise an “ordinary” temple. I was mistaken. The Jing’an Temple is a massive and gaudy “McTemple” with a towering pillar near the gate capped by four gilded lions. This is an Ashoka Pillar, a tribute to the Indian king Ashoka who was a famed patron of Buddhism. The roof is also gilded, as is the immense stupa at the temple’s rear. I was initially dismayed, assuming this was yet another modern bastardization – an example of modern China’s breakneck modernization corrupting its traditional culture.
But learning about and exploring the temple I recognized that there is a lot of genuineness to it. Inside, visitors pray and monks go about their business, oblivious to the tourists. There is a huge sitting Buddha made of jade, the largest statue of its kind in China, along with more old Buddhist statuary in the temple’s nooks and crannies. A great deal of lore surrounds the temple. In the 1930s, its abbot was a part-time gangster who maintained a harem of concubines and whose White Russian bodyguards carried bulletproof suitcases in the event of an assassination attempt.
The temple has ancient origins but has been razed and rebuilt repeatedly over the years. Many temples in China are like this, reflecting the fact that the Chinese seem to prefer spic and span vibrancy over authentic continuity in historic structures. The temple’s most recent makeovers were in 2006 and 2010, and its golden majesty may be a visual repudiation of its treatment during the Cultural Revolution, when it was converted into a plastic factory. Prior to the upheaval of the war years, the temple was Shanghai’s wealthiest. Its grandeur today is a slap in the face to the old cadres who denigrated the temple in decades past.
The Jing’an Temple – 静安寺 How to get here: You can take Metro Lines 2 or 7 to Jing’an Temple Station. You’ll need to buy an admission ticket for 10 RMB – it’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Everyone says no trip to Shanghai is complete without a look at the Bund, and it’s probably true. This is where you can get one of the best views of Shanghai’s now iconic skyline directly facing a broad promenade lined with Shanghai’s finest and largest colonial buildings in various styles including art-deco, neo-Gothic and Romanesque Revival. The lore surrounding this place is also quite storied. There’s the green topped Art-Deco Peace Hotel, built by the Sassoon family, a prominent merchant house of Iraqi-Jewish ancestry. The hotel is legendary for its jazz band and the adjacent Bank of China building is slightly shorter. This is attributed to Victor Sassoon’s refusal to allow any building on the Bund to be higher than his own.
There’s also the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank which was once called “the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and the Bering Strait” and where people rub the lions flanking the entrance for good luck. When my mom came to visit, I took her inside the lobby to look up at the magnificent ceiling frescoes. Inside we were nearly suckered into the classic “tea ceremony” scam by two quite innocent looking female “students.” After buttering us up with compliments about my handsome features and my mother’s youthful fashion sense, they led us like lambs down a random back alley and into a hole in the wall tea house where there were a surprising number of burly, thick-armed toughs hanging around. My mom was already seated and ready to enjoy some tea before it occurred to me that I had heard of this scam. I managed to convey with the mounting panic in my eyes and posture that we should leave and so we did, our wallets intact.
Needless to say, the Bund gets extremely crowded during peak travel times. During National Week, I stood teetering on a small concrete wall and nearly fell into a bush as I snapped a photo of the city skyline over the heads of the crowd. I was nearly stampeded in the rush to get a prime viewing spot on the ferry from the Bund to Lujiazui. The threat of being trampled is very real – 36 people died in a stampede on the Bund on New Year’s Eve in 2014.
Looking from the Bund across the Huangpu River, you can see the iconic and bizarre Martian-like Oriental Pearl Tower, the more traditionally-styled Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world behind the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This is the Lujiazui development area of Pudong, once a sleepy, crime-ridden backwater and now the centerpiece of 21st century China.
The Bund – 外滩 How to get here: The closest Metro station is the East Nanjing Road station, a five minute walk up Nanjing Road from the Bund. You can take lines 2 or 10.
Lujiazui – 陆家嘴 How to get here: You can take line 2 to Lujiazui Metro Station.
Another site that can be a horror during the National Week holiday is Shanghai’s City God Temple and Yu Garden. Many cities in China have a City God Temple or Chenghuangmiao dedicated to the city’s local folk protector deity and they’re often thriving commercial districts where you can haggle over cheap knock offs and sample great local food. Shanghai’s is no different. The highlight of the bazaar is the Mid-Lake Pavilion Tea House, built by cotton merchants in 1784. The tea house rests on a small man-made pool accessible by a zigzagging bridge built to deter evil spirits which can’t turn corners.
Adjacent to the City God Temple market area is the Yu Garden which is worth visiting if you have time to spare and you aren’t planning on visiting the gardens in Suzhou. Built in the Ming Dynasty, the garden has had to undergo numerous renovations over the centuries, particularly after being nearly destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and Japanese bombing. Some distinctive aspects of the garden are its undulating dragon walls and the Currow Stone, a five ton boulder rumored to have been slated for use by the Emperor in Beijing. A shipwreck washed the stone up in Shanghai where it has remained since.
On my first attempt to appreciate this area, during National Week, it was so intolerably crowded that I couldn’t move in some places, I just had to allow myself to be swept along by the current of people. Even trying to access the Garden was out of the question, the line was too long. On my second attempt on a different trip during the off-season, the bazaar and Garden was still filled with people, but I at least had some elbow room.
City God Temple and Yu Garden – 上海城隍庙 and 豫园 How to get here: You can take Metro line 10 to the Yuyuan Garden Station. You’ll need to buy a 30-40 RMB entrance ticket to access the Yu Garden which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
My favorite area of the city, and I’m definitely not alone on this, is the French Concession. The same gorgeous London plane trees from Nanjing Road, an import from Europe, abound in addition to pleasant cafes, hip clothing shops and restaurants catering to all tastes. Sheltered under the leaves are mansions and villas that seem transplanted straight from Paris.
In the vicinity of the Concession is the French-style Fuxing Park with wide grassy lawns, flower beds and meandering paths. On a nice day you can see families flying kites, seniors playing chess and musicians singing and playing erhu. When I first visited I noticed an informational sign in English that said the park was built in 1908 and originally called “Gus’s Park” which delighted me. I’ve since learned that this was a typo and that the park was in fact known as “Gu’s Park” for the Gu Family. Oh well . . .
Fuxing Park – 复兴公园 How to get here: The park is on 105 Yandang Lu, near Nanchang Lu. You can take Metro Line 1 to Shaanxi Nan Lu or Huangpi Nan Lu stations and walk fifteen minutes to the park. Admission is free and it’s open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Near the border of the French Concession is one of the more interesting public structures in the city, the Shanghai Exhibition Center. Standing on the grounds of what was once the largest and grandest private garden in Shanghai, that of Silas Hardoon, China’s Communist government built what was then known as the Sino-Soviet Friendship building in 1955 after the former garden was left desolate and looted by years of war. The building’s name was changed to the Shanghai Exhibition Hall after the Sino-Soviet split in 1968. The building’s Russian (specifically Stalinist) neoclassical style stands out quite strikingly against the 21st century glass skyscrapers and nearby French villas.
It’s worth exploring the grounds of the center to get a closer look at the detailing on the building and the public art – which may seem exotic to those from countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
The Shanghai Exhibition Center – 上海展览中心 How to get here: You can take Metro Line 2 to Jing’an Temple Station and walk 10 minutes.
An interesting landmark near the Shanghai Exhibition Center within the French Concession is the Russian Orthodox Mission Church built in 1934 at the behest of White Russian refugees.
Russian Orthodox Mission Church – How to get here: You can take Metro line 1 to Shanxi South Road Station.
Shanghai was home to numerous concession areas including one for the Japanese in the city’s Hongkou District. Here you’ll find the fascinating Lu Xun Park, formerly known as the Hongkou Park. The park’s namesake is Lu Xun, widely considered China’s greatest 20th century writer. He lived in this neighborhood in his final years and is buried in the park. There’s also a museum dedicated to him, where those like me who knew nothing of Lu Xun before visiting China can learn about his significance. There’s also a little plaza dedicated to famous Western authors.
The park has broader historical connotations as well. It was the site of a bomb attack by a Korean nationalist against wartime Japanese officials. The attack is commemorated in the park today.
Lu Xun Park – 鲁迅公园 How to get here: You can take Metro Lines 3 or 8 to Hongkou Football Stadium Station. Admission to the park itself is free – it costs 9 RMB to buy a ticket to the museum, open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Also in the French Concession is the Soong Ching Ling Memorial Residence. Few in the West have heard of her, but she was one of China’s leading stateswomen in the early to mid-20th century. She was the wife of Sun Yat Sen and went on to serve in various government positions after the founding of the People’s Republic. The 1920’s era house itself is pleasant to wander through and the museum is informative in both English and Chinese. My personal favorites though were the old cars on display and the pigeon coop.
The Soong Ching Ling Memorial Residence – 宋庆龄故居 How to get here: You can take Metro line 10 to the Shanghai Library Station. Admission tickets are 20 RMB – the residence is open to tourists from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
If you want to check out a temple in Shanghai more understated and less gaudy than the Jing’an Temple, but still interesting, the Jade Buddha Temple might be a good idea. The temple is far younger than the Jing’an Temple, only dating to 1882 when it was founded by a monk who had gone on pilgrimage to Tibet. He visited Burma on the way back, securing the donation of the two jade Buddhas found in the temple as well as a smaller reclining Buddha which you can see if you pay 10 RMB.
Jade Buddha Temple – 玉佛禅寺 How to get here: You can take the Metro Line 13 to the Jiangning Road Station. Admission to the temple itself costs 20 RMB and an additional 10 to see the Burmese jade Buddha statues. The temple is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Needless to say, subsequent trips when I was able to visit Shanghai at off-peak times allowed me to truly appreciate the charm of this mega city in its tree shaded French Concession lanes, modest temples shaded by glittering skyscrapers and fashion-conscious citizenry.
. . .
Follow us on Twitter (@AmoyFrom) and check out our Facebook page!