A weekend in Shanghai
If I could pick any city in the world to live in right now, it’d be Beijing. I suppose that’s why I’m here, but my path through American high school means I’m limited to staying for the summer. I was here last year, and coming back to Beijing seemed like an obvious choice, but in the interest of expanding my understanding of China I planned to leave the capital to volunteer in Anhui province for some time as well. Other than that I had no plans to leave Beijing, but surprises happen all the time in China. On CSA's Great Wall Camping trip I made a new friend, Ben, a German living in Shanghai for the summer. And so a week later my friend, Aneesa, and I are boarding the high speed train on the way to figure out what Shanghai is all about.
Shortly after arrival, Ben took us to Tiánzǐfāng (田子坊). It’s a renovated area of the former French concession made up of a maze of
tiny pedestrian streets that are densely packed with international restaurants and artsy stores. The scale of the streets made it seem like all of Shanghai had descended on the place. We sat down at a restaurant creatively named “New York Pizza.” To my surprise I was shortly enjoying an actual cheese pizza in China (no pineapple) that tasted remarkably good. At first I thought that we must have got lucky with this place. Surely Shanghai can't have western food this good? But as the weekend went on I had one great western meal after another: croissants, fried macaroni and cheese, pancakes. I was right at home. I soon discovered that there's no escaping the fact that this city is highly westernized compared to Beijing. Of course it’s possible to find western food in Beijing, but the quality and quantity is dwarfed by Shanghai.
After the pizza, we went to explore “The Bund,” a collection of European built buildings along the Huangpu river. The three of us navigated the crowd towards the river. A seemingly endless chain of police officers and guards, each about 10 meters apart, lined one lane in the middle of the road so a single direction of vehicle traffic could get through. Between each guard, the heavy stream of people traffic bulged out before being reined in by the next guard in line. I thought I had seen crowds in Beijing, but this was unprecedented. It would be easy to blame this congestion on China’s population, but the sidewalk was much too small and the road too narrow. The buildings were built too close together. The European buildings were built for an entirely different time and purpose. If the modern China I know had built this street...they would've made it bigger!
China is a resourceful country and someone figured out that Shanghai was not going to function in the style of a European capital. Their answer to this: Pǔdōng (浦东). We took a cramped ferry across the river to the super modern skyline with luxury hotels, residences, shopping malls, plenty of Starbucks, and the newly built world’s second tallest skyscraper. The store fronts of high-end western brands literally sparkle, the extra wide streets are spotless and the remaining green space is landscaped to perfection. One could judge Pǔdōng to be nothing more than a massive business park, culture-less and boring, but I see it as something a bit more important. Pǔdōng certainly doesn’t represent the way most Chinese people live, and it doesn't represent the Chinese dream either (all of China will never be like Pǔdōng), but its magnitude is an undeniable symbol of how far this country has come, and where it is going. Beijing has new buildings, luxury malls, and Starbucks, but Shanghai just steps right out and unapologetically owns it. If you’re at a Starbucks in Beijing, just walk a bit in any direction and western culture will disappear, in Shanghai I think you have to take a train for that.
The next day I was rudely awoken, at five in the morning, by my two friends returning from a night out (Aneesa would like me to note that the nightlife in Shanghai is good). Anyway, they went to sleep, and I got up. I took a six hour walk with some short stops for food and one to watch a cargo ferry unload. I do feel like I saw a lot of Shanghai, but it left me with more questions than answers. Everywhere I went still felt touched by western influence. Even the neighborhoods where foreigners were nowhere to be found felt European compared to Beijing. The city’s setup is different as well. Shanghai built up, and Beijing built out. Shanghai’s population density is nearly three times that of Beijing. Because of this the distance between things is shorter and getting places is quicker (provided there isn’t a massive crowd).
After Aneesa and Ben finally woke up, we met with CSA’s Shanghai manager, Arthur, who took us to a sleek vegetarian restaurant that wouldn't have been out of place in London or New York. We proceeded to visit a Buddhist temple with a Bentley randomly parked in the middle (this reminded me of Beijing). A bit discouraged by the disproportionate amount of the temple that was just a gift shop, we jumped in a taxi to the Propaganda Museum (which I highly recommend). Our day ended with yet more delicious western food, Starbucks, and a three story Forever 21, larger than some European department stores.
The next morning I again wandered out alone while the others slept, hoping to get one last look at authentic Shanghai before our 13:29 train. Not surprisingly, I found myself eating “Chocolate Lava Pancakes” in a mall across the street from an Apple Store. I was starting to realize that maybe this was authentic Shanghai. My expectation was for a not-as-good version of Beijing, and that’s just not what Shanghai is. The place is a truly global city, a modal of China’s obsession with mimicking the west, while adding their own over-the-top flare. I left the city totally torn. I really liked being there. I experienced a side of China that I didn’t think was possible. But when I arrived back in Beijing, I missed Chinese food and I was happy to be home.