Shanghai is the most populated city in China (and by some estimates, the largest in the world), but it wasn’t always that way. Considering China’s vast and ancient history, the development of Shanghai as an economic powerhouse is fairly recent. When other cities were home to dynasties and empires thousands of years ago, Shanghai was just a quiet fishing village with little importance to the nation.
It became a market town in the 12th century, and by 1292 it was a regional hub. Things grew slowly for a few hundred years, with a few temples being constructed and more business being done within the city walls. Starting in the 1800s, though, things hit hyper-speed for this once-sleepy town.
In 1842, at the height of the First Opium War, the British captured Shanghai and never looked back. When the war ended a few months later with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the Qing government allowed foreigners to do unlimited business in China for the first time ever. Shanghai was one of five Chinese cities that opened up to foreign trade, and land concessions were granted to a number of international world powers. Each nation-state policed their own territory based on their national law, so their judiciary systems always favored their fellow countrymen and discriminated against local Chinese. For example, any crime a foreigner committed inside of his concession against a Chinese person usually resulted in a “not guilty” verdict.
Foreigners were long intrigued by the mysteries of the East, and the Opium Wars blew the gates of China wide open, allowing them to enter freely. Internationals began pouring into Shanghai, and it was difficult for many businesses to imagine doing trade without this “Pearl of the Orient.” Soon after its grand opening, Shanghai was considered the most lucrative of all Chinese cities, but with great wealth came great competition.
By 1853, foreigners were building fortunes within the borders of their concessions, but at the same time the Chinese-controlled section of the city was under attack from the Small Swords Society, a group aligned with the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). Hong Xiuquan, founder of the Taiping (Heavenly Peace) movement, had started a Chinese Christian crusade after claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Soon, the grassroots rebellion spread like wildfire throughout most of the eastern part of the country.
Things intensified when a handful of British and American troops went mercenary and joined the rebels, while the French supported the Qing government. Ultimately, however, all foreign governments agreed to back the Qing, and though the Small Swords rebels controlled the city for two years, the Qing government finally defeated them and restored order. Peace didn’t last long, within a decade the official Taiping army was making invasion attempts on the city of Shanghai.
This time, foreign armies were actively involved in the defense of the city, using modern artillery and machine guns to inflict heavy damage on the fanatical Taiping troops. Over the course of almost two years, the rebels only captured Pudong, and in September 1862, the allied forces finally managed to drive them out of the city completely. In the end, the rebellion took nearly 30 million lives and is therefore considered the bloodiest in world history.
The next 50 years saw unprecedented growth, and by the 1920s Shanghai had swelled to become the fifth largest city on the planet. One of the world’s true international cities, Shanghai at the time was home to people from all across the globe who came in search of a more exotic and better life. It was also a safe haven for thousands of refugees who streamed out of Russia during the 1917 revolution, and many Jews arrived as well fleeing persecution.
For many Chinese too, the city became a beacon of hope, a place where the streets were paved with proverbial gold. Legions swarmed in from all provinces, looking to shake off the dust of their mountain or farming towns and make something special out of themselves under the bright lights of the big city. More foreigners flocked in as well, and under a business friendly, internationally open Kuomintang (KMT) government, a golden age dawned in the burgeoning city.
Of course, in a place with so much money changing hands between so many people, it was only a matter of time before a criminal underworld emerged. Du Yuesheng, or Big-Eared Du – as he was known to foreigners – was the city’s Godfather, running nearly every illegal activity under the sun (and with great success). While the Sicilian mobs of New York and Chicago controlled everything in their respective cities, the same scenario was unfolding in Shanghai with Chinese gangsters.
But Du’s “Green Gang” wasn’t the only underground movement that developed in Shanghai. In 1921, a young Mao Zedong met with a handful of other left-wing sympathizers for the founding and first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Right from the start, there was trouble from the organized crime community, who were often paid by wealthy business owners to “take care of” troublesome communists. (Du ultimately backed the wrong pony by showing support for the Kuomintang instead of the Communists, who would eventually take power.) By the 1930s the KMT and the Communist Party were involved in a brutal power struggle defined by a gruesome civil war.
In 1932, however, a much larger threat arose as Japanese troops amassed in Shanghai and began attacking various targets around the Chinese sections of the city, all while leaving the concessions unscathed to avoid making new enemies. Despite the best efforts of the League of Nations, fighting raged across the city. Eventually Japan reluctantly signed a ceasefire agreement, though it was barely acknowledged, and skirmishes continued for the next five years as Japan slowly gobbled up pieces of China.
By 1937, things reached a boiling point, and following another skirmish near Beijing at the Marco Polo Bridge, the Second Sino-Japanese War was in full swing. Despite their most courageous efforts, the out-gunned, out-trained and out-numbered Chinese could not handle the maniacal Japanese army. The only reason Chiang Kai-shek – the Kuomintang’s leader at the time – held off on abandoning the city was because he realized that he could attract foreign attention to his cause if he defended Shanghai for as long as possible.
After suffering a few months of brutal war tactics by the Japanese, the Chinese army found themselves in full retreat and were forced to surrender their most industrious city to the Japanese. When Japan brought the US into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they also took control of the international settlements in Shanghai, ending the era of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan society. Japan would rule the city with an iron fist until the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally brought an end to both the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Though Mao’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists had called a truce to form a united front against Japan, the Chinese Civil War erupted again between the two in 1945 after Japan’s surrender. After years of horrific combat, the Communists finally came out on top, and Mao Zedong brought the country in a radical new direction with the announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
Almost overnight, Shanghai entered a new phase in its history. The philosophy of the CCP replaced that of the KMT, and Shanghai became a manufacturing center instead of the international business city inundated with foreign concessions that it once was.
In a sense, it was a sobering age for Shanghai. The crazy party years of the 1920s were forgotten, while a time of international communism highlighted the future in red. However, the mood of the country changed again during the early 1970s.
In 1972, US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a landmark voyage to China to shake hands with Chairman Mao.
Nixon’s trip planted the seeds of New China and Shanghai’s phase of “opening up,” but it was after the death of Mao in 1976, and the implementation of his successor’s new economic policy of Reform and Openness, when things really began to blossom. China’s new president, Deng Xiaoping, announced to a socialist China that “To get rich is glorious” and issued a new doctrine to transform the Chinese economy into a financial powerhouse ready to step foot on the global stage. These reforms of the early ’80s were extremely successful, so the government allowed them to go into effect in Shanghai in 1991.
Since then, Shanghai has rebounded in a big way. The population has more than doubled and the expat community has risen exponentially. In 20 years, Pudong in particular had gone from being a muddy field on the east banks of the river to a glistening financial powerhouse that dazzles the world with one of the planet’s most recognizable skylines. Business is rocketing and Shanghai has ideologically turned a complete 360 back to the heydays of the 1920s.
Today, Shanghai is back and better than ever. It’s one of the planet’s most exciting international metropolises, standing side by side with the likes of New York, Paris, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
More than just Shanghai’s skyline has changed over the last centuries. Here’s a look at how the styles of China’s most fashion-forward metropolis have evolved over the years.
The world’s most notable cities can all be identified by their globally recognized landmarks: New York has the Statue of Liberty, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rio de Janeiro has Christ the Redeemer. For Shanghai, a city that changes faster than the weather, the Bund and its unique view of Pudong’s skyline is the most iconic sight in town.
Today, the Bund is a promenade that sees thousands of tourists each day, but in the past it was (mostly) the brick and mortar proof of the big business and unlimited financial potential that Shanghai represented.
Beginning with the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the First Opium War in 1842, Shanghai was open for business, and it didn’t take foreign nations long to label it as the Pearl of the Orient. As a port town, it offered an entry point into the seemingly endless wealth of China, and because of this, the British, French and Americans all wholeheartedly began attempts to establish as much of a business base as possible in their respective “concessions.”
While the French Concession also boasted a waterfront a little farther south, it was used primarily as a no-nonsense dock for loading and unloading ships. The north end, though, quickly became the highest profile neighborhood in the city, with banks, hotels, and newspapers setting up their headquarters just a stone’s throw from the river’s edge.
By 1901, the booming economy of Shanghai allowed for the first of the still-standing structures to be built. Within a few decades, the strip became an architect’s dream, with stunning new buildings going up every year. As 1930 rolled around, the Bund was beginning to look pretty much as it does today, with all of its iconic art-deco behemoths standing watch over the harbor. Gone was the old muddy road; the streets were paved and double decker buses ferried passengers across the city. Of course, that’s if you were looking west. If you turned towards the water, things were very different indeed.
It took about 50 years of random typhoon floods before the Bund’s next big change. The local government finally decided to act and constructed a 10 meter-high levee to prevent any further damage to the “colonial relics” that were finally starting to get some appreciation.
The year 1986 saw the beginning of another phase, when Paulus Snoeren was hired to transform the Bund into an esplanade worthy of his native Holland. Since that time, it has been made a little bigger and better each year, with a major overhaul completed in 2010, just in time for the Shanghai World Expo.
Throughout most of the Bund’s construction, Pudong slept just across the River. It wasn’t until economic reforms went into place in the 1990s that construction on an unprecedented scale began. Two decades later, it is now home to over 30 skyscrapers representing the biggest names in banking and hospitality. It provides an incredible image of two distinct eras of international business, with the days of old on the west bank and the new on the east. An old saying goes that the Shanghainese would rather have a bed in Puxi than a home in Pudong” (Nìngyào Pǔxī yīzhāng chuáng, búyào Pǔdōng yīzhuàng fáng; 宁要浦西一张床，不要浦东一幢房), but given how things have changed (as you can see from the before and after pictures below), which would you prefer?
But the Bund and Pudong aren’t the only areas of Shanghai that have changed. People’s Square, which today represents the cultural and geographic center of downtown Shanghai, was once the site of the city’s prestigious racecourse. As far back as 150 years ago, thousands of people would gather here to watch the Grand Festivals of Shanghai, hoping to make their fortune through some good luck with the ponies. While the track is long gone, you can still see its oval shape looping around People’s Park and People’s Square.
The central street that separates Shanghai into east and west has also seen its share of changes over the years. Originally known as Boulevard de Montigny, it became Tibet Road before the city government officially Sinicized it as Xizang Road a few years ago. The street has always been busy, especially near its intersection at “Bubbling Well Road,” which eventually became Nanjing West Road.
But while the names of these streets might have changed over the years, their position of importance in the city has not. This is the same for “Avenue Joffre,” which was home to some of the city’s first portrait studios, cinemas and department stores. Today you can still pose for a sitting (in period clothes from any era in Shanghai’s history), go to a movie, or shop ’til you drop on the modern Avenue Joffre, now called Huaihai Road.
Changes of a more extreme nature have taken place farther west at Jing’an Temple. Though the temple dates back to the year 247 CE, it was moved to its current site in 1216 during the Song Dynasty. Throughout the years it has been upgraded and renovated several times, with the biggest changes happening in 1880. Sadly, in 1972 the temple suffered a huge fire, but it has been faithfully rebuilt in its original image. Back then, there wasn’t much around the temple but a few dusty roads and the “Bubbling Well” that gave the street its name. Flash forward to today and the temple still stands in all its gold-plated glory, but now it is surrounded by high-end shopping centers and deluxe hotels. Though it sits atop one of the city’s biggest transportation hubs, inside the temple things are pretty much the same as they were in 1880 (except that the monks might be wearing Nikes under their robes).
Shanghai is home to some of the highest-ranked universities in China, and in recent years, they have been attracting more and more foreign exchange students who are looking for a side of adventure with their education. In fact, some have been known to register for the student visa just so they can have residence in the country.
The biggest school by far is Fudan University, founded in 1905 and located at the far north end of the city. In fact, most of the “big” schools in Shanghai: East China Normal University, Tongji University, Shanghai University and Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), are located far from downtown. If you are planning a semester abroad and want to stay in the heart of the action, then your best bet is at Jiaotong University, the only major school with a downtown campus (just north of Xujiahui).
According to statistics from 2010, the city’s population broke 23 million that year. This doesn’t include tourists, who number approximately half a million people at any given time (almost a quarter of tourists to China spend time in Shanghai).
It also doesn’t include the huge population of migrant workers – people who live and work in Shanghai but are still legally registered as living in their home provinces. In fact, more than a third of the city’s residents (some 9 million people) are registered as “long term migrants,” meaning they have come for work, but are settled in with no plans on returning to their home provinces anytime soon.
A great number of foreigners (aka expatriates, or expats) also come here for work as China’s booming economy has created a demand for Western connections. Though many of the younger expats make a living by teaching English, a large number are hired as foreign experts and work as consultants in import/export, architecture, tourism and hospitality, and manufacturing.
So where are the expats coming from? Well, Japan leads the way with the highest number of registered foreigners, followed by the USA, South Korea and Germany. There were about 160,000 registered expats living in Shanghai in 2010, but that number doesn’t include all the people who arrive as tourists and quietly work under the table. In all, it’s estimated that there are more than 200,000 foreigners residing both legally and illegally in Shanghai.
What’s more, a large number of the official residents are from Japan, Korea and Singapore (not even counting Taiwanese, who are estimated around 700,000), making them, as we would say in the West, “non-visible minorities” (at least for untrained foreign eyes). This still leaves about 100,000 “visible” foreigners in Shanghai, a good sized city worth of expats. Most of them can be found in Jing’an and Xuhui Districts, and the farther you get from the city center, the fewer you will see.
If you happen to be one of these visible minorities, even though you only make up 0.5% of the population, it doesn’t mean you’ll be gawked at as you walk down the street or ride the subway. (Although it doesn’t mean you won’t be either.) Shanghainese are far more accustomed to foreign faces than rural Chinese, and more foreigners have been coming here for much longer than the rest of the country, meaning you will be greeted with far fewer dumbstruck looks than you would in the countryside.
The vast majority of people live downtown (although there are plenty of expat villages: high level compounds in Gubei or Pudong where white collar executives and their families are housed in luxurious surroundings far from the din of the city). Still, the central core has an approximate density of 16,828 people per square kilometer. That’s far higher than Tokyo, London or Paris, and yet the city functions peacefully with everybody going about their day at their own pace.
In regards to crime, Shanghai is extremely safe. This is not to say that life is danger-free though, since crossing a street of chaotic traffic can be deadly, and nearly every day there are new reports of food contamination. But compared to most of China’s cities and towns, large or small, violent crime is basically nonexistent here.
Guns are unheard of and highly illegal, and streets full of people mean there are eye witnesses everywhere. Besides this natural crime deterrent, the city is also wired with cameras, but even in the places where there are none, it seems that every citizen between six and 96 has an (possibly fake) iPhone complete with a video recorder.
That being said, keep your wits about you. Make sure your backpacks and purses are zipped up tight, and hold them in front when you’re in a crowded place. Watch your pockets while you’re compressed into the subway with 10,000 people. And, though this might sound obvious, don’t drink so much that you fall down the stairs, crash your bike, or tumble into the gutter. Shanghai is a party city in many aspects, and we all know accidents happen when people are intoxicated, so be sure to pace yourself and always ask the question, “Do I really need another shot right now?”
Another way tourists lose their hard earned cash is through the Tea Scam. Every year, untold numbers of happy-go-lucky foreigners fall for this unfortunate trick, and are often too embarrassed to report it to the police. The scam basically consists of a small group of young Chinese who will approach you on a busy street like Nanjing East Road, or at a crowded market, and strike up a conversation. They say that they are going to drink some tea at a little place not far away, and that they’d like you to come with them. Often (but not always) the group is made up of pretty girls targeting young males, who are more than happy to take part in this cultural event with a troupe of good-looking ladies.
After drinking tea for some time and maybe having a few snacks like watermelon or peanuts, the Chinese gracefully slip out to the bathroom and disappear forever, leaving the gullible foreigner holding an extremely inflated bill, usually into the thousands of RMB. The red-faced expat usually pays the bill and walks out, wondering the whole time what happened.
The Shanghai Municipality has an area of 6,340 sq km (2,450 sq mi) and has 17 county-level divisions (16 districts and the county of Chongming in the north). The Huangpu River slices right through the center of town, separating the financial center of Pudong (east of the river), and Puxi and the Bund (west of the river).
Shanghai is an incredibly easy city to find your way around. Though there are a few twists and turns, the city is primarily built on a simple east-west, north-south grid, and all streets are clearly marked. Every corner will have signs telling you the street name in English and Chinese, along with a helpful reminder of which direction is east, west, north and south. There are even handy numbers on the signs, showing you the range of addresses you can expect to find on that block. You can find enormous blue billboards hanging over busy roads that tell you the next two major streets ahead, as well as the major streets running parallel to the left and right of you.
Taking the subway is just as simple. Though visitors from smaller cities might feel overwhelmed at the thought of 13 metro lines, a quick look at the map will show you that it is all neatly laid out with plenty of interchanges. Once you’re in the system, signage is large and clear with English street names right beside the Chinese characters. Exits are clearly numbered and marked too, so it is very easy to meet your friends at a particular exit.
Taxis are of course the easiest (and perhaps most expensive) way to get around town, but sometimes the communication difficulties with taxi drivers can make you wonder. For the record, almost none of the taxi drivers speak any English. Some may be able to muster a poorly pronounced, “thank you” or “OK,” but that is the limit for about 99% of the drivers you’ll meet. They also cannot read pinyin, so if you have the address written in English, they will not be able to read it. In addition, they are not connected with a constantly squawking radio to dispatch, so they won’t be able to ask someone at the office for help translating either. And despite the fact that they all carry cell phones, they never want to call for assistance.
Taxi drivers might seem a little grumpy sometimes, but go easy on them. It’s a difficult job and they work hard for 12 hours a day, six or seven a week. Without them the city would come to a standstill, especially after midnight. Though there are a few unscrupulous ones out there (avoid any particularly beaten up or unmarked cabs, especially older vehicles), most will give you a fair ride that will cost less than taking the bus back home, and there’s no need to tip. Be sure to ask for a receipt (fāpiào; 发票) as it will come in handy if you end up forgetting your phone or keys in the back of that taxi.
If you want the more scenic way to enjoy the city, you might want to purchase a cheap bicycle. Shanghai is flat and there are wide bicycle lanes on most streets. True, these are sometimes ignored, and some corners might seem like well-oiled chaos, but there is strength in numbers, so just follow the lead of any of the millions of local cyclists and you should be fine. Keep in mind that there are some major streets that are off limits to bicycles. Most people skirt this law by riding on the sidewalk if they need to, but occasionally a strict traffic monitor might take exception to that.
Believe it or not, big Shanghai is a great walking city, and you can see a lot of the neighborhoods by taking a stroll. Though you could probably make a good circumference of the city by walking around it for one solid day, you’re probably better off actually enjoying the walk by tackling different districts each day. There are 17 in all, but many of them could easily be left off your map. After all, you want to go to where the action is. Here are the best and busiest areas:
Huangpu District (Huángpǔ Qū;黄浦区)
This is the center of it all. Huangpu District covers much of Puxi (literally meaning “west of the Huangpu River”), from People’s Square to the Bund and down south to Old Town – with Yu Garden and the antique streets. It is here that you’ll find landmarks like the Nanjing East Road Pedestrian Street (Shanghai’s “Times Square”), the Shanghai Art Museum, the MOCA, People’s Park and the Shanghai Grand Theater. Huaihai Road cuts through, offering another selection of malls and dining establishments. It is a broad area that covers much of what used to be known as the French Concession (a term that has fallen out of favor with local officials) as well as the broad industrial streets and the waterfront.
Restaurants and bars here include Barbarossa, Windows Scoreboard and Garage, Lucky Zen, and Sinan Mansions.
The Bund (Wàitān; 外滩)
While technically part of the Huangpu District, the Bund neighborhood has a vibe and attitude of its own, as some of Shanghai’s oldest landmarks and newest establishments stand here side by side. A relatively small length of riverfront property, the Bund had a major overhaul in 2010, revitalizing its promenade. It is on the checklist for every tourist in Shanghai – Chinese or foreign – so don’t be surprised to see it swarming with families, couples and tour groups shopping for souvenirs and posing for that perfect picture. It is in fact an extremely picturesque spot, offering a front-row view of the Pudong skyline with its multitude of towers on one side, and the old strip of foreign banks and custom houses on the other. Evening is definitely the time to come, when Pudong lights up in sparkles and flashes, while Puxi retains a classic floodlight focused on its art deco architecture.
Restaurants and bars here include Bar Rouge, Captain’s Bar, Mr & Mrs Bund.
Jing’an District (Jìng'ān Qū;静安区)
One of the most popular expat neighborhoods in Shanghai, Jing’an is a small district that stretches north from the Yan’an Road overhead expressway to Suzhou Creek. Aside from the flash of Nanjing West Road, Jing’an is home to quieter, narrower streets and a ton of Western owned establishments. It’s easy to find your way around, with Jing’an Temple (and its subway station) being on the southern edge of the district.
Restaurants and bars in here include Wuding Rd bar street, Bali Laguna, Windows Too.
Xuhui District (Xúhuì Qū;徐汇区)
Though centered around Xujiahui (it’s the Xu family that gives the entire district its name), Xuhui is probably the most sprawling neighborhood in downtown Shanghai, covering a huge area of the city’s coolest spots. Just about every worthwhile location that is south of Yan’an Road and west of People’s Square falls into Xuhui District. It also accounts for a fair amount of the former French Concession, so expect to find lots of winding leafy streets and walled compounds, including some foreign consulates. It’s home to several parks, including the Yan’an Road Park complex and Xujiahui Park.
Restaurants and bars here include Yongfu Rd bar street, Yongkang Rd bar street, Zapatas, 1001 Nights, Geisha.
Changning District (Chángníng Qū;长宁区)
Things start to cool down a bit just west of Jing’an Temple, but there are still plenty of interesting things to be discovered out in Changning. Based around Zhongshan Park (one of the few parks without a “keep off the grass” policy), there are several streets of shopping and culture to be found here.
Restaurants and bars here include C’s, Kaiba, Yuyintang.
Pudong New District (Pǔdōng Xīnqū;浦东新区)
Pudong (literally meaning “east of the Huangpu River”) is sort of the final frontier for many foreigners and locals alike (even Puxi taxi drivers are often clueless about the streets of Pudong). Though the water is traversed by no less than five subway lines, and it only adds another five or ten minutes to your taxi ride to take a tunnel or bridge over, it is psychologically much farther.
Pudong, or “Pu Jersey” as it is affectionately known, is seen as two things primarily: First, it is the financial district of town, the Wall Street of Shanghai. This small area around Lujiazui accounts for a huge percentage of Shanghai’s most recognizable landmarks and a high concentration of some of the world’s tallest buildings. Second, it is viewed as a bedroom community for many high level executives. They might commute to Puxi for work, but they return home to their garden villas here at the end of the day. Living even farther out towards the airport is the community of people who have been displaced by Shanghai’s constant growth. When a housing district is bulldozed in favor of a shopping mall or a new highway, the residents are relocated to a prime piece of greenery in Pudong (much to their delight, if you believe the city’s promotional videos).
Restaurants and bars here include Morton’s, Big E.
As you make your way through Shanghai, there are things you’ll see that are a common part of the city’s local and national heritage.
Bejing has hutongs, but in Shanghai the traditional housing is the shíkùmén, a narrow winding lane between a cluster of two to four-story multifamily dwellings. In the old days “dwelling” simply meant “bedroom.” Outside in the common courtyard was where you did your cooking, eating and relaxing. It’s also where you’d find the communal “restroom” (squatter toilet) and bath.
At one point, 80% of the city’s residents lived in shikumen housing, but that number has shrunken drastically as the city has opened up to industry and infrastructure, causing residents to be relocated to tower complexes across the city. While some claim it is a loss of the city’s true culture, many people prefer having their own showers and toilets.
Shikumen are still found all around the city however, in various states that range from crumbling and fallen to chic and refurbished, and even the wrecking ball can’t silence the influence and appeal of the shikumen. Xintiandi and Tianzifang is a prime example of the spirit of the structure, albeit constructed with new materials and with an entirely new sense of space.
High-rise apartment complexes
This is the new dwelling arrangement in Shanghai, and it makes sense. It would be hard to find room for all 23 million (plus) of the city’s residents if it weren’t for the highly efficient high-rise compounds across the city. Your typical address in Shanghai will include your street address, your building number and then your apartment number. The complex can range from three towers in a tightly clustered triangle to upwards of 30 buildings of various heights and ages spread out around an entire city block. These mega-compounds might have a population greater than your home town, as each building could be home to 1,000 residents. Many of the complexes will contain a small park with a few benches as well as a small grocery store or other businesses to make your life easier and your Sunday hangover a little less intensive.
Bright lights and surprising darkness
Scrolling through photos of Shanghai, you are sure to see plenty of shots of Pudong at night, lit up like the 4th of July (or like Spring Festival, as the case here would be), or Nanjing East Road with its billion watts of old school neons mixing with modern LEDs. But it doesn’t stop there, all across the city you will come to corners that have more lights blinking and flashing than the Vegas Strip, perhaps advertising nothing more than a questionable KTV or seafood restaurant.
But by 22:30... “click-click,” the city goes dark – very dark. Street light coverage that would be cause for worry in most neighborhoods back home is normal here, as the city enters power saving mode. The people don’t let the darkness stop them from having a good time, though, and you can find crowds watching a late night poker game on the corner or ballroom dancing in the parks. It’s almost as if Bruce Springsteen was singing about them...
“So, are you seeing anybody?” If you dread hearing these words from your parents, consider yourself lucky. Every Sunday in People’s Park, meddling parents converge to form the Marriage Market. On a string of pennants reminiscent of a used car lot, they’ll clothespin Xeroxed profiles of their son or daughter in hopes of finding them a significant other. Most profiles will include the person’s name, age, height, occupation and hobbies. Men’s profiles will often include their salary and women’s will have their weight.
Before you judge these old folks too harshly, keep in mind that they are really acting in self-preservation. China’s One Child Policy means the parents don’t have a lot of options for financial support as they reach old age. If their child is married and has a child, there is a second generation of support for them. Nobody seems to realize that the spouse will also have parents that need looking after as well.
So, take a stroll through the park on a Sunday to experience this cultural phenomenon. Better yet, if you’re in the mood for love yourself, then print out your own profile and bring it along to clip up. Be sure to make lots of copies to give to interested parents and potential in-laws.
The doting boyfriend
Shanghai men have it tough, especially since there’s a lot more men in this city than women. Even worse, they suffer a negative reputation across China for being weak, spineless and girly. Shanghainese women, on the other hand, have a reputation of being spoiled and demanding. Of course, these are major generalizations, but still, you are bound to see an endless supply of young men carrying their girlfriends’ purses down the street while she window shops empty handed. These same men will make the grand gestures of going down on a bent knee to tie her shoelace, and often submit to dressing as a cutesy couple, complete with matching T-shirts or beachwear. As thanks for all this romance, you can often see them being berated on the corner, screamed at on the bus, and slapped on the subway. Ah, young love.
The young generation, as its diet changes to Western fast food and ice cream, is getting chubbier, but the adult population in China, for the most part, is very fit. (This is amazing when you consider the health risks involved in eating local food and breathing local air.)
Part of the reason for this spry population is that they stay active and move. In addition to the line dancing that goes on in many courtyards and parks after sunset, all across the city you can find miniature outdoor gyms that have pulleys to move your arms, cross-country ski-style swings, spinning wheels to build up your qi, etc. Although none of these machines offer any type of resistance, they keep people moving, which many doctors say is half the battle.
Even outside of these mini-gyms you can see people practicing traditional forms of exercise, including walking backwards and clapping... sometimes at the same time. To really get an idea of the fitness regimen of Shanghai society, though, your best bet is to head to any one of the large city parks at sunrise. There, you’ll see hundreds of people practicing kung fu (some with swords) and tai chi, stretching, and even tree slapping, which is often followed up with tree hugging (no joke).
Take a ride on the subway and you’ll quickly see that nobody talks. Those that do are probably talking – often yelling – into a cell phone. The vast majority of riders will be sitting and staring intently at their phones or tablets as they play video poker, Angry Birds, or watch the latest Chinese TV drama. Shanghai is an incredibly wired city, but this shouldn’t be a surprise as it has always been on the cutting edge of technology. For example, the first motor car in China was driven in Shanghai and the city has always been at the forefront of cinema, animation and general scientific development.
While many people have internet access in their homes, cyber cafes are still a popular choice for young people, who use them to chat and play games with new friends from around the world. You can usually spot these establishments by the huge murals and billboards out front featuring muscular warriors holding swords bigger than their bodies. If you happen to see one, stop in for a look (you’ll need your passport if you actually want to use the internet, though.) Inside, you’ll see a huge room densely packed with people hovered over screens that are barking out sound effects of gunfire, explosions, cheap MIDI music and emoticon chimes. Meanwhile, stewardesses roam the aisle with carts hawking Chinese snacks and drinks. The beverage of choice? Red Bull. How else could you level up to Grand Master Wizard at 4:00 in the morning?
It might seem like a pretty obvious stereotype that people in China ride bikes, but you can get a better idea of it around the busy corners where people lock up their bikes to jump on the metro or do their shopping. There will be literally hundreds of bicycles in all possible forms of decomposition, from gleaming fresh-from-the-factory ones still with little rubber hairs on the tires, to chunks of ancient machinery that are more rust than steel.
Nowadays, more people are upgrading from the standard cruiser bike. You’ll see people with tiny fold-up bicycles (great for taking on the metro or into your office) and electric bikes. These so called e-bikes, along with electric scooters (that look more like small motorcycles or Vespas) are a silent danger, as they can zip up behind you when you step into the crosswalk. There is a benefit to that danger, though, as noise pollution and air pollution dropped significantly when the city banned 2-stroke gas scooters several years ago.
With the extreme popularity of bikes and scooters, you might think that the theft rate of bicycles is high – and you’d be right. Many people double or triple lock their bikes, but there is also an interesting service here of guarded bicycle parking. For a small fee, you can wheel your bike into whichever space it can fit into, and a parking attendant will run a 20-meter communal bike cable through your and everyone else’s bike frame. He’ll give you a ticket, which you should keep to redeem your bike at the end of the day.
The first thing you’ll learn as you make your way through Shanghai is that traffic lights, signs and road markings are an abstract concept. They exists mostly to determine what percentage each party is at fault (Chinese courts routinely put a number on how much each person is to blame in the event of an accident). In spite of this, accidents are surprisingly rare.
True, traffic is far worse in cities like Bangkok or Mumbai, but roads are still packed here, as more than 3.5 million (about 3 million local cars plus 0.5 million outside cars) try to share the roadways. There are now so many licensed vehicles in Shanghai that the city officials often put a daily quota on the streets.
At intersections and even down straight-aways, traffic simply weaves. People just go where they want, when they want (slowly), and everyone just seems to accept this and work around the problem. Driving moves that would give Mother Teresa road rage are all taken in stride every single moment of the day, so try not to get bent out of shape if somebody blocks your taxi or cuts you off in a crosswalk; it’s going to happen to you at some point during your visit.
From 7:00 – 19:00 there are cross guards on most corners (who will blow their whistle frantically at you if you jaywalk), but do not rely on them to protect your safety while crossing the street. Constantly look both ways (even if it’s your right of way), and never ever expect a bus to stop.
Shanghai is a great place to visit year-round, but there are more and more stand-out events that take place each year in addition to the traditional Chinese holidays and festivals.
Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is by far the biggest yearly celebration in China. At some point between January and February, the city is festooned in red and covered in cartoon versions of the New Year’s zodiac creature.
Since most Chinese people don’t get very many holidays each year, the state holidays like Spring Festival, Mid Autumn Festival, and Dragon Boat Festival become huge travel times. People go home to visit their families, and nowadays many people use the time to go on vacation. If you’re planning on traveling in China around Spring Festival, you’d better book your tickets long in advance and be prepared for extremely congested airports and train stations. Better yet, avoid coming during Spring Festival altogether.
Otherwise, settle in and enjoy Shanghai’s holiday feeling as the streets are packed with celebrating families and local tourists. Join in the fun with feasting and partying and setting off lots of fireworks. You’ll see Roman Candles, and hear firecrackers and sonic booms from sunset until the wee hours of the morning, and the next day you’ll find the street buried in red papery ashes.
Unique Shanghai Festivals
On the 15th day after Chinese New Year, head to Yu Garden to eat glutinous rice dishes and send flaming lanterns into the heavens to make a healthy wish for the new year.
Shanghai International Literary Festival: Occurring in either March or April, hop on over to Glamour Bar to watch speeches by world renowned authors and get your paperbacks autographed.
Longhua Temple Fair
Taking place in late March or in April or May, this temple fair hosts China’s largest and most ancient folk gathering with snacks, drinks, music and street entertainment.
Formula 1: The Shanghai International Circuit comes to town in April.
Dragon Boat Festival
Though not a unique Shanghai festival, the Dragon Boat Festival races at Suzhou Creek are phenomenal and some of the best in the country.
Shanghai International Film Festival
This international A-category film festival is one of the biggest in all of East Asia. Go to www.siff.com for dates and listings.
China Shanghai International Arts Festival
This event takes place in October and November, and even has music, dance, opera, gymnastics and acrobatics.
More and more music festivals are popping up in Shanghai each year. Check out the JZ International Jazz Festival, the Strawberry Fields Festival, the MIDI Festival and the new Sonic Festival (based on the Japanese music festival of the same name).
Kunshan Beer Festival
This festival is not as big, or as well known, as the Qingdao Beer Festival, but it’s right in Shanghai’s back yard and usually takes place in August.
Shanghai Beer Festival
The chugging usually happens in May, but dates are subject to change, so check www.shanghaibeerweek.com for dates and locations.
Travelers are often surprised by Shanghai’s winters. After all, the city is on the same latitude as Cairo, Egypt and San Diego, California. Sounds like it should be a nice January, right? Wrong. Shanghai is cold (temperatures hover around freezing) and damp all winter. To compound this problem, buildings are poorly insulated and heat is provided by a wall unit that doubles as your air conditioner in the summer. If you’re coming in the winter, you’ll need a decent jacket – preferably waterproof – as it is often misting or raining very lightly. A scarf and gloves won’t hurt, either.
Sometime around November all the women in Shanghai, both local and foreign, seem to simultaneously switch their footwear from heels to boots. Take a page out of their book if you are packing for the trip.
If you’ll be here for a while, you might want to adopt the unofficial Shanghai winter uniform a snazzy set of fleece pajamas and a thick pair of slippers. You’ll even see people wearing this attire outside of their home on the streets, and you can buy them almost anywhere during the colder months.
Around April or May the weather starts to warm up a bit, but it can still be uncomfortable as buildings will turn off the heat in March. Shanghai springs are usually beautiful (if a bit rainy) but notoriously short. Before you know it, summer comes smashing you in the face with maximum heat and humidity.
If you’re going to visit between the first of June and the end of September, bring your lightest clothes. Cotton is great, but you will sweat through anything in the time it takes you to dash from your air conditioned cab to the air conditioned shopping center. Shanghai is a very sunny place in the summer, so you might want to bring your own sunscreen as well. If you use the local stuff, you might actually end up a couple of shades lighter as most creams, lotions and sun blocks here contain bleaching agents to cater to an outdated notion of beauty. The Chinese believe white skin is beautiful, and therefore many try to avoid the sun and even use artificial enhancers to keep it white as rice.
Fall is undoubtedly the nicest time of the year; temperatures cool off but rains do not leave the city perpetually soggy. It’s also a great time of the year for foodies, as you can experience the highs of the Hairy Crab Festival and the lows of the Moon Cake Festival.
Shanghai, unlike old Peking (Beijing) and Canton (Guangzhou), is a relative newcomer to China’s grand stage. Therefore, many of China’s ancient arts like Peking Opera and Shaolin Kung Fu that can be traced back more than a thousand years are not found here. Nonetheless, this bustling metropolis has always looked more towards the future than the past, so you’ll be able to satisfy your artsy side in alternative ways. For the abstract artist, electronic music aficionado and contemporary foreign film buff, Shanghai is your kind of town, and is one of the best places to experience China’s budding art scene. But for those who still yearn for the past, don’t worry, if you dig deep enough you’ll strike gold; there is no shortage of material from Shanghai’s golden years of the 1920s.
Shanghai’s newly found art scene is growing cautiously under the government censored lights, and it, along with Beijing’s radical avant-garde style, is paving the way for the future of Chinese art. There are plenty of galleries across the city (with the most hip being centered around M50, the more traditional found around People’s Square, and the most elegant at Three on the Bund), and you can find everything here from Chinese classics to communist propaganda and modern art. Some of the best Shanghai painters today include Huang Yuanqing (abstract), Yang Jianping (sculpture), Yang Fudong (contemporary/realism), Ding Yi (one of the few artists to be born in the ’60s who didn’t flee), and the wild and at times embarrassing Xu Zhen (do your own personal research on this guy).
There’s no grassroots musical movement that rings Shanghai’s bells, but the diversity and internationalism of the city more than compensate. About the closest thing Shanghai has to traditional opera is Yueju, which originated from neighboring Zhejiang Province and is extremely popular in eastern China. Western-style symphonies can be heard at the He Luting Concert Hall, while Wanping Theater showcases other traditional Chinese musical art shows, and the Shanghai Oriental Art Center hosts ballet and opera performances. Furthermore, at any given time, big name artists are in town for extravagant concerts.
Though Beijing is often considered China’s alternative grunge music capital (with a thriving punk, metal and indie scene), Shanghai isn’t too far behind. Live music venues are sprouting up all over the city and becoming more popular among expats and locals. However, given the city’s modern futuristic vibe, electro beats seem to dominate the airwaves. Big-name DJs can be found in the city on every weekend, while bars, lounges and clubs blast the latest tunes that you’d hear on a typical night out in London. You’re bound to hear American hip-hop, Euro dance mixes, Chinese pop and much more – the big SH has got it all!
Currently, Shanghai native Han Han- the most popular blogger in China and a best-selling author – is considered one of the country’s most esteemed literary artists, and in 2010 he was named by Time as one of the top 50 most influential people in the world. Han Han made his fame through critiques and controversies of contemporary life, art and pop culture in China. For an interesting yet critical review on contemporary China, read Han’s most famous work This Generation Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) (2012). This compilation of blog posts and essays from Han during 2007-2012 covers a diverse array of topics corruption, youth culture, the government and much more – perfect for anyone trying to get the big picture of New China.
Eileen Chang (1920-1995) is also a Shanghai native who became known as one of the most influential modern Chinese writers. Chang focused on gender roles and love and romance, and she also shed light on the Japanese occupation of China during the 1940s. Some of Chang’s most famous works include Lust, Caution (1979), which tells the tale of how the Japanese occupied Shanghai in the 1940s, and Love in a Fallen City (translated to English in 2006), which describes China’s struggle with classical culture and modernism.
For other great reads concerning Shanghai, check out our top editor picks:
Years of Red Dust (2010), Qiu Xiaolong
This fascinating collection of 23 short easy-to-read stories covers all the most important events of Shanghai’s captivating past.
The Blue Lotus (1934), Hergé
Hergé researched the politics and society of China thoroughly to create this Tintin adventure (this is the fifth volume of the Adventures of Tintin). It’s centered on Shanghai at the beginning of Japan’s aggressive push for colonization and it is without a doubt one of the most entertaining ways to experience this gruesome time in history. Many scholars widely regard this as Hergé’s first masterpiece.
Old Shanghai Gangsters in Paradise (2011), Lynn Pan
A must for anyone interested in Shanghai’s dark past and enthralling underworld.
Shanghai Girls (2009), Lisa See
This is a very popular novel about the relationship between two sisters during the ’40s and ’50s, following the duo from the the battles of World War II in Shanghai to the Chinatowns of California. See, like Eileen Chang before her, is especially concerned with the social complexities facing women at the time.
Empire of the Sun (1984), JG Ballard
The autobiographical tale of young Ballard speaks about growing up in Shanghai during the years of Japanese occupation.
The Diamond Age (2000), Neal Stephenson
Sticking to Shanghai’s forward thinking mentality, this sci-fi novel takes place in Shanghai in the distant, harrowing future. Even if you’re not a sci-fi fan, this one is still a page turner.
Shanghai Flowers (1892), Han Bangqing
This novel was written around the turn of the century when China and Shanghai were undergoing tremendous change. In his work, Han touches on the underground world of prostitution and crime syndicates that controlled the country’s most international city.
Where Shanghai lacks in old dusty art, architecture and scrolls, it makes up for on the big screen. Shanghai was the first city in China to jump-start the country’s film industry. Although the first movie was shot in Beijing, the nation’s first cinema was revealed to the public in 1908 in Shanghai. The industry grew to cover over 140 Shanghai theaters until its flourishing in the 1930s, peaked by Crossroads (the 1937 comedy about three unemployed university graduates). However, just when things really began taking off in Shanghai, the Japanese invasion closed the curtain on the Shanghai film industry, with the majority of the artists and directors moving to Hong Kong, Chongqing, or abroad.
After the war, the second golden age of cinema blossomed in Shanghai, starting with Spring in a Small Town (1948) and the country’s first color film, Remorse at Death (1948).
The rise of the Fourth Generation began in the late ’70s, and the ensuing Fifth Generation of the late ’80s began gaining international recognition with famous films such as Red Sorghum (1987), Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Ju Dou (1990).
In the 1990s, the Sixth Generation exploded to the scene. Then, in the 2000s, the Post-Sixth Generation continued to climb international ranks with world renowned films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002) and Lost in Thailand (2012) – the Chinese equivalent to America’s The Hangover (2009).
Nowadays, China is the third largest film industry by the number of feature films produced annually, and is predicted to have the largest market in the world by 2018.
A great way to get psyched for your Shanghai adventure is to experience it in your living room. Download or rent some of these flicks to learn more about one of the world’s coolest cities.
Empire of the Sun (1987), Steven Spielberg
No, this is not a typo. The great Spielberg found Ballard’s story so fascinating that he turned it into a film. Of course, it’s always better to read the book before watching the movie.
Shanghai Express (1932), Josef von Sternberg
One of the world’s top grossing films in the early ’30s, this old fashioned black and white classic is considered one of the most famous Shanghai movies ever. It’s based on the true story of the kidnapping of foreigners on a hijacked Beijing-Shanghai train.
Shanghai Triad (摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥) (1995), Zhang Yimo
A great film about Shanghai’s gangster culture in the turbulent ’30s.
Suzhou River (苏州河) (2000), Lou Ye
For a more up-to-date piece on modern Shanghai, this film shows the grim life of Shanghai beneath the glitz and glamour.
Looper (2012), Rian Johnson
A Hollywood sci-fi thriller starring Bruce Willis, Looper takes place in Shanghai in the year 2074 when time travel is possible but outlawed, and used by syndicated crime organizations.
If you need help killing time on that international flight, download The Bund (上海滩) (1980), Chiu Chun-keung. The Bund is a Hong Kong period drama first broadcasted in 1980. It is praised both inside and outside of China as “the Godfather of the East” and spawned several sequels and film adaptations.