There is nothing Chinese about Shanghai, except perhaps the people, and even that is not always the case, as throngs of overseas tourists mingle with the many thousands of foreigners who have made Shanghai their home.
Beijing may be the capital, but Shanghai is the main attraction. In Beijing, the expats brought there by their jobs, want nothing more than to avoid the huge totally modern monolithic metropolis with its pollution, its traffic and its crowds and so they mainly live in a more appealing commuter city purpose built just outside the capital. The expats In Shanghai want nothing more than to live in the city revelling in the architecture, the beautifully preserved historic sections, the nightlife and the culture.
If China is a country where nothing is allowed, then Shanghai is the one place where everything is possible as long as you know how to work the system. China is a country where Twitter is banned and yet in Shanghai the hashtag is used everywhere on billboards and advertisements. China is a country that frowns on homosexuality and yet in Shanghai there is a thriving gay community. China is a country where prostitution is illegal, and yet Shanghai is the place where many a working girl comes; tired of working long hours on her feet for just a pittance she comes to Shanghai where she can work on her back for a great deal more.
As we sail into Shanghai, the city captivates us as it has so many others.
It’s river banks gleam with stylish highrises, their glass walls glittering in the sun. It’s skyline is every bit as glamorous as Sydney or San Francisco,
and that’s just during the day.
At night it no longer competes with other beautiful cities. It is in a league of it’s own.
It’s not just a city that never sleeps, it doesn’t even rest. There is an electric tension in the air. Traffic is crazy, every junction is jammed with cars, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians all trying to do the impossible: get to the other side.
As far as the eye can see, the streets are full of blinking, winking flashing neon lights, most in Chinese, but many in English – all adding to the excitement and the air of expectancy.
Much of the charm of Shanghai is founded on what has been left untouched. There is of course the famous Art Deco section, the iconic Peace Hotel and the magnificent Bund. But there is also the occasional old world street that can charm in a different way, its gritty reality in stark contrast to the modern steel and glass buildings that tower over it. Stumbled on only by accident, this is a place not meant to be found by tourists, but a place where the old time residents still live
These are the streets from which the army of worker bees buzz every day on their little electric scooters:
or where the enterprising merchant with nothing more than a bicycle, gives life to the phrase “ peddling his wares”
The ingenuity of these people struggling to survive in a world that has long outgrown them is impressive. They have no warm dry car for their commute, so they have adapted their scooters to combat everything mother nature can throw at them.
They have the built in umbrella for the rain:
built in hand warmers on the handlebars for the cold
and then for those with unlimited budget there is the ultimate protector: the built in comforter with gloves, and a water proof outer layer
But sights such as these are becoming rare. The City is now home to the mega rich, both from China and the rest of the world. There is no room for the less fortunate. Scooters are being replaced, not by mere Mercedes, but by Maseratis, The narrow streets lined with low rent housing are being replaced with boulevards lined with high rent apartments. An apartment in one of these stylish new skyscrapers can sell for millions. The long term residents of Shanghai cannot afford to live here. This is not the China of Mao Tse-tung. This is not China at all. This is Shanghai.
As we have been to Shanghai before we wanted to see what lies outside this sparkling city. For our first day here we have rented a car and driver. The driver meets us at the ship and tells us his name is Harris. I suggest that this is an unlikely name for a Chinese man. He explains that he started life working in Shanghai at the Marriot Hotel where they told him he needed to pick an English name that would be easy for the overseas customers to pronounce. At that time he was not well versed in English but he remembered one word that he had heard often. He told the hotel manager that he would like to be called “Crack”.
The hotel was not amused and assigned him the name Harris, which he hated. But as time passed people started calling him Harry and he felt like a prince. So now everyone knows him as Harry.
Harry drives us to one of the old “water villages” close to Shanghai. Shanghai is built on a river delta and is surrounded by many rivers and waterways that make up the delta. In the old days the area supported many of these water towns, all surviving on fishing. But they were not suited to the 20th century. Their streets were too narrow for cars and the waterways too narrow for anything but the smallest fishing craft, so the towns slowly disappeared.
Tourism came late to China, but it came just in time to save the few water villages that were still struggling to survive. Today these villages are extremely popular with Chineses tourists and are slowly coming to the attention of foreigners. Harry took us to one such village. It rains for most of the day we are there, but the grey skies seem to add to the atmosphere of these poor working towns where life has always been a struggle
The fishermen were quick to recognize the benefit of the tourist dollar and started cleaning up the narrow streets
and converting their little houses into charming shops and restaurants:
The waterways themselves also offered opportunities. Every little balcony was converted into a cafe
walkways were turned into promenades
and most importantly, comparisons were made to Venice.
So China’s answer to the gondola was built and now fifteen minute rides up and down the narrow water ways are offered for considerably less money than in Venice. The only downside being that the gondolas are operated by Chinese whose punting skills seem to bear a distinct similarity to their driving skills and chaos often ensues
It’s name is almost impossible to pronounce but Zhujiajiao charms us. However by early afternoon the cold and rain begins to get to us. So we leave behind the lifestyle of previous centuries, and return to the sophistication and welcoming lights of Shanghai.