Shanghai on the cusp between old and new order


SHANGHAI -- Shanghai came into view down the highway ahead. Oddly shaped skyscrapers designed by international architects presented an astonishingly un-Chinese skyline, like a Euro-pean metropolis transplanted to the Orient.

Its 2,500-square-mile sprawl (five times larger than Los Angeles) embraces at least 13 million people in a mix of rich farmland, industrial suburbs, enormous housing projects, a major river port, parks, shopping malls and colonial quarters, all connected by elevated highways, subways, tunnels, ferries, boulevards and labyrinthine alleyways.

Because it was born just yesterday, the urban center is mind-boggling.

You cant help thinking that while Chinese leaders still call themselves communists, in practice they have become super-capitalists, building in just a decade such landmarks as the gaudy, 1,535-foot Oriental Pearl TV Tower (Asias tallest structure when completed in 1994) and the 88-story Jinmao Tower, in which the Grand Hyatts position on floors 54 to 88 makes it the worlds highest hotel; Chinas largest stock exchange; and an airport-to-city transport system of magnetic levitation trains (Maglev) that make the 18-mile trip in eight minutes.

As in any major world city, at least one half-day guided tour is a good investment, and then clients can strike out on their own, leaving plenty of time for the major Shanghainese pastime: shopping.

Traveling by subway is fun; taking a taxi will cost roughly $3 to $5.

My take on the not-to-miss places that fit into a three-day stay follows:

The Shanghai Museum on Peoples Square is not only the best museum in China but a state-of-the-art presentation of some 120,000 historical artifacts, arranged in displays on four floors around a central atrium.

A half day was not enough to take in everything: the bronze and sculpture galleries, the ceramics gallery and the painting, calligraphy and seal galleries on the first three floors. Working my way down, I started on the fourth floor with the jade and furniture galleries as well as the ethnographic exhibits of costumes, dioramas and ceremonial objects from all corners of the Chinese Empire.

Museum reproductions are sold on each floor, but the gift shops on the main floor offer some of the best buys in Shanghai. Clients can also take time out for tea and cookies at the museums traditional tea room.

Several major attractions are within walking distance of one another.

One can spend a half day in the Old Town, downtown Shanghai during colonial times. Its best to come here on weekday mornings to avoid weekend crowds, or particularly come early Sunday mornings for the Temple of the Town Gods outdoor market and the Fuyou market for curios and antiques.

The Old Town Bazaar, with hundreds of shops, is open daily, as is Yuyang Garden, a classical gem of landscaping and architecture. Outside the garden walls, take the bridge leading mid-pond to the 400-year-old Huxinting Teahouse, a China landmark for tea.

In this same corner of Shanghai, the sweeping waterfront promenade called the Bund runs a mile along the Huangpu River. This is the place for people-watching, from early morning when the tai chi groups work out until the evening strolls of courting couples.

In colonial times, tea, silk and opium were traded along the Bund embankment, and wealthy merchants built a riverfront parade of fine buildings -- banks, private clubs, a customs house -- many now restored in the effort to recapture the Bunds former architectural grandeur.

One building not to miss is the Peace Hotel with its art deco lobby; further, advise clients to book ahead for a late-night seat in the hotels Old Jazz Bar, where New Orleans is the sound.

Another sought-after reservation along the Bund is a table at the new Jean-Georges Shanghai restaurant on the fourth floor of the atrium-style Three on the Bund building; other attractions in this Michael Graves-redesigned building are an art gallery, an Evian spa and a Giorgio Armani store.

And while on the river, consider lunch (perhaps after a stroll along Nanjing Road, Chinas most famous shopping avenue) or dinner at M on the Bund.

Clients may want to cross over to Pudong, new East Shanghai, for a panoramic view from the observation deck of the Pearl of the Orient TV Tower. The towers basement houses the Shanghai Municipal History Museum. 

The French Concession district is a good bet for meandering. It is dotted with many of Shanghais most historical colonial homes, including the residences of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, and Zhou En-Lai, once head of the Communist Party, as well as the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, quartered in a beautiful Renaissance-style mansion.

In this area, however, I spent far more time on a shopping spree (until 9 p.m.) in the nearby Xiangyang Market, Shanghais version of Beijings famous Silk Alley, but even better.

The draw here is designer-label clothing and accessories. Some may be the real thing, but stall after open-air stall was stacked with faux Louis Vuitton, Prada, Fendi and Gucci bags, shoes, sweaters and scarves -- fabulous knockoffs, at a fraction of the price of the real thing, once youve bargained the first 50% off the asking price.

Shanghai is full of wonderful buys from pearls, silk, jade and ceramics to antiques and furniture, all requiring a practiced eye and spirited bargaining.

Theres no bargaining at the Friendship Store here; open daily till 10 p.m., it carries a generous sampling of nearly everything worth hauling home, and credit cards are accepted.

On one of my precious days in Shanghai, my friend and I hired a car and guide for an excursion outside the city. The day-trip options included a trip to Suzhou, a moated city of interlocking canals, bridges, pagodas and some 70 fabled and classic gardens, with 12 open to the public.

Zhou Zhuang, a 900-year-old water village of canals lined with tile-roofed houses, where gondolas maneuver under arched stone bridges.A second choice was the city of Hangzhou, from which you cruise about beautiful West Lake, visiting islands, floating pagodas, gardens and temples. We chose, instead, to drive southwest to Zhou Zhuang, a 900-year-old water village of canals lined with tile-roof houses.

The drive through the delta of farms and the factories that fuel the prosperity of Shanghai offers an interesting contrast. The townspeople now make their living from tourism, and they live in a village that preserves its original architecture built in and around a working canal system.

There are several centuries-old wooden mansions with elaborate and traditional interiors, tucked along narrow lanes among craft shops, mom-and-pop restaurants and houses with laundry drying and flower boxes abloom. Aboard a colorful gondola, visitors can view the whole scene from the water.

Looking back at my visit, I think I should have traded my day in the country to remain in Shanghai for a riverboat cruise on the Huangpu, joining flotillas of modern container ships and oceangoing junks, packed ferries, convoys of barges and bobbing sampans coming from and going to the mouth of the Yangtze River 18 miles to the north.

Surely, next time.

To contact reporter Carla Hunt, send e-mail to[email protected].


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