The name Shanghai still conjures images of romance, mystery and adventure, but for decades it was an austere backwater. After the success of Mao Zedong's communist revolution in 1949, the authorities clamped down hard on Shanghai, castigating China's second city for its prewar status as a playground of gangsters and colonial adventurers.
And so it was. In its heyday, the 1920s and '30s, cosmopolitan Shanghai was a dynamic melting pot for people, ideas and money from all over the planet. Business boomed, fortunes were made, and everything seemed possible. It was a time of breakneck industrial progress, swaggering confidence and smoky jazz venues.
Thanks to economic reforms implemented in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping, Shanghai's commercial potential has reemerged and is flourishing again. Stand today on the historic Bund and look across the Huangpu River. The soaring 1,614-ft/492-m Shanghai World Financial Center tower looms over the ambitious skyline of the Pudong financial district. Alongside it are other key landmarks: the glittering, 88-story Jinmao Building; the rocket-shaped Oriental Pearl TV Tower; and the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The 128-story Shanghai Tower—under construction—is poised to take over as the tallest building in China (and, after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the second-tallest in the world) in 2015.
Shanghai is rushing headlong to make up for lost time. In 2010, it hosted the 184-day World Expo, the largest of its kind in history. Glass-and-steel skyscrapers reach for the clouds, Mercedes sedans cruise the neon-lit streets, luxury-brand boutiques stock all the stylish trappings available in New York, and the restaurant, bar and clubbing scene pulsates with an energy all its own. Perhaps more than any other city in Asia, Shanghai has the confidence and sheer determination to forge a glittering future as one of the world's most important commercial centers.
Modern Shanghai is split into two distinct and vastly different districts by the Huangpu River. The west side is called Puxi (pronounced pu-SHEE
), former home to the international settlements. Puxi still boasts the historic architecture for which Shanghai is famous. To the east of the river is Pudong—a modern economic-development area that Deng Xiaoping designated as China's future commercial heart. Though Pudong boasts the city's stock exchange, financial district and main international airport, Puxi is still considered the city center and is home to the revamped and enlarged Hongqiao International Airport (though most international flights touch down at the larger airport in Pudong). The Bund (Waitan) is Puxi's waterfront boulevard—it lines the west side of the Huangpu River and is considered to be Shanghai's main tourist attraction.
In its 1930s heyday, Shanghai was delineated by its foreign concessions, and the former borders still serve a purpose. The old Chinese city lies within the Zhonghua Road-Renmin Road circle. The former International Settlement (the British and the U.S. concessions merged in 1862) stretches north of the Old City. It's bordered by the Huangpu River to the east, Huashan Road to the west, Suzhou Creek to the north and Yanan Road to the south.
The busy and famous Nanjing Road and its pedestrian walkway lie in this part of town, just north of Yanan Road. The old French concession lies south of the Yanan Road overpass, north of Zhaojiabang Road, and stretches from Xujiahui in the west to the Bund in the east (with the exception of the northern half of the old Chinese city). Much of the city's sightseeing, dining and shopping lie in the former French concession, including Xintiandi, the popular pedestrian-friendly entertainment district that houses Western-style clubs, restaurants and shops in a visitor-friendly, if slightly touristic, ambience.
Shanghai's beginning was humble—little more than a small fishing village tucked beside a tributary of the Yangtze River, where China's longest and most important river completes its 3,906-mi/6,300-km journey to the East China Sea. In the late 1830s, however, the Chinese emperor's efforts to stem the trade in opium (largely conducted by British merchants) within the country's borders resulted in the First Opium War of 1839-42, which China lost. The victorious British forced the Chinese to open up a series of treaty ports along the nation's seaboard, thus allowing increased trade between China and foreign powers. Shanghai was one such port.
The small fishing village was soon divided into extraterritorial "concessions" administered by France, Britain and the U.S., who each brought their own particular cultures, architectural styles and sensibilities to the Chinese city. By the 1930s, 90,000 foreigners called Shanghai home, including British, Americans, French, Germans and Japanese, as well as Russians who had fled communism in their own country.
Although the burgeoning metropolis had its own walled Chinese city, many native residents also chose to live in the foreign settlements, where employment was more readily available and foreign police forces administered rule of law, affording a certain level of protection from warlords. In 1939, the city boasted a population of 4 million.
The eclectic mix of cultures and the city's increasing openness to Western influence had a profound effect on Shanghai, which quickly became internationally famous for its culture, arts, opulent buildings, chic hotels and ballrooms, and vibrant commerce. But the gap between the haves and the have-nots was wide—according to firsthand accounts, it was not uncommon for wealthy foreigners to nonchalantly step over starving, dying Chinese in the street without a pause.
This paradox of wealth and degradation gave rise to an increasing sense of anger and injustice among many Chinese, and in 1921, 13 delegates—including Mao Zedong—held the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China at a site that is now open to the public in the Xintiandi area of the city. The Congress started a movement that would change all of China.
The Red Army triumphed following fierce fighting against occupying Japanese forces from the late 1930s to 1945, and a civil war against the ruling Kuomintang, establishing the new People's Republic of China in 1949. Most foreigners had either fled Shanghai before the war or had been shipped home after being released from internment by the Japanese. With the founding of the People's Republic, the city was closed to the outside world behind what was known as "the bamboo curtain."
In the ensuing years, Shanghai was deliberately neglected by a Beijing-centric government scornful of the city's decadent past, and it was starved of investment and attention. A sign of its future renaissance, however, came during former U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China, when the Shanghai Communique, a series of formal agreements to re-establish Sino-U.S. diplomatic ties, was signed at the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai.
But the city's resurrection wasn't immediate. Shanghai was made to wait until after the launch, in the late 1980s, of Deng's economic reforms before it could hurriedly re-embrace the internationalism that defined its prerevolution identity. Today it's second only to Hong Kong as China's most globalized city—socially, culturally and economically. As Deng famously said, "If China is a dragon, Shanghai is its head."
Now, little more than two decades after Shanghai was officially given the go-ahead to embrace economic development, the city has comprehensively overhauled and revitalized its infrastructure as it hosted the 2010 World Expo in its own inimitable manner. The largest ever hosted, the giant Expo was held on a site built beside the Huangpu River, with ready access to luxury hotels, subway lines, tourism facilities and city infrastructure projects. Shanghai also boasts mainland China's first free trade zone (FTZ), an 11-mi/ 29-km square testing ground in Pudong for China's ongoing experiments with market reform. If all goes well, the tax-free zone will be expanded to other Chinese cities.
Start your exploration of the city with tea at Huxinting teahouse in Yu Garden. It is said to be the very teahouse on the willow pattern that graces crockery in homes across the world. Then explore the surrounding old Chinese city, with its quaint traditional homes and bustling antiques market and street-food stores, before strolling on the waterfront boulevard known as the Bund.
Stroll down the Nanjing East Road, which has been transformed into a people-only thoroughfare with several new retail malls, and soon you'll arrive at People's Square, an ideal spot for people-watching. There, you can see past and present Shanghai interacting: The "square" was originally an oval-shaped racetrack, and it's flanked by some of Shanghai's most modern skyscrapers and finest art-deco architectural treasures, such as the Park Hotel and former YMCA building on the north side. While you're there, don't miss China's ancient treasures on display at the Shanghai Museum, which is shaped like a ancient ding cooking vessel.
Also take an awe-inspiring look at Shanghai's future at the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre. The Jade Buddha Temple is a short cab ride away, as is Shanghai's vibrant contemporary-art district on Moganshan Road.
Be sure to spend some time in the former French concession, particularly around Huaihai, Fuxing, Sinan and Yongfu roads, for a view of old Shanghai and the city's chic stores and restaurants. You can tour the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of modern China, and check out the Xintiandi area, which houses the site of the first Chinese Communist Party meeting as well as a host of upscale restaurants and bars.
One of the best ways to enjoy twilight is to make a trip to Pudong. Cross the Huangpu River on the ferry, view the Bund from the cafes and park flanking the Pudong riverside, and then catch a bird's-eye view of the city from the 100th-floor observation deck at the Shanghai World Financial Center, the top of the modern, art-deco Jinmao Tower or the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the gaudy, spaceshiplike symbol of modern Shanghai.
Also in Pudong, some parts of the World Expo site will remain open to the public permanently—notably the site's tallest structure, the vibrant red China Pavilion, which was reborn post-Expo as the China Art Museum with an interesting selection of modern art, and the saucer-shaped Expo Pavilion, which became the Mercedes-Benz Arena and hosts world-class sporting events, concerts and theatrical shows.
If you still have some energy once night falls, take a Huangpu River night cruise or enjoy a leisurely cocktail-with-a-view on the grand terrace of one of the Bund's new generation of classy lounge bars.
Some spots outside Shanghai offer getaways from the city's urban chaos. If possible, take a day trip to the traditional gardens of Suzhou, the lakeside city of Hangzhou or to a quaint river town, such as Zhouzhuang or Xitang.
Shanghai's nightlife is now truly world-class, ranging from pulsing clubs that attract the world's top DJs and classy Bund-front cocktail lounges to playing pool at an American bar or sipping beer on a garden patio in a converted French concession villa. Most of the popular clubs don't close their doors until 2 am or so.
Things are always changing, however, with old bars shutting down and new bars popping up out of the blue. The smartest upscale bars are on the Bund, and the best place to barhop is in the former French concession, where you'll find Shanghai's most popular bar areas—Xintiandi, Fuxing and Yongfu roads. The area around Nanjing Road, near Tongren Road, has a few gritty sports bars popular with expats, such as The Big Bamboo and Malone's American Cafe.
Shanghai is also known for karaoke. It's ubiquitous, as KTV (Karaoke TV) establishments abound, with private rooms complete with serving girls, fine cognac and fruit platters. Just beware of the prices.
Shanghai's tradition of culinary creativity has been revived after a half-century of communism, and since China's opening to the West and economic reform, it has become a city of international tastes.
Although Shanghainese is sometimes called a regional cuisine, akin to Cantonese or Sichuanese, it's really a fusion of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui cuisines. Most Chinese restaurants in Shanghai serve dishes from different regions, and many still serve true, authentic fare. Typical dishes include jiachang doufu (home-style tofu), pao fan (a thick rice soup) and su ban dou (cold bean mash with vegetables). Dishes are usually built on foundations of oil, sugar and dark sauces. Fish is extremely popular, with river fish preferred over ocean varieties. Shanghai hairy crab is the region's pricey fall specialty, served in October and November. The city also has its version of Cantonese dim sum, such as the ever-popular xiaolong bao (pork or crab soup dumplings) and shengjian mantou (pan-fried pork dumplings). You can often find steamed buns and dumplings, you tiao (fried breadsticks), Shanghainese fried noodles, and baked and fried breads being sold by street vendors.
If you're not hungry for Chinese food, delicious foreign foods—from Japanese and Korean to Cajun and oven-fired pizza—are readily available. And new restaurants arrive on the scene monthly.
Many Chinese restaurants have English-language menus. Sometimes you have to ask for one, and you may find it difficult to order at eateries that don't have them. In those cases, if you can't find an English-speaking server, pantomime and drawings can suffice, but there is a good chance that mistakes will be made and adventurous surprises may be in store.
You could have every meal of your visit in Shanghai's ever-popular entertainment district Xintiandi. Fashionable—and usually expensive—eateries are housed in its old shikumen (stone gate) houses. If you find yourself doing business or staying at a hotel in the Hongqiao district, where the domestic airport is located, there are also some great restaurants. And the Bund is home to a few excellent, if expensive, dining rooms. The main shopping thoroughfares of Nanjing Road and Huaihai Road are packed with hundreds of eateries of every hue and stripe.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a two-course dinner for one, excluding tip or drinks: $ = less than 100 yuan; $$ = 100 yuan-180 yuan; $$$ = 181 yuan-350 yuan; $$$$ = more than 350 yuan.
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