Thinking About Shanghai
At the moment I am writing this, I am sitting on a not-quite-as-fast-train as the one from Beijing to Shanghai. 1200 km South from Shanghai to Xiamen, a city on an island that everybody only seems to have heard good things about (suspicious?). It’s also right opposite to Taiwan.
Shanghai has been great, and in so many ways different to Beijing. While in Beijing, we mostly did the classic tourist itinerary. However, people don’t go to Shanghai to look at temples or palaces. Shanghai’s palaces are their malls and towers. Shanghai doesn’t have that many traditional sights, it’s more of a sight alltogether. Shanghai is a city, comprised of many cities.
So what did we do then?
We walked around the former French concession, its lovely old streets of fusion architecture, its contrived, soulless area of Xiantandi (if you ever wondered what Rem Koolhaas meant with ‘We’re building assembly line cities and buildings‘…), its hidden artsy houses turned tourist attraction Tsianzifang and everything in between.
We walked around the many shopping streets between the people’s square and the Bund, Shanghai’s most prominent leftover of 19th century imperialism.
We obviously had to go to a Walmart and ran around in the more residential part of Pudong, Shanghai’s New Area.
We took the metro an hour North to walk in between otherwise rare street food stands and satellite city living area to a state-planned art district called Bund 1919 which incidentally is totally empty.
We went to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, an interesting presentation of Shanghai’s vision of a harmonious, socialistic metropolis and how Shanghai developed from the past, to today and into a obviously rosy future.
We went to two malls and a fake market. We had lunch at street kitchens, small dumpling restaurants, great and cheap and not so great and a bit more expensive restaurants, food malls and fast food chains.
We just explored that huge and strangely contradictory city, walking, eating, watching.
Oh, and I finally got to meet Rob and got a tour at W+K’s Shanghai office and a perspective on living, planning and working in China – which was great.
After taking the train out from Beijing, I was tempted to comparisons on a macro level and looked at everything through this lens of ‘looking at something different’. In Shanghai I was asking myself more about the lifestyle of people there and whether I could imagine living here. And Shanghai, which makes New York City look a bit like kindergarden here and there, other than Beijing, which is the political and cultural center of China, just blew me away. Shanghai is so many things, it’s a bit hard for me to give a finite answer other than that I’ve strangely came to like it quite a bit.
Shanghai seems a bit like that law about ‘whatever you can imagine, you can find on the internet’, transformed into a city – and I say that without trying out the ‘free performances’ that were offered, drugs or other stuff. Honest.
This is a city that has at the same time way more luxury than I ever saw and more relative poverty. I have never seen so many young drivers with luxury cars – ok, maybe in the City of London. Except here they are driving along people with their carriage-bicycles. You see gated communities next to high risers, street food next to a heavy Mercedes.
Shanghai is also a good reminder about the fact that price and value are relative concepts. You can get a 15 kilometer taxi ride at night for 70 Yuan and would easily pay the same or more for a glass of wine (which I obviously didn’t buy) or German Hefeweizen.
You can get a meal for 7 Yuan (1€), but there’d be no problem getting one for 700 Yuan 100 meters away from that place. You can go to a place called ‘The Grumpy Pig‘ that could easily also be in Brooklyn, where they play hip hop, you get a good meal for 40 and can pay 65 for a pale ale from Belgium. You see co-working spaces where people sip their latte ‘done right’ for 6 Euro’s and a higher iPad density than there is in Vienna. You can go see Men in Black 3 on IMAX 3D for 25 Euro or just by the DVD at one of those shops.
Shanghai has some 23 million people living here and 132.000 of them count as millionaires (in USD), some most probably for more hontest reasons to others. (According to our airbnb host, someone working exclusively for Shanghai’s super rich, there seem to be people withmany different Maseratis and government-colored license plates, but who am I to judge?)
This is also one of the reasons why the ‘eat as the locals’ do law of traveling doesn’t quite work here. If you go somewhere and you’re the only non-Chinese, that doesn’t mean it’s a good place to go. Because there are many, many Chinese here who have more money than you do. Or I.
I don’t even know where to steop. All in all, Shanghai is crazy, but in a really interesting way.
And I want to get back back here.
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