Changing China & Shanghai highlights

Posted on June 10, 2011


“Stand on the Bund at night and be humbled. Because it’s clear it’s not our century anymore.” – Tom Ford

I spent yesterday in the buzzing craziness of Shanghai. It was my first return since visiting in January 2009, and it seems a lot has changed in such a short time! Here are some of my highlights from Shanghai along with a little bit of commentary on some differences I noticed..

1. Pudong & the Oriental Pearl TV Tower

The Pudong district epitomises the story of China’s rapid modernisation. Until the mid-90’s, the Pudong area was farmland. In 1994, they built the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and within a decade, a wealthy new suburb had emerged. Today it is a designated Special Economic Zone full of parks, top-end and bottom-price shopping, as well as some dazzling feats in architecture.

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is not the tallest observation deck in Shanghai (instead it’s the Jinmao or “bottle-opener” tower) but a ride to the top offers the chance to travel in one of the most futuristic buildings in the world, and one of the most iconic pieces of architecture in the Shanghai skyline.

2. The Maglev

You might remember from an earlier post that I travelled from Wuhan to Changsha on one of the world’s fastest trains, moving at around 350km an hour. Shanghai’s Maglev, which connects Longyang Road metro station with Pudong International Airport, is technically the world’s fastest train. It goes 30km in 8 minutes, and can travel at speeds of up to 431km an hour.

I took a ride on the Maglev to experience the fuss for myself and to be honest, I was a bit disappointed – while the train is capable of travelling at 431km/hour, it actually cruises along at 300km/hour. While that’s very fast, I have to admit to feeling let-down by China’s transport prowess. Admittedly, if this were a Tweet, I would hash-tag it with #firstworldproblems. But, the story does not end there.

Since returning home, I’ve learnt a few more things about the ‘darker side’ of China’s high-speed rail infrastructure. This post from Australia’s Lowy Institute raises questions about the economic viability of the enterprise while another article from Caixin points out that the technical and engineering expertise of the high-speed rail system are also under doubt.

3. The Bund and People Square

Even in two years, there are new buildings to see from The Bund walkway. Since Shanghai hosted the World Expo last year, the city has clearly made an effort to meet certain international standards about being a ‘world city’. Its Chinese characteristics have become almost as cosmopolitan as Beijing.

I also noticed that there were far fewer hagglers and beggars in this part of the city (Puxi), whereas on my last trip it was hard to miss the terrible poverty of people who had moved to the city from rural areas. While less poverty should point to a positive development, I suspect that the problem has not been solved, and instead the Shanghai city council have moved the problem to a less visible place. In fact, I noticed lots of changes like this – even the thick tangles of powerlines hanging above the city have been replaced with sterile new ones in many places. Again, this should point to a more positive development, but I’m not really sure if it is all just for show.

People Square is just as quirky and hectic as ever, as demonstrated in this picture of a shopfront window using sharks to attract attention to their products.

4. French Concession

The French Concession has also become far more cosmpolitan in the past two years. South Shaanxi Road is a who’s-who walk through of top brands in the fashion world. The number of expat housewives pushing their expensive prams along the cobbled paths shocked me – perhaps the French Concession is now more posh than cool?

But on the back streets there are still those quirky art shops and cosy cafes that made me fall in love with it.

Of course, nostalgia is a completely hapless emotion. As Haruki Murakami puts it in Kafka on the Shore: “Memories are what warm you up from the inside. But they’re also what tear you apart.”

The only way to approach a city you’ve already visited and loved is to acknowledge that it moved on the moment you left it. Shanghai, please don’t leave me behind!

You can view more of my pics from Shanghai and Hangzhou on my Flickr page.

Posted in: Travel, Writing