Shanghai – Past Meets Future and Future is Largely Winning

Shanghai, with more than 23 million inhabitants, is the largest city in China and the largest city proper (within a single legal or political boundary) in the world. Historically China’s most international city, Shanghai’s growth has exploded in the last fifteen years and it is now more globally connected than ever. It is broadly considered to be the face of China’s future.


Having long wanted to visit, we accepted an offer from Tawn’s cousin and his wife to stay with them at their apartment in Jiang’an, a district in the heart of the city. 

Our five-day trip was a busy one, full of food and activities, leaving our heads spinning a bit and leaving me uncertain of how to write about the experience. Chronological order seemed unsatisfactory so I decided to group my entries thematically. This first entry: Past Meets Future. 


We arrived at 7:00 after a grueling four-hour overnight flight from Bangkok. The first thing to shape my impression of Shanghai was the Pudong district to the east of the city. The rapidly-developing district is home to the largest free-trade zone in China, large industrial areas, and high-tech parks that would look at home in Silicon Valley. Viewed through the hazy air, you can see how much of this area is only recently developed and how much more is being prepared for development.


Pudong is also home to Shanghai’s 13-year old second international airport. It is a large, modern structure that allows for efficient processing of more than 40 million passengers a year through two grand but somewhat utilitarian terminals. 


While driving into the city, and throughout the visit, I was struck by how much construction is underway. The crane must be the city’s official bird, because there are so many of them standing on the skyline. Everywhere you turn, old neighborhoods are being torn down to make way for modern developments and very little appears to be much more than twenty years old.


That’s not to say that everything in Shanghai is modern. We strolled through a weekend market that takes place near Tawn’s cousins’ apartment. The market is aimed at locals – we were the only foreigners – and they sell a variety of things geared towards hobbies such as religious items and paraphernalia used for pet birds – feed, cages, trays of worms, and the birds themselves.


There seems to be a large segment of the population who live more hard-scrabble lives, and in some neighborhoods it is clear that many people have migrated to the city from the countryside and look a bit out of place compared to the very modern surroundings and their sophisticated, chic Shanghainese counterparts.


One aspect of the city’s heritage that is rapidly disappearing is the shikumen, the traditional Shanghainese style townhouses that are set back along narrow alleys that connect to the main street through a gateway.


At first almost invisible to visitors, you catch glimpses of these neighborhoods as you walk along the street, the lives of the residents briefly appearing in your peripheral vision in a gateway that opens between storefronts. Two steps later and their world disappears again as you move on.


The shikumen and similar styles of neighborhood make for an interesting stroll because they let you glimpse everyday life for the large number of Shanghai residents who do not inhabit the highrises that dot the skyline.


Laundry dries on poles, bicycles are locked to walls, and residents share a common space that creates time for conversations and a sense of community. I imagine that people living in these neighborhoods see them as a retreat from the hectic world outside the gateway, one that is every bit as busy as in New York, London, Tokyo, or Mexico City.


These traditional neighborhoods are rapidly being cleared out by construction, with residents reimbursed (often at a princely sum) for their valuable land. In the place of these shikumen, high rise complex are built, often a combination of commercial, residential, and retail space. While there seems to be an effort made to preserve at least some parts of Shanghai’s architectural and cultural heritage, much of it still goes the way of the bulldozer and earthmover.


Despite this rapid development, some neighborhoods are still full of local shops, mom-and-pop types of operations where a simple meal is prepared, hardware is sold, or the ubiquitous battery-powered motorbikes are repaired.


Other parts of the city, though, are full of modern shopping malls and promenades with name brands and luxury outlets: Apple, Prada, and Louis Vuitton each have a trio of stores and there are at least a dozen Cartier boutiques. Even without the western brand names, modern shopping centers and department stores proliferate. Nanjing Road East, pictured above, is a pedestrian mall featuring Chinese department stores filled with domestic tourists. 

Above, a pan past the flashy Hong Kong Plaza mall on Huaihai Road with one of the three Apple stores and loads of cool LED lights.

The large story in Shanghai is one about the future. While there is heritage being lost, it seems that most people are looking towards the future and appreciate the tremendous economic opportunities that have come with progress. Maybe that is a naive outsider’s view, but it is the impression I’m left with.


The advances in infrastructure are amazing. The world’s longest metro system features 11 lines and 278 stations covering 434 kilometers (270 miles) with additional lines being built. There is also the only commercial mag-lev
(magnetic levitation) train in service
, bringing you between the airport and the eastern side of the city in about eight minutes at a speed of up to 430 kilometers per hour. We rode it to the airport and I’ll share some pictures and videos later.


An extensive network of roads, expressways, and bridges have been built and despite being such a large city, traffic seems significantly less congested than in many other large Asian cities. If Shanghai is anything, it is easy to get around.


While in Shanghai, we had a lot of different experiences and spent a lot of time walking around and seeing at least some parts of the city. Reflecting on the trip, it is easy to see Shanghai as a city in which past and future are crushed against each other and, without a doubt, the future is wining.


0 thoughts on “Shanghai – Past Meets Future and Future is Largely Winning

  1. Oh boy! I can’t wait to visit the local weekend flea markets! I can bargain with the vendors in my broken Shanghainese dialect! My mom was at her old neighborhood in Shanghai last year and she couldn’t believe how much has changed!

  2. @CurryPuffy – I was speaking with an American woman who moved to Shanghai 16 years ago (married a local guy) and she was sharing her impressions on how radically the city has changed since then. Thinking back over the seven years that I’ve lived in Bangkok, I can measure some changes but generally not that radical. While in Shanghai, though, I can see all these construction projects and know that if I go back to visit in two years, there will be significant changes.@oxyGENE_08 – Indeed it is. That’s one reason I would like to travel more to the country, because it is undergoing fascinating changes.

  3. I have an electric scooter but its limited range disappoints me (Less than 3 miles)Looks like your powers of observation were tested and I can say that you did condense a lot of feelings into it.There was a long article on transportation in China. It did get top priority but lately they have been running into problems of graft and leadership. The high speed crash a while ago highlighted that problem.

  4. This looks like an interesting place to visit. Dick used to travel there frequently in his job. Glad you and Tawn had a good time and, presumably, a good visit with his cousin, and are back home safe and sound.

  5. Interesting observations of old vs. future — it does indeed appear that future is winning.  Did you get to the outlying areas, though — and is progress being made there as well?

  6. I am curious. You posted to the effect residents were given a princely sum for ‘THEIR’ land. There is no land ownership in China. It’s a communist country. The State need not reimburse anyone, so I have the feeling you were fed propaganda.

  7. Ah, yes, the Mag-Lev train, built by the Germans, whose technology was stolen by the Chinese who then turned around and offered to build Mag-Lev trains for other countries using this stolen technology. I know all about that. As a result, Germany refuses to ever deal with the Chinese again. Same with the Russians. The Chinese are crooks.

  8. A couple of friends have asked us over and over again to take a trip with them to China. I was not in favor at all, because I didn’t think I would feel happy or impressed with the country. WOW Chris, your pictures are amazing, and I am so impressed with the train service. Thank you.

  9. @Inciteful – While Tawn’s father is half-Chinese, that fact is not related to the cousin we visited, who is American born but he and his wife (who is Thai) are working in Shanghai.@murisopsis – Without the smog, crowds, and spitting on the sidewalk!@ZSA_MD – I would encourage you to visit China. Whatever its relative strengths and weaknesses, it is an amazing country and with more than a billion people living there, it is hard to doubt its importance in the world.@CanuckFascist – Your information is out of date, I’m afraid. Private property ownership is legal in China and the days of “everything belongs to the state” are long over. The private property law went into effect in October 2007. As for your assertions about Germany no longer dealing with China because of stolen meglev technology, there are plenty of examples of Germany (and German companies) continuing to conduct business in China and with the Chinese government.@slmret – We did travel outside Shanghai, taking a day trip to Huangzhou about two hours’ drive south. This city of about 8 million people actually has a higher GDP than Shanghai and there seems to be just as much growth there. Of course, not an exhaustive survey of the country by any means.@PPhilip – Yes, the state railway system was/is a hotbed of corruption. Not withstanding that fact, the infrastructure developments are impressive.@ungrandvoyage – Am curious to visit again soon and see what has changed.@Fatcat723 – Glad you enjoyed the entry.  

  10. I do find it amusing that, in a communist state, private enterprise accounts for two-thirds of China’s total GDP. I love the fact the Chinese ‘communists’ are selling out to the capitalists. Another victory for capitalism. May all communists put that in your pipe and smoke it. Thank you.”Every month sees thousands of protests across China by poor farmers outraged at the expropriation of their land for piffling or no compensation.””Nor, even now, will they be free from the threat of expropriation, another disincentive to investment.””But even outside agriculture it is often unclear whether a “private” enterprise is really owned by individuals or by a local government or party unit. Conversely, some “collective” or “state” enterprises operate in ways indistinguishable from the private interests of their bosses.”

  11. Here is the great wonderful country of China with the wonderful Chinese people…”China’s magnetic levitation technology was partially purloined from Germany’s Transrapid company.While it took Transrapid decades of testing, the Chinese were able to ramp up and produce within twenty two months. Pretty remarkable when one considers that this technology was new to China.But then again, how did they do it?According to the Germans, the answer is simple, the Chinese stole key technology.And remember that other high profile mastery of Chinese technology – the High Speed Rail? The same high speed rail that Zheng Jian, the chief planner and director of high-speed rail at China’s railway ministry said was the “most advanced in many fields”, and that he was willing to share with the United States?I am sure this made then Governor Arnold Swarzenegger happy, but as far as Kawasaki Heavy Industries from Japan was concerned, the know-how was also stolen.””China has made industrial espionage an integral part of its economic policy, stealing company secrets to help it leapfrog over US and other foreign competitors to further its goal of becoming the world’s largest economy.In China, it is said, anything and everything can and will be copied.It must keep executives up at night to think that while almost 1 in 10 Americans is unemployed, we are transferring technology and jobs to a country that has turned theft into an art form.”I am glad you love China.Our CSIS has been demanding our government boot out many Chinese from Canada for espionage, but the liberals have been howling in outrage, screaming ‘racism’.

  12. awh!!!!!so wonderful and nostalgic to view pictures of shangai once again.  it was the highlight of my china trip.  that city is so amazing especially the archetiture.  i had a wonderful time there and ate many different foods including that egg that is buried in the ground for ?yrs and sea urchin.  the people were so wonderful. the buffet in that hotel with the restaurant that goes around in a circle(that is where i stayed) did not have duck so the waitress went downstairs to another restaurnat in the hotel and brought me an order of duck at no extra charge.  i love the cute tiny woman dressed in western clothes singing western songs with a swing band. i recongnized all the tunes and new the wrongs in english but she was singing in mandarin it was so charming.

  13. I have been to Shanghai many times, and the city was changing quickly all the time. I remember the sea of black hair and the swamps of bicycles when i first visited it 20 years ago. I was really scared. Now it is a very modern city with a lot of shopping, restaurants, night life and car. Your blog is very interesting to read, as always.

  14. Beautiful photos and videos. I feel like i went with you do thank you for taking me along. I love the old and new parts of the city and hope that the culture is not lost to the modernization.

  15. I doubt if I could sleep on an overnight flight. I know J would love to visit China. I’ve always been a bit hesitant though, I’m not really sure why.btw – I loved the last sentence.

  16. i’d love to visit shanghai. i’d love to visit anywhere in asia, for that matter! as a side note, the new james bond movie, skyfall, has a few scenes set in shanghai. you really see the modernization, but very little of the actual lifestyle of the residents who live there. so it’s nice to see the contrast in your pictures!

  17. @kunhuo42 – Have you not been to Asia yet?@ElusiveWords – Honestly, China hasn’t been high on my list of places to visit. I only want to go places where I know people, so I can break out of the tourist trap. But the more I see, the more curious I am about China.@Grannys_Place – Glad you could join me on the trip! =D@stevew918 –  I bet it is amazing to see the transition of the place over the years.@grannykaren – Sounds like you have fantastic memories of your trip there. So glad I could rekindle them for you and that you shared them here.@gasdoc73 – Time to call the travel agent, huh?

  18. @CanuckFascist – Thank you for your enthusiastic participation in this entry. You post these long comments that look to be quotes but provide no attribution. If you are trying to use these quotes to support your point of view, it might be helpful to provide sources so others can weigh the validity of your comments. Thanks.

  19. Very nice! That com­bi­na­tion of hyper­modern and tradi­tion­al—as long as the lat­ter lasts, anyway—is fascinating. I hope to see it first­hand some­day. Look­ing for­ward to the next install­ment on the “Paris of the Orient” (or this one, of the couple of them).

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