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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.