Wandering in Shanghai, Jewel of the Orient

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Johnny Robinson in front of the unique Shanghai skyline.

Johnny Robinson in front of the unique Shanghai skyline.

Street food is always a good bet, so I try some more. The grinning vendor/cook is baking a tortilla-like pastry on a half-meter wide skillet. He throws on an egg, some sauce of unknown identity, some cilantro, another layer of batter, some more stuff and cooks it for a minute or so. He folds it into a sandwich-sized package and wraps it in thin paper. Some RMB (money) changes hands, and I’m off with a wave and a “xiexie!,” munching and striding my way down the avenue to my next stop: The Shanghai Museum.

I’m in Shanghai visiting an artist friend who lives here, and I’m walking around slack-jawed most of the time, blown away by this spectacular mainland China city. One quickly runs out of superlatives, but it is one of the most state-of-the-art, modern, clean, and beautiful cities this traveler has ever seen.

The Shanghai Museum is world class, and is brimming with elegant and sophisticated exhibits of wonders like ancient Chinese porcelain, bronze, and jade work. Spending a few hours here gives one a feel for the profound history of the country –  the centuries upon centuries of evolving arts and crafts, of warfare, of commerce, of government. I’m looking through the glass at Chinese pottery fragments from 6,000 BCE, and unbroken, elegant pieces of work from 5,000 BCE, and I shake my head in amazement and disbelief. The exquisite bronze work and precise jade carving from thousands of years ago is testament to the passion, skill and patience of the ancestors of the modern Chinese people around me.

And around me they are – in very great quantities. I’m jostled as I board the metro at People’s Square, said to be the busiest metro station in China. It’s obvious that lots of effort is going into people moving in modern China, from the sleek metros like this one to the high-speed trains that seem to copy the best aspects of their French, German, and Japanese counterparts.

Everybody has a job, everybody has a uniform – well, so it seems anyway. In any direction you look there are people in green suits industriously sweeping the sidewalks and others dressed in ill-fitting gray jumpsuits serve as crosswalk assistants, to help keep pedestrians from getting killed by the numerous maniacal drivers. There are parking assistants stationed near parking meters, and unarmed guards in yet another style of uniform positioned throughout the city. And then there are the soldiers of the Peoples Republic, standing at attention at the entrances to public buildings.

The Pearl of the Orient is queen of the skyscrapers, and the building boom is showing no signs of letting up. There are more ultrahigh crane rigs employed in new construction in Shanghai than are utilized in the rest of the world’s cities combined. That sounds pretty far-fetched, but looking out from the observation deck of the Jin Mao Tower, over the sea of buildings under construction to the horizon in all directions, the cranes are too numerous to count.

Most of Shanghai’s 19.5 million residents live in the hundreds of apartment towers, but the traditional homes called “shikumen” are still found as well. These narrow two-story buildings, distinguished by their stone arch entrances, are found off pedestrian alleys called “longtang.” The streets of the French Concession, where I’m rooming, are lined with Sycamore trees – the locals call them Napoleon trees after the guy who introduced them – and the ambiance of the neighborhood is one of peace and tranquility amid the hustle and bustle.

So, I’m a big fan of hitting the streets, exploring on foot for hours at a time in my restless curiosity to get the feel of a city. Walking through People’s Park, between people practicing Tai Chi amid the trees dressed in fall colors, I gaze upward and outward beyond the perimeter of this green space at the skyscrapers standing staunchly against the hazy blue sky. I contemplate this port city’s interesting past, and its link to the west starting in the late 18th century, when the British established trade with China through Shanghai. High demand for tea and porcelain back home became matched –through the shrewdness of British merchants- by Shanghai’s demand for opium. The English, of course, did not produce opium themselves but slipped into India on their way to China, filling their ships’ holds with the drug. The opium business gradually dwindled to be replaced by trade in silk and ceramics, and now, a century or two later, China is the product source for Walmart, one of the world’s largest companies.

I’m on a promenade called “the Bund,” overlooking the Huangpu River and the spectacular skyscrapers of the Pudong district on the other side. The last gleam of the setting sun bathes the buildings in golden light. Soon, the sun will dip below the blocky horizon and on will come the colored lights which strikingly adorn the high-rises. As I turn and head off down Nanjing Street I shove my hands in my pocket to ward off the evening chill, and my fingers touch my rail ticket to Hangzhou. Tomorrow I board the high-speed train to that ancient city and I’ll hit the streets there.

I can’t wait to get the feel of that place.