Shanghai, First Impressions


A professor at the University of Vermont told me over dinner last spring that your first visit to Shanghai is just a peek inside, your second visit opens the door. I peeked at Shanghai through a tiny keyhole, and can already imagine taking a big step into this massive, cosmopolitan, ascendant metropolis. Shanghai felt far less crowded and polluted than I had been warned to expect; I was totally smitten watching people, mostly much older, practicing tai chi in public parks, or performing morning stretches, and even joining what appeared to be an 8 a.m. ad hoc ballroom dancing session in People's Park. The street food, the whisper-quiet electric scooters and city bike fleets, and generally happy vibe made it easy to like this place.

We Built This City

The natural place to start this post is The Bund, the riverfront at the heart of Shanghai, from which one can see the elegant architecture left by the British and French on one side of the Huangpu River, and the eye-popping lights of the new Pudong skyscrapers on the opposite bank. But instead, let's start with the Urban Planning Exhibit, because despite its sterile name, it's a gem of a museum in People's Park.

The exhibits take you on a photographic history tour of Shanghai's massive changes and development, envision (propagandize?) the city's pristine energy future, and dedicate nearly an entire floor to a scale mock-up of the sprawling, jagged, fascinating expanse of Shanghai. The growth and expansion of this city in tiny window of time is hard to comprehend. Already a megacity in the year 2000 with 16 million people, Shanghai in 2017 has a population of 24 million. Where once there were no tall buildings, there is now an entire new downtown of skyscrapers soaring past each other. Where once there was no subway, there is now a expansive, gorgeously clean and and totally intuitive metro. The growth is visually stunning to take in.


The Bund & Yu Garden

Wide flat stone forms a ribbon along the Huangpu River, comprising the Bund. The pedestrian artery was dotted with runners and walkers on a early gray morning, and teeming with families and revelers in the evening - seemingly energized by the spectacle of city lights around them. (What the heck is a 'Bund' anyway? Thanks, Wikipedia!)

From the Bund, Yu Garden is short walk into a nest of classic Chinese architecture - red wooden lattice walls, narrow stone passageways, dark tile roofs that swoop out to dramatic pointy corners. In the early morning, before the souvenir hawkers and dumpling sellers take over, the alleys surrounding Yu Garden are quiet and patient, populated by a few people on their way to work, and a handful more playing badminton in the courtyard that will be overrun with tourists a few hours from now.

The French Concession

My French Concession obsession was stoked by Rob Schmitz's book, Street of Eternal Happiness, and by the gorgeous displays of photography and folk art at the Urban Planning Exhibit. In style and cultural cache, you can think of the French Concession kind of like Georgetown in Washington D.C., a tony historic enclave that swarms with posh stores, posh people and... tourists. A walk down the main shopping street was enlivened by a delicious and cold lime-chia-seed drink concoction, but turning down Changle Lu (Eternal Happiness Street) yielded the long warning blare of city-wide emergency siren, three times. No one seemed ruffled by it, and a bookstore owner explained a few minutes later it's a monthly test. Garden Books, by the way - fantastic! Shelves of English and other foreign language books, somewhat chaotically arranged, but with incredible range and diversity of topics. A different visit to the French Concession, wetted by heavy mist that turned to rain, was focused on the Shikomen houses. A few city blocks of warm gray stone houses arranged to face inward to their odd-shaped, interconnected courtyards. Some passages are narrow and barren with exposed stone reaching two or three stories overhead, others open generously into leafy patios of twinkling lights, with wood-framed window balconies overhanging the elegant, festive streets.


My peek into Shanghai was an extremely narrow but happy vantage point. The tiny corner of the city where I spent time is reputedly the most attractive face of Shanghai, and I write this knowing that I have a gaping chasm of ignorance about what is beyond the comfortable edges where I spent my few days here.

[Click the photo below to advance slideshow.]

[Shanghai: September 14-18, 2017]