City on the sea

Shanghai days

City on the sea

Tanushree Podder explores the historic Chinese city of Shanghai with its many contradictions. Home to both ancient and modern architecture, good food and several shopping hideouts, this is a must-visit destination

Those who have read Amy Tan’s books, or any book set in Shanghai (on the sea) during the World War II, will be familiar with the city’s settings or the cloak of mystery that surrounded it in the early 20th century. During its halcyon days, Shanghai was a hub of business, art and architecture with a racetrack, bars, dance halls and affluent clubs. Opium dens, brothels and crime also found their place in the city, which has witnessed the presence of Chinese dynasties, British, French, Japanese and the communists at various phases of its existence.

In the 1930s, Shanghai earned paradoxical epithet ranging from the ‘Splendour of the East’ to the ‘Whore of Asia’. Whatever be the epithet, the city was a conflation of many countries and nationals, who were fused by war and trade. It was, then, a city tied in a Gordian knot of violence, intrigue and enigma.

Rich history

Shanghai was a city of contradictions with many redeeming incidents like the Miracle of Shanghai, in which more than 20,000 Jews fled to the city to escape the Nazis. The miraculous escape is documented by the photographs and other memorabilia housed in Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, situated in the erstwhile Jewish Ghetto.

Today, the city on the sea is a glitzy and bustling place. Bursting at seams, it has earned the feature of being the most populated city of Asia.

Shanghai doesn’t boast of too many imperial structures. The city is more about the contemporary features although it has its share of pagodas, temples and gardens, some dating back to the Tang and Ming dynasties. I decided to do the historical ones before stepping into the modern structures. Beginning with a visit to the ancient Jiang Temple, famous for a huge copper bell that dates back to the Ming times. It also boasts of two white jade Buddha statues in sitting and reclining positions.

After paying respect to the deity, I made my way to the 16th century Yuyuan Gardens that date back to the Ming Dynasty. Said to have been created over a span of 19 years, the gardens have been silent observers to many historical incidents, including the plotting of a revolt against the French by the Society of Small Swords. Destroyed and rebuilt, the gardens are a beautiful place with meandering paths, rock gardens, ponds spanned by elegant stone bridges, pavilions as well as an ancient theatre for opera. There is also a tiny museum that commemorates the rebellion by the Society of Small Swords.

The adjoining Yuyuan Market with its 10 shopping streets overflowing with souvenirs, clothes, paintings, antiques, artefacts and food stalls is a crowded place.

Not far from the Yuyuan Gardens lies the famous Bund area. Once a muddy waterfront, it was transformed into a confluence of elegant architecture in the 19th century. The promenade is fringed with beautiful colonial structures, ranging from Gothic and Baroque to the Renaissance. It lies along River Huangpu, which divided the city into east and west. Among the remarkable buildings are the Customs House, Peace Hotel and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.

Bund is where the locals and tourists congregate each evening. While River Huangpu began overflowing with kitschy cruise boats teeming with camera-wielding tourists, I decided to sit on a bench on the promenade to rest my weary feet. It was impossible not to ruminate over the paradox of the two banks of the river. While the eastern side was fringed with colonial structures, tall cloud-kissing buildings, adorned with kaleidoscopic lights, crowded the western bank.

A modern look

The next morning, determined to keep my appointment with the modern face of the city, I began my tour from the Peoples’ Square, which was once the racecourse of Shanghai. It is a busy place, surrounded by prominent structures like the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Theatre and Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, all demanding a visit.

A museum aficionado, I made a beeline for the Shanghai Museum. With 11 galleries dedicated to ancient bronze, ancient ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, ancient sculpture, ancient jade, coins, Ming and Qing furniture, seals, and minority nationalities and three exhibition halls, the museum is a treasure trove of Chinese culture and art.

The 468-metre-high Oriental Pearl TV Tower is touted as the world’s sixth and China’s second tallest TV tower. Perhaps, it is the quaint architecture with 11 pearl-like orbs that gave it the name. The tower has three observatories at different levels. The highest one, at 350 metres, is fittingly called the Space Module and the lowest one, at 90 metres, is known as the Space City. Long queues of people waiting for the elevators to reach the highest observatory did not stop me from catching a bird’s eye view of the city.

With the Shanghai History Museum and a theatre for cultural performances, there is no dearth of activities for the visitors. Those looking for victuals flavoured with a stunning city view can saunter into the Revolving Restaurant, which is said to be the highest one in Asia. Chomping my way through the large spread of delicacies on the buffet tables, peppered with a panoramic view, was worth the yuans I shelled out for the experience.

The next morning, as the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train to the Pudong Airport touched its peak speed of 431 km/h, I marvelled over the country’s rapid progress in all fields. China was more than ready to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Fact file

How to get there: Cathay Pacific, China Airlines and Air India have direct flights from India to Shanghai. Alternatively, one can also fly to Beijing and take a high-speed train to Shanghai, which takes five hours and 30 minutes.

Stay: The city has a surfeit of staying options to suit every pocket. Right from the five-star hotels to boutique hotels, hostels and backpacker accommodations.

Food: Try out Shanghainese specialities like three yellow chicken, fried shrimp, hairy crab, beggar chicken and drunken chicken. Dumplings with a variety of stuffings are a must-have, especially xiaolongbao and shengjianbao. Roast duck and pepper duck are all-time favourites of foodies. For vegetarians, tofu is a safe choice. A surfeit of McDonalds and KFC outlets await those who shun tofu and Chinese food. 

Shopping: Shanghai is a shopper’s paradise so loosen your purse strings to splurge on silk, jade, bags, curios and electronics. All kinds of fakes are available for a song. You will find Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors, Givenchy and many premium brands of bags at a fraction of the cost. Haggling is a norm at most markets, so go all out to bargain.

Best time to go: The best time to visit Shanghai is early spring or early fall, when the weather is good and crowds thin.

Currency: 1RMB is approximately 10.25 INR.

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