Shanghai is the gateway to the Yangzi River, but when the British opened their first concession there in 1842, after the first Opium War, it was just a small fishing and weaving town. The French arrived in 1847 and before long an international settlement was born. By the time the Japanese arrived in 1895 the city was being parcelled up into autonomous settlements, immune from Chinese law.
In the 1930s Shanghai had the tallest buildings in Asia, more motor vehicles than the rest of China combined and was where the world’s houses of finance and commerce descended. It also became a place of exploitation and vice, countless opium dens and gambling joints, a plethora of brothels – all being guarded by American, French and Italian marines, British soldiers and Japanese bluejackets.
In 1947 the Communists put down their metaphorical foot and faced the task of eradicating slums, rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of opium addicts and stamping out child and slave labour. For the west, the party was over!
The 1990s saw interest in Shanghai regenerating, and the city is growing with new underground stations, highways crossing the city and the world’s most modern stock exchange, but it remains a city of contradictions and poverty is still prevalent.
The intensity of Shanghai’s colonial past is second only to Hong Kong’s, and while its evidence is visible right down to its beautiful old buildings, it is far from being an east meets west town. This modern city is the pulse of Asia’s future.
Huaihai Road, the French Concession, has graceful architecture and tree-lined avenues, cafes and boutiques, and was once the centre of Shanghai’s more illicit activities – home to gangsters and prostitutes, revolutionaries, writers and adventurers – not just French citizens, but British, American, White Russian and Chinese. Now it is the heart of the city’s restaurant and nightlife scene.
As an alternative to the well-worn Nanjing Road, Huaihai Road is the new shopping area with chic boutiques, department stores, brand-name items and international designer label clothing.
The Chinese Old Town is the most traditional area of Shanghai, in the southern part of the city, and includes well-preserved and restored residences dating from Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the early Republican era. The narrow streets and alleyways of the area surrounding the Yu Garden are home to hundreds of small shops, restaurants and street vendors, selling all kinds of Chinese arts and crafts, traditional medicines and local snacks.
Just outside the entrance to the Yu Garden, this is the most famous teashop in town (Queen Elizabeth II and Bill Clinton have visited) and is protected by the zig-zag ‘Nine-Winding Bridge’ – evil spirits cannot walk in a straight line!
Huxinting Teahouse, China's quintessential teahouse has floated atop the lake at the heart of Old Town, in front of Yu Gardens, since 1784. Built by area cotton-cloth merchants as a brokerage hall, tea drinking was forbidden inside for almost a century, until the late 1800s, when it became what it is today. Many visitors believe it was the original model for Blue Willow tableware; at the very least, it certainly looks the part. Huxinting (meaning "mid-lake pavilion") is reached via the traditional Bridge of Nine Turnings, so designed to deflect evil spirits who are said to travel only in straight lines. The five-sided, two-story pavilion with uplifted eaves and turrets has served everyone from visiting heads of State to local labourers. It's the place in Shanghai to idle over a cup of green tea, seated in front of the open windows.
Nanxiang Steamed Buns Restaurant is a restored 1900s teahouse in the Yu Yuan Bazaar near the old town. Dumpling stuffers work behind glass windows on the ground floor, watched by hungry customers. The house specialty are dumplings filled with pork and crab.
People is a novelty restaurant where a code is required to enter – that means you need to book to get your code! It’s ultra-trendy and almost hidden away in a side street, with no signage. Even opening toilet doors presents a trick, but it is fun. Its food is good, prices are low – what more could you want.
In a country which constantly creates technology, one of the most fascinating things there is the Shanghai Maglev train. It is a high-speed, low-energy, magnetic levitation train and began operating in late 2002. It has no wheels, transmissions or overhead wires. Wheels and rails have been replaced by non-contact, electro-magnetic levitation, guidance and propulsion systems with the vehicle hovering 10mm above the guideway. With high acceleration and braking control, it operates at a maximum speed of 430 kph and offers a very stable and comfortable ride.
It is currently on the 30km between Pudong International Airport and the Longyang Road Station in a double-track, turn-around operation, meaning there can be no collisions. Three trains, each with fifteen carriages, leave at 20 minute intervals and the journey takes just 7 minutes.
Pudong on the east bank of the Huangpu River is the glittering economic zone on the new face. It is the home of some of Shanghai’s most magnificent architectural statements and its skyline is a panorama of amazing, towering buildings.
The futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower – at 468 metres Asia’s tallest – has eight globes lined vertically which cover sightseeing, dining and accommodation. The elevator travels at 7 metres a second! Its opening hours are 8am to 9pm.
The Bund is a stretch of 52 blocks of tall, magnificent buildings of differing architectural style. It is always busy – early morning sees people doing their tai chi and other traditional exercises, then the workers and tourists take it over until dark, when the lights come on and tourists again come to look and photograph, drink and eat.
The Bund Tourist Tunnel is the first pedestrian tunnel to cross a river. It goes from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower to the Bund, a distance of 646.7 metres, and passengers travel in unmanned, towed, sealed cars. Walls display patterns and scenes showing history, culture, technology and cars have background music.
China’s tallest building is Jin Mao Tower. Its 420.5metres, is made up of 88 storeys. The glass and steel pagoda-shaped building is a triumph of engineering and architectural theory. The number 8, considered to be extremely lucky by Chinese, is a predominant factor. The tower features technical intelligence, super-fast lifts and the new mode of self-rescue in the event of fire.
The Grand Hyatt occupies floors 53 to 87, making it the highest hotel in the world. When it’s time to sit and think at the end of the day, Cloud Nine Bar on the 87th floor is the perfect venue. It is the Art Deco crown of the Tower and apart from the views, there is live entertainment and tasty hors d’oeuvre are served with cocktails.
The new Mayfair Hotel is Shanghai’s largest. Its two towers have 860 rooms and suites and a choice selection of food and beverage outlets. It also has a huge shopping mall and serviced apartments. Right in the heart of the Chang Ning district, the commercial hub, it also has easy access to exhibition centres, international airports and the People’s Square.
Far more interesting than its name might suggest, Shanghai Urban Planning Centre is five floors of dedication to urban development. The strikingly modern microlite glass building has an hourly lightshow is a great way to understand the new Shanghai.