Shanghai is a great city, I have to admit. My recent trip, the second time I had been to Shanghai, wiped away my previous anti-Shanghai bias. This grand metropolis which is a nation’s pride, but also a relative baby compared to much more historic and previously illustrious cities nearby, is glamorous, but behind the glamor and fame lies a mass of humanity, rich, poor, middle-class, working, struggling, enduring hardships and enjoying life. I saw the modern and sleek stuff, the beautiful and historic elements, and also the not so modern and banal stuff, but it just made me appreciate the place more. Obviously there’s a lot I still don’t understand (and probably never will) but I know enough that there is substance behind the style.
Thanks to my relatives, whose warmness and generosity I will most likely never be able to repay in full, my two days were spent going all over Shanghai, without so much as breaking a sweat. These places included the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Shanghai Museum, Xintiandi, where both the “Father of the nation” Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao’s longtime number two Chou Enlai lived, and an actual old water town with 1,000 years of history, Qibao. Of course, I also went to the famous Bund.
Let’s start with the Oriental Pearl Tower, probably Shanghai’s single most famous landmark. Easily recognizable because of its circular bright red domes and needle top that resemble a weird space rocket in a way, it’s one of a troika of super-high towers in the Pudong district, the other two being the World Financial Centre and the Jinmao tower (hilariously referenced in this clip from Shanghai Kiss, a decent comedy starring Hayden Panettiere and funny American-Chinese guy). I’ve been up a few tall buildings in my life (Taipei 101, CN Tower, Africa’s tallest building) but the views of Shanghai were great. You see the Oriental Pearl Tower’s fellow skyscrapers looming right across the street and look down on some shorter towers in the vicinity, you get a good 270 degree look at the Huangpu River as it bends around Pudong, with the Bund visible across the Huangpu, and finally, the horizon is seemingly infinite in all directions. There are a lot of towers, as well as townhouses and low-level (less than 6 floors) apartment buildings. Shanghai looks much more visually attractive than Taipei, is much bigger than Hong Kong, and the wide, spacious avenues running right below the tower make the Lujiazhui area seem like a North American city and less so an East Asian one. The prevalence of townhouses and low-level apartment buildings, as opposed to highrises like Hong Kong or ugly, grey midlevel apartment buildings like Taipei, also contributed to this resemblance. The lower observation deck is ringed with a glass floor on the entire outer edge, which exceeds the glass floor of Toronto’s CN Tower which I remember was just a small part (from my last visit many years back so maybe this has changed).
I missed the World Expo 2010 last year but I kind of made up for that by visiting the China Pavilion this time. Still standing in all its bright red gigantic glory, the pavilion had several impressive multimedia exhibitions. Coming to the pavilion was my relatives’ idea as I had no idea it was still open and it was a good one. There were a lot of Chinese tourists here and outside the site, touts pestered people with tickets. Security guards called on them to move from time to time, and I saw one particular seller practically snarl with rage as she glared contemptuously at them. When we got inside the pavilion grounds, there were more touts, this time, offering to take photos and selling Expo visitor passports filled with country pavilion stamps. These touts were even in the line to the pavilion. During the Expo, my relatives had lined up for four hours just to enter the China Pavilion. Now, it was much better; the time we had to wait in line was so short I couldn’t even remember how long it was. The line was lined with steel rails with fans mounted at regular intervals above and covered with a roof but I couldn’t imagine lining up for hours. I was a little surprised that there were so many people hustling, as opposed to vending, even inside the grounds but at the same time, China is still a developing country and there are many people for whom this is their only way to make a living. My relatives and I even accepted an offer from a hustling photographer to take our picture which he then promptly printed out from a mini-photo printer in his bag! I was impressed at his one-man mobile photo-printing operation. This was indeed innovative hustling at its best.
After we ascended an escalator into the pavilion, we went to line up in front of a theater while images were broadcast above our heads of Chinese astronauts and other people I couldn’t remember. We were waiting to watch a movie and once the doors opened, everyone just rushed in. You’d think I’d be shocked at my first direct experience to the supposedly common Chinese behavior of rushing and jumping lines. But actually, it was kind of fun and I made sure to go for one of the back seats as opposed to the front ones where most people were rushing for. My relatives and I, including my almost 90-year-old “weipor”, sat together and watched this short 15-minute film that played on 3 screens arranged in a curved half hexagon. It was about a guy and girl from a rural village growing up and leaving for the city to work while at the same time society was industrializing and modernizing. It ended, amid a soaring musical orchestral score and a booming narrative, with a shot of a 3-D generated future Chinese city, all resplendent and ultra-high-tech in a lush natural environment, trumpeting a wish for the future. Maybe it’s a very unrealistic wish, given the current reality, but it’s a laudable goal. The film was nice but not without a little propagandistic feeling. The next exhibit was a room filled with mementos of life in Shanghai from the past. More impressively, the walls were filled with huge flowing black-and-white drawings of Shanghai. There were even bricks on display from the Han and Ming dynasties. It seemed like the new, the old, and the very old were all being commemorated. The next sight demonstrated that superbly. A fantastic ancient painting of a Chinese river town bustling with activity ran across the length of the entire hall. At least 40 feet long and 10 feet high, the “painting” was digitized and multimedia. In the painting, people moved, talked, boats sailed up and down, sounds rang out, and day turned into night. After this, there were rooms with fake trees with trunks lit up in green and blue foliage, and a forest of tall plastic poles that lit up in different colors. These looked alright but were a bit tacky though. The hallway on the walkway to the lower level was full of artwork from kids across China, including one from Taiwan. A lot were quite cool as these fanciful illustrations and paintings showed off all kinds of random stuff and scenery of China. I think if these kids really maintain their artistic passion and creativity, then there’s a lot of hope for the future in China regarding art. We then took a ride on a mini roller coaster, seriously, that passed through a brightly colored world of bridges and plastic trees and finally past a long screen of high-tech images of Shanghai and an array of irregular-shaped panels showing, you guessed it, high-tech images of Shanghai. Finally, we passed through a hall highlighting energy conservation that had futuristic YeZ “bionic” cars. There was also a large digital screen at the side that displayed constantly updated energy consumption figures based on the persons who entered the hall (mounted devices counted each person). The pavilion’s intention was to highlight technology, urban planning and conservation, with a little Shanghai pride thrown in, and it was quite good. All the exhibits were bright, colorful and modern and the juxtaposition of ancient art and modern multimedia for the river painting was excellent.
The China Pavilion turned out to be significantly more interesting than I thought but it closes for good later this year. Around the China Pavilion, there were a few empty buildings, the remnant of the World Expo. The ground on which the Expo mainly took place (it was spread across 2 or more sites in Pudong and Puxi) was mostly empty and I think the city will build entertainment or tourist-related buildings there, which wouldn’t be surprising.