November 01, 2020
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Shanghai Revisited

Someone whose images of Shanghai were formed in the 1980s finds himself doing double takes on each successive visit to this metropolis of surprises. This time he was dazzled by a replica of the archway to America's most famous Chinatown: in San Franc

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Shanghai Revisited
Shanghai Revisited

"Where did that come from?"  "That wasn’t here the last time I was in this neighborhood."  "I never thought I’d see something like that in this city!"  Return visitors like me continually say these kinds of things upon arriving in 21st-century Shanghai, and you might think that local residents would grow tired of hearing such comments from us. But they don’t seem to--perhaps because they say similar things themselves when they come back to Shanghai after short trips to other places.

I certainly heard remarks of that kind from the American computer game designer with whom I chatted pleasantly throughout much of the flight that brought me to Shanghai last March, and with whom I continued to talk during the long cab ride we shared from the airport to the old hotel just off the Bund where I stayed.  He had been living in Shanghai for several years and just returned from a short trip to the US.  Learning that I hadn’t been to the city for three years (a long time to go between visits by local standards), he was excited by the opportunity of pointing out new things to me.  But he would periodically switch abruptly from saying "I bet that wasn’t here when you last came through" to asking himself "when did that get built?"

Before our plane landed, I had gone back over my long mental list of things that had made me do double takes during earlier return visits. I remembered, for example, the sense of shock I had in 1996 when I went to the Bund and looked across the river to Pudong (East Shanghai) from the restaurant on the eighth floor of the Peace Hotel (called the Cathay when it opened in 1929).  What I saw was not the relatively undeveloped district devoid of tall buildings that I had seen on both my previous stays in Shanghai (a year-long one in the mid-1980s and a short return trip in 1988), but a giant construction site dominated by a then-new landmark, the soaring syringe-like Pearl of the Orient Radio and Television Tower.

I also recalled how, when I came back three years after that for my next visit, I did a double take (or, rather, several of them) when I took my first look at the sleek new public library on Huaihai Road, in what had once been the city’s French Concession. The building was unexpectedly impressive, but others things about it surprised me even more than its elegance and escalators.  One was that patrons had open access to 1940s issues of a Nationalist Party newspaper that, while doing my doctoral research in the old public library in the 1980s, I had spent weeks trying to find and then get permission to consult. Another thing that surprised me, as someone whose images of Shanghai were formed in the 1980s, when the only representations of historical figures you saw in public were big statues of Mao and smaller monuments to lesser revolutionary heroes, was the effigy of a kindly looking Confucius standing in the Library’s back garden.  Two final things that were unexpected, but which fit with the location in a district under French control from the 1840s through the 1940s, were that you could buy a passable croissant at its café and a variety of works by Parisian literary critic Roland Barthes in its bookstore.

Going down my mental checklist, I thought of a variety of sights that had surprised me during the four visits I had made between 2000 and 2004.  I recalled doing a double take when I saw how the Yu Garden district, a part of the city that long predates the Opium War (1839-1842), had been theme-parked, transformed into a place where, for a fee, you could ride in a faux Imperial palanquin or be pulled along in a faux rickshaw.  And I remembered doing double takes each time I noted how many more skyscrapers had sprouted up on both sides of the river but especially in Pudong, where the Pearl had gone from looking in 1996 like a lonely sentinel of the space age to seeming, as it does today, just one particularly strange tree in a futuristic forest.

After completing that review session on the plane in March, I vowed while still airborne that this time I would have a return visit free from double takes.  I would leave expectations formed in the 1980s on board when I exited and keep in mind what I had seen during my previous turn-of-the-millennium return visits.  I would also remain cognizant of things that I had read about since last visiting in 2004.  For example, I would not be surprised if, while in Pudong, I passed the construction site for the World Financial Center, for I’d seen reports that work on this structure, slated to become the tallest building in the world, had finally begun.

Sharing the taxi ride into the city with the computer game designer gave me my first inkling that I might find it hard to keep my vow of remaining nonplussed by Shanghai.  If he was struck by how much the city had changed in a few weeks, what chance did I have to remain blasé when coming to the metropolis after an absence of three years?  And, sure enough, on each of the days I was there in March, I wondered, at least once, whether my eyes are deceiving me.

One early double take came during a nighttime stroll along the Bund.  I wasn’t surprised to see an Armani store in one of the neo-classical buildings (I’d read about that opening), nor to see chic rooftop bars on the top of a couple of these structures (I’d had a drink in one during my last visit), nor to be accosted by beggars (there had been none in the 1980s, but a few by 1996 and more each return visit since then).  The sight for which I was unprepared was not even the lights skittering up and down the tall Aurora building across the river in Pudong, as I had seen that before and been reminded when I did of how Hong Kong looked in the 1980s.  What took me aback was something on the water itself: a barge slowly making its way up and down the river, carrying no cargo other than what seemed to be a flat screen television screen of enormous proportions, a floating billboard with moving images advertising various products.

Another double take moment came in Pudong when I went up to the eighty-eighth floor of the pagoda-like Jinmao Tower.  I was prepared for the things I would see when I looked down from there, even though I had never before been up to its indoor observation deck, as I had seen photographs taken from that vantage point.  I was not ready, though, for the sight that greeted me when I stared straight ahead out of one of the windows: a group of construction workers being hoisted up and up, seemingly straight into the stratosphere.  I had known that the World Financial Center was being built in the same part of Pudong as the Jinmao Tower, but I hadn’t realized that the two skyscrapers would be so close together that I would be able to make eye contact with the people working on its upper floors, one of whom, upon noticing me getting ready to take his picture, flashed me a smile and gave me a V for victory sign with his hand. 

A third March double take moment took place in a bookstore rather than in a skyscraper or on the street.  I was not surprised by seeing books for sale that provided tips on opening your own bar or café, nor did seeing ones that presented Confucius in a positive light or showcased the works of Western liberal philosophers catch me unawares.  After all, I had been seeing them on for sale in places such as this for more than a decade.  What did have shock value were the contents of a book whose title (translated into English) was "The Red Guide to Shanghai," with the color understood to refer to the hue of the Communist Revolution.

One of this book’s early paragraphs begins with a rhetorical question: "What color is Shanghai?"  It then answers by saying that most people think of it as a "blue" city, since this color is associated with the sea and the flow of cosmopolitan influences.  The author then proceeds to remind readers emphatically that, while the port may indeed be blue, "Shanghai is also another color: red!"  The rest of the book is devoted to showing how visitors can gain a deeper appreciation of this fact by visiting certain sites that have direct links to the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, such as the museum devoted to the First Party Congress, which is located in what was once the French Concession.

What took me aback about the book was not the route it proposed, since Chinese guidebooks outlining a "red" tour of the city were commonplace back in the 1980s. It was rather the assumption that the author made: that a journey through Shanghai oriented around revolutionary sites would be a very unusual one for any Chinese tourist to take.  It was, he took for granted, something that only visitors with a somewhat eccentric point of view would think of taking on their own, hence the need to provide encouragement and special guidance.

The double take moment from this trip that will probably stick with me longest, though, was not any of these, but rather one that was reminiscent of what Margot Fonteyn experienced almost eighty years previously, when seeing the neo-classical buildings lining the Bund, as a globetrotting British twelve-year-old, she apparently exclaimed: "But China looks more like England than America did!"

My recent Margot Fonteyn-like moment occurred when I made my way to the Yu Garden district, en route to the great flea market there on Fengbang Road, which I go to each time I am here to buy from and haggle with vendors selling books, maps and magazines dating from Maoist times and the final decades of Shanghai’s century-long incarnation as a partially colonized treaty-port.  I angled south and west from the Bund, following a route I had taken many times before, and without sparing them any special thought I walked by tall buildings and under freeway overpass that had had no place in my remembered Shanghai of the 1980s.  This was natural, as I’d seen them on early walks down this route taken in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2004.  What stopped me in my tracks was one thing I had never seen before.  It was a big wooden gate, that ran from one side of the street to the other, which was topped by a faux tile roof, adorned with carving of Chinese lions, and had characters reading "Yu Gardens Shopping and Tourism District" emblazoned upon it in bright golden calligraphy.

I did a double take because I knew that this archway reminded me of something I had seen in another city, but not in any Chinese metropolis.  At first, I couldn’t put my finger on which urban center it brought to mind.  Then it hit me that I’d seen something just like it in San Francisco.  The gate is a dead ringer for those that cue visitors in to the fact that they are about to enter America’s most famous Chinatown.

Back in the days of Fonteyn’s childhood trip to Shanghai, when it was a dangerous but exciting city characterized by sharp divides between rich and poor, some local foreigners jokingly used the term "Chinatown" to refer to the Yu Garden district.  I can’t imagine, though, that any of them expected that the day would come when the latest architectural import from the West to China would be a faux Chinese gate like this one.  That curious gate, which stands in a city that is experiencing all of the thrilling and worrisome features of breakneck capitalist development, will have pride of place in the mental checklist of Shanghai sites that made me do double takes that I will run through on the plane when I make my next return visit to that metropolis of surprises. 

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is the author of China’s Brave New World--And Other Tales for Global Times, which has just been published by Indiana University Press. A Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, he is currently completing work on Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 for Routledge’s "Asia’s Global Cities" series.

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