It’s a challenge isn’t it? You have friends in town for a layover. They’ve never been to Shanghai and are going to have about six useful hours.
What do you do?
The utterly bizarre combination of thousands of years of human settlement, the Opium Wars, its life as a treaty port, the Roaring 20’s, the rise of the Nationalists, the Communist Revolution and the almost burning commercial drive of the city has combined to give Shanghai some of the oldest Chinese history you can find, some of the most clearly preserved Art Deco architecture anywhere in the world and a financial district that at just on 20yrs old turns over billions of trading dollars while standing on a proud and ancient past. How on earth were we going to do justice to the city in 6 hours? We needed a plan….
6:30am: Rendezvous at the Peace Hotel on the Puxi side of the Bund. This was partially necessity; Shanghai is a city that doesn’t sleep but it also does not breakfast early on a Sunday, and partially was the start of our tour. The Peace Hotel is one of the Art Deco landmarks of the city. Built by Victor Sassoon and finished in 1929, it’s a true Deco icon and is consistent throughout. Many of the original features of the building exist today only because of the courage and dedication of the staff. During the Cultural Revolution, they took unbelievable risks like papering over the famous Phoenix and Dragon ceiling in the Chinese restaurant to ensure their survival. It was a staggering risk at a time people were disappearing for far less but having seen that ceiling, I’m extraordinarily glad they did. Today, if you happen to be in Shanghai at sunrise, you can enjoy coffee and breakfast in the Jasmine Lounge, which we did.
7:30am: After breakfast and a wander through the lobby and open rooms of the hotel, we walked across the road to the Bund, the name for the Puxi side of the HuangPu river. At sunrise, old men still fly kites along the Bund. The kites are huge metallic paper dragons and birds and squares which are breath-taking to see dancing against the Art Deco and Gothic buildings of Puxi. There has to be a metaphor in there about the solidity of the stone buildings that line the waterfront as opposed to the fragility of the paper kites but frankly, I hadn’t had enough coffee to think of it. After the kites, we watched as the sun rose over the financial district of Pudong and froze as we took the ubiquitous tourist photo of our friends with their backs to the river and The Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and the Shanghai Tower then we headed off.
8:00am: Jade Buddha Temple. Neither the oldest nor the showiest of the temples in Shanghai, this is my favourite. It also caters for a far more normal section of the population that its richer cousin, the Jingan Temple. Here, you’ll see crowds of Shanghainese grannies all yelling over the top of each other. Some will be carrying bags of paper money offerings and others the more idiosyncratic offerings like paper cars and Gucci branded paper suits (all for your deceased relatives). Part of the reason we’d chosen this temple was its early opening and part was its local colour but we’ve been in Shanghai long enough to know that you do NOT want to be stuck behind a crowd of milling grannies. By the time they’d stopped yelling at each other, found their tickets, yelled at each other some more then each stopped to yell at the gate guard, it would be hours before we got in and frankly, the next stop planned was coffee. We shoved our slightly shell shocked friends at the grinning guard who knew exactly what we were doing and managed to get in before the crowd even thought about moving. The Jade Buddha temple is lovely.
Once inside, usually even the grannies are quiet. The high walls shut out the noise of Shanghai’s ever present construction and the rooms are varied enough to be interested to even the most jaded temple goer. I particularly love the coins all balanced for luck in the carvings leading to the large sitting Jade Buddha and the reclining jade Buddha. Outside the temple we wandered along the shops selling paper offerings. We wondered if our departed relatives would like the latest iPhone or a helicopter but settled on a velour suit and an La-Z-Boy recliner. Unfortunately one of our friends also asked the shop keepers why they had tortoises in a very small bowl. The truth is lunch but they were very nice and said “luck”.
9:15am: When the British won the Opium Wars and forced the Chinese to open the Middle Kingdom to foreign trade, the concessions were established. There are still some significant buildings that remain in the British and American Concession (usually referred to as the International Concession) but it’s the former French Concession that must be seen on any trip to Shanghai. The plane trees the French imported and planted along their planned boulevards still grow throughout the city and because the Communists punished Shanghai’s overt commercialism by banning building and the modification of the external structures of buildings, huge swathes of the amazing deco suburb remain intact and as they’d have been seen in 1929. You are still more likely to hear French than any other language spoken while walking through the FFC. It remains a central point for many of the expats of Shanghai and an essential on any visit. Not coincidentally, it also contains good cafes, great coffee and a French boulangerie with some of the best almond croissants I’ve ever eaten. In a true expat moment, we drank coffee, we strolled under plane trees and we ate chocolate pecan muffins from an Australian café.
10:30am: The last stop on our whirlwind tour was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Slightly hidden in the basement of an apartment block on the edge of the FFC, it’s like walking through a picture book on the development of Chinese propaganda art. Posters hang in a chronological display from the late deco period through the rise of Nationalism to Communism and Mao. These segue into posters in support of the anti-Vietnam movement and American civil rights movement, posters of the Gang of Four, then Mao’s death and their fall from grace all the way through to modern militaristic posters proudly displaying the latest in (1990’s era brick) mobile phones. If you’re there at the right time of year, around a corner and behind a screen are some of the only Big Character posters from the Cultural Revolution that still exist (the Cultural Revolution remains an extremely touchy subject in China and they are not displayed around crucial historical dates).
11:30: Not so much a stop as an experience, after the Propaganda museum, we headed to the Maglev. The Shanghai Maglev Train which links the Longyang Road metro station with Pudong International Airport is the first (and occasionally only) commercially operated high-speed magnetic levitation train in the world. The train can achieve speeds of up to 431kmph (268mph) and it takes less than 2 minutes to reach 350kmph (217mph). This is my favourite way to get to the airport and watching those parts of Pudong that are still living an almost rural life flash by after the Bund and the FFC from the vantage point of such modern science is almost China itself in a nutshell.
Noon: By noon, we had our slightly shell shocked but very happy friends back at Pudong International where they checked in for their long flight back to the US. We headed back to the Maglev then home feeling not a little smug.
With apologies to both our families and anyone else who has ever visited us, this was actually my favourite of all visits. It was Shanghai in an intense and crazy nutshell and though I’m biased and needed rather a lot of coffee during it, personally, I think we nailed it.