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Shanghai, China: At home with contradictions

Haze over Shanghai

Haze over Shanghai

Shanghai welcomed me with an awful whiff of what smelled like the sum total of all smog, fumes, and toxic waste, as I stepped down from the plane to the shuttle that brought passengers to the arrival section of the sprawling Pudong International Airport. Nothing and no one prepared me for that smell.

“Welcome to China,” I told myself, as if to scold it for forgetting that I arrived in one of the most air-polluted countries in the world. Air pollution is undeniable in Shanghai because it is visible—no blue skies on a summer, gloomy even at midday, as if the city is under perpetual overcast. I forgot about air pollution when I looked out to the streets from the car, admiring the urban planning that gave birth to this metropolis, which seemed to me like Sim City come alive.

And the spectacular view of Shanghai from my room in Pudong Shangri-La Hotel makes it almost impossible to believe that this city was once a vast rice field and fishing village. Today, Shanghai is China’s bustling showcase as the world’s new economic superpower, dressed up for the role with glitzy, some gaudy, 21st century skyscrapers.

Orient Pearl TV Tower

Orient Pearl TV Tower

Shanghai on a Sunday
The view from the ground is no different, only noisier. Beside the hotel is the Super Brand Mall, the city’s biggest, which was overcrowded on a Sunday. Close by is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, tallest of its kind in Asia, which looks like a rocket ship when lit up at night.

Nearby is The Bund, the riverfront with spacious walkway for viewing the Huangpu River separating Pudong, the new city, and Yuyuan, the old city. The Bund was teeming with locals and tourists from Chinese provinces, their noise a contrast to the serene sunset view that I enjoyed nonetheless.

At sundown, I crossed over to Yuyuan side, which was more appealing to me than Pudong because of the neoclassical historic buildings, some of which were transformed into posh bars and restaurants. The façade of the buildings at the riverfront are lit up at night, transforming the road stretch into a picturesque European promenade, which is perhaps why Shanghai is known as “the Paris of the East.”

Neoclassical buildings at Yuyuan

Neoclassical buildings at Yuyuan

Across the river is the view of Pudong at nightfall, with its imperial space-age skyline and towering buildings turned into gigantic neon-lit billboards. Watching Pudong’s gleam and glamour long enough from across the river, I was convinced that China is really at it to wow the world.

Where old meets new
And wowing the world for Shanghai means showing the fusion of old and new. The Yuyuan Gardens, for example, is a 400-year-old garden sitting on a five-acre land with rock gardens, dragon-lined walls, zigzagging bridges, and pavilions housing cultural relics and antiques, among others. Yet it also has a modern bazaar selling overpriced traditional Chinese products, alongside Starbucks café.

Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai Financial Center

Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai Financial Center

The iconic 88-storey Jin Mao Tower at the center of Pudong’s financial district is the world’s fifth tallest building that looks contemporary through and through, but a closer look at its structural design reveals a seamless combination of Chinese architecture and a Gothic influence, taking inspiration from the tiered pagoda.

The elevator took me to the 88th floor from the ground in about 40 seconds, a short wait for the opportunity to see an amazing panoramic view of Shanghai at night and a bird’s-eye view of the lobby of Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the world’s tallest five-star hotel. Close to Jin Mao Tower is the Shanghai World Financial Center, which then was completing construction and now one of the tallest buildings in the world.

Another place to visit in Shanghai is the Xintiandi district, once a rundown neighborhood of traditional Shanghainese houses called “Shikumen,” that’s now a hotspot for the latest in Western and Asian food and entertainment, popular among fashionable Chinese yuppies and foreign expatriates. It is historic for being the venue of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. How tastefully the ultra-modern interiors of the upscale bars, restaurants, and boutiques are blended with the old stone house exterior of red bricks and terracotta roofs makes Xintiandi the perfect symbol of communism and capitalism combined in Shanghai.

I went to the Liuligongfang crystal museum within Xintiandi’s vicinity and marveled at the exquisite, almost poetic, glassware sculptures from ancient China, dating as far back as 476 BC, and some from Europe—none of which I can afford to buy and take home. The building exterior is a glowing piece of art made of 12,000 individually-made glass bricks with blue backlight—an attention-grabbing façade that’s so much like how Shanghai appears to the rest of the world.

At home with contradictions

Bar Rouge

Bar Rouge

The night before my flight to the next destination, I was brought to Bar Rouge, one of Shanghai’s most popular upscale bars with French-Chinese contemporary art deco, complete with chandeliered booths, flaming champagne glasses, chill and dance music, and stylish partygoers. The bar feels like a little Shanghai in itself—self-indulgent, ostentatious, either you like it or you don’t.

I stepped out to the bar’s roof terrace and took my last sweeping view of Shanghai skyline—imposing with all its glitter and gloss against an infinite backdrop of sullen darkness. What a fitting spectacle, I thought, to affirm what I first felt about this city: at home with contradictions—tradition and modern, communism and capitalism, glitzy and gaudy, natural and contrived, old and new—and milking them for all their worth, whether the world agrees or not.

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