Portraits of Shanghai (Pt. 1): East Meets West and Old Meets New

Things have kicked into high gear over here —between classes, several projects I am working on, and an amazing conference DKU hosted earlier this month on environmental and social responsibility in infrastructure investment (a long-standing interest of mine that I will be posting more about, very soon,) I have been playing a bit of catchup for the last week or so. While I wrap up my thoughts on those weightier topics, I thought I’d first quickly share some photos and reflections from my recent trip to Shanghai during the National Holiday Week.

Oct. 1 marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—and this year, it was the start of the National Day Golden Week. Since 1999 the state has implemented several week-long holidays during which most workers get at least a full 7 days in a row off of work (a few days of which are paid). In 2007, the third Golden Week (celebrating Labour Day) was eliminated, leaving the National Holiday week and a week in honor of Chinese New Year in the spring.

During these weeks, people travel. Lots of people. As in, more than half of the nearly 1.4 billion people living in the country, these days—the forecast for 2018 year was that more than 700 million folks would be on the move, at least 7 million of whom would be skipping town for international destinations to avoid the rush. A few tens of millions traveled during the Golden Weeks closer to 1999, when the vacation periods were first implemented; these numbers have escalated dramatically ever since, as the domestic economy has transformed and average incomes have risen.

This moment of mass migration creates all kinds of logistical nightmares for city planners and transportation networks, from overcrowded facilities to busloads of stranded tourists—a fact which has led to calls for restructuring of the holiday weeks into a less disruptive format, perhaps staggered across several fall festival periods. But during National Holiday week, Shanghai (with the exception of the biggest tourist areas) tends to feel as if its 24+ million population has shrunk some extent, my classmates and friends with experience in the area assured me.

So when my partner came to visit for the week-long holiday, we decided to just stay in Shanghai for the week, playing tourist in the vast megacity that little Kunshan orbits.

Shanghai is nothing if not a place of contrasts—the view from above shows the two most famous vistas in the city, gazing at one another across the Huangpu River. Across the channel toward the left is a line of stately European architectural facades, all lit in gold along the western bank. This is the area known as the Bund, the representative face of the city’s former International Settlement/Concession areas, in which colonial powers set up districts of economic control in the twilight of the Qing era and the Opium Wars.

On the eastern side of the channel are the iconic glowing faces of modern China. The contrast feels like a sort of historical timewarp, a surreal looking glass through the decades—the legacy of the stately European trading houses across the river inherited by the city’s futuristic financial district across the water. The hypermodern Lujiazui skyline developed following the opening of China’s economy in the post-Mao era, allowing a flood of investment and growth that elevated hundreds of millions out of poverty, wreaked environmental havoc, and transformed the country irrevocably.

This eastern skyline contains the dramatically twisting Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in East Asia and currently the second tallest in the world. The aerial photo at the top of this post was taken from its observation deck, which we jumped at the chance to visit:

From 1994 to 2007, the Oriental Pearl television and radio broadcast tower was the tallest structure in China; the Shanghai Tower and several others nearby now surpass it.

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Back on the Bund side, the European colonial buildings are paired with a large monument to martyrs of the Communist Revolution, which preceded the exit of many of their financial institution occupants from the region. The Monument to the People’s Heroes is sunken into the main raised riverwalk, with an enormous stylized spike (which may or may not be intended to evoke a trio of rifles) jutting into the air and visible from a mile away:

In the bowl below, a series of sculpted wall murals tell stories of the Revolution. In the background, you can see another of the modern skyscrapers, along which the message “我❤️你,中国“ (I ❤️ You, China) scrolls periodically in brilliant LED illumination, along with other images and ads.

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The monument’s sculptural style is similar to that of others found around the city, like this wall at the People’s Square in central Shanghai:

We happened to be at the People’s Square on one of the Marriage Market days—which meant hundreds of people were lined up behind umbrellas, proffering the details of their unmarried offspring, for those looking to make a match for a grown up kid of their own.

The Marriage Market is, like many other institutions, currently in flux as society faces the ripples of radical shifts in its recent history—in this case, in economics, patterns of urbanization, changing career opportunities for women, and the unintended consequences of the One Child policy, which has left the country with significantly more boys than girls.

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Beyond the former Concession areas, we found our way to the Shanghai Old Town—the original core of the city, which became one of the rare areas uncontrolled by the colonial powers in the years leading up to World War II. The core’s ancient Ming-era wall, mostly destroyed in the early 1900s, is still visible in a couple of places—we spotted a segment under a glass pane at floor level, in a courtyard area outside one of the area’s new skyscraping hotels:

The (English) online mentions of the ancient wall are in disagreement on whether or not one or two segments of the wall remain (the other being associated with the temple at the Dajing Ge Pavilion, which we visited as well); however, I was able to find some documentation on this second section of the wall’s (re?)discovery and (partial?) preservation midway through the construction of this highrise development, around 2011.

Sometimes, the collision of the old with the new showcases the shape of the past in a more subtle manner than the starkly contrasting vistas found along the Huangpu. But even when it is not visible to the eye, the past leaves its marks on the future, one way or another.

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There’s a lot more to say and a lot more to show. I’ve got plenty more photos of Shanghai that I will share before long—and today, I am actually hopping on a maglev to head up to Beijing for a quick research trip. There, I’ll get a taste of a part of China very different from the one I have so far spent the semester exploring. Wish me luck!

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