Shanghai Secret


I have a secret, but don’t tell my wife. I actually have grown to love Shanghai. You see, my wife is from mainland China, and most people in China that are not from Shanghai actually dislike people from Shanghai.

by Christopher Allen

They are like Parisians or New Yorkers. To them, if you are not from “the city” (and by this, I mean their city), then you are from the countryside. You are beneath them socially, culturally, and economically. And because of this, my wife will only begrudgingly admit some of the things that are actually quite nice about Shanghai. But I’m going to let you in on some of the things I like, and I hope you will give it a try as well.

Initially I also disliked Shanghai. It wasn’t for the same reasons as my wife though. If you have read any of my previous articles you would know that I am a bit of a history geek. For this reason, I truly loved much of Beijing, which was my original home in China.

by Christopher Allen

At that time (before the Olympics in Beijing destroyed much of the historic areas in order to build shiny new buildings) Beijing had Chinese history everywhere you looked: The Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China (just outside of Beijing), and the Temple of Heaven, among others.

Shanghai on the other hand seemed to only have skyscrapers, and all of the history I was accustomed to seeing in Beijing had been bulldozed to make way for “progress.”

Over the years I came back to visit several times, and with each visit the city grew on me a little bit more. I remember visiting a friend once and we ate in some very nice places, including a lovely tapas bar with many of her colleagues.

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But the restaurants, and specifically the compound where she lived, were a bit too much of an expat bubble for me. The only locals I remember seeing were all employees (i.e. wait staff in the restaurants, security guards and cleaners in the housing area), and while I definitely enjoy the comforts that come with the expat bubble, I also want to have more connection with the local population and how they live. But as I ventured out more and more, I found more and more the city had to offer.

Once I went to see Bob Dylan in concert there. I have seen Bob quite a few times in my life, so while it is nice to say I have seen Bob Dylan in concert in China, the best memory I have from that visit was visiting a jazz bar with a friend of mine after the concert.

by Christopher Allen

While there were definitely a few expats in the bar, it had a large number of locals dressed to the nines and enjoying a visiting Dixieland jazz band. This was a real treat for me, although my friend pined for smooth jazz instead. But as I sat there listening to their version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” I realized it was the blending of cultures that I really loved about Shanghai.

Shanghai has been a cultural melting pot for centuries because of its location as a port city. There is history throughout much of the city, but you have to know what you are looking for and where to look.

While the Bund and the French Concession Area are the most famous examples of this blending of Western and Eastern cultures, you can find much of this in many tucked away locations as well. Right next to modern skyscrapers and massive shopping malls, you can find little alleyways and rows of shops and houses using many of these old European and/or Art Deco style buildings in modern, and often very pragmatic ways.

by Christopher Allen

An example of this is just across the street from the West Gate Mall, which is where the U.S. Consulate is located. I was there a few weeks ago and had a few hours to kill while I waited for my train to leave, so I decided to take a walk around and try to see what was behind all of the Rolex and Louis Vuitton stores lining the streets in this area.

As I came out of one of the main exits to the mall, I saw a relatively small entryway with what looked like a traditional Chinese style gate. I walked inside and saw a beautifully constructed redbrick building in Art Deco style, but there was a very traditional Chinese style entrance in one corner that went to a temple where people could go to worship.

I am sure hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people pass by this gate every day and never go inside to see what is there. But this initial discovery emboldened me to go out and wander down alleyways that looked even more “local” (i.e. not of the 5 star mall variety located on the main street).

As I walked down side streets and alleyways I saw some extremely beautiful architecture hidden away. What were once grand buildings have been divided up into individual family living quarters, many worse for wear.

by Christopher Allen

But as a history lover, I can see what the buildings once were, and imagine what life would have been like back in the Roaring 20’s of Shanghai. I also saw areas that have become re-gentrified, where entrepreneurs have spent large amounts of money I am sure, to turn some of these old, worn down buildings into new shops and restaurants.

The cynic in me says that these areas will tend to become part of the expat bubble. But the fact that they are located inside some of these very “local” neighborhoods and communities means that there has to be some cross-pollination between groups.

And one thing that Shanghai has shown me is that many of the “locals” are much better at blending the cultures and joining the “expat bubble” areas than many foreigners, if the shoe was on the other foot.

by Christopher Allen

So while this article is not really a guidebook for specifically where to go or what to do in Shanghai, I hope that you will metaphorically follow in my footsteps and try to look beyond the skyscrapers if you visit Shanghai.

Truthfully, this is much easier in the Puxi (west of the river) side of the city, as Pudong (east of the river) is very much a 21st century area. But even there you can go outside of the new and find the more traditional if you are really looking for it.

As for the Puxi side of the city, you can easily wander around and get lost in the back alleys looking at the layers of different cultures that have come into the city over the past few centuries and imagine what the city once was, what it is now, and what it could become one day.

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