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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

Shanghai Sneak Peek!

Updated: 5 days ago

We currently live in Shanghai. While officially settled here at the end of September 2023, I've had the privilege of exploring the city twice before our relocation - once in spring and again in summer of the last year. Yet, even with this exposure, I've barely scratched the surface of what Shanghai has to offer. The city's blend of modernity and history is so vast and intricate that I suspect it may take years to truly grasp its essence.

My first encounter with China was a mix of nervousness and excitement. While my husband, Eddie, was no stranger to the country due to frequent business trips, it was my inaugural visit. Arriving shortly after the easing of pandemic restrictions added an extra layer of uncertainty to the experience. Embarking on unfamiliar journeys often comes with challenges, but also with opportunities for growth. Drawing from my past travels, I've come to appreciate the value of embracing new customs and traditions. This approach has not only opened doors to meaningful connections but has also illuminated new pathways in my own life. Despite the language barrier - which I'm working to overcome - my time in Shanghai has been incredibly rewarding, amidst the inevitable hurdles of acclimating to a new country.

A few months have passed since taking that leap of faith, and here's my Shanghai as I've come to know it: cosmopolitan with a rich history, busy but also relaxing, with an exquisite culinary and fashion scenery, vibrant cultural live and charming ancient water towns, and much more.

A cosmopolitan city.

Shanghai is unlike any city I've encountered before. With a population of around 27 million and a density of 4000 people per square kilometer, it's a bustling metropolis like no other. Everywhere you look, modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline, but none more so than those in Lujiazui, Pudong. Facing the east side of the Huangpu River, these towering structures create a mesmerizing sight, especially at night when they're illuminated by a dazzling array of lights from massive advertising billboards - a stunning showcase of high-tech innovation and opulence.

A rich, living history, where East meets the West.

The Bund, situated along the west side of the Huangpu River, is a testament to Shanghai's rich and vibrant history. At the turn of the 20th century, it served as the epicenter for major financial institutions, international embassies, and clubs for the city's elite. Today, its magnificent buildings, reflecting various European architectural styles like Gothic, Baroque, Art Deco, and Beaux-Arts, have been restored and repurposed as banks, offices, and trendy restaurants. The Bund is a beloved gathering place where locals and tourists stroll along the river promenade, take pictures and or just hang out, soaking in its unique vibe. A symbol of Shanghai's perpetual dynamism, the Bund never sleeps, buzzing with activity year-round, day or night.

The Former French Concession, a very popular residential area for foreigners and locals alike, preserves to this day the initial charm of the neighbourhoods set up at the end of the 19th century - historic buildings, streets edged by the trade-mark trees brought from France back in the day, and the non-stop flow of people checking out the chique boutiques or cozy restaurants.

Rich cultural live.

The eclectic style of the Shanghai architecture extrapolates to the cultural life as well: state museums, private galleries that promote local artists, places of worship, as well as live performances spanning symphonic concerts, jazz, flamenco, ballet, and opera.

The new and old coexist at almost every corner of the city. The Jing'an (Buddhist) Temple, a historical and religious landmark, is an oasis of peace and prayer amongst the busy, modern life surrounding it.

Traditional holidays, both Western and Eastern, are celebrated at grand scale. Christmas decorations and events where quite abundant back in December, while the celebration in February of the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, brought a tsunami of colourful and animated events, traditional artifacts, food, and crowds gathering to enjoy them all. We visited the Yuyuan Old Street area a week before the Chinese New Year. It would be a huge understatement to qualify the shopping courtyard as crowded - we could move only in one direction, shoulder to shoulder. Nevertheless, the huge display of the lantern festival along with the gigantic, colourful dragon representations, made it all worth it.

Interestingly enough, just a few days later, during the Chinese New Year holiday, Shanghai was the quietest I’ve ever seen, as many people traveled outside the city to spend time with families.

Busy, chaotic, but surprisingly calm and free flowing traffic, peppered with unruly scooters.

Being a very active pedestrian in Shanghai fulfills any desires I have ever had of living on the edge. In general, the traffic rules are treated more like suggestions. The world navigates in an inexplicable chaos that somehow does not bother anyone and doesn’t generate the accidents I would expect to see.

For instance, if a car takes its time to do a U-turn in the middle of a busy intersection everyone waits, without honking. If an old man decides to ride his bicycle through the red light, everyone goes around him, letting him pass. If two scooters (small motorcycles) are about to collide while going in opposite directions on the sidewalk, they suddenly stop, waddle their way around each other and keep going. And, yes, the scooters do drive a lot on the sidewalks. I must say I have only seen delivery guys doing these maneuvers as they try to get to their destination fast, cutting corners. To add to the mix their silent electrical engines offers them a perfect decoy. I am certain that my peripheral vision has improved significantly since I have been living in Shanghai. A new normal for me!

Large scale digitization.

Well, as much as I don’t like fencing off the delivery scooters, I certainly enjoy the benefits of the fast and reliable delivery services. The online shopping is the norm and the two digital platforms WeChat and AliPay serve all the banking, shopping, and transportation needs. Using cash is an exception and most retailers will simply not be able to handle it.  As an IT professional I am amazed at the infrastructure that these platforms have in place. From buying an onion at the corner market to getting train and flight tickets, every transaction happens instantaneously, without failure. Needles to say, I guard my phone as if it would be another part of my body as, without it, I would be helpless.

Parks and flowers.

Shanghai proper has quite a few parks that foot the bill for the daily urban life by providing some greenery and space for a walk, relaxation, exercise, and impromptu dancing or singing.

However, the outskirts of the city are way more generous with the outdoor recreational areas. Even though they are manicured and setup for city dwellers, they offer a welcome break from the city’s busy life: the colourful, fully bloomed flowers from the Huakai Haishang Ecological Garden (Jinshan) were full of joy and youthfulness last April,

while, later in November, the leaves turning from the fairytale like Qingpu Sunken Forest generated a soothing and rather melancholic ambiance.

There is though one place nestled in the middle of the old city that stands out and is a must see: the Yu Garden. Dating back to the 16th century and having undergone a few renovations, the sophisticated garden is a gem of exquisite landscaping, antique carvings and richly ornated buildings.

Ancient water towns.

The discovery of the water towns was the most unexpected surprise of all. Situated on the Yangtze Estuary of China’s east coast and bordered by a few large lakes to the west, Shanghai has areas where water dominates the landscape. Since ancient times, locals have adeptly reclaimed land for habitation. Reflecting on their existence, it's awe-inspiring how ingeniously these towns were constructed centuries ago, with intricate networks of water canals, numerous bridges, and waterfront buildings. While they may lack the romantic charm of Venice, they possess a distinct geographical and cultural ecosystem that sets them apart.

In April last year, I had a quick stroll through the Fengjing Ancient Water Town in the Jinshan district, and it was every bit as vibrant as any part of Shanghai – colourful, animated, abundant in quaint eateries and small shops.

On the flip side, my visit to the Jinze Ancient Water Town in the Qingpu district, late November, offered a stark contrast. Here, tranquility reigned supreme, perfectly complementing the old stone bridges and newly restored buildings.