Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou….the picture-perfect water towns intrinsically tied to the Aqua around them shaping the interactions of their inhabitants with their geographical and historical landscapes. The three towns retain their personal identity fueled by a modern and industrialized persona.
Shanghai, rain spattered and mysterious on that typhoonisque afternoon of September 2014 was out of step from it’s centuries old spaces of ‘hamlet-by-the-sea’, the ‘agricultural fiefdom’ of Chinese landowners, the ‘gangster city’ of warlords and drug cartels, the ‘deficit city’ of Colonial war games, the ‘dangerous and endangered’ town during Japanese occupation. The present was a fairy tale city, albeit slightly eerie, of multi dimensional lights streaming through skyscrapers, government housing, luxury hotels and iconic mansions.
Marcel Proust had famously said that ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes’. (The Captive,” Remembrance of Things Past). This was my second visit to Shanghai and similar to the previous visit 48 hours is insufficient to gauge a city, especially a humongous one like Shanghai. The one consolation were Suzhou and Hangzhou, cities connected by their cultural relevance to the Yangtze River water system, were included in the tour.
The inclement weather failed to dampen my enthusiasm for another rendezvous with a continuously changing city and a quick check in at Holiday Inn Vista and we were on our way for lunch somewhere near the Bund. The food turned out to be as bland as the weather, a sentiment shared by the elderly American couple on their first visit to Shanghai. Their cab driver had brought them to this restaurant and their plight was similar to mine in a city/country where language is a major problem. On first trip despite my friend drawing a chicken, flapping her arms to denote a bird, we were still served beef.
Sunshine or typhoon a stroll on the 1.5 kilometers Bund (a Persian-Hindustani word for embankment), the riverfront boardwalk along western side of Huangpu River is a must to watch a city weave its silken tentacles around the architectural bounty on both sides of the River. Standing by the railing, watching the river, fluid and adaptable, rush past oblivious of its surroundings, it is difficult to picture the Bund as a narrow muddy lane and docking area for steamships trolling in the waters. The Bund was and is the lifeline of the city and there were others like us, tourists, youngsters, elderly clutching on to umbrellas, some drenched, enjoying the romanticism of the moment.
The Bund, also called Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (East Zhongshan 1st Road) is a symbol of an anecdotal Shanghai. Another story was added, on New Year’s Eve 2014, of the stampede killing more than 36 people and injuring others. Crowds are a bane and one has to be aware and agile when facing a surge. We did experience stampede situation but body touching, push and shove is normal given the number of local tourists traveling within their country.
Our ferry ride on the Huangpu River cancelled, due to typhoon, so a few minutes more in the cool gusty winds and we crossed over to Nanjing road and Fairmont Peace Hotel, once the Sassoon House (No.20 The Bund) built by Sir Victor Sassoon. The hotel refurbished, retaining its earlier Art Deco glamour, especially the rotunda, and the photo gallery of famous guests, events and galas transport one to its extravagant era. A few minutes stroll in the lobby and sampling, few visitors doing the same, the plush sofas and the ambience, it was back to reality stepping out into the cacophony of Nanjing Road, once the residential area of affluent locals. It is now a busy commercial center with East Nanjing Road a pedestrian friendly cobbled street flanked by malls and fast food outlets replacing Shanghai’s old retail shops and traditional eateries. The Central Market, a century-old outdoor market specializing in electronic components and digital media is a popular destination for locals and tourists.
The street was crowded with tour groups and shoppers, a perfect purse dipping magnet but since we were not interested in shopping headed for the closest Starbucks. I think our guide needed that cup of coffee and had adroitly shepherded us there. The road continues on to West Nanjing Road with more markets and narrower streets and lanes.
Dinner at 6 pm was the cut off ‘tour’ time and we still had to visit Xintiandi, the slice of colonial French Concession and now the avant-garde artistic and food hub of the city. The Xintandi retains its French smirkiness and the narrow cobbled lanes flaunt uppity designer boutiques, stores and eateries and reconditioned shikumen or arch-gate houses converted into showpiece and commercial outlets. A walk in the tree-lined avenues starting from corner of Wukang and Hunan is the green way to enjoy the area but with the overcast skies and rain, there was not much scope and somehow I am not the one to dance in the rain. We did enter a Shikumen, usually two to three storeys with stone arches at main entrance, for a look at the decor and lifestyle of its earlier inhabitants. There was a gift shop on one side of the ground floor with the house entrance cordoned off leading to the living area and bedrooms on the upper floors. It was a Chinese household with a western touch, a rich man’s house going by the decor and living style. But with so much of Chinese artifacts readily available in world markets the real has limited attraction now unless one can differentiate between authentic and fake.
The main attraction of this visit was the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong Park in Lujiazui. Well, it was a disaster, as far as scenic view concerned, because of sunless sky and intermittent rain. The 468 meters tower, the world’s sixth and China’s second tallest TV and radio tower, is a complete entertainment center with restaurants, shops and viewing area in the main ‘Pearl’ with smaller spheres or ‘Pearls’ with their own utilities. Probably every visitor to Shanghai felt similarly as the place was crowded and our guide, knowing better, shepherded us towards the serpentine queue for the double-decker elevators zooming up and down at the rate of seven meters per second, for the Aerial Sightseeing Corridor-Walking on the Clouds.
This section, in 2nd Sphere of the Tower, is the most sought after spot 259 meters above the ground for a panoramic view of the Huangpu River and the city under your feet. It is like walking in space and on this day the niveous clouds played spoil sport. I was waiting and so were others, click- ready, and slightest movement of clouds sent the cameras and cell phones into a tizzy. Weather did not hinder the crowds from taking selfies sprawled on the fiber-glass floor or posing against the sides.
Before the crowds got too intrusive we moved on towards other attractions, the Shanghai Municipal History Museum in the tower’s pedestal. It is a must see for its interactive history through relics, documents, pictures and advanced audio-visual presentations of different periods of the city’s history. The show, made up of 6 parts, presents Shanghai through different stages of its metamorphosis from leased territories to its present urban city life and political changes.
There is nothing that defines Shanghai more than the present Shanghainese pretentiousness of being a world-class city. There was no slow cumulative eclipse of its cultural and social eminence rather a sudden interruption of growth with the rise of other cities on the political radar. The old world charm is missing or lost and as a resident of the city explained that it is the ‘culture in Shanghai’ rather than ‘Shanghai culture’ that is being exemplified by preserving historically famous buildings and avenues. One has to live in the city to understand the centuries old paradox of a twirling parasol, seductive and enigmatic.
48 hours over we were on way to Suzhou, the second city in the ‘Water trilogy’.