17 April 2015
Shanghai: the Pearl of the Orient shines brighter than ever!
Shanghai is the Chinese city touted by most Western expats (if you exclude Hong Kong, of course, but is Hong Kong really Chinese at all except on paper?).
And by looking back over its history, we now have a greater understanding of what makes China’s most populated city so appealing. From Western concessions founded in 19th century to multinational companies that have established their HQ here, Shanghai is certainly a cosmopolitan city where east meets west.
Here are four walks that will help you explore the “Pearl of the Orient” that the entire world has (re)discovered since the Universal Expo in 2010.
To take a stroll along the Bund, the long boulevard that stretches out besides the Huangpu river, means retracing the story of Shanghai. Turn back time to the “good old days” of the concessions offered to those Western nations eager to do business with eternal China. Opened to the powers of the West in 1843, Shanghai, this modest fishing village that never quite knew the same magnificence as Beijing, would swiftly become a cosmopolitan city, home of flourishing capitalism. Europe’s great nations would all gain access to a piece of land on which they could build their embassies and banks. Along the Bund, you can still admire these beautiful Art Deco and neoclassical style buildings. Frozen in time, these structures are a testament to an opulence that continues to fascinate. In the 1930s, Shanghai was a city where every trade and every pleasure was offered to Westerners who, arriving in China, met with the Chinese that had been long shut off to them. This was particularly true of the French who, at the time, enjoyed a certain freedom! Today, getting lost in the backstreets of this elegant, calm district is an absolute delight. And to give yourself an idea of what these colonialists would have experienced in exotic Shanghai, take a trip to the Yu gardens, which were established over 400 years ago. Smaller today than they previously were, you can still admire the various buildings entrusted to mandarins and charming rocky mountains, which were stuck together with a simple rice-based glue. These organic sculptures are still standing centuries later. One of the many marvels of a civilisation founded upon rice…
In all its forms, art is the latest fad to makes its fortune in China. Chinese artists are becoming more and more popular. And a city as cosmopolitan as Shanghai could never escape the arty madness that has taken hold of China. It is the Moganshan district that houses the largest number of art galleries. And it is also there that you may find a vast array of walls serving as canvases to street artists. You could almost say that you have to pass by these graffitied surfaces to unearth M50, the largest complex of galleries. At the start, these former textile warehouses were squatted in by artists. And at the start of the 21st century, it is here that they reside in perfect, expansive and clear studios. Officially dubbed a “creative industry park” and named by the Chinese authorities, M50 today is more of a reorganisation of galleries roamed by chichi expats and rich Chinese. Thus, these artists are more often found in dusty workshops than whitewash galleries slightly further into the immense Shanghai suburbs. M50 has without a doubt lost a little of its authenticity in the eyes of those who ventured there ten years ago. The gentrification that strikes wherever trends establish themselves has also invaded here. But M50 remains an unmissable part of the Shanghai experience. And if your budget forbids you from purchasing a several million Yuan painting, swing over to bohemian hub Tiangzifang. These alleyways have been colonised in an anarchic manner by hundreds of boutiques. Local designers rub shoulders with affordable bars and restaurants, which are always buzzing. The perfect place to discover several “made in China” trifles – far from the usual junk!
To journey through to the past and into the future of Shanghai, turn away from the old art deco buildings on the Bund. From the other side of the Huangpu river is Pudong, the Chinese Manhattan. Just twenty years ago, Pudong consisted of nothing more than a few fields. And no Shanghaiese would every have dreamed of crossing the river. Back then, it was very complicated and only accessible by small boats…Today, several bridges and numerous tunnels link the city-centre and this business district that sees new buildings sprout up every month, adding to the city’s often hazy skyline. The Oriental Pearl Tower, which was built long before the others in 1994, is already an ancestral figure besides the huge skyscrapers that have shot up since. Its 468 metres no longer rule the skies. It is now overshadowed by the World Financial Centre – nicknamed by the Shanghaiese as the “bottle-opener” due to its shape. And it too will soon be eclipsed by a new 600m tower, which is currently under construction. The Pearl Tower consoles itself in the fact that it has already become one of Shanghai’s official icons and certainly remains the most photographed structures by the millions of tourists that survey the Bund.
Pudong also played host to the 2010 Universal Expo, further consecrating this brand new district. Certain pavilions have been preserved; including the impressive Chinese pavilion, built in the shape of an inverted pagoda, now transformed into an Asiatic art museum. If you take a stroll (and don’t get lost!) through the immense rooms, in the space that has become the largest exhibition space in Asia (166,000m2!), you might say that this “beautiful shell” exhibits both the best and the most improbable works of contemporary Chinese art! Needless to say, this is one impressive visit. It also gives an idea of the power of China today. As if anyone needs convincing of that…
Shanghai has never claimed the title of China’s gastronomic capital and its residents are the first that “those in the north” make the best pastry, that Canton is the home of the most sumptuous dim sum or that the spicy Yunan cuisine is like no other. But with almost 26 million residents originating from around the country and a strong Western community, the amalgamation of cultures allows for a vast range of restaurants offering different cuisine. Indeed, Lost Heaven serves Yunnan province delicacies, all of which are absolutely delicious and sophisticated. The crazy thing is that in this immense, truly enormous restaurant, you are served carefully crafted dishes in the cosiest atmosphere that you could wish for, proving that you can find a balance between quantity and quality. The Din Tai Fung restaurant offers high-quality ravioli cuisine (known as dim sum). Situated in the cool Xintianding district in the former French concession that gathers trendy, luxury boutiques within its charming little redbrick buildings. It is only logical that the selective chain of Shanghai Tang stores has just opened its first restaurant here, where the brand’s chic modern ethnic vibe exudes from these splendid salons and carefully structured dishes. The area’s little cafes also deserve curiosity and attention, if the super exclusive UltraViolet is anything to go by. Run by Frenchman Paul Pairet, who is also in charge of the reputed Mr & Mrs Bund, this restaurant is a unique experience. Just know that it will take several months and a lot of luck to clinch one of the ten places available at his new generation host table. It also means splashing out at least 800 euros to be able to taste this otherworldly cuisine, served in a room in which walls are covered in screens that immerse you in a universe of previously unseen sensations. Every dish is accompanied by alien, sonorous and visual sensations. It may seem completely mad. But this secret restaurant, which is accessed through a dingy car park, is full every evening. An ultimate testament that establishes rich Shanghai as the economic capital of the Middle Kingdom…