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Shanghai Attractions

The Bund

Despite initial misgivings, this turned out to be a great evening stroll. The Bund is the promenade along the western bank of the Huangpu River that features European-style buildings from before WW II. These still exist, and some are again banks (Bund means banks), some are government buildings and embassies. The old Cathay Hotel, built by the Sassoon family, has been renovated and is now the Peace Hotel, facing the river. There are two dozen or more of these marvelous old buildings that line the Bund, all lit up at night. But what makes the stroll truly the archetypical Shanghai experience is that the Bund is across the river from the commercial centre of Pudong, home of the Oriental Pearl Tower, the conference centre where APEC took place, and dozens of brand new high rise office towers, all in neon and spotlights, looking more futuristic than any other city I've ever seen. Old and new Shanghai face each other, which makes the Bund as much of a new Shanghai sight as an old one.

The Oriental Pearl Tower is the highest in Asia and third highest in the world. It is decorated by three spheres, each smaller than the other. Think of a spear pointing up with 3 balls stuck on it. The bottom sphere contains a conference room, and there is always a line up of (Chinese) tourists waiting to ride the elevator to the top for the view. On the night that we were strolling the Bund looking across the river, the full moon was shining beside the tower, echoing the shape of the spheres, and I almost forgave the architect. All the same, I declined my uncle's offer to take me for a tour of Pudong and the Oriental Pearl Tower.

The Bund promenade is newly built, before this the shores were just old docks and ships. The wharves have been relocated, and Shanghai is now the busiest port in China, with one-third of all freight passing through its wharves. The promenade was also easily one of the busiest tourist spots in town, and is patrolled by municipal police who make sure that tourists don't get fleeced and the locals don't spit (the one place in China where spitting gets you fined).

The Shanghai Museum

Located at the southern end of Renmin (People's) Square, a large green space in the centre of Shanghai, the Shanghai Museum opened in 1996 and is world-class with four floors containing antiquities that the Met would kill for. I know this because I was behind a tour group from the Met led by some envious curators who left drool marks beside the 1800 BC bronzes. The bronzes are truly stunning, and this collection is considered to be the finest in the world. The other galleries feature sculpture, calligraphy, painting, jades, pottery and ceramics, coins, and furniture. The ancient pottery urns (from 2500 BC) and proto-celadon pieces in the ceramics gallery are wonderful.

The sculpture gallery is a bit heavy on Buddhist art, but I suppose that would be like complaining that there's too much Catholic art in Italy. The sculpture gallery was worth the price of admission, just to see the two Tang musicians, one playing a lute and the other a flute, both with such wonderful expressions, as though they had just heard a hilarious joke, that you can't help but laugh along with them. You don't often get that much expression in Chinese art.

The museum is totally bilingual, with audio tours in several languages, a restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore, gift shops, escalators, facilities for the handicapped, and modern washrooms on every floor (don't take this for granted in China - more later).

The museum is shaped like an ancient incense urn and when it went up, people noticed that it was directly across the street from the Shanghai Municipal People's Government Building; so the local joke is that the government put it there so that the museum could worship the government building.

People's Square

On weekends, the square is full of kite-flyers young and old, and kite vendors too. There are only so many places in Shanghai where flyers don't have to battle against kite-eating electric and telephone lines, and this is the main one. The Shanghai Museum is right beside the fountain at People's Square and it's worth hanging around for twenty minutes of people-watching: the children, their parents, hawkers, young lovers, a few lunatics and beggars. There is nothing remotely Communist in the ambiance; it's a pleasant space.

You get the feeling that Shanghai is consciously creating green spaces - new streets and overpasses always seem to be planted with greenery, and if there is room for a median strip, there is room for shrubbery.

There are still many, many areas of old buildings, both Chinese and European style. There are glimpses of alleys leading into little compounds surrounded by homes, sometimes even with a gatehouse arching over an entrance. If you can look past the neon signs and air conditioning units that hang like limpet mines on every building, there is a lot of art deco in Shanghai.

I've been told that Shanghai is now being more careful about which buildings they are tearing down, because the rush of excitement over having the latest and newest has given way to an appreciation of the value of Old Shanghai as a way to establish the city's unique identity.

Huxingting Pavillion in Yu Yuan gardens

Huxingting Pavillion in Yu Yuan gardens

Yu Yuan Garden

This is an entire tourist complex that is mind-boggling. The Yu Yuan is a Suzhou-style garden built 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, and it's now one of the must-sees of old Shanghai. To get there is an experience in itself because the streets bordering Yu Yuan have been built up with shopping arcades full of tourist knick knacks. However, it must be said that they follow the traditional Chinese style and are very well-done, with plain white walls, curved grey tile roofs and mahogany brown woodwork, instead of the gaudier red and gold that you would find in Beijing. Thus you get to experience entire blocks of storefront that mimic an earlier time. Better still, the Nanxiang Steamed Bread Store, which sells the best dumplings in Shanghai is still at the same location after 200 years. That is to say, after the arcades were built, the Nanxiang moved right back in to its spot beside the Huxingting Pavillion. It's easy to spot the Nanxiang, just line up behind the longest queue.

You may want to take a peek in the Chenhuang Miao (Temple) that is part of the complex. The temple is dedicated to Shanghai's city god. This is a heavily restored temple, but with original bits dating back to the 1700's. Before finding the entrance gate to the Yu Yuan gardens, you also pass by the Huxingting Pavillion, a really over-the-top and delightful structure.

Built in 1784, it is two levels high and five-sided, topped with an extravagantly curved roof. It once sat in the middle of a small (man-made) lake, hence the name "Heart of the Lake". Now it's in a much smaller body of water, a big fountain really, and there is a bridge leading to the pavilion with nine zigzags in it, to keep away evil spirits (who can only travel in a straight line). The original bridge is long gone, and the new one is sturdier but unfortunately made of pink concrete. The Huxingting is said to be the model for the pavilion in the Blue Willow pattern. It was built to as a trading house for tea merchants, and is now a restaurant and teahouse.


Starbucks has thoughtfully set up shop across from the pavilion. Get through the gauntlet of tourist stores and make for the other side of the pavilion, and you will notice that Shanghai vendors don't miss a trick. The stalls that sell camera film and postcards also carry video camera accessories, flash memory and memory sticks for digital cameras.

The Yu Yuan is truly beautiful, despite the constant flow of tourists. Once privately owned, it is the quintessential classic Chinese garden: an integration of buildings, water, plants, bridges, and rocks.

It's a stylized version of nature, meant to symbolize rather than imitate the real thing, enhanced by man's intervention. Every entrance frames a view, and you couldn't imagine what it took to design such a garden.

Having said that, if you are going to see the gardens of Suzhou, you may want to just buy some postcards rather than wait around for the perfect, tourist-free shot inside the garden. It won't happen. Or you may want to buy the book, which weighs a ton but has lovely photos.

Former Residence of Mme Soong Ching Ling

Married to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China, and the most ethical of the famous Soong sisters, Soong Ching Ling is still revered and her home on Huaihai Road is worth the visit, if only to walk through an area of Shanghai that still has a quiet and colonial air and to see the inside of a Shanghai villa. There is a small museum inside the walls displaying gifts given to her by heads of state (boring) and photos and personal letters to/from her sisters (much more interesting, they were Wesleyan College graduates and corresponded in English). You have to slip on hospital shoe covers in the front hall before going in. The house itself has much of the original furniture and artwork, but the upstairs is no longer open to tourists - apparently the floors are sagging from too much traffic.

Former French Concession

The neighborhood around the Soong Ching Ling House has wonderful quiet residential streets full of a mixture of European and old-style Chinese houses and low-rise apartments. I even passed by an apartment entrance with "Cite de Bourgogne 1930" carved on it. This is where you can find the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the Shanghai Institute of Arts and Crafts, and several foreign embassies, all housed in grand old mansions. Even just walking down a street, you will be rewarded with glimpses of villas behind wrought iron gates, or a courtyard garden. This is definitely a place for wandering and daydreaming about old Shanghai. Yet no more than a block away is the ultra-trendy and noisy Huaihai Road shopping centre. I think that wandering the residential streets of this area is a wonderful Slow Travel experience.

Don't take it for granted that the exterior of apartments represent the state of their interiors. Since the government forced citizens to buy their (previously assigned to them) homes and private ownership has created a real estate market, Chinese have been renovating like crazy. There was no incentive to look after property previously, and buildings were badly maintained. Buildings are still badly maintained, but not as badly as before - owners chip in for annual upkeep. And individual apartments in a building can be on opposite ends of the spectrum depending on the wealth and taste of the owner. I've been inside apartments that were in terrible shape, with painted concrete walls, and others that would have done me quite well, with restored art deco details and top of the line Italian kitchens.



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