Immense and ebullient. That’s the impression that overwhelms travellers when they arrive in Shanghai for the first time.
With 24 million inhabitants, frantic traffic, veritable forests of buildings under construction and unbridled consumerism, Shanghai is the undisputed showcase of a nation that has become the epicentre of globalization. This becomes evident during an evening stroll along the Bund, an extensive promenade on the banks of the Huangpu, opposite Pudong and its domineering skyscrapers.
Across the river crowded with ferry boats, the economic capital struts its stuff: the Oriental Pearl Tower and its luminous globes; the 492 metres of the World Financial Centre; and, tomorrow, the Shanghai Tower, a 127-storey building topping 632 metres. Evenings, the city’s vital energy also buzzes in Xintiandi, the entertainment district favoured by expats and the Chinese nouveaux riches, a concentrate of bar-lounges and packed terraces.
But even in Shanghai the past collides with the future. On the Bund, once again, where across from the new buildings, the ‘European’ Shanghai of the 1930s still stands. Its wealth of lavish properties includes the Bank of China, the Peace Hotel and the Customs House. If Nanjing Road, with its flashy signs and billboards, is the new temple of commerce, the Yu Yuan Garden evokes the power of long-gone mandarins.
No question that Shanghai did a fine job of illuminating modern China during the 2010 World Expo, but the city’s old Jade Buddha, Confucian and Jing’an Temples exude an aura of wisdom that is thousands of years old. A megalopolis unlike any other, Shanghai has preserved some of its famous lilongs: ‘closed quarters’ inhabited by the working-class, noisy, animated mazes of alleyways far from the glitter of commercial shopping malls. That’s Shanghai: a city of opposites, in keeping with the contrasts of the motherland.