Ngo Quang Minh
Discover the multifaceted splendor of Shanghai
The name Shanghai translates as “on the sea” and this coastal city is an excellent example of modernity in the heart of ancient China. The city’s history is intertwined with the stories of Shanghai’s concessions and the river-lands of Jiangnan. When describing its miraculous growth, Chinese people say: “Come to Xi’an to learn about 2,000 years of Chinese history and culture, Beijing for 1,000 years, and Shanghai for 100 years!”
The ten most amazing places in China include the Four Great Municipalities – densely populated and historically significant cities. Shanghai leads the quartet, along with Beijing, Chongqing, and Tianjin. From its beginnings as a small fishing village by the Huangpu River, Shanghai underwent massive changes to transform into a bustling modern megacity and China’s economic capital.
Its strategic position at the mouth of the Yangtze River put Shanghai into foreign sights. Following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking that marked the end of the First Opium War, it fell under Western control. Concessions were gradually established, where Westerners could live and trade freely. By the end of the 19th century, after the Sino-Japanese War, Japanese people began to appear in Shanghai. At the time, Shanghai was the Far East’s most important financial center. Foreign occupation finally ended in 1949; since then, Shanghai has been part of the People’s Republic of China. This fusion of Asian and European cultures and a complex religious legacy help to make Shanghai memorable.
The Shanghainese are very proud of the harmonious blend of ancient and modern sensibilities, which have been painstakingly preserved for generations. Next to imposing modern structures lie ancient streets adorned with seasonal coats: scarlet Chinese parasol leaves, sparkling golden ginkgo trees, or pure white snow. The song “The Bund”, the theme of the TVB series of the same name, was well known to television viewers in the 1980s. The series was set in the old concessions, evoking memories and inspiring visitors to fall in love with the area’s historical charm.
Concessions on the Huangpu River’s Western bank were once symbols of luxurious Europeanization, in contrast with the difficult lives of locals on the Eastern side. How the tables have turned! While the Western side is now a charming Old Town tinged with nostalgia, as of the 1990s, the Eastern side has become a specialized economic zone with a modern lifestyle and scores of skyscrapers that never seem to sleep. Travel on the Eastern side of the Huangpu River from the Bund for a glimpse of famous contemporary architectural landmarks, such as the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, Jinmao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai International Convention Center. At night, the glowing Eastern side becomes a vibrant, memorable symbol of Shanghai’s economic and cultural achievements in the 21st century.
The Western bank features a one-of-a-kind mix of architectural styles. A mere 1.5 square km is crammed with 52 buildings of diverse appearances that represent Shanghai’s three watershed moments. The first period is pre-1870, when British concessions occupied the majority of Shanghai. Simple houses were built with ample room for front lawns and trees. The second phase began at the turn of the 20th century following the Second Opium War. Shanghai’s rapid commercialization led to higher density building. Architecture in this era was strongly influenced by Gothic and Neo-Classical styles. The final period took place after World War II when the concessions were returned to Shanghai. Construction became a more structured and professional affair, and Art Deco styles were favored: tall facades with vertical lines, fragmented shapes, layers, and add-ons to create a sense of opulence. Shanghai’s financial capital shifted to the opposite Eastern bank. The lordly pride of the “architectural expo of ten thousand countries” and the former “19th century Wall Street” can still be found on Zhongshan Road, which curves along the Western side of the Huangpu River.
Shanghai’s colorful life also enthralls tourists as they explore the walking streets of Xintiandi, where beautifully preserved Shikumen stone townhouses feature unique retro touches. On the outskirts of Shanghai, the “water town” of Zhujiajiao provides a lovely contrast to the bustling restaurants and shops of Xintiandi.
More than 1,700 years old, Zhujiajiao is shaped like a folding fan. It flourished during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, described in the verse: “Under a small bridge near a cottage, a stream flows.” The town has 36 stone bridges that span its rivers and creeks, as well as 26 alleys of various sizes that connect like a chessboard, linking life between boats and dry land. Grey walls and black roofs crowd against each other. The scene resembles an ancient ink-wash painting come to life, in stark contrast to the rush of the modern city just an hour’s drive away.
This is Shanghai – a proud city by the Huangpu River wrapped in a coat of many colors. Visitors will find a mixture of modern European abundance and traditional Asian elegance diffused through the local ambiance and culture.