My first entry into Mainland China was a business trip to Shanghai. As a business trip, it was light on sightseeing and heavy on observations of the four walls of inside the office. However, I saw enough of Shanghai to understand that the city has its own vibe, a feel very distinctive from Hong Kong. My first impression was the haze in which the plane descended as it approached for landing. Pollution is just a fact of life in Shanghai. While not as bad as Beijing – in an infamous class of its own – the city’s pollution is chronically evident in the horizon that can’t be seen or the sun that can’t shine through.
Shanghai is an eclectic mix of modern and old. Times Square is surrounded by big shopping malls, high rise buildings, heavy traffic – even an Apple Store – all the trapping of a modern city. But embedded within the city is a layer from a throw back era. The streets are shared with Ferraris and old bicycles – circa 1952 – and outside 7-11s are street merchants selling trinkets and meals from their mobile kitchen/carts. There are phone booths scattered throughout the city. Not Wi-Fi booths, but phone booths with landlines that can be used for a fee – sort of a micromuseum. I actually saw one in use, someone inside talking on his cell phone! Maybe with 20m+ people in the city, it’s a great place to go for a bit of privacy.
Shanghai is not the international melting pot that Hong Kong is, but it’s heading in that direction. One evening was able to get to the Bund, a site along the Huangpu River where the vestiges of Western influence can still be seen. On one side of the river are stately buildings built by Western nations 100 years ago in what represented the epicenter of trade and commerce in Asia. On the other side of the river is the modern financial district where the famous Oriental Pearl Tower can be can be seen (albeit through the haze that constantly hovers who’s presence is like a crazy uncle telling awkward jokes at Thanksgiving dinner – you feel like you should pretend it’s not there). Shanghai has the vibe of a city fighting to regain its status as the Gateway to Asia it ceded to places like Hong Kong and Singapore.
All told, my trip to the Mainland was just long enough to be a teaser. We are planning some family trips into China when we have time to explore it right (and maybe in optimal weather!).