Shanghai — First City of People’s Republic of China

I landed in Shanghai at 6pm at night, and took a bus from the airport to the center of the city — a one hour ride. The People’s Republic of China — a foreign place for the first time visitor; the ignorant traveler. The bus was a big greyhound, just like any express bus; filled with Chinese people speaking Chinese; nothing out of the ordinary if you have lived your life in Brooklyn NY or the NYC area. Lights out; dark inside and out as we took to the highway from the airport and already China took on an ominous look — brand new superhighways sprung up all over and around us; the concrete pillars and cement with that white-grey brand new look. Building, building, building all around; evidence that what they say about China and its booming economy is true.

With a thick fog falling amidst the darkness descending we entered downtown Shanghai at about 7pm — entered a city so foreign and heart-in-stomach frightening it was like flying an X-wing fighter into the Death Star in Empire Strikes Back. Massive, foreign looking skyscrapers thrust way way way up into and beyond the fog, with eerie lights emanating from each; each one a different color; orange, blue, yellow; with ornate tops; spirals, jagged points, spherical ornamental tops; one skyscrapper bigger than the next, awesomely laid out with enough spacing from one another that each one seemed to stand apart as a separate Gigantor giant; or in one case, Godzilla.

Shanghai World Finance Center on the left — currently the third tallest building in the world.

The Oriental Pearl Tower — a TV Tower and tourist attraction.

What place is this, that makes NYC look.. small? It is Mister T to NYC’s Rocky. Martina Navratilova to NYC’s Chrissy Evert. Mark McGuire to NYC’s Roger Maris. George Foreman to NYC’s Muhammed Ali?

And that’s just the half of it, as I’d learn a day later. Shanghai has San Francisco tucked away on the other side of the river! The Huangpu River. That’s the city Shanghai was most like 20 years ago. Back when San Francisco was designated Shanghai’s sister city; like two gals going out to shop for shoes.

That’s the Shanghai you see Indiana Jones race though in the second movie, after thebig fight in the restaurant. A Shanghai of rickets and old fashioned 4-story ornamental buildings tightly laid out with people in the narrow streets doing all kinds of selling, Chinese style.

That Shanghai still exists. Then, 20 some years ago, in the late eighties when China instituted the economic reforms that made it a capitalist country, some city planners (or actually country planners, because Shanghai’s rise seems to have been bequethed from the top) decided that Shanghai would become China’s first foot forward. Shanghai is to China like NYC is to the US; whereas Beijing is to China what Washington DC is to the US — the head of its government.

Those planners took a look at the grassy farmlands on the other side of the Huangpu River from Shanghai — the Pudong section of town — and decided to build a new gargantuan city of skyscrapers there. This all told to me by Chinese coworkers I worked with while there, later in the trip. Those same coworkers told me that the fog is worse than it ever was these days; it comes all the time now, in the evenings; probably due to global warming.

Skyline of the old Shanghai, across the river from Pudong section.
Shanghai World Finance Center.

Pudong — the ‘new’ Shanghai — features two of the top 5 tallest buildings in the world, with another — slated to move into the #2 slot even after Freedom Tower is finished in NY — on the way. As you step back a bit, you realize that the skyscrapers in Pudong are all spaced apart from one another — not like in NY which is so densely packed. Because of this, it seems that each skyscraper in Shanghai is given individual treatment, yet with enough skyscrapers close enough to each other that they play off each other to give the city a massive scale — unlike, say, Taiwan, which has the second tallest skyscraper in the world — the Taipei 101 Tower (behind Burj Dubai) — but it actually doesn’t look so tall or imposing because it sits by itself as the lone humongo-skyscraper in the city. And then the ornamental lights on so many of the towers in Pudong — blues and oranges even — and the fog give Shanghai that other-worldly look and feel.

If it seems confusing as to which the tallest top 5 buildings in the world are, it is — it is changing all the time in this last 5 years, at the back end of this building/economic boom. As one coworker told me later about Shanghai’s towers, they built the World Finance Tower, which at that point was the tallest building in China, and as soon as it was finished, some other rich guy came along and said he was building an even taller tower, the Shanghai Tower, right next to it. Don’t know if that’s the way the story actually went down, but it’s a good story. That tower is currently being constructed and is due in 2014.

Headquarters of Shanghai stock exchange.

I spent three nights in Shanghai at the Pudong Shangri La Hotel, a glamorous, luxurious hotel that actually consists of an old tower and a new tower. The new tower is brand new, and 36 stories high. I stayed at the ‘old’ tower, still 28 stories high — I was on the 26th floor with an utterly fantastic view of the city — specifically the Jin Mao Tower, the World Financial Center tower, and the Oriental Pearl Tower, with the Huangpu River to my left. The Hotel has a massive lobby that is an L shape, with two reception areas and a connecting lobby-like hallway featuring high-end clothing stores and art galleries. At the base of the ‘old’ tower is a huge lobby with super high ceiling and balcony, and leather couches and tables with ashtrays, and smoking available everywhere — this is Peoples Republic of China after all, in the year 2009. This lobby throws you back in time to 1932; the sophisticated elegance of the old Shanghai.

Lobby of the Pudong Shangri La Hotel.
Shanghai Pudong Shangri La Hotel Lobby, another view.

All of the workers at the Pudong Shangri La, from the doorman, to the guy who gets you a cab, to the receptionists, to the lady who brought me up to my room, to the window washer (see picture above left) were hard working, friendly, helpful people. Spectacular lobby; spectacular views; great room. Pudong Shangri La Hotel gets a 10 on a scale of 1-10. Room rate was 1078 Yuan; or $162 a night US.



On my first night there, I went down to the lobby and asked a fellow at the concierge where I can get something to eat. “Crabs?”, he asked back, and then went on to explain that the hotel restaurant served crabs and pointed to a sign behind me that was a big advertisement for crabs. “No, no — just something to eat; it doesn’t have to be crabs.. Are there any places to eat nearby outside the restaurant?”, I countered. He told me there was a mall next door, and there were plenty of eateries on the fifth floor. I thought it strange that the concierge guy should mishear anything I said for the word “crab” — but later learned that Shanghai is known for its Mitten crab. People travel from far and wide to eat Mitten crabs in Shanghai; otherwise known as “Big Hairy Crabs”, although the Chinese have another pronunciation. The crabs come from a certain fresh-water lake called Yangcheng Lake. Crabs from this lake get a tag applied to them at birth so that eaters know the crab is officially stamped authentic. I was told there’s some counterfeiting that goes on; the notorious put crabs in the lake and forge the tags; so you have to be careful to get Big Harry Crabs from proper restaurants that stake their reputation on serving up official crabs from Yangcheng Lake.

I went across the street to the mall — the Super Brand mall — the largest most grandest mall I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever — and that includes the Mall of America in Minnesota. The main part of it going up 10 stories — the mall just seemed to go up and up, and long too; I had to walk quite a ways through the two-story part of it to get to the escalators that went up to the eateries on the fifth floor. Very elegant and clean, and all American stores — surprisingly to the ignorant traveler — Best Buy was there, and Aeropostale (I think), and so forth. And many names I’d not seen before too. No Macy’s. I found a place offering Thai food, Gan Guo Xuan, and went back to the hotel room with a takeout order of the most spice-ishly delish plate of fish I’d tasted in a long while. If I ever return to Shanghai, I am eating at this place again. Cheap too. My meal came to like 36 Yuan, or $5.36 US.

Big Hairy Crab

I had two full days of work in Shanghai; on the second night there, the guys I was working with took me out to a place known for its Mitten crab. the food was served Chinese style, plate after plate of the most unique food, passed around the large table that the 10 of us sat around, on a huge circular server that you could manually push so that it would revolve around and serve up a dish to the next guy for him to take from.

Mitten crab (aka “Hairy Crab”) — a delicacy.

One of the fellows told me and showed me the proper way to eat the Hairy crab. You had to look for and find its tiny lung, and remove it. Eating the lung, he said, makes people nauseous and feverish for several hours.

Skyline of old Shanghai, aka the Huangpu district, aka ‘The Bund’

On my final night in Shanghai, I bounced into old Shanghai with a co-worker; we ate at a restaurant that seemed exactly like the one Indiana Jones found himself in in the second movie. When you order fish in Shanghai — or at least in this restaurant — they bring the fish out to you alive, flapping around in a pail — for your approval; once you give it the thumbs up they go off and cook it; the next time you see it, it is served up on a dish.

One moment it was flapping around in a pail, 10 minutes later it looked like this (assuming they didn’t do the old switch-fish-eroo).

We took the ferry back, from old Shanghai to Pudong, crossing the Huangpu river. A short 5 minute ride, which showed off the spectacular night skylines of the two Shanghai’s.

Skyline of old Shanghai on opposite side of Huangpu River from Pudong section of Shanghai. This waterfront of what is officially known as the Huangpu section of town, is called ‘The Bund’
Pudong Shanghai at night — Pearl Tower is on the left; Citibank is in Shanghai with its own tower
Pudong Shanghai at night — two tallest buildings at center are Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Finance Center.

(The video above may not appear on your mobile device.)

On my final morning in the city, I set off to explore Shanghai in the 4 hours I had. There actually wasn’t much to do on the Pudong side of town — it’s all skyscrapers and construction as Shanghai readies for the World Expo in 2010. (NYC scored major points here; Shanghai’s bustle and energy isn’t close to NY.) I couldn’t keep my eyes off Shanghai’s two goliaths — the Shanghai World Finance Center and the Jin Mao Tower, but headed for old Shanghai to see some people.

View outside my hotel window — the Jin Mao Tower (aka Godzilla) and the Shanghai World Finance Center.
Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Finance Center (left to right). I freaking love these two buildings, especially Jin Mao — aka ‘Godzilla’.
Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Finance Center (left to right).
Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Finance Center (left to right). Because of the angle, it looks like Jin Mao is as big as the World Finance Center, but it’s not.

I took the ferry across and walked the streets.

Ferry boat across the Huangpu River (there were numerous ones) has large area for bicycles and scooters.

Driving Around Town — Cars, Scooters, and Bicycles

Unlike Southeast Asian cities, Shanghai China wasn’t motorcycle/scooter crazy — instead, it was bicycle crazy. Lots and lots of people traveling about on bicycle still. Some scooters; but it was mostly bicycles and cars. There are wide bicycle lanes that have a steady flow of traffic; all kinds of bicycles in a steady flow.

Those who aren’t riding bicycles are typically driving cars. NOT Japanese cars. The place is loaded with Buicks and Volkswagens. GM may have gone bankrupt in the US (in this writer’s opinion on purpose to lose their union contracts), but the company has a very strong footing in China — People’s Republic of China (not Taiwan). I’ve never seen so many Buicks in my life; they’re all over the place. All the taxi’s are Volkswagen Santana’s, an older model apparently sold overseas only. Unlike other cities in Asia, there weren’t too many Toyotas about, and this was long before Toyota had its problems at the beginning of 2010. Not too many Japanese makes; a few Fords here and there. It was mostly Volkswagen and Buick.

Although I didn’t take too many pictures of people on bicycles, they far outnumbered motor scooter riders. This picture taken in old Shanghai.
There’s one of those Chinese wheelbarrels again; street vendors in old Shanghai.

Walking About Town

Women are often seen walking arm-in-arm in Shanghai, sometimes seemingly snuggled together. When I first saw two women sitting very close together in a restaurant, I assumed they were a lesbian couple, and they very well may have been, but as I walked the city, I saw that women everywhere walk arm-in-arm together; it seems to be part of the Chinese culture. Men can occasionally be seen walking together, but not arm-in-arm like the women. I did see two different groups of men standing up hovering around each other in a park in the middle of old Shanghai, playing cards.

I asked the coworker I was with on my final night in the city, what the effects of the one-child-family had been on him when he was single. He scoffed off the question, almost seemingly insulted, and said there were no problems finding a mate — many men find a woman much younger than themselves; it is common, he said for a woman to marry a man 10 or 20 years older than herself. Also, he said, you could always find a woman who had emigrated from other Asian countries such as Vietnam, etc.


Chinese women frequently walk arm-in-arm.

This long alleyway in old Shanghai featured all kinds of used equipment sellers, including one old guy who looked like he could fix anything — people would come up with a broken this or a broken that, and he’d look to fix.

Gal selling oranges off a truck in old Shanghai. The tall guy was buying from her.

All of the dilapidated buildings by the river in old Shanghai have been ripped down for new construction; there was one lone survivor when I took this picture.

Music in China

Youtube is not allowed in People’s Republic of China. You just can’t get to the site; you time out. Same for Twitter, Facebook, and any Blog. You’d figure this would be a boon to musical artists in China — their music isn’t given away for free on youtube; it is like going back in time 3 to 4 years (before youtube) when people actually bought CD’s. Alas, this is China — the place where cd counterfeiting was seemingly born. There are no music shops that I could see; a coworker said people do not buy their music in stores; they buy them on the streets.

One night, heading back to the hotel, I heard ABBA blasting through the night air for 20 seconds or so, and then, silence, and then, Frank Sinatra for 20 seconds, and then silence, and then, ABBA again. I saw where the music was coming from — an outside vendor with a cart that had a cd player with huge speakers, and a crowd gathered around him. He would play requests so the person could hear the CD they were interested in buying.

More hardworking Chinese construction workers, with their shovels and wheelbarrel, below the bullet train elevated tracks.

Shanghai’s Bullet Train

I left my hotel in Shanghai at 1:30pm on a Saturday afternoon, and got home to JFK in NYC by 5pm that same Saturday night — the joys of getting back those 12 hours in time difference.

I took a taxi to a bullet train station; the bullet train goes from the Airport to a part of Shanghai that was a 15 minute taxi ride from my hotel. The bullet train tops out at 400 MPH; so fast that I couldn’t get a good picture of the on-board MPH screen. Lots of other tourists were on the train with me, with sophisticated cameras waiting for that moment that the train topped out at 400 MPH. So.. that one hour bus ride from the airport to my hotel in Pudong Shanghai took only 22 minutes on the way back — the 15 minute taxi ride to the Bullet train station, and then 7 minutes from there to the airport.

Alaska from the air, on trip back. I only saw a very small part of Shanghai in my three days there; great hardworking people, incredible architecture, shopping (old Shanghai is known for its shopping), ferries, and an old Shanghai that throws you back in time to the 1930’s of Indiana Jones; what a wonderful town.

Shanghai ferry crosses Huangpu River.
The Chinese are a hard-working people, said a colleague to me while I was there. Darn tuttin’. You could see many construction sites with workers dilligently working away, digging with shovels. The wheel barrel with the big wheels was everywhere. Very different than a construction site in the US; a lot more manual work; a lot less people standing around.
Old Shanghai
Construction in old Shanghai.
Proof that he was there — Ignorant traveler Lou V on board ferry, with skyline of old Shanghai behind him.
Shanghai bus

Chinese truck. I love this style truck!

Coffee, Massage, and Foot Soak — ad at Shanghai Airport

Shanghai Pudong skyline

Yet another view outside hotel window — on Saturday morning, some crazy idiot hanging from a rope, cleaning the window from the outside. Crazy, just absolutely crazy

Another view outside hotel window — construction at base of towers                       

Flying over Alaska on long plane ride back to NYC
On the long flight back to NYC from China.

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Terrific article! The skyscrapers look strange, beautiful and menacing all at once, especially in that fog! Star Wars is right. I think a lot of Irish people have a similar feeling when they visit NYC for the first time — we have no skyscrapers here. I remember rounding a corner to see St Patrick’s Cathedral nestled among its massive new-world neighbours and I stood rooted to the spot looking up all round me.

I’d love to get to Shanghai one day. You seemed to cram a lot into your short stay there.

Ray Tomany

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