Some Thoughts on Shanghai


the bund (1 of 1)

I arrived in Shanghai at the totally uncivilized hour of 5:00 AM – and, unsurprisingly, saw that the airport area was surrounded in a thick bank of typically Chinese-style haze. (For a moment, I convinced myself it was fog. Lies). Going through customs proved painless enough, and I spent a while wandering the airport trying and failing to find a currency exchange operator open at the aforementioned ungodly hour. I also wandered from one side of the immense terminal to the other to find a taxi stand with anyone at it in the early morning. But I eventually found a small brown car that would convey me to downtown. The freeway into town was called, as are most Chinese freeways, a Ring Road, and it was Sunday and rather vanishingly empty.

I’m staying at the Marriot as I’m here to live-blog the Asia Microfinance Forum for the Microfinance Focus Website. I was very pleased that the hotel was willing to let me into my room early, and I proceeded to draw myself a bath and do battle with the VPN system – finally settling on Astrill, which mostly allows me to access all my seditious websites.

Old buildings near the Bund.
Old buildings near the Bund.

After a red-eye flight recovery nap, I set out into Shanghai, in the general direction of the Shanghai Museum, which is quite close to the Marriot. My first, totally unoriginal impression of Shanghai was that it was very much like New York, from the viciously humid summer weather to the ceaseless landscape of skyscrapers and wide avenues and well-kept up leafy trees. It didn’t feel quite Chinese, I thought, at least in this downtown area: you could replace all the signs with English and it would be rather hard to tell the difference. There was at least one specialty coffee shop on every corner,and sometimes two.

The Shanghai Museum turned out to have a long sweltering line set up in front of it, and I sensibly decided that was a terrible idea and shifted my plans: to the Bund.

The Bund is the strip of historical architecture you see in every single promotional image of Shanghai ever – a long strip of colonial-era Western buildings in the monumental fashion, looking out over the water and towards the Blade-Runnneresque skyline of the other side of the river. It has a long and illustrious, complex history which I admit I don’t have time to go into here: suffice to say there is more than meets the eye, and I’m glad it survived China’s tumultuous recent history.

I wandered along the cement walkway of the Bund for a while, watching the remarkable profusion of ferry traffic headed up and down the water, including one barge carrying a massive shipment of logs from who-knows-where. There were plenty of tourists and all of them looked roughly as poorly hydrated as me.

roof shanghai peace hotel (1 of 1)

I split off from the Bund and found myself at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, once the most elegant hotel in Shanghai and still quite the glamorous Art Deco edifice. I asked about happy hour at the jazz bar and the receptionist looked at me with an expression of mild terror. “There is no Happy Hour,” she said. Noted. (I may come back yet, if I can handle a $10 beer).

I walked down the street and found myself in an exceedingly busy shopping area, with all the major US and European brands represented, and lots of people banging into each other with enormous shopping bags. There was the occasional shop selling grilled beef jerky, dried fruits and candies, popsicles, and other snacks, and the usual Asian profusion of glittery multi-story malls. I was not in need of Cartier, and so I walked to the outside.

Somewhere off Fangbang Lu.
Somewhere off Fangbang Lu.

After a stop back at my hotel, I went out again in the evening, heading to one of Shanghai’s remaining food streets. It’s called Fangbang Lu, and I should say now that I got the cab driver to drop me off at the wrong end of it: the fancy mall bit which begins at the cross-street with Henan Road. Enter Fangbang Lu at the other side.

moon in shanghai (1 of 1)

This lovely scene was in the fancy mall area, which was very pretty but actually consisted largely of Starbucks emporiums and places to buy either very expensive jewelry or very cheap jewelry. And the usual profusion of wandering salespeople who think I want to buy a pair of light-up bunny ears. The good news was that the authentic food area was at the other end of Fangbang Lu. Well, not exactly: the street stalls are off Sipailou Lu and other allies. Just keep a sharp eye out. The street itself is largely cheap clothes stores and oddly enough, toy emporiums selling knock-off drones.

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I came across a man making dumplings and another man making shwarma while dressed in a very uncomfortable looking pig costume. I cannot explain this.

hand pulled noodles (1 of 1)

I wandered the area and saw lots of stinky tofu and squid on sticks and fried pork buns on sticks and other delights, and I mostly couldn’t make up my mind, even with all the vendors shouting HEY LADY at me. I hadn’t had a bowl of Lanzhou pulled noodles since I was last in China in 2007, and I enjoyed the cinnamon-inflected broth, although it could have done with more meat.

Night games.
Night games.

I walked and kept on walking and found myself on the way to the Bund – the bulbous pink and green mass of the Oriental Pearl skyscraper just peeking above the tops of the under-construction buildings lining the way. For one or another reason, there was a huge screen playing football matches and a group of people playing badminton below it.

I hit the main drag to the Bund and found myself walking under an immense skyscraper being worked on, a welder some sixty stories up dropping uncomfortably large sparks down to the street below, which fizzled out just before they became truly worrisome.

Old Bund buildings at night.
Old Bund buildings at night.

Soon enough, the full expanse of Shanghai at night opened up before me, and I watched as a full-color I <3 Shanghai sign scrolled itself out in neon colors across one of the buildings, while the others glittered on and off, or sparkled in rainbow colors, or blinked, or did some other hyper-actively shiny thing, far into the night. All the lights made me feel as if this was some sort of mild commentary on Western cities, most of which can only manage one or two aggressively illuminated edifices

“Look what we can do, jerks,” the buildings seemed to be saying. “I bet your buildings don’t project cute messages at the exact same height as Godzilla.”

Making Chinese burritos.
Making Chinese burritos.

I finally found myself back at the Marriot, and realized I wasn’t entirely sure what was around the general vicinity of said glittering edifice. Maybe there was more food. I walked around the corner a couple of blocks, and soon enough found a couple grilling up what can only be described as Chinese burritos

. They had skewers with different kinds of meats and vegetables, and you selected the ones you wanted to be charred to perfection on a nice greasy hotplate. You also could point at a piece of flatbread, which would be cooked with egg and chives. Then, your skewers are placed on the eggy flatbread, and doused in spicy sauce, flavored salt, and some cilantro if you want it. The whole thing cost me about $2. I sat on the stairs of the shady hotel behind the street stand and ate the delightful thing entirely.