Some Thoughts on Shanghai and What to Do There

shanghai through the window (1 of 1)

I haven’t been to China since 2007. Eighteen at the time, I spent a summer in Beijing ostensibly studying English, but devoting considerably more time to wandering around in hutongs, drinking baijiu, and feeling incrementally more alienated. (As well as coughing up black chunks of indeterminate material on a regular basis, due to the air). My impression of China was ultimately Interesting But Difficult, and I was happy to return in 2014 to see if any of that initial, smoggy impression had changed. Go to Shanghai to blog about a microfinance conference? No problem.

What do I think about Shanghai, and what advice do I have for someone who’s making the trip? What are some general, almost entirely unrelated observations? Here you go. Also, some pictures.

Pleasantly cosmopolitan. Shanghai is most certainly the New York to Beijing’s DC, to make a rather trite comparison between the two cities. Bustling, international, and aggressively new, it’s a city of bizarrely variable architecture, immense crowds, and billboards that flash and blink well into the stratosphere. It’s also surprisingly clean, with very little of the public spitting and dead-rat ambiance I’d grown accustomed to in Beijing. Those who have no palate will probably be pleased to know that every cuisine known to man exists here, including a number). of Southern BBQ places. (I am sad I did not get pictures).

It is also a city of shameless, impressive commerce, best exemplified by the time I walked by the Nike store on a Friday in the rain and saw an immense line to get in.

Shanghai downtown night view.
Shanghai downtown night view.

Cars and Crap Motorcycles – Tiny little electric motorcycles with bits of them taped on the are the norm in Shanghai. If you don’t have a crappy little electric motorcycle, you are probably driving a Jaguar. There seems to be rather little middle ground. I eventually figured out that gas-powered motorbikes are often regulated out of Chinese cities for reasons of both noise control and pollution, fostering a booming market for the little buzzing jobs you see here. Save the Earth.

On that note, I’ve noticed drivers here do give you slightly more quarter than they might in, say, Phnom Penh. But don’t get sassy in your pedestrian activities, pleasingly cosmopolitan as Shanghai may initially appear to be.  Cars seem to turn left or right into the turn lane at random. I would not recommend walking and texting here,unless you’re fine with being a meaty splat on the pavement.

Jazz singer in the French Concession.
Jazz singer in the French Concession.

The French Concession – Land of the Expat on a Fixed Gear Bicycle in a Business Suit, but also leafy and pleasant with lots of old buildings and a distinctly European flavor. As the name should abundantly indicate, it was the French portion of old Shanghai, and was established in 1849 when the French Consul to Shanghai was given permission to found it from the Circuit Intendant of Shanghai at the time. It was held by the French until 1946, and during that time period, became one of Shanghai’s most renowned and exclusive residential areas.

It still is – and the foreigners like it. I can see why, speaking as a foreigner: , it’s a very nice area to walk around in, with lots of boutiques, interesting bars, and restaurants of all manner of cuisines. I drove by some guys selling US and European craft beer off the street so you can be assured that you’ve found one of Shanghai’s hipster lairs.

I enjoyed the pleasingly retro JZ Club, which features nightly live jazz and a surprisingly robust line-up of international acts. The Cotton Club, right down the street, is also known for jazz music.

I also enjoyed visiting Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s house, which was highly colonial and proper, had a nice green lawn, and was filled with mild propaganda addressing both Communist and feminist themes.

Not Enough Street Food – I was told there’d be more street food. I was lied to. Admittedly, I was pretty much stuck in the rather sterile area around the Shanghai Marriot, but the pickings were rather slim even in the relatively food-heavy area of Fangbang Lu. Be informed. And perhaps research some good restaurants to try out instead.

This is probably especially pressing if you’re one of those idiots who don’t speak any Chinese, which would be me. I hope you fare better in the street food department.

Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.
Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.

The Bund Is Pretty But You Should Be Rich – The Bund is lovely. It is probably even more lovely if you are on a fat expense account or fabulously wealthy. If you are not, you would be rather foolish to stay in one of the budget hotels or hostels in the immediate area, considering there’s just about nowhere to go for a reasonably priced alcoholic beverage. Go to the French Concession and take the Metro to go look at the Bund, which is indeed majestic and well-worth it. Even go poke your head inside the Fairmont Peace Hotel and try to imagine what it would be like to be that guy with the white Ferrari parked outside with fuzzy dice.

Shanghai drink sellers.
Shanghai drink sellers.

Taxis are Cheap – My time to poke around the city was rather limited as I had a conference to go to, so I took the coward’s route and took taxis most places. I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive the taxis were, and how pleasant the cabbies were about using the meter. 13 RMB was the standard flagfall, and I never had a ride go beyond 26 RMB for a fairly considerable haul from the French Concession back to my hotel in traffic.

For Fuck’s Sake! No Tea Ceremonies! – It’s a scam. I have heard this story so many times that it fills me with no small measure of amusement that people still get away with it. I should also add that a single look around modern Shanghai and what The Kids seem to do with their time here should disabuse one of the notion that they’re all really into tea ceremonies. No. They are into annoying music and bootie shorts, like everyone.

I did have two girls ask me to take their picture in front of a very boring stretch of wall – with the Bund right there! – and they tried to start a conversation, but I faked not speaking any English and strode away quickly, leaving them debating with one another on a street corner. Did I miss a chance at a Very Special Tea Ceremony? How sad.


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