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The Once And Future City

With its frantic pace of development, Shanghai is a city in transition where religion, culture and commerce seem to have seamlessly blended, discover Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

China has come a long way from the anguished days of the Great Cultural Revolution. Modern Chinese leaders have, clearly, taken a more pragmatic view of their responses to global trends

Nanjing Road is the busiest shopping street in Shanghai

Shanghai was like a complex origami, unfolding backwards in time. From the airport, bright and business-like with advertisements, we drove along coiling clover-leaf highways and between soaring towers winking with glass, but gentled with soft shades of pastel and blue. Pillars rose to hold the highways still a-building. That was the promise of China tomorrow. Our warm and pretty guide ‘Jane’, name courtesy her English professor, said, “Ten years ago this was all farmland. Now, high-rises have been built here.”

“What happened to the farmers?” we asked.

“The government gave them land elsewhere. Some stayed on and got jobs with companies.”

Farmers evolving into urban workers: that is the China of today.

We drove through a tree-lined quarter, tired with age. This had been the French concession in those years, when the colonial powers had established their own enclaves in this busy trading port. In these alien colonies, they ruled themselves under their own laws much as Hong Kong and Macau once did. Old houses, dreaming of the days that had been, sat in gardens which were rank with weeds. Our guidebooks had told us that living conditions inside these weary mansions were very primitive with many families sharing the same loo, the same kitchen. This was the Shanghai of yesterday, an era when this no-holds-barred town gave its name to seafaring skulduggery. Sailors drugged and kidnapped to serve on sailings ships were said to have been shanghaied.

One of the Buddhas in the Temple of the Jade Buddha

To this day, the main, river-fronting road of Shanghai is called by our term for embankment: The Bund. We walked on the foreshore, pedestrian, mall of The Bund, and gazed up at the regal colonial, commercial buildings on the other side. They looked much like a spruced-up Ballad Estate with glass and steel structures rising behind. Across the road, the downtown streets were busy, the traffic disciplined and Pepsi Cola signs proclaimed China’s determination to forge into the First World ASAP. After the rigid years of the ‘Little Red Book’ and the buttoned-down grey jacket of Chairman Mao, the stifling grip of communism has eased a bit; the traditional enterprise of the Chinese trader has begun to reassert itself. China has come a long way from the anguished days of the Great Cultural Revolution. Then, gangs of incited goons tried to bludgeon the incredible wealth and variety of Chinese heritage into a grey and insipid uniformity. Creativity was emasculated, the economy hit rock bottom and the world shunned China. Modern Chinese leaders have, clearly, taken a more pragmatic view of their responses to global trends.

Shanghai’s Bund with its regal colonial buildings

On a Saturday evening, we walked out of our four-star hotel and through an underpass to get to the Catholic Church across the road. We were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in a sort of Pallika Bazaar, filled with shops selling expensive western clothes. Free enterprise is, very definitely, alive and kicking. So is the practice of individual faiths. The rituals in the Mass, celebrated in the Gothic Cathedral, had been frozen in the late 1940s, but they were authentic nevertheless. A fair measure of the vitality of a faith is the age of its worshippers. Half the congregation of that Mass was below the age of 40.

The older faith of Buddhism also attracts many devotees as we learnt when we visited the Temple of the Jade Buddha. It was teeming with Buddhists of all ages, some burning joss-sticks at a huge, black censer wreathed in fragrant, blue smoke; others prostrating themselves before various Buddhas, many of whom were, apparently, ancient Chinese deities absorbed into the Sino-Buddhist pantheon. The main Buddha statues are appreciably smaller, made of creamy-white tallow jade, and were reputedly brought by a monk from Burma. Four rows of women from Korea were sitting on the floor in front of the sitting Buddha, chanting while workers painted the lattice-wood canopy around the Buddhas and hordes of American tourists flashed and buzzed their cameras like electronic hornets. Religion, culture and commerce seem to have been seamlessly blended in modern China.

Twenty-first century China has, however, also realised the high-yielding potential of preserving and marketing the old ways. A friend who had visited Shanghai in the early 1950s had described it as a ‘grim, grey, grimy city full of solemn-faced, humourless people’. If his description was correct then, very obviously, things have improved remarkably in the intervening years. We drove to the old part of Shanghai, called Nanshi. Here, the streets were full of busy cyclists and shoppers, the rows of shop-houses bright with crimson lattice railings and yellow banners, the green-tiled roofs tip-tilted like the backs of scaly dragons. We saw no solemn-faced, humourless people. We picked our way through the labyrinthian lanes and alleys, peered into little shops that offered traditional Chinese products like brocades, lanterns, fans and porcelain. We did try some ‘oolong’ tea, which is partially fermented before drying: it was not quite as strong as black or as delicate as green and was offered at a bargain price. Bargaining is very much a part of the Nanshi shopping scene.

A street in Shanghai’s old quarter of Nanshi

In the old days, Nanshi also held the extensive Yu Yuan gardens: a complex of water bodies, bridges, pavilions walls and massed rock formations. Some of those pavilions have now become a very popular restaurant and a tea-house. Interestingly, the wall around the garden is topped by an undulating, scaly dragon, made of glittering ceramic tiles.

Serene pavilions in the Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai

Signs that modern, multinational dragons are flapping their wings in Shanghai are everywhere. Hoardings proclaimed the presence of Canon, Fuji, Citibank, Amro and Panasonic. The penetration of mobile phones was deep and all-pervasive. The standards of their tourist services were uniformly high. We had paid in advance for English speaking guides, limousines and four-star hotels and they were all as close to faultless as we have experienced anywhere in the world.

We had opted for an American breakfast and the buffet spread was extensive every morning. It also included a range of Chinese dishes: we stayed off rice-porridge and noodles in the morning, though we did sample other local fare. Chinese cuisine in China is as varied as Indian food in our land. We always asked for a description of the dish before we ordered it and were often shown photographs of the food. And though we are quite carnivorous, we did see an advertisement for a vegetarian restaurant attached to the Jade Buddha Temple.

China is making a determined effort to give its taxi drivers, and others who are likely to interact with tourists, a crash course in English. Do, however, carry a pocket calculator; it’s a great way to use a 21st century facility to do some good old 19th century bargaining. The past and the future perfectly matched in Shanghai.


Shanghai is a shopper’s dream. The streets are thickly strewn with department stores, shopping centres, age-old stores, speciality stores and supermarkets. Virtually all the famous Chinese and foreign brands and the latest fashion can be found here. Souvenir stores housing fans, chopsticks and silk clothes and furnishings, are concentrated in Nanjing Road, Huaihai Road, Sichuan Road North, Yuyuan Bazaar and Xujiahui. A special shopping excursion from Yuyuan Bazaar to Nanjing Road and then to Zhangyang Road of Pudong brings visitors on a tour of discovery of the city’s commodities and its ancient, modern and contemporary history. The flea markets are also worth visiting just for the experience.


Currency: Chinese renminbi yuam (Rmb) = 100 fen or 10 Jiao

Getting Around: Taxis are ridiculously cheap in Shanghai and you’re unlikely to pay more than Rmb20 (US$ 2) for any journey within the city. Beware of long traffic queues getting across The Bund by bridge or tunnel. Hardly any drivers speak or read English, so make sure your hotel writes your required destination in Chinese and gives you a card with the hotel name on before you leave. Alternatively, the metro system is efficient, simply to use, and even cheaper.

Area Code: 86 21

Business Hours: Banks and offices are generally open 0900 to 1700 hours while government offices close at 16.30 Monday to Friday. Shops open from around 10.00 to 22.00 hours, including Sundays.

Public Holidays: Jan 1, Feb 12, Mar 8, May 1, 4, Jun 1, 15, Jul 1, Aug 1, Sep 21, Oct 1

Time Zone: GMT +8 hours

Local Voltage: 220V AC 50Hz

Tipping: Hotels and restaurants levy a 10 per cent service charge.

Gourmet Delights

Shanghai lets its hair sown round the clock at venues whose variety and sophistication would put even Hong Kong to shame. Sister to ‘M on the Fringe’ in Hong Kong, ‘M on The Bund’ (Tel: 6350 9988) is incredibly stylish offering fabulous terrace views of the river. Cuisine is an eclectic Mediterranean mix. The minimalist ‘1221’ (Tel: 6213 6585) is one of the most fashionable joints in the city for a local fare and a favourite with expats, besides the famous ‘Mei Long Zhen’ (Tel: 6253 5353). For upmarket Cantonese, the Portman’s Ritz Carlton (Tel: 6279 8888) is hard to beat. ‘Park 97’s’ location among the trees makes it a wonderfully relaxed spot for drinks or dinner. Another great dining spot is ‘Sasha’ (Tel: 6474 6166), whose colonial-villa setting also includes a large garden popular for western barbeques. Enjoy classic Shanghai cuisine at ‘Lu Bo Lang Restaurant’ (Tel: 6328 0602). ‘On 56’, at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai (Tel: 5049 1234), is three restaurants in one on the 56th floor. ‘The Grill’ serves up steak and seafood, while the Japanese ‘Kobachi’ specialises in sushi, sashimi and yakitori. The Italian restaurant, ‘Cucina’, dishes up breads and pizza piping hot from a brick oven. All three restaurants share a lounge called ‘Patio’. A red painted colonial villa in the park-like compound of the ‘Ruijin Guest House’ (Tel: 6466 4328) houses the stark and trendy bar. The cosmopolitan culture options continue to expand with cuisines as diverse as Brazilian, Creole and Mexican.


Shanghai JC Mandarin
1225 Nanjing West Road, Shanghai
Tel: 86-21-62791888,
Rates: Mandarin Club Room US$ 158

Along the busy West Nanjing Road stands the magnificent 30 storey, five-star Shanghai JC Mandarin Hotel. It offers a range of facilities that include 600 luxurious rooms, 24-hours room service, a business centre, and a bank within the premises. The business traveller may request for premium accommodation of the Mandarin Club floors, which provide butler service, laundry and pressing service, as well as breakfast and evening cocktails, which are served in the exclusive Mandarin Club Lounge.

Shanghai Jin Jiang Tower
No 161 Changle Road, Shanghai 200020
Tel: 86-21-62582882

The Jin Jiang Tower is conveniently located in the commercial district of Shanghai. The 43-storey Jin Jiang Tower overlooks the city of Shanghai. The architecture and layout of the hotel is striking. Set in two gardens, the three European-style buildings are elegant and magnificent.

The Portman Ritz-Carlton
1376, Nanjing Xi Lu
Shanghai - 200040
Tel: 86-21-62798888

Winner of the ‘Overall Best Business Hotel In Asia’, ‘Best Business Hotel in China’ and ‘Best Hotel Conference Facilities in Asia’, The Portman Ritz-Carlton is also the number one place to work in Asia and China. This 564-room hotel is a landmark on Nanjing Xi Lu.

St Regis Shanghai
889 Dong Fang Road, Pudong
Tel: 6875 9888
Rates: US$ 320 for a deluxe room

Located in the Pudong business district, its stylishly decorated rooms are all spacious and, unusually for Shanghai, have CD players on top of all the usual business facilities. Bathrooms are large and have the famous St Regis rainforest shower, which means an extra large shower head and a vigorous, refreshing experience. There’s a large pool, tennis courts, snooker tables, fitness centre and spa, plus three restaurants.

Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Jin Mao Tower, 88 Century Boulevard
Tel: 5049 1234
Rates: Bund View rooms US$ 335

This hotel is in the Gotham City-style Jin Mao Tower and offers some of the best views in the city. Bedrooms are stunning, and have luxurious bathrooms with enormous walk-in showers with waist high as well as overhead shower heads. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dining, with over 10 different restaurants and bars, including Italian, Japanese and a steak restaurant.

Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai
33 Fu Cheng Lu, Pudong
Tel 6882 8888
Rates: Deluxe rooms US$ 270

It might not be the most eye-catching of Shanghai’s buildings, but this hotel certainly offers the best view of the Bund. The health club and business centre are open 24 hours and there are three restaurants, international, Chinese and Japanese, and also a Deli selling breads and pastries. The hotel’s bar, BATS, is a popular hangout, with live music every night and serving oversized portions of western-style food.

Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai
58 Maoming Nan Lu, Shanghai 200020
Tel: 86-21-64151111
Fax: 86-21-64158866

The Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai possesses 500 comfortable guestrooms. The Presidential Suite has hosted a lot of state guests and business elite. Executive rooms, equipped with modern business facilities, provide convenience for business travellers. The hotel has four distinctive restaurants of Chinese, Japanese or Western styles and three bars that are all perfect for both meeting friends and having privacy for yourself.