Shanghai: Beyond the façade

Posted on March 15, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

IMG_6503P1080656 IMG_6528

A more authentic Shanghai can be seen near Lu Xun Park in the Hongkou distric


I first (and last) went to Shanghai 12 years ago to visit a friend who had just moved from NYC to the city. I had always wanted to go to Shanghai before the trip, so I was quite excited. Yet the newly-developing city was not what I expected at all, I found the city crowded and chaotic, the people rude, pretentious and pushy (physically and verbally), the service appalling and the food very greasy. I did not want to return to this city despite many friends have since moved there (and left) and had invited me over, but I did not budge.

When I finally decided to revisit this city again, I didn't want the trip to be tarnished by my previous experience and was determined to look beyond the 'surface'. I turned down my friend's invitation to stay at hers (only to discover later that she lives only 2 blocks away from where I was staying), instead I rented a small studio in the historical Simingcun ( where many famous locals used to reside), hoping for a more authentic experience.


shanghai P1080399shanghaiP1080401IMG_6185P1080403 IMG_6218P1080617shanghaishanghai

Living like a local in the Simingcun in the former French Concession


Simingcun turns out to be an extremely interesting and authentic 'village' in the former French Concession right across from the Shanghai Exhibition centre. Though I was hardly impressed when I first arrived in the early evening. First of all, the taxi driver insisted that it would be difficult to find the place, even though I had already provided him with as much info as possible. Then when he finally found it, the lane was very dimly lit with trash here and there, and it didn't smell too good either. Even when I made it to the block, I had trouble finding the light switch as I climbed up the steep and narrow staircase. The neighbours were a bit suspicious of me too, but thanks to the next door neighbour and his torch, I was able to let myself into the apartment.

Before entering the apartment, I was starting to regret my decision, but once inside, I felt a sense of relief. The studio was nicely furnished with modern facilities and it seemed like a world apart from the neighbours' apartments. Over the next few days, I started to enjoy my 'local' experience... watching the lady in the opposite block hanging her laundry on the rooftop, smelling food as my neighbour was cooking away in the kitchen next door and best of all, listening to them play mahjong early Sunday morning (I probably wouldn't be too happy if I was living there long term).


shanghaishanghaishanghai traffic  shanghai shanghaishanghaiP1080447 P1080452


I usually prefer to walk or take public transport when I am visiting a city. But Shanghai is a big metropolis, and after spending almost 2 days walking around the former French Concession, I had to look for alternative options when I ventured beyond it.

The two major threats of walking in this city are: pollution and the high probability of being hit by cars when crossing the streets! For the pollution, I had prepared 3 masks for it, and although it was not as bad as Beijing, I still had to wear a mask when crossing busy roads.

But the act of crossing the streets in Shanghai is more hazardous than the high pollution level. Even when the light is green (for pedestrians), cars, trucks and mopeds would ignore it and drive on. My mother once had to ask a policeman for help as she was unable to cross the street during her visit a few years ago. My advice is to act quick, take the opportunity when you see it or follow the locals. It takes years to master the skill, so the locals have more expertise in this area, though occasionally, I have noticed some being completely oblivion to the crazy traffic around them. Hence, if you can't run fast enough, then avoid crossing the streets altogether!

The metro is an easy, cheap and safe option, though a taxi driver warned me not to use it during rush hours and to be careful of pickpocketing. Overall, I was quite impressed with the service. Lastly, taxis are fine if with the exact address, but the problem is do with the heavy traffic as you can be stuck in traffic jams for ages, so it is best to avoid taking them during rush hours.


P1080404 P1080615IMG_6216P1080405P1080701IMG_6220 P1080662

Shanghai is a vast open-air launderette...


Unsurprisingly, Shanghai has changed a great deal since I last visited. Back then, the city was like an immature and insecure child entering puberty, searching for its identity while trying hard to be cool. Now, the teenager has grown up and is more confident and comfortable with its new-found identity. The city notably has more high-rise, glossy shopping malls, Western-style cafes (selling expensive coffees at around £3-4 per cup) and expats (esp. French ones). These days, it is easier to find a boulangerie selling croissants than a local eatery selling xiao long bao in the former French Concession! Yet the glossiness and Western influences seem 'superficial' to me, as I believe the soul of the city can only be found on the streets where locals and ordinary Shanghainese live, eat, work and play.

Drying laundry in the public is a common sight in Shanghai. It is quite amusing to see underwear hanging from above while walking down the streets. And sometimes you can even see poultry being hung or shoes being dried on the pavements. All these local traits may be the norm to them, but to outsiders, they are quite fascinating.


P1080418 P1080433IMG_6342IMG_6221IMG_6457IMG_6227 IMG_6340


However, I couldn't help but notice the widening gap between the rich and the poor... as I was walking along Nanjing Road West one day, I saw a long queue outside of the newly-opened Old Navy (I could hardly believe it as it is considered to be a 'cheap' sister brand of Gap in the U.S. where I used to buy t-shirts for the gym). While my jaw was dropping, I suddenly noticed a beggar in front of me searching for goodies from the trash bin (see above), which was such a contrast from what was happening across the road.

Welcome to the new China.


IMG_6553 IMG_6496IMG_6217P1080402IMG_6461P1080671 IMG_6535 shanghaiIMG_6233 IMG_6536

 Street vendors and local shops


On the surface, the young and wealthier Shanghainese are more fashion-conscious and well-groomed, and they are happy to embrace their new Westernised lifestyle. Yet underneath the branded labels, their mannerism and behaviour is still very 'Chinese' (yes, they still spit in front of you as if you don't exist and would push you out of their way while queuing inside an upscale cafe). Having said that, it has vastly improved compared to 12 years ago, back then, it was much worse.

People can also be very curious/ nosy/ suspicious, especially when I stopped to take photographs on the streets. I don't know if it is paranoia, but I felt the need to be careful when taking photographs on the streets, so I ended up using my iphone instead as it was not as obvious.


IMG_6393 IMG_6239P1080653IMG_6429 IMG_6428IMG_6293P1080660 IMG_6243

The Chinese is a nation that loves food... the 'suspicious-looking' policeman in the last photo was actually eating a durian on a modped!


Food is crucial in Chinese people's lives, so walking down the streets, it would be hard to avoid seeing people queuing for local delicacies, buying fruits and vegetables or eating on the pavements. Due to the recent food safety scares in China, I was quite hesitate to buy from the street vendors or stalls except for vegetable steamed buns and sesame pancakes. Other times, I would look for food courts inside malls where the hygiene is better and yet it is still possible to find authentic and not over-priced local dishes.


IMG_6284IMG_6421IMG_6411IMG_6335P1080514 IMG_6373post boxPOST BOXP1080674P1080619IMG_6244 P1080411


Although my overall impression of Shanghai has changed a lot on this trip and I enjoyed it much more than my previous one, I still have reservations in regards to many issues hidden behind the curtain. Even with practical issues like the internet, the speed was slow and unstable, which I original thought was a connection problem in the apartment, but then later I was told by my friend that this is a common problem everywhere. And banning social media sites like Facebook, Twitter or Youtube is quite pointless because there are still ways to get around it...

Another issue is the rising costs of living here, rental costs is rising and eating out in Western-style restaurants and cafes could cost more than Hong Kong or even London. Yet the prices seem to drop drastically at eateries catered for the locals, so do the inflated prices reflect the real value of the products and services?

Shanghai is changing rapidly and I am sure when I next return to Shanghai, it will be quite different again. Will it become a more mature and elegant adult? I guess we shall wait and see.




This post was posted in Architecture, Photography, Travel, Social issues, Shanghai, Street life and was tagged with architecture, Shanghai, street life