There is something in Shanghai that is very exciting and alive – the idea of a city with two different souls, one from today and another from a long time ago, is amazing.
The city of Shanghai paints a somewhat unusual picture. It is difficult to describe the discrepancies you find here on so many levels. The have’s and the have-not’s; old art-deco buildings amongst new futuristic skyscrapers; glitz and opulence a neighborhood away from street food, entire families sharing a two-bedroom apartment with no heat and laundry hanging from windows. All this and more is what makes the city such a fascinating area to explore.
Last weekend we pulled out our trusty Shanghai Walks book and did a walk entitled, “Suzhou Creek & the Real Shanghai.” For about 2 1/2 hours we wandered up and down the streets behind The Bund learning about the British and American Settlements in Shanghai in the 1920’s, as well as the Jewish migration from Europe and Japanese take over in the late 1930’s. To walk the streets of so much history is fascinating.
Our walk began on The Bund. For those of you who do not know the area, Shanghai is essentially divided into two parts by the Huangpu River. On one side sits the new section, or the Financial District, also known as Pudong. The other side is the old section, called Puxi. A river separating the future from the past. You don’t get any more literal than that. So, our walk began on the historical side of the city. We walked out to the river to look across at the towering skyscrapers that make up the iconic Shanghai skyline. The Oriental Pearl Tower looks like something you would find on the moon with it’s three bubbled levels and smooth silver detail.
From there, we turned around and headed into Puxi. Our first history lesson was that in the 1920’s the British and Americans established settlements in neighboring areas of this side of the river. Just looking at the buildings along The Bund convey the strong British influence during the time. It seems more like you are walking up and down the Thames than the Huangpu River. Gorgeous neoclassical marble buildings with ornate detail all convey an old-world European charm.
Money and culture flooded into Shanghai during this time. Theater, religion, and recreation all became popular pastimes amongst the ex-pats and wealthy locals living in the area. It is fascinating to walk along the Art Deco buildings in this section of town and feel so far removed from Asia. These buildings hold many stories, and opulence remains with stores like Cartier, Patek Philippe, and Gucci lining the streets.
It seems the British and Americans lived in harmony with the Shanghainese until Japan invaded in the late 1930’s. At this time, Japan bombed the city then proceeded to invade, taking over the once peaceful area. The lower-class Shanghainese were forced to move a bit farther away from The Bund, establishing their own neighborhoods. Our next walking point took us through these communities. What a contrast to the wealth we saw a mere two streets closer to the water. Dirty streets, laundry hanging out to dry from every window, local street food vendors offering some great (and not so great) looking dining options. No Ferraris or Rolls-Royces roll through this area. Here, they are replaced by scooters carrying entire families, chickens, and who-knows-what. But even in this section of town, the culture is rich. Perhaps not rich in monetary terms, but in their deep culture. I’m sure just as we observed in the streets closer to The Bund, these roads have changed very little. I can imagine walking down this area in the 1930’s and experiencing many of the same sites, smells, and customs that we do today.
Turning back towards The Bund is a large area under construction. Out with the old, in with the new. The remnants of thoughtfully designed Art Deco apartments stand in a crumbled heap. If those walls could talk, I’m sure they would tell tales of the glory days when the future looked bright and money and opportunity endless. I understand the push forward to make new and refresh cities, but it saddens me when there is not a middle ground. Back in the day buildings were not necessarily made to last here. They were put up quickly and lived in hard. Many of them could not be restored even if building crews wanted to, so they must be torn down and built anew. I suppose you could look at it as an opportunity. New walls to hold new stories. But I love the past and grieve a bit when it is not preserved.
Our walk concluded back where we started, standing in front of the Peninsula Hotel on The Bund. We put our pinkies up and went in for a much deserved afternoon cocktail. I thought as we sipped our delicacies what a contrast it was to an hour earlier when we paid 25RMB for our lunch made by street vendors on the local streets.
Shanghai is deep and layered in its history. It was fascinating to walk the streets and imagine life here in the 1920’s-’30’s. Shanghai is also a contrast of past and future, of the wealthy and the poor. But through it all, despite our history or backgrounds, we still manage to come together and make the city special.
Our walk opened my eyes to many things I have passed time and time again but never took time to really “see”. If you have the chance, step into history. Don’t just read about it in a book. Walk the streets. Stand where you are and take it all in. Imagine a time of days gone by when life was different, yet somehow much the same as today. I am thankful we did, and I know you will be too.
Special thanks to Barbara Green, Tess Johnston, Ruth Lear, and Carolyn Robertson for walking the Streets of Shanghai and writing The Streets of Changing Fortune: SIX SHANGHAI WALKS so we could too!