You cannot talk about the changes if you visit Shanghai and the energy it emits. For a native Shanghainese like me, this “wow” effect has been going on for almost 20 years, I always feel fortunate being born at the right time in the right place to witness how fast a city can grow. Shanghai has always been the most developed and diversified city in China even back in 1920s, being the economic capital with mostly European influence. The unique lifestyle here in Shanghai is described as “小资”, or literally, “little capitalism“. The international territory back in the days allowed many architectural styles to thrive in Shanghai, which were kept intact even during the cultural revolution. My childhood memory of going through the alley way and finding those kept secrets was not only fond, but intriguing as well. It is a very unique city, even during the modern days, with crazy growth – skyscrapers mushrooming all over town and 10 subway lines being built in less than 10 years – side by side with the old Shikumen (石库门), a tenement housing unique to Shanghai. The old charm and contrast of old and new just can’t be replaced by any other place. What makes Shanghai a hot spot today is it is a major city where you can have a good time, with or without a lot of money, although I am not sure how much longer that statement will remain true.
I’ve tried to come home as much as possible since moving to the US in 2002, every visit, there’s always something new. The real estate price now in Shanghai is about 10 times what it was 10 years ago. Unlike Beijing, the space in downtown area in Shanghai is restricted due to its location at sea (上海 means ‘above the sea’), although in recent years, the government has turned the east side of the river Pudong (浦东) into a showcase of modern development with extremely detailed planning. Most comments about Pudong for foreigners is “it looks like a city from the future”. And even for Michael and I, who visited Pudong last July, were shocked to see the new landscape this time when we visited Lujiazui, the area near the river on the east side.
A fun way to see how much businesses are moving to Shanghai is to look at the logos, KFC and McDonalds, Coca-Cola were the earliest commercial brands that were established here, for about 30 years already (my dad retired from Coca-Cola, unfortunately I drank a lot more soda than my friends growing up), then came Pizza Hut and Häagen-Dazs, then there were Subway, Papa John’s, Hooter’s, last year we spotted Best Buy and Cold Stone, this time, we wonder who hasn’t arrived seeing Krispy Kreme, Duncan Donuts, Mövenpick. Michael and I were concerned about not being able to buy certain items, but really we didn’t need to bring anything over. It is such a difference than years ago, I would haul ton of items back from the US. The changes are also the city has become so much cleaner now that all the major constructions are done after the opening of 2010 Shanghai Expo, at one point, Shanghai housed 60% of the cranes in the world, literally the whole city was a big construction field.
The most exciting change for Michael and I are the high speed rail, China invests most resources into rail system for mass transportation – subway, maglev and high speed trains that connect cities. Now it only takes 6 hours to travel to Chengdu (vs. 36 hours a year ago) to visit HK, an overnight train will do the trick.
Unfortunately some things haven’t changed much – there are still a lot of smokers in the restaurants, we have asked staff to have other customers not to smoke already. And fortunately some things haven’t changed – the food, we’ve been letting ourselves go on eating pretty much anything we want but soon we will be going back to our usual organic only diet and food deserves its own blog in the near future.
I took some pictures from the balcony early in the morning, after feeding the boys. The sun just came out and the city is already busy with the scooters (and the horn and squeaking brakes, annoying but familiar) and cars. With over 25 million population, Shanghai is truly an amazing city with so much to offer, for now, it’s such a happening place to be at least for a year, to experience things that just won’t happen elsewhere. Crossing the streets, exploring the street foods, trying out green tea donuts, everyday there’s something unexpected. I am hoping that the changes will slow down a bit to maintain the old charm rather than turning it into a concrete city. Now that Michael and I are re-exploring the city, we love going for a 1.5 hour long haircut for both of us for 15RMB (about $2) and know the faces of people who sell us breakfast and soy milk. Each old housing they tear down and replace with new apartment complex, a bit of sense of community disappear. I guess we just have to record our life as much as we can, since in a city like Shanghai, things change too quickly.