“Shanghai isn’t the real China”, a guy (who was steadily making his way through a beer tower on his own at 6pm) told me in my Beijing hostel. “You might as well be in the States”.
Now, while I agreed with him that Shanghai is definitely a built up city, with skyscrapers on every horizon and an unmissable air of infinite possibility, which in many ways reflects Manhattan or another modern city in the USA, I completely disagree that there’s no point in visiting, and that it’s just a copy of the States. This is modern China.
Think of China and you’ll probably imagine rice paddies, temples and an overwhelmingly impressive Great Wall. China does have all of these things. But just as the UK is not just known for its castles and cathedrals, the older parts of China are not a representative of the modern country.
And modern China is something we need to understand. The country is developing at such an alarming speed and the rest of the world just can’t keep up. Despite Beijing being the country’s capital, it’s not that apparent there. But go to Shanghai, and China’s growth as a global superpower will smack you in the face.
Shanghai is skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. Shanghai is multicultural. Shanghai is speed. Shanghai is current. And Shanghai is sparkling. Shanghai is China.
So if you want to understand China (and I do think that should be our ultimate goal as sustainable travellers– to really understand and feel a place), be sure not to exclude Shanghai on your China trip.
Has Shanghai always been such a significant city for China?
Shanghai has enjoyed a significance in Chinese history since its establishment as a city in the 12th century. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the city was a well known textile base, with it being said that “the cloth produced in Songjiang (Shanghai) was enough to clothe the whole of China”. During these few centuries, Shanghai become known as an area of prosperity, opportunity and wealth.
But it was its position on the East Coast, at the mouth of the river, that really interested the imperialist invaders in 1842. Concessions were established in Shanghai from 1945 and the city was semi-colonised. The concessions became “countries within a country”, using their own laws and urban management. Although this imperialism, which a lot of countries suffered, wasn’t great news for Shanghai and China at the time, it was the beginning of China opening up to the world and starting to make its mark as a global superpower. Colonisation and imperialist rule didn’t tend to work well for a lot of countries, but it was this invasion that enabled China to become the country of importance that it is today.
The 30s were a time of huge boom for Shanghai, as the city became a cultural and financial centre of great significance. Shanghai was one of the most important urban areas of the Far East; and imperialist forces knew the fundamentality of keeping the city on their side for trade deals with East Asia. Significant developments were the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (which is now the global bank of HSBC!) which became Britain’s most crucial financial service in the Far East.
Throughout conflicts and agreements with Western forces, modern day Shanghai has emerged. Shanghai has always been a few steps ahead of the rest of the country, and nowadays it is the place to watch to discern where China is going next.
Half of South Eastern China was illuminated with the fireworks set off in Shanghai
(Source of this information – Shanghai history museum. It’s located within the Oriental Pearl Tower, it costs 30 yuan for entry and it’s well worth a visit to get to grips with the real China.)
How multicultural is modern day Shanghai?
Take a walk around modern day Shanghai, and you’ll see a mix of cultures and architectural styles. The French Concession gives off a very European air and on some roads there will be more shops with English names than Chinese – which is a complete rarity in China. It is difficult to say whether this is good or bad – the concessions themselves represent semi-colonialism and imperialist forces coming into the city, but then again, it is this fusion of cultures that has given Shanghai the global connections to become such a worldly city today. You could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in the Champs-Élysées while strolling around this area of the city; and this is why many visitors to China tend to call Shanghai home.
How futuristic is Shanghai?
To answer this question, I give you the Bund. Day and night, this icon beams out onto the city, representing prosperity and modernity. The buildings are futuristic; with the Oriental Pearl Tower looking like a spaceship about to take off, and skyscraper after skyscraper shooting up towards the sky. If the French Concession represents Shanghai’s time under semi-colonialism, the Bund mirrors the prosperity that is happening right now. The way the city is developing at a shocking pace, and not threatening to stop any time soon. This is modern China.
But it’s not just the Bund that showcases skyscrapers and crazily high modern buildings; a walk around East Nanjing Road, the main shopping district, will amaze and enthral you. Screens with larger than life catwalk models hang above the crowds of shoppers and lights flash from every cranny of the buildings. East Nanjing Road in itself seems completely futuristic and glamourous.
But is there something that Shanghai is lacking? For me, it was the delicious street food that was sold on the corners of Xi’an, and the old architecture of Beijing. Street food can be sought, but is discouraged by the government (especially in the city centre). Instead of street food stalls, the dining options in Shanghai seem to be McDonalds or upper class restaurants. And the architecture is new and booming.
But, of course, this is not unique to China. As country after country modernises and develops, we undoubtedly lose some of the authenticity of the nation. Chain stores open and take over cities. Globalisation is happening everywhere and although this is making the world grow at a rapid pace, helping things happen that we would have only dreamed about even ten years ago; it is not sustainable for small businesses.
How do we practice sustainable tourism in Shanghai?
So how can we be responsible tourists, even in a screaming metropolis like Shanghai? Even though the city is overwhelmingly modern, it is still possible to practice sustainable tourism in Shanghai. Well, as I mentioned earlier, street food can be found, it just takes a bit of investigation. Avoid the McDonalds dotted around the city and try to find some of these eateries (tips at the end!) At the same time, remember that European influence is very much part of Shanghai’s culture. While eating a croissant in China may seem a bit weird, it’s not just a tourist trap. The French influence of Shanghai very much is Shanghai, and supporting the locals here may come in the form of eating French pastries.
Like when visiting every city, it’s much better to get around using the metro or buses rather than taxis. And as always, don’t just not drop litter but make a conscious effort to remove it yourself, use reusable bottles and containers and make use of eco-friendly travel products.
But in my opinion one of the most important aspects of responsible tourism is respecting the locals, and I think that this is tantamount importance in Shanghai. It is vital to be mindful of why the city is so developed and how significant that this is for China as a country. City after city in the West developed at an alarming rate; so it only makes sense that China is doing the same. Like it or not, this is just how the modern world works. A walk around the Bund or East Nanjing Road really brings it home how alive this nation is, and what an important role it plays in today’s global political situation.
And even though we may think that what we see in Shanghai represents how China has lost some of its authenticity, who’s to say that this isn’t just another type of Chinese authenticity? The Pearl Oriental Tower and other futuristic buildings of the Bund represent the new China, the glittering China, the overwhelmingly globally significant China. And while this may not be rice paddies and pagodas, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less Chinese than the representatives of old China.
We can still practice sustainable tourism in rapidly developing cities like Shanghai provided we understand this and still endeavour to shop and eat local, respect the citizens of the city and lower our carbon emissions. Past the McDonalds and KFC, there’s still local Chinese restaurants and delicious cuisines waiting to be sampled. Even amongst the touristy area of Tian Zi Fang, there’s locals making a living from selling hand painted postcards of the cityscape. Make an effort to search these out on your trip to Shanghai. At the same time, enjoy the vistas of the skyscrapers, relish the breeze from the river which has proved fundamental for Shanghai’s growth, and respect this city for putting China on the global political scene in the modern world.
And don’t worry; even though Shanghai really echoes modernity and urbanity, as it always has done, there’s still plenty of places in China which are fore mostly historical and quaint. Shanghai is and always has been a fast-paced, always busy urban area but very close, there’s cities with scenic spots and old buildings. And you really need both to make any country work. So, if on your China trip, you want to understand the whole picture of the country, do not skip Shanghai. Even though it might reflect other significant cities around the globe, it is very much a booming metropolis in its own right. Go to Shanghai to understand modern China.
Need some inspiration? Check out the best street food in Shanghai or get some ideas of local food to eat. And if you’re craving an eco retreat away from Shanghai, this Zhejiang accommodation could be perfect for you.
Have you visited Shanghai? What was your take on it? Let me know in the comments!
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I’ve got so much more to tell you about China! Check out my fantastic trip hiking Huashan mountain or read about how you can visit Jiuzhaigou, a stunning national park. Or if camping is more your thing, did you know that you can camp on the Great Wall of China? Read my post to find out all about it!