Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shanghai: First Impressions

At the Jing'an Temple

Shanghai in 2012 feels like two cities occupying the same space. The old city is here, evident in the endless lines of bicycles and groups of senior citizens doing tai chi in the park each morning. It’s here in the plain fashions and dingy alleyways. It’s here in the knock-off goods and widespread willingness, even among old ladies, to hock a loogie on the sidewalk (a practice the boys and I have gladly adopted).

But the new city is here, too, right in the same space. You can see it at the malls, which rival anything I’ve seen anywhere for quality and diversity of goods. You can see it in the way much of the younger crowd dresses, more Paris or Tokyo than communist drab. You can see it in the clean and efficient metro and the towering, modern skyscrapers in Pudong. And as common as the bikes are electric scooters—and Audis. The knock-off goods are blu-ray discs of American movies (or, at least, they’re DVD recordings of a blu ray disc being played on a television).

The conjunction of these two cities gives the impression of a place beset by transition. Shanghai is changing—you can feel it without even knowing how things really used to be. This is very different than the feeling one gets in Hong Kong, where the enclaves of old-school China seem timeless and more-or-less have been incorporated into what Hong Kong means as a modern city. There, even the middle class still shops at the wet markets and probably will ten years from now. In Shanghai, I suspect the city will be difficult to recognize in ten years.

View of Pudong.  None of these buildings were there 20 years ago. 

So, as we navigate this dual city, we’re trying not to get killed crossing the street (traffic rules are merely suggestive, especially for bikes and scooters; the electric scooters in particular are really fast and virtually silent and will almost certainly take out one of the boys at some point).

We’re trying to get used to the water (which smells a bit like a construction site or a demolished building).

We’re trying to use a little Mandarin (I thought my pronunciation was pretty good, but my attempts have generally produced puzzled looks until I say it in English, at which point they understand me).

But, all in all, despite the challenges, I think we’ve all had great first impressions of Shanghai—both versions. Even Berkley, who has been homesick and a bit down on the whole adventure lately, has been gushing about how much he likes it here.


  1. One more step in the China adventure. How different it sounds from Hong Kong but if you think about it our states differ from one to the other in many ways albeit many ways are the same. I guess Shanghai is what one would call a revolving city. Very interesting. My heart aches for Berk so glad he likes it there. Love to all - Mom

  2. As I read your post I glanced up to see Brady playing with a toy and Zoe sleeping in the sun, co-existing and each offering something to us. I'm sure you will find something of purpose and to marvel at in both sides of Shanghai as you have everywhere you have traveled. As long as you are together you are home. And speaking of your home, went by the other day and it looks well cared for. You are always here in our hearts.
    Dad and Judy