Shanghai trip 5/3/06

Two weeks ago I went to Shanghai for the first time. Prior to last week, all I had heard about China was always secondhand. The only experiences I had of China were stories from my parents from decades past, visits to Hong Kong (which isn’t really like most of China), and a short jaunt to Hainan Island for a conference.
Perhaps Hainan Island was truly a China experience. The island is just now being discovered by Western tourists as a place where you can find sun and fun, as well as short drive from a true third world environment. The resorts are very modern, complete with beautiful, new hotel rooms and swimming pools, the golf courses nice and trimmed.
A ten minute drive lands you into a small town, with buildings that have been built decades ago and are minimally maintained. The markets sell all sorts of wares, but much of it is for the tourists (Chinese entrepreneurs know tourists love the Chinese stuff). We stop in for a foot massage, which is a tiered room that has rows upon rows reclining couches. I think the massage costs about $5 US. Next we go into a DVD shop, complete with pirated DVDs of every movie you can imagine. But outside, it is a mix of the modern and the old. Nobody looks to have much money at all.
Walking into Shanghai is a completely different experience. Imagine New York City’s skyscrapers extending off the horizon with no end in sight. I check out the Museum of Urban Planning and there is a model of the city with every building on it, present and future. It is a staggering sight.
Everything is so clean. In older cities like London or NYC, there are decades of black soot built up on the sides of the buildings. No such soot in Shanghai. Nothing has been around long enough to attract that soot. Most of it has been built in the last 10 years or so.
The streets are filled with people and the class distinctions are clear. People with old, dirty clothes ride on creaking bicycles by a Ferrari/Maserati dealership. My friends tell me it’s the gangsters who drive those cars. I can see that people who make very little money survive in this city next to people who make way too much money.
I have lunch at Jean Georges at the Bund, which arguably is the most expensive restaurant in the city and it only costs about $100 US for two people. In NYC, Jean Georges would probably set me back at least $200 or more. I also stayed at the JW Marriott which was clearly one of the top hotels in Shanghai, and it was only about $150 US/night.
The Chinese are practical; all the street signs are written both in English and in Chinese. Somehow, they just know that the English language has come to dominate business and to help the Westerners, they make sure all the signs are readable by them.
It is also amazing how many Westerners are present in the city. Almost everywhere I go, I see non-Chinese walking around, or at restaurants, or in popular bars. It reminds me of London, where I was just amazed at how much of a melting pot it is for all of Europe to gather in one place.
And at night, the light show is fantastic. A tribute to technology, rampant advertising, and the resilience of their power grid, Shanghai lights up across the horizon like no other place I’ve seen. Each building is an architectural wonder, as if architects have free rein to do whatever tickles their creative fancy, and at night they light up in multi-color splendor.
I hope to get back there soon – and I know that when I go back, the place will change yet again.