”Walk straight ahead, don’t turn back”
Shanghai. Skyscrapers shining a thousand lights as soon as the sun sets. On the Bund 1See images: Famous waterfront alongside the Huangpu River, harbouring the colonial buildings of the old Shanghai. The Bund offers a splendid view on the financial district of Lujiazui and its skyscrapers, the Oriental Pearl Tower arrayed with coloured lights guides passersby in the night. It acts as a majestic landmark to anyone who wishes to admire the greatness of the Middle Kingdom.
Every night at sunset, skyscrapers light up in an enchanted show that mesmerizes both young and old alike. The crowd is quick to form, and rushes towards the boardwalk, closely supervised by policemen. “Walk straight ahead. Don’t turn back” the speakers keep chanting, setting the walking pace of this swarming mass which is attracted by the light. Obedience is the rule, with shrill whistles stopping those who don’t comply. Once on the main square, the atmosphere is entirely different. The speakers that once held a cold military tone are broadcasting soft classical music. Then the show starts. Ten minutes of lights, sounds and magic fill the souls of onlookers and resonate with one another as the final “I love China” banner appears. Shanghai, this economic, financial and technological jewel, is beyond doubt in the collective psyche: it’s the pride of its nation.
Find here the French version : Bienvenue à Shanghai
First steps in a futuristic city
Shanghai, six o’clock in the morning. The sun rises on the economic capital of China, the pink sunlight bounces softy off the clouds. In the Bund Financial Square, elderly people are stretching and about to go for a jog. Some of them are doing Taichi2Gymnastics derived from Chinese martial arts, using energy flows and flexibility. Taichi consists in a combination of continuous movements slowly executed with precision.. Others are flying kites, smiling big, their eyes riveted on the sky. Shanghai wakes up little by little. Small cafes kick off the day by serving breakfast on the street, then shops open their doors. It’s now eight o’clock. Not far from the central square, a group of people is waiting silently in front of a closed store, apparently resigned to facing the morning cold. The reason behind this odd gathering? The launch of a new pair of shoes… The god of consumerism definitely still has some beautiful days ahead! Later in the day, around two in the afternoon, cries of joy can be heard on the famous Nanjing Road. Behind a frenzied crowd, a young actor – a rising star, as connoisseurs might say – will arrive at any time. Armed with their latest-generation phones, the young Chinese present snap away and share this memorable event live with their followers.
This scene represents rather well the atmosphere on that road, that of a trendy youth on the cutting edge of Chinese fashion. Sipping a Lelecha – the local fruity cocktail containing the well-known salty cream called “cheese” –, sporting an eccentric outfit and dyed hair, passersby are an integral part of the modern Shanghainese landscape. Around them, the ubiquity of colorful screens and major brands seem to characterize this proactive city, driven by the desire to pull the whole country towards modernity.
Five awakened senses
If there is one experience that is typical of Shanghai, it is the constant stimulation of all your senses. Your eyes seem to be the first served, given the architectural diversity that mixes traditional shrines with brand new pastel-coloured buildings, among many buildings under construction. I dare you to come back to the same place a few months later, you will yourself notice by yourself that there was some change. If inhabitants are generally what makes the soul of a place, its architecture reveals a lot about its identity. In Shanghai, mammoth projects aiming to turn it into a green city before 2050 illustrate well its global ambitions in terms of technological and environmental progress of the city. All you need to do is step into the Oriental Pearl Tower to discover some images, displayed with a sci-fi movie soundtrack, of these plans for the future. Among drones flying in the air, abundant green spaces and levitating tramways, this perspective can turn heads. The future will be one of sustainability, and China seems to show the world that it has fully understood that.
Your sense of smell will probably sharpen as well, given the incredible diversity of fragrances, at any time of the day. Fried cakes are handed out in bulk by street vendors for breakfast; skewers of meat, squid, cricket or even scorpion for snacks; the smell of beef noodles escaping from restaurants; the western three meals a day are becoming has-been. Our dear vegetarians and vegans must face strong scents of meat cooked in every form on a daily basis. China is developing and the exponentially growing meat consumption is a conspicuous sign of it.
But sensitive noses beware, because some affirm that pollution also has a scent, the one of thick smoke that settles in your lungs. As a matter of fact, life in Shanghai seems to be rhythmed by its pollution peaks. As soon as the sky darkens, twenty-four million inhabitants vanish, except for a few courageous ones who become anonymous behind their masks.
As for the sense of hearing, Shanghai turns out to be a frightening but quite charming cacophony of sounds – from scooter alarms to motorbike horns, to cries of children and buildings under construction day and night, there is enough to bring a megalopolis to life.
Last but not least, your taste buds can’t complain… much. In Shanghai, a mishmash of Chinese cooking from every province is served . From Sichuanese spicy dishes to Peking duck, or local 小笼包 (xiaolongbao), the hardest thing to do is choose. A bowl of handmade noodles or rice is usually served alongside vegetable or meat dishes. Vegetables are indeed rife in China… but so is oil. So enjoy your meals and don’t forget to step into a barbecue restaurant, you will be amazed at best and disgusted at worst to see that everything can be eaten there. Craving pig eyes or chicken legs? No problem. In any case, the Chinese barbecue is a striking experience, as your clothes will prove, once they are etched with a whole new local scent as you leave the restaurant. You know where to bring your next date.
Welcome, dear reader, in an alternate world, the one of paradox and excess. A unique place, where millennia-old culture meets colossal skyscrapers. Now that I have set the stage and, I hope, managed to catch your attention on this little-known country, be ready to dive into the heart of the topic. To be continued.