Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May Holiday trip part one: Shanghai

Welcome to Shanghai

SHANGHAI - Everyone told me that Shanghai was overrated, but I had to see it for myself. After all, I couldn't very well go back to America having lived in China for six months and never having been to Shanghai, could I? Expecting the worst, I only gave myself three days here, and it was about the perfect amount of time. During the first two days, I hated it. On the third day, it completely redeemed itself.

Graffiti (Shanghai state of mind)

Shanghai reminds me of New York quite a bit. It's so vast, and seems so faceless, but only because the face most visitors see is the tourist face, the face of street hawkers and neon and overpriced hot dogs. I spent the first two days going from one mandatory must-see attraction to another, spending too much money and not getting very much for it. Ironically, the only mandatory must-see attraction that was actually good was the Shanghai Museum's huge collection of historical artifacts, where the admission was free.

East Nanjing Road

The architecture is quite interesting to see. Since Shanghai was founded as a foreign port comprised of "concessions," areas built by foreigners where the Chinese government had no jurisdiction, the city is a bizarre mish-mash of European-style buildings, now covered in hanging laundry and Chinese signs, creating a really disorienting atmosphere. The French Concession, the largest of these former neighborhoods, still has a lot of the swanky expat-oriented stuff, like astronomically expensive pizza and wine bistros.

French Concession alleyway 1

The hardcore touristy parts of town, especially East Nanjing Road, supposedly one of the largest and busiest shopping districts in the world, are just insipid. I thought I was pretty impervious to street hawkers, but, damn. The ones here have got to be the most annoying I've ever seen. They jump in front of you and then follow you around like puppies, shoving laminated catalog pages in your face and screaming, "Lady! Buy watch! Bag! Sunglass! T-shirt!" It was maddening. I mean, really -- if you're going to try and sell me shit I don't want, at least have the decency to shove actual products in my face, not laminated pictures. Sheesh.

Irony, anyone?

Because of two days of such onslaught, I was not that optimistic about my last day. But that was when Shanghai completely redeemed itself in my eyes. I finally strayed off the beaten tourist path and went to see some real local art. The Moganshan Road Art Center was fantastic: dozens of small art galleries in a maze-like cluster of old industrial buildings, with all the exhibits thoughtful, creative, original, contemporary, and probably as subversive as Chinese artists are allowed to be. Very glad I went there for an impression of a real Shanghai beyond the glitz and glamour, and could leave without the bitter taste in my mouth that the first two days had left.

The clash of cultures

Stay tuned for part two: Nanjing!

No comments: