Londoners are obsessed with christening skyscrapers. From the Walkie Talkie to the Cheesegrater, new buildings are barely granted planning permission before they are slapped with a nickname, reducing years of meticulous planning to a childish slogan.
If the residents of Shanghai had a similar habit, they’d have little time to do anything else. The skyline of China’s biggest city is so packed with towering buildings that even on a clear day – and despite the legendary smog these do exist – they stretch as far as the eye can see, tailing off just slightly in the distance like a huge flight of stairs descending from the clouds.
The tallest, the Shanghai Tower, stands at a soaring 632m: balance the Gherkin on top of the Shard, and you’d still have room to fit a whole London Eye on top. When it was topped out last August, design firm Gensler said the building – along with its two, smaller neighbours – was a “stunning representation of our past, our present, and China’s boundless future”.
A recommissioned 1930s abattoir
If it’s the future the developers want to conquer, then they’d better keep on building. Shanghai buzzes with an irrepressible sense of forward motion; from the chaotic, moped-strewn backstreets to the traffic-laden highways. Even when the Chinese are stuck in gridlock during rush hour, you can tell they’re going somewhere.
Though growth fears have dogged the Bric darling’s economy since 2010, there’s little sign of a slowdown among the general population. Wherever I look, people are doing things, making things, going places, and certainly never standing still. On one early morning run along the riverside promenade, I spotted six elderly people studiously walking backwards while clapping (it’s believed to ward off osteoarthritis and dementia), two women practising Tai Chi together in business suits, and a man standing underneath a bright pink blossom tree playing the clarinet.
Shanghai’s energy is infectious
After an 11-hour flight and very little sleep, it’s all a bit disconcerting. But later – fed, rested and having woken up to a 33rd-floor view of the never-ending metropolis – Shanghai’s energy starts to feel infectious.
First stop a stroll down to sea level for a boat trip along the Huangpu river, from where the city’s skyline – Pudong to the east and Puxi to the west – can be marvelled at properly. While Puxi’s lower-rise, older buildings flicker as dusk falls, Pudong’s modern behemoths go all out, beaming neon light shows across the water. The pick of the bunch is a garish obelisk that incessantly flashes I HEART SHANGHAI at the cruises and flat-bottomed cargo barges making their way up and down the river. A few blocks away the space-shuttle-like Oriental Pearl Tower glows neon pink, then green, then red.
It’s not subtle, but then nothing about this city is. From the parents who gather every Saturday morning in People’s Square to advertise their unmarried children’s credentials on multicoloured umbrellas, to narrow alleyways filled with the stench of “stinky tofu”, Shanghai assaults the senses at every opportunity.
To experience more of the chaotic buzz at street level, I took a tour of the city’s less-beaten paths from the dubious comfort of a motorbike sidecar. After climbing into the Chiang Jiang 750 (a 1950s Chinese replica of a Soviet copy of a decommissioned BMW) our ex-pat guides navigate the weekend traffic to show us some of Shanghai’s hidden treasures, starting with a sleek art-deco villa turned art gallery before moving onto a 1930s abattoir and ending at the Yuyuan Garden, a walled city that’s home to the Ming-era Chenghuang Temple.
Practising Tai Chi
While the latter is overrun with tourists keen to be snapped on its zigzagging bridge, the (long-disused) abattoir is a deserted masterpiece. Built entirely out of poured concrete, it’s a four-storey love letter to death, packed with Escher-inspired ramps that led cattle to their slaughter before they were sent unceremoniously back to earth down one of the accompanying chutes. With an open, beamless roof to disperse the smell and an intricate fretwork facade, it’s hard to imagine a more ruthlessly beautiful building. In London, it’d be a hipster mecca; in Shanghai, you’re more than likely to have it to yourself. Despite the best efforts of an ambitious Hong Kong architecture firm to attract independent boutiques and artists to the area, it’s remained resolutely deserted. Blame bad feng shui, or the developers’ refusals to let chain stores and Starbucks
move in – either way, it’s bliss.
But just because the hipsters don’t flock to the slaughterhouse, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Shanghai by night is a rabbit warren of eccentric bars populated by a mixture of Chinese students and Aussie ex-pats eager to learn Mandarin, all chain-smoking their way through the counterfeit cigarettes sold by kids on the streets outside. One night we end up in a (barely) renovated bomb shelter that serves vodka martinis in plastic glasses; on another we sip Manhattans and order 3am dumplings at YY’s, a wood-panelled basement bar decorated with Maoist propaganda.
There’s luxury too, of course. Shanghai has its fair share of the moderately, extremely and ludicrously wealthy, and the trendy Jing’an district has more than enough rooftop bars and high-end restaurants to keep them happy. Between local meals of perfect xiaolongbao (soup-filled dumplings) and sticky rice balls, we eat Tasmanian Wagyu beef, Iberico pork and Italian burrata at Calypso, a recently opened restaurant and bar that’s already attracting business travellers, well-heeled locals and family parties – on the night we went there was even an awkward table-side proposal.
The Shangri-La Shanghai
Just like east London and downtown Brooklyn, Jing’an has recently become a forest of cranes as offices, hotels and retailers flock to the area, once better known as home to the city’s graveyard for foreigners. Though the cemetery is now a tranquil, cultivated park, the Chinese still take death very seriously, as becomes clear on our final day in the city, which coincides with the Qingming festival – also known as Tomb Sweeping day. On this annual holiday, locals visit the graves of ancestors to clean, pray and offer gifts to the ghosts, burning paper models of everything from cars and houses to iPads to make sure their dearly departed have everything they need to enjoy the afterlife.
The festival sums up Shanghai. With two increasingly disparate populations dominating the city – the ageing rural migrants and the young professionals – Shanghai has one foot stuck firmly in the past while the other one runs frantically towards the future. It won’t stay like that for long: go now, and you might just have a chance of seeing the best of both worlds.
Shanghai got a KFC in 1989. McDonald’s didn’t arrive until 1994. Here the Colonel and his golden nuggets rules supreme.
NEED TO KNOW
British Airways flies to Shanghai from Heathrow Terminal 5, prices from around £700 return.
A double room at Pudong Shangri-La starts from RMB 2,012 (approx £195) Per room per night (room only). Price includes tax and service.
A double room at Jing An Shangri - La starts from RMB 2,242 (approx £217) Per room per night (room only). Price includes tax and service.