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We saw three Shanghai's. We started in the center of the old city which has been restored to house shops and restaurants. On the Bund we were able to sample a taste of the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s with its strong European influence. Both contrasted strongly with the aggressively modern, planned development across the river from the Bund, the new Shanghai. Overall I was reminded of Chicago. Many of the old factories were built in the same style and looked like they used the same type of bricks. There were rows of two and three flats (apartments) which could have come from my uncle's neighborhood . The buildings on the Bund would have fit nicely into the Loop. And it was uniquely China as well.
Yu Yuan and the old section
During the Tang dynasty, Shanghai was only a small fishing village. It wasn't until the Ming dynasty that it achieved some importance as a center for silk and cotton weaving. A girl named Wang Daopo was married off into a family where she was treated badly and regularly beaten. She ran away to the south to escape her husband and was taken in by villagers who taught her the art of weaving. She not only became a master of the art, but invented several improvements to the loom. In middle-age she missed her home and wished to return. The villagers gave her a loom to take back with her and when she reached Shanghai she taught others and developed a large industry.
When I was told the story in Hong Kong, I asked about the husband and his family, hoping for some satisfying justice, but he just drops out of the story. One of the more important aspects of the story was the love the villagers had for Wang Daopo. Arts and skills were jealously guarded even in those days to minimize competition. By the time of the Qing dynasty, Shanghai expanded on the basis of its silk and cotton industry and had developed into a small port of about 50,000 people.
The oldest part of the city surrounds Yu Yuan -- Yu Garden 豫园. In 1557, during the Ming Dynasty a court official named Pan Yunduan began to plan the garden for his father, who had also been a high ranking official. Serious construction began in 1559 and 19 years later it was complete. Some of the surrounding buildings are older and some sections of the garden were added in later generations as it passed through different ownership and the tumultous history of Shanghai. In the center of this pond outside the garden, there is a teahouse which is accessed by a complex of angled bridges. The old belief was that evil spirits could only cross water in a straight line.
Although the buildings are traditional, the area surrounding Yu Yuan has the feel of an indoor shopping mall where you can buy the latest goods in specialty stores or visit department stores. You can buy most anything in the surrounding shops from daily necessities such as the rain capes that the bikers wear to the finest of porcelain and jewelry. If you look above the storefronts and displays you'll find that there are many finely carved panels, eaves, and roof brackets. The area has been well restored.
Most of Shanghai was built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is little traditional Chinese architecture, but we did see one more temple. When we were told that we were going to see the Jade Buddha Temple 玉佛禅寺, the group greeted the excursion with limp enthusiasm. They thought they had seen the best. When we got there, we found that China always has something more. The architecture in this area of the country is distinctly different. While the temple was built from 1918 to 1928, it adhered to traditional styles. There is much more detail and a greater use of three dimensional figures than in other parts of China. Three golden Buddhas reign in the main temple. The climb to the second floor gave us the best view of the courtyard.
We were shown into a room where straw slippers were supplied and having changed into them we entered a second, smaller temple room where we saw the Jade Buddha. Seeing the Jade Buddha is full of all the mystery of the religion itself. There is something about the luminance of the jade that makes it seem as if the statue is appearing, that it isn't quite there. It has extraordinary beauty.
I was so glad we had not been prepared with details of dimensions and cost. I learned about those later. It was brought to Shanghai in 1882 from Burma where it had been carved of a solid piece of jade. There are two additional Jade Buddha's, both reclining, symbolizing Buddha's death. The smaller one was brought from Burna at the same time as the first, and the second was a gift from the people of Singapore. For me, nothing could compare to the expression and presence of the first.
Shanghai of the Foreigners
In the 1840s when the Europeans gained trading concessions in Shanghai by ransacking their way up to Beijing, the city was already a thriving port. The Europeans quickly carved the land outside the Chinese walled city among the concessions and established European ghettos. In Canton, during the early days of trade with China (1500-1600s) the Europeans had been forbidden to leave a small area and were not permitted to bring in their families. They had to sail to Macao to see them. They could only deal with a small group of Chinese who had the exclusive license to trade. They were not permitted to study the language or enter the Chinese zone. In the early days in Shanghai, the Europeans were only allowed to travel as far out of the concessions as would allow them to return before night. The Europeans reversed the restrictions and built parks and country clubs that excluded the Chinese. In the early days, this exclusiveness was probably based in part on protection and security. The Taiping rebellion was in its last days and the Chinese may have been just a little disturbed by the barbaric actions which led to the treaty granting the concessions. During the Taiping Rebellion, many Chinese moved to the concession areas for protection. The Chinese population greatly outnumbered the European population within the concessions.
Shanghai might disappoint if you don't know what to expect. Most of the central city was built in the first third of the 20th century. They built modern buildings to replace the factories (warehouses and offices) of the earlier concessions along the shoreline in the area called the Bund. The Bund is a term brought from India in the late 1800s by the Sassoon family, ancestors of Victor Sassoon, financier and owner of the Cathay Hotel. A bund is an embankment, but in Shanghai it came to refer to the main financial district of Shanghai. In Chinese it is 外滩 Wai Tan or outer bank. The European colony remained aloof from the culture surrounding it. They built their own city with all the familiarity of home. There were country clubs, hotels, bars, major banking houses, and stores modeled on the western architecture of the day. Today, the hotels, banks, and office buildings which line the Bund house Chinese banks and businesses and continue to serve some of the financial and trade needs of one of the busiest ports in Asia.
Away from the shore, in the main shopping area, the streets are lined with major stores. We spent the most time in the foreign language bookstore picking up Chinese-English reference books, dictionaries, and acupuncture charts. The picture to the left is of the Number One Department Store in 1993. Today, anchored by the Number One Department Store, the main thoroughfare is a walking street. There are more and more cars and fewer bikes.
The Bird Market
Just around the corner and down the street and through the park and then down an alley you find (at least we did) the Bird Market. I can't tell you where it is, because it will move periodically due to development. But it is somewhere. It's yet another world. Birds are the most favored pet in China. Birds are valued for their ability to sing rather than for the color and beauty of their plumage. The bird cages and accessories in the market are as varied and beautiful as the birds. You can have a cage made to order or choose one from the hundreds on display. As in Hong Kong and Beijing, the parks are filled in the early morning with the songs of the birds as their retired owners take them for the air and to talk with other bird-lovers. In Beijing, there is a large gathering of bird owners at 5:00 a.m. each Sunday in Tiantan. The sound of hundreds of birds chirping their greeting to dawn before the city wakes takes you straight into the country and mountainsides.
The market also offered tropical fish, bonsai trees, ceramic pots, and the cutest Pekinese puppies that ever tore your heart out. In the past, dogs and cats were a rarity as pets, but more and more homes have one or both. While dogs and cats have not supplanted birds and fish, their population is growing at a faster clip than the economy. There are laws restricting the size of dog you may have in many cities in China, so you will see the widest range of miniatures imaginable.
Shanghai of the Future
Shanghai was designated as one of the special economic zones and since the 1980s has resumed its rapid development. The local government has the same privileges and representation as a province in the central government.
We traveled to the future Shanghai on a brand new four lane expressway. In any other city it would have been eight lanes, but we could almost reach out and touch the buildings on either side as it was. Shanghai proper is built on top of itself to minimize distances. The streets are narrow and there are few open spaces. It is a city based on walking and the bicycle. The expressway cuts through it, using every available space. Problems like these led to the development of a new city on the other side of the river. To reach it, they built a new bridge which does make you catch your breath.
When you reach the Pudong District on the other side of the Huangpu River ( 黄浦江 ), the main roads are eight lanes and normal roads are 4 and six lanes. Heavy industry has been pushed to the suburbs, office buildings, apartment towers, and low garden apartments built over the past 10 to 15 years create a new texture and have changed the nature of Shanghai. The pictures to the right and below were taken in 2005.
The new city is based on public transportation and the automobile, roads are wider, there are more parks planned, and rapid transit will allow the development of housing districts outside of the factory and commercial zones. Shanghai is the largest port in China. The barge traffic you see on the Huangpu River is minor, the major traffic is through numerous harbors at the mouth of the Yangtse River (长江). Shanghai handles a fourth of the commodities for China. It has experienced double digit growth for about 15 years (as of 2006).
Industries include the traditional industries of shipbuilding, textiles, iron and steel foundries and processors. Newer industries in the oil and chemical processing areas have made Shanghai the leading producer of such products as polyester. Cars, washing machines, cell phones, computer parts and electrical components, air conditioners, laser products, bio-medical research and products, and of course the video and DVD players that grace our homes are all fueling the growth of Shanghai. As you travel around China you will find a sameness to many of the souvenirs offered at tourist spots - yes, many are made in Shanghai. The average per capita income in 2004 for Shanghai was US $2,950 while the average for all of China was about US $1,690, according the China Daily, April 20, 2005. What isn't given in the statistics is an adjustment for the cost of living. The cost of living in Shanghai is higher than most of China's cities. The average per capita income in both Shenzhen and Guangzhou is more than US $3,800 per year. Note that those are per capita numbers. Individual salaries for skilled workers range from US $5,000 per year to hundreds of thousands of dollars for upper management.
I have provided greater detail about the history of Shanghai, the Bund, and the ancient river basin which made this one of the richest areas of China through history on the Shanghai History in Pictures and Modern Shanghai in Pictures. There is a page where you can zoom in on the building on the Bund and read their histories. The village of Tongli, near Suzhou, will give you an idea of the waterway transport that made trade and development an integral part of the area's history. The development of the Pudong area gives a glimpse of the kinetic growth of modern Shanghai.
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Last update: January 2009
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