Why Shanghai Has A Heady Cocktail of Cultures | Verve Magazine
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June 04, 2016

Why Shanghai Has A Heady Cocktail of Cultures

Text by Madhumita Bhattacharyya. Illustration by Rahul Das

Stately British architecture reflected in the facades of the tallest skyscrapers alongside carts selling stinky tofu at the doorstep of adorable French cafes…. The West is ingrained in the DNA of this Chinese city

To the outsider, China can seem impenetrable. First, there is the very real language barrier. Then there is the fear of mystery meats — or worse. These are generally enough to ensure most Indian travellers don’t put our eastern neighbour high on the list of places to visit for leisure.

But Shanghai should be on that list. Sure it has no Great Wall, and it is not the hub of export — the two features which currently draw Indians to China. What it offers is all the attractions of a world city; where for over the past century, a complex series of events have conspired to create a metropolis with a blend of cultures that defies definition. This is not the sort of amalgamation we have come to think of as fusion — in Shanghai, the West is forever separate, and yet still ingrained in its DNA.

In other major Chinese cities, despite the looming presence of McDonald’s and Starbucks, KFC and Coke, there is little real Western influence that is discernible. But in Shanghai you find a blend of stately British architecture reflected in the shiny facades of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, carts selling stinky tofu at the doorstep of adorable French cafes, karaoke bars threatening to drown out international rock stars. For a tourist, it makes for a heady mix you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

A walk on the Bund
You may hear that China has never been colonised. But during the Opium Wars, the nation was forced to open treaty ports to foreign trade. Shanghai was one such port, and the result was pockets of foreign influence within a very traditional Chinese town.

There is no more stunning evidence of the contrast this brought to Shanghai than the Bund. On the western bank of the Huangpu River is the old town, Puxi, with its century-old British buildings and history at every step of the way…for instance, the Peace Hotel, formerly Sassoon House and Cathay Hotel, which had been occupied by Japanese forces during World War II. Then there is the majestic HSBC building, whose entrance hall has a beautiful ceiling mosaic of the zodiac signs, which had been covered in stucco to save it from demolition during the Cultural Revolution. On the other side of the river is Pudong’s towering Lujiazui area, with the stunning Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and the yet unopened, second-tallest building in the world, Shanghai Tower. To get the best of both worlds, take a ferry down the river at sunset or walk down the Bund and then cross to the Pudong side for a better look at the old town.

Dancing in Fuxing Park
Walking is undoubtedly the best way to soak in Shanghai, and there is no more charming neighbourhood to do it in than the erstwhile French concession. If the Bund was where the British set up shop in grand style, the French have imprinted themselves on the heart of the downtown area, with cute cafes and boutiques lining boulevards and gorgeous parks. Walk down the side roads where traditional Chinese lane houses called shikumen stand tall beside sprawling Western-style mansions. Wander into Fuxing Park and, if it is afternoon, listen for the music. Follow your ears till you see the dancers. Elsewhere in China you will see the elderly perform qigong and tai chi on the streets; here they spend the afternoons ballroom dancing. Stop, watch, join in.

Made in China
You can shop in the fancy malls for anything, from Shanghai Tang to Chanel. And you can hit the fake markets that every Indian visitor seems to flock to. Or you can go to the textile market. There are fakes here too, but you can bypass them in favour of the much more interesting tailors for your very own budget bespoke experience. Here you will get Chinese silks at bargain prices and can stand by for measurements. Western clothes made with a light touch, in any style your heart desires, can be yours without the fancy designer price tag. The best part? This is China, so 24-hour delivery is very much a reality.

A gastronomic heaven
Chinese food may have travelled the world and received a spin in every country, but in China itself, it is fairly resistant to fusion. While Shanghainese cuisine gets a bad rap for being overly sweet and sticky, the city is home to the best in China and the world. Start your morning with baozi, steamed buns filled with simply prepared greens or meats. Stop for lunch at a French cafe. Then stand in line for Shanghai’s iconic soup dumplings or xiaolongbao at Yuyuan Garden, and finish at Jean Georges on the Bund with the Pudong skyline twinkling across the river. Start all over again with a meal at Yuxin, one of Shanghai’s most popular Sichuan restaurants, get afternoon tea at the Waldorf Astoria, and end with a Korean barbecue. It is the perfect mix, just not in one single mouthful.

Waiting for Disneyland
You’ll have to wait till spring 2016 for this one, but the $5.5-billion-dollar Disneyland in Shanghai is set to be a cultural hybrid of head-exploding proportions. Why?

First of all, Shanghai is already a little bit like an amusement park without the rides — larger-than-life structures, crushing crowds, neon-neon-neon…but Disneyland’s arrival is also perfect proof that Shanghai is ready for the next wave of westernisation. Even a few years ago, the city had such little clue about Disney that in order to push its brand, the entertainment giant set up English language training schools. Cut to the present, in which the park will host a Mandarin version of The Lion King. That little bit of corporate sorcery might be American, but is very much in the Shanghai spirit. What could be more fusion than that?

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