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City Places for City People
An American in Shanghai: Observations on Urbanity

by Eric Miller, November 2011

If there was one thing I knew about Shanghai before making a trek across the Pacific for a visit, it was that it would be different. Perhaps in the end it was not quite as different as I had imagined, however. I suppose I was a decade or so too late for that.

Landing at the Pudong International Airport, I went into an emergency mode of sorts when I made a subway connection minutes before my Chinese-speaking partner did and was faced with being in a foreign country and unable to communicate. We met up at the next stop, and I am not sure if I would have been able to find the hotel alone at that time, but with the familiarity I now have, I feel certain I would be able to get around with relative ease with a little preparation.

Most of the street signs and the subway ticket machines have an English option. There are also familiar logos on restaurants all over the city, from McDonald's to KFC, Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts and Dairy Queen, and on the occasions I visited those I could order by pointing with considerable accuracy.

But that's no way to experience another country...though it may be a way to recover from that experience.

Shanghai is a city undergoing a rapid transformation. The tour guide book indicated there were currently some 2,000 skyscrapers under construction. Yet there are pockets of old Shanghai extant, narrow alleyways you walk into where merchants are selling items and cooking on the street corners. You'll find livestock wandering about and clothes hanging on wires stretched between second story windows.

Living spaces in Shanghai is small, and expensive. You'll notice people in pajamas out on the street stretching and doing exercise. This is all part of Shanghai culture, so I am told, as residents make take public space as their own. This is also seen on sidewalks as well in larger public spaces such as YuYuan, made up of replicated buildings around an old garden, where residents play badminton and do exercises.

The time change makes it hard to sleep for visitors, so spending time walking about at odd hours is a common occurrence. The city is very safe, and there are people walking about well before sunrise getting some exercise before the crowd and noise levels rise.

When the sun does rise, the noise level is considerable with the sound of honking auto horns. While there still is a number of bicycles in use both for transportation and for hauling things, cars have taken over the city. Long metal barriers run along the sidewalk and then again along the outer edge of a bike lane. Bicycles, both motorized and pedal powered, as well as scooters, weave around pedestrians in both areas, however, and walking anywhere is done with some degree of hazard.

Taxicabs are frequent and inexpensive, and from my experience safe. The subway system is clean and runs with amazing frequency. Monitors provide a countdown to the arrival of the next train, and that number never exceeded three minutes. All of the subway entrances appear to require the scanning of bags and parcels. This is done very quickly and doesn't cause any delay.

The present is not the first time this city has taken on the influence of the West. Most of the buildings appear to be from the period before 1940, or were built relatively recently. The earlier buildings, including those along the Bund and along Nanjing Road (a street known for its shopping) are not unlike those you would expect to see from that time period in New York or Chicago.

One necessary stop was a visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. Located adjacent to the Shanghai City Hall near People's Square (there's a Starbucks in People's Square by the way), the museum provides an overview of Shanghai in the past and future. The third-floor model of the city is mind-boggling, but not quite as much as the view of the actual city from one of the skyscrapers in Pudong, across the river from the Bund.

There are some take-aways from the planning museum, but not as much as from the city. One observation is there is almost never a clear distinction between commercial and residential space. While the area in Pudong around the skyscrapers doesn't have visible commercial space at the base, a few blocks back from the river the blend of commercial, office and residential is restored.

While there are many Western chain stores in Shanghai, it does not appear the population of Anglos is significant. In some areas like the French Concession, where expatriates have traditionally lived, the presence is larger, but there were many times when I was the only Caucasian, particularly when using public transit. Most Anglos there seemed to be from European countries. Only once did I meet an American, a fellow from New Jersey with whom I shared a table in the hotel over breakfast.

The biggest thing to note about Shanghai is the contrasts between old and new, and between the educated and privileged and those without fancy high-rise apartments or much in the way of disposable income. I hesitated to call them under-privileged or anything like that because I think perhaps to most Chinese they are privileged because they live in Shanghai. Walk through an underpass near People's Square late at night and you can see those others lined up sleeping, those others who have come from the countryside in search of a new life in the big city.

For many in China, Shanghai is a dream that will never be.

Eric Miller