Friday, 12 December 2014

Asia Summer Series: Shanghai, China (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. First up, fabulous Shanghai...

I step out of the South Huangpi Road Metro station into 21st century China.

Nearby Huaihai Road, one of Shanghai’s stylish shopping streets, is filled with classy brand label stores, a Porsche dealership, and people clutching expensive-looking shopping bags.

Across the road, to my surprise, there’s even an Australian wool promotion taking place on an outdoor catwalk.

Then there’s a sudden movement in the vicinity of my shoes, so I divert my gaze from glamorous shopfronts to pavement level – where there’s a blob of black stuff on my right boot, and a man in a cheap blue suit smiling up at me.

It’s an arresting smile, as he’s missing several top teeth, which have been replaced by a gold bridge. The black blob is the calling card of the shoeshine man.

I may not have needed a shine before, but I do now, if only to remove the complimentary shoeshine. But this little piece of robust salesmanship is negotiated in good humour; we smile, haggle a little, and determine a fee of 10 yuan ($2.25) for the shining of my boots.

I lean on a handy advertising sign while the man places my feet alternately on a portable wooden platform, shining away to his heart’s content - all in the shadow of the Gucci store behind him.

Is this the Shanghai I expected? To be honest, my preconceptions of China are being challenged.

On the previous day I’d been bussed around modern Shanghai as part of a conference group.

We inspected huge modern buildings with quirky architecture, a dominating observation tower overlooking the historic buildings of the riverside Bund district, a soaring new bridge across the Huangpu River, and an exhibition devoted to an exhibition (Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo).

It was a day devoted to the large-scale and ultra-modern aspects of the city.

But what about human-scale Shanghai, the city where 20 million people live and shop and eat? Today I’m heading for the Old Town, to have a look at the remains of the coastal town that existed long before today’s rapid development.

After Britain’s victory against China in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, Shanghai evolved quickly into an international trading city. Silk, tea and opium flowed in and out of its port, making traders rich.

To facilitate this commerce, France, America and Britain ran their own colonial settlements along the Huangpu, known as concessions.

In walking east along Huaihai Road I’m leaving the former French Concession, with its attractive tree-lined avenues, and entering the Old Town. This district, contained within a perimeter of curving roads that echo its long-vanished city walls, is the oldest part of the city and a repository of tradition.


And it doesn’t take long for the old Shanghai to appear. As I turn off Huaihai Road and head south, the designer labels drop away and the streets narrow.

Bicycles and scooters weave between taxis, and crossing the road becomes an exercise in Zen-like concentration - one must sense the space opening up between vehicles and calmly step through it.


Turning east onto Dajing Road, I enter an older world of crumbling pavements, and roadside sales of fruit and vegetables. Passing an old Taoist temple and a nearby pavilion, I’m finally on Old Street, a long, bustling street packed with small shops.

The low buildings are decorated in the style of the Qing dynasty, with the distinctive tiles and upturned eaves synonymous with traditional Chinese architecture.

Though many of the buildings are newly restored, the narrow alleyways leading off the street are the real thing, funnelling strollers, deliverymen and bicycle riders through crooked routes linking major roads.

Old Street is in constant motion, with crowds of eager shoppers crowding the narrow pavements, cars and bikes passing through, and young men politely assailing me with sales pitches.

They brandish picture cards with images of items including suits and watches, so I can indicate what they should lead me to.

Shopkeepers also call out as I pass by, though I’m surprised to find that they’ll take no for an answer...

[Next: Mao novelties, tea, dumplings, stringed instruments and a surprising Aussie folk song...]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.