Fifth in a series
All images by Greg Gross and property of I’m Black and I Travel unless otherwise identified. All rights reserved.
Shanghai is to Beijing what New York City is to Washington DC — rivalry and all.
Some countries have not one national capital but two. One is the seat of government. The other is the financial, cultural and creative center of the nation’s gravity, the hub around which the rest of the country seems to spin — if only in the minds of those who live there.
Pretty soon, you’ve got folks all over the country taking sides over which city is really the most important. Presto! Instant rivalry.
You see it here in the United States in the form of Washington DC v. New York City. You may see it in Canada with Ottawa v. Toronto. Brazil, for all I know, may well be a three-way battle between Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
And you definitely see it in China, where the rivals are Beijing and Shanghai.
Just do a Google search on the term “Beijing vs Shanghai;” your computer might explode. Be they travelers, expats or Chinese citizens, folks really do take sides — and from all sides.
Some will tell you Beijing is better for tourists while Shanghai is better for folks looking to do business. Others will argue exactly the opposite.
In truth, you can apply both to either metropolis. And they share a lot of common traits. The same love of high-rise living. The same elevated freeways and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
But if you asked me which I’d choose to live in, I’d opt for Shanghai.
For one thing, the city sits on the East China Sea, stands at the mouth of one river — the Yangtze — and bestrides another, the Huangpu. Having lived around water all my life, that gives Shanghai an edge over landlocked Beijing.
Let me be up-front about this: The two days and change I got in Shanghai was little more than a touch, a sniff, the most fleeting of tastes.
ONE CITY, TWO PERSONALITIES
This is not one city but two, depending on which side of the Huangpu you’re on. The older side of the city, on the western side of the river, is known as Puxi. The much newer eastern side is called Pudong. That’s it above.
And believe me, two days and change isn’t nearly enough to really get to know either side of this city. But even a brief glimpse can show you some things.
This city has an energy, a rhythm, a vibe that I never quite picked up in Beijing. It’s the same rush of energy you can get on the streets of Manhattan.
That’s especially true in Puxi. That’s where the Europeans and Americans built their ornate office business blocks and swanky hotels on the banks of the Huangpu back in the early 20th century, when Shanghai was China’s biggest commercial window on the rest of the world, forced open by the British navy.
These days, Puxi is a mixture of traditional Chinese and neo-European influence. It’s where you find the restaurants that spin the lazy susans on your table all night with one incredible dish after another, the nightclubs that kick your favorite music into the dawn.
Let’s not forget the shopping arcades, old and new, that leave you happily overdosed on retail therapy. One of the older ones dates back to the 16th century.
If you’re familiar with the sprawling Santee Alley in Los Angeles, the 16th century bazaar makes it look like a 7-Eleven. In fact, a 7-Eleven is about the only store you won’t find in that bazaar — although you will find a Starbucks and a Dairy Queen.
If you visit, either stick close to your tour guide or leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out.
If Beijing is the place where China handles her business, then Shanghai is the place where she gets her groove on.
Across the river, you won’t have any trouble distinguishing Pudong from Puxi. Where old Shanghai is an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese and neo-classical European, Pudong looks as if it might’ve served as the backdrop for “The Jetsons,” or maybe “Blade Runner.”
Everything in Pudong was built in the last 15 years, which is pretty fast. Past attempts to create instant, ultra-modern cities or districts have led to collections of cutting-edge architecture, but places that felt cold, sterile, unwelcoming. La Defense in Paris and Brasilia come to mind.
Pudong may have just enough green space to be more-or-less bearable for those who live there. It better be, because apparently, it’s also some of the priciest real estate on Earth.
Is there another city in the world with more revolving high-rise restaurant/bars than this one? Even our somewhat older hotel in Puxi had one.
So too does the Radisson Hotel Shanghai New World, which looks as if a spaceship just landed on the roof.
There’s also the Shanghai World Financial Center, the 101-story skyscraper that locals call “the bottle opener” — for obvious reasons. It’s the tallest building in China, and may just be the ultimate in vertical urban living — offices, conference center, observations decks, ground-floor shopping malls and restos.
It also boasts one of the highest hotels in the world, the Park Hyatt Shanghai. You have to take the elevator to the 79th floor just to get to the lobby.
But the visual cue that will instantly jump out at you is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the third tallest such tower in the world. Where the Radisson spaceship looks as if it just landed, the Oriental Pearl looks as if it’s waiting, more than a little impatiently, to launch.
One look at it and you can almost hear someone doing a countdown in Mandarin:
Speaking of “launch,” Shanghai is setting itself up as a major cruise ship port, with a gleaming new terminal and tower now being built. A cruise enthusiast conceivably could fly here and cruise much of Asia and the Pacific for a week or two, and still have plenty to see and do right here.
You’ll hear that the powers that be in Beijing want to see Shanghai eclipse Hong Kong as the financial hub of mainland Asia. If it’s not already there, it has to be getting close.
Before long, they may even have Beijing hearing footsteps.
But the steps Shanghai took to get here were long and painful. And that’s next.
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