They say, if you want 2000 years of Chinese history, go to Xian, for 1000 years, go to Beijing and for 150 years, go to Shanghai. It is a fascinating city – we were there in mid-June. If big buildings, shopping, nice restaurants and glitz are your cup of tea, it’s for you. I rather liked it, but for me, it was nothing like Xian or Beijing.
Whilst the city’s skyline, bridges, tunnels and metro seem to change by the week, the most interesting aspect is the history. From the Opium Wars (1840s) through the defeat of the Nationalists (1949), Shanghai was broken up into “Concessions”, which were administered by the British, the French and the Americans, who’d managed to ransack their way up to Beijing. Interests were commercial and Colonial behavior was quite shameful (e.g., “Chinese and Dogs” were forbidden from entering parks in the British area). Still today, parts of the city resemble France and Britain. Perhaps most famous is the Bund (British concession), which looks like a European riverside skyline. We liked the French part – with its charming wrought-iron balconies, small streets, cafes and ambiance – the best.
Also worth visiting for cafes, art galleries and local fare is Tian Zi Fang, a small lane in Tai Kang Road. You might miss it as it looks as normal as the other Shanghai style lanes from the main road. When you’re wandering through the maze of small streets, you will see local residents wearing pajamas chatting with neighbours and some westerners drinking afternoon tea or sipping Chardonnay. The urine stench can be pervasive though.
A highlight of our visit revolved around discovering the home, museum and life of the founder (and hero) of the Nationalist party, Sun Yat-Sen. The son of a farmer, who was born in 1866, he later lived in Hawaii and then studied medicine in Hong Kong. After graduating in 1892 he worked in Macao, Guangzhou and Honolulu. He became interested in politics and established the Revive China Society.
In 1895, he took part in Guangzhou in his first abortive uprising. Forced into exile he lived in Japan, the USA and Britain. While in London he was kidnapped and imprisoned in the Chinese legation. In danger of being executed the British Foreign Office got involved and obtained his release.
The Qing dynasty was finally overthrown in the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Sun Yat-sen briefly became president and established the Kuomintang (National People’s Party). Once the party was closed by General Yuan Shikai in 1913, Sun Yat-sen escaped to Japan.
Sun Yat-sen returned to Guangzhou and with the help of advisers from the Soviet Union the Kuomintang gradually increased its power in China. In 1924 it adopted the “Three Principles of the People” (nationalism, democracy and social reform). He also established the Whampoa Military Academy under Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in Beijing in 1925.
A side anecdote is the Soong sisters – Sun’s wife was the sister of Chiang Kai-Shek’s wife. In the PRC, the latter’s name is never pronounced today. Our group was a little confused by reading about the Generalissimo (which evokes images of Cuba, not Chiang Kai-Shek). We were clued in by the most dashing, erudite, and elegant scholar from Georgetown University who was there and took a liking to us. Well after Sun’s death, Chiang Kai-Shek broke with the Communists, left to establish the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Most shocking on my orientation tour were some of the “shoppers” – customs officials who were in Shanghai courtesy of a G8-country, to investigate anti-dumping allegations. All these crooks cared about was buying counterfeit goods! We were horrified by the irony of it all, whilst our Chinese guides did their best to accommodate. We were taken to the A-markets (fakes that are basically indistinguishable from originals; the customs guys wouldn’t settle for the B and C stuff).
These “A” venues apparently change from building to building by the week and operate with complicity of corrupt local police officials who, at the time, were housed right next door. We were dragged around from building to make sure we weren’t being followed and then taken up back staircases with suspicious-looking locals with walkie-talkies into showrooms replete with near-perfect replicas of French and Italian luxury goods. Only the corrupt customs officials bought to their heart’s delight. In France, we call such people ripoux – verlan(pig-latin) for pourri (rotten).
Hotel-wise, I had the pleasure to visit a great number of Shanghai properties and stay in three: the Hilton, the Portman Ritz-Carlton and the brand new Hyatt on the Bund. The Hyatt on the Bund – brand new – is by far the nicest of the ones I saw and stayed in. Their magnificent Bund Suites are circular with floor to ceiling windows with views of the River and Shanghai skyline. The staff are attentive and professional and the food is excellent. I tested the executive clubroom, roof-top Vue Bar, Chinese restaurant and a banquet event. Their pool/spa/gym facilities are top. Highly recommended.