If Beijing is China’s traditional, responsible older brother, Shanghai is the fashionable, shopaholic Wall Street younger sister who works hard and plays even harder. A sprawling city of some 8 million residents (around 19m in the greater metro area), Shanghai is China’s most modern city—a must-see travel destination for any visitor who wants a sneak preview into China’s future.
In the 1920-30s, Shanghai was the largest and most important international city of not only China, but of the entire Asia-Pacific region. Shanghai was one of the treaty ports that the British forced open in 1842 after winning the so-called Opium Wars, opening the floodgates for British, French, Russian, American and other Western powers.
Today, Shanghai is set to recapture the title of Asia’s leading business and financial center, as well as a top tourist destination. After plummeting from prominence during the Mao days, China’s new top dog, Deng Xiaoping, chose Shanghai as the center of China’s commercial renaissance in 1990. In the construction boom that followed, it was reported that half of the world’s construction cranes were in Shanghai in the late 1990’s.
And although the city lacks any real historical or tourist attractions (much of old Shanghai’s architecture has been demolished), it still offers plenty of charm and reasons for visitors to stick around. But not all of the old European charm is lost—just take a short stroll down the Bund to catch a glimpse of old Shanghai when it was known as the “Paris of the East” and the “Pearl of the Orient.” In another ironic historical twist, these old buildings—once despised relics of foreign imperialism—are today protected as city monuments and are Shanghai’s most famous tourist attractions.
Like the days of old, Shanghai is a city of extremes — a dynamic city known not only for business, shopping, nightlife, and sophistication, but also for vice (it was also once known as the “Whore of the Orient”). Which reminds me, watch out for scam artists, especially along the main tourist drag of Nanjing Road (see Scams).
Though relatively expensive like Beijing, Shanghai does have an efficient underground metro system, lots of cheap eats, and growing supply of budget accommodation. Visitors will also benefit from an upgraded tourist infrastructure and supply of hotels from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.
MORE INFO & HISTORY:
By Chinese standards, Shanghai is a young city. For centuries, Shanghai — literally translating as “above the sea”— was a small fishing village. It wasn’t until after the Treaty of Nanjing in the mid-1800’s that Shanghai exploded into an international outpost of trade, high-living, and decadence (just more proof of the evils of those foreign devils!).
Back in the day, Shanghai was carved out into different “concessions” or neighborhoods — for instance, the American, British, and French concessions. Each area was run independently and even had their own police forces and judiciary. Signs on foreign clubs famously proclaimed: “No Dogs and No Chinese Allowed.”
One side effect of this arrangement was that it became a haven for criminals (as well as revolutionaries) who could easily escape by keeping on the move. An intoxicating brew of the international and counterculture, Shanghai quickly established a reputation as an open, diverse city, where you could rub elbows with merchants, missionaries, soldiers, artists….as well as pimps, hookers, opium addicts and gangsters. Speaking of revolutionaries, China’s Communist Party held its first meeting ever in Shanghai in 1921. By the early 1930s, Shanghai was the fifth largest city in the world, with some 70,000 foreign residents.
But the party came to an abrupt end. When the Commies took control in 1949, they marched into Shanghai to rid the city of evil Capitalist dogs. Just like last call at your local bar, they shut off the music, flipped the lights on, and yelled, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” Clearly reading the writing on the wall, the local elite (and most anyone else who had the means) also left Shanghai in droves — following the mass exodus of foreigners who relocated to Hong Kong.
Since the 1990’s — after the government decided to revive the city into a business & financial powerhouse — Shanghai has undergone a breath-taking transformation. Almost overnight, foreign investment came flooding in, and new freeways and high-rises starting sprouting up. Today, Shanghai is the world’s largest cargo port with over 3,000 skyscrapers — more than New York City (and with some 2,000 more slated for construction).
In short, welcome to the new China metropolis.
MeetInShanghai.net Official site of Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration
SmartShanghai.com Local Shanghai city entertainment guide: Shopping, nightlife, dining, events, and more.
CityWeekend.com Similar city guide
Shanghai Highlights Travel City travel guide in addition to day, weekend, and tour packages
Mad about Shanghai All about moving to, living in, & doing business in Shanghai