OBSERVATIONS // SHANGHAI

A megacity between tradition and hypermodernity?

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai doesn’t even sit down, and not just because there is no room.
— Patricia Marx
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The pompous university buildings

look out of place, deserted and deteriorated.

My destination in China was Shanghai University. I was there for a conference during the long Labour Day weekend. Surprisingly, the campus seemed totally deserted because of the public bank holidays. With my sleeping rhythm totally destroyed by the different time zones, I woke up at 4.30 am. I decided to go out for a walk and found that I had the whole campus to myself. A little later, the first Tai Chi groups started to perform in the parks at around 6 am but other than that it was totally quiet.

The rays of the sun were subdued by smog and everything was drenched in an orange hue. All this led to a muted and very peaceful atmosphere. The pompous university buildings - from an era that I only know from documentaries about the 1970s - looked out of place; deserted and slowly deteriorating. A sharp contrast to the modern buildings I would see in downtown Shanghai.

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People come here for the same reasons

as they have for two thousand years; to find peace.

My first stop in downtown Shanghai was the Jing'an Temple. The Buddhist temple was first built in 247 AD. However, it was relocated to its current site in 1216. Most interestingly, the temple was turned into a plastic factory during the Cultural Revolution. In 1983, the temple returned to its original purpose and was renovated. I visited the temple during Labour Day, which is also a public holiday in China. The entrance was free that day and it was busy with people praying.

What I found most interesting was the contrast between the timeless architecture of the temple and skyscrapers in the background. It is amazing to think about the transitions the temple has gone through and how it survived so many decades of change. Of course the building was transformed and changed as well, but people still come here for the same reasons as they have for two thousand years; to find peace and an inner connection with their belief system.

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The French Consession;

with its refreshing and relaxed atmosphere, it's my favorite part of Shanghai .

Even though the temple was busy, it was definitely not as crowded as Shanghai's Old Town or the Bund (the waterfront in central Shanghai). Here, the clashes between tradition and modernity are most visible; small houses are slowly vanishing and being replaced by big skyscrapers. This was different to the so-called French Concession. The district was a foreign concession from 1849 until 1943, when the French Vichy government signed it over to the government in Nanjing. This French influence is still visible today; the houses are only two or three stories high and the streets are lined with plane trees. You can also find trendy boutique shops, fancy coffee shops and cool bars. All this creates a refreshing and relaxed atmosphere that lets you forget the hustle and bustle of downtown Shanghai.

You maybe ask if this district is therefore super touristy? I would say not more than other areas in the city centre. The boutiques are highly frequented by middle-class Chinese people who are looking for the newest high-end and street fashion items. You can also still find superb restaurants without any English menus or English-speaking waiters. All this made it my favourite part of Shanghai and I really recommend it to any traveller.