On paper, it has it all. Towers that scrape the sky, brightly-coloured temples, an abundance of live entertainment options, and restaurants offering the best of Asian and Western cuisines…it’s all one could ask for, surely? But beneath Shanghai’s elevated, neon-illuminated surface, there always seems to be something missing. It doesn’t quite click, somehow, forever seeming like a city trying to be something that it isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, we had a fantastic experience in Shanghai. With all that’s on offer there, visitors can really keep themselves entertained if they utilise the city for what it’s good for. But for somewhere that markets itself as a shining beacon of cosmopolitan modernity, it fails to truly capture that coveted multicultural vibe.
So what’s missing? Well, smiles for a start. Many of the people trudging along the streets look as if they’re on their way from the courthouse to the cells having just been subjected to a guilty verdict. The general air of glumness makes the constructed images of grandeur seem like a forced attempt to put an eye-catching cover on an indifferent book. It’s as if all of the skyscrapers are designed to make everyone look up, thus distracting us all from the grittiness and mediocrity of what lies at ground level.
And as for the cloud-reaching towers that raise the city’s profile – and that of the Pudong area in particular – it’s hard to know whether to feel mesmerised or bemused when gazing upon them. Sure, they are impressive feats of contemporary architecture, and the statistics that get bandied about regarding various of them being the tallest something-or-other in whatever category they belong to do augment the wow factor somewhat. But at the same time, Pudong reeks of artificiality. It’s Top Three – namely the Lego-like Jinmao Tower, the World Financial Centre (which, for some reason, is shaped like a giant bottle opener) and the most recently-added Shanghai Tower – all stand beside each other like a trio of adolescent boys having an ‘I’m bigger than you’ competition. It draws gasps, but fails to truly convince.
Oriental Pearl Tower: A quirky mishmash
Amusement can be found in the interiors of these colossi though. The Oriental Pearl Tower, its peculiar shape making it seem as if it has been taken out of a Disney film, houses a space capsule for would-be astronauts and an indoor roller-coaster for daredevils. A different type of adrenaline rush can be found on the Transparent Observatory Deck, its glass floor offering a breath-taking view for any not too prone to vertigo.
A more relaxed form of entertainment resides in the basement of the same building, in the shape of the Shanghai History Museum. Small but detailed, it gives a nicely-compacted account of the city’s origins and evolution, with displays on the ways of life and the modes of transport that have featured along the way.
There’s one problem with exploring the inside of the Oriental Pearl Tower, however: it’s almost impossible to gain any control over where the lifts take you. With the aforementioned space capsule, roller-coaster and museum all situated on different levels, lifts are most certainly required in order to fully benefit from the tower’s varied offerings. Annoyingly, the long queues for them always seem to end with a large group being piled into one lift by a member of staff and sent to a particular floor before any of them know what’s happening. This typifies Shanghai in a way; as fantastic as it is in some respects, it doesn’t quite click.
Jing’an district: A terrific temple and some spectacular stunts!
Whereas much of Shanghai has a glittering surface but a core that lacks authenticity, the Jing’an Temple is the other way around. While its exterior has been converted into a series of shops, what lies inside the gates is one of Shanghai’s true gems. And quite a sparkling gem it is too, its bright red-and-gold-dominated colour scheme a feast for the eyes.
A short walk from this extravagant place of Buddhist worship lies the Shanghai Centre, a modern complex that houses a five-star hotel and various restaurants and cafés. Examples of the latter include a branch of the eclectically-themed restaurant chain Element Fresh (whose Beijing branch features in another article of mine) and Baker and Spice, a rare haven of delicious coffee, fresh cakes and sumptuous breakfasts (which is described in greater detail here).
However, the Shanghai Centre’s crown jewel is its theatre, which plays host to the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe almost every evening. A 90-minute-long exhibition featuring a range of talents and tricks so improbable they must be seen to be believed, the skill, strength and agility on display had the audience gasping repeatedly. What´s more, amongst all of the jugglers, gymnasts and human-pyramid-builders, the line-up also allowed for an audience participant in the knife-throwing act! Guess who volunteered…
(The video of yours truly up on stage, being blindfolded as acrobats pretend to throw knives at a board to which I am helplessly tied, is unfortunately too big to be uploaded onto this site. However, if you fancy a laugh at my insanity, have a watch on YouTube here!)
So all in all, I can’t list Shanghai as one of my favourite cities. Lacking the historical culture of Beijing and the natural beauty of nearby Hangzhou, it rarely stimulates any truly authentic vibes. The fusion of Eastern and Western cultures isn’t pulled off with the same success as in Hong Kong or in either of the aforementioned cities, leaving Shanghai rather awkwardly stuck between both worlds. But is it really fair of me to compare it to other cities, you might ask? Perhaps I’m just not appreciating it for what it is? Well, it’s difficult not to make comparisons, as Shanghai just doesn’t seem comfortable in its own skin. Through the crude insertion of external glitz and glamour, it forever endeavours to be somewhere else. Without the soul to back up these efforts to impress, it never truly succeeds.