Beautiful and exciting Chinese city, Shanghai is always a popular destination among foreign tourists and expats. With so many things to do, it’s one of the best places to visit in China especially if you are going for the first time.
Shanghai’s laid-back vibe
I’ve always noticed in Shanghai a sort of resilience of the population, an attitude that seemed like ignoring the fact that the city is one of the most modern in the world, and seemingly with no intention to slow down the pace. In many neighbourhoods life continues as it probably was in “pre-skyscrapers” times, a sort of village-like atmosphere.
Chinese people are very easygoing, they are not worried about etiquette or appearing polite. They spit on the street whenever they like without worrying if someone is passing by, they shout at each other as if they were in open countryside, and bikes fly around careless of cars, pedestrians and even less of traffic lights.
Most people’s attitude is clearly in striking contrast with the look of the city, sometimes I had the impression people are struggling to catch up with modernity. There are millions of citizens coming from the other provinces and very likely the countryside, so obviously they are not used to living in such a shine, but it’s not all.
I talked to a friend of mine, in his late 30s, proper Shanghainese, who told me that only fifteen years ago the city looked nowhere like today. Many areas, especially Pudong, were near to nonexistent. He definitely tickled my curiosity so I bought a book titled “The Legend of Shanghai” written by Suwen Luo, a fellow researcher at the Institute of History of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and started comparing the city I had before my eyes with the one described in her essay.
Before starting your Shanghai sightseeing, a bit of history
The city sits on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta, an area that dates back to 25,000 years. According to the historical research, Suwen Luo carried out, four to six thousand years ago, the ancestors of Shanghai’s natives planted rice where now lies Qingpu district, in Western Shanghai, near the lovely water town of Zhujiajiao (朱家角).
It was during the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the following Qing dynasty (1644-1912) that Shanghai Port became the bigger trade centre of the Lower Yangtze River region.
In ancient times, Gusu City (today the famous water town Suzhou, 苏州) was considered paradise on earth and much more popular than Shanghai which, at the time, was a colorless town known only for being located “beside paradise” and for its strategic trading position near the sea, without even city walls, quickly built in 1553 due to the repeated raids of Chinese and Japanese pirates.
Shanghai was completely shadowed by Suzhou to the extent that it was even known as the “Little Suzhou”. Little did they know that in the not-so-distant future Suzhou would have been a water town in Shanghai’s territory.
Despite being on the sea, so naturally prone to an international destiny, Shanghai tended to focus its trades towards Suzhou and Hangzhou (杭州), a beautiful city near the West Lake.
The area of the East Asian sea was an important channel of communication between Asia and Europe, this is why Shanghai played a great role in the heyday of the trade along the Silk Road. Paradoxically, who first understood the potential of Shanghai was English businessman Huyh Hamilton Lindsay, who was working for East India Company during the British occupation of India.
In June 1840 British forces invaded the Guandong sea space causing the outbreak of the First Opium War. After having conquered some of the Chinese strongholds, the British looked at Zhengjian on the Yangtze River.
They broke into Shanghai on the 19th of June 1842 via the Huangpu River and occupied the city since the local government surrendered. After the British bombed Zhenjiang area, in August, the Qing government signed the Treaty of Jiangning with English officers, selecting Shanghai as one of the five ports aimed at the foreign trade.
The European presence in Shanghai
In December 1842 George Balfour was nominated the first British Consul of Shanghai, and the destiny of the city was going to be shaped indelibly.
Today trendy restaurants and lovely local shops are lined up along Bund, beautiful boulevard on the banks of the river between Suzhou Creek and East Yan’an Road (Yan’an Dong Lu, 延安东路), but in the 1840s here was set up the base for foreign ships, and also the first buildings of the British Settlement.
Between 1845 and 1860, Shanghai counted three foreign settlements, the British, the French and the American, all laid out around the Bund, the reference of the respective communities. Due to the revolts in 1853, thousands of Chinese refugees poured in the British Settlement and started living side by side with foreigners.
By 1858, Shanghai was one of the most important ports in Far East Asia, connecting the city to Hong Kong, Calcutta, Europe and New York.
What today is known as the Bund, one of the favourite Shanghai tourist attractions to enjoy the beautiful lighting of Pudong district, in 1848 was the major riverside road of the British Settlement. In 1862 it was named Yangtze Road, after the river, and was much wider than the other roads of the settlement.
The Bund was Shanghai’s financial district and public garden both in late Qing dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, the pulse from where future urbanization started from, a westernized area, where even a “European War Memorial”, probably slightly out of context, was erected in 1922.
Right after Shanghai was opened to international trade and to the foreign world, locals were a little less enthusiastic about the relocation of so many Europeans in Chinese sole, to the extent that foreigners were commonly called yi (夷), “barbarians”, the settlements yichang (夷场), “barbarians’ ground”, and their houses yiwu (夷屋), “barbarians’ house”.
Little by little, around mid-1870s, the derogatory yichang was replaced by yangchang (洋场), “foreign ground”, and locals themselves started spending some of their leisure time in the settlements.
Despite being in Chinese sole, Europeans didn’t miss the chance to show their disrespect: when they started building parks, one of the regulations stated carelessly “Chinese are not admitted except in the case of native servants accompanying their white employers.”
It was after these regulations that Shanghai Municipal Council carried out a plan to separate foreigners and locals, especially because foreigners were worried that if Chinese were allowed in, “their parks” would have been too crowded and, absolutely shameful, some snobbish families feared that their children would communicate with locals and catch some not better-specified disease.
The words “Chinese are not admitted into the park” were written in Chinese on a wooden board in front of the gate. An account of such humiliation comes from scholar Chen Daisun (陈岱孙), on summer 1918: “When I was about to enter the park, I suddenly saw a white board with black characters on the front side of the lawn. There were several large Chinese characters on the board reading “No Chinese or Dogs allowed”. I was not prepared to face such humiliation. The anger was burning my heart, and it was a deep shock for a young man to face the wound and humiliation that our nation was under suffering.”
In 1928, sixteen years after the creation of the Republic of China, finally Chinese people managed to reach an agreement with the foreigners in Shanghai and parks and gardens were open to everybody.
Despite such ongoing injustice, Chinese people have managed to retain the good aspects foreigners had brought, and Shanghai was on its way to becoming the Pearl of the East.
In the 1860s, when Chinese and foreign residents were getting used to living side by side, some pioneer tried to reduce the cultural barriers and promote communication and collaboration between the ethnic groups. Churches, schools, education institutes were all involved in this plan, and Chinese and Western systems started cooperating, making Shanghai become the evidence that multicultural creativity produces wonderful results.