They say that Paris is the city of lights, and the sight of La Tour Eiffel heralding the evening hours in a flurry of sparkles is testament to that. But it is Shanghai, Paris’ eastern sister, who truly deserves the crown when it comes to a pageant of luminescence. Paris’ charm is reserved, showering the Seine with a timeless and classy sprinkling of gold; Shanghai, however, is unabashed with her bold array of color and Pudong looks simply radiant in neon: blues, purples, and pinks electrify the Huangpo River in a shocking display that would make the Seine blush with modesty. But this is to be expected from a city The Lonely Planet labels as ‘the whore of the Orient.’
While traveling to Beijing may require one to spin the Rolex ahead six hours, arriving in Shanghai feels like stumbling out of the Delorian. Here is a skyline simply bursting with buildings that make the Empire State Building look like a sullen child not tall enough to ride a roller coaster. Across the Bund lies Pudong with its spiraling Jin Mao Tower, the Orient Pearl Tower, the HSBC juggernaut emblematic of a future grounded both in marketing and finance. (HSBC by name, after all, encapsulates Shanghai’s glittering hand in the future: Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation.)
We arrived in Shanghai via the Bullet, a high speed train as much a paradigm of the future as our destination, whose speeds of 307 km per hour easily halve what should be a ten hour journey. Upon departure, we all exchanged worried glances. Exactly how quickly would we depart? Assuming we would rocket out of the station like an actual bullet from a gun, I grabbed my coffee cup and secured my belongings. As the train calmly eased forward, I felt not unlike Fred Flintstone might had he ridden in a car that did not require fancy footwork to move forward.
In addition, we felt that our sub-par accommodations in Beijing merited a little splurging, so we tossed in our chips and booked a room at the Sheraton. Oh my. The swanky room showered us in unparalleled decadence that inspired me to dress to the nines for our first night out. It seemed like a good idea anyway, as my imagined agenda involved running into Daniel Craig on the Bund and I would have to look good for that.
Of course, Shanghai was not so gracious. The Bund did not disappoint; we strolled along a tourist-clogged promenade on the Huangpo before diverging off down a side street in search of an eatery. An hour’s worth of perambulating in elegant couture got us nowhere, so we ate at Pizza Hut. (To be fair, it was a futuristic Pizza Hut, in that it served steak.)
The Lonely Planet lambastes Shanghai’s harried urban layout, writing that streets seem to wind in all different directions, lacking the meticulous planning that characterizes Beijing. This is true. On our second day, I braved a journey through the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, a five minute ride into the future. Or, more accurately, a trip; the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory must have inspired the bizarre lights and psychedelic sound effects that accentuated the ride, which also featured wind sock people and ended with space music and a monotonous voice repeating the words ‘meteor shower.’ Only Gene Wilder was missing. In an attempt to locate some of Shanghai’s more earthy past, I ventured to Yuyuan Gardens, a park praised by The Lonely Planet for its fragrant crushes of jasmine and its deep carp ponds. After getting lost twice, I finally made my way to the entrance and attempted to amble over serene bridges and meditate beneath protective willows.
In fact, this park was so much the antithesis of TLP’s description that I had to explore it again. And again. And recheck the map. And search for a sign confirming that this was in fact the Edenic location I’d been promised. The ‘pond,’ a term I use liberally, was more of a murky trough where a few stubborn carp persisted among Aquafina bottles and a few lonely goldfish reluctantly shared their habitat with empty potato chip bags. The Lonely Planet only accurately portrayed the dizzying throngs of tourists.
Walking to a ritzy lunch atop the Shanghai Art Museum* – did I say walk? I meant meander about, disoriented – took us through the vastly more aesthetic Remnin Park – though Jingshan easily takes the cake in terms of picturesque flora and leafy yoga-inviting pathways – and eventually, post lunch, to a Moroccan-themed tapas bar called Barbarossa. This was one of the few places that was where it claimed to be, was easy to find, and delivered on its promises. There, beside a tranquil pond rippling lazily beneath a wisp of breeze – not heaving beneath the weight of plastic- I passed a peaceful hour sipping Tsing beer and waiting for my friends to return from a hectic shopping spree on East Nanjing Road.
So while I originally intended to decry Shanghai’s inability to do parks, or her sordid attempts at organized metropolitan sprawl, I have been swayed by this endearing confluence of east and west, of opulent skyscrapers and downy willows, of ambitious future aspirations and peaceful respites of the past.
Paris may hold the title of City of Lights, but Shanghai, with her radiant neon eyes on the future, is far more a queen of the Orient than Paris’ cheap and ostentatious bumpkin of a cousin.