SHANGHAI, THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. Shanghai is the world’s most populous city-proper over-brimming with people, ideas, and objects perpetually on the move. Three decades ago, the eastern bank of the Huangpu River was no more than peasants and rice paddies. Now, Shanghai leads China’s charge to global modernity and the Pudong skyline is an image of the future.
This city on the East China Sea was the Mainland’s entryway for foreigners in the 19th century. Scars of invasion remain in the form of colonial architecture on the Bund and luxurious enclaves of the French Concession. Despite the socialist overturning in 1949, residual capitalist institutions have undoubtedly reclaimed the city. The booming metropolis perches between tradition and the future with all its paradoxes. Steel structures loom over ancient Buddhist temples; cruise lines share the Huangpu with motorless fishing boats; Ferraris park next to Communist-era bicycles. Community relations suffer because of ever-growing residential, but older people still gather on the sidewalks to gossip and play mahjong. Shanghai feels endless when you are in a taxi, speeding across the raised highways under dazzling buildings. Even roving underground, you are riding the world’s longest subway system.
Shanghai has a high visible socio-economic disparity, reflecting a mounting issue of development in Chinese society. Lavish events are hosted at the Bund every night with thousand-dollar bottles of foreign wine, while waves of residents are newly evicted from their shikumen alley ways in order to accommodate dense residences. The floating migrant population, uncounted in the official census, potentially adds 15 million more to Shanghai. They’re recognizable between younger generations of middle class students and entrepreneurs tapping away on smart phones. Migrant laborers build the city with hardened and weary faces, separated from family in distant provinces where they plan to send remittances. The native Shanghai residents have remained resilient and proud, recognizing each other by their dialect that barely resembles Mandarin with its tones, rolling, and clicking. Their traditions hold stake in a home that is in constant flux.
Between Carrefour and enormous commercial shopping centers, wet markets and street food culture still thrive. The streets waft pungent fumes of exhaust, sewage, ripening fruit, and smoking stalls of fried food. The woks of Shanghai sizzle with flames and oil from sunrise until 2 AM tending to the post-work and post-nightlife crowds. Shanghainese food combines the influence of the neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the history of imperial interactions, and is distinctly decadent compared to other Chinese cuisines. Sweet and sticky sauces, salt, and oil are plentiful in every dish. Rice is essential to every meal to soak the heavy flavors.
Every morning, commuters line the sidewalks for breakfast on the-go. The stall tender dishes their choice of baozi (or mantou if you’re from the Yangtze River delta area of China) into a thin passes on a cup of hot rice milk, and off they go. Baozi are steamed doughy, wheat buns filled barbecue pork, eggs and chives, diced mushrooms, or red bean paste. There’s also the bing, a Chinese pancake with two main variations: egg and scallion or the Taiwanese shouzhua. The vendor swirls the egg batter atop an iron skillet resembling a crepe maker, and as it bubbles and cooks, scallions, ginger, and sesame seeds are added. Once the edges peel off the skillet, the bing is folded up with a crunchy strip of fried dough and a smathering of soy and spicy sauce. The shouzhua pancake is smaller but fries and flakes like puff pastry. The vendor cracks an egg or two to fry in the middle with sesame or spicy paste. Cheese and deli meat that resembles ham cost extra, and if you’re lucky, the tall will have lettuce and julienned cucumbers. You might not see foreigners lining the streets with the Chinese, but those who are know that their 8 renminbi (about 1.50 USD) was deliciously spent.
When I lived in Shanghai, breakfast was one of those bings or a steamy bowl of wonton soup, followed by fruit. My host mother slid the kitchen doors shut every evening, to reveal at least four steaming platters of cuisine a few hours later: seared bamboo shoots and fungi, fried pork dumplings, steamy shrimp wonton soup, scrambled eggs and tomatoes, and a whole braised fish with leeks, ginger, and garlic. Chinese meals are generous and convivial, because food is at the core of relationship-building, whether familial or professional. When I had a downtrodden day in Shanghai, perhaps from a poor encounter or too much smog, having a home to return to deepened my appreciation for what the Chinese will share with others.
For expatriates, Shanghai can be a playground. Clubs offer discounts for Euro-Americans to sit near their main stage. Hamburgers, steak, pizza, and even craft-brewed beers are always within reach. Some districts have so many foreign residents, doctors, restaurants, stores, and institutions, it’s possible to go days and never need to speak a word of Chinese. It’s frustrating, frightening, and astounding what power the foreigner wields simply for being a face of “the West.” This chosen isolation comes at a price, both literally for the expensive, English-based services, and psychologically; why come to China, if you just want the comforts of home? Even though you will always be considered a foreigner here, it is worth bridging cultural boundaries in understanding—and food is the first step.
As the gilded dragon of China, Shanghai is awe-inspiring and overwhelming all at once. Yet the most rewarding moments there were when I looked beneath the surface, and let it consume me. China is experiencing such a momentous transition, that you can’t be afraid of the curious or bizarre. Take a second look, or taste, at something that doesn’t seem perfectly in place.
***Some tips: U.S. citizens need a pre-approved entry visa to visit China. However, if a layover is arranged in Shanghai or Beijing, a 72-hour no-visa policy is gratuitous. The ratio of Chinese yuan (CNY/RMB) needed for 1 U.S. dollar is currently a 6:1 ratio, which allows significant financial flexibility. The culture and history are so bountiful that anyone can find something in Shanghai worth investigating! For students and low-budget travelers, hostels are the best way to explore. Staff members are friendly, other young travelers are always stopping by, amenities match that of European hostels, and prices are as low as 5 USD a night for a dormitory. Meals at small Chinese restaurants can range from 3-7 USD, while visiting a “Western” chain restaurant will cost more than you typically pay in the United States. Refer to City Weekend Shanghai and Smart Shanghai for the most current happenings. Most importantly, download the Explore Shanghai metro map or smart phone app!