Shanghai, like most big cities, has a day face and a night face. But in Shanghai’s case, the two faces seem as if they belong to two different cities.
Even though it is China’s largest city by population (23 or so million people), it is not an ancient city. It was a market town for most of its existence.
When the Chinese opened Shanghai as a sea port in 1684, the town began to thrive. The British Empire seized the town during the opium wars, and grabbed a concession in 1842. Soon to be followed by the French and the Americans. And, of course, the Japanese, who took over the whole city in 1941 until the end of the Second World War.
What is far more apparent is the British connection with Shanghai. The Huangpu River runs north to south in Shanghai. On the eastern bank is modern Shanghai. On the western bank, in an area called the Bund, is the former British concession with its European-style collection of buildings.
But when the lights go on at night, Shanghai takes on the look of a potpourri of Las Vegas, Disneyland, and a Blade Runner set. We took an hour-long boat trip to see the city at its best.
To ensure it looks its best, the government turns on all of the external lights from 7 to 10:30. And a shiny face it is.
On the east bank, each building vies for attention. But the Shanghai Financial Center (second tallest building in the world), the futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower (looking as if it was sired by the Space Needle and a minaret), and the LED screens that cover the full side of two riverside buildings.
And because Shanghai has suffered its share of political intrigue, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) decided to build its own snappily-titled Monument to the People's Heroes in Shanghai. Its three concrete spires commemorating the defeat of feudalism, imperialism, and capitalism. The last is ironic because the PLA is the largest business owner in China.
The monument has an alternative meaning not often used within earshot of foreigners. Commemorating the defeat of the Japanese, British, and Americans. Such matters are best left unsaid to not scare off those tourist dollars.
But Shanghai is not just imperialist and modern buildings. Unlike Beijing, Shanghai has retained quite a few of its traditional neighborhoods.
And, of course, there are gardens. Before dropping us off at a tacky market for a two-hour shopping spree, our guide took us to a traditional Chinese garden nestled in the heart of Shanghai. I never recognize how stressful touring cities can be until I have an opportunity to be surrounded by the peaceful harmony of a garden.
That harmony, of course, was the result of the hard work of a staff of 30 gardeners.
This garden had the four traditional elements: water, buildings, plants, stone. But the arrangenent was masterful enough that I could feel the day's tension draining out of me onto the mosaic walkway.