Shanghai Surprise

China expert Ruth Lor Molloy reveals ancient and modern gems in the legendary city called the "Paris of the East" during Colonial days

Downtown Shanghai
One of my cherished favorites of Shanghai is the tiny ferry that plies between the waterfront Bund and the thriving, 15-year old suburb of Pudong, often called "East Shanghai". The north bank boasts the famous turn-of-the-20th century colonial European buildings, rich with neo-classical domes, Greek columns and Gothic details; the south bank is within steps of one of the tallest buildings and one of the highest communications towers in the world. It is a century away.

The ferry offers wonderful views of both banks of the river that contrast the old and new worlds of Shanghai. The ferry has no seats and the trip costs Y1 (US$0.13). You wait alongside motorcycles, bicycles and commuters for the dingy little boat to arrive that takes you away from the crowds on the Bund across the river to a landing near a peaceful riverside park. The ride, only five minutes long, is especially delightful in the evening when the banks are illuminated.

One of the most poignant corners of Shanghai is the old Jewish ghetto tucked in the former Japanese concession. It was to here that 19,000 European Jews escaped Hitler's holocaust and today you can still find mezuzahs in the doorways and visit the simple rooms where they worshiped. A couple of years ago, I met an English-speaking resident of the neighborhood who pointed out the former kosher butcher shop and a plaque, in a park, inscribed in Hebrew, English and Chinese. I was moved to tears to see that Shanghai had opened its heart to embrace these refugees.

In spite of Shanghai's constantly changing skyline, its efficient mass transit railway and its downtown outdoor pedestrian mall, the city today is still full of such history, beauty and bargains. The celebrated buildings along the Bund have been renovated, not torn down. The rebuilt Shanghai Museum - inspired by the Chinese theme, "heaven is round and earth is square" - looks like a Shang dynasty bronze with handles. The multi-hued roof of the Grand Theater looks like a flying oriental carpet. Especially at night, when floodlights give these ancient edifices a spiritual quality, they are dazzling. I look for them eagerly at night as we drive close by on one of the new elevated expressways.

Some of Shanghai's skyscrapers built within the last decade have uninviting exteriors, yet splendid interiors. In Pudong I am mesmerized by the new 88-story Jin Mao building, which houses the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The tall and narrow spire, designed in sections resembling bamboo rods, and swathed in ethereal blue light, is reminiscent of a Maxfield Parrish fairy-tale castle.

The new additions have replaced many of the French provincial houses that once gave Shanghai its distinctive look. I'd be tempted to say that the many glass-curtained office and apartment blocks could also exist anywhere else in the world - if not for their characteristic Chinese touch: a huge feng-shui hole chiseled into the middle to keep the good luck dragons happy.

The lack of architectural uniformity doesn't spoil the picture one bit. I love Shanghai because it is such a vibrant hybrid. It still has its old wonderful western style mansions built by the opium-financed "filthy rich." One of my favorite restaurants is Sasha's. Set in a 1920s manor erected by Jewish taipans, it was lived in by Chiang Kai-shek, and later used as a theater by Mao Tsetung's actress wife. Last year we spent a dreamy evening on a balcony of the Shangri-La Hotel in Pudong, soaking in the exotic beauty of both the nearby Jin Mao Building and the highly lit Bund. In the distance, the curved roofs of the Yuyuan Market area were outlined in red lanterns.

The Yuyuan is one of the few parts of Shanghai that still looks traditionally Chinese. It has a classical garden in what once was the Chinese quarter, the main residence and stopping area of Chinese workers, servants and bureaucrats. Most of its commercial buildings with their traditionally fancy eaves and brackets have been recently restored along the pedestrian mall. Shanghai should soon have a moving underground walkway running from the foot of the famous Nanjing East Road shopping area to the ferry landing in Pudong. There's been talk of relocating my little ferry when that happens.

I pray to China's round heaven that Shanghai will keep that ferry there. It is one of the best tourist bargains in China, alongside Hong Kong's Star Ferry. I hope that Shanghai will conserve that synagogue too. They are all essential parts of its efficient new Chinese-international, old-modern identity.

Chinese-Canadian Ruth Lor Malloy's 13th China Guide
was recently published by Open Road Publishing.
She is the co-author of On Leaving Bai Di Cheng and
The Culture of China's Yangtze Gorges



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