Weekend in . . . Shanghai
What takes most cities aeons to build, Shanghai can do overnight. Consider this: just a decade ago, the city had four metro lines; now there are a dozen. The Jin Mao Tower was the tallest building in the neon-streaked financial centre of Pudong; it has since been surpassed by the Shanghai World Financial Center and the nearly completed Shanghai Tower, which will be the second-tallest building in the world (after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) when it’s finished next year.
Still, what fascinates about this city is how little seems to have changed in the maze of lanes that have eluded the bulldozer in the Old City or the former foreign concessions. Here, residents haggle over freshly caught fish in tiny markets or doze in lawn chairs on summer afternoons, ignoring the pounding jackhammers. Shanghai is remaking itself to become a “City of the Future,” but what’s so alluring is how much old-world character remains.
1 Model city
Start with an overview. Spanning the third floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center (admission 30 renminbi, or about €3.60) is a model of the city as it’s expected to look in 2020, with thousands of miniature buildings, elevated highways lined with yellow lights and streetlamps the size of toothpicks.
The kitsch tour of Shanghai continues in the adjacent 360-degree projection theatre, where visitors are taken on a virtual aerial tour of the city, swooping over bridges and high-speed trains as fireworks explode in the smog-free sky. It’s a paean to mass development, 21st-century Chinese style – big, brash and over the top.
2 Glamour shots
While swathes of old Shanghai have fallen, many historic buildings have been spared and refurbished in recent years, particularly around the Bund. One noteworthy project is the Rockbund Art Museum (15 renminbi), housed in an extensively renovated 1930s Art Deco building. The museum exhibits works by well-known contemporary artists like Cai Guo-Qiang and Zhang Huan and isn’t afraid to take risks: one show featured live monkeys in a cage with a robotic Confucius until the government ordered the primates removed.
Around the corner is Yuanmingyuan Road, a block of equally stunning turn-of-the century buildings that doubles as a catwalk for brides in red dresses preening for wedding photographers.
3 Party like it’s 1929
Shanghai’s historic Bund hasn’t looked this good since Noël Coward and Charlie Chaplin were party guests in the city’s glamorous pre-war years. As part of the city’s sprucing-up for the 2010 World Expo, the concession-era strip underwent a three-year restoration that moved most traffic underground and widened the riverside promenade to create a pleasant place to stroll in the evenings (minus the crowds).
Several iconic properties have also recently returned to their former splendour. Splurge on a 500-renminbi/€60 glass of Yao Ming’s cabernet sauvignon – or a more reasonably priced bottle from the extensive wine list – in the rooftop bar at the House of Roosevelt, a neo-Classical building restored by a company run by Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson Tweed.