Local Intel: Shanghai Surreal

Shanghai, China — Shanghai is a surreal city. I don’t think that there is another town to compare it to, so the best way to describe it is The Jetsons in Chinatown. Unlike its northern neighbor Beijing, Shanghai is modern, vibrant and most of all, alive. The city never sleeps, nor does it ever stop eating. Things don’t stop moving, neon lights never stop blinking, street peddlers never stop pushing fake Prada and Gucci, and the food just keeps piling out of the deep fryers.  Aside from the pedestrian Shanghai, which I was happy to explore, I was more interested in the glittery, flashy, nouveau riche Shanghai and its treasures.

The reason I call it surreal is the fact that there is something synthetic in the air here. This city has sprung out of a sprawling, post colonial,  Chinese town, into a super-modern, international metropolis, surpassing New York, Hong-Kong and Singapore in the sheer quantity of its skyscrapers, luxury stores and boulevards. Its super highways are stacked on top of each other, sometimes 5 levels high, so that they rise half way up a skyscraper. The speed, size, glitter and technology of Shanghai, has left this former New Yorker in touristic awe. Until I saw Shanghai, I was convinced that New York is, and always will be the center of the civilized world. Perhaps I need to re-think that.

Shanghai Highway
Shanghai Highway

Aside from its modern day advancements like the Maglev (magnetically levitating high speed train), ultra modern subway system and shiny buildings, there is its nightlife. Just like in New York, all you have to do is wish it, and its someone’s command. The Chinese have thought of everything, even how to copy New York’s nightlife. Want to spend a $1000 in an ultra-cool, underground, industrial sushi bar? No problem, except your concierge won’t know how to find it on a map, the taxi driver won’t speak English, the locals don’t know anything about it, and the staff has never had a foreign customer. The restaurant looks absolutely fantastic, but they’ll bring your wine with a cube of ice in it, a menu with full color pictures in it, and the sushi chef is proud to point out he trained at Whole Foods. (Yes, he was beaming with pride).


Want to check out that gorgeous piano bar Cloud 9 that sits atop of the Grand Hyatt hotel, and offers 180 degree views of the city? Ok, but the tapas will be Chinese, and the lady singing breathlessly into the mike will be mispronouncing Unbreak My Heart so badly, you’ll want to record it and immediately post on Facebook.

The Bund, Shanghai
The Bund, Shanghai

On my last day in the city, I decided to do some shopping and walked into a snazzy looking Prada store. I wasn’t sure what was wrong here, it all looked posh enough, until I realized that the dresses are unlined, the handbags too flimsy and the scarves have way too many logos on them. I had heard that China had a fake Apple store where one could buy phony iPhones and iPads, but is it possible that they have faked an entire Prada store? Of course, I know that China is full of fakes. All you have to do is stand at an intersection, and someone will invite you into a specially discounted handbag factory with AAAAA quality hand bags, but here was a beautiful store, decorated with crystal chandaliers and plush carpets, a perfect replica of the Fifth Avenue store. As I stood there asking the sales lady about the authenticity of the goods, and watching her give me an offended stare, an old man walked into the store. He looked like he was a street peddler of some sort, complete with missing teeth and dusty rubber shoes. As he looked around the store, he decided to clear his throat, started hacking, and then spit out a wad of something on the carpet, right next to my foot!


And that’s when I realized what made Shanghai so surreal. Here is a city that has exploded in the last 10 years. Entire sections of the city were torn down, residents forced to move out of their hutongs, in order to build this metropolis. The people had nowhere to go, and they’re still here. The city has grown around them, but they don’t know what to make of it. Posche restaurants are popping up all over the Bund and gaining international media attention, yet they are full of logo sporting fake blondes in plastic flip flops, who can’t figure out how to read the menu. All over the place, there is evidence of astounding technological advancement, but the people aren’t adjusted. Unlike their Hong-Kong neighbors who have been living in an international capital for the last 100 years, the people here still wander their city in awestruck bewilderment. I am sure that is about to change, but for now Shanghai is full of amusing observations. Just as you see something amazing, it’s likely to be followed by something ridiculous.


Nevertheless it is quite a city to see. If not for its laughable contradictions, then for its ever smiling locals and its abundant energy. Much about Shnghai is changing, and I am glad I saw it at a moment when it was in transition. Today, I am sure the city would be unrecognizable even though I was recently there. There will come a point when the residents catch up with the urbanization and the sophistication, and if the pace of Shanghai’s growth is an indication, I am sure they will outpace New Yorkers in terms of savoir faire very shortly.


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