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View to a Thrill: Shanghai's high life rises once again

Daniel Allen

Pudong, Shanghai.

If God allows Shanghai to endure," said an exasperated missionary once, "then he will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology." By the turn of the 19th century pursuit of pleasure in this cosmopolitan city was second only to the pursuit of money. For the elite of Shanghai society, life was an intoxicating world of days at the races, tea at the Astor, and long nights at the club.

Shanghai's notorious reputation was founded on a booming opium trade - at its height there were 1500 drug dens scattered across the city. The Al Capone of the East, a criminal entrepreneur named "Big Eared" Du, controlled a vice empire that included drugs, brothels and gambling. Du's "Green Gang", a massive criminal organization, even had the audacity to kidnap Madame Chiang Kai-Shek for a couple of days.

In the late 1930s Shanghai's glory days were abruptly terminated when the Japanese moved in, and the city only began to rediscover its joie de vivre in the early 1990s, when economic reform stimulated an ongoing period of breakneck development. Still, the city's former dalliance with decadence seems to have left an indelible imprint that is now responsible for a burgeoning revival of the golden age.

A Chinese journalist famously described Shanghai as a city with forty-eight storey skyscrapers built upon twenty-eight layers of hell. These days the skyscrapers are a lot more than forty eight storeys, and there are a lot more of them. In the past two decades 4,000 tall buildings have shot up, and as next year's Expo approaches, the pace of the upward building trend shows no sign of abating.

A visit to Shanghai's urban planning museum is enough to understand the city's towering, overarching ambition. A scale model of the city takes up one entire story of the museum. Closer inspection shows whole swathes of the model are white or transparent in color, denoting structures that have not yet built. This is the city planners' vision of Shanghai in 2020, and it's a sign of self-confidence that this museum celebrates a yet-to-be-accomplished future.

World Expos

World Expos have routinely set miletones in architecture. The Crystal Palace (London 1851), the Eiffel Tower (Paris 1889), and the amazing buildings of the more recent Expo Hannover 2000 are some examples. It is fitting, therefore, that Shanghai - already home to some of the world's finest, most creative and most innovative buildings - should play host to next year's record-breaking Expo.

Shanghai skyscrapers by night.

Shanghai skyscrapers by night

The grand tradition of World Expos may seem a little quaint to Westerners, evoking 1950s-era images of flying cars and robot butlers. But the Expos still live, and with Shanghai using next year's installment to anoint itself the design capital of the new millennium, the event promises to be a feast of cutting-edge construction. With the theme of "Better City, Better Life", around 200 talented architects from across the globe are using the Expo to showcase the latest ideas in building design.

The focus for much of Shanghai's innovative architecture is Pudong. The city's newest district on the eastern side of the Huangpu River is now packed with an ever-denser collection of soaring, shimmering towers. At night, when Pudong's futuristic skyline is ablaze with multi-colored neon and giant LED screens, it's hard to believe this area was mere farmland only 15 years ago.

The three most distinctive buildings of Pudong are currently the Oriental Pearl TV, Jinmao and Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) Towers. The former, completed in 1994, features 11 pink balls incorporated into a tripod-like structure, and is the embodiment of a Chinese poem about pearls dropping onto a jade plate. Love it or loathe it, the tower has become a symbol for new Shanghai, and offers some great views from its various viewing platforms.

Pudong, Shanghai, China.

Pudong financial district, Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China.

Shanghai skyscrapers by day

A short walk from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower lie the Jinmao and SWFC Towers - twin giants that rise so high that their apices are often concealed by swirling cloud. Both are home to Hyatt hotels, with the Park Hyatt in the newly completed SWFC Tower occupying a whole page in the Guinness Book of World Records. These will soon be overlooked by the Shanghai Tower, a 630-meter behemoth which will be the world's second tallest structure when completed around 2014.

The best location to view the full nocturnal splendor of Pudong is undoubtedly the Bund. After a half-century of neglect, this Shanghai institution has now been transformed into a luxurious late-night destination where the well-heeled can patronize high-end restaurants, cocktail lounges, boutique hotels, art galleries and fashion flagships. Many buildings on the Bund are currently undergoing renovation in time for the Expo opening.

Completed in 2004, the Three on the Bund complex was designed by American architect Michael Graves, and houses the Evian Spa and Shanghai Gallery of Art, as well as four of Shanghai's top eateries. Sitting on the seventh floor is the New Heights bar and restaurant, the most casual and affordable option of the quartet. It also happens to offer the best view in the house courtesy of its wraparound terrace.

Dongtai Lu Market, Shanghai, China.

Dongtai Lu Market, Shanghai, China

Dutchman Danny van Elten, General Manager of New Heights, is rightly proud of his elevated workplace. "We offer what is probably the best open air view you'll find in Shanghai," he says. "New Heights is about casual dining and drinking in classy surroundings. Shanghai is a city that works hard and plays hard, and the restaurant is not only perfect for a discrete business lunch or dinner but also a great place to let your hair down."

Despite Shanghai's cutting edge architecture and generally modern aesthetic, there's also plenty of tradition and culture still to be found. Early risers who head to one of the city's parks - most notably Fuxing Park - will find the older generation turned out in force, practicing all manner of activities from synchronized dancing and tai chi through to kite flying, spinning tops and general gossiping.

"That's what I love about Shanghai," says Liu Bing, a sales executive who enjoys a daily jog at dawn. "The city is famous for high-tech places like Pudong, and soon the Expo site, but it has a lot of old charm left too. There are some beautiful parks and colonial buildings in the French Concession, and if you take a wander around the backstreets you'll see people living a life that's changed little over the last 30 years."

Another good place for encountering a piece of China's yesteryear is the antique market on Dongtai Lu, where roadside stalls are laden down with Mao memorabilia, calligraphy brushes and a mind-boggling array of fascinating knick knacks. There's a lot of old tat, but patient searchers are often rewarded with a kitsch bargain or two. A stone's throw from here is the equally diverting animal market on Xizang Lu, where fighting crickets in metal jars share space with bowls of terrapins, caged song birds and a jostling rabble of punters.

Over on 50 Moganshan Lu, the culture is more of a contemporary variety. This industrial maze of converted warehouses and factories in Shanghai's Putuo District now houses the city's modern art scene, and is generally packed with a Bohemian mix of art aficionados, students and models. After an afternoon perusing the numerous galleries and studios, unwind over a cappuccino in the coffee shop while discussing the relative merits of Zhang Xiaogang and Damien Hirst with local artists.

Moganshan Art District, Shanghai.

Moganshan Art District, Shanghai

Shanghai Essentials

  • Shanghai Transport
  • For cheap flights from Beijing to Shanghai (about 2 hours) check or
  • The quickest trains to Shanghai are the new bullet trains - D301, D305, D307, D313 and D321 - which all leave around 9.30pm from Beijing Station and arrive in Shanghai around 7.30am the following morning. Hard sleeper approx. RMB 700 / soft sleeper approx. RMB 1000.
  • By 2012 a new high-speed rail line should cut the train journey time between Beijing and Shanghai to around 4 hours (world's fastest train service).
  • Regular flights Beijing - Shanghai (2 hours) - check
  • Regular trains Beijing - Shanghai (12 hours) - hard sleeper 280 RMB, soft sleeper 480 RMB (faster, 5-hour high speed rail link planned)

Shanghai Tours

Luxury Concierge China

Tailor-made tours run by Jonathan Hasson and Spencer Dodington. Whether it's art deco alleyways, meeting the locals and hearing their stories, being whisked around the latest fashion designers' ateliers or attending a polo match, this tuned-in duo can make it happen.

Walk Shanghai

Architects Anne Warr and Tim Schwager run walking tours through inner Shanghai, particularly through the lilong alleyways, as well as art gallery tours to areas such as Moganshan Lu.

Accommodation in Shanghai

Book hotels in Shanghai
More hotels in Shanghai

Park Hyatt Shanghai

Shanghai World Financial Center, 100 Century Avenue

Tel: +86 21 6888 1234

Breathtaking views from the world's highest hotel. All the facilities you'd expect of this high end chain.

URBN Shanghai

183 Jiaozhou Road

Tel: +86 21 5153 4600

Shanghai's first carbon neutral hotel with five star facilities. Offers local cooking classes, guided art gallery tours and tai chi lessons, as well as some highly renowned motorcycle sidecar tours of the city.

Four Seasons Shanghai

500 Weihai Road

Tel: +86 21 6256 8888

Five star luxury conveniently close to the neon-lit retail strip of Nanjing Road. A recently opened spa offers fantastic massages, and the hotel's "featherweight traveler" facility allows frequent guests to leave an entire wardrobe in a portable closet for free.

Pudong By Night, Shanghai, China.

Pudong By Night, Shanghai, China


New Heights

Three on the Bund, No.3 The Bund

Tel: +86 21 6321 0909

With fantastic views over Pudong and the Bund, this chic eaterie offers a menu blending elements of French, Mediterranean, American and Southeast Asian cuisine.


Lane 181 Tai Cang Road, No.8 Xintiandi North Block

Tel: +86 21 6355 8999

Upscale fusion food in a sophisticated, stylish environment. Check out the gorgeous upstairs dining room and lounge area.

Shopping in Shanghai

Shanghai Tang

Lane 181 Tai Cang Road, North Block, Xintiandi
Tel: +86 21 6384 1601

Modern Chinese chic with themes deeply rooted in ancient and authentic Chinese culture, from calligraphy to Peking Opera to Chinese contemporary art. Products include a full range of clothing for men, women and children, plus home furnishings, accessories and gifts.

Dongtai Lu Antique Market

Dongtai Road, near Xizang Road

A lot of fun, especially if you're in the mood to just wander and look at junk. Every kind of Mao memorabilia, old records, photos, lanterns through to porcelain, chopsticks and knick knacks. Bargain hard.

Shopping in Shanghai

Bars and Clubs

JZ Club

46 West Fuxing Road

Tel: +86 21 6431 0269

With live music daily and a great atmosphere, this is Shanghai's premiere jazz venue.


471 Zhapu Road

Tel: +86 21 6258 2078

Plush, 1930s-style cabaret club, complete with showgirls, talented musicians and specialty acts from all over the world.

Shanghai sidecar tour.

Shanghai Sidecar Tour

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