Posted by: Alex MacGregor | March 25, 2013

Shanghai’s Less Glittery Side

My last post probably gave the impression that Shanghai is a glitzy, modern place. But, on the whole, that’s just not true. These pictures are more typical of Shanghai:

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The fruit vendors contend even with the Albanians in terms of fruit selection.

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Just a couple blocks away from the relentless modernity of Nanjing Road, historic buildings function as basic housing.

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A typical street in Shanghai.

Even where the city isn’t attractive, it’s never dirty. Streets are kept meticulously clean of trash. At one point, I was walking along the street and the shell of a nut caught my attention for some reason. As I looked at it, a trash picker came into view and snatched the shell before my eyes. Can you spot even one piece of trash on the ground in any of these pictures?

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o typical alley

Shanghai’s millions of migrant workers live in tenements like these, which can be accessed only by networks of alleyways.

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These gleaming skyscrapers are just blocks from such tenements. It’s easy to get the feeling that the days are numbered for many of these tenement districts.

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To me, these areas were the most interesting and unique places to wander around in the city. China isn’t like Latin America, where each house is a mini-fortress, protecting against the brutal culture of violent crime that has developed there. Houses are less closed off here, and interesting scenes seem to be around every corner.

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I spent a couple hours wandering around Shanghai’s (free) history museum. The collection of artifacts from Chinese history is simply incredible.

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o mus coins

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What impressed me the most about the museum was the age of everything.

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For instance, this carving is 2,000 years old! Everything–whether pottery, currency, furniture, you name it–was far older than I would have expected. That speaks to China’s extremely rich and long history, I suppose.

China may be a culture with a long and storied history, but you wouldn’t guess it from the architecture throughout Shanghai. There isn’t much in the way of traditional Chinese buildings. And, as I said in the last post, most of the old architecture in the central parts of town is European-built and -styled: not the sort of thing that speaks highly of Chinese history.

Much of the historic architecture in Shanghai has gone the way of the wrecking ball over the generations.

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There are some notable exceptions, however. This was a lookout post on part of the old city’s network of fortifications. Now, it’s the only part of the walls that remains.

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The traditional architecture contrasts with the glass skyscrapers all around (and with ever more under construction). I was firmly off the gringo trail at this point (read: no information whatsoever was in English), so I can’t offer too much in the way of detail.

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Inside the building it feels like a different world from the hustle and bustle outside. Especially since the 5 yuan entry fee holds the flow of visitors to a bare minimum.

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The most impressive collection of historic architecture in Sanghai, by far, is Yuyuan Garden, which has buildings dating back hundreds of years.

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I didn’t see the gardens themselves, which are accessed via this horrendously crowded footbridge. I went during the end of the Chinese New Year holiday, and Chinese tourists mobbed everything.

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The historic city adjoining the gardens has been converted into a massive shopping center. Walking around was immensely difficult.

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I’m sure my head was poking up awkwardly in the background of at least a thousand pictures.

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The area lit up at night.

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A market street near Yuyuan, which bustles into the night.

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The area also has a thriving street food scene–among the best I’ve ever seen. Comparable to Leon, except in China a lot more stuff falls into the “extremely weird” category. (For the record, the squids-on-a-stick silhouetted in this picture definitely DON’T fall into that category, and were absolutely delicious.)

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I was breaking every rule in the book for preventing sickness in China when I ate here. Although I did pass on the oysters–I’d prefer for my souvenirs be tangible objects, rather than stomach bugs.


  1. I enjoyed your latest blog about the less Glitzy side of the city. And I showed it to my Chinese friend with whom I play bridge each week. He loved seeing the photo of the street food! Patty

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