Shanghai, China

SOLITUDE IN SHANGHAI: Find flickers of tranquility in China’s largest city

Left to Right: The Bund; East Nanjing Road. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

The low morning sun hides behind the buildings huddled up to East Nanjing Road in Shanghai’s Huangpu district. A few blocks from the Bund, thousands flock to this pedestrian stroll to shop at its 600 trendy boutiques, businesses and Qing Dynasty-era department stores. But for now, it’s still slumbering. The massive façade of an Apple store hasn’t yet transformed into a glass birdcage for a captive audience. Instead, it’s the backdrop for a cadre of women dancing in formation. Like delicate birds, they flap their arms, snapping open and shut broad yellow-and-red fans that seem like plumage extending from their fingertips. This scene is a not-so-rare respite from the cacophony of China’s largest city.

Once flooded with trade in tea, silk and opium,  more than 4,000 years of history has shaped this port  city on the East China Sea. So too has the Huangpu River (a tributary of the Yangtze), carving this metropolis of  24 million people into two distinctive areas on its east and west banks.

Pudong (its name translates to “east bank”) lives up to its Instagram persona, its skyline spiked with high-altitude skyscrapers such as the spaceship-like Oriental Pearl TV Tower (its third sphere is actually called Space Capsule) and the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Center, a neo-futurist building that looks like a colossal bottle opener. Puxi, or “west bank,” is framed by the Bund, a one-kilometre-long riverside promenade lined with heritage buildings, including the 1929 art deco Fairmont Peace Hotel.

Left to Right: Roof lines of the Jade Temple juxtaposed with modern Shanghai; At the Jade Temple; Prayer beads. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

With its mega-tall towers and throngs, Shanghai often draws comparison to New York City. Or Paris, thanks to the trove of villas and wutong (plane) trees lining the streets in the former French Concession. But this not the US or Europe. Chinese culture and quiet can be found in Shanghai’s spiritual spots such as the Jade Buddha Temple in the Jing’An district. Here, peek inside the halls where worshippers kneeling on colourful cushions murmur prayers to gilded deities. Be sure to seek out the temple’s namesake 1.9-metre buddha; photography is prohibited, adding to the solitude.

Left to Right: Graffiti at M50; Shanghai Teahouse. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

To explore the modern, artful side of Shanghai, take a one-kilometre walk from the temple to the M50 creative park, tracing tea-stained Suzhou Creek. Formerly the Xinhe Cotton Mill, the revamped industrial space with graffitied walls is now a warren of ultra-cool artists’ studios, galleries and cafes. Chat with artisans as you snap up their fashionable handmade leather goods, jewellery and ceramics. After drinking in new Shanghai, head to Old Town, a cataclysm of cutting-edge and ancient where smoggy silhouettes of towers rise behind the winged eaves of wooden structures. Elbow past the crowds and climb the staircase to the Old Shanghai Teahouse, a 1930s throwback with the aura of an antiques shop. Settle in, sip tea (or beer) and devour juicy dumplings in this second-floor enclave while listening to the chirp of live music being performed. — Janet Gyenes

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