Shanghai has a healthy rivalry with Beijing in the competition to be China's leading city. By population and trade it certainly wins the contest. For a country as old as China, Shanghai's importance has been precocious, it does not have the heritage of other ancient cities. As Shanghai is situated astride the Huangpu River ➚, close to Yangzi River's outflow to the sea, it is ideally situated to control the river trade into central China and quickly developed from a small Zhejiang fishing town in the 1840s (population 50,000) to be the huge metropolis it is today. It is one of the five municipal divisions of China with equal standing to provinces and considered China's most cosmopolitan city.
The Bund area of Shanghai (Zhongshan East Road) has a mix of houses of 'European' architecture of the early 20th century. There are few truly ancient sights to see in Shanghai. However, Shanghai Museum holds one of the finest collections of artifacts in the country.
The Old Chinese City is further south from the Bund and has the narrow alleys, temples and markets typical of an old Chinese town. It has the famous traditional ‘Yu Gardens’ which have been built in 1537 in Ming dynasty style. The Huxingting Teahouse stands in the middle of the gardens with its famous zig-zag bridge over a pool. The main shopping streets are north of the old city and run east-west - Nanjing Road and Huaihai Road.
The former racecourse used by colonialists has been turned into the People's Park.
A BuddhistJufo Temple ➚ (Jade Buddha) built in the traditional style is of modern date. Jing'an Temple is another fine Buddhist building. Hongkou Park is a green area hidden among all the buildings, in the grounds is the grave of the great modern writer Lu Xun. A modest hill on the north-west edge of the city, She Shan 328 feet [100 meters] high, is the site of a large Catholic church built 1925-35. Shanghai is divided by the Huangpu River, Puxi is the district to the west and Pudong to the east. The Pudong district which was formerly a bit of a slum was opened for industrial development in 1999 and has grown very rapidly; its most famous landmark is the emblematic Oriental Pearl TV Tower ➚ which offers stunning views over the whole city.
Exhibition Center Shanghai
Early development was initiated by an influx of foreign investment after the Opium Wars when Shanghai became a treaty port. It was developed at first by the British, and up until 1940 was known colloquially as ‘Britain’s front door to China’, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) founded by the Scotsman Sir Thomas Sutherland ➚ dominated early investment into China. Investors used the city's strategic position near the mouth of the Yangzi to develop the whole valley, far away from the Qing dynasty control imposed at Guangzhou and Beijing. It became China's first ‘modern’ city serving as both an example and a warning about modern urban development. At its heart were the International and French concessions - areas subject to foreign not Chinese law.
The city has always important politically, Sun Yatsen arrived at Shanghai on Christmas Eve 1911, on the foundation of the Republic of China; Shanghai was the site of the First National Congress ➚ of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. An influx of Russians fleeing Communist rule after the Russian revolution in 1917 added to the racial mix. The world famous Bund ➚ (外滩 Wài tān in Chinese) along the waterfront was established at that time. Shanghai then attracted a vibrant cosmopolitan culture and was called the ‘Paris of the East’. However most of the local Chinese had little money or influence, they provided cheap labor for the foreigners; only a few locals managed to make a good living as middlemen. It became to subject to periods of industrial unrest and rebellion. The ‘May 30th Incident’ of 1925 commemorates the death of 11 people at a demonstration over the death of a worker ➚ at a Japanese textile factory. The May 30th Movement was founded and a national strike disrupted all Chinese trade.
In 1927 the Nationalist Chiang Kaishek exterminated many of his former Communists allies in Shanghai using his connections with gang leaders by unleashing his White Terror campaign ➚. The famous Spielberg film Empire of the Sun ➚ based on the book by J.G. Ballard gives an insight into life of the foreigners in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1932. Following the Communist victory in 1949 Shanghai was pilloried as the epitome of decadent capitalism that exploited workers and it was not until the late 1990s that development really took off. This was helped by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji's association with Shanghai. The city is known colloquially as the ‘Head of the Dragon’ to reflect its leading role in China's recent economic development.
Historical buildings on Shanghai's famous Bund
Shanghai can be very hot and humid in summer; spring and autumn are the best times to visit. As well as Mandarin, the local dialect Shanghainese (a form of the Wu language) is widely spoken. The city is one of the main centers for financial services, as well as car and computer production. It is built on very low lying land and is considered one of the most vulnerable to a rise of sea level .
Modern Shanghai. Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.
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