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Shanghai: A City of Contrasts


By James Shillinglaw

TravelpulseSo there I was in my room on the 82nd floor of the 174-room Park Hyatt Shanghai, the tallest hotel in the world (or so I’m told), overlooking the Huangpao River and the city of Shanghai far below. I was sitting in a comfortable desk chair behind a large desk gazing out a picture window at the magnificent view far below. What a great home office this would be!

The room was sleek, modern and well-equipped with the latest technology (bedside controls for lighting, shades and TV). It had an ultra-stylish bathroom with a rain shower and fast-fill oversized tub, as well as a separate WC with one of those fully automated Japanese toilets. As I gazed out the window again, I found myself surrounded by the skyscrapers of the Pudong district of a very modern, even futuristic Shanghai.

A few hours later, however, I found myself touring the famous Bund, the former European district of beaux arts and art deco banks, hotelsand corporate headquarters along the river that once upon a time (mid-20th century) was considered the most modern city in the world. Just an hour or so later, I was in a traditional Shanghai alleyway, a maze of small, traditional buildings, each housing up to 25 families. This was “old” Shanghai – and it’s a part of the city that’s disappearing rapidly in favor of high-rise apartments and corporate buildings.

As those of you who may have been reading this space over the past few weeks know, I visited Shanghai as part of a 10-day travel agent fam trip organized by Imperial Tours. We stopped in Beijing, Xian and Guilin, before ending our journey with three days in Shanghai. On this last part of our trip, we toured the city with our local guide Patrick, an American expatriate who has lived in Shanghai for a number of years. He also is an expert in the history and architecture of the city.

With Patrick’s help, we explored the various neighborhoods of Shanghai, still divided into the “concessions” granted to the Britain, France, the U.S. and other European powers late in the 19th century. We toured the French concession, with its tree-lined streets and ornate houses and buildings that seem a bit more like Paris than Shanghai. We visited the Shanghai Museum of Arts & Crafts, housed in a former mansion once owned by a rich French businessman.

We also toured the famous old quarters of Shanghai, the alleyways that I referred to above. Most of the city was once just two stories high (quite a contrast from the 90-story-plus buildings today). We walked down a narrow “lane” of a traditional neighborhood, where many older Shanghai residents still prefer to live since they enjoy the community of the place. It had cramped housing, a small clinic, a Communist party meeting hall and a few stores. We then had lunch at Ye Shanghai, which offered the traditional cuisine of the city.

After lunch we were joined by a new local guide, Lilly (also known as Hurricane Lilly for her irrepressible energy and directness). We found ourselves in a low-rise shopping mall area, which included a Starbucks (one of 72 in the city). We had a few minutes to shop, but I chose to go with Lilly for a tour of a nearby museum where the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party was held on July 21, 1921.

The museum housed exhibits about the history of the party and its struggle against the Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces and then the Japanese (a lot of propaganda here, of course). There was also a wax figure relief depicting the leaders of that first meeting, dominated by Mao himself. But as Lilly noted, at the time Mao would have been a fairly minor figure in the party and scarcely someone the rest would have looked up to. History is certainly written by the victors. But I had to think, here was the site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party only a few steps away from a Starbucks.

We then proceeded to experience more shopping in Shanghai, visiting a store called Lilly’s Shanghai (no relation to our guide), housed on the first floor of a somewhat nondescript office building. It offered some very good merchandise, including designer jade and pearl jewelry, scarfs and silk. We visited another store called Spin, a two-story emporium specializing in very modern (and very affordable) ceramics (plates, cups, tea service sets, vases). I even purchased a few items, getting into the spirit of things (my traveling companions were quite the avid and experienced shoppers).

Later that evening we ate an early dinner at a restaurant on the Bund called the Whampoa Club. This top eatery offered Shanghai specialty cuisine in a very fashionable neighborhood overlooking the river. The same building (Number 3 on the Bund) housed an Evian Spa, an Armani story, and a Jean-Georges restaurant. We dined quickly because we had a very special evening planned – a night at the circus.

After a short drive, we reached Shanghai Circus World, located in a giant, permanent, white geodesic dome, where we were lucky enough (courtesy of Imperial Tours) to have ringside seats. The circus featured amazing acrobats, jugglers and aerialists – better acts than I’ve ever seen. It reminded me a bit of Cirque de Soleil performances, only better. And with our seats, the performers were quite literally in our laps or directly over our heads much of the time. One performance featured a couple who flew high above on long strips of cloth while engaged in a romantic aerial dance. But the finale was quite a bit different: Motorcyclists who raced around the interior of a giant steel globe at high speeds, up to eight at once.

James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Performance Media Group, LLC, parent of, Agent @ Home magazine, Vacation Agent magazine and Virtual Travel Events.

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