Gobsmacked by a Shanghai surprise

16:00, Feb 12 2013
RIVERSCAPE: Shanghai's skyline is among the world's oldest, newest and most futuristic.

It's 6am in Shanghai and I’ve stumbled upon what appears to be an audition for the Throat-Clearing X-Factor. All around me men and women, some wearing pyjamas, are hoicking up phlegm. Within minutes,

I’ve become adept at dodging spit-balls.

As the days roll on, I learn to make peace with it but in my jet-lagged, over-caffeinated state, I find it so absurdly amusing it’s impossible not to laugh like a loon.

WRITE STUFF: A street calligrapher works, oblivious to the lounging pyjama-clad observers.

Not that the locals care what I think: in this tangle of alleyways within spitting distance of the Huangpu River, they operate a well-practised schedule of setting up food carts, snipping the feet off freshly-butchered chickens and frying various foodstuffs in hot oil. Had I swerved a little to the right, I would have found myself in the eye of an urban storm, surrounded by canyons of high-tech skyscrapers and more cranes than any place has a right to.

Shanghai os a city of contradictions where 23 million inhabitants are increasingly shoe-horned between the old and the new.

Up until the mid-1800s, Shanghai was a sleepy fishing village (the name Shanghai means ‘‘on the sea’’) but things changed when the British India Company chose it as the gateway for thousands of tons of opium. By the 1930s, there were around 1500 opium dens and the city’s roll-call of gangsters, drug runners and prostitutes earned it the less than flattering title Whore of the Orient.


Those who come in search of this Shanghai will be disappointed; progress has its price and here it is the arrival of so many steel and glass towers.  I’m surprised they haven’t declared a Chinese Year of the Skyscraper.

We get our first taste of this relentlessly fast-forward city on the trip from the airport. The Maglev (short for magnetic levitation) is the world’s fastest operating train and with a top speed of 431 kilometres an hour, it takes only seven minutes to get from Pudong Airport to the city centre.

The train is propelled by giant electromagnets and the journey is so fast my first glimpse of Shanghai is a blurred one. And yes, I was one of the geeks who took a photo of the speedometer at the front of the carriage when we hit top speed.

We get another opportunity to drop our jaws at the Bund, the famous strip that cosies up to the Huangpu River. Here, stately old buildings were built in the 1920S by the British to house foreign banks and HQs but these days, names such as Louis Vuitton and Prada dangle from windows and top floors have been turned into posh bars and restaurants where the breath-taking views are matched by the wallet-sapping prices. We drink watermelon daquiris and marvel at Pudong’s neon skyline: this is what happens when Manhattan piles into paddy fields and wasteland.

One of the most gob-smacking buildings is the World Financial Centre, a sleek black high-rise that looks like a giant, futuristic bottle opener. I find myself trying, and failing, not to make juvenile phallic jokes about the Oriental Pearl Tower, a structure that defines the Shanghai cityscape. Its claim to represent ‘‘twin dragons playing with pearls’’ escapes me but on a good day, when the smog is off bothering some other place, the 350m-high viewing platform provides amazing views.

The most interesting way to get to Pudong is via the Bund Tourist Tunnel which sweeps under the river and appears to have been designed by a small child with attention deficit disorder. It’s the polar opposite of the Maglev train and trundles along at a snail’s pace, all the better for passengers to view the dancing hologram display that’s surreal and hilarious in equal measure.

They say a good way to scratch the surface of Shanghai is to consume – to shop and eat – and this is a city that provides ample opportunity to do both.

We throw cash at Fengshine Plaza, near People’s Square, three storeys of shopping heaven where fake items rub coat-hangers with samples and seconds. And where premier-division bargaining will land you everything from cheap North Face jackets and Hunter gumboots to Gucci handbags and Converse sneakers. My wallet gets lighter still at the Yatai Xinyang Fashion Market, next to the Science and Technology subway station, where I wonder if it’s just a rumour that designer Giorgio Armani visited this market and was so impressed with the quality he bought two of his own ‘‘designs’’. Nothing would surprise me in this city.

As a semi-vegetarian, I worry there will be little I can eat, but that’s not the case. It’s true that the locals are cheerleaders for ‘‘nose-to-tail’’ eating, and think nothing of be-heading a chook or dismembering a pig in front of you. Fortunately, my hotel gives me a sign that reads ‘‘I eat fish but not meat’’ and I manage not to starve. Or loose any weight, dammit, but that could down to the discovery of sweet egg tarts, delectable but highly calorific concoctions of pastry and egg custard that are so addictive I would return to Shanghai for them tomorrow.

Well that and the shopping, the architecture and yes, even the spitting.

Sharon Stephenson travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.

Getting there:

Air NZ flies direct to Shanghai five times weekly with economy fares starting from $1662 return including taxes. For more information and to book visit airnewzealand.co.nz.

The Dominion Post