Home to one of the world’s most dramatic skylines, Shanghai is a 21st-century boomtown, a glittering, nonstop celebration of economic success. Yet there are hidden pockets of the city’s former life here, made all the more precious by the neon glare around them.
Author Gabrielle Jaffe Photography Chris Sorensen
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SAYS THAT SHANGHAI was little more than a sleepy fishing village before the British, French and Americans set up shop here after the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. Actually, it was already a bustling port with a population of several hundred thousand. Although not much evidence of this period remains, you can still catch glimpses of a traditional way of life: locals praying at temples, playing mah-jongg and practicing tai chi in parks.
Shanghai’s transition to the megalopolis that we know today began in the 1880s. It was the first Chinese city to have electricity and telephones. By the 1930s, as the rest of the world sank into economic depression, Shanghai was a thriving hub with more than 3 million people. It boasted some of the era’s classiest hotels (many of which still stand in the Bund and French Concession areas) and buzzed with jazz, girls and gangsters.
Mark Twain’s observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” certainly applies to Shanghai. Following the isolationism of the Mao years, Shanghai has once again led China’s efforts to open itself to the world. Economic ambition is etched on its skyline, its rocket-ship buildings and its towering electronic billboards, while its population is swelled by foreign transplants drawn to its bottomless reserves of energy, audacity and cash.
Other Chinese cities may more obvious choices for exploring the past, but if you want to get a glimpse of the future, Shanghai is the place to be.