Shanghai was my first trip to Asia and the spark that ignited my love affair and fascination with Asia that was to send me across the world indefinitely.
In 2011 I got my first taste for the East when I visited Shanghai on a study trip that would show me a different side to this buzzing, rapidly urbanizing city and fuel a desire to discover more of the world.
Shanghai was my first trip outside of Europe and America and a real eye opener. For the first time I experienced total culture shock, the delicious buzz of the unknown, of sights, sounds and smells that were totally alien to me.
The challenges, thrills and surprises that occur when everything is so completely different and you have no hope of deciphering anything you read or hear and so end up eating deep fried chicken feet for breakfast!
At a time when most of the western world is in recession I gazed with amazement at the incredible, ultra futuristic view across the Bund to Pudong as the illuminated skyscrapers flashed in every colour of the rainbow almost convincing me that I was on a sci fi movie set.
The pace of economic growth in Shanghai is nothing short of astonishing; 20 years ago the now illuminated skyscrapers of Pudong was just marshland! China has the largest population and is set to soon be the world’s largest economy. As China advances with incredible speed so does the skyline as the shiny skyscrapers dare to go higher and higher with each new building built in record time.
The economic success story and the Shanghai skyline seem to offer a view of a utopian urban future but walk just a few blocks away and there is an all together different side of Shanghai.
The Lilongs of Shanghai
Lilongs – old, shabby, dirty, haphazard houses are clustered round narrow lanes, a maze of hazardous electrical wiring sprawls uncontrollably across the rooftops and entangles itself in the gnarly, spidery branches of bare trees.
The houses are usually 1 or 2 room dwellings with the 1st floor made precariously out of a variety of materials balanced above the ground floor with washing hanging out on any stick, wire or surface possible.
Weathered and stooping old men and women sit out on the street, children play, women earn a living on ancient sewing machines on the road side. Vegetables are sold off rickety hand pulled carts, live fish are displayed in shallow trays of water on the dirty roadside and old men ride around collecting scrap in rusty bicycle pulled carts.
Bland new apartment blocks and the spookily empty, ironically named ‘Joy City’ mall tower all around over these clusters of Lilong communities.
The changing face of Shanghai
On first glance the conditions, in contrast to beautiful futuristic Shanghai, take me aback. But as I spend more time wandering around these neighbourhoods I enjoy the humble feel of life, community and enterprise. It upsets me to hear about the demolition and clearance ordered by smart men up in tall, shiny towers. Vast areas of Chinese cities are being demolished to build modern apartments and luxury shopping malls.
Yes, I know it’s progress and The World Bank states that China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty in the last 3 decades but I grew fond of this community feel.
This type of rapid urbanisation in a undemocratic system is displacing the families, communities and businesses that have been here for decades and are now outpriced from the city and cut off from their communities, their homes and future opportunities.
As the success of Shanghai grows, more and more economic migrants flock to the cities with the hope of making their fortunes but end up living in slums or crowded and unsuitable housing. I’m not even going to start on the environmental effects.
My bet is that now, two years later, those communities of traditional Shanghai are no longer there and I can’t imagine how the spirit of community and enterprise could be replicated in a modern tower block.
Most of my visit was spent studying and although this made me scratch deeper below the surface of Shanghai I regret that I did not have time to do many touristy things. But before I left, as I was looking down on the neon lit city from the dizzy heights of the Shanghai Financial Tower, I knew it would draw me back one day.
The start of a love affair with Asia
My first visit to Asia, to Shanghai, really opened my eyes. Shanghai showed me that there was a huge world out there that I just had to explore, so diverse, so much to discover, so many issues and contradictions, but that joy can be found where you might not expect it.
Upon my return, England seemed so quiet and antiquated. Life felt dull without the constant surprises and rewards that culture shock brings. I felt like I had seen the future and while maybe some things troubled me, I was captivated by China, and by Asia, and just knew I would be back to discover more.
Something inside me started on that trip – the travel bug – an insatiable curiosity, the buzz of the unknown, and a desire to discover the rest of the world which has lead me across Asia for 18 months now and shows no sign of relenting.
“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life” Michael Palin