October on the tail of a typhoon, one that incapacitated Hong Kong even as it drenched my visit in an incessant downpour of precipitation. I left three days later, soaked by torrential rains but amazed at the treasures located in the most westernized city in China. You might say that Shanghai surprised me, despite the weather.
The shady term "shanghai" is a western term often associated with indentured sailors. It dates from about 1850 to 1920, when young men were targeted and plastered with liquor and opium only to be shanghaied into duty on the many under-staffed merchant ships that plied the open seas. Because of the booming Asian trade, most ships on the West Coast eventually went to Shanghai.
Today, Shanghai is a modern city of just over 24 million people (largest in China and the most populous city proper in the world). With a blend of both east and west, modern and tradition, the city is a juxtaposition of opposites. From the ultra-modern skyscraper view as seen from the Bund to the traditional Yuyuan Garden, a famous classical garden, the city is full of surprises at every turn.
Here are seven Shanghai surprises that are a "must do" no matter what the weather.
1. Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
Most people don't know that during the 1930s the Germans aggressively encouraged German and Austrian Jews to emigrate. Unfortunately, the world closed its borders except for Shanghai and Dominican Republic. The Japanese occupied Shanghai shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, imposing severe restrictions on Jews and forcing them to live in a section that came to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto. By 1956, almost all Shanghai Jews had emigrated because of civil war and then the Communist takeover.
The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum commemorates the 20,000 Jewish refugees who lived in the Japanese-occupied Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees during the Second World War. It is located where the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue once was — the primary place of worship for the Jewish refugees. Documents, personal items, photographs and films attempt to share the horrors these people suffered.
2. The Bund
One of the most attractive cityscapes is along the curve of The Bund promenade, where panoramic views of skyscrapers dominate the horizon. Not only do photographers flock here, but it seems like the whole city does, too.
From here you can see 26 different buildings, all constructed in various architectural styles including Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classicism, and the Renaissance. With this montage of Western-inspired international styles, the skyline is one of a kind in the world.
3. Oriental Pearl TV Tower
The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is said to look like "twin dragons playing with pearls." Standing at 468 metres high, it is China's second tallest TV and radio tower while ranking as the sixth tallest in the world.
Try the endless evening buffet at the top of the tower for a commanding bird's-eye view of the city below. (Food choices completely wrap around the tower on a rotating platform). Be forewarned that you are up so high you might find yourself amid low-lying clouds.
4. ERA Acrobatic Show
Take time to see probably the best show in Shanghai — the ERA Acrobatic Show at Shanghai Circus World. It's basically the Chinese version of Cirque du Soleil, with the right mix of Chinese culture, martial arts, motorcycles, balancing acts, and captivating special effects. A family-friendly show suitable for everyone.
5. Yuyuan Garden and Bazaar
A classical garden filled with rockeries, ponds, and cloisters, the Yuyuan Garden was completed by a Ming Dynasty government officer in 1577. Since then it has undergone many changes. Today, it is a popular place for strolling with a nearby bazaar that offers sundry items for sale. Be sure to bargain.
Nearby is Shanghai's most famous dumpling restaurant Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant. Must have's include the Shanghai soup dim sum or soup-in-a-bun. For those who may be perplexed, the soup-in-a-bun comes with a straw for sipping.
6. French Concession
One of my favourite areas of the city is the former French Concession, where French architecture and villa-lined streets rule the day. Take time out from your day at one of the outdoor-seating cafes to people watch while sipping a beer or wine. The area is like a Western enclave with Asian surroundings.
7. Shanghai Museum
A visit to the Shanghai Museum in People's Square is an immersion in Chinese culture, art, and antiquities. With over one million pieces in its collection, the museum spans 21 categories to include bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, painting, jade and ivory works, bamboo and lacquer wares, oracle bones, seals, coins, and ethnic minority collections. Expect to find an excellent representation of ceramic pieces from the Qing dynasty. With a square base and an attached round top with arches, the building itself is an architectural curiosity that symbolically reflects heaven and Earth.