Returning to downtown Shanghai after a recent side trip, I’m quite keen to find out what this iconic city has to offer. We start the morning off in the section of town known locally as the Bund. Famous for its eclectic nineteenth century European architecture, the Bund is situated in a prime location along the city’s waterfront. It was here in the late nineteenth century where international banks and other commercial enterprises set up their East Asian headquarters. Most of the fifty-two buildings that make up the Bund are now considered both historically and culturally significant. As a result, an attempt has been made to preserve the character of this area by implementing strict height limits on all new construction projects.
Despite the sophisticated and pleasant atmosphere of this section of town, the Bund has a rather unpleasant history. I’m referencing to the fact that Chinese citizens were once not allowed to congregate here since it was officially designated as an international trading zone. This strange and unjust setup was the result of China losing the First Opium War to the British in 1842. Our tour guide explained to us that in the early 20th century one would often see signs in this area stating “No Dogs and Chinese Allowed.” Despite the near universal belief in China that these specific signs actually did exist, there is disagreement amongst historians as to whether or not they were actually posted. What is not in dispute, however, is that Chinese citizens were discriminated against in their own country by foreign powers. This appalling episode of history is one that all civilized people must learn from and hopefully prevent from ever happening again.
As I stand along the waterfront of the Bund, it is impossible for me to ignore the eye dazzling skyscrapers just across the river. Known as the Pudong, this is the area of Shanghai where today’s international banks and top commercial firms have located their headquarters. It is amazing to think that only 25 years ago this was all agricultural land. Where once farmers barely eked out a living growing and selling fruits and vegetables, it is now a place where well educated Chinese drive expensive cars and wear high end suits. The other thing about this area that really impresses me is the architectural playfulness of so many of its buildings. It’s quite rare to come across a financial district in a major international city where the majority of the buildings seem to disregard traditional skyscraper designs. This is without a doubt one of the main reasons why so many high profile architects have been drawn to Chinese cities. Where else in the world can one come up with a wild idea for a building and actually have it become reality in a relatively short amount of time?
I end this busy day by attending an evening performance at Shanghai’s world famous circus. Thrilling audiences from all over the globe with their acrobats, plate spinners, and contortionists, this is the one stop our tour guide claims to never miss. Despite having seen these routines probably hundreds of times, he says that he never ceases to be mesmerized by this spectacle. Viewing the other worldly talent before me with both amazement and wonder, I can’t help but think about the years of training it must have taken for these performers to master such impressive skills. I assume that their lives must be quite similar to many Chinese Olympic athletes who leave home at a very young age and train all day for years on end. I wonder if they are truly happy with how their lives have turned out. I suppose the answer to this question is unknowable since each and every performer/athlete would give me a slightly different answer. Despite wanting to grow up to be a professional basketball player myself, I now see the downsides to being a professional athlete and am glad I spent more time in the classroom than on the court.