Shanghai in May: A Renewed Love Affair with the City

There’s been some tough news the past few days.  Devastating cyclone in Burma.  Terrible earthquake in Sichuan whose shock was felt all the way to Beijing and Thailand.  So it is with respect and a prayer for the living and dead, and for those still alive and waiting to be rescued, that I submit this optimistic report of Shanghai.


May has arrived in Shanghai, and with it the best weather this city offers.  The trees are all in full leafy array.  Birds twitter in the parks.  The skies are generally sunny, and the air is warm but not yet hot and sultry.  A cool breeze blows through the city, keeping the air as clean as a metropolis of 20 million residents could be.


On May Day I took a walk with my wife and daughter along Ju Lu Road, one of the nicer streets in the old French Concession.  We had lunch at an outdoor café called Embre (lovely little spot near Changshu Road, nice brunch), then walked over to Jing’an Park.  Folks were out in great numbers that day, enjoying the sun.  People were sunning themselves on the hillside of the park.  A group of older folks were happily singing revolutionary songs from the Mao era.  Spring had sprung.

The next day we joined our friends Paul and Stephanie and their son Nathaniel (also Sarah’s age) for a motorcycle racing event at the Formula 1 racecourse in Anting, about an hour’s drive outside the city.  The building was spectacular and the riders interesting to watch, but the event was so loud that we couldn’t stay long.  Sarah and Nathaniel spent the whole time running up and down the colorful but largely empty stands. 


We then hung out at a large local park nearby—which was also nearly empty.  Returning to the city, we quaffed down a few homebrews and wolfed down sausage and sauerkraut at Paulaner Brewhouse on Fenyang Road—a great place for the younguns, since it has a large garden off the street and a small “bouncing castle” for their amusement.


Last Friday I took my CIEE students on a tour of the French Concession.  We started at the Garden Hotel, where I showed them the old French Club ballroom with its fancy ceiling light.  We then headed over to the Ruijin Guesthouse, formerly the Morriss Estate.  Harry Morriss owned the North China Daily News, China’s biggest English-language paper in the 1920s-40s.  We checked out the stained glass windows in Building 3 and the grillwork and study in Building 1, using an article written by Tina Kanagaratnam as a guide.  Afterwards we bussed it over to Tianzifang where I showed them the studios of Chen Yifei and Er Dongqiang, who started up this creative arts park in the late ‘90s.  We had lunch at the Kommune.  The students were all impressed with TZF.  I plan to repeat this tour with my NYU students next Friday.  

On Saturday we filmed the second installment of the local TV series that I’m now a part of.  The first was on Tianzifang.  The second focused on the arts district called Red Town (hong fang).  Located on Huaihai Road near Kaixuan Road, this former factory district reminds me a bit of 798 in Beijing, but smaller and more modern.  The main factory is a steel plant built in 1958, now housing a sculpture gallery.  It’s also used on occasion for nightlife performance events.  There are several other galleries, among which I recommend Red Bridge (hong qiao) located across the lawn from the main factory.  The sculptures that grace the lawn are pretty wacky.  Nothing outstanding here, but definitely worth going for a visit or two.  And judging from all the building, it’s gearing up to be a much more exciting spot in the future.


On Mother’s Day last Sunday, we took my wife’s mother to the brunch at the Westin Hotel.  The place was full of Europeans and Americans, and lots of kids running around.  They also gave some performances, including acrobatics, a pair of swing dancers (who did more Latin-style than swing) and a bianlian or mask-changing performance, which scared Sarah and probably some of the other smaller kids.  Impressive brunch, definitely a cut above.  We then walked over to the Yu Garden, where Mency’s mother took a tired Sarah home.  We did a bit of shopping and then headed over to Huaihai and Maoming to catch a showing of the film Ironman with our friend and comic-fiend Jud at the Cathay Cinema.


Shanghai’s such a great walking and cycling town.  I can walk for hours from one part of the city to another.  There are so many distinct neighborhoods with their own character and charm.  I’m sure you’ll hear many people who live in this town say the same thing.  

Overall I think we’ve gotten through the worst of our transition period.  The winter months were rough, and we had numerous dreams of sun, green, and surf and all the friends we left in Sydney.  But things are on the up and up.  I’m probably speaking too soon, because the summer promises to be a scorcher.  Sure, the weather might not be as nice as Sydney.  The parks might not be as large or green.  But at least in this part of the world, you feel you’ve earned your spring.