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The spec­tac­u­lar view across the Huang­pu River from the Bund to the ever-rising sky­scrapers in Pud­ong is trans­formed by neon and LCD every night.

I have quipped over the years that vis­it­ing Singa­pore is like exper­i­en­cing Asia-Lite. The most orderly city in South­east Asia feels, well, a bit too safe – the vibrancy and drama ooz­ing from every pore in many cit­ies in the region sponged up and trans­planted by clean streets and an excel­lent stand­ard of liv­ing. All com­pletely com­mend­able, but a little bor­ing nevertheless.

Find­ing that bal­ance between may­hem and order, authen­ti­city and com­fort is fraught with ten­sion in rap­idly mod­ern­ising cit­ies that still have one eye on a tour­ist trade. As a trav­el­ler, it is easy to for­get that world cit­ies such as these are not moul­ded with tour­ists at their centre – there are now more dol­lars in man­u­fac­tur­ing and fin­an­cial ser­vices. No city embod­ies this ten­sion bet­ter than Shang­hai, the entirely cap­it­al­ist­ic com­mun­ist met­ro­pol­is that offers much more than it prom­ises at first glance.

As Shang­hai is one of their main gate­ways to Europe and the rest of Asia, our nation­al air­line has spent pre­cious dol­lars pro­mot­ing China’s com­mer­cial cap­it­al as a tour­ist des­tin­a­tion. Because of this, I trav­elled as their guest, bumped up for my first busi­ness class exper­i­ence in over 200 sched­uled flights (your own budget not­with­stand­ing, the upgrade on Air New Zea­l­and is a worth­while investment).


As is often the case, the arrival was illu­min­at­ing. Fol­low­ing ser­i­ous infra­struc­ture invest­ment, Shang­hai is now a breeze to nav­ig­ate: a pro­gramme to replace every single street sign with a bilin­gual one ahead of the Shang­hai World Expo 2010 under­lines this com­mit­ment to inter­na­tion­al visitors.

Although pub­lic trans­port options, includ­ing the rap­idly expand­ing metro sys­tem and the squad­rons of cheap tax­is, are plen­ti­ful and excel­lent, most of my travels around the city were by bicycle. At first, streets where red lights seem option­al and silent elec­tric scoot­ers provide a con­stant threat require care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, but once one becomes accus­tomed to the loc­al lack of rules, the flat, spa­cious streets are a total joy to ride. In par­tic­u­lar, the leafy French Quarter, with its dusty colo­ni­al build­ings and hid­den art deco gems can be hap­pily criss-crossed for hours: the sights, smells and sounds are intoxicating.

Shanghai-8       Shang­hai is not a budget loc­a­tion any more. Prices for accom­mod­a­tion are more expens­ive than in many oth­er Asi­an cit­ies and shop­ping is ubi­quit­ous but at glob­al prices. Food and trans­port are the big excep­tions. Whilst you can pay big bucks for any vari­ety of glob­al cuisine, loc­al res­taur­ants without bilin­gual menus offer loc­al del­ic­acies for only a couple of dol­lars. And the crois­sants in Shang­hai are the best I have had any­where out­side France. This truly is a world city in every sense.

Don’t wait too long to vis­it though: one of the last large cent­ral areas of hutongs, the tra­di­tion­al neigh­bour­hoods that used to dom­in­ate the built envir­on­ment, was being torn down dur­ing my vis­it, no doubt replaced by anoth­er tower­ing apartment/shopping devel­op­ment. Land in this city is too valu­able to leave with the people and, although gov­ern­ment guar­an­tees new accom­mod­a­tion for res­id­ents, it is usu­ally far from the centre of the city.

The very fact that this incred­ible city can offer incred­ible new sights and exper­i­ences and feel like a home in only sev­en days was a rev­el­a­tion. The con­clu­sion would have seemed improb­able on the out­ward leg: Shang­hai is now the per­fect ‘gate­way’ city for those want­ing an intro­duc­tion to Asia. There is still enough rough in the dia­mond to allow for a sense of explor­a­tion, but without any of the risks usu­ally asso­ci­ated. Asia-Lite can be a com­pli­ment then. Sorry, Singapore.



Top 10 things to try in Shanghai


  1. Cycling the city

Get on your bike for as little as $6 a day. Shang­hai has world-class cyc­ling pro­vi­sions that will be a rev­el­a­tion to Wel­ling­to­ni­ans. It takes only a wee while to get used to the rules: remem­ber that red doesn’t always mean red. Lights and hel­mets are optional!

  1. Soup dumplings

Although they aren’t the very best xiao­long­bao, the soup dump­lings served at Shang­hai insti­tu­tion Yang’s are excel­lent non­ethe­less. There are sev­er­al branches of the res­taur­ant – just look for the pink signs.

  1. World Expo site

Whilst there are a few cur­rent attrac­tions still oper­at­ing on the Expo sites such as the Power Sta­tion of Art on the north bank and China Art Palace on the sprawl­ing south bank site, the vacant crum­bling nation­al pavil­ions are the most fas­cin­at­ing to explore.

  1. French Concession

Shanghai’s most fam­ous neigh­bour­hood, this leafy quarter is worth a full day of wan­der­ing on its own. Great bars, shops and res­taur­ants also abound.

  1. Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

This fant­ast­ic museum has four floors of exhib­i­tions on Shanghai’s past, present and future. Its centrepiece is a scale mod­el of the whole city that is as big as a sports field. A must-see.

  1. Park life

Choose any one of Shanghai’s urb­an parks and vis­it at dif­fer­ent times of the day. You will find group activ­it­ies of all kinds: pre­pare to expect the unexpected.

  1. Local restaurants

Just because it isn’t in the guide­book doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. My best meals were in loc­al res­taur­ants close to my accommodation.

  1. Ferry across the river

For­get the tour­ist boats: loc­al fer­ries weave their way across the river at sev­er­al loc­a­tions. All provide amaz­ing views and all cost less than $1 for a return trip.

  1. Maglev Train

This tech­no­lo­gic­al won­der doesn’t con­nect to the centre of the city yet, but as part of the city arrival or depar­ture pro­cess it is still worth exper­i­en­cing speeds of over 400km/h. Do check the timetable, though, as top speeds vary through­out the day.

  1. The neighbourhood

The best exper­i­ences are often under your nose. Don’t head straight to hon­ey­pot sites – wander down the alley­ways and smal­ler roads instead to unlock a little of Shanghai’s swiftly dis­ap­pear­ing com­mun­al life.

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Best web: has lots of info for expats and tour­ists alike.

Best magazine: Time Out Shang­hai (free) is crammed full of tips and listings.

Best map: Although wi-fi is easy to find in Shang­hai, you will need a street map just in case. Also check out The Art Map, which will help you nav­ig­ate the many inde­pend­ent gal­ler­ies in the city.

Best pre-arrival tip: For those addicted to social media such as Face­book or Twit­ter, either pre­pare for a detox or research a VPN pri­or to leav­ing New Zealand.

Best pack­ing advice: Shang­hai is sur­pris­ingly sea­son­al, so plan your ward­robe accord­ingly. As with many Asi­an cit­ies, spring and autumn are the best times to visit.

Air New Zea­l­and oper­ates daily dir­ect ser­vices to Shang­hai from Auck­land. One-way eco­nomy class air­fares start from $879 per adult includ­ing taxes. For fur­ther inform­a­tion on Air New Zea­l­and ser­vices to Shang­hai, vis­it[/warning]

Richard Aindow

Richard spent four years managing and editing this publication before heading to the other end of Cuba Street in January 2014. Now general manager of New Zealand's longest running contemporary dance company, Footnote New Zealand Dance, he is passionate leader of arts in the capital and is actively engaged as a movie reviewer and cultural critic on air and in print. He loves nothing better than talking to people through a microphone.

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