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Shanghai: profile

Bold and brash Shanghai is where the faded glory of China’s treaty port history and its visions for a warp-speed future meld into one

Shanghai’s sixth sense – its intangible quality – is the energy that the Shanghainese call re nao – a superheated buzz that keeps the city on a perpetual simmer. The term was coined for lively Old Shanghai, the Paris of the East, but modern Shanghai’s re nao far surpasses anything that has come before.

Shanghai: city of the future

Shanghai surprises – or shocks – on first contact, with images that could only have come from the pages of a sci-fi novel. Walk out of gleaming Pudong Airport and the world’s fastest train harnesses electromagnetic levitation technology to whisk you to downtown Pudong in eight minutes flat. The same 30km (19-mile) journey by car would take you an interminable 45 minutes. In the city, neon-glowing elevated highways seem to fly through the air, and the rocket-like Oriental Pearl Tower pierces the sky against the canyon of skyscrapers framing Lujiazui district in Pudong.

At ground level, the city has been re-landscaped and renovated into a sophisticated metropolis. Entire swathes of land have been reinvented – tenements have been turned into parkland, luxury apartments and intelligent office buildings – and roads have been transformed into superhighways. Shanghai leads, and the nation follows: from gourmet coffee to yoga, and contemporary Chinese art to international celebrity chefs, Shanghai does it first and usually best. In this city, fusion is chic, designer is big, mobile phones are small.

Shanghai's self-confidence

The people of this city, they say, are the smartest, savviest, coolest, most progressive citizens in China. When asked how it was that Shanghai people came to be so smart, a former mayor famously replied, “It’s not that Shanghai people are smart. It’s that smart people come to Shanghai.” It is not surprising that Chinese from elsewhere consider the Shanghainese arrogant.

This self-confidence comes, perhaps, from Shanghai’s heritage. A treaty port since 1842, Old Shanghai was already Asia’s most advanced city in the 1920s, and one of the world’s most international cities. It had the tallest buildings and the most fashionable women, and its cosmopolitan citizens traversed the East and West seamlessly.

The city may dazzle with its crisp and newly minted superstructures at first blush, but there are rewards aplenty for those seeking out slivers of its rich history. Glorious Old Shanghai can still be found in the stunning neo-classical buildings along the Bund, in the architecture left behind in the old Concessions, and in the old Chinese longtang (lane) neighbourhoods.

Read more about Shanghai

Read more about Shanghai in Insight Guides: Shanghai City Guide

Insight Guides: Shanghai City Guide

Full-colour Insight City Guide Shanghai gets under the skin of this amazing metropolis with detailed essays on its history and unique culture. Our Best of Shanghai section helps you prioritise your si...

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