Hidden Shanghai Stories: Cities in their essence are the interweaving of aspirations, dreams, and memories. Its buildings, its parks, its statues, etc., are memorials of it’s past and present efforts. As such, cities are more than just a population of people but are in fact the stories of its people engraved into the landscape itself.
Mass tourism, in this aspect, misses the essence of traveling and offers nothing more than a superficial visit of top tourist sites. Shanghai Summer School was made with a different vision in mind – one of the main aims of the school we like to call The School of Life is to present the grand city of Shanghai from a unique perspective.
The program of Shanghai Summer School was designed in a way that slowly reveals the real Shanghai as the days progress. The places and experiences we think embody the soul of Shanghai are also the ones that will make Shanghai Summer School experience like no other. Here, we share some of our favorites.
The Back Alleys of the Bund
While the Bund being the tourist favorite, takes most of the attention, the alleys surrounding the bund are where you should be. As if resisting Shanghai’s rapid development, these alleys bustle with life like in the old times, with food vendors offering you tiao (fried dough sticks) with sweetened soy milk in the mornings and fried dumplings called Sheng Jian Man Tou in the afternoons. Together with its traditional Shi Ku Men-styled Chinese-European fusion architecture, the smells, tastes and sights will transport you back to Shanghai 100 years ago.
One of the must-sees is the Book and Artist Street on Fuzhou Road, where you will find the biggest and most extensive book selection and art supplies in the city. For the bookworms, the Book City store is an attraction on its own. Our personal favorite is a slightly dated mall that has been occupied by board games enthusiasts and trading card gamers. It is fascinating how different subcultures have blossomed here. Day or night, a walk through these alleys will reveal important parts of the Shanghai heart.
The Old City
Speaking of heart, a walk down south from the Bund’s back alleys will take you to a circular road built around the center of medieval Shanghai. As part of attempts to immortalize the old city into Shanghai’s modern cityscape, urban developers constructed this road on the exact spot where the old city wall once stood. While parts of the old city have been restored and made mainstream (you might have heard of Yuyuan Garden), the other parts remain a quiet testament to the city’s history. Distinct quaint dwellings house an intriguing community that makes you feel like time hasn’t passed there for a while.
Small shops in the old city serve as communal living rooms in the day time, and as bedrooms at night. Most of these households don’t own a bathroom but instead share a public one. And with space being limited, kitchens normally spill out onto the streets. Although personal space is something that doesn’t really exist, the whole community functions as one big bonded family. Because of that, visiting the old city sometimes feels a little like intruding on a private family event. Not that the residents mind though. The Chinese residents are very welcoming and friendly. Who knows, they might even invite you in for a cup of tea or ten.
While it isn’t the centre of Shanghai’s booming economy today, the old city embodies the ways of the past and definitely adds to the city’s character. The team behind Shanghai Summer School are what you’d refer to as “millennials”, but we are aware of the importance of honoring the past of the city we now call our second home.
Jing’an Temple and Nanjing West Road
From the past to modern times, in many instances, the Chinese and the expatriate community have coexisted in two realities. It has been like this since the first foreigner set foot on Shanghai soil and has remained the same till this day. There are some places though, where the local and foreign communities come together in perfect harmony.
Jing’An and Nanjing West Road are two of the best examples. With their high-rise residential, unlimited dining options, and trendy bars, these places are where cultures and languages from all over the world meld perfectly together. With bars with names like Revolucion Cocktail and Cartel, it’s not hard to realize.
Modern as they are, these areas are not devoid of ties to the past. Historic and grand entertainment venues like the famous Paramount give this part of the city its distinctive old-world look and feel. Paramount was the biggest and grandest night club of the 1930s, and the private residence of the famous Hungarian-Slovak architect László Ede Hudec, the man behind the aforementioned Shi Ku Men-styled architecture.
The Huangpu Riverbank
Rivers have been the centre of city life from the beginning of human civilization and Shanghai’s Huangpu river is no different. It gave the city an ocean access and it enabled the core role of Shanghai in China’s relationship with the world. In recent years the river, while retaining its prominent transport function, acquired a new role. The riverbank reconstruction was the centre of Shanghai’s revival.
For years, money was the single most important thing in many people’s lives. But when the economy prospered, quality of life stepped into the spotlight. Parks were erected alongside the river, forming a green belt that was perfect for putting the worries of the day to rest. Of those, the Houtan and Expo parks (which are connected) are our favorites.
The reconstructed area forms a thin belt of little ponds and greenery bordering the river bank. The quiet parks offer views of the city and allow you to watch as neon city lights take the place of the sunlit cityscape as day turns into night. Find yourself a spot near the river and take in the city from the opposite side. If you do end up there, you might find us sitting a couple of meters from you doing the exact same.
Another spot on the riverbank that we love is in the formerly industrial districts of Hongkou and Yangpu. These districts have succeeded in integrating historically important factory areas into sites for urban exploration. The former heavy industry sites that gave work to the local population during the rise of the new China have now come full circle to “serve” the very same people as they go there to unwind. The area is now a jogging and walking promenade that stretches from the International Cruise Ship Terminal all the way to the Yangpu bridge.
A Touch of French Sophistication
With the Shanghai Summer School’s campus being just north of the former French Concession, this area and its hidden gems are extra special to us. This part of the city was once occupied by the French, which is apparent in its interlace of mini boulevards, Champs-Élysées styled tree-lined streets, and countless private courtyards hiding perfectly manicured gardens.
Abandoned and forgotten until a few years ago, many of the buildings in the French Concession have been renewed into numerous boutique coffee shops, cocktail bars and private ateliers amongst many others. This is Shanghai’s best take on restoration. Each and every house was given its own attention to ensure that the rich history stays as intact as possible. If you are a bohemian soul, this is the place to be. In the Chinese summer heat that sometimes feels too much to bear, cooler summer evenings are our favorite part of the day. We recommend exploring this flourishing Paris-like district on a night cycling tour where you can stop wherever you want, whenever you want.
The Bigger Picture
As with every puzzle, a single piece can make all the difference to the bigger picture. Shanghai is a puzzle made up of 25-million pieces – every single one of its inhabitants contributes to the Shanghai we know and see. During their time there, Shanghai Summer School participants will also become a part of Shanghai’s story and will leave footprints behind in their own little ways. And conversely, the experiences gained in Shanghai will make up building blocks in the lives of Shanghai Summer School participants – remembered fondly, though occasionally forgotten as life rushes on by, but always there.
Shanghai Summer School provides you with an experience that you can build upon throughout life, through learning a new language, discovering a new culture and people. A stay in the exceptional Chinese metropolis allows an individual to adopt a new perspective, which says, that values are relative and that something is not necessarily right or wrong, but instead one way or the other. Acquired knowledge of Chinese language and cultural specific is a solid foundation for further studies or a broad selection of knowledge in a promising business career.