Shanghai is a sprawling urban landscape. Skyscrapers dominate the horizon in all directions all the way out from the city center to the suburbs, where office buildings give way to high-rise apartments.
In the midst of all this modernity lie a few remnants of Shanghai’s past. Areas like the Bund and the French Concession, and treasures like Jing An Temple and the Yu Yuan gardens remind visitors of China’s colonial past and the older days of the emperors. It is the ying and yan, the heaviness and lightness of traditional Chinese architecture, reflected in the old and new of Shanghai that makes it such an interesting place to visit.
My first experience with this was with Jing An temple. All around the temple are tall office buildings, next door is a giant shopping mall. But within the temple walls, the noise and craziness of the city seem to melt away. Worshipers light incense and go through their devotions, there is a stillness found only in churches, temples and the like, free of the distractions of city life.
Yu Yuan gardens is another great example of the old in the midst of all of the new. Surrounding the actual gardens are shops and restaurants in buildings whose architecture is more classically Chinese, similar to Chinatown in New York City.
Stepping inside the gardens is like going back in time. Rock outcroppings left in their natural form, koi ponds, and winding paths through whitewashed walls surround the dozens of pagodas within the garden. The doorways through the walls are shaped like vases because in Chinese, the word for vase and the word for peace are homophones.
In the more recent past, Shanghai’s colonial architecture reflected its European occupiers. Though a good amount of those buildings were and replaced with modern high rises, certain areas have been preserved. The Bund is one such neighborhood, on the Huangpu River, which divides Shanghai. The buildings are stone, with arched windows, cornices and columns, reflecting the style of their British and French builders.
Another neighborhood is the French Concession, a hybrid residential and commercial area. We found a walking tour that highlights some of this architecture in the homes, museums, and shops in the area. While we cut our walk short because of the bitter cold, we saw Romeo’s balcony, a building designed by a famed Hungarian architect, and the home of Soong Ching-Ling. It was a departure from the big city, like a trip to a small hamlet, but without ever leaving Shanghai.
Only one thing could dampen the beauty of all of the city’s treasures. Smog. Some days it’s visible as a hazy horizon, other days it clouds the sky making it completely overcast. But that is the balance of this giant metropolis, the yin with the yang. With such a huge population in one place, smog is an inevitability without proper environmental policies put in place.
Despite the smog, Shanghai exhibits a traditional balance in a modern context. All you have to do is look for it.