Featured in Guardian Cities: An Urbanist’s Guide to Shanghai

A few months ago, I was approached by an editor from The Guardian which was about to launch a segment that was going to be “devoted to ideas, discussion and predictions about cities all over the planet”.

Given the breathless pace of expansion of cities, it is expected that over 70% of the global population will be living in urban areas by 2050.

That’s why we are launching the Guardian Cities site, as an open platform for critical discussion and debate about the issues facing the world’s metropolitan centres, from the future of housing and transport, to public space and infrastructure;, from the nature of planning and governance, to energy and security – along with the forces of change that can’t always be planned for.”

Guardian Cities has adopted a grassroots approach by engaging the best city bloggers across the world to voice their perspectives and ideas, which ShanghaiStreetStories was honored to be included. During my trip to London last month, I was particularly pleased to meet Mike Herd and Marta Bausells of the Cities team whose passion for their project is evident.

I’ve been featured as part of their “Blogger of the Week” series (selfie included!), wrote up an Urbanist Guide to Shanghai and made a video manifesto. Ironically, the Guardian is blocked in China so the editors have allowed me to replicate the content fully here. Enjoy!

Guardian Screenshot Urbanist View of Shanghai

Shanghai in brief

Everyone should live in Shanghai at one point in their life. There is no better city to experience the energy and complex rise of China. Shanghai has always prided itself in being very open to foreign ideas and investment, and is a leading choice for expats in China, which adds to its cosmopolitan allure. Despite its 24 million population, Shanghai’s comprehensive transportation system still allows the city to stay manageable, while its charismatic old neighbourhoods help maintain a local community lifestyle. Still, the city’s frenetic pace of skyscraper construction is unlikely to slow, and continues to feed rising housing prices that have forced many locals into distant suburbs, and compromised green public space. Like the rest of the country, Shanghai continues to grapple with water and food security, as well as pollution.

Best building

03 The Astrid

The Astrid Apartments. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

It’s hard to single one out. I’d point to The Astrid Apartments as an example of the many lovely heritage Art Deco buildings dotted around Shanghai’s former French Concession area that were built in the 1920s and 1930s at the height of the movement. Shanghai is home to a diverse collection of Art Deco architecture and has even influencedshikumen architecture – East-West hybrid row housing with Chinese courtyard style interiors – of the same period. In fact, the modern Jinmao Tower in Shanghai’s financial district skyline is a contemporary rendition of Art Deco flourish on a Chinese pagoda. Thanks to its status as Art Deco capital of Asia, Shanghai will be hosting the World Art Deco Congress in 2015.

Worst building

05 Demolition Xinping Lane

Many shikumen neighbourhoods have been demolished. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

In 2008, a group of Shanghai urban planning academics and advisers, led by the respected preservationist Professor Ruan Yisan (responsible for championing the Bund restoration), proposed to local authorities to preserve 111 historically significant shikumen neighbourhoods. Since then, a third of them have been demolished, some of which I’ve documented on my blog. Some of the flattened shikumenneighbourhoods were in fine condition, nothing that a bit of sprucing up could not fix. So it’s a bit of a shock when you see a bulldozer just ripping them through. But the worst are shikumens, no matter how historically significant or beautiful, that have become so decrepit and grimy from decades of overcrowding, heavy communal usage and minimal infrastructural investment by residents and local authorities. These buildings never stood a chance; demolition seemed inevitable because any historical value they had was diminished and the cost of preservation was deemed unworthy. And so, a generation of Shanghainese continues to lament the growing loss of their living history.

How clean is Shanghai?

06 Clean and beautiful city

A sign proclaiming Shanghai to be clean and beautiful. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

Overall, I’d say Shanghai is quite clean thanks to the sheer number of street cleaners working round the clock. Civic awareness is slowly improving with ongoing government campaigns against spitting, littering and promoting better personal hygiene. But old habits die hard: you still hear the hair-raising sound of someone clearing their throat and projectile phlegm on the sidewalk. That gets to me every time.

In terms of air quality, Shanghai had its worst pollution this past winter when the city was trapped by a thick layer of smog – you could feel the dirt particles lodged in the back of your throat. Expats started talking about moving their families out of the city; more middle class Chinese were contemplating migrating abroad. The air is back to “normal” now, which is a light haze every other week.

What’s the best way to get around?

08 Cycling in the lanes

Bikes are still ubiquitous in the city. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

Shanghai’s metro system is the best way to navigate the city as it’s fast and reliable. It is now the longest in the world with 14 metro lines, 540 kilometres in length, covering 300 stations. Fares start at three yuan (around 30p). But mind you, the crowds are positively heaving at peak hours. Daily ridership is over 8 million on average and has gone as high as 9 million. That’s like a small country on the move!

Taxis are a steal if you compare them to London or Tokyo, fares start at 14 yuan, which is the most expensive in China. Buses are an even cheaper option at one or two yuan per ride.

Bikes are still ubiquitous and a favoured mode of transportation for everyone from migrant worker to hip advertising executive. Unfortunately, you’ll have to watch out for aggressive motorists if you’re not used to driving habits in China. The unspoken rule is that pedestrians and bikes give way to cars even at a zebra crossing – which is obnoxious, not to mention dangerous.

What does Shanghai sound like?

09 Community living in public housing 1

Community living in Shanghai’s lane neighbourhoods. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

Cacophonous and comforting all at the same time. This is a city of business. At its worst, you have this ubiquitous mix of honking, heavy construction, loud individuals shouting on mobile phones or at each other, blaring commercials in the metro, on public buses and in the streets. It can be quite an assault on the senses but how is that any different from any major urban city?

But the unique (and my favourite) soundtrack of Shanghai is in the lane neighborhoods where the rest of the city melts away a little. Residents usually keep their doors or windows open when they are at home so you can hear life happening: Mahjong tiles being shuffled, the latest variety show on TV, the strains of Chinese opera on the radio or someone practicing the violin. The squeals of children and their pattering feet up and down the alleys are normal and welcome. As the sun slowly sets, you can catch pockets of chatter as neighbours catch up with the local gossip, the sound of running taps as they rinse vegetables in public sinks, and woks being fired up for dinner.

Best place for a conversation

Man in Shanghai park

An elderly man exercises in a park downtown. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

With close friends, a chat while meandering through the idyllic and leafy former French Concession area is very ideal. I’d end the day on the cozy patio of the cafe Ginger by The Park which is in the quiet part of town. I’ve also written up a list of stand out cafes and teahouses around Shanghai here.

But if you want to interact with older Chinese folks to gain a better insight into local culture, I’d head to any large public park at dusk like People’s Park or Lu Xun Park. They might be singing in groups, dancing the waltz or fox-trot, or practising calisthenics, and are very open to newcomers.

What one thing is indispensable for life in Shanghai?

02 Shanghai Pearl Tower background

A Shanghai street with the Pearl Tower behind it. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

Patience, ironically because most people here don’t seem to have enough of it. In Shanghai, everybody wants everything done and delivered not now but yesterday. They are always in a rush, pushing and prodding when they don’t get what they want now. As a result, manners tend to fall to the wayside and it’s easy to start behaving as rudely as the harried person you’re dealing with. A little bit of patience will go a long way for all of us in this city.

Are you optimistic about Shanghai’s future?

10 Shanghai Expo Future

Shanghai hosted the World Expo. Photograph: Sue Anne Tay

Yes, it’s hard to contemplate otherwise. China’s ongoing financial liberalisation will only benefit Shanghai in its long-term ambitions to be a global financial city on par with New York and London. No doubt the opportunities will translate into larger talent and migration flows into Shanghai, a higher standard (and therefore cost) of living, and even greater pressure on the use of land in prime areas. In my view, Shanghai as a city has always been very confident about looking forward, which is why the local authorities should be very aware of the socio-economic and urban planning challenges that will accompany their successes.



  • Reply April 10, 2014


    Ok… So I read this article for the second time… And more slowly this time. I just glanced through it on Guardian’s website when you posted it on FB. Just wanted to give a 🙂 here — an equivalent of those naughty children who wrote 到此一遊 on the wall of the famous landmarks.

    • Reply April 15, 2014

      Sue Anne

      You’re too funny. You’ve been in Shanghai too long and after all your wonderful travels, of course you’d have strong opinions about Shanghai! 🙂

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