The Transformation of Shanghai

Habeeb Salloum
Special to mycompass

Shanghai, China “It’s like magic!” my guide replies. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the hundreds of skyscrapers transforming Shanghai’s skyline. “The world will see the metamorphoses at the World Expo, to be held in this city from May 1 to October 31, 2010, when China will showcase its accomplishments to the world.” He proudly grinned.

With sky reaching structures arising over the ashes of the past, Shanghai, spread over an area of 6,341 sq km (2,448 sq mi) and with a population of more than 18 million, is evolving as a city of the future, unmatched by any other urban centre on the globe. Once a city of adventurers and the place where the Communist Party of China was established, this largest metropolis in China has been transformed into a forest of glass, concrete and steel high-rises. The major economic and industrial centre of the country, it has become the city of achievement for those dreaming of wealth and power.

Many call it a ‘City of Dreams,’ as it rushes relentlessly with great speed to the status of an international economic giant. The Shanghai Stock Exchange, the largest in Asia; the pagoda inspired Jinmao Tower, the fourth highest building in the world; and the largest department store in Asia are among the modern offerings of the city. Business opportunities, cultural activities and ongoing improvements in tourist facilities have become the trademark of this vibrant urban centre - a showcase of China’s transformation.

Yet, even though Shanghai has been transformed into a 21st century industrial giant, what draws the tourists in is it’s romantic past, when it was an international city that did not live by the laws of the country. In the era before the Second World War, Shanghai became an urban centre of wealth and trade, but also had a reputation as the wickedest place on earth. Its merchants, tycoons and towering skyscrapers, mostly constructed with shady money, along with a sleazy collection of adventurers and drug dealers gave this city notoriety throughout the world.

Today, visitors travel here from all over the world to live in this dream world of the past - anxious to relive a time when the city was an exotic world of excitement, espionage and romance. It was a time when Shanghai had the most modern of gadgets in all of Asia. So famous was its name in development that visitors still come to gaze in awe at the leftovers from that age.

Lining both the western and eastern sides of Huangpu River, the newly removed 1.5 km (1 mi) long Bund, an adaptation of the Hindustani word band (causeway or promenade), was in the past and continues today to be the city’s throbbing heart.

On the eastern side, modern structures, like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a landmark in the city from whose 263 m (826 ft) high upper sphere one can catch a panoramic view of the city, seems to be reaching for the heavens. Here, the skyline, with its mushrooming eye-bulging edifices, is a reflection of China’s rush into the 21st century.

The western side of the river is the original Bund - a diverse mix of architecture from Baroque, Gothic, Roman, to early 20th century styles of structures. A good number of these once run-down buildings have been restored to their former magnificence and given a new lease on life. Banks, clubs, new eating places, and designers’ shops are housed in these renovated buildings - a dazzling gallery of world architecture.

What makes this part of the Bund attractive is its wide promenade. In the morning, one sees the locals performing Tai Chi exercises or just relaxing. During the day, locals as well as tourists stroll the promenade enjoying the cool breezes of the river and the view of the awesome structures across the waters. In the evening, the Bund becomes a world of appealing lights. When these are lit at night, the whole area becomes a magical world of enticement.

The ultimate way to view the Bund and see with one’s own eyes how Shanghai is being reincarnated is at night from the 340 m (1,115 ft) high skywalk, atop the 88th floor of Jinmao Tower - the largest and highest observation deck in China. The wonderland of brightly lit structures seems to steal the lights from the shining moon and stars above. It is a fabulous and overwhelming nightly display of coloured lights exquisitely shining turning night into day.

The only thing that spoils the appeal of the Bund, as well as other tourist sites in China, are street vendors, mostly trying to sell fake Rolex watches who, like leeches, attach themselves to tourists. Marring the joys of promenading, it is almost impossible to avoid their pestering. However, things are looking brighter. These tourist pests are much less now than they were a few years ago.

Travellers, when exploring the Bund, should not miss the Nanjing Road, the foremost place to shop in Shanghai. Honoured as the country’s ‘Number One Street,’ the ‘pedestrian only’ section of the road has become a well-known huge tourist shopping mall where traditional shops vie for space with modern Western chains. It is China’s largest shopping centre and a hub for business activity. Always thronged with tourists, it has become a must for every visitor who travels to Shanghai.

Today, after years of stagnation, the city is reclaiming its former glory and has again become a major trading centre - one of the leading commercial and industrial metropolises in the world. Not only on the Bund, but in every section of this huge urban centre, old buildings are being restored, new roads have been constructed and older ones widened while technology of every sort is accessible to businessperson and tourist alike. It is said that a visit to Shanghai is a must for every traveller who wants to really know modern China and its rush into the 21st century.

As for myself, after spending a number of days strolling the Bund and shopping on the Nanjing Road, I developed a feel for mushrooming China. The guide’s words, “It’s like magic,” had for me become a reality.


World Shopping Centre photo courtesy:

Historic Places in Shanghai

City God Temple located just south of the Yuyuan Garden and built for a local deity, it is worth a visit.

Guyi Garden, a charming classical garden built during the Ming Dynasty.

Jade Buddha Temple, built in honour of two jade Buddhas brought to China from Myanmar.

Longhua Pagoda and Longhua Temple, the temple is the oldest and largest temple in Shanghai Old City, filled with traditional Chinese architecture.

People’s Square, Shanghai’s largest public square.

Shanghai Museum, built in the shape of a large tripod, it houses 123,000 cultural relics.

Yuyuan Garden, a 400-year old garden built in the classical style of southern China.

Further Information

China National Tourist Office, Toronto, 480 University Avenue, Suite 806 Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1V2, Canada, Tel: 416-599-6636, 1-866-599-6636, Fax: 416-599-6382, E-mail:

China National Tourist Office, New York, 370 Lexington Ave. #912, New York, NY 10017 USA, Toll Free: 1-888-760-8218, Tel: 1-212-760-8218, Fax: 1-212-760-8809 Email:

workshops | tv | dispatches | q&a | photos | film | fork | news | archives | links | search | store | submit | about | contact | home

All text & photos © 2002-13.