Travel writer Drew Limsky explores Shanghai, China, to discover how this ever-evolving city continues to reach for the sky. Considering a journey to the Far East? Visit Holland America Line’s “Sail to Asia” page to learn about the upcoming itineraries that feature Shanghai.
THE VIEW OF SHANGHAI that I’m currently enjoying was accessible only to birds and hovering helicopters until recently. I’m on the observation deck of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-highest building and China’s tallest skyscraper. This elegantly twisting, iridescent edifice was built as part of a plan: to rise above the two other super-tall buildings adjacent to it, the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) and the Jin Mao Tower.
The Shanghai Tower.
ALL THIS VERTICAL SPLENDOR – one of the world’s great skylines — marks the Pudong district of Shanghai, on the east bank of the Huangpu River. Little was here 25 years ago, just farms, wharfs, and warehouses. And today it looks like the future, a glistening skyscraper forest composed of fanciful shapes. Seeing this trio of monoliths up close makes me realize how much the buildings are products of their respective times. The Jin Mao Tower (1,380 feet), topped off in 1999, feels like the ’90s. The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill landmark shows its influences, with its variegated and pointy façade suggesting an update of traditional Chinese architecture (like a postmodern pagoda); meanwhile, its setbacks, metallic sheen, and impressive spire nod to Art Deco (the city is full of this style).
The Jin Mao held the title of tallest building in China for just eight years before the SWFC (1,614 feet) bested it in 2008. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, the SWFC seems both millennial and timeless: With its alternating triangular planes that somehow taper up to a thin blade, the building feels like the solution to an especially complex geometry problem. It features a trapezoidal hole near the top, an aperture, that prompted the irreverent Chinese to refer to the building as the “bottle opener.” But make no mistake: The widely praised SWFC is one of the world’s purest and most beautiful modernist buildings, with a reflective exterior that looks like quicksilver — or melts into the sky, depending on the light.
And now the new Shanghai Tower (2,073 feet), completed in 2015 and designed by Gensler – one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious architectural firms — is something else again. With its semitransparent outer skin, it telegraphs sustainability. The tower is light, it’s abstract, and it’s asymmetrical, with a dramatic curving seam that makes the building appear as if it’s perpetually turning.
But on the 119th floor, where I’ve landed after a ride on the world’s fastest elevator, everything is still. “It’s amazing,” I say to the stylish couple beside me. We’re all marveling at the view of the SWFC — from the Shanghai Tower’s observation deck it can be seen in total, from base to tippy-top.
“Amazing,” they repeat. The pink spheres of the iconic Oriental Pearl Television Tower (1,535 feet) catch the light at the other end of Pudong. As if it needed to be said, I tell the couple, and remind myself: “We’re some of the first people in the world to be up here to see all this.”
ACROSS THE RIVER, there’s a different Shanghai. It’s called Puxi, but I just refer to it as “the Bund side.” The Bund, the legendary waterfront section of Zhongshan Road, represents the early 20th century in much the same way that Pudong is the 21st. Perfect for strolling, it’s like an encyclopedia of stately architectural styles: from Beaux-Arts and Gothic Revival to Renaissance Revival and Art Deco. For the first half of the 20th century, this was the Wall Street of Asia.
Today, people from all over the world come to walk the Bund’s celebrated promenade and look at its ever-changing view of Pudong. And it’s easy to cross between the two banks of the river: You can buy a red token and hop a ferry, or you can hail a taxi. But if you want to make it a real experience, there’s a third way that will get you from Pudong to the Bund: the colorful Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, an underground train ride and gorgeous multimedia light show all in one.
But beyond these oft-photographed attractions is a quieter Bund — an early morning Bund when men fly kites, carefully unspooling their lines so that the kites sail against the Bund’s buildings, their finials topped by countless Chinese flags.
To contrast with the futuristic and elevated experience that is Pudong, the Bund side drops me into teeming humanity on the Shanghai streets. I get a kick out of the upscale pedestrian-only village of Xintiandi, where traditional stone shikumen houses now host smart cafés and luxury boutiques. I note the global brands: Blancpain, Wolfgang Puck, Shanghai Tang. And, of course, there is dim sum to be had: At Harbour Plaza I order up steaming bamboo baskets of shrimp dumplings and shumai with crab roe, along with cold Tsingtao beer.
Local people I meet tend toward the friendly — and familiar. In a country with well over a billion people, you don’t stand on ceremony. In a Xintiandi alley, beside a cute ice cream parlor called Pree, Chinese folks visiting from another province want to take a photo with me — one by one. By one by one. Around 10 people in all take a picture with the visiting American.
LATER THAT DAY, a taxi lets me off at Yuyuan. Encompassing the historic Yu Garden, which dates from the Ming Dynasty, the Yuyuan District is an enveloping warren of alleys lined with traditional craft shops and endless places to stop for a pork bun or plate of dumplings. I’m looking up at the architectural details — the sharp gables and ornate dougong brackets — and almost immediately, a local Yuyuan shopkeeper, Mr. Chen, begins speaking to me in perfect English. He tells me which seemingly age-old buildings are new, and which are authentically traditional, and then he guides me toward the gardens that are “a little older than me — 450 years.” He likes that I’m from New York. “My daughter works at Bloomberg,” he tells me, “in Beijing.” He owns Fenghui Pearls, and we talk about ocean versus river pearls.
Through a side entrance that’s easy to miss, the vibrancy of Yuyuan leads to City God Temple, which has been around in one form or another since the 14th century.
Within the halls, local people kneel before Taoist altars, leaving offerings: ripe melons and piles of peanuts and apples. I’m drawn to the courtyard, where Taoists come to worship the Chenghuang god. They gather around the fire, reaching in to burn incense sticks, holding the sticks with both hands and bowing, turning and bowing again.
When I entered Yuyuan, I noticed that the very tip of Shanghai Tower — that silvery Art Nouveau-like curl at the top of the seam — is visible over the traditional rooftops. So I know the modern world is out there (and up there), but within the temple grounds there are only burning embers, a soothing scent, and the quiet concentration of the ancients.
This article appears in the Summer 2018 edition of Holland America Line’s Mariner Magazine. All photos are by Chris M. Rogers