December 2011 issue

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Shanghai’s fast pace

From its humble beginnings as a sleepy fishing town, the city of Shanghai has grown into a modern and exhilarating metropolis where students will find a distinctly European flavour. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

According to Aaron Duff of Mandarin House language school in the city, Shanghai is the most international, modern and cosmopolitan of all Chinese cities. More highly developed than other Chinese cities, it is the country’s economic centre, says Olivia Fan, course consultant at fellow Shanghai language school, Miracle Mandarin. More than that, it is, she believes, a “place full of opportunities,” where “anyone who wants to change their life or seek [out] new things...can fulfill their dreams”.

In Shanghai, “People enjoy a high standard of life quality,” she adds. “As long as you can afford it, you can get almost everything you want in Shanghai. Except for some luxury brand [items], many things are cheaper than in other European countries.”

“While still retaining much of its traditional Chinese culture, Shanghai seems to have international visitors covered, in terms of restaurants, fashion, nightlife and all the comforts from back home,” comments Duff. As such, it is little wonder that the city is, as Jacqueline Dawn Faulkner of the locally based Raffles Design Institute, points out, a hub for students and anyone with an international focus for business. “It is”, she notes, “a very diverse and dynamic city, which moves at an incredible pace. The opportunities here are enormous, and things can move very quickly. It’s certainly not a sleepy city!” she underlines. “It’s a very social place, lots of networking, so not for the faint-hearted, because you do need to communicate extra hard here. Culturally,” she warns, “it can be challenging – but it’s one of the largest [cities] on the planet, so it’s inherently what you make it!”

“While readily embracing foreign influences, Shanghai is still profoundly and overwhelmingly Chinese, thanks to the enormous size of its population and the pride of the people, who remain very confident about their own identity and culture,” says Nathan De Hert, Marketing Manager at Hutong School, which is opening a Shanghai branch in early 2012. “Furthermore, Shanghai exemplifies what the Chinese people have achieved in just a few decades.”

Not to be missed, according to Fan, are the old towns of Zhujiajiao and Qibao. Zhujiajiao, famous for its waterways and bridges dates back around 1,700 years, and still contains many centuries-old buildings, while Qibao (which translates as Seven Treasures) is equally historic.

“Shanghai is an amazing blend of old and new,” says Nathan Power at iMandarin Language Training Institute. “It’s common to see a neighbourhood comprised entirely of classic two-story row-houses, set beneath a backdrop of towering modern skyscrapers...A visitor can enjoy a meal at a five-star hotel on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River, or step into an alley and enjoy some street-side barbeque. Shanghai,” he sums up, “is a city that truly represents the full spectrum of Chinese culture.”

To appreciate this fact, “You should check out some of the local museums and temples,” recommends Duff, in order to see some traditional Chinese culture items that are thousands of years old. “Also, you need to take a trip up the Shanghai World Financial Centre (currently the third tallest building in the world), and have a look out over the city from 100 floors above the ground.”

“If you want to see the heart of Shanghai,” he adds, “then I suggest a walk from People’s Square in the centre of the city up one of Asia’s premier shopping boulevards in Nanjing East Road, to the Huangpu River where it intersects with the Bund.” This, he comments, is “a magnificent showcase of early twentieth-century architecture, and a throwback to the time when Shanghai was called the ‘Paris of the Orient’. From there, you can look across the Huangpu River to modern Pudong, which lights up the night with dazzling illumination on the sides of some the world’s tallest and most recognisable skyscrapers”.

After that, Duff recommends taking a walk – or traditional trishaw ride – to Shanghai’s Old Town, to spend some time at the classic Yu Garden and enjoy the markets and well-known street foods. Another suggestion he offers is to explore the city through its subway system. With 12 lines and more than 430 kilometres of track, Shanghai has the longest subway system in the world, he observes.

As well as its iconic buildings, both ancient and modern, Shanghai offers a plethora of nightclubs and restaurants, as Power notes, as well as live music from around the world, 3-D cinemas – and even indoor archery ranges. “If there’s one thing that can be universally agreed upon about the city, it’s that it is literally impossible to be bored here,” he insists.

One event which roused a lot of interest has been the Shanghai World Expo. Although this ended in 2010, its China Expo Pavilion remains open, and, “It’s well worthwhile to see this impressive building, and the exhibits and displays inside,” notes Duff.

Seasonal attractions, meanwhile, include the annual Dragon Boat Race in June, which proves “incredibly popular”, Power comments. “Students in groups of 20 pile into elongated canoes with fantastical dragon-heads on the prow, and race against other boats to the beat of a drummer seated in the stern,” he enthuses.

According to Faulkner, food is “pretty much a religion here”. That being the case, iMandarin offers students the opportunity to try out their own cooking, with lessons in how to make xiao long bao – traditional Chinese steamed dumplings, filled with meat and soup. “Our students also learn the finer points of traditional Chinese tea ceremonies, brewing different teas and serving them in pursuit of harmonious nirvana,” Power reports.

Shopping is also an important part of the Shanghai lifestyle. As most business in China involves bargaining over prices, comments Power, what better opportunity to apply the language than in one of the city’s “fake markets”, where, he says, high-quality, replica brand items may be purchased. Alternatively, he suggests, students can hone their haggling skills day and night at the famous outdoor antique market, “where one can purchase anything from revolution-era paraphernalia to miniature terracotta warriors”. For a different shopping experience, Faulkner recommends TianziFang, “a pretty shopping area, with lovely coffee shops and cute boutiques”, or the Moganshan Lu art district.

When it’s time for some respite from the fast pace of life in Shanghai, a weekend trip to see the World Heritage site of West Lake in Hangzhou could be the answer, according to Duff. Known for its silk and its tea production, he points out that it can be reached in one hour by high-speed train. Alternatively, he suggests, “You can stop halfway, and visit the ancient water town of Suzhou (often called China’s Little Venice), with its traditional Chinese gardens.” Here, adds Faulkner, you can also “go back in time, listening to traditional music”, while relaxing in one of its tea-houses.

Agent viewpoint

“Students often feel attracted to this city, and people think this is where it is all happening. It is a fascinating city, and a very dynamic environment. It seems life in Shanghai is changing very fast. However, students need to be aware that it can seem very difficult to communicate, and even people in public places do not speak any other language than Chinese. Students often comment on the very different habits of the Chinese people, the difference between rich and poor, and the influence of Western society on the younger generation – for example in fashion, looks, cars, etc.”
Kitty Wijsman, Weg-Wijs, The Netherlands

“They like that it is a large city, easy to get to and modern. Many students choose it over other destinations in China because it offers many of the positives of being in a big city like Beijing, without the overcrowding and pollution. [Another thing they like] is that Shanghai is an amazing mix of old world culture and modern metropolis. People also are amazed at how friendly everyone is and how much people are willing to help you out.”
Stephen Wittig, NRCSA, USA

“Students choose to go to Shanghai for the language and amazing places like the River Huangpu, the Jade Buddah Temple and the Garden of Yuyuan. They enjoy the nightclubs and the great nightlife, but they complain a bit about prices but at the same time they say it is worth it. Taking the train to Peking and the great Shanghai Museum [a museum of ancient Chinese Art] are some highlights.”
Fernando Poco, SD Travel, Brazil

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