Transformation Tuesday: Shanghai Then and Now

In 1997, I embarked on my first journey abroad. As a preschooler, I was too young to go alone (of course). This journey was a milestone of firsts for many things in life: the first time flying on an airplane, the first time stepping into a new country, and the first time I would meet my extended family.

It was through this trip and my mothers desire to travel ever since she was a kid that started my fascination with commercial aviation, and the clichéd term “wanderlust” – the millennial way of saying the desire to travel.

To put time into perspective, the first time that I had visited China, the Harry Potter series was born, Pokémon had just come out, and Great Britain had just handed back control of Hong Kong to China.

I had visited China several times after that – making a visit in 2000, 2003, and 2004. After a long drought, I made my return in March of 2019.

I vividly remember my past experiences traveling through Shanghai through senses: the noise of the cars honking, the aromas of street food mixed with cigarette smoke, and the bright neon lights that illuminated a dark smoggy sky. But during my return, I immediately realized that Shanghai had changed so much in just 20 years, and I couldn’t recognize most of the city. While I once ridiculed Shanghai (as a kid) for being “behind the times” on city infrastructure, I now see Shanghai as a world-class city. Here are some of the many things that have changed: Shanghai – then and now.

Layover at Tokyo Narita (NRT) in 1997 on my first ever international trip

Stopping through Tokyo Narita (NRT) in 2019 hopping between China and Japan

Commuting

My uncle’s house is about 6 miles north of The Bund. When I first visited, there were plenty of bikes parked around his condo along the streets, you could’ve guessed you were in The Netherlands; mainly the wealthy owned cars. Adults would commute to work on bicycles and share the road with cars. Each bicycle had a government-issued license plate, as it was a legal vehicle to drive, and registered to a household or member. If you didn’t have a bicycle, you would commute by bus. When my mom would take me to the Bund or the Wujiaochang Shopping District, we would take the 55 or the 910 lines. I sometimes would have my mom wait for the next bus in hopes of riding on a double-decker bus… front seat on the second floor was my way of seeing the city. The quarter-mile walk to the bus stopfelt like a 5K when you have little feet… if you didn’t want to wait for the next bus, you could easily hail a taxi by sticking your hand out.

Nowadays, there aren’t as many buses, and hardly any bikes. The Shanghai Metro was expanded from one line to 18 lines, making it the primary mode of transport throughout the city. They opened a station along Line 10 which replaced the bus shelters that stood Guoquan Road. There are fewer buses on the road, and the bus companies eliminated its double-decker fleet.

As far as taxis go, they still are cheap and efficient to get from point A to point B. However, most taxis also support ridesharing reservations through an app called DiDi (like Uber/Lyft in the US). My mother and I almost stole a taxi ride from someone who reserved through DiDi… whoops!

People's Square with the Shanghai Museum in 1997

People's Square with the Shanghai Museum in 2019

Language Barrier

In the 90s, I found it incredibly difficult to do anything in Shanghai without knowing Chinese. As the city grew its foundation to become a world-class city, they replaced signage to support both English and Chinese. Even though I still don’t know Chinese today, I feel like I could comfortably navigate Shanghai and be OK, the only exception being hailing a taxi. I also noticed that there were more American and European tourists than there were in the 90s.

Shopping

I loved visiting stores in Shanghai as a kid. Many shops sold electronics, videos, games, and toys that any kid would want. Many stores sold full unauthentic copies of TV shows in full seasons, like Pokémon or Digimon; it was the easiest way to binge-watch a TV show as a kid. Nowadays we have Netflix, so it’s not much of a problem anymore of course. Also, many shops sold counterfeit bags, clothes, and other knock-offs that were fun to laugh at – I remember coming across a book called “Parry Hotter” that was supposed to be Harry Potter.

Nowadays, those shops have closed as Shanghai built up its reputation as a world-class city. What used to be stores that sold knock offs of intellectual property became the stores of its authentic self. Now, there are tons of shopping malls that contain brands that either I can’t afford, or are too fancy for me to recognize: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, De Beers, Dior… the list goes on and on.

East Nanjing Road was lined with neon lights of random advertisements and stores, all torn down and rebuilt with LED signage and contemporary facades. It just doesn’t have the same charm as it did in the 90s, but if you’re going for fashion, you’ll now find anything you need on this half-mile segment of shops and malls.

Payment

Digital currency wasn’t a thing in the 90s, obviously. Today, cash is queen. If you are a Chinese citizen, you trust your digital wallet to get you through everything. Most merchants accept AliPay or WeChat Pay, while some even scoff at credit cards. Hardly anyone accepted my Chase Sapphire Reserve (physical or Apple Pay). AliPay and WeChat Pay have requirements to be linked to a Chinese bank account, so it’s not great for foreigners, but perfect for the country’s citizens.

Road Noise

I found it fascinating as a kid when I learned that a car’s horn had a purpose. Or so I learned in China at least… people out on the roads would honk as a form of communication, whether it be to beep at someone negatively for cutting a driver off or to signal an acknowledgment of letting someone into a lane. Sometimes, I woke up in the middle of the night after hearing a motorcycle honking for fun. The windows were open after all… today, just the sound of tires hitting the road. In what seemed like an immediate policy change, Shanghai restricted the use of horns throughout the downtown area starting in 2007, enforcing a fine of 200¥ if someone got caught violating that rule. Now, I would guess that New York is louder than Shanghai is.

Zhongshan East Road, adjacent to the Bund in 1997

Zhongshan East Road, with buildings and streets illuminated in 2019

Smoke and Smog

In the 90s and early 2000s, you could easily walk down a street and see five to ten people smoking a cigarette and trashing its butt onto the ground. Since China was one of the world’s largest producer of tobacco, smoking was common everywhere; at parks, restaurants, and in front of the home. It didn’t matter if you were in front of a kid, people just smoked since it’s a social custom of China. This was where I used to think America was more “advanced” – as I learned from D.A.R.E… smoking is bad, m’kay?

Shanghai had issued its first smoking control law in 2010. The city banned smoking in places like schools, hospitals, stadiums, public transportation, and internet cafes. While there are still people who disobey the law, it was clear that cigarettes weren’t as prevalent as it was two decades ago.

Now let’s talk about the smog… when I was on final descent into Pudong Airport, I could see a thick layer of smog. It was ironic flying above a thick layer but being able to see a wind turbine generate renewable energy underneath the smoke. The aspect of smog hasn’t changed much, so if you’re sensitive to unhealthy air quality, I suggest bringing a respirator just in case.

Cleanliness

While smog still may be an issue today, the city is much cleaner today. I was surprised at how spotless the streets were. There were public workers out day and night cleaning up trash that had fallen and emptying out public receptacles. Restrooms with attendants that used to cost 10¥ to use are now free, and spotless… I have unfortunate memories of walking into a bathroom and gagging because of the stench from the combination of cigarette smoke and sewage. Now, it’s as clean as a whistle… (no, I still wouldn’t put my mouth on a whistle if I found one in a bathroom, but you get the point).

Surveillance

Shanghai prides itself being a safe city, but mainly because there are cameras EVERYWHERE. As soon as you cross the border, China collects your fingerprints and associates them with a face. Cameras line highway lanes and flash every several seconds, mining license plate information. Literally, everything is tracked into a database, and the government is using artificial intelligence to predict human behavior and track crimes. One intersection had as many as 7 cameras. Easy for them, since they’re the world’s leader in producing cameras.

I don’t remember seeing a tenth as many cameras during my first few visits.

“Prostitution”/Scams

While Shanghai is overall a safe city through its surveillance, there are always people trying to run scams and getting you to go somewhere private to hide from cameras. Obviously, I wouldn’t be approached by a sex worker or scammer as a preschooler, but as a tourist, I was approached several times (more on that in a future blog post).

Don’t feel pressured when someone tries to get you to go for a massage, you can easily say no and walk away. Remember when D.A.R.E taught us to “say no to drugs”? You can add another word to say no to… “massage?”

Buildings

Finally, the most obvious change is the increase of buildings. The Puxi (west) side of the Huangpu river contains historical buildings, while skyscrapers and contemporary buildings were built on the Pudong (east) side of the Huangpu. When I first visited, there were only a handful of tall buildings, the tallest being the Oriental Pearl TV tower. The area of Lujiazui used to be fields or a giant construction zone. The only buildings that people would ever want to stop at in Pudong would be the TV tower, or the new Shanghai Ocean Aquarium finished in 2003. Now, Lujiazui stands as a financial stronghold, the largest of Shanghai.

The Bund in 1997

The Bund in 2019

Back in Time, and into the Future…

With my recent trip to Shanghai in the books, I’m incredibly glad that I got to revisit the city of my heritage. I was thrilled to see my aunt, uncle, and cousin, and visit their place again. It was just the way I left it: kitchen to the south, bedroom to the north; everything was its place as it was 15 years ago… 20 years ago… it felt like traveling back in time and being there in the moment, while the city grew around it. The best part about the visit was them witnessing how much I’ve grown since the fourth grade, and since I was a preschooler.

Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient, has changed so much. Based on the scale of changes made in the past twenty years, I’m sure that I’m going to fail to recognize it in another 15 years. I would recommend most folks to apply for a 10-year multi-visit visa to China and spend a couple of days in Shanghai. I’d put it at the same level of “must-visits” as I would with London, Tokyo, or Paris. While most of the city has modernized, Shanghai's history can be still be seen through its architecture and preservation of older buildings.

Yuyuan Bazaar in 1997

Yuyuan Bazaar in 2019

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