It’s a sobering experience to have spent more than 4 hours flying across the vast and mostly empty interior of Australia with its approximately 23 million people clinging to a few pockets on the perimeter, only to spend the last few minutes of the 12 hour flight peering down at Shanghai with more than 24 million people in just the one city.
I don't know Shanghai well, but I enjoy visiting. Over the years, I’ve walked along a few streets, I’ve taken a few taxi rides, been on a couple of subway trips. Given the size and density of the city, that’s as insubstantial as someone making an assessment of Australia based on perfect Spring day in Sydney and concluding that no place could be finer!
One year, we stayed at a small hotel in the French Concession and enjoyed walking ... and walking, and walking. Wandering down alleys, peering between fence palings, oohing and aahing at statues.
As a tourist, I find this area enticing. The generous tree lined streets provide welcome shade and a sense of coolness in the hot, humid summer heat, and while some areas are busy with crowds of people, others encourage you to pause and reflect on the rapidly changing country.
Shanghai is a living city, with children heading off to school, university students and exchange students milling around with backpacks and take away coffee. Men of varying nationalities in suits, striding purposefully to offices. Others gliding along on bicycles, seemingly oblivious to the traffic, threading through cars and electric motor bikes with apparently no care in the world!
Chubby middle aged men stripped to the waist, some only wearing boxer shorts, sitting on upturned boxes, or with their singlets or t-shirts rolled up to below their armpits to allow their sweat to evaporate in any hint of breeze. Beautifully made up women, slender and haughtily confident of their superiority, clip along in sparkly stilettos and short, figure hugging outfits.
Older people stroll to get the morning paper, some with small dogs with little booties. Washing hanging on poles jutting from windows in narrow, homey alleyways.
In parks, in singles and groups, people exercising in the mornings - various kinds of dance, tai-chi, games similar to badminton - all part and parcel of a city so different, but somehow vaguely similar to Melbourne. Maybe it's something to do with the plane trees and the Chinese having been part of the Australian population since the early days.
Here, as in Melbourne, you're just a face in the crowd, no different to millions of others. It's very different to teaching off the tourist track, where it's obvious many people haven't seen, let alone spoken with people from English speaking backgrounds before, where your every move is cause for curiosity and staring.
Hoardings and living green walls hide construction sites and the crowded relocatable housing for workers who've been attracted to work in the big city. Living conditions are as varied as in any large city, and dust covers the valiant efforts to dry washing on a line outside a hut. The amount of construction is incredible, cranes appear like a giant game of pick-up-sticks, scattered around the huge city. It's a riot of colour, movement and sound.
Shanghai is a city gripped by modernisation, and the pace of the change is breathtaking. On my first visit in 1978 it was like visiting a city with solid roots to the past. Those roots are still there in the lively alleys and the stately old buildings contrasting with the futuristic gravity-defying new ones.
Not everything relating to the past has been discarded, but what demands attention is the iconic skyline and colourful nighttime lighting.
The Friendship stores are long gone, replaced by international flagship stores encouraging consumption and materialism, but of more interest to me are the people who've flocked from around the world to make this city home, bringing with them skills, interests and services for locals, expats and tourists alike.
Not least is the availability of international foods, wines and good coffee! Leaf and Bean, Jamaica Blue, and a variety of independent cafes make a stopover in Shanghai after teaching in the country a real treat!