By Antonio Malara
I remember I was watching a tv show with my mom, it was about the 2010 Shanghai Expo. It showed beautiful images of strange pavilions and then the show closed showing a beautiful piece of design. That piece was the China pavilion, some kind of pyramid but upside down. We commented with my mom about how beautiful would’ve been to see that Expo for real. Sometimes are dreams that comes to you, this time the dream came as a Facebook group message, it was the leader (it’s how I call the guy who planned our trip to New York-Boston) announcing that he was planning a trip to Shanghai with also a two days stop in Dubai. It was unbelievable, one week earlier I was wondering about it and now this chance comes to me. I chatted with my close friend Luciano to know if he was “in” about this trip, he said probably yes. Following the chat I saw that many of the people who had come in USA had confirmed their presence for the trip to Shanghai. Well I confirmed too before that my friend Luciano confirmed to me. It was a great opportunity and I couldn’t refuse it.
It wasn’t only for the Expo, lately I was so interested about the growth escalation that was happening in China. Their economy, the big structures they were building, I was so motivated to see that Country and plus we would also have stopped for two days in Dubai, so inspiring!
It was the end of October 2010 when we leave from Dubai (I’ll talk in the next post about that trip) probably in the afternoon. The fact is that I don’t remember anything about the flight, but is still clear in my mind what I saw at the Shanghai airport. I think there were thousands of people, everywhere, that scene reminded me to concerts folks. It was impossible to walk without having someone attached to you, I never saw all those people in a public place. It was late evening and there was a super new bus waiting for us, we went on and we left the airport. When we reached the city center I experienced a thing that I never did, not even in America. The elevated highway we were traveling, entered between the tall buildings. It was night and everything was full of lights, the road literally divided the city, it was like in Blade Runner, so sci-fi movie. The hotel was a high category, really cool, some of the group went out to start exploring but me and others stayed there enjoying the beautiful places inside the hotel and discussing our plans for the first day.
The morning of the first day wasn’t actually so thrilling, it was planned a visit to the Italian Trade Commission, an encounter with some teachers. It was hard for me to follow the teacher speech, but from that building there was a beautiful view, new building beside old ones in classic Shanghai neighborhood. I was hungry to see the city and in the meanwhile I enjoyed the view. Late in the morning we finally left the building, we went to discover the city with a female guide. We stopped in a metro station near the center and I was really glad because it was right underneath those elevated highways. We had to walk a little to get our destination and I could take advantage of my position taking pics to those kind of streets in the bottom-top perspective. This kind of architecture is not new but this one was more modern and big compared to other elevated streets like in New York. Another thing that I noticed was that also the streets were full of people, I understood that this thing was something to deal with.
The first place to visit was the Jing’an Temple, this structure is right in the middle of new buildings and it has a long story. The Temple was built between the years 200 and 300, then they moved it from the original place to the current position. Unfortunately in the seventies has been destroyed by fire and they rebuild it in the eighties. I immediately notice something strange when I saw the Temple, the design was ancient but the structure was looking so fresh and new. Anyway it was for me the first time in front of that kind of palace and I tried to enjoy it as much as possible. The structure was big, in one of the sections there was a big Buddha that was the main attraction there. Even if I didn’t have a model for a comparison I have to say that the statue was really big and high. We took some pics with the Buddha and after a while we left.
Our guide brought us in the Main Street that was Nanjing Road, this is the fashion design street, full of stores, people (really too much) and the most glamorous. We started walking and beside the beauty of some stores design and the buildings architecture there was another cool thing. Leaving Nanjing Road and taking one of the tiny streets, you could be inside some old districts. It was so cool to see really old houses and behind them, some super modern skyscrapers. I also noticed a singular way to let the clothes dry. They use to put some long poles outside the window with all the clothes on it. The effect was like long colorful flags all around, honestly I couldn’t understand how they put and remove the cloths on the pole.
Even for the first day I don’t remember what else we did or where we eat, probably we had a dinner in the center and at some point we back to the hotel, I remember when in the late afternoon we said goodbye to our guide who would have been with us only that first day.
Finally arrived the long-awaited day, the Expo day. We started the day with a mistake at the metro, all the group for some strange reason was waiting to take the train in the wrong line, fortunately the leader saw this in time. We arrived at the site and here were full of people and also long line to get in. As a delegation we were welcomed by a girl student who was working at the Italy pavilion, thanks to her we started to skip the first line. Once in we reached the Italy pavilion, it was a big grey box with high windows on one side, I liked the design, apparently simple. Here we skipped again the line to get in, we were hosts, invited for a conference! I have to say that this time I liked the lesson. The teacher explained to us all about the pavilion, especially the unique techniques to build it. The pavilion has been built in something called “transparent cement” essentially the building has been finished by using some cement panels that had many holes. All the holes in each panels had different size. This panels helped to bring the light inside the building so they could realize different interior design without having the “light problem”. She also explained that our pavilion was a tribute to the ancient Italian architecture design, to some painters and also to the classic music. We had a fast look inside the pavilion and it was visible what the teacher explained to us. There was an entire orchestra instruments fixed in vertical on the wall, it was so scenic as the other part of the pavilion. We had a look without hurry because we would be back there in the evening, so after a while we left for another pavilion.
Walking to the Spain one we saw from the outside the England and Germany pavilion, then we arrived. The Spain pavilion exterior was entirely built in wicker, even here we skipped the line. I think that this site was the only one we saw which had a meaning. The topic was the cycle of life but described on reverse. In fact when we entered inside, we saw dozens of bones pending from the roof, walking along the path we ended up in front of a giant baby, like in “2001 a Space Odyssey”. On the wall there were videos showing Spanish culture and plus we saw a girl performing live a flamenco dance. The giant baby (who was also able to move his face) had different feedback from people, some liked some were scared by him, as I told for me he was some cinematography tribute. We left the Spain pavilion to the France one. This pavilion was nothing special, not for the design (a white box) and not for the content. Inside there was a square path, on the wall lots of video and paintings. A tribute to French fashions designer and painters, I think that no one of our group liked it.
After that we went to the Mexico pavilion. The idea of the pavilion was to resemble something like a hill full of flowers, so it was very nice and original. Some long poles with a colorful top were the flowers and the inclination of the structure design resembled the hill. Here we were official guests and of course we skipped the line and we’ve been welcomed so kindly by the Mexicans. Someone explained to us what we’re going to see, it was a short movie which required more than one year of work to realize it. We watched the movie and it was really beautiful, it was composed by short frames which described the Mexican culture. From beautiful landscape to people experiencing local traditions, it was a film without interruptions that had to be seen in one breath. A scene where an old couple was dancing together was so inspirational. When we finished watching the movie, we had a Mexican lunch there and after that a Mexican student interviewed our leader, then we left to another pavilion.
Before reaching the United Emirates pavilion we went in front of the China one. I was so excited, finally what a saw on television was real in front of my eyes. The red upside down pyramid was so beautiful, even more huge than I thought, we saw it from a certain distance but really the people waiting in line were so tiny compared to the structure. We took some pics there then we went on, the visit inside the China pavilion was planned for the late afternoon.
When we arrived at the Emirates pavilion there was a long line. The pavilion design was an interpretation of the humps of a camel. It was cool because the structure was in gold color and from some perspective it looked like a golden ufo. Here for the first time we had some trouble skipping the line, at some point we thought we had to give up the visit. We were ready to go but the leader solved the problem. We went in skipping the line one more time. I don’t remember what was inside but the only thing we did was to watch a movie like in the Mexico pavilion. This one was a mix with a cartoon and real people. The movie showed the process of a poor country that has been touched by the “divine” and thanks to the discover of the oil, has become rich overnight. The video was nice but actually didn’t worth the line to get inside the pavilion, even because that story we saw was a “fortune story” so not inspirational.
When we get out to the Emirates pavilion it was dark, on the road to the China building we admired the other pavilions at night, it was a different show to see them shining with all the colorful lights. When we arrived at the pavilion we saw the longest line ever. It’s impossible to describe it, I’ll let the pics to show it. Well even here for some miracle we’ve been able to skip the unbelievable line. The China pavilion was essentially a piece of design, even the interior, the strange stairs, the sections, it was impossible to remember all the ways we took. Inside there were lots of screening on the wall and beautiful and colorful scenography. There wasn’t a theme, at some point we also saw some fake archaeological finds. It was cool because it looked like a museum of modern art (which is what it is now) but not necessarily about Chinese art. When we finished looking we went down, then we stopped to admire the pavilion from bottom to top. It was so cool to be under that upside down tower, it was really something different, we took some pictures with that singular perspective feeling ourselves like ants compared to the top of the tower. I was sad to leave that majestic but it was late, when I was a little far from it I took a last look to the pavilion to see it entirely for the last time, then with some guys of the group we headed to the Italy pavilion.
Once there we walked all around to see what we missed during the morning, actually I don’t have clear memories about what we saw but I remember the dinner. Till then I didn’t eat so good in Shanghai so when we finally stopped at the Italian restaurant at the upper floor of the pavilion, I was so happy. We had really nice time during that dinner, I remember lots of laughs and the pasta that I ate was so good. That dinner is the last thing that I remember about that day at the Expo, it was a great day for me, an exhibition like I've never seen before.
The third day I had a special appointment with my friend Luciano. We deal to spend the morning together, visiting some stores he knew and looking some places without the confusion of other people around us. From People Square we walked all Nanjing Road without hurry, stopping for pics or when we saw something interesting. When we arrived at the Bund we took a tiny street to reach the design store. This was really cool, mainly they had pieces made by original Chinese ceramic. We spent lots of time there looking for the pieces that we wanted to put on our wishlist. Before to leave we went to the bathroom, well this was the coolest thing I ever saw. All the components were all designed by some freak person I think. I liked because it didn’t look like a bathroom. It had all the typical elements like the sink and the toilet, but they were handmade components that did not look anything like the typical ones. (Even for this is better to see my pics).
After that we dedicated our time to make a walk all along the Bund. This place is essentially a series of old buildings overlooking the river. A street separates the buildings from a big sidewalk, from here the view is opened on the Pudong Neighborhood which is now full of tall skyscrapers and make the view so unreal. From one side of the river the classic Bund, the other side the futuristic Pudong, it’s a really singular place. Even if the day was gloomy, we took pics with skyscrapers on the background, we went up and down along the sidewalk to find a better angle and then we finished our tour meeting some people of the group and having lunch together. For the afternoon there was planned a meeting with an architect, the appointment was at the building “Bund 18”. After lunch we went to this building (it was jus there) and the leader introduced to us the architect. He was behind the renovation of the Bund 18 and he started to explain to us the work he did, starting from the main floor which was full of luxury stores. I really liked the lesson because the man brought us room to room explaining how he did the renovation. He told us what they did new and what pieces they preserved, like the doors. After that he explained the rebirth of the Bund. The neighborhood was abandoned till a decade before, I don’t remember who was planning to demolish all the old buildings and build new skyscrapers. At that point some smart person (I don’t remember who even this time) told to this people that the old buildings needed to be preserved as the only ancient structure in the whole city. So they renovated the old buildings, which now are headquarters of banks and insurance companies, so the place is a financial district during the day but also the chic part of Shanghai in the night with restaurants and night clubs. In this way there was still an heart of the city which could look into the future admiring the modern skyscrapers from the Bund windows. We concluded our tour visiting the roof. Here there was a restaurant-night club with a beautiful view, it was cool being on the tallest floor, looking in front of of us and seeing other buildings even taller, beautiful perspective and experience.
The next destination for the afternoon was Pudong, and not only to see the futuristic place but also for an unconventional reason. In fact in Pudong there was a big market of fake goods. I wasn’t interesting to buy anything but we went there with my friend just to be kind with a person of our group who wasn’t go there alone. We arrived there by metro and after a little walk we found the address, the place was inside of a skyscraper. Well what to say the place was like a mall, hundred of small stores selling clothes and accessories, the only thing was that all the items were fake. You could find everything by fashion designers and our friends was looking for a model of Louis Vuitton bag. We walked a lots but even if it was full of bags there wasn’t the one that our friend wished. Here happened the unpredictable, a seller understood what we were looking for and she guided us through a door outside the main mall, we took some stairs then we stopped at some floor, then she opened another door that looked like an emergency door, then we entered in a tiny alley and then she knocked to a door. A man opened in what was his apartment-store. In a tiny space he has a bed under a window, a one meter kitchen on the right and all over shelves full of bags. He started searching but still no sign of the bag we wanted, when I thought I’ve seen all, the man opened a secret door that was behind one of the shelf! It was unbelievable and little scary, we see each other in the eyes and then we asked to go. It ain’t be easy but in a way of another we back to the “mall”. That visit has been a full experience, we also had a funny moment when in a store I tried to teach how to pronounce an Italian word to a Chinese guy, it was impossible for him to pronounce the “R”, it was so hilarious scene. I also noticed that was a normal habit for the people there to have lunch standing still in front of the entrance of their store. While one member of the family was working the other one was eating his rice, I also saw a kid doing the same thing. This is why they’re so productive but it was like a slave life, especially for the kids.
Finally we went out of that place, we started going down through the street of Century Avenue so we could see all the new buildings. We walked a lot and finally we saw the Shanghai World Financial Center and almost beside it, the Jin Mao Tower. I immediately fell in love with the financial tower for the design (the top looks like a corkscrew) and also for the blue and grey color. We were at night and it was so cool the experience of being under those towers, unfortunately at that time there was no sign of the Shanghai Tower which is now the tallest tower between the other two. We ended our tour near the Oriental Pearl Tower which is another piece of design. This tower looks like something seen in the Star Trek series. The tower take the attention for their spheres (especially the big ones) an the columns, it’s so futuristic, as I like it. We couldn’t reach the tower for a visit because we were so tired, we took the metro and we back to the hotel.
That night I deal with my friend Luciano to back to the Bund, see the Pudong skyline at night and then back to the club which was at the top floor of the Bund 18 building. When we arrived we’ve been a little disappointed because we didn’t know they take off the skyscrapers lights at some point so we couldn’t have the best view. We had a walk and then we went for a drink at the club. I think that was the hardest day we had but at the end we could enjoy Shanghai at night from one of its best club.
The fourth and last day in Shanghai was split in two, the morning dedicated to visit the Yu neighborhood and the afternoon for shopping. With part of the group, we started the day visiting the Yu Gardens. This place is in the heart of the city, it’s a big green space inside the building “jungle”. There was a lot of expectation in the group about this place, I also was excited because finally I could see something really “Asian”, something related to Chinese culture. In fact inside the Yu Garden I found what I was expected, lots of small temples, little rivers and lakes. We enjoyed exploring, taking nice pictures that doesn’t need explanation. I mean those kind of pictures where everyone could understand the place you are just looking at the background. Unfortunately even here there was the sign of the city expansion, walking all around the gardens you could spot skyscrapers behind some temples or trees. I realize that the place wasn’t so huge as I thought and that it was nice not for its beauty but just because it was the only green space in the city. In other words I liked the gardens but I couldn’t find there the real Chinese culture except for some items I bought in some store inside the gardens.
When we leave, we moved to Yuyuan Old Street, step by step I noticed this was what I was looking for. The more we went deep the road the more the street was tiny, a long road with ancient houses that were essentially stores on the basement and apartment on the upper floors. The road was full of people, tourists but also locals, there was no space between you and another person, it was claustrophobic but I liked. On both sides of the streets there were all kind of stores, the atmosphere was unreal for all the talking in the background. I don’t remember if I bought something here, but it was nice to see Chinese families with little children going up and down the road, for the moment I walked the street I felt the real China, the archetype I had in my mind, probably the result of movies or documentaries I watched. I enjoyed that walk considering that the neighborhood was the only classic thing in the city, they demolished to rebuild skyscrapers all over the city, that was the only place which was old fashioned, I hoped they could leave the place in the way it was, so something ancient could remain. The road ended in the southern part of the Bund, in front of the reality of the new city design. I think that here we went for lunch and after that we split with the group. With my friend Luciano I went for shopping starting with a new visit to the design store we’ve been some days before. I don’t remember anything else about that day, probably we back to the hotel and then dinner in some place. It’s strange as I don’t remember any place where we had dining. I can’t say I had good meals there, probably because I didn’t look for nice or typical restaurants, most of time we stopped in the first places we saw.
I have to mention the beauty of our hotel, I remember we spent lots of time with the group in the various spaces, there were lots of living rooms when we used to meet, exchange opinion talking about our experience there, following each other suggestions and sometimes also watching pictures that one guy of the group had already downloaded on his computer (It wasn’t yet the time for smartphones pics, most of people used the point and shoot cameras so it wasn’t cool watching pics on those tiny screens).
The new experiences weren’t finished yet, in fact it was planned to get to the airport using the Maglev, the super fast magnetic levitation train. We had some troubles to reach the station because the taxi driver started to freaking out after we showed to him our destination wrote on a piece of sheet. He screamed while driving, he stopped many times to talk with other taxi drivers, later we found out that most of taxi drivers in China are illiterate so they couldn’t read the address.
The experience on the train was cool, it was my first time at some kind of speed (we reached 300 km) but the fact that the train had no friction made the travel different. It was like floating in the air, this phenomenon was more pronounced especially when the train was cornering. The inclination in the curve was just exaggerated, a rides experience, so cool!
Visit Shanghai has been a great experience for many reasons. It was the dream come true in a couple of months, it was my first time in Asia and also first time in a megalopolis city (except of New York but that is another kind of city). I’ve been lucky to attend at the Expo and this worth a lots considering that it was a temporary exposition, so everything remains in the memory of the single person or in the pictures. Maybe my idea of China was little different, as I said I didn’t see so much about the stereotype, instead I saw one of the most advanced, technological and populated city in the world. Really the fact of being so close with thousands of people in the downtown is a singular experience and believe me it’s not easy to find it in other big cities. Probably I will not remember Shanghai for the food, probably because of that, I had un “unforgettable” return trip on the plane. After a couple of hours after the departure I practically spend the long flight in the bathroom, with vomiting and diarrhea. Of course the episode wasn’t the reflection of my mood about what I experienced in Shanghai, it was only a hard flight but I was happy inside.
Photo: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D3s