Last week, I went to Shanghai for the very first time — I've been to other parts of China before. With no expectations, I landed in Shanghai ready to see the newest HP computers. I ended up seeing more than just Sleekbooks, new Ultrabooks and portable printers.
Consider this my travel B-roll. These are my impressions of a city we all write about quite a bit as tech reporters, but usually for the gadgets being showcased, not the amazing city itself.
A Chinese City Masked By Western Envy
When tourism books and postcards paint a picture of Shanghai, it's of the majestically lit-up skyline in Shanghai's Pudong district. There's the unmissable Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower (far left in the photo above, the tall needle spearing two orbs), the Shanghai World Financial Center (the giant bottle opener on the right behind the Aurora building) and the Jin Mao Tower (an 88-story skyscraper with traditional pagoda-esque design; fifth tallest in the world — also behind the Aurora building).
Walk onto any major avenue and you'll find grand shopping malls with floors and floors of shops, many of them familiar. A colleague of mine, John Burek, editor-in-chief of ComputerShopper likened Shanghai's massive malls to the very same ones that can be found in the U.S. "It's just like walking into the Staten Island Mall [in New York]," said Burek.
With three of the five Apple Stores in all of China and an IFC Shanghai Mall crammed with more luxury brands than the Super Brand Mall that sits across the street in the heart of Pudong, it's blatantly clear that Shanghai's new generation of workers — rich or not — are driven by the power association that comes with premium brand allegiance.
While nearly all of Pudong's skyscrapers represent China's rise as a world economic super power led by a burgeoning middle class that's still on the rise, the same can't be said when you hit the real streets and alleyways of Shanghai.
The Real Sights And Sounds Of Shanghai
Away from Pudong's glamour and the lure of oversized shopping malls filled with western brands such as Coach, Gucci and Louis Vuitton is the "dark side" of the city — and a population without the financial, educational or societal means to strike it big.
Hit the packed streets and you'll quickly find that you've stepped into China's wild west. Bikers and drivers largely ignore basic traffic laws, weaving through swaths of pedestrians somehow without killing anyone, or just making turns where turns are clearly marked as prohibited, but they do.
Shanghai is a city crammed from street to street with nearly 20 million people, and yet, despite having some of the most posh new malls made from glass and polished marble (some of which are virtually empty because nobody can afford any of the goods in them), its sketchy street life still proliferates. It's in these nooks and crannies of Shanghai that shady-looking "businessmen" hock their tchotchkes and fake iPhones (which, believe it or not, are made to trick not only foreigners, but fool countryside folk who are just transitioning to city life and don't know the difference between a knockoff iPhon3 and a real iPhone — or don't care).
Crowded tourist traps such as Nanjing Road are completely different by nightfall. During the day, tourists from up and down China and other countries to try and haggle prices down for homemade delicacies, jewelry and clothing, the last slapped with "asian oriental prints." At night, however, the streets get almost eerie-like, especially when you round a corner and see a guy selling Mao-era toy soldiers that nobody will ever buy or people just squatting all over the place while enjoying a midnight cigarette or two. The bustle simply vanishes, just like that.
Towards A Brighter And Cleaner Future
It's impossible to visit a city in constant, accelerated development such as Shanghai and not see disparities between the city's poor and wealthy — the divide is clear and it's everywhere.
You'll see the young and well-off flaunt their Prada handbags or their iPads in public while cruising around in Mercedes Benzes and BMWs. Then look the other way, and there's Shanghai's less fortunate (and usually older) who are stuck spit-shining the streets in blue government jumpsuits. Even worse is when you see kids no older than ten forced to expertly shove flyers for hostess bar — where women are paid to sit and have a drink with you or laugh at your jokes — in your face. Even as ultra-modern as Shanghai still is, you'll still find plenty of the old "country" habits on display, such as excessive spitting, littering and rampant pickpocketing that are frowned upon by more industrialized or metropolitan cities.
But if Shanghai is to shed its wild west image, it will have to start by curbing its old and undesirable traits. The question is how does it do that without losing its Chinese heritage while modernizing.
I can see this city become a technological wonder, with skyscrapers that will trump Dubai's, drivers that know more than a GPS as they find hidden routes squeezing down narrow streets, and shops that make New York's famous SoHo shopping district appear tame. That'll happen when the new replaces the old.
If you've never been to Shanghai, the reel below highlights the most interesting glimpses of the city that I experienced in my two and a half days as a reporter on assignment. You can also see it here, or on your big screen TV using your Xbox.
Video shot and edited by Raymond Wong for DVICE