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The International Writers Magazine
:Hacktreks in China

Melissa Lee

Beneath the veneer of towering skyscrapers, massive highways and sleek inhabitants that all point to yet another cookie-cutter metropolis, Shanghai still retains its sense of spirituality and kooky charm.

A glance at Shanghai's skyline, could have placed the uninformed in New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore or just about any big city in the world. All the usual big city suspects are present: towering skyscrapers sprawling far as the eye could see, neon-lit billboards, traffic jams, honking cars, the throngs of beautiful people.

Photo: The ingot folder

"You du che le" (Traffic jam again!), Lau Huang, our local driver sighs, as he expertly honks, maneuvers and curses his way towards our destination. Put a Shanghainese to the task of navigating just about any big city in the world and they will be able to fend their way through the experience—even if they have never left the country, like Lau Huang.

So, one wonders, post China’s open-door policy, has this city of 14 million inhabitants been transformed by the forces of capitalism and modernization into yet another soulless metropolis spawning yet another bunch of world-weary city slickers? Fortunately, beneath the big city façade, the spirit of history and Chinese tradition still throbs at Shanghai’s core. Shanghai’s charm really lies in the little ironies that one finds in its physical and socio-cultural landscape.

Zoom in to the streets and alleys of Puxi, the area west of the Huangpu river, and evidence of an older Shanghai surfaces. The area is still peppered with squatter-like shophouses. In the dusty narrow alleys, clothes hang dripping from bamboo poles, children play and woks hiss. A group of men sit in the middle of a busy street open to both traffic and pedestrians, playing a game of dice, oblivious to warning honks of passing cars. Many locals still have the charming idiosyncrasy of wandering around town in their pajamas even in the middle of the day. A seasoned Shanghai resident tells me this is because many of the older residences still do not contain bathrooms and inhabitants have to visit a public bathroom in order to take a shower.

In the midst of the hubbub of the main traffic avenues and under the shadow of those gleaming edifices to commerce and consumerism, numerous parks dot the city like small green oases. In these parks, senior citizens practice tai chi and mothers with young chubby-cheeked children chat away. In defiance to the "No Spitting" signs that have been installed around Shanghai, globs of spittle still sprinkle the sidewalks, byproducts of the oft-heard "haaccck" sound that only Chinese throats seem to be able to produce. Many Shanghainese still eschew common notions of civility and vent their frustrations by engaging in angry public exchanges with waitresses, shopkeepers, traffic wardens etc. in rapid-fire Shanghainese.

Numerous temples still dot the city, homage to China’s long religious history. Devotees as well as tourists still throng popular temples like Ling Yin Shi and Yu Fo Shi, offering incense and muttering prayers while kowtowing to the idols within. Monks in saffron robes chant prayers. The scores of tourists gawking at the idols and clicking rapidly away at their cameras seem almost to adulterate this scene of religious worship.
Fast forward to nightfall and the countless pubs, bars and clubs thrive. One is truly spoilt for choice when it comes to nighttime entertainment. It would take about a year to do a tour of all Shanghai’s pubs, bars and clubs. Hot euro lassies sway away in many of the city’s popular dance clubs. Live jazz bars with a mix of both local and foreign musicians, attract a more sedate, mostly expatriate working crowd. The segregation between the local and the expatriates are still obvious for many of the popular nightspots are frequented by either foreigners or locals and few contain a balanced local-foreigner ratio.

That’s Shanghai. A pulsating boomtown with a heady blend of the traditional and modern. To wax lyrical about the scenery along the Bund, the city lights from the top of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the picturesque Yu gardens, the fashion picks along Nanjing Lu and Huaihai Lu, would only be delving into the cliché and clichés simply do not do this city justice. To find the real Shanghai, take to the streets, and then take a breather to ponder the minutiae while they still last. For with every hiss of a side-alley wok and every kowtow of a temple devotee, the demolisher’s ball is sweeping over the older quarters of the city, and the clang of construction pervades the air, as yet more gleaming skyscrapers spring up to bury the less commercially appealing aspects of the city.
© Melissa Lee Jan 2005
nomads at
Melissa hails from Singapore

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