Superlatives are everywhere in Shanghai. I forked over my 50 yuan (about $7.90) and boarded the maglev train departing from Pudong International Airport. My understanding was that this was a high-speed train, like the one I’d recently taken from Chengdu to Xian. I didn’t realize that, operating by a giant set of magnets that caused it to levitate over the track (hence the name, maglev), it was the fastest commercially operating train in the world. After leaving precisely on time, our speed began to build. And build. Soon, we were screaming through a blur of new housing developments and farmland at 268 miles per hour as we made our way from the Pacific coast to the heart of Shanghai. The ride, while not exactly smooth — you feel the speed — was exhilarating. I stepped off 19 miles and a few minutes later at Longyang Road, slightly dazed.
Despite this high-tech arrival system, Shanghai is, in a way, a late bloomer. Cities like Beijing and Xian have been political and commercial powerhouses for centuries. Heading into the 19th century, Shanghai was a modest trading port that exploded after being “opened” to the world by Western imperialism. What became known as the Paris of the East laid the groundwork for what Shanghai is today: an unparalleled economic powerhouse and megacity of 24 million people. Packed with luxury brands and overrun with shiny Bentleys and Audis, it’s also impossibly expensive — kryptonite for a penny-pincher like me. Luckily, I was able to spend a four-day weekend there denting, but not breaking, the bank.
You can start saving money by staying on the fringes of the city center, where rooms at the Peninsula can run $900 per night. I settled on the Jinjiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq Shanghai, just north of the Huangpu River in Hongkou, and paid 576 yuan per night, about $90, for a perfectly comfortable “Extreme Sassy” double room. (The hotel has since been rebranded as the Golden Tulip Bund New Asia. Things move fast in Shanghai.)
After the rush of the maglev train, getting there on the subway felt like a mere crawl. Still, it was relatively efficient and definitely cheap — expect to pay between 3 and 5 yuan for a one-way journey. And the location near Tiantong Road was ideal — I could either hop directly on the subway or take a short walk over the Suzhou River into the Huangpu District, giving me easy access to the Number 2 subway line, one of the two main underground east-west thoroughfares in the city. It’s also just a few minutes’ walk to the Bund, the famous waterfront area where old European banking and trading houses gaze over the river at the new, towering financial centers of Pudong. China is platitudinously described as a compelling mix of ancient and modern — but in Shanghai, there’s ample reason.
Walking in Shanghai, though, can be an adventure. As you might expect from a city of more than 20 million people, it’s constant and not-always-controlled chaos. Still, between the nonstop dodging of cars and motorbikes, it’s fairly doable — and a great way to work up an appetite. And while Shanghai itself is high-priced (a cold brew and pizza slice at the world’s largest Starbucks will set you back $20), true Shanghainese cuisine happens to favor the frugal, in the form of one of my favorite types of food: dumplings.
The first dumpling to get to know is the xiao long bao, or soup dumpling, a regional specialty that’s long been popular in the States. The steamed dumplings, usually filled with pork or crab meat, have delicate, nearly translucent skins — but not too thin that they might break, losing the valuable liquid inside.
My first of many great xiao long bao came from Papa Chan’s Shanghai Dumplings, a fairly sizable restaurant on Sichuan Middle Road. Around late morning, I noticed a mob of people forming in the lobby and decided to join them. I was glad I did — while I ended up mistakenly getting four orders of dumplings (10 yuan each) instead of one order of four dumplings (my Chinese is a little rusty), they were perfectly petite and bite-size, and exploding with porky soup flavor. I’d snarfed down a dozen before I’d even gotten wind of the sizzling jian bao — a thicker, doughier fried dumpling — down the street.
At Lao Sheng Xing, another quick casual midday hot spot, a man wielding two pairs of industrial pliers poured a steady stream of grease out of a wide, shallow pan. The two dozen or so golden brown dumplings, stuffed with beef and chopped vegetables, bubbled and sputtered. I ordered three big fried dumplings, each about the size of a baseball, for a total of 9 yuan. The drill at most of these places is the same: Order at the counter and hand your receipt to a server or, in this case, the guy making the dumplings. Grab your food, an available seat and enjoy.
Other quality dumpling houses abound, and special mention should go to Ling Long Fang for its casual, appealingly dingy atmosphere and excellent xiao long bao (16 yuan a dozen) — which you can see being made while you wait. The real M.V.P. of Shanghai dumplings, though, is the sheng jian bao. At the intersection of steamed bun, fried pot sticker and soup dumpling, you’ll find the sheng jian bao (not to be confused with the regular jian bao mentioned above). They are fried in a shallow pan, then steamed, and finished off with a smattering of scallions and sesame seeds. They also drench the palate with hot juice upon the initial bite.
You can get your fix at Da Hu Chun, a warm and homey storefront with shared tables and four pork-filled dumplings for 7 yuan. Of nearly as good quality are the ones at Yang’s Dumplings, a popular chain — get the sheng jian bao stuffed with shrimp (four for 18 yuan). The best I had, though, were during a two-hour morning food tour I purchased through Lost Plate, a food tour outfitter (300 yuan, includes food). Our guide, Nick, started us off at Xiahai Miao (Under the Sea), a Buddhist temple with an adjacent vegetarian restaurant (the Eight Treasure Noodles were quite good), then walked us through the former Jewish Ghetto, where 20,000 refugees lived during World War II.
Winding our way through the nongtang (old-fashioned alleyways) passing humble apartment blocks with European-style balconies, we ended up near the intersection of Dongyuhang and Anguo Roads, where I found the sheng jian bao of my dreams in a small storefront. They were fluffy on top, crunchy on the bottom and filled with savory, fatty juice. They were included in the price of the tour, but would have cost just 6 yuan for an order of four.
While I was beguiled by the food of Shanghai (as you might be able to tell), I was equally smitten with the numerous historical, artistic and musical options the city has to offer. After the tour ended, I went to the nearby Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (20 yuan), which elucidates the history of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, highlighting in particular the lives of Jakob Rosenfeld, an Austrian doctor who fought with the People’s Liberation Army, and Ho Feng Shan, a diplomat sometimes called the Chinese Schindler for issuing visas against orders.
Elsewhere, the M50 Art Industry Park is a huge arts community set in a prewar textile manufacturing complex. Most of the dozens upon dozens of galleries are free to browse — including the Chenglin Art Gallery, home to the playful and colorful paintings of Chenglin Huang — though a handful charge admission. I also stopped in at the gallery of Bu Bai Liao, who happily showed me several of his rock ‘n’ roll-inspired portraits. Mr. Bu said he enjoyed M50, but added that communal gallery life has a downside: “I think artists need the freedom to communicate with other people.”
One of the most entertaining galleries is island6, home of the Shanghai-based art collective Liu Dao. It draws heavily from technology in its pieces, with plenty of video game references and an inevitable tongue-and-cheek critique of capitalism. A work called “Cheongsam Kingdom” featured a painting of a classic automobile superimposed over a looped video of a young woman in traditional dress behind the wheel, blowing LED smoke through a cigarette.
The M97 Gallery on Changping Road is smaller, more intimate and free — and is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. I was interested by a macabre, slightly disturbing multimedia installation called “The Theater of Apparitions,” by Roger Ballen, as well as work that involved the beautiful layering of Chinese calligraphy and traditional darkroom techniques by Sun Yanchu.
Another worthwhile art destination — in the southeast corner of the city center and marginally harder to get to — is the state-run Power Station of Art, formerly the Nanshi Power Plant. Admission is free, but I paid an additional 50 yuan to see the special exhibition dedicated to the Italian design collective Superstudio (through March 11). The concept of a government-supervised contemporary art museum is intriguing, to say the least, and it’s interesting to see how Chinese artists navigate the boundaries of harsh censorship.
The music in Shanghai is as compelling as its art, and I saw a number of live music shows over the course of my stay. Jazz is one popular import, and I headed out one night to watch the smoking-hot Ulysses Owens Jr. Quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai — yes, that Lincoln Center. The club was swank and intimate, and the music as good as any you’ll see in New York City. A highlight was the vocalist Alicia Olatuja joining for a sultry rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” Tickets (180 yuan) were reasonable, though the servers didn’t care much for the fact that I passed on ordering dinner and had only a Qingdao beer (55 yuan).
On a different end of the spectrum was a Leonard Bernstein retrospective I attended at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1879 as the Shanghai Public Band and billed as Asia’s oldest orchestra. The conductor, Zhang Jiemin, exhibited masterful control, and she led the orchestra through a program that included the overture to “Candide” (one of my favorites), as well as Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” symphony. The 80-yuan tickets were sold out when I went to the box office, so I took the next best at 180 yuan. (Upon arriving at the symphony hall, for what it’s worth, I noticed plenty of scalpers looking to unload tickets.)
On my last day, I indulged a touristic whim and headed to the observation deck at the top of the Shanghai Tower (180 yuan). There are a number of interesting things about the building itself — an innovative rain-collecting system reduces water consumption by 25 percent, for example — which helped make up for the hazy, less-than-stellar view at the top. At 2,073 feet tall, it’s the second-tallest building in the world, behind the Burj Khalifa.
As if sensing impending disappointment, our elevator operator proudly pointed out that the elevator we were riding, at 45 m.p.h., was in fact the fastest in the world. In Shanghai, the competitive fire always burns.