A holiday lesson in Shanghai’s tenements

A holiday lesson in Shanghai’s tenements

By on December 29th, 2011


Shanghai is a beautiful city. Standing on the Bund waterfront area looking out at the impressive skyline, it’s hard not to be awed by it. The world’s tallest tower—at least until the one being built next to it is finished—lets you look out over the city, and it’s impressive: cuttingedge buildings in every shape and size in Pu Dong; the pedestrian shopping streets filled with the latest electronics in Pu Xi.

After taking the kids to Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Yangshuo, the modernity of Shanghai was a shock to all of our systems. We were suddenly back in a world we were familiar with: coffee shops, English speakers, flashy new Apple stores, business districts that boasted men in suits and ladies in heels. And we might’ve left Shanghai thinking that that was what it was—a city just like New York, Paris or Toronto: glitzy and glamorous. But like those cities, there’s more to Shanghai.

Our stay at Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai gave us insight into that. The hotel offers guests the chance to see the other Shanghai. No less or more important than the beautiful side, but as gritty and complicated as the other sides of all international cities. Four Seasons arranged for our family of four to tour the tenements of Shanghai with renowned photographer Gangfeng Wang. His Gang of One Photography is world famous, and his photographs capture the poignancy in China’s alleyways and overcrowded dwellings. He knows the neighbourhoods. Because he’s lived in them, and continues to work based there.

In this holiday time of plenty for so many in North America, it was a wonderfully meaningful way for us to spend the day with our two sons, Ethan, nine, and Cameron, seven, learning the realities of daily life in another part of the world.

As we wandered down the bustling main street away from the hotel, we were shocked to simply turn a non-descript corner and find a world we had no idea existed here. Families have lived here for generations; sometimes as many as six in a tiny space. Sharing kitchens. Marking their water taps and electricity boxes to protect against neighbours who might “accidentally” use the wrong one. Watching each other’s children, and their children’s children, and the children after that. Growing old while hoping for opportunities to live a better life, and watching glitzy skyscrapers sprout around them.

They live a life that is bordered by Starbucks and Prada, but not a part of it.

Our tour took us into this community’s most intimate quarters, introduced us to the residents and showed us a side of Shanghai we would’ve never found on our own. The best part of this tour: the kids got it. They quickly began to compare what we were seeing with what we had at home.

“All the families live here…together? Where’s the kids’ room? They all sleep here? But there’s only one bathroom?”

And while the boys noticed the differences, they also saw the benefits:
“They get to see each other all the time, then.”
“I bet they eat dinner together sometimes.”
“Those kids look like they’re having fun.”
“I wish I had a pet chicken.”

We left Shanghai with a bigger picture of what the city is. We saw both faces of the coin, and the kids are better for it. There is beauty in the urban architectural marvels, but there is another beauty here, too. And we feel lucky to have explored it with someone who knew how to tell the story.

Read more about Shanghai in Four Seasons Magazine.

Post Author
Heather Greenwood Davis

Based near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Heather Greenwood Davis is a freelance writer whose articles appear in publications such as The Toronto Star, Canadian Family, UrbanMoms.ca and more. She recently returned from a one-year, round-the-world adventure with her husband and two sons, eight and 10. You can read about their journey and the adventures before and since at globetrottingmama.com.

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1 Response(s) to "A holiday lesson in Shanghai’s tenements"
Allyson Newburg says:
December 31, 2011 at 9:46 am

Lovely photos and article. Been to Shanghai several times and can’t wait to take my toddler!


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