Shanghai has always been China’s most diverse city. A century ago it was carved up into various ‘concessions’ – small but sovereign outposts for the British, the French, the Japanese and many other countries. Sikh policemen kept guard, sailors from around the world got into trouble in Blood Alley and Chinese traders, financiers and dockworkers poured in from the south, settling in and around the walled city.
In 1912 the city wall was pulled down, but another de facto one was put up after World War II: Mao’s government. The state turned the lights off on Shanghai for decades, until Beijing decided to take a chance and revive it in the 1990s as a financial centre – a gamble it didn’t want to take on the Chinese capital, so real estate developers and government planners gave the city a makeover. The bet paid off. In three decades, Shanghai has gone from ration tickets to skyscrapers, and the city has stumbled over itself to regain its lost cosmopolitanism.
Shanghai may just be the most Buddhist city in the world. Not for its temples – which are few and often crassly commercial – but for the lesson it delivers every day about material attachment. One week an intersection might have four restaurants. The next weekend there’s a park there. After years of being stuck under Beijing’s thumb, the city was set free again in the 1990s to get rich and have fun – which it has done, and more. Residents crave the new and enterprising businesspeople race to give it to them. These days, Shanghai is more a spirit than a fixed place. Even the food scene is always evolving. While managing to satisfy the needs and taste of international residents and visitors, Shangai hosts one the most diverse and interesting tradition of typical dishes in the whole World.
Soup dumplings are to Shanghai what a slice of pizza is to New York: quintessential, and the source of never-ending debate. Is it crucial that the skin is so thin that all you taste is the pork filling? Is it progress or heresy to eat soup dumplings that cost more than 1RMB each...