Dark Tourism in Shanghai

Most tourists might have thought that European cities have more spooky, dark tales to tell about spirits that walked its cobbled stoned paths. But who knew that in Asia, particularly Shanghai, darkness lurked within its neon-lit skyline?

John Newman, a British expat has recently started a Ghost Tour in Shanghai, bringing tourists around downtown Jing’an district; to spots that seem to be unlikely haunted on the outset. Here are some spots, which I thought would be the most interesting ones to visit:

1. Paramount Theatre: was known as the ‘grand dance hall’ in the 1930s. It is believed that 2 ghosts still loom the majestic theatre- a Chinese woman who was shot by a Japanese solider in the 1930s; and a passer-by who was unfortunately killed during its renovation in the 1990s.

2. Nine Dragons Pillar: a silver pillar, intricately carved with nine golden dragons erected at the intersection of Yan’an Road and the South-North Elevated road. Legend has it that workers found it impossible to bore a hole during the pillar’s construction. Clueless of what to do, they called a monk who mentioned that they had awakened a dragon that has been sleeping underneath Shanghai for centuries. The monk died the next despite the workers’ apologies.

3. Plaza 66: located at Nanjing Road West, the building’s construction kept being delayed. After developers asked a feng shui master for help, he discovered that there was an ancient goddess living in its foundations. The building’s design was changed to look like a stick of incense to honor the angry goddess and to keep her at peace.

Myth or true story- no one really knows. What I find particularly interesting is how most of its dark tourism sights in Shanghai tell more folklore than actual events of conflict, unlike Western countries (ie. like the Berlin Wall). Nonetheless, dark tourism gives a unique and intriguing way of knowing more about a country’s untold, underrepresented or misrepresented history.


Squatting In Shanghai

Shanghai Toilet


Imagine: After a Shanghainese gastronomy (see: CNN’s 40 Shanghai foods we can’t live without) of roasted duck, Xiaolong baos, frog legs and stinky tofu, chances are that you would probably feel your stomach yearning to answer the call of nature; especially after trying the stinkiest and weirdest dishes of Shanghai for the very first time . You are in the middle of a busy street, panicking because you desperately need to ‘LET IT GO’. Finally, you find a public toilet but with no toilet bowl and individual cubicles with doors, “Oh, the horror! Is this ‘well’ even for humans?” Well, the answer is: “Yes and you have no choice so… squat on!”

Most expats or tourists in Shanghai find the ‘squat toilets’ as one of their biggest culture shocks. In a cosmopolitan and well-developed city where a lot of people reside, I would have expected more sanitized and well-maintained toilets. However, I think that the existence of these ‘traditional squatting toilets’ are somehow a representation and a form of respect for old beliefs.

Apparently, despite the toilets’ dirty facade lies a belief that touching toilet doors, seats and latches actually contaminate you with bacteria, which explains why most don’t have cubicle doors. Also, many toilets don’t have water and soap because of the belief that washing your hands with cold water when it’s cold outside will get you sick. In essence, the whole idea is not to come into contact with anything at all to stay clean and bacteria-free. (Read more on: Expat Toilet Experience)

Well, this is definitely not on my bucket list but it would be quite an uncomfortable yet rewarding experience, especially having to overcome the filth and unfamiliarity of the place. I guess as a space progresses, beliefs are things that remain untouched by the physical development of space and therefore, could somehow affect what things of the past that stay and changes.

Thriving Shanghai

Food or more like, fun fact for thought: In Chinese feng shui, water is believed to help the flow balance, harmony and prosperity into one’s life.

With this in mind, perhaps it explains why Shanghai was destined to be a thriving cosmopolitan city, as it is surrounded by the famous Bund River, which served as a gateway for trade in the 1840s. To Westerners, Shanghai was foreseen to have a great potential in becoming a great trading post with its location, which is in close to the tea and silk production regions of Hangzhou and Suzhou. They also had a mad dream for the new Shanghai: “..they would wrest Shanghai from China and build a Western city that just happened to be in the Far East.” (A History of Future Cities, Daniel Brook)

The Westerner’s vision of Shanghai is not a far cry from what is today- a city that boasts majestic, utopian skyscrapers, over 100,000 millionaires and a neon-lit skyline in Pudong, which is now dubbed as the “Wall Street of Asia”. Shanghai is also predicted to be an economic superpower in twenty years.

Yet despite its instantaneous development, I always had the notion that its Oriental culture would remain strong because of its Communist rule. For example, I thought that women were still seen as the weaker link in Shanghai (and China in general). Also, in terms of fashion, they most would still be wearing the traditional cheongsam or qi pao

However, realizing the ubiquity of Western influence (ie. the presence of Western brands and a growing population of expatriates in Shanghai), many Shanghainese women see themselves as “women of power”, as many women now own businesses in Shanghai and most of them do not carry their husband’s surname (as documented on “Piers Morgan on Shanghai”). Also, in terms of fashion, many of today’s trends are influenced by Westerners and Shanghai is the second largest spender on luxury goods. Chinese women also go through eye surgeries, in the hopes of looking less Oriental as emphasis is placed on looks in modern Shanghai when it comes to job applications.

With Shanghai’s booming economy and the adaptation of a Westernized culture, it seems to be changing the world’s preconceptions of Red China.