Shanghai has improved tremendously in the past decade. Love the city, hate it, or both, that is indisputable fact. Infrastructure has expanded and upgraded non-stop. Cash is a bygone inconvenience. The number of restaurants and nightlife options has exploded. We have great coffee and now, probably, the best art scene in the country. Our internet is the fastest in mainland China and our airports keep growing and improving. Riding the high-speed railway network is a singular pleasure.
It's not all perfect. We have more shopping malls than historic lanes. We're never getting central heating. Visas and bank transfers are rarely easy. Old Town has disappeared. Bad internet days.
But put those gripes aside and the overall picture is of a city intent on bettering itself. It's way, way easier to live in Shanghai 2020 than it was in Shanghai 2010, much less Shanghai 2005 or before, when many current SmSh staffers arrived, on steamboats.
Some of these changes were China-wide and some were Shanghai-specific, but they all affected us as residents of this sprawling metropolis. Here are the ones that stuck with us.
High Speed Trains Keep Getting Better
Does China have the best high-speed rail network in the world? Yes. Biggest is best, and it certainly has the biggest. And it just keeps getting better. Travel times have been slashed on many routes: it's three hours to Huangshan, 45 minutes to Hangzhou and less than 30 minutes to Suzhou. Just recently, they installed QR codes on the armrests so you can order food or drinks from the food car and have it delivered to your seat, like it's an airline or something.
Then there’s the whole technology side of it. If you have a Chinese ID card but forgot it, it used to take two hours to get a temporary replacement. Now, self-help printers mean it takes as little as 15 seconds (it uses facial recognition, another fun development). If you use a passport, you now bring that to scan at the entry gate instead of using a paper ticket. Paper! It’s a material of the past.
Taobao’s 7 Day No Questions Return Policy
Shopping on Taobao ten years ago was like playing Russian roulette with a stranger in a dark room. Every online purchase involved a gamble that the seller on the other end would turn out to be an honest human being.
Things became much easier in early 2015, when the online marketplace introduced its 7 Day No Questions Return Policy, in line with a new Consumer Protection Law introduced by the government. Is Taobao perfect? No. God no. But in the last five years, with the guarantee of some consumer protection, it's become a much more convenient (inescapable) part of our lives.
Burgers — Er, Food — Got Better
Obviously burgers are the most important cuisine in Shanghai. Seriously, though; what happened to the humble burger happened to just about every other food category. More and better brands, homegrown or imported. So let's use this as a case study. The burgerverse expanded rapidly in the past few years. In just the last three years, we've welcomed California’s The Habit Burger Grill, New York’s Shake Shack, LA’s Fatburger (RIP) and two new Beef & Liberty locations, in addition to all of these. Microcosm.
Everything Comes Delivery Now
It used be just Sherpa’s and Melrose Pizza. Nothing wrong with those. Sherpa’s is still going strong, bless them. But they are far from the only player in town these days. Everything — everything little thing — comes delivery these days. Groceries? Hema. Medicine (or restaurant food or groceries or pet food)? Eleme. Documents sent across town in 30 minutes? Shansong. Yu Xiang Qie Zi and a Dairy Queen blizzard? Meituan. A refrigerator and washing machine? JD.com. Anything else in the world? Taobao and Shunfeng.
The complete dominance of delivery is bittersweet. Humans are programmed for convenience and delivery caters to that base need. It is deeply satisfying to be able to save hours and hours a week on what used to be long excursions to a number of stores or specific streets that specialized in one type of goods, often coming away frustrated and empty-handed.
At the same time, the effects on the environment are well-documented and it can’t be good that we all eat desk lunches at work, alone, with our headphones in.
We all love it. God we love it. At this rate, not indulging in app-buying and an occasional Monday night pizza to the door is a deliberate, almost provocative, choice. Like veganism, or Satanic worship. Let’s call this one a net neutral: we love the convenience. Maybe too much.
Fastest Internet in the Country
Doesn't always seem like it (especially when browsing foreign sites), but according to this report from the Broadband Development Alliance from last September, Shanghai has the fastest average broadband speed in mainland China (39.1Mbit/s). See how to get some of that internet fire right here.
Pudong Airport's Satellite Terminals
In 2019, Pudong Airport finally finished the world's largest satellite terminal, expanding the airport’s capacity for passengers to 80 million passengers per year, up from 74 million. What does that mean for us, the schlubs in the small, upright plane seats? More than 90% of flights will board directly from the terminal building, compared to before when nearly half the flights had to take buses to the planes. No more buses!
And a hell of a lot more dining options than that one Burger King. Terminal One now has an Element Fresh, Baker & Spice, Carl's Jr, Heytea, Zheng Dou, Dairy Queen, De Xing Guan, and a Nan Xiao Guan. In Terminal Two, there's the very good JYJ Noodle Bar, the Korean Ben Jia chain, a Xibei Oat Noodle Village, the Cantonese Tang Gong, a Wagas, a Pizza Marzano and a Butcher's Club, to name just a few.
The West Bund and the Riverside Trails
Not sure when it happened but sometime in the last couple of years, the West Bund became the go-to hangout for a huge swathe of Shanghai and their dogs. The restored riverfront and its wide-open grass suddenly transformed into the summer home of a number of communities, from slack-liners to acro-yogis to longboard skaters and the selfie crew, plus anyone having a picnic. Not surprising. It’s a fantastic piece of urban redevelopment and a treasure for residents of the concrete maze. No wonder government officials in other districts are rushing to put in their own parks and trails, up on the North Bund and over in Pudong.
The Culture That Lives In Big International Dance Centers
Shanghai's independent underground scene continues to struggle in shifting sands, but the amount and quality of cultural offerings in Shanghai have exploded in the past five years. It's impossible to list them all. We’ll pick one example and let it stand in for the rest. Opened in October 2016, the Shanghai International Dance Center quickly made the city an international player with performances like 2019's Sutra, performed by 19 Shaolin Temple monks exploring Chinese Buddhist philosophies through the medium of boxes and sick backflips.
The Rise of Art
There has been such an influx of private and public museums, galleries and exhibitions, that many in the art world now consider Shanghai, not Beijing, to be the capital of contemporary art in China. Whooo! Suck it Beijing! We write a monthly column about what’s happening, and it's never enough. So many arts. Arts on arts on arts.
The Burying of Electrical Lines
Did you even notice? Happened so fast. Gone is the rodent superhighway dangling over our heads, but more importantly, you can now take a picture of Wukang Mansion without unsightly black lines getting in the way.
Late Night Metro and Free Wifi on Trains
Several lines (specifically 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10) now run past midnight on weekends. And the trains have surprisingly good public WiFi (you have to download an app to access it), fast enough to stream music and even videos. The stations have it too. It's never been easier to ignore your fellow commuters.
The Constant Improvement of Public Transport
There have been plenty of improvements in the exciting world of public transport over all. First off, the days of fumbling around for loose change have ended. You can now scan a QR code to pay for your ticket on buses and the Metro (which has expanded from 11 lines in 2010 to 19 in 2019, making it the largest in the world at 705km). Second off, Bus Line 71! Zooming across the city like a double-jointed bullet. Super fast, very useful. Finally, probably didn't notice, but the city has been phasing out gas-guzzling buses and is expected to fully replace its old fleet with new-energy models in 2020. Which is now!
FamilyMarts on Every Corner
It sort of crept up on us until people from out of town pointed it out, but why does Shanghai have so many damn convenience stores? What is this, Thailand? In 2010, Shanghai had less than 300 FamilyMarts. Today, at the start of 2020, it has more than 1,600. There're only slightly more beermarts! That’s in addition to about 1,075 Lawsons and 600+ Alldays. Incidentally, Buddies is holding fast at about 80 outlets, each a pink island of callous disinterest while everyone else is constantly upgrading, carrying Cheetos and putting in automated check-out. You don't even need to go! You can order from them on Eleme and Meituan (tsk, tsk!).
Cash-Free Life – WeChat and Alipay
These two apps have dramatically changed life for nearly everyone living in China (and for some tourists). Who carries cash anymore? You don’t need us to tell you how dependent you are on them, but the surprising thing is that it’s only really been this way for the past five years. Read the whole story of how WeChat and Alipay became so unavoidable. If you’re part of the minority not using them (WeChat has about a billion users and more than 90% of people in first-tier cities, meaning Shanghai, use it) because you can’t figure it out, we’ve written guides to how to sign up. One of uuuus.
The rise and fall of the share bike world has been well-documented (for example, here). The bikes blew up in 2016, dozens of companies rushed in, and then the whole thing pretty much imploded. That’s the China story arc. Boom-bust. For those of us in Shanghai, we know there's a little more nuance. Ofo's pretty much gone, and Mobike's in a multi-phasic limbo between gone, upgraded and Meituan'd, but the bikes are still out there, if not in the fleets we once saw, and they are still convenient. How? Hellobike. The blue and white one. The company concentrated on smaller cities and towns where it has about 8m bikes, a tactic it compared to Mao Zedong’s “surrounding the cities from the countryside” strategy that led to him winning a civil war in 1949. Intense. Now, after biding its time, it’s moving into the big cities. According to the Financial Times, Hellobike has raised 1.8 billion usd in funding since 2016. So long as there are still share bikes around, we don't care what they're called or what color they come in.
The Rise of Coffee Culture and Good Coffee
In the last three years or so, Shanghai has taken to coffee like it was tea. Maybe it’s the Starbucks effect. Maybe it’s the Instagram effect. Maybe it’s just easier to start a small café than starting a small restaurant. Maybe, maybe, maybe, but what’s definite is that apart from the 750+ Starbucks, the Luckin delivery network, the new Peet’s and the trendy % Arabica, there are an almost limitless number of places to get a coffee, much of it good, even, and many places to get something quite unique. We’ve documented this rise over the past few years. You really have no excuse to be drinking bad coffee in Shanghai anymore.
The Smoking Ban
Just, yes. Sorry. It's true. The best thing to happen to Shanghai’s bars, clubs and restaurants in years. Implemented in March 2017, loved ever since by anyone with a shred of decency. Also, the honking ban. Quiet life, happy life.
If you were here before the car apps, you remember how frustrating getting a taxi could be. Rainy days — forget it. Morning rush hour — forget it. Anywhere off the beaten path –– forget it. Standing on the side of the street at 8.15am hoping for that green light to show up in the distance. And then, just when you thought you had one, someone sharked it from you, jumping in the front seat and zooming off, the sunuv––. The apps haven’t solved transportation but they have certainly made it more transparent, letting you know how long it takes to get to your destination (more or less correct) and at least giving you an estimate for how long it will take to wait for a car (less correct).
They’ve also introduced a wave of more professional drivers who have to take customer complaints seriously (assuming you actually call that taxi service hotline, which you won't) and are much easier to track down when you’ve left something in the car. It’s a big step forward. A huge industry, with Uber and Kuaidi Dache left by the wayside. And it still doesn’t make money! But let the C-suite tech geniuses figure that one out. You just need to figure out how to sign up, and, oh hey we made you an easy little guide for that.
The Rise of Better Beer
Like coffee and burgers, beer choices were not always so plentiful. The main decision was which region’s weak wheat-flavored water did you want to have with dinner: Snow, Tsingtao or expensive Tsingtao? Now we’ve got the Beer Lady and her global beer shelves, and hundreds of bottle shops selling brews in all styles from all over the world. Plus enough craft beer breweries, both local and imported, to keep you occupied for just under 24 hours. Not recommended.