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Shanghai Calling: A sense of the city

Student Eleanor Jolliffe is 10 days into her China work placement and is inspired by the pace of change in Shanghai

I am writing this on a Sunday: I have been in Shanghai for 10 days now and I am enjoying my first day off. People do not exaggerate when they say that progress is fast in China.

The speed at which we are designing, specifying and drawing in the office has to be seen to be believed. Deadlines loom faster than anything I have witnessed in the UK and people speak wistfully of next weekend: ‘Maybe we can have a rest then…’ However, the energy here is palpable and my colleagues passionate about what they are doing. Despite the long hours no one seems burnt out.

The city, the little I have seen of it so far, also changes fast - adapting to the weather and time of day in such a dramatic way that walking home one evening I was convinced I had taken a wrong turn. When the air is particularly smoggy or cloudy the haze created suggests a city of shadows. On sunny days the clarity of the light reveals all the imperfections and grime of the city, rendering it a good deal less picturesque.

The architecture, with the exception of central areas and Pudong - where the famous skyscrapers are - is relatively unremarkable, streets and streets of residential blocks 10 or so stories high with shops at ground floor level. But even this seems to be changing.

Wherever you go, you are in, near, or can hear a building site. Renderings suggest a new look for these sites, in keeping with other global cities such as New York or London, though scaled up by at least ten percent. The infrastructure is also brand new, clean and very efficient - the metro is considerably more pleasant to use than London’s beloved tube and the roads here are wide and more suited to the volume of traffic than the roads in central London.

In the morning the streets are relatively calm and clean, with people hurrying to work, dodging the traffic on bikes and scooters or bustling along the pavements (not exclusively reserved for people, it would seem). Crossing the road here is somewhat of an extreme sport, with traffic laws regarded more as suggestions than commands, and many times I have had to leap out of the way of a bus or taxi running a red light with horn blaring.

By the time I walk home again the streets have been transformed: littered with the rubbish of the day; scattered with men behind barrows of vegetables and fruit; crammed with makeshift barbeques cooking kebabs of unidentifiable meat and wafting savoury smells. Groups of old men huddle around a sort of chess game on street corners, drawing groups of up to twenty spectators, and a rusty metal cabinet and stack of broken chairs near my flat turns into a small metalwork business. Despite the smells (and there are plenty of those both good and bad!) this is my favourite time of day in Shanghai. The city comes alive in the evening.

The city is welcoming, the people kind and courteous, always delighted to see you and willing to use sign language or broken English. I do feel rather conspicuous here - I can count on one hand the number of individuals I have seen so far who are not Chinese - and it is a very different type of city to any in the UK, due mostly to the way people use the city. People who live here use the public space in a way I have never seen in the UK. There is a great sense of occupant ownership and the pavements and streets are used as an extension of the buildings. In contrast, areas like Pudong are so massive that all sense of human scale is lost; the roads through the skyscrapers six lanes wide in places, roundabouts the size of city blocks, the skyscrapers towering a hundred floors above you. I was there on a cloudy day but I could imagine on sunny ones the reflection of the sun off the towers could be blinding.

Shanghai is such a hospitable place that I have yet to feel unwelcome or out of place. Now I am eagerly awaiting the elusive ‘next weekend’ so I can see a bit more of it!

Eleanor Jolliffe has just completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.This is the second of a series of regular blog posts.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Billy Walker

    I enjoyed your blog post a lot, you gave a good insight into the day-to-day workings of Shanghai. I'm a third year AT student at Nottingham Trent on placement in the UK. I'm thinking of looking for short-term work in China after I graduate in 2014 - backpacking and seeing the sights as I go. You say you haven't seen many foreign (non-Chinese) people around, how difficult would it be to fly out to China without a job and look for work once there? Have you seen anyone else doing this?
    Thanks, Billy.

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  • Billy Walker

    Really enjoyed your blog, was a good insight into your experience of Shanghai over the first few days! I'm an AT third year student on my placement year in the UK. I've been thinking about flying out to China after I graduate in 2014. You say you haven't met many foreigners in the city, what would you say the chances were of a graduate from the UK acquiring a job once there (even just a few weeks of experience - preferably in an architectural practice)?. Are companies in Shanghai more prone to taking on students as interns than graduates as short-term workers?

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  • Hi- I have only just noticed your comment! It is fairly straightforward to find an intern job (equivalent to Part I assistant so it is a graduate job) here but be warned that the pay is very low and the hours can be very long! Saying that I wouldn't change it for the world- the experiences I am having here are once in a lifetime! I am not too sure of the situation for ATs as they are in a different (non-english speaking team) in my company. I think you are likely to need a design portfolio for an architectural job though. All of China seems to be a building site at the moment though so I would imagine your chances are good. Let me know if I can be of any more help. Good Luck!

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