‘If you want a real experience of digitization, your best bet is to come to the place where it’s most advanced,’ we were advised by Eric Lin, Managing Director of our Chinese distributor, and his assistant Vanessa Yao, who both work with our Chinese distribution partner. Sounds reasonable enough, we figured, followed up their invitation, and here they are to show us.
Shanghai: to most of us in the west, there was a time when it sounded like a fantasy name from some fairy tale, some unreal city dreamt up in the imagination and from another world. And it is another world, as we see during our descent, when it opens before us after 9000 kilometres in the air: a metropolis with 24 million inhabitants at the eastern tip of China. The juxtaposition of old and new takes place in a gigantic crucible that cultivates a vibrant electricity of its own, between traditional and modern. Leaving the airport, we are overwhelmed with sensations. A potpourri of bustling activity, garish colours, unfamiliar sounds, exotic smells and incomprehensible neon signs gives us an inexplicable sense of anticipation in our stomachs and expectation of an exciting adventure. Taxi! Shanghai, here we come!
My smartphone shows 7 am. Our driver steers his car like a blood corpuscle through the city’s main arteries. The heart rate is determined by traffic lights. For him, our English is as formidable a barrier as the Great Wall, or at least every bit as daunting as his Chinese for us. Nevertheless, he knows where he is going and brings us to the address on the printout we hand to him at the beginning of our journey. The hotel is ultramodern, the reception area devoid of staff. All we find is a terminal, into which we scan the QR code of our booking confirmation, only to be given a virtual welcome by a young lady who appears on the screen. A few more formalities and we have checked in. All digitally. The room is moderately sized, extremely functional, spotlessly clean and offers a breathtaking view of the city. We comb our vocabulary for fitting superlatives. Then we have to get moving. Eric and Vanessa are waiting for us in the lobby – in person, and not virtually, we are pleased to note.
Skyscrapers jostle for position with historic edifices
Shanghai has something mystical about it. There’s a reason why it is called ‘Modu City’, which means something like ‘monster city’ or ‘magical place’. Today, it’s a symbol for high tech and a high standard of living’ explains Eric Lin, clearly determined to deliver proof of his assertions in the course of the next few hours. The first stage of our tour takes us to The Bund, a 1500-metre-long waterfront promenade along the west bank of the Huangpu River, with a plethora of sights to satisfy even the hungriest of appetites. We are greeted with an impressive panorama. Skyscrapers rise up wherever you look. Opposite them are edifices showing architectural influences from the Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, classical and Renaissance styles. Their façades conceal a wealth of fascinating history and tales.
‘When I was a student, my walk to the university took me along here,’ says Vanessa. ‘The Bund has always reminded me of our life as human beings. In the morning, it’s like a baby waking up, very sweet and docile. Slowly, it fills up with crowds of people. It gets noisy and is full of unbridled energy, like a teenager. As night approaches, it regains its tranquillity. The headlights of the passing vehicles and the regular blinking of lights from the buildings give it a charm of its own. But I like it most of all at night because there’s something serene and peaceful about it that inspires you to follow your own thoughts.’ We love the way our hosts use imagery when they speak. Countless tourists pose for selfies against the impressive skyline. A man with three cameras slung around his neck shoos them away. Suddenly, an exhausted-looking bride and groom appear out of nowhere, take up the position shown to them by the photographer and, at his command, assume smiles that conceal the stress. A brief barrage of flashlights and they are gone. And now it’s time for another – literal – high. We stroll into Pudong Park, where the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, 468 metres high, was opened in 1995. ‘Together with the Yangpu Bridge in the northeast and the Nanpu Bridge in the southwest, it creates an image of twin dragons playing with pearls,’ is how Eric Lin describes the unusual architectural concept. And he’s right! Once inside, we find a huge recreational park offering everything from a history museum to a city out of science fiction.
Sky Walk: a test of courage on the 100th floor
Scarcely have we arrived back at ground level than we find ourselves in front of another colossus, the World Financial Centre. With this edifice, Shanghai – in the truest sense of the word – has cemented its position as the financial magnet of Asia. An architectural triumph in steel, concrete and glass, it rises up vertically almost half a kilometre into the sky. ‘The building accommodates a first-class financial centre, a luxury hotel, several shopping malls and, at 474 metres, a 750 square-metre sightseeing hall.’ The spectacular location is frequently used for art exhibitions. On the 100th floor, Eric challenges us to a test of courage: we should try the Sky Walk, a 50-metre-long corridor with a glass floor. Visually, there is nothing to prevent us from going into free-fall. Your brain screams ‘No!’, your glands produce floods of adrenalin, and your knees shake uncontrollably: certainly, we were too preoccupied with our bodies to speak. Some visitors scream out in panic at the view below them, others are frozen in shock. Bravely, we work our way step by step towards – presumably – a safe base, where Eric and Vanessa greet us with broad, sympathetic grins. Slightly later, over a cup of coffee in the restaurant, the fear evaporates, to be replaced by a strange sense of elation. Clark Kent off, Superman on!
Takinig the world’s fastest lift up to the world’s highest indoor observation deck
Next up, a third shot at vertigo: At a speed of 64 kilometres per hour, the world’s fastest lift whistles us to the top of the 632-metre Shanghai Tower. To offset the effect of wind at this altitude, the highest building in China winds up snakelike into the sky. Its design is a perfect amalgamation of statics and architecture. Which is reassuring, because typhoons are no rarity here. A double-glazed façade guarantees a pleasant atmosphere in the interior. ‘The principle is similar to that of a gigantic thermos flask,’ explains Eric, on the way to the Top of Shanghai Observatory, the highest indoor observation deck in the world.
To help get our pulse rates down to normal again, our hosts suggest a stroll to Yuyuan Garden. Without warning, Vanessa heads off towards a bike sharing station. She uses an app on her smartphone to unlock our bicycles, which we mount and then ride noiselessly through the park. What a contrast. Time here appears to have stood still for four hundred years. We glide past pavilions, rockeries, ponds and monasteries while the gentle breeze caused by our motion carries the twittering of the birds to our ears. ‘After the fall of the Ming dynasty, the gardens fell into a state of disrepair. In 1760, work was started on a 20-year period of reconstruction, only for them to be severely damaged again during the Opium Wars in the 19th century,’ explains Eric. ‘What you see today is the result of a restoration project that began in 1956 and was completed in 1961.’ ‘Look there!’ exclaims Vanessa, pointing a large stone full of holes, its shape reminiscent of a piece of Emmental cheese. ‘That’s the famous Jade Rock. It’s over three metres in height and has 72 holes. When they light an incense stick directly under the rock, the smoke wafts magically through all the apertures.’ Indeed, a delicate wisp of smoke wraps itself around the rock like a silken veil.
A colourful, bustling scene in Shanghai’s best-known shopping district
Eric’s voice shakes us out of meditation mode. ‘Shopping?’ he asks tentatively. Within fractions of a second, our mood has shifted from trance-like to full-on attention. Well, we are Europeans, after all. ‘Nanjing Road is China’s best-known shopping district,’ Vanessa informs us. The scene before us is overwhelming. Luxury stores stand cheek by jowl, and at night the magnificent buildings are lit up by blinking neon signs. Enticingly located between them are open-air bars. Buskers provide the soundtrack to the droves of people swarming through the streets, exuding a vibrantly infectious sense of joie de vivre. And everywhere you find small, traditional shops selling selected silk goods, jade, embroideries, wool and watches.
‘If the hustle and bustle gets too overpowering, your best bet is to head for People’s Square. Shanghai’s green lung is situated right at the heart of the city,’ says Eric. We’re standing on the central square, looking at a circular musical fountain. From here, a green belt stretches out in every direction. To the south, the architecture of the Shanghai Museum catches our eyes. ‘It’s based on a traditional Chinese cooking pot,’ explains Vanessa, relieving us our speculations about its unusual shape. ‘The modern buildings around the square reflect Shanghai’s contemporary cityscape and are the face of the new lifestyle the city offers.’
From here, we wander into Tianzifang, an old working class and factory district that has metamorphosed into a hip, trendsetting area. The maze of lanes is thronged with yuppies, trendsetters and designers, most of them with eyes fixed on their smartphones. Influencers strike up poses, take countless selfies, check out the results and immediately post them online. Phone freaks wherever you look. The countless boutiques have a magnetic effect on us. No cash changes hands in the stores. And credit cards seem to be unknown. All transactions are made using a smartphone app. We feel confident of finding something for our loved ones back home. But Vanessa has a word of warning: ‘Be careful. Most of the stuff here is “very expensive” but not really “valuable”. If you want a bargain, your best idea is to know a bit more about the items that interest you.’
Time for a coffee break with JURA China
Slowly, the jetlag and the bombardment of new impressions begin to take their toll on our energy reserves. ‘Time for a coffee break,’ suggests Eric. The man seems to be able to read our thoughts. And so, we take a well-earned rest where Eric and Vanessa usually work with their team to make JURA better-known in China. Their office is in the WeWork building. ‘All kinds of different companies have rented premises here. From freelancers and start-ups through to innovative, international companies,’ Eric tells us, describing the WeWork concept. ‘And,’ Vanessa adds, ‘the flexibility is amazing. The space can be adapted to any need. There are small, private offices, open-plan set-ups and communal workspaces. Our favourite, of course, is the area where we have JURA automatic machines.’
We enjoy our coffee specialities and snoop around a little more. Eric is particularly proud to show us the recently finished JURA LIVE studio. ‘From here, using the tool you developed in Switzerland, we provide live advisory services about JURA automatic machines to the Shanghai area.’ As we discover, virtual points of sale have become enormously significant in China. ‘Keeping up with digitization is the best way to stay on top of the game. Almost 80 percent of all coffee machines are bought online,’ explains Vanessa. ‘Most of them using smartphones. China has effectively leapfrogged the computer age and gone directly from pen and paper to smartphones.’ While sipping our coffee, we watch on as a salesperson in the studio demonstrates an S8. Although we don’t understand a word she is saying, we feel the enthusiasm she brings to her job. At the end of the conversation, Eric’s eyes light up. We take it as a sign of a successful sale.
Our next port of call is the Orient Shopping Centre, which we get to by taking the metro. No one here uses regular tickets. Everything is paid for by mobile. An app scans a QR code and opens the gates to the tracks. After arriving, we see for ourselves what a massive influence a professional, physical presence can have on a brand’s aura. In the Xujiahui business district, the shrine to consumerism self-assuredly radiates its importance as Shanghai’s biggest and best shopping mall. The rows of logos above the entrances and in the shop windows are a veritable Who’s Who of leading international brands and regional specialist retailers. People get their bearings here: they are in search of trends or want to see products they have found online ‘in real life’, so to speak. Eric makes a beeline for the JURA point of sale in its prominent location, exchanges a few words with the salesperson and, with an Asian sense of perfection, deftly arranges the spouts, brochures and price tags.
Atlantis resurrected with Asian charisma
Evening is falling. Dusk enshrouds the city in a dark mantle, which sets off countless millions of twinkling lights to their best advantage. Shanghai glimmers, glitters and sparkles like a digital El Dorado, an Atlantis that has risen up with a uniquely Asian charm. In a classic Chinese restaurant, we experience heartwarming hospitality and traditional Chinese cuisine. After inspecting it carefully and gingerly sampling it, we are given delicious confirmation of our impression of Shanghai and the fantastic adventures it holds. Eric and Vanessa insist that we are their guests for the evening and – perhaps needless to say – pay by smartphone.
Back at home, the way we Europeans handle the digital world, our inborn love of cash and our somewhat inhibited use of account and credit cards have a distinctive, almost Stone Age, charm. We are back in the old world, all the richer for a wealth of unforgettable experiences. By way of thanks for their wonderful hospitality, we pen a card to Eric and Vanessa – analogue and old-fashioned, you understand – and are curious to see whether it will ever reach them in the colourful digital world that is Shanghai.