Shanghai Street View: Experiencing History

Big queues haunt Shanghai Disney
Big queues haunt Shanghai Disney

Shanghai’s past and future are center stage in this week’s Street View, the former represented by an exhibit on one of our city’s most famous historic families and the latter by this week’s opening of our new Disneyland theme park in Pudong.

I attended “The Soong Sisters: Special Memories” exhibition shortly after it opened last month, hoping to learn more about 3 of Shanghai’s most famous figures in the early 20th century. Separately, I visited the new Shanghai Disneyland (NYSE: DIS) a few days before its official opening this past Thursday, in a different quest to understand what is likely to become one of China’s top tourist attractions of the 21st century.
The fact that the Soong sisters – Ai Ling, Ching Ling and Mei Ling – and now Disney are Shanghai stories is no coincidence, since only such a meeting point of East and West could have spawned such tales. But the 2 phenomena are also quite different in what they represent. Whereas the Soongs represent a generation that was still trying to define China’s complex relationship with the West, the new Disneyland seems to represent a newer vision of how these 2 very different cultures can coexist and thrive off one another.

Let’s begin with the Soong sisters, who are arguably the best-known historical Chinese names to many westerners behind only early republican leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. It’s no coincidence that 2 of the 3 sisters were married to those leaders, with Ching Ling and Mei Ling marrying Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, respectively. Ai Ling is the odd one out, marrying the wealthy but relatively obscure H.H. Kung, one of China’s first finance ministers.

The exhibit contains numerous photos and also a smattering of other objects, such as dresses and household items belonging to the 3 sisters, as well as a recording of a speech made by Mei Ling in the US during World War 2. The photos provided a fascinating look at what these 3 famous sisters looked like during their daily routines, alongside their famous spouses and other friends, in their earlier years and also towards the end of their lives.

I have to admit I was slightly disappointed at the lack of Shanghai scenery and other landmarks in the exhibit, since the city was such an important part of the Soongs’ formative years. Instead, many of the photos were portraits, and if anything the city with the strongest presence was China’s wartime capital in Chongqing. Still, I’d highly recommend that history buffs pay a visit to the exhibition, which runs through the end of July and is relatively affordable at 80-100 yuan ($12-$15) per ticket.

High Prices at Disneyland

That kind of affordability is probably the last thing on people’s minds at the newly opened Disneyland, where entry to the park costs a much higher 370-499 yuan. But whereas a couple of hours suffices for the Soong exhibition, a full day or even 2 are necessary to see the new Disneyland, not so much because it’s so big but because of the huge lines.

In this case Disney seems to have underestimated the Chinese love of mingpai, or famous brands, as the most talked-about rides are attracting huge crowds at the new park. The worst of those was the “Soaring over the Horizon at Adventure Isle”, which boasted a staggering 5.5 hour waiting line during my visit. I seriously doubt that anyone visiting Disney’s other parks in the US, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Paris would be willing to wait that long for a single ride that lasts 2-3 minutes at most. But this is China, and clearly the tolerance for long lines is higher if it means getting to experience a mingpai.

Disney itself has focused on the many Chinese elements it added into the Shanghai park, such as a Chinese zodiac display near the entrance. Local media, on the other hand, were focused on the high prices for food inside the park. During my visit I only had a drink that cost a pricey but affordable 25 yuan, and I also saw numerous people munching on food they had brought themselves. But honestly speaking, the 70-80 yuan for a meal at one of the restaurants in the park may seem slightly pricey, but is still quite small compared to the total cost of a Shanghai Disneyland vacation for out-of-town families.

At the end of the day, no one will be surprised to know that the Soong sister exhibition was much more to my liking, mostly due to my personal interest in history and also the tasteful displays and lack of crowds. But when the history books of the next 100 years are written, it really does seem like Shanghai Disneyland could easily end up as the new star of the Shanghai story, reflecting the city’s ambitious drive to reclaim its place as Asia’s most international destination.

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