Leaping Forwards with the “Digital” Spirit of Shanghai

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 4. The Spirit of Place, Shanghai by Yuka Niwa2 Comments

Shanghai is a city that seamlessly combines the east and the west, the modern with the traditional. There are buildings that look as though they were taken from the future and editions of sports cars parked alongside the road that haven’t been released yet in many countries, yet there are also groups of old ladies dancing “guang-chang wu” (courtyard dance) in the parks and vendors selling traditional sweets whilst pulling a cart and ringing a bell. Determining the “spirit” of a city that has undergone western influence early in its establishment which can be seen in its architecture and an extremely fast-paced economic development is extremely difficult and cannot be described as a single word or thing. However, during my time here so far, I have been able to experience a feeling I can only explain as a “digital” spirit.

Since the import of Iphones into China in the early 2011, the smartphone industry alongside social media and e-commerce in China has since skyrocketed and has hence created a kind of “digital” world. Simply put, you can barely walk down a street in Shanghai for five minutes without being asked to “jia ge weixin hao-ma?” (Can I add your wechat?) or “sao ge er-wei ma you zhe-kou!” (Scan this QR code for a discount). Wechat among many others (such as Weibo and QQ) is a social media and messaging app that everyone in China (seriously everyone, regardless of social or economic background – from the elderly to middle-schoolers) uses. It can be used for messaging friends, sharing moments on your “friend circle” (timeline), reading the news, and even has a “wallet” feature that allows you to link your debit card so you can pay by letting vendors scan your phone. Initially, this miraculous, do-it all app, seemed too complicated to easily use in everyday life. However, after using it myself, I found the interface surprisingly intuitive. Payment methods for everyday things such as grocery stores and taxis include electronic methods such as Wechat pay or Alipay which basically eliminates the need for paper money or credit cards. Now I understand why people here sometimes leave their  wallets at home but never their phones.

Although being “glued” to your phone seems to be a common trait shared between people of all ages across all different backgrounds and is definitely not limited to only China. However, in a country whose access to foreign websites such as Google or Facebook, the digital network has become a form of freedom for the public to share their opinions on local and global events with each other and the government officials who may or may not stumble upon their comments. The usage of phones and digital media in Shanghai, at least from my perspective has given people who want to leap forward into the modern world a tangible way and has brought people closer together. I think that the “spirit” of Shanghai is a technologically innovative “digital” spirit that encompasses the will of the people that want to continue to progress forwards.


  1. Hi Yuka! I agree that Shanghai definitely has a digital spirit, one that is ever present and seen in tangible things. As someone who doesn’t have a WeChat wallet or AliPay, I often feel old-fashioned, using my cash to pay for things. I didn’t think much about this trend until a friend casually mentioned that digital transactions make it easier for the government to collect data and keep track of monetary exchanges. While apps definitely make paying for things easier, the over-dependence and prioritization of digital money over analog might be concerning. I’ve also noticed an increase in my overall phone usage since coming here and I blame Wechat and Pleco 😛

    PS: It was nice running into you at the gym!

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