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People's Square

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Shanghai's People's Square occupies a large portion of the geographic city center and is home to Shanghai's city hall. Underneath the square are the city's largest metro station and the only station to transfer between metro lines one and two. Linking the two lines are elongated shopping arcades while above ground is the People's Park, the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Grand Theatre and the Urban Planning Hall.

The lawns and plazas making up People's Square hint at the old racetrack that once occupied the grounds. Of all the Western extravagances throughout old Shanghai, none was more celebrated by the wealthy than the horse races. Held twice annually, schools and businesses went on holiday and all social life focused on the outcomes of the races and the surrounding festivities. The rich imported horses from Arabia and Mongolia were trained throughout the year in preparation for their big day. After 1949, the racetrack was converted into the People's Park to offer festivities all could enjoy.

People's Square is now mainly used for transit, and the addition of several cultural centers has increased tourism. Expansion of the park and open spaces gives locals a pleasant place to enjoy Shanghai's balmy springs and crisp autumns. The square remains quite crowded, especially during rush hour and ongoing construction only seems to exacerbate congestion, however, it's also a good place to fly kites, enjoy an evening stroll or read a book and people watch.

From a cultural and historical perspective, the highlight of the People's Square is the Shanghai Museum. Often ranked as China's best museum, the new building was completed in 1996 at a cost of RMB 570 million and is a modern and well-kept facility. The museum was designed by Shanghai architect Xing Tonghe to evoke the image of a ding, an ancient Chinese vessel, and architecturally, it's a harmonious fusion of ancient and contemporary styles. The entrance, flanked by six stone lions and two stone, mythical ancient Chinese beasts, opens onto a wide plaza with benches for sitting and music at night.

Inside, China's greatest display of art and artifacts awaits the visitor. Though museums in Beijing and Xi'an have larger collections, nowhere are they better exhibited. Its 14 galleries house collections of bronzes, sculptures, ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, seals, jades, coins, furniture and ethnic minority art. Whereas most major Chinese museums are arranged chronologically by dynasties, the exhibits in the Shanghai Museum are arranged by theme, allowing the visitor to observe the progression of aesthetics and style.

Signs introducing the objects are in Chinese as well as English and the track lighting is focused and bright. For anyone visiting Shanghai, or China for that matter, the museum is a must see. Chinese history and culture buffs will likely find one day too short to take in the extensive collection and with over 120,000 artifacts to choose from, the displays are often changed, making the museum worth a return visit.

Now housed in the old Race Club Building, the Shanghai Art Gallery has steadily improved its collection to provide visitors with greater access to Chinese and foreign masterpieces. In 2002, the museum hosted a blown glass exhibition featuring coloured glass blown into traditional and modern shapes. Much of the collection has since found its way into high-priced boutiques on Nanjing and Huaihai Road. With a focus on modern Chinese art, the museum still strives to feature works of ethnic artists and Renaissance masters.

Another highlight found in People's Square is People's Park, a welcome respite from the crowds. Tree-lined lanes wind through pools and over gentle rises topped with small pavilions. It's one of the few places in Shanghai where visitors can sit on the grass and this park is rarely crowded despite its central location. Vendors sell drinks and snacks outside the entrance.

Located near the west-end of People's Park is Shanghai's premier venue for truly big name entertainment, the Shanghai Grand Theatre. The highlights of its early days may have been limited to Chinese symphonies and visiting philharmonic and ballet troops from Russia,the theatre's billing has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2003, a production of Cats took place in Shanghai. Featuring the largest stage in the world, Shanghai's Grand Theatre is comprised of three different theatres, the largest seating 1,800. Its space age design somehow resembles a giant Chinese pagoda.

Moving east is Shanghai's city hall, the Municipal Government Building. This imposing structure resembles most other government buildings in China; imposing and square. To its east is the more interesting and accessible Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. This hall is open to visitors and has numerous scale models detailing the history and future of Shanghai's development and it's a good place to get some perspective on the changes sweeping through the city. One highlight worth viewing is the latest scale model of the planned development in preparation for Shanghai's 2010 World Expo. Shanghai is a city that continues to grow leaps and bounds and in the blink of an eye, much of the city has already changed.