FROLIC IN THE PARIS OF THE EAST
I never saw a Chinatown inside China until I went to Shanghai.
It was absurd but true. After the 1842 Opium War, the victorious British confined the locals in a ghetto in the fortressed heart of the Old City to the South while Westerners lived in opulent quarters or “concessions” to the North. Foreigners normally don’t set foot inside “Nanshi” – the “Chinese City” – within China.
Now, half a millennium after 30-foot high walls encircled Nanshi’s core, first protecting it from Japanese pirates then isolating its citizens from their European colonizers, only a ruined section was left, along with a ring road, the City God Temple and Yu Yuan, the Garden of Peace.
During the Ming dynasty, a mandarin named Pan Yunduan built the garden – the largest and most famous of its era in southern China, to comfort his father, the old minister.
The huge cost of the garden bankrupted Pan’s family but the local gentry stepped in and restored Yu Yuan a couple of centuries later. The garden even survived the 1850’s civil war – the Taiping Rebellion, when the rebels’ Dagger Society made it their lair.
Today, over 20,000 square meters remained of Yu Yuan’s tall rockeries, halls, ponds and open-air pavilions linked by meandering paths. The Spring Hall, which the Dagger Society used, currently houses exhibits of coins and weapons from that period.
A five-ton porous Exquisite Jade Rock, discovered 900 years ago, serves as the garden’s centrepiece. Rumors say it was meant for Beijing’s imperial palace but was salvaged when the boat carrying it sank off Shanghai.
In the middle of a pond, just outside Yu Yuan Garden’s gates, sits the over 3-centuries old Huxinting Teahouse with its steep pagoda-style roof.
There, Queen Elizabeth II of England sipped tea during her China visit – after she negotiated the Bridge of Nine Turnings (Jiu Qu Qiao). Builders created the complex of angled bridges to prevent demons from crossing the waters to reach Huxinting. Folks believed demons shun corners and travel only in straight lines.
The Old City God’s Temple connects to the garden, parts of which had been converted into a shopping hub crammed with replicas of ancient buildings and temples in the Yangtze River Region.
These imitations are actually restaurants, tea houses, snack bars, tourist shops and bazaars selling everything from Chinese art and souvenirs, antiques, jade, gold and silverware to jewelry, bottle caps and silk threads.
For me, it conjures a sense of “imperial China meets Walt Disney” atmosphere as novelty stores like the Pear Syrup Shop peddles ancient China’s equivalent of cough drops and Five Flavor Bean Shop sells the traditional Shanghai snack, “wuxiang dou” – five-flavored lima beans, alongside the consummate American cafe, Starbucks.
Nevertheless, I browsed inside the jewelry stores with their vast array of finely-crafted jade and gold ornaments before ambling down Fangbang Zhong Road, the “Shanghai Old Street” adjacent to the Yu Yuan Garden Bazaar Area.
Along the way, I peeked in a couple of antique shops, gazing at beautifully designed porcelain and glass snuff bottles, an antique feng shui compass made of bone, lots of Mao Zedong memorabilia, old books and posters, watches and clocks, hand-carved furniture and chests, cards, bottles, coins, silverware, ivory figurines, period jars, vases and erotic figurines.
On the opposite side of the road, I felt irresistibly drawn to a breathtaking collection of paintbrushes in a calligraphy shop. They have all imaginable sorts of sable and bristle brushes in every shape and size.
Also on display were mounted and unmounted Chinese paintings of the usual themes – bamboo leaves, waterfalls, lotus flowers, sampan boats, mountains and lakes.
I love to paint and remembering how intense the chroma of some pigments imported from China were, I wondered if their water-based colors will be equally brilliant. I ended up bingeing on art materials, buying several sets of sable, fox hair and wolf-hair brushes along with a set of colored ink sticks.
When I asked the sales lady for watercolours, she gave me a glass-topped gilt box without batting an eyelash. Nestled within, I found pungent squares of vivid pigments, each embossed with golden dragons.
I’ve never seen ink sticks before. The Chinese have been using them for thousands of years for calligraphy and water color paintings. But they could be a nightmare to use for the uninitiated, our guide warned me when he saw my purchase.
Before I can even paint with them, I need good quality ink stones to grind out the pigments in water, he said and directed me to a shop which sold affordable sets.
In the interlude, I explored Shanghai’s Old Street on the side of Fangbang Zhong Lu to my heart’s content, absorbing the city’s architectural and cultural evolution from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty on to the Chinese Republican era as I went.
I found shops carrying all sorts of imitation brand apparel and sportswear with funny names. There were fabrics, intimate wear, electronics, pirated CDs and DVDs, too. But you have to haggle at half the price right away and browsing could be a real hassle.
The moment the sales clerks discover you are a foreigner – easy enough because you can’t speak Shanghainese – they will recite the price of the items you’re admiring, shove their calculators at your face, demand that you name your price and pursue you into the streets if you flee.
I was enchanted with a Chinese opera doll – a porcelain-faced female general going to war in red brocade gown, elaborate helmet of pearls and pheasant feathers, complete with an armoured plate on her chest and four triangular pennants on her back.
I haggled for more than half her price and was amazed when the vendor gave in with a sigh as I started to walk away.
At lunchtime, I headed back to Yu Yuan, to the famous Lu Bo Lang restaurant where US President Bill Clinton and Cuban President Fidel Castro took their repast when China hosted the Asia Pacific Economic 2001 summit.
Actually, what I remembered most about Shanghai was its food. As they say, if you want to know a culture, the cuisine could tell you a lot.
Shanghai dishes feature the traditional thick brown sugary sauce, heavy oil, bright colors and original tastes. Chefs transform dishes from Beijing, Guangzhou, Sichuan, Fujian, Anhui, Hubei, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Chaozhou in accordance with the local flavor.
First, they served me fragrant rose tea and the freshest orange juice. Appetizers include chopped spinach leaves with ginger, a deep-sea food delicacy with a gelatinous taste and strange-looking but delicious greens.
Then they presented the main courses to the diners before apportioning them individually. I thought I was served very tender, melt-in-your mouth beef until I noticed some chunks still had shells attached. It turned out to be turtle meat.
We had pork knuckle braised in soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and ginger for hours and duck stuffed with rice. Then the waiters brought in groupers, dumplings, tender bamboo shoots in spinach leaves and crab roe.
However, the chef apologized profusely because they can’t serve Shanghai’s celebrated hairy crab. It’s out of season.
At the end of my trip, as I walked down the streets of Shanghai for the last time, a couple of hours before boarding my flight back to Manila, the realization hit me.
Despite all that it has to offer by way of shopping, cultural and sports attractions, fabulous restaurants, gardens and museums, I felt that Shanghai is not really a city for tourists.
It’s a financial centre, which will one day rival Hongkong, but it is still too young to have major historical relics. It has nothing to compare with the Forbidden City and the Great Wall in Beijing.
But the main attraction of Shanghai is the city itself, one of the richest and most fascinating in the world, and its people – the most fashionable in the mainland. Walking in the streets, soaking in the atmosphere is the best pastime Shanghai can offer.
And what contrasts. When I sit on the steel benches along the street, I can never be bored.
My eyes would latch on the neon signs and the capitalist skyline but in the alley close by I can see a street vendor frying what look like bugs in a wok. An executive type dashes by in an Armani suit wielding the latest mobile phone in one hand and his pet cricket in a tiny wicker cage in the other.
Shanghai has a strange, vibrant intensity. It is unlike the sense of exhilaration one gets in New York City – a megapolis that has arrived at its destiny. Shanghai is not quite there yet.
But it is going somewhere, and fast. Everyone seems to be in a hurry here, trying to beat their way to a finish line somewhere. It is a mad mix of past and future, seemingly without a present.