A brief (and not too boring) history
Before the British opened their concession in Shanghai after the first Opium War in 1842, Shanghai had been a small fishing village perched on the edge of the Huang Pu River. The French, Americans and Japanese soon followed in establishing concessions, which were governed by the occupying country and were untouchable by Chinese law. You can still find remnants of these cultures throughout Shanghai. The French concession was the largest and – arguably – the best in terms of the care that was taken in planning and planting trees throughout the area.
Under the influence of these countries, Shanghai grew to become the most important and modern port in Asia, with trading and banking firms lined up along the Bund, which borders the river. But like most such stories, this wild growth harbored a dark side. In addition to its legitimate business, Shanghai also boasted opium dens, whorehouses and a certain ease in escaping the law.
During these early years, no visas or passports were required at the port. It became a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi territory in the 1930s. As other countries closed their doors to immigrants in the lead-up to the Second World War, more than 20,000 Jewish refugees found asylum in Shanghai.
When foreigners left Shanghai in 1949, the Chinese Communist state assumed control of the city and its once privately held businesses. Since 1976, however, Deng Xiaopeng's open door policy allowed a commercial revival to take place in Shanghai, which continues today, in booming fashion.
Shopping as Sport
Hello Lady. Watches, handbags. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada. No buy, no problem.
I think the memo must have gotten out that American ladies are soft-hearted and won’t barter as hard and I certainly fit that stereotype. I also have that wide-eyed tourist aura, and I sometimes can’t refrain from doing the 360 spin (a la Mary Tyler Moore show, but without the hat toss, to those of us old enough to remember 70s television shows). It’s embarrassing, but at least I am alone when I do it!
So far, so good in my personal quest to avoid Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC and the multiple other American fast food icons that are ubiquitous here. We had to go to Hooters, of course, since Bill’s colleagues are regulars at the Hooters in Xintiandi (pronounced Shi Chin Di) and well-known for celebrating several birthdays a year here. I think Bill is over 100 years old in Hooters years. Since his birthday was Sunday, the Hooters girls made a huge fuss over him, explaining that it was “Real Bill’s birthday!”
I ate fried pork today at a restaurant in the touristy Yu Garden shopping district. I loved this market at first sight, with its traditional Chinese architecture and beautiful zigzag bridges, over koi-filled water. Apparently, spirits can only walk in a straight line, so the bridges must be built in a zigzag so spirits cannot cross. I can’t tell you the name of the restaurant, but the food was good and it wasn’t American.
Walking down Nanjing Street this morning, I also betrayed my inner tourist by taking several pictures of buildings and advertisements. Here a giant photo of George Clooney advertises Omega watches and Nicolas Cage is featured in a Mont Blanc poster.
In addition to the de rigeur ads featuring American movie and sports stars, I find it interesting that many “regular people” ads feature a mix of Asians and westerners. The Gap ads on the street almost always feature one of each, as if to appeal to both.
My next adventure – to brave the subway on my own.
Moments of awe
Walking down Nanjing Street, more of a plaza than a street since it is blocked to automobile traffic (although not scooters, bicycles and tour trolleys), we watch many Chinese people dancing – some in pairs, some in lines. We watched couples swing into a waltz, accompanied by a nearby CD player. However, the most endearing of these spontaneous dance parties was the one I witnessed yesterday, with several women line-dancing to the novelty song: “Hey Mickey!”
Toured two Buddhist temples today – one relatively old and one new. The Jade Buddha Temple was founded in 1882 with two jade Buddha statues. The temple was destroyed during the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Fortunately the jade Buddha statues were saved and a new temple was built on the present site in 1928. The air redolent with incense, each statue is faced by padded kneelers, where the faithful may kneel and bow and make their petitions. Many of the faithful burn incense, to make their petitions more appealing to the Buddha or the Boddhisatva.
I know very little about Buddhism, although I have toured Buddha temples in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I do know that the goal is enlightenment and that certainly seems worth to me.
The newer of the two temples – the Jing’an Temple – sits right on top of a subway station. It was built only a few years ago and houses a beautiful and serene silver Buddha. The temple is lovely, but I have to admit that the mood was a bit spoiled when I saw a monk get into the driver’s seat of a Mercedes….
More random observations
The Museum of Urban Planning was interesting, as promised, but mostly for what the propaganda of it all. I loved looking at the huge diorama of the city, and the “before and after” photos that showed almost miraculous development in just 20-30 years were fascinating. But the truly amazing part, to me, was the top floor’s theme: The greening of Shanghai. According to the displays, Shanghai is planning a lot of “green” areas to offset the incredible high rise development and the pollution that industry has wrought. There was also a lot of discussion about “clean” construction, “healthy” office buildings and careful, balanced city planning – all of it odds with what I could see out the window. Hmmmm…..
If Tuesday was my day to explore Buddhism, enlightenment and escape from the suffering and demands of the world around me, Wednesday was my day to explore finance and industry. I know that identifying a culture in terms of its dichotomies is trite and clichéd, but it seems to be the way I process all the information around me. I took the subway to the financial district and ascended by elevator to the 100th floor observation deck of the Shanghai Financial Center building, the world’s second tallest building now that Dubai has erected a taller structure.
It’s called the giant “bottle opener” because of the rectangular slot near the top. Apparently, it was originally slated to be a circular hole, but that didn’t work from an engineering perspective (and was too “Rising Sun” Japanese), so we have the rectangular slot. At 150 RNB (about $22.50), it’s a pricy trip, but every few feet one is greeted by an English-speaking young person who gestures at the direction in which one should proceed.
The view was less than breathtaking, mostly because it was a smoggy, polluted day so visibility was compromised. However, I did have another epiphany – this time in the ladies room, where I was confronted with the most high-tech toilet I have ever encountered in a public restroom. Complete with a control panel on one side, it featured a warmed seat (controlled by a button on the panel), as well as options for “front cleansing,” “rear cleansing” and “gentle rear cleansing.”
A word about toilets. When I traveled to Hong Kong seven years ago, many if not most of the public toilets I encountered were porcelain-clad holes in the ground. I called them “squat and splatters” and I don’t even want to discuss how I used them (which I did, because “when you gotta go….”).
Flash forward to Shanghai in 2010 and the first “squat and splatter” toilets I found were in the Buddhist temple and in the public park. Every other toilet I have encountered has been a western-style toilet with the requisite flush handle – thank the Lord, or Buddha or whomever.
All the toilets have also been very clean, for the most part. Everywhere one goes in China, one finds people sweeping, dusting, mopping or hosing down the streets and buildings. Bill tells me that this is the long-term effect from the SARS epidemic, which is probably true, but it is also a way to keep massive amounts of the population employed.
Today, I toured the Shanghai Museum of Art, which is shaped like an antique water vessel with two “ears” on either side. I truly enjoyed learning about the bronzes and sculptures as well as the Chinese porcelains. I now understand why “Ming Dynasty” (1368 to 1644) china is so valued, although I personally found the “Qing Dynasty” china (1644 to 1912) more sophisticated and beautiful. I’m still not sure I understood the importance of calligraphy, but I was enchanted by the ethnic minorities’ arts and crafts section, which featured native garb from some of the far reaches of China, including Mongolia and Manchuria. It was hard to believe that the outfits actually dated from the 20th centuries, since they seemed to date from hundreds of years ago.
I ate lunch at the museum restaurant (chicken and shrimp stir-fried rice and a coke for 40 rnb (less than $7), but the best part was the group of ladies I met in the ladies room after lunch.
By and large, nobody in Shanghai makes eye contact with you. On the subway, in elevators, on the street – everywhere I go, I will smile and nod at people who will generally ignore me (except for the street hawkers I’ve reference elsewhere in this blog and I won’t make eye contact with them). However, while I was waiting for a stall in the ladies room, the ladies who were laughing and talking looked at me and one of them said “We’re very loud.” I assured her that my friends and I often get loud when we get together and she said “ladies get loud when we get together.”
Other ladies in the group also chatted with me. One asked me if I joined any of the Ex-pat clubs in town, but I assured her that I was only here for a week with my husband. Such lovely ambassadors for this city! As my friend Caroline P. likes to say: “Sistahood is powerful!”
My other quest today was to find a spa that was recommended to me for massages and foot massages. I now have an appointment for tomorrow afternoon for something called the “Ultimate Indulgence” – a one hour massage (Chinese or Japanese shiatsu) and a one-hour foot massage – all for 290 RNB or less than $45. I am so excited and my feet will thank me!
As it turns out, my “ultimate indulgence” wasn’t quite “ultimate,” although I can’t argue with the “indulgence” part.
In the reception area, I was immediately asked if I wanted to upgrade my massage to include oil for an additional 100 RNB. I decided against this, since I wasn’t sure if I would be able to shower off the oil and I didn’t want to ask since the girls in the reception area didn’t seem to speak much English. I did go ahead and agree to lavender oil for my foot massage, since that was only about 20 RNB more and seemed like it would make my foot massage more relaxing.
I was glad I did. My masseur led me to a changing room and pointed out the cotton pajamas and slippers. Since I was being massaged by a man, I was kind of happy to be fully clothed throughout, which would not have been the case if I had been oiled.
Somehow, without even being asked, I think I was given the Japanese shiatsu massage rather than the gentle Chinese massage. Intense pressure on various parts of my body clued me in to the fact that this wasn’t my usual massage. I have never before asked someone to massage “softer!” At the end, he sat me up and pummeled my shoulders. It was not exactly the relaxing massage I had envisioned, but my tensed-up shoulder and neck muscles (where I have always carried my stress) do seem looser.
The foot massage was lovely. Water and lavender oil and a heated neck roll kept me relaxed for the entire hour of the experience. The soles of my feet are extremely ticklish, but I didn’t cringe once during the hour-long massage. I would recommend this treatment highly to foot-sore travellers.
Xiaolongbao = dumplings. I love dumplings. I love ‘em steamed; I love ‘em fried. I like them so much that I actually tempted fate this afternoon and did something truly reckless.
I ate street food.
My favorite meal so far this trip had been at an international (Taiwanese) dumpling place called Din Tai Fung. Steamed dumplings are filled with a variety of meat and soup, most normally pork meat. We ordered traditional dumplings and also dumplings filled with pork meat and hairy crab meat (seriously, it’s a Shanghai delicacy). These were great. I also learned the best way to eat Shanghai dumplings without the scalding hot soup and filling inside. For the uninitiated, you scoop out a dumpling with chopsticks and place in on a spoon. Then, bite a small hole in the dumpling near the top to release the steam. When the dumpling has sufficiently cooled, pop the whole thing in your mouth. Chew and roll eyes in rapture.
Having truly enjoyed the steamed dumplings, I was anxious to eat some fried dumplings. Walking down a major thoroughfare the other day, I noticed people lining up for “pan-fried dumplings” at a store-front walk-up. Today, I stepped up to the window and paid my 3.5 RNB for four fried dumplings. The helpful gentleman next to me in line passed me the vinegar, which added a certain depth of flavor, and a set of paper-wrapped chopsticks. I took my prize to the sidewalk and only squirted myself with the soup innards once.
So far so good on the digestive system.
Given the level of commercialism here, it’s easy to believe that China is a completely westernized city. But there’s still the Communist Party and they still want to monitor and control what their people watch, hear and think.
Case in point: a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel peace prize. He is currently serving 11 years in prison after a Beijing court convicted him of violating Chinese law and engaging in activities designed to over throw the government. CCN worldwide and BBC World News have been reporting on this, but every time they air a story about this issue, the television picture is blacked out. News resumes when the channel airs the next story.
Now, I can search “Nobel Peace Prize” on Yahoo and come up with any number of articles on this year’s ceremony and its absent winner, even though I can’t tunnel into my Facebook account! But I guess it’s easiest to censor the television news.
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