Scuffing, chafing and scouring old Shanghai – part 2

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old Shanghai

old Shanghai

A few days into my autumnal two-week Shanghai stay I suddenly found myself quite pleasantly lost in my temporary home quarter, the French Concession, one of the few low-rise areas remaining in the city centre. More often than not when out strolling somewhere unfamiliar, I tend to lose myself in my surroundings and before I knew it, I was in the midst of the China of my imagination, the scenes all around me part of what’s becoming increasingly rare in the modern city.

I’d been following a busy road with shops and restaurants, Huashan Lu, when something caught my eye and I trundled off down a side street to check out a local market. There, right before me, was a completely different Shanghai – nothing sleek about this market of wilting veg and hand-me-down clothes. Instead this was by locals, for locals, catering solely, it seemed, to a large block of communal flats, complete with ridiculous amounts of colourful laundry dangling from every balcony and hundreds of bikes left casually strewn about the place. This was China and Shanghai as they used to be, not so long ago.

Pockets “of old”, like this one, are getting fewer and further between in today’s modern metropolis, but they do exist, often just a stone’s throw away from the recently constructed skyscrapers. There’s a pleasant feeling that life goes on just as it always has done, regardless of the changes imposed upon the resilient population. Needless to say the market stallholders I spotted found me very odd – most visitors don’t wander into their block at all, let alone with cameras, looking fascinated – but I was determined to see a bit of the nitty-gritty, away from some of the rather spruced up versions of old Shanghai offered to visitors elsewhere in town. Not that I don’t like spruce, I just fancied a bit of a balanced view, even if the view provided was mostly of other people’s laundry.

tea pavilion near Yuyuan

tea pavilion near Yuyuan

Moving from the recent to the ancient past, I continued my explorations of old Shanghai at the more central Yuyuan Garden, dating back over 400 years to the time of the Ming Dynasty. Not so much a garden, these five acres are replete with interesting sights, including many beautifully restored buildings (damaged during those pesky Opium Wars), pavilions, rockeries and ponds. The “garden” looks deceptively small, but once inside, there are multiple nooks and crannies to explore, fish to feed and photos of take, before heading back outside to enjoy the area surrounding it. The Chinese have developed a knack for making the old look shiny and new; you’d be forgiven for thinking that the formidable Ming Dynasty buildings near Yuyuan Garden are gleaming new replicas. Rumour has it though, they are the real thing, mostly converted into craft shops and pleasant eateries. Even the street known as Old Street looks, for the most part, rather new, making for a slightly surreal experience. If shopping is your thing, you will find plenty of traditional Chinese handicraft bargains and the odd cuddly toy panda, for all your souvenir needs.

Old Street and the high-rise blocksi

Old Street and the high-rise blocksi

Even Old Street itself is surrounded by high-rise blocks of flats and offices – one can never escape the onslaught of progress for too long – but despite its shiny veneer and well-polished antiquity, this older part of town has a friendly feel and relaxed vibe. There is something reassuringly human about the scale and size of the shops and cafes, something that’s often missing in the vast, modern shopping malls that have taken over nearby Nanjing Road. Shanghai’s shopping avenue par excellence, part pedestrianised to accommodate more avid shoppers, Nanjing Road runs all the way to The Bund, the riverfront with its many grand 19th and early 20th century buildings, thus bringing new and old together yet again.

The old and the new are forever meeting, intersecting, sometimes even “quarrelling” in the same street, in Shanghai and even though the latter might seem to be winning the battle, the former is standing its ground all across town, with the exception of Pudong, home of most of the city’s new skyscrapers – here the battle has been firmly lost – but Pudong is more of an exception than a rule. In most other parts of town, there are pockets of old Shanghai still lingering on, despite being surrounded on all fronts by new constructions. Jing’an Temple, located on Nanjing Road West, is a good example. The temple’s history goes back almost 800 years (although it was burnt to a cinder in 1972, it’s been magnificently restored and reopened in 1990) and it’s a haven of Buddhist tranquillity once inside its massive gates. The Jade Buddha and the three main halls are particularly worth a visit. Step outside the gates, however, and you can forget heavenly peace – you’re in Nanjing Road’s shopping Mecca, where international brands jostle for space and you’d as easily find a McDonald’s as you would a noodle bar, more easily in fact.

Jingan Temple

Jingan Temple

Enjoying Shanghai means accepting these sudden shifts and changes, taking pleasure in the unexpected, sometimes even jarring, differences, in architecture and lifestyle. Just as I was learning to live with the constant, abrupt transformation from age-old to spring chicken in terms of buildings, I came upon an area where this learning process could be relaxed for the day – Qibao. Known as “Qibao ancient town”, this former village, now in Shanghai’s western suburbs, easily reached by metro, has a history spanning over a thousand years and unlike the more central Old Street, the place is pretty without suffering from that artificial sheen of overzealous government-employed cleaners. Qibao is criss-crossed by two canals, picturesque stone bridges spanning both, for easy access to the different parts. Although well-known to the Shanghainese, international visitors to Qibao were completely non-existent, as I ambled its narrow alleys, along the canals, over the bridges and into a variety of excellent, tiny, local shops, selling the finest silk jackets, teas, incense and much more.

Qibao canals

Qibao canals

Qibao, although first and foremost known for its old-world charm and scenic setting, is also a Chinese food lovers’ paradise. One endless, narrow, meandering alley is known as Food Street and come lunchtime, it is packed. Street stalls and cubbyhole eateries sell all manner of traditional, old-fashioned snacks from dumplings and steamed buns, to hot broths, birds on sticks (yes, the whole birds, beak and all, but no feathers) and smoked quails eggs. To get away from the happily munching crowds, I snuck into a restaurant with seats on the second (i.e. top) floor, overlooking Food Street below. Having found such a pleasant place to take a breather and contemplate my experiences from the lofty heights of two storeys, my musings before tucking in myself, concluded that Shanghai, whether modern or ancient, Ming Dynasty or measly market, had at least retained its reassuring love of food throughout all the ages and changes.

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