China · China travel · Travel

Shanghai-the old, the ultramodern, and the ancient- part 2

The 2010 World Expo, the Oriental Pearl Tower, in the middle of Pudong’s Lujiazhui highrise business district, and the historic Bund, right across from those highrises, are what makes Shanghai so famous worldwide, representing respectively it’s international aspirations, its financial and commerce boom and its history. The Bund and Xintiandi represent Shanghai’s recent history (this being by Chinese standards) while the old 1,000-year-old town of Qibao is a piece of ancient past. The Shanghai Museum, while it doesn’t focus on Shanghai, shows off a small bit of the nation’s vast history.

The Bund is one of the most well-known places in Shanghai, almost as iconic as the Oriental Pearl Tower, I think. It’s a stretch of historic European-style buildings along the Huangpu River that were built in the 19th century mostly by the English. This period is a major part of recent Chinese history because it was after the English defeated China in the First Opium War that China ceded foreign concessionary areas in treaty towns such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Ningbo. This meant that Great Britain and other foreign powers like France and Germany were able to occupy land in these towns and actually have sovereignty over that land, meaning Chinese laws did not apply. The Bund was where the British set up shop and eventually with other countries established the International Settlement, and those European-built bank, embassy and trading house buildings mostly still remain, in good shape and still in operation. They look impressive and represent several types of architecture including Art Deco, Gothic and Renaissance. Besides the historic buildings, there’s also the Waibaidu Bridge (China’s first all-steel bridge that was originally built in 1856), the People’s Heroes Memorial (for revolutionary martyrs from the first Opium War onwards) and a statue of Chen Yi, the second mayor of Shanghai and former foreign minister of China.

When I went there, it was relatively early in the morning, the sky was overcast, and there weren’t many people. More people came gradually but even then, it was far from crowded. This was a recurring theme throughout the trip. No matter where I went, there were no crowds. I guess I picked the right time to travel in China. Anyways my aunt and I crossed the Waibaidu Bridge, walked to the gigantic People’s Heroes Memorial, then strolled along much of the Bund. The views were nice, the European buildings on one side, and the Pudong highrises on the other side, across the Huangpu River. The old and the new side by side, or rather across from each other, the obvious visual architectural cliche was staring me in the face. But I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of sadness at the fact that there aren’t really any Chinese equivalent to these grand old European-style buildings in Shanghai, temples and palaces aside. Yet this is also a perfect illustration of how major the European influence on Shanghai was to its rise as a city in the early 20th century and its current status as China’s foremost city and bridge to the world. Afterwards I went to Nanjing Road to do some browsing and ended up having lunch and buying some food there. Nanjing Road is famous for its shopping, though some of the stores seemed outdated, and has a pedestrian zone running through a major part of it. Cars can’t drive on it, but train-like vehicles that carry tourists can and regularly drove back and forth, packed with local tourists. There were old school food and department stores, modern local brand stores such as a multilevel Li Ning, and of course, restaurants. There was also a multilevel “Bao Da Xiang Shopping for Kids” store. At one intersection, my aunt pointed out the building where her father used to work for many decades. My relatives also took me to see Taiwan Road, a small sidestreet just two streets down from Nanjing Road (many Shanghai streets are named after places across China and Taiwan, regardless of post-1945 issues, was a part of China up until 1895). They also took me to Ningpo Street where they had lived in the past. This street was quite residential and not touristy or fancy like nearby Nanjing Road. On both sides were two-storey buildings with stores at the bottom. Some homes had clothes hanging out the window and rickshaws drove past with heavy loads at the back. This part of Ningpo Street was how most of Shanghai looked like in the past, I should think, a world different from the fancy highrises and townhouses and wide streets that are prevalent now.

Read part 1 to this piece here.

Despite Shanghai’s lack of a long history in comparison to cities like Beijing or Hangzhou, it does have an important role in recent Chinese history. In addition to being a major trading port after being made a foreign concession port (foreign powers were given land that they had complete control over and allowed to trade) in the late 19th century, Shanghai was the site of the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party and both Sun Yat-sen and Chou Enlai lived here, though at different times. The specific place was Xintiandi, where all around where the first congress took place, ironically, there is a lot of fancy buorgeoise establishments like expensive restaurants and pubs are (joking about buorgeoise of course, I’m no communist). The site of the first CCP congress was alright even though I had not initially planned on coming here. I expected it to be propaganda central; but while it’s no surprise the place was portrayed like a revered ground and the congress attendees, including some guy called Mao, were painted in highly heroic terms, major history really did happen based on the outcome of this congress. The attendees were all in danger throughout and even had to sneak out and flee at the end to escape the KMT authorities. To be honest, many historical sites in China contain some form of propaganda whether it be exaggerated and slanted viewpoints on events or simply omissions. This is a pity because a nation cannot fully earn the respect of its people if it doesn’t allow itself to be criticized even looking backwards. Anyways back to the tourism sites and enough of the political pondering for now.

Xintiandi is filled with elegant brick buildings and the streets are lined with trees, which had a Western feel to it, not surprising since it was part of the French Settlement. The congress site was situated in a building that was part of a complex with alleys running through with expensive and foreign restaurants, including a Paulaner Munchen. There was a preserved Shikumen house, distinct multistory houses that were built in the late 19th century and unique to Shanghai, a (more elegant) counterpart to Beijing’s famous hutongs. A little farther away from Xintiandi were the homes of modern Chinese political giants, Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Zhou Enlai. They both lived in spacious 2-storey homes on Sinan Road, but with completely different interiors. Dr. Sun’s home, where he lived from 1918 to 1924 (his wife lived there until 1937), was quite elegantly furnished with wooden planks and tasteful furniture where Zhou’s home was very spartan with basic furniture and no real decor. Actually the home was the Shanghai branch of the CCP after the end of World War II and before the Civil War got underway so it wasn’t intended to be a luxurious residence. Several captions inside the home highlighted, describing how austere and dedicated so-and-so was in not demanding better quarters etc. Unfortunately no photos were allowed to be taken in both homes and there were many security guards around. Right across from Zhou’s house was where KMT agents monitored his activities from another house, an indicator of the suspicions that the KMT and CCP had towards each other that would lead to the Civil War.


Dr. Sun Yat-sen, left, outside his house, and Mr. Zhou Enlai, standing in the front garden of his home, both of which are located on the same street.

While  Shanghai’s recent history is quite rich as exemplified by the Bund, Ningbo street, Xintiandi and its historic CCP sites and shikumen homes, Shanghai also had an ancient 1,000-year-old side that I wasn’t aware of. This was Qibao, an old town that existed from the Song Dynasty. The buildings and streets were preserved so that they looked like they did in ancient times. Walking through the alleys teeming with people and lined with antiques and calligraphy shops and food vendors on both sides, it reminded me a bit of Jiufen and other old streets in Taiwan towns like Yingge and Sanxia that were preserved for tourism. Sure enough, there were a lot of food vendors selling snacks like stinky tofu and pancakes as well as meat (even fried pigeons on a stick). My sensitive stomach often means I’m not adventurous with food and this place was no exception. One thing that separates Qibao from those old streets in Taiwan, besides being slightly scruffier, was that it had some historical structures. After crossing a small stone arch bridge, we came across a 3-story bell tower which we had to pay a small admission fee to enter. At the top floor, there was a giant bell that you rung by slamming a wooden pole against it. On the balcony, there was fine view of the open area in front of the pagoda which included a pond with a small rock garden and a pavilion next to it. The backdrop to all this was a giant mural of a lush jungle and waterfall on the wall of the apartment building right next to the pond. Behind the bell tower, I was able to see a neighborhood of old houses, with the distinctive traditional Chinese curved tiled roofs and unpainted concrete walls.

Canal at Qibao. I wish I had gone to the gold temple in the distance.


Walking through Qibao reminded me of old streets in small towns in Taiwan though Qibao is bigger. At right, you can see the rock garden with a beautiful mural right behind it.

Finally, I also visited the Shanghai Museum. I’m a fan of museums, but I initially didn’t plan to come here. Besides not being sure if I had enough time, I also thought since most of the artifacts inside weren’t from Shanghai and that they’d be the kind of stuff I could see elsewhere in China. Well, I did go to this museum and it was good. The museum is located in People’s Square, and its shaped like a pot. Not one of those metallic ones you use in the kitchen nowadays, but an ancient Chinese ceramic pot. The inside was spacious and consisted of exhibition rooms that surrounded an open area in the center that stretched all the way to the top (the Shengzhen Museum is like this too). There were some decent jade, furniture and calligraphy exhibits, but the Ethnic Minorities section was the coolest (it even had a canoe that the people of Taiwan’s Orchid Island used). The section featured costumes, artifacts and even weapons of minorities including the Tibetans, Mongols and Manchus. The Buddhist sculptures exhibit featured some impressive pieces including stone slabs with figures sculpted on them resembling scenes from real life and giant human-sized sculptures of Buddhas and Guanyins. I was surprised some of these statues weren’t encased in glass, but basically out in the open. People could even touch them, though you’re not supposed to and I didn’t see anybody do it.



Zhou Enlai’s former house, really the office for the local Communist Party branch, left, and part of Xintiandi, right.


Pagoda at Qibao, left. At the top, I was able to peer at these old homes in the back of the pagoda.



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