Shanghai skyline (Nicholas Poon)
Article Words : Paul Morrison | 01 October

Sky lights and street talk in Shanghai

Crickets, protests and tai-chi: Paul Morrison gets to grips with local life in Shanghai

It was cricket season in the city. The sounds of the countryside sang out from windows and doorways and echoed down the narrow lanes that separated the old apartment blocks. The stifling, summer heat drove the residents outdoors, where they sat talking, playing cards or simply resting in the shade, lulled to sleep by the chirping of the crickets in their tiny bamboo cages.

In the late summer, traders from the surrounding villages bring these symbols of the countryside into the city. In the Flower and Bird market, between the rows of sad birds, exotic amphibians and bonsai trees, I found stalls selling everything a cricket fancier could desire. There were books on cricket keeping, cricket playing cards, even a multimedia CD of cricket antics. And for the insects themselves, skillfully crafted miniature cages, and delicately carved boxes with inlaid patterns.

“What do they eat?” I asked, raising my fingers to my mouth in mime.

“No! No! Not for eating, for song!” the stallholder responded. I tried to explain that I did not want to eat his prize stock, and then he got the message and reached into a paper bag, pulling out a juicy green soya bean which he poked through the bars of one of the cages, whereupon the hungry captive tucked in.

They’re not only kept for their musical abilities – although officially banned, cricket bouts still happen in Shanghai. Being herbivores they don’t exactly battle to the death, but the local passion for gambling finds an outlet. They weigh in at all sizes, from tiny fingernail-sized species to the more popular guoguo, which is really a large grasshopper.

As I stood watching one enjoy his soya bean I heard a high-pitched buzzing behind me, and turned to see a cyclist pedalling past with a great bunch of straw-coloured cages strung over his handlebars. He disappeared into the crowd, taking the chorus of crickets with him.

Shanghai had me very confused, and not just because of its passion for caged insects. There are parts of the city that are so modern that they border on futuristic – the skyscrapers and new shopping centres are thoroughly 21st century. Other parts hark back to colonial rule – most notably the riverside frontage of the Bund, with the classical architecture of the banks and merchant houses that symbolised foriegn rule.

The China of old

Some corners of the city are from the China of old, with pagodas, tea-gardens and Buddhist temples. And between it all lies the modern-day republic as we imagine it – narrow streets with bustling markets, steaming restaurants and streams of cyclists. In other Asian cities, such as Singapore or Hong Kong, successive eras have had a tendency to wipe the slate clean before rebuilding. But in Shanghai it’s all mixed up, a huge stir-fry of the past, present and future.

The era most underrepresented in Shanghai is the one you would imagine being most conspicuous. But aside from the unimaginative People’s Square, and the occasional heroic statue, there are few symbols of the Communist triumph. And there’s a reason for this – the city might well be the largest in China, but it was very much a European creation, a fact which counted against it when the Chinese finally regained control.

The ancient settlement of Nantao had been an important port for several centuries before the British arrived, but in 1842 China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking in which it agreed to open the city, along with four other key ports, to foreign commerce and investment. A new, cosmopolitan Shanghai was born, and dramatic economic expansion followed.

Less than a century later it was the sixth largest city in the world and a half of all China’s foreign trade was passing through its waters. But in its supposed heyday of the 1930s this ‘Paris of the East’ was also a notorious centre for every vice under the sun, where power resided in the hands of tough businessmen, corrupt politicians and a ruthless network of gangsters.

By this time the city was divided into three autonomous regions, each with its own government and police force: the Chinese Municipality, the much smaller French Concession, and at the heart of the city, the International Settlement. It is in this latter zone, controlled largely by the British and Americans, that Shanghai’s commercial and industrial wealth resided. Little of the great riches that were made in Shanghai filtered through to the rest of China, or even its own Chinese residents, a fact that did not escape the growing number of intellectuals and idealists that also made their home in Shanghai.

The small, wooden room was simple enough – just a long table laid out with a dozen tea cups. Not the place where you imagine revolutions to be born. But in 1921 a group of intellectuals, including a young Mao Zedong, met in this safe house in the French Concession and formed the movement that would change history.

In the museum next door I perused the displays of the early days of the struggle. A photo of students protesting in Tiananmen Square had me puzzled, until I studied the caption closer and saw the date: May 4th 1919. That Shanghai should be the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party is further irony given what followed, for when the new Communist government came to power in 1949 the city’s history was considered an embarrassment, and so the new capital was established in Beijing, and Shanghai began four decades of deliberate neglect.

Shanghai: a city that is booming

Today history has turned full circle and Shanghai is booming again. The dramatic change in policy happened at the start of the 1990s, perhaps fuelled by a realisation that the return of Hong Kong would present an even greater embarrassment to the state. So a massive investment programme began, which has seen Shanghai catapulted into the forefront of the nation’s economic aspirations, with no greater symbol than the forest of towers and skyscrapers that are still sprouting from the Special Economic Zone of Pudong.

After dark, the citizens of Shanghai stroll along the Bund and gaze across the Huangpu River to these symbols of their future. The lights of the Grand Hyatt Hotel and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower reflect on the water, where convoys of barges carry goods up and down the river as they have done for centuries. The TV Tower is remarkable – its imaginative structure housing two giant globes makes it look like a creation from a science fiction fantasy world – I half expected to see air taxis zipping around its pinnacle.

One morning I took a ferry across the river and paid for a trip to the top of the tower, where for the first time I could appreciate the scale of the city that stretched to the horizon on all sides. No wonder my feet ached.

I had spent my first two days in the city trying to see everything on foot, for every block held some new fascination – without warning a street of restaurants or a covered market or a tucked-away temple would appear just when I thought it time to take a bus or taxi. The traffic is light by Asian city standards thanks to the comparative absence of private cars, though the variety of vehicles makes for chaotic encounters; the traffic police would do better with starting pistols than the whistles which they use to control the lines of bicycles, rickshaws and taxis as they jostle for position at major crossroads.

After a day of shadowing locals whenever I wanted to cross a busy road, I decided it was just a matter of faith, a purposeful stride and making yourself visible. I was only hit once – by a cyclist going the wrong way – which I should have been prepared for.

Out with the old, in with the new?

A map of Shanghai gives the appearance of a very orderly city, laid out as it is in a tidy grid of crossing streets. But from the top of the TV Tower another frenetic race was evident in the third dimension. All around there were ambitious buildings at various stages of construction. Some people commented that Shanghai is like Hong Kong used to be. But I suspect it is more a case of how Hong Kong could have been if it had kept a hold on its past in a clamour to build for the future.

So in Shanghai, although old structures have doubtless been lost, much of the best parts of the old city remain, and if current policy remains, will continue to do so. The Bund and other colonial buildings are protected, whilst the building policy in the Old Town is focussed upon restoration.

I returned again and again to the Old Town, that part of the city that predates the colonial boom. Its narrow streets were pulsating with life, where food stalls offered cheap and tasty stir-fries or the local speciality of dumplings. The craft shops had intriguing pairings of specialities – one sold walking sticks and acupressure suction cups, another ceremonial swords and novelty key rings, and a third calligraphy sets and teapots.

For a respite from the bustle of the street in the Old Town I visited the garden of Yu Yuan – a tranquil labyrinth of walkways past ornate ponds and old wooden buildings, with the adjacent Huxingting Tea House the perfect place to refresh the spirit with a pot of jasmine tea. And for further peace and quiet the nearby Temple of the City God – one of a number of Buddhist temples around the city.

More than two decades after Mao’s death, some Shanghainese still want something to believe in. The increasing tolerance of religion is one feature of the new China, and one morning I took a taxi across town to Longhua Temple – a large complex of side chambers and shrines, with yellow-ochre walls and deep-red curved roofs.

At the gates a blind palm-reader sat patiently, whilst a steady stream of visitors came to pray and burn bundles of incense sticks or cast wads of notes branded with The Hell Bank Corporation into the flames. Monks have returned to live at the temple, and in one room a group of nine novices sat reading from heavy texts whilst an elderly overseer in red robes sat with his eyes closed, cooling himself with a white fan. The murmur of their chanting filtered out into the courtyard, and along with the thick smell of incense cast an air of serenity over the courtyard.

When it comes to stress management, the Shanghainese certainly seem to have solutions. One morning in the city, my body-clock still confused from the long flight east, I rose at dawn and set off for a walk along the Bund.

I felt as if I was late for a party...

The sun had barely risen above the horizon, but the broad walkway along the river was alive with people getting ready for the day. Men and women of all ages were practising the slow movements of tai-chi – some on their own, others in groups of a dozen or more, their synchronised action generating an energy of its own. But it wasn’t all slow motion. One large group of women were performing a traditional dance with bright red fans to a distorted tune emanating from a cassette player, whilst another pyjama-clad team had a disco beat to get them going.

Clustered at the base of the patriotic monument at the north end was what seemed like a school PE class, complete with a stern instructress barking commands to touch your toes and reach for the sky. As a complete contrast, at the south end, four pairs of smartly dressed couples were dancing the tango.

And between them all there were the joggers and strollers in vests and shorts threading their way around the gyrating and balancing bodies. I saw old men with white gloves turning big metal balls in their palms – a treatment for arthritis I later learned. There were people walking backwards, forever straining to glance over their shoulders as they weaved around the stationery and ambulatory hazards. I saw one woman rubbing herself up against a tree in an action that would probably get her arrested in Hyde Park. And finally, to cap it all, a dozen figures in white shirts and slacks standing stock-still with their arms outstretched. It was a perfect setting and perfect way to prepare yourself for a day in the city.

This melting pot of styles is very much a Shanghai trait. Though the city finally reverted to Chinese rule with the 1949 revolution, its cosmopolitan character never really left, and even today Shanghai is considered the cultural, if not political capital of China.

“How do the Shanghainese view China?”

"They look down on it!” was the emphatic response. Not surprising, then, that Mao chose to foresake his intellectual origins. It took his deputy and eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, to see the potential of the city and reverse its decline.

Mao is gone but not forgotten – “the father of the nation” as one local woman referred to him. But the reverence he once commanded is now a part of history. In the open-air market on Dong Tai road the Chairman’s face was all around. In the intriguing bric-a-brac stalls memorabilia from his golden age sit gathering dust along side the relics of previous eras. Jade carvings, stone Buddhas and wind-up gramophones lie side by side with Mao Zedong badges. It’s Shanghai in a nutshell – you can rummage through the past and take your pick for a souvenir.

I shuddered at the sight of tiny embroidered slippers – the shoes that once covered the bound feet of women – and was taken aback when a close look at the delicate carvings on a collection of old perfume bottles revealed explicit erotic encounters.

“The mother would put these in the daughter’s luggage for her wedding night,” said the stall-holder, trying to pass these explicit yet somehow charming depictions as educational. “Now we have family planning,” he continued, with a grin.

These, and other ‘antiques’, were possibly fake, but my real fascination lay with genuine remnants of the 20th century, such as the pre-War advertising posters in which scantily dressed Chinese beauties invited the consumption of long forgotten luxuries like Golf cigarettes or Cow Brand toilet soap.

Best of all were the discarded trinkets and trophies of the heady days of Communism. I rummaged through the badges, busts and brooches, the patriotic posters, party armbands and the stacks of Little Red Books. These communist bibles carried the word of the leader to the masses; now they fetch a few dollars in a street market. I found one with a series of coloured photographs, but one character at the side of Mao in many of the shots had crosses pencilled through his face.

“Lin Piao,” the stallholder explained, waving his finger to remind me of this former trusted comrade’s fall from grace. Once the head of the People’s Liberation Army, Lin Piao fell out of favour during the Cultural Revolution, and supposedly died in an air crash when fleeing to a safe haven in the Soviet Union. I bought the book, along with a cigarette lighter with the leader’s face on it – I don’t smoke, but when the vendor flicked back the top and it played that old party tune ‘The East in Red’ it just had to be mine.

For some Shanghainese, memories of Mao are no laughing matter, and one summer’s evening I met such a person. I had spent the afternoon exploring the old French Concession, I decided to rest on a shady bench in Fuxing Park. With its wide, tree-lined paths this quiet haven had all the air of a Parisian suburb, but for the imposing statue of Marx and Engels in one corner. I hardly noticed the tall, elderly gentleman when he first sat down next to me, but when he turned and spoke to me he had my total attention.

“I teach myself,” he declared, when I commented on his command of English. His precise words hissed through the gap in his front teeth, and he looked sharply at me as he spoke. Hearing English spoken by a local is a rarity in Shanghai, for although the children now learn foreign languages at school, very few adults speak anything but their mother tongue.

We chatted about the park, but he was clearly in no mood for small talk. “They arrested 20 or 30 people,” he declared. I guessed who the ‘they’ were, but asked him why. He looked around, and gestured to the notebook and pen in my top pocket. I handed them to him and he wrote three Chinese characters on a blank page and showed them to me as if I could understand.

“What does that mean?” I asked. He paused, lowered his head and spoke softly. “Falun Gong.”

The Falun Gong were big news as I visited

To the government they were a dangerous religious sect set to destabilise society. To their advocates they were a non-political movement whose followers were mostly concerned with spiritual and physical health. Either way, their popularity was too much for a state wary of any movement outside of its control, especially in this 50th anniversary year of the revolution. So just before my arrival they had arrested the leaders and banned the Falun Gong altogether.

“They fear them,” the old man continued, and lest I misunderstood his meaning he spelt it out: “F - E - A - R.” After a pause, he continued with another bried statement: “Democracy leaders too.”

Later that week I read of the sentencing of two such leaders to long prison sentences. For all China’s economic liberalism, political change is a far slower process. For the older citizens of Shanghai, who lived through the Cultural Revolution, there was nothing new in this. The post-war generations must carry a weight of experience that the young Chinese cannot hope to imagine, let alone a ‘big nose’ like I.

But the frustrations and bitterness that this old man carried inside him prompted him to confide in a foreigner. “You could be a spy!” he declared, which at first I thought was an accusation. “They will give you money and a Chinese girl.” And with this he waved his hand, stood up and glanced back down. “Take it easy,” he said, and strolled off along the shady path.

My encounter in the park just added to my own feelings of frustration. I can recall no other place on my travels where I have seen so much and understood so little. Shanghai amazed and delighted and entertained me beyond expectation. But it also confused me with the strangeness of its customs and cryptic rules that bind it together.

Even the expats I met who had spent some time in the city, and perhaps mastered the language, spoke of the same sensation. So one afternoon, for a break from the puzzle of life in the city, I took a cruise down the river to the mouth of the Yangtze.

From the water, Shanghai’s reason for being is evident. The docks and barges are as busy as ever, and as with the earthly constructions, there was a mixture of state-of-the-art and thoroughly ancient. Some of the overladen barges looked as though they had floated straight out of the 19th century.

After an hour and a half we reached the wide, dull-brown expanse of water that marked the Huangpu’s joining with China’s largest river. The boat turned around and we passengers returned to our comfy indoor seats where a choc-ice and entertainment awaited.

The conjurer glanced at his audience, flashed a silver-toothed smile and pointed at me. The little old man in a beige suite had taken to the floor on the return leg of the afternoon cruise, and for the first time my gaze had turned away from the river outside as he delighted the first-class lounge with disappearing wands and glass tumblers that defied the law of gravity.

I was summoned to the floor for the finale, and duly held tightly to two corners of the square of cloth that he handed me, the other ‘volunteer’ doing likewise. He waved his wand, poured a handful of rice into the centre and proceeded to repeatedly sweep them up into a small wooden scoop and pour them out again. We watched closely, but were still taken aback when suddenly the small dry grains were transformed into puffed rice which filled the centre of the cloth and brought a gasp from the spellbound faces around us.

Perhaps that’s the secret to understanding Shanghai – consider it one great conjuring trick, a feat of Chinese magic to be marvelled at rather than analysed. A place where skyscrapers appear at the drop of a hat, and insects sing the people to sleep on hot summer afternoons.

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