Sunday, December 1, 2013

Memories of China 2009: Shanghai

In 2009, just after the Beijing Olympics, we took a trip to China that included time spent in Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an, Suzhou and Zhouzhuang.  Traveling in China with my Caucasian husband had its pros and cons.  On the one hand, some extra respect and deference was often proffered to the "white man", especially in the smaller towns.  On the other hand, in bigger cities like Shanghai, Rich became a magnet for vendors of every imaginable type of fake luxury product, as well as beggars and a gang of young street urchins who were working for a female Fagin.

Shanghai is by far the most modern and commercialized of the cities that we visited.  Western brands including Hermes, Cartier, Dior, Burger King, Starbucks, Lancรดme, and Swarovski's, were all present in the downtown core, many of them on the main shopping street Nanjing Road.

Surprisingly, tucked right in the midst of, and towered by huge commercial buildings on West Nanjing Road, is the Buddist Jing'an Temple (Temple of Peace).  It was originally built in 247AD and moved to its current location in 1216.  The juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern is quite shocking.  Wandering around the temple, if you don't look up, it feels like you are transported in time back to Ancient China.  When a pair of bald, robed monks walk by and one of them is speaking on a cell phone, it rather breaks the illusion.

We also got a flavour of "Old China" on Wujiang Road, which was filled with food stalls, small shops and restaurants.  This seemed like the place where locals came to eat.  Yang's Fry Dumpling was so popular that there were lineups out the door for both sit-down or takeout dumplings, which you could watch being cooked while in the lineup.  The meat and vegetable fillings were mixed with gelatin which turns into soup once it is heated. When you bite into the crispy dough covering, you need to be careful of the hot liquid that is expelled.

The price was incredibly inexpensive.  We received enough food to feed a family of four, including a dozen large fried dumplings, boiled dumpling soup and cans of "Chinese Cola" for the equivalent of around $3 Canadian.  Compare this to the coffee we would get from Shanghai Starbucks, which came to around $6 Canadian.  But patronizing Starbucks did have the advantage of guaranteeing access to a Western style toilet.  In Rich's opinion, this was worth every penny.

The specialty Shanghai soup dumpling, called Xiao Long Bao, is taken to the next level at Nan Xiang Dumpling House.  An extra large dumpling is served in a bamboo basket and comes with a straw stuck into it, for the purpose of sucking out the soup.  This was a very different and interesting way to eat a dumpling.

The Nan Xiang Dumpling House is located in the beautiful Yuyuan Garden (meaning Garden of Happiness), which features pagodas and pavilions, ponds, fountains, rocks, and sculptures.  The bridges were built in a zig-zag fashion as a means of keeping away ghosts and evil spirits, who supposedly can only travel in straight lines.

The area next to the Yuyuan Garden is called the Old City God's Temple, after a large temple dating back to 1403.  Surrounding the temple is a large commercial area with stores and shops housed in buildings over a century old.

Throughout Shanghai we saw advertisements for the upcoming 2010 Shanghai Expo, including the blue Haibao mascot that looked to me like a cross between Gumby and a giant tooth from a toothpaste commercial.  Preparations for the Expo meant around-the-clock, 7/24 construction–a pace that could only be dictated by a Communist country like China.  Unfortunately the massive construction only worsened the already polluted air.  Although it was "sunny" for most of the days that we were in Shanghai, we rarely ever saw the sun due to the thick smog.

We visited a museum dedicated to Dr. Sun Yet-Sen, as well as a separate one dedicated to his wife Soong Ching Ling. Dr. Sun was one of the first leaders of China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. He is still well respected in China today, even though he was not a Communist. After he died, his wife became a supporter of the Communist party and regime and was able to live a luxurious lifestyle, which included a large private house and a limousine. Even today, her home was patrolled by armed guards who made it quite clear that they did not wish to have their picture taken. Interestingly, Soong Ching Ling had a sister who was married to another Chinese leader - Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek.

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