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Shanghai Flâneur: the Old Town

5 Mar

Some time last October, I discovered a “walking think tank” called Shanghai Flâneur. It promotes the art, you may say, of walking in the city and, one thing leading to another, I have now started to collaborate with the consultancy attached to it, called Constellations. Shanghai Flâneur organises thematic walks to the wider public, generally urban amateurs or professionals, or more corporate clients as part of a wider programme.

To date, I have been on one walk, which focused on the old city of Shanghai. I was particularly curious as I had previously been with a friend to the old city and, much to my dismay, couldn’t find it! We wandered in-between vast construction sites and tall residential buildings. One or two streets were quite popular and picturesque but that was about it.

The Flâneur talk-walk – twalk is probably the best term for it – was led by Katya Knyazeva, a Russian resident of Shanghai, who became passionate with this part of the city and researched it to the point of becoming an expert and now working on a book dedicated to it. There was a whole lot of fantastic information, historical, urban and human, and the discovery of unsuspected treasures. I have tried to filter some of it here in a comprehensible and palatable way, but excuse me in advance for the length of this post – and this is just a part of Katya’s talk.

The first thing to know is that the origins of Shanghai are actually very modest. As its name indicates, the old city is where it all started. However, it used to be a small fishing town built on wetlands, where some of the streets of today were actually a network of canals leading to the far larger Huangpu river and linked to the hinterland. This is why most of the streets in the old town are winding and curvy, following the geology of the land rather than a set plan. The old city was also fortified and, although the wall is no longer, you can guess its trace in the circular road going around what used to be all of the old town.

Adapted from Google Maps

Adapted from Google Maps

Not all that was part of the old town remains today. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of new and prospective development around. However, life in the older neighbourhoods is certainly buzzing and full of artefacts witnessing Shanghai’s history. We started off at Penglai Road and got straight into a daily street market. The street was packed with all sorts of products from fresh and ready made foods to clothing. It was difficult to keep your cool with so many curious things going on and the pedestrian traffic in all directions. We started off with some of those winding streets with very modest buildings, some of which are very very old but, due to various alterations and extensions, bear few marks of their historical importance. If I recall correctly, one of the buildings dates as far back as the early 19th century, but you could never ever tell by its appearance as it’s been mended practically everywhere.

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The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

Hand-made pork dumplings

Hand-made pork dumplings

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Mending and mending one's house

Mending and mending one’s house

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

After crossing the market, we carried on to slightly wider streets where more imposing, European-inspired houses fronted the street. Some prominent people lived in this area and their presence is indicated by weird plates to the front of the house, written in Chinese only, which sadly limits the appreciation of their importance. We went through the gates of some of the housing blocks, where we discovered beautiful ornamental details and where Katya told us a little bit about the past and current inhabitants and their misfortunes during the hard core Communist times. Like this 70 year-old lady who was the daughter of a poet’s butler and, just for the mere association of her family with a more bourgeois one, was sent to do forced labour for 17 years in the Xinjiang province (the westernmost province in China where conditions are harsh today and were harsher then).

Curving street

Curving street

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Entrance into a Shikumen

Entrance into a Shikumen

We then carried on into another neighbourhood, passing on the way by three small trees fenced off from the passage. The reason for this is that these trees are officially listed for being something like a 100 or a 150 years old. This neighbourhood was yet a different world. The various houses and occasional restaurant can be accessed by a network of narrow lanes, where cars cannot circulate. Before we reached our destination, we were shown by our guide these wooden pots/boxes, just lying there.

Guess what these are!

Guess what these are!

Just as I was thinking that they looked quite nice and was wondering whether it would be nice to get one or were used for rice, we were told that they are actually toilet pots! Shanghai may be the wealthiest city of China with an amazing concentration of billionnaires, yet some people still live in houses with no toilets and therefore use these pots, drop them on the street the following day for the “pot cleaning” service to come, empty them, give them a quick rinse and put them back for the owners to use again.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we knocked on a door set in a blank wall and got into what is Shanghai’s best kept secret and the city’s oldest known house. The lady who lives in it is its owner and direct descendent of the original owner, a highly learned ex-bureaucrat, who commissioned the building of the house. Because the owner and Katya know each other, we were able to visit the house, which is in absolute shambles as the owner and her family do not have the means to restore it and the government is lingering on the matter, not seeing the many values of such a house and probably having “grander” plans for the area. The house is organised in three courtyards and throughout the different indoor areas, you can clearly see the remnants of the grandeur of this house, the amazing craftsmanship and how important this family once was. This was further attested by the presence of a “Golden Stone”.

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

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This “stone” looks like a table with a thick top tile on top of it. In reality, it’s everything but that. A “Golden Stone” is a tile similar to the ones found in the paving of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were produced in special workshops in Suzhou and the process of their fabrication used to be (and maybe still is) a very well guarded secret. Those who owned one were particularly lucky and wealthy. It’s meant to just stand and never ever be used as a table. The lady told Katya that when the Red Guards came to pillage the house during the Cultural Revolution and heard about the Golden Stone, harassed her father to give them the stone, thinking it was literally made of gold. Being 15-16 year old uneducated boys, they failed to see any value in a large piece of ceramics and that’s how it still remains in the property of the family.

The Golden Stone

The Golden Stone

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The state of the house and courtyard was obviously very sad to see. What was worse was the fact that a Danish practice had managed to solve the puzzle so to say, by looking at every single beam and piece of wood and understand which piece goes where in the overall structure. They proposed to restore the house and found funds for it but the Shanghai Municipality didn’t let them proceed with it for sheer national pride. They argued that such a project could only be undertaken by a Chinese firm…

Equally sad and weird was to see in what conditions the owner lived, especially coming from such a learned family and whose mother is, we were told, a most refined and well-mannered woman. See for yourselves…

The room where the owner lives

The room where the owner lives

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In spite of the enlightenment and wonderful discoveries made on this day, the end of the walk had a bit of a bitter taste. It comforted my theory that Communism is responsible for China and Chinese people losing millennia of culture, manners and finesse, which can be seen in the way they live and sometimes act…

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

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Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

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Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

Shanghai Randoms #3

28 Dec

Merry Christmas everyone, friends or random readers! Hope you’re all having a fabulous time off. I’m too busy spending quality time with family and friends to write anything lengthy but here are a few totally random pictures of Shanghai mostly, which I’ve been collecting for a while. Hope you’ll enjoy them and happy new year to all!

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

Vendeuse lotus Pudong

In the subway

In the subway

Waiting for the train to arrive

Waiting for the train to arrive

On summer holiday

On summer holiday

In Sanya

In Sanya

The method of those who can't afford pampers

The method of those who can’t afford pampers (it took me a year to finally get this shot).

Crazy laundry

Crazy laundry

On how to combine a loft and Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two

On how to combine a loft and a Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two (Shaanxi Bei Lu).

Global city, major attraction. Still I'm always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

Global city, major tourist attraction. Still I’m always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

I just can't get enough...

I just can’t get enough…

Prosecco at the Peninsula

Prosecco at the Peninsula

The ashtray I intend to steal some day

The ashtray I intend to steal some day.

Visits: Hángzhōu

22 May

Whilst Shanghai itself is not that old, it is surrounded by lots of “smaller” towns with a long history. The most famous ones are Sūzhōu and Hángzhōu (pronounced su-joe and hang-joe), which are respectively 30 minutes and an hour’s fast train ride from Shanghai.

When my parents were here, a while ago now (I have been a bit lazy), they felt like escaping from the city environment for something quieter and relaxing. So we headed to Hangzhou, which I was told is very pretty, prettier than Suzhou despite its UNESCO Wold Heritage status.

We thought we’d hire an English speaking guide at the train station to show us around and explain us a thing or two. As soon as we left the platform, we were greeted by lots of people selling their touring services. My speaking and negotiating skills were put to the test. I did well but it still took 35 minutes to get a guide (non-English speaking) and a car just for ourselves. English speakers are difficult to find at the station (I think you’ll have to hire one from a travel agency in Shanghai); also it wasn’t clear that we didn’t want to share a car and finally of course, there was no way we were going to pay 1,000 RMB (80 euros, 100 pounds) per person. So I got it down to 400 RMB for the three of us :D

Totally random: a black cab in Hangzhou!

As for the other posts on my recent visits, here’s my practical piece of advice. Although it can be pricy, I’d advise anyone with limited time in Hangzhou to hire a guide if you don’t want to walk a lot. Once you’re around the historic places, it will be very difficult for you to find a cab to get back to the station or anywhere else in town.

In Hangzhou, most places to see are around the large lake, which is located to the west of town. As everywhere in eastern China, you have to expect company anywhere you are, even if you think it’s a cunning plan to visit Hangzhou on a Friday. For a long time, it was difficult for Chinese people to move inside their own country, because infrastructure were not as developed, people couldn’t afford it but also because it was forbidden or highly regulated. In fact, you still need to give your passport number to be able to buy a train ticket to go anywhere. So they’re now making the best of it and are therefore the first tourists in their country.

Anyhow, despite the crowds, traffic around the lake and the mist, Hangzhou was beautiful and very relaxing. It’s very green and there are some mountains in the horizon which remind you that nature survives outside Shanghai. Around the lake are pagodas and houses of historic and learned figures. I’m sadly unable to give much details. I just know that Hangzhou was the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom during the 10th century. During this short time, the arts flourished and so did Buddhism, leaving us with the pagodas. Hangzhou is also known for having an Arab community, which settled in the 12th and 13th centuries when the city was an important sea trading post. Ibn Battuta visited the city in 1345 and praised its beautiful lake.

A lot of more private resorts, like the one at Mogan Shan, developed lately, catering for really quiet and relaxing weekends away from the crowds. So there’s definitely a lot more to do in Hangzhou, you just have to dedicate more than one afternoon. More on that next time hopefully…

Visits: Běijīng

6 May

When my parents confirmed they were coming to visit, I immediately asked them whether they would like to go to Beijing. I probably have some affection for the Chinese capital because it’s the first (and only) place I went to when I visited China for the first time. I was so excited to be there and have such good memories of it that I sort of kept the enthusiasm for it. Also, to be fair, it would be a pity for anyone to come to China on holiday and not visit Beijing. It’s filled with absolutely grandiose historic places, the sort you will only find in a few places on earth like the Pyramids or Luxor in Egypt or Versailles in France.

I won’t go over every single visit we did, because I can’t describe them and you’ll need to go and see it for yourself one day. I’ll just say it’s impressive and fascinating even though the pictures below probably don’t do these places justice.

Part of the Summer Palace

Brides by the annex of the Forbidden City

The Great Wall

Apart from the abundance and monumentality of historic places, the trip was interesting because it made me realise how different Beijing and Shanghai are. Some differences couldn’t be more obvious but there’s more than meets the eye. As a city, Beijing is monumental in every single way. Not just because of its historic monuments, but the scale of everything is just not human and reminds you of the power game that’s always existed between China and other countries. China’s got land, people and can mobilise both, don’t you ever forget it. Beijing is there to remind you of that. Tiananmen Square is massive, the roads are gigantic and difficult to cross and the basic unit of distance is certainly not the meter but the kilometre. My father chose a hotel which was central and therefore close to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the lakes Houhai and Beihai. We thought we’d go for a quick afternoon walk on the day we arrived. We walked for about an hour and even I got fed up and decided we’d take a cab to get to Lake Houhai. It makes Shanghai, which is a bigger city (23 million vs. 16 for Beijing) feel very human. In spite of its flaws, it certainly is more pedestrian-friendly. Here are two pictures but again, it’s really difficult to give a sense of scale of Beijing within a frame.

Tiananmen Square

The Beijing Opera House

Culturally, oddly enough Beijing is definitely more happening than Shanghai. You would’ve thought that being the seat of power of a controlling regime, artists would go elsewhere. But no, the cultural scene is located here. When I visited in 2004, the 798 Art District was still an underground place, now it’s become a bit too commercialised for my taste, but still has a few good things to see. I’ve read somewhere that there is a sort of ambivalence of the government towards artists. The fact that some Chinese artists are doing so well abroad is a source of marketing (and income) for the country, but at the same time the government doesn’t want it to get out of hand. So there’s both encouragement and restraint.

798 Art District

Installation by Palestinian artist Bashir Makhoul

From an expat’s perspective, I have often found that foreigners who have lived in both cities tend to prefer either Beijing or Shanghai, but rarely like both. Shanghai is definitely a yuppie kind of place, very entrepreneurial, very wealthy, sophisticated and show-off. Beijing, despite its aggressive urban environment and climate (very very dry and very very very polluted), I am told, is a calmer, more settled place. People are warmer and it appears that there is a better integration between Chinese people and foreigners. And those who have lived in Beijing speak about it with a lot of fondness.

On the way to the airport to fly back to Shanghai, I have to admit that I felt really grateful to have ended up in Shanghai rather than Beijing. The pollution and traffic really got to me after four days only. I am nonetheless very curious. Next time I visit Beijing, it’ll be to get a resident’s perspective and understand what it is that makes this city so endearing.

Visits: Nánjīng

17 Apr

Until early April, the only places I had been to in China were Beijing (and surrounding tourist sites: the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs) and Shanghai. It looks like spring is the season of bank holidays in China too, gracing those who work with long weekends and making my weekdays a bit less lonesome.

With some friends, we decided to go explore Nanjing which is about an hour and a half to the northeast of Shanghai. We woke up early and headed there with the fast train that goes all the way to Beijing. According to our research and guides, there are few things to see in Nanjing. After all, it was the southern capital* for a few centuries and dynasties. The trip was all in all very interesting but unfortunately not for the reasons we had anticipated.

Various sources will point you to a few places. Although we haven’t visited all of them, if you should go to one, it is the Ming Tombs. Yes as in Beijing, Nanjing’s got its own version of it. In many ways, they are similar to those outside Beijing, only perhaps smaller. But the site is beautiful, especially with all the plum trees in full bloom (which entitled us to a discount on entry tickets – plum tree festival or something), the buildings are impressive and the promenade from one tomb to the other very pleasant. Like for many historic sites in China, there is no available explanation on the site and you have to put up with aberrant things like a kids’ entertainment park within the premises of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But hey, it’s China and compared to what we saw before, it isn’t such an eyesore.

At the Ming Tombs

Golden tiles, colour of the emperors

That’s for the must. What you should by all means avoid is the Purple Mountain. It may have been an important site at some point, but now it’s just an attraction park for Nanjing’s inhabitants to escape the city and picnic or play cards. Thankfully, we took the cable car all the way to the top and back down (our initial plan was to walk) and then strolled from absurdity to absurdity, i.e. bad modern structures and sculptures supposedly spiritual or reminiscent of important people. The only thing we got out of it was probably some fresh air for our soiled Shanghai dwellers’ lungs.

At the Purple Mountain

The ex-neo White Cloud...

Back in town, the Linggu Temple is not really worth your while. It now feels more like a roundabout than a Buddhist Temple set in a park. Clearly we didn’t have the time to see everything, there are a few museums and other spots to check out.

That’s for the bad stuff. I’m not trying to undermine Nanjing or its heritage, but I can’t help complain about creating fake heritage sites and not emphasising properly (through information or design) those sites that are of true importance.

Now what I found of real interest is that Nanjing is actually a lively and pleasant city. At the moment, it has “only” 8 million inhabitants but clearly the authorities are foreseeing massive expansion of urban areas. We arrived at the southern train station which is in the middle of nowhere. However, it is surrounded by construction sites and I’m sure in a couple of years or so a whole neighbourhood will have emerged out of the ground. Another thing about the station, it is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE. It must be the size of two football pitches. You could organise the Athletics Championship in that station.

The arrival hall at the station

The pick-up area

Heading back to Shanghai

The departure hall

Access to the platform

Also the fast train’s tracks to Nanjing are elevated along the whole journey. It makes you realise that the level of investment in infrastructure from the government is phenomenal. I guess that’s where most of the money is going, along with defence, given that taxpayers pay high taxes but don’t really benefit from any social or economic security.

* nán = south, jīng= capital; běi = north … Běijīng = northern capital

Visits: 2010 Expo Site / Shibo Gōngyuan

12 Apr

I don’t know who reads this blog, besides my friends and family, but if there are any foreign residents of Shanghai or prospective visitors, this may be of interest to you. I’ve recently had two friends and my parents visiting and, with the lovely weather and warm temperatures back, I’ve started venturing around town again and beyond. This post and the next ones are about the places I’ve been to but also provide useful advice as to how not to waste your time.

Here’s my advice: if you don’t want to waste your time, do not go to the Shanghai 2010 World Exhibition Site (or Shibo Gōngyuan, i.e. park in Chinese). Really do not bother. Although I was very eager to see it, I felt a little bit suspicious about the whole expedition when I couldn’t find any clear information on the net or in any guidebooks about the site, what is still out there, if it is open to the public or freely accessible. To answer, to the exception of the China Pavilion – which is a beautiful and impressive building but one you can’t visit unless there is some event taking place- there’s the “Expo Axis” (also not accessible) and the rest is largely a wasteland. You have to walk a lot with a few other stranded tourists and equally stranded souvenir sellers only to end up in the “Mercedes-Benz Arena” mall, containing an ice rink, a few restaurants and a cinema but largely empty on a Monday morning. It does however offer a 360 degree viewing platform on the 6th floor, which confirms that there is not much to see in spite of our perseverance. Amongst the few still erect structures are: the apparently much spoken about and quite popular Saudi Arabia Pavilion known as the Moon Boat (I personally failed to see the interest of this building from outside at least) and the non-descript Qatar Pavilion and another Saudi building.

See for yourselves…

The China Pavilion - by architect He Jingtang also director of the Architectural Academy of the South China University of Technology

There are 56 beams, representing the 56 ethnic groups of China

The Expo Axis

Looking north

Looking west, with the Moon Boat

Looking southwest, with a pavilion being dismantled and the Chinese pavilion

The Qatari Pavilion and a big dump

After telling our disappointment to a friend and long resident of Shanghai, he told us that he thought the Expo was disappointing when it was ongoing and all the pavilions were above ground. However what he found quite good is the side event about cities. As you may know the theme of the Exhibition was “Better city, better life” and there were mini-pavilions about cities and how they are working towards improving the quality of urban life through design, transport, green spaces, sustainability, etc. I don’t know what are the plans for the Expo site, but that’s certainly some food for thought… You can still visit some of those pavilions. They are located across the Expo site, in Puxi. I haven’t been yet and as for the main site, I can’t find any clear information. I will go at some point and hopefully it won’t be a waste of time.

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