Saturday March 23, 2013
Shanghai's diverse charms
Story and photos by EVELYN LEN
Skyscrapers aren’t the only things that make up Shanghai. Charming rural places and the old way of life are also close at hand.
MY Chinese New Year was different from the norm this year. I spent four full days in China, the land of my ancestors, and it was my maiden visit too.
I flew on AirAsia X’s inaugural flight from Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai – China’s most populous city – on Feb 19. The weather was chilly, with temperatures ranging from 2°C to 15°C; the trees were bare and the poodles were in sweater!
The cold weather meant that we got hungry faster, and meals were relished. One lunchtime was at a Turkish-style halal restaurant serving Xinjiang cuisine. Outside the restaurant, we saw an Uighur man hard at work, baking sesame-crusted bread in a large kiln. The smell was heavenly!
The finished product looked very much like naan bread. It even tasted the same.
We did not have to wait long for the food to arrive. Over 10 dishes – including the sesame-crusted bread – were served. The number of dishes we had during each of the meals in Shanghai was mind-boggling: usually no fewer than 10, and often closer to 20! Talk about eating like emperors.
My niece, who works in Shanghai, took me out to dinner one night. We went to a cosy restaurant called Waipo Jia (Grandma’s Home) and ordered a cold appetiser (sweet lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice), stir-fried choy sum, and fish slices with preserved vegetable in soup, which was spicy and oily but delicious.
‘Pearls’ in the sky
The first iconic place we visited was the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong Park in Lujiazui. Standing majestically at 468m, the 22-year-old structure was featured in Transformers 3. The observation deck at the topmost “pearl” of the tower, at 342m, offered a magnificent 360° view of the city.
Skyscrapers of varying heights and architectural designs dominated the view.
Another observation deck, at 259m, had a glass-panelled floor, so we could look down all the way to ground level – dizzying! Though the staff assured us that the structure was sturdy and safe for us to stand, walk or even jump on, it still made my knees go a bit wobbly.
One child confidently posed for photos, while another cried and refused to step on the glass panels despite his parents’ coaxing.
Back on terra firma, the bustling metropolis has large public parks and spaces, such as the quiet and peaceful People’s Square. Located in the centre of the city, the square is beautifully landscaped, with a fountain in the middle.
Yuyuan Garden (Garden of Contentment) is a classical garden situated in Anren Jie. It was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by a government official named Pan Yunduan for his parents in 1577.
Before we entered the garden, we first had to pass Chenghuang Miao Market (or “Temple of the Town Gods”) What a busy place it was! The cacophony of sounds was jarring to the ear. There must have been hundreds of people there that day. Security personnel warned people of pickpockets. I felt rather frazzled making my way along the narrow zig-zag bridge with the hordes of people, and held onto my handbag tightly.
It was a relief when I reached Yuyuan Garden, leaving the crowd behind.
Sprawling over an area of 2ha, the beautiful garden contains ponds, trees and plants, interesting rock formations (including a naturally hollowed-out jade boulder), cloisters, pavilions, gazebos and an ancient opera stage. The garden also features Jiu Qu Qiao (the Bridge of Nine Zigzags) – the number nine symbolising power. On the grounds is a 400-year-old ginkgo tree and a 100-year-old magnolia tree.
After exiting Yuyuan Garden, I heard our tour guide Alex Wei, 32, calling out from a tea house above a souvenir shop. The tea house was warm and cosy. Little teapots sat daintily on the shelves, and many varieties of tea were on display. As Wei exchanged pleasantries with the owners of the shop – Jimmy Wong and Tommy Kuok – the waitress served us hot Chinese tea, gratis. Just the thing to warm us up.
Although Shanghai is a very modern city, some parts of it seem untouched by time: Tianzifang and Xin Tian Di are two such areas.
Tianzifang is an arts and crafts enclave that sprouted from a residential area in the French Concession area. Many of the old buildings, whose facade has been preserved, now serve as handicraft stores, coffee shops and art studios.
It was interesting to explore the narrow alleys and savour the sights, and amusing to note that the residents still hang their clothes on bamboo poles to dry. In fact, this method of drying clothes is practised throughout the city. On one of my bus rides through the city, I even saw a bedsheet on a hanger on a tree branch.
Xin Tian Di, too, has French-style buildings. The antique walls, tiles and exterior of the shikumen (stone-framed door) houses of old Shanghai have been well preserved. The interior of these old buildings, however, have been converted into trendy bars, boutiques or themed restaurants.
My favourite part of the trip was going on the 45-minute cruise cruise on the Huangpu. It was slightly past 6pm, and the sky was already dark. Between 6:30pm and 10:30pm each day, the 52 historical and modern buildings flanking the river are lit up – a stunning sight!
The cruise began from The Bund, a famous waterfront that has long been regarded as a symbol of Shanghai. I spent about half the time on the open-air top deck. The wind was very cold, and exhilarating. After taking photos to my heart’s content and longing for some warmth, I made my way to the enclosed middle deck.
To give us a chance to rub shoulders with “the rich and famous”, the organisers took us to the Hall of Fame at Madame Tussauds Shanghai. At the wax museum, we “met” and posed with the wax likeness of Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Chang Yimou, Kelly Chan, Teresa Teng, Tom Cruise, President Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, and our own Datuk Michelle Yeoh.
About an hour’s drive out of Shanghai, we found ourselves in the countryside, heading for the ancient water village of Zhujiajiao, which is about 1,700 years old. This place is also called the Venice of the Orient because of its river and many bridges.
I spotted a bridal couple having their wedding photos taken on one bridge. The bride, looking lovely in a strapless gown, was rubbing her hands to warm herself.
My newfound friends and I went on a 15-minute boat-ride on the river. It was so peaceful and calm, with only the sound of the water lapping against the boat and a gentle breeze blowing in our faces. The silence was sometimes broken by the sound of children’s laughter or dogs barking or a woman calling out, asking if we wanted to hear her sing – for a fee!
I found that quite amusing.
Holding up plastic bags filled with small fish, some enterprising womenfolk called out to visitors to buy and release the fish into the water for a mere RMB2 (RM1). The narrow streets were lined with small stalls selling some interesting stuff: precious stones, silk goods, traditional musical instruments, among a host of other items.
One stall was dedicated to all things porcine! Braised pigs’ trotters, deep-fried pigs’ intestines, pork knuckle, glutinous rice dumplings with pork. The sight of it all was quite shocking at first but, oh, the aroma was glorious!
Smooth sound of jazz
On the Friday night of my stay, my niece took me to The Jazz Bar at Peace Hotel (one of Shanghai’s oldest hotels) near the Bund to listen to a band of veteran jazz musicians. Unfortunately, we were late and managed to catch only one song, but I was thrilled that the song was the golden oldie Mei Gui, Mei Gui, Wo Ai Ni (Rose, Rose, I Love You). The song is sometimes known as Shanghai Rose.
Next up was resident jazz musician Theo Croker (on trumpet) and his buddies. Interestingly, Croker is the grandson of Grammy Award-winning American trumpeter Doc Cheatham. Listening to good jazz music was a wonderful and relaxing way to spend the evening.
I had only four days in Shanghai but the sights I took in and the experiences I had have whetted my appetite to see more of this vast country. n Shanghai is AirAsia X’s 14th destination in China. The long-haul, low-fare carrier flies to Shanghai six times weekly but from May 1, there will be daily flights. Go to airasia.com for more details.