Much of my time in Shanghai has been spent between the conference hotel and several schools, but I have found some time to explore a little further. The city is enormous – almost 2,500 sq miles and 24 million people – and is rapidly developing. The first two words that come to mind when thinking of the city are “lights” and “construction.” Colorful, changing, flashing lights and scaffolding (whether it be the new metal kind or the tried-and-true bamboo variety) cover the city’s landscape and skyline. The city is also incredibly diverse in terms or architecture, evidence of Shanghai’s history and the many groups that have called the city home over the centuries. One other hallmark of most large cities in China is smog. The pollution is not usually as bad as in Beijing, but one day it was so bad the air quality index (AQI)was 200, meaning it was unsafe to be outside. Just to give you a frame of reference, the worst, smoggiest day in LA might have a AQI of 60. I felt it in my throat, and it did not feel good. It’s hard to imagine being faced with that daily.
Getting Shanghaied in Shanghai
My and Alyssa’s first outing was to Yu Garden, a beautiful, extensive Chinese Garden dating from the Ming Dynasty (built in 1577). We eventually made it there, but not before getting shanghaied (see what I did there?) by a crafty Chinese couple not two minutes after we stepped out of the cab. I had pulled out my camera to take a photo, and a Chinese couple approached us and asked us if we would take a photo of them. We said sure, and took the photo. They said, “Do you want us to take a photo of you?” We said sure, and they took a photo. Then they started talking to us, seeming nice and friendly enough, where are you from, etc. But then it didn’t stop. Where are you going, they wanted to know. Yu Garden, we said. Oh, it’s too bad, said they, the last ticket is sold at 5pm, and it closes at 5:30 (it was 5:10.) You can’t go now. But Shanghai’s oldest street is nearby – that’s where we are going, why don’t you come with us? Which is when we should have said thankyounogoodbye.
But we didn’t.
And so we ended up walking through Shanghai’s oldest street with this chatty couple, who pointed out things and taught us Chinese phrases, and all along I waged an internal battle with myself. Said one part of my brain: Rachel this is shifty – ditch them now. Said another part of my brain: don’t be so cynical, maybe they just want to practice their English. And so it went until we stopped in front of a narrow door leading up to a dark staircase. We’re here! Said the couple. It is a traditional Chinese tea and performance, come with us.
And THAT is when we drew the line and said thankyounogoodbye, found our way back down Shanghai’s oldest street, and finally made our way to Yu Garden, which was NOT in any way closed.
It was hard to imagine this place in the 16th century, with its Starbucks sign and neon lights, but it was beautiful. Alyssa and I thought we would take a rest and have a pot of tea in the “floating” teahouse, so we looked through the menu and picked out a pot, which we thought was sort of expensive, at $10 each. But we thought, hey, we’ll share, no biggie. Then they said we each had to order a pot, so we said once again thankyounogoodbye.
The First Lady of China
Since I was in Shanghai for a conference on women’s leadership, we thought it appropriate to learn more about one of China’s most revered women, Madam Soong Ching-ling. She was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 revolution that established the People’s Republic of China. She attended Wesleyan College, then a women’s college, in the US, and was incredibly well-educated and eloquent. She corresponded with many of the world’s leaders at the time, and her writing and speeches were a pleasure to read. She was a great pioneer for women’s and children’s rights, and promoted peaceful resolutions to problems – she kept doves as pets and would give them to guests as gestures of peace. As I was going through the museum I kept thinking, I wonder how much of this is true? With the Communist party controlling everything you can never be too sure. And in reading more about her on Wikipedia I do think it’s a bit more complicated than the museum would lead you to believe. But still, a woman to be admired for her leadership, certainly.
Then we visited the silk museum and learned how silk is made. The silkworm spins his (or her, I suppose) cocoon, and then the cocoon is boiled, killing the worm inside (so all you vegans out there – you should not be wearing silk). The worm is then carefully worked out of the cocoon, and the cocoon is then stretched over a form, a smaller and then a larger one. Once it is dry, ladies stretch the whole thing even further, to cover the space of an entire queen-sized comforter! Can you believe it? That little bitty ball of silk can cover that enormous size, and not break.
Making silk thread, at right.
The French Concession
The French Concession was one of several foreign-governed territories in China. It was governed by the French from 1849 until 1946, and boasts beautiful European architecture. We explored with our sweetheart if a your guide Vivan, and had Hong Kong style dim sum for lunch. Despite the neighborhood being lovely, I seem to not have any photos that really capture it, so I won’t share any.
An Adventure in Public Transit
After my successful conference events on Tuesday and Wednesday, I was finally able to relax and venture a little farther afield. Together with my student Sabrina, who speaks some Chinese, I took the subway across town to explore. The subway was an experience – so different than the NYC subway. One-way tickets are RMB 4 (about $0.65). People line up vertically along the platform, and file in and out of the cars in relatively civil fashion, unlike the rude jostling and every-straphanger-for-himself mentality of NYC subways.
We soon found our way to Duolun Lu, a historic horse-show shaped road guarded on each end my stone arches proclaiming its name (so Sabrina assures me). The architecture is a good representation of 20th century Shanghai, and many famous artists and writers lived there. It also is home to Tang Church, which has the bragging rights of being the only Christian church in Shanghai that mixes both western and traditional Chinese architecture. Sabrina and I wandered inside and were surprised to find some sort of video playing on cell reproduction. No clue what that was all about.
From there we took 2 different taxis to get to the Jewish Refugee Museum and synagogue. The first taxi dropped us off somewhere nearby, but we couldn’t figure out where it was, despite asking several passersby. So we hopped in another taxi, who promised to take us there, but if I hadn’t caught the sign for the museum out of the corner of my eye we would have zoomed right past it. So happy circumstance found us at our intended destination, which had been strongly recommended to us my several people. During the Nazi occupation of Germany, Shanghai welcomed many Jewish refugees, who turned the neighborhood into a “Little Vienna” during the war. Most of the buildings from that time have been torn down (par for the course in Shanghai). Ohel Moishe Synagogue became the center of the “Shanghai Ghetto” in the Hongkou District. Although anywhere was better than Europe during that period, Sabrina and I agreed that we couldn’t imagine uprooting ourselves and going somewhere so exceedingly different, especially at that time. Still, I thought it was fascinating how the two cultures coexisted alongside each other, captured, I thought, by this Star of David engraved with Chinese characters (above).
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The Shanghai part of our story is about to come to an end – I have one more post to write to wrap-up my time there, and then it’s off to Guilin and Yangshuo! Well actually I am already there – just a little behind on the writing. Stay tuned!