An index to the China series appears at the first post.
Today was devoted entirely to tourism in Shanghai. My guide, Jinqiu Xiao, is working toward his Master’s degree in Jing Li’s Laboratory with an emphasis on metaproteomics. He set an ambitious schedule for the day, spanning a visit to the Jingan Buddhist temple, a walk down the pedestrian mall of Nanjing Road, a visit to Yu Garden, and a look at the city skyline from the Bund.
My day started out with a conundrum. I had brought an American power cord for my laptop, and I had been able to plug in at the Beijing hotel because the outlets there featured the parallel plugs plus a ground pin (at 220V). The hotel in Shanghai, on the other hand, offered a power outlet that looked like this:
I only recalled that I had brought a three-pin US to two-pin European converter at the end of the day. The second oddity came when I went for breakfast at the hotel. I saw than an egg chef was on duty, and tried to communicate my desire for a scrambled egg (note that making a whisk motion can easily be misinterpreted). I made do with other items that the staff had set out for breakfast. Jinqiu Xiao soon arrived on a rented bicycle and asked me if I wanted to take it for a spin around the parking lot. Would I!
Because I was staying some distance from the city center, we started our journey by taxi. By an odd coincidence, the same cab picked us up in the morning as had dropped us off at the hotel the night before. The driver was different, although the same license was posted. The older brother (the new driver) explained that his younger brother handles nights.
The oddities continued piling up aboard the subway. A man standing a couple of meters away decided I was interesting and stared at me without interruption for at least ten minutes. The person sitting next to me flipped his phone toward me, and the flash went off. Why had he photographed me? This day had just started, but it had already taken a turn for the strange.
Happily, the Jing’an Temple was a masterpiece. I had no idea that Buddhists had ever controlled the wealth required to construct such a glorious temple. When I learned that a Buddhist temple had occupied this site since 247 A.D., though, I began to understand its significance. Although the Cultural Revolution turned it into a plastic factory, it reopened as a temple in 1983, with reconstruction completing in 2010.
I was happy to see signs of spiritual life at the complex. Buddhists were onsite with burning incense, as I saw at Beijing. We heard priests conducting chants in memory of a deceased member of the community. We also saw signs of ongoing repairs. In fact, the entire complex rang with metal poles being pulled from a previously used scaffolding. The bedlam was loud enough that one could barely think, let alone meditate!
Jinqiu Xiao pointed out several features of the iconography. The bats carved all over the temple represent a bit of a pun; the word for “bat” is a homophone for “luck.” He also pointed out the “rui yi,” intended to produce good fortune.
The art of the temple is first-rate. Perhaps the single most impressive object is the fifteen ton silver statue of Buddha in the elevated central hall. For my tastes, though, I would go with the mosaic of semiprecious stones on the opposite side of the wall behind the Buddha. I don’t know that I have ever seen Buddhist art so reminiscent of the “Last Judgment.”
In a hall near the entry, a laughing Buddha (representing wealth) sat next to a divine figure of war; that juxtaposition was too close to the truth for my comfort.
We opted to stroll down Nanjing Road toward the pedestrian zone (a distance of approximately two kilometers). I was dismayed that motorized bikes made use of the sidewalks. Furthermore, all vehicles followed the rule “if I can can get away with it,” where red lights were concerned.
Shanghai looks entirely unlike Beijing. Where the same buildings have persisted in use for decades or more in Beijing, it is clear that Shanghai is perfectly happy to tear down dated structures to construct better-suited ones. The money in this city is evident everywhere. When we reached the pedestrian mall, we saw flagship stores for the most exclusive retailers in the world, not the sidewalk hawkers I had envisioned when I heard the words “pedestrian mall.”
Jinqiu Xiao guided us to a local chain restaurant for lunch. The Nanjing Impressions tries to recreate the atmosphere of that city, down to the medieval fashions worn by the waiters. We ordered a mostly vegetarian meal. Jinqiu Xiao challenged my chopstick skills with a “flavor absorber” made of sticky rice. I learned a bit more about him. Jinqiu proclaimed himself a huge fan of Kenny G, and he informed me that the performer knows a bit of Chinese, delighting his audience at a recent concert. He looked sheepish for a moment, and then he asked me if anyone had ever told me I look like James McAvoy, the actor who portrays Professor X in the new X-Men movies. What do you think?
We hopped back onto the subway for a quick hop to Yu Garden. We still had some walking to do to reach it, though. When we turned down a tunnel to reach the entrance, I realized we had arrived in the prime tourist trap of Shanghai. Hawkers were everywhere! We pushed through beautifully restored buildings of a distinctly older style to reach the Garden entrance.
I was surprised to learn that the Yu Garden covers only two hectares. Once we were inside, though, I realized that its creators had attempted to create a series of small gems that reflected beauty and peace, no matter the direction from which they were viewed. The tranquil koi ponds, rock gardens, ball-playing dragons, and Four Heavenly Kings on display had been carefully combined with buildings of subtle design and balance in a terrain that had been subdivided for maximum effect. I was struck by the cost that had been invested to create such a place of luxury. The cost of entry for each tourist would not be enough for maintenance if this were not among the most visited sites in Shanghai.
We entered one of the buildings, now serving as an art gallery. I realized after looking at several images that the intent was not merely to display art but to sell it. A curator / marketer noted two paintings of shrimp, one expensive and one less so. “Famous artist, less-known artist,” he said with a knowing look. I enjoyed the way cats were represented by the artists. Their fur was much more ephemeral, creating the impression that the boundary between cat fur and surrounding air was hazy.
Near the exit, we neared the tallest building in Yu Garden (three floors). The structure adjoins a Great Stage over a large courtyard. I wonder how it would have felt to perform for the cream of Shanghai society in this gold-chased stage!
We visited the Bund before and after our dinner. The area represents the major edifices along the bank of the Huangpu River that were constructed by Europeans as their point-of-entry to trade in Shanghai. The 1920s structures look like similar buildings in New York from that era. Contemporary buildings in Shanghai have taken these designs as a launching point, with a creative reinterpretation of the Chrysler tower or one crowned to look like an opening flower bud. The European buildings of the Bund all now prominently feature the red and yellow flag of the People’s Republic of China.
We stepped away from the Bund to find some snacks for my colleagues. I acquired a couple bags of “White Rabbit” candies. The shopping mall we visited for dinner was absurdly upscale, with the main floor covered with cosmetics booths. We rode a semi-circular escalator upward, only to discover that the food court had been demoted to the first basement level. Once there, we opted for some simple sushi. It really hit the spot!
Bellies full, we returned to the Bund. A magical transformation had come with nightfall. The modern buildings across the water had been bathed in light, from the Oriental Pearl tower spire to the full glass-covered face of skyscrapers. The boats in the water, too, had decked themselves in brightly colored lights. A misty sky had lowered the ceiling of clouds, filling the whole world with a warm glow. What a city!