An October 2004 trip
to Shanghai by Barb in BC
Quote: This is part of a larger work called "China--Land of Majesty, Mystery, and Misery"--ISBN #0-9737959-0-5. The numerals relate to chapter numbers in that larger work.
The city of Shanghai pulses with vigour, colour, and energy. It rightly claims Chinese superlatives for many reasons. 1) It is the largest and most densely populated city with 20 million people. 2) It is relatively the youngest and most modern of the nation’s big cities. At the head of the Yangtze River, it began as the trade portal for the western world. 3) It is the busiest and wealthiest city because it is now the portal for Western development and outsourcing. Buick and Volkswagen have plants in Shanghai. 4) Shanghai is consequently experiencing the fastest growth with the most new construction. Laced in scaffolding, Shanghai is booming. 5) It has the best shopping. The economic output of China flows through the port of Shanghai. Pay the highest prices at the brassiest department stores in China—sometimes misnamed "deportment" stores--or pay the lowest prices at the thousands of vendor stalls just around the corner. (Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply buy good behaviour?) 6) Its population is perhaps the most youthful. Everywhere are smartly dressed yuppie types rushing about in big Western cars—bright, well-educated young people with enthusiasm for the future upon their features. 7) It has the tallest buildings to accommodate its densest population, and those new high rises have some of the most delightful designs to be found upon this planet. 8) It is also the most beautiful for its setting along the busiest of rivers and for the most attention to the smallest details--like expressway dividers draped in foliage and lit at night with mini-lights or the pebble mosaic composition of many sidewalks. 9) Shanghai has the brightest lights of the nation—figuratively and literally. The city took my breath away.
Our Shanghai guide was filled with exuberance and joi de vivre. Life was his banquet—he was young, healthy, well-educated, successful, in love, and about to be married. He called himself the "Little Emperor" who was soon to marry the "Little Empress." Each had been the pampered single child (by law) of relatively affluent parents who did not intend that the marriage should diminish their parental obligations to supply every need—in material goods and servitude. In fact, these in-laws were in open competition to deliver the most benefits to their youngsters. The finest of suites had already been purchased and furnished for the young couple. Schedules had already been established so the kids would want for neither cooking nor cleaning. The Emperor and Empress had never learned these mundane skills in any case. The ludicrousness of this slavish parental attention was not lost upon the Little Emperor, who regarded it all as the best of fortune and a huge source of amusement. He kept us laughing.
There are many "Little Emperors" in China these days, most in poorer circumstances. They too are the focus of adoring parental and grandparental attention and shall enjoy the best that families can muster.
Entry to Yuyuan Garden is through an old temple area. Today this has been converted into a mass of tourist shops. We were hastily ushered past their temptations.
The garden was built in 1577 by a prominent member of the Pan family to provide a private place of rest and beauty for the enjoyment of his elderly parents. The name was chosen because "Yu" in Chinese means peace and health. It took twenty years and nearly all of the man’s savings to create this beautiful retreat. It suffered neglect and destruction over the years but was restored within the last forty to become a popular tourist destination. The garden today is a place of peace and comfort in the heart of busy Shanghai.
Yuyuan Garden is today compressed into five delightful acres, laid out with much the same style and precision as Suzhou’s Lingering Garden. Each pavilion, hall, stone and stream was chosen or designed for tranquil effect. The garden is divided into scenic areas by boundary walls. Low arched portals may prove hazardous for tall people.
Tons of stone were hauled in for the construction of the Grand Rockery. Its peaks, cliffs, winding caves and gorges were designed to give visitors a real mountain illusion.
The whitewashed Dragon Wall is capped by a sinuous dragon with scale-like tiles. The effect is that this huge, horned dragon prowls the garden to maintain its safety and peace.
The Hall of Jade Magnificence is a study entirely furnished with rare rosewood pieces of the Ming Dynasty. Pools throughout the grounds are stocked with colourful fish. The elegant rockeries, ponds, walls and living quarters create a delicate and exquisite beauty in Yuyuan Gardens.
There is evidence that tufted, knotted carpets with coloured designs were produced in China 25 centuries ago. These were made from wool in the south, while goat or camel hair was used in the north. Silk began to be employed for Imperial carpeting about 400 years ago. Silk carpets are cool to the touch and provide varying nuances of colour depending upon the direction of lighting--qualities that may be the origin of the magic-carpet legend.
We were to learn much about varying qualities, designs, and textures during a visit to a silk-carpet factory in Shanghai. We would also learn about the toil of the carpet makers and about the toll it takes upon their lives.
The designs follow those in other art forms, and regional preferences also contribute to the variations. There are religious symbols, the yin and yang, as well as good luck and imperial symbols like the dragon and the phoenix. Geometric designs are incorporated for some. Lotus flowers are popular as are longevity characters like cranes. Tapestry scenes from classical Chinese paintings involve the most artistry. Modern operations like this one in Shanghai reproduce designs from all parts of the Orient, including Persia. Each rug is a work of art.
They are expensive. Prices depend upon the density of the knotting and whether that knotting is single or double. Some are knotted to cotton backing, but the finest also have silk backing. The density and quality of the threads and the height of the tufting are also considerations. A sculpted finish is a further embellishment.
And they should be expensive. Mechanical looms have not been able to replicate the beauty and excellence of the handmade carpets and so the young women of China still give their eyesight to the task. The management of the carpet factory that we visited said that he gives each woman a five-minute break from their task every 30 minutes in order to extend their visual usefulness. Nevertheless the intricate work exhausts the eyes of his talented workers after only 20 years during which time they earn a pitiful 700 Yuan a month—about $117 CDN. Nimble fingers fly, yet the women can only complete eight rows per day, and it takes at least thirteen months to complete a 9x12 foot rug.
While a carpet sculptor used what looked like manual sheep shears to create raised designs on a finished carpet, the manager commented: "This woman is my best cutter and has been with me for twenty years. However, she knows that I would fire her for a single mistake because one tiny mis-clip ruins the work of thirteen months."
For short-term minimal gain, these patient, talented women choose to sell their futures to the carpet business. After twenty years or less, they suffer the misery of vision impairment, yet their majestic creations last for centuries. Such human sacrifice has been acceptable since the beginning of time in mysterious China.
We were steered to the carpet showrooms, where we were assailed by polished young salesmen. I found them especially annoying here among these piles of textile perfections. The minute I showed slight interest in 30 x 20 inch samplers, they shoved one after another in my face, faster than I could reject them. Although the cost was equivalent to $300 for this size, I would have bought a beauty in tribute to the women creators had these male vultures not annoyed me so.
The Bund is the Shanghai waterfront, and that waterfront is best seen from a raised viewpoint near the heart of the old city. When the smog lifts, it is also a fine place to see the modern skyline of the emerging megatropolis across the harbour.
Yangtze River traffic is extremely heavy in this Shanghai port. Junks and tiny sampans compete for the current with huge ocean-going tankers and cruise ships. One wonders how these many craft manage to avoid collisions.
After our look-see from this viewpoint, we were turned loose upon the nearby shopping region for a couple of hours. We shopped in upscale, snooty boutiques and department stores until we found a treasure-trove of private stalls on a parallel street. I am quite sure that there every trinket on this planet (or its clone) could be found at a bargain price in this backstreet maelstrom of human enterprise. These shops were not tailored for tourists. We were eyed with refreshing curiosity. I loved the place. I even loved those who badgered me with their goods there, because I was rubbing shoulders with the real people of this amazing land. However, word is that these "real people" are soon to be swept from this street to make way for more of the glitzy, westernized stores. This beehive of commercial activity would not be here when or if I am able to return to China. I wanted to dawdle and savour the remnant culture in this place, but the time had sped.
After the shopping spree, a tea ceremony awaited us at a tea shop beneath the Bund’s viewing platform. We relaxed around polished tables to watch a tea ritual and to be introduced to the many different kinds of teas and the implements for their proper preparation and presentation. The trickiest part, it seemed to me, was the requirement to pour the tea from great heights (without spilling) in order to allow the ingredients "to breathe."
That night, we crossed the great river to be served a thankfully nondescript mutton dinner at the restaurant in the Oriental Pearl Tower. I had feared the strong flavour of this local delicacy, but I was unable to distinguish the mutton from the other dishes. Thank goodness we were not served another of the specialties that was garishly pictured on the wall of the restaurant waiting area—a half-cooked chick embryo!
Aboard our bus in transport to our final Shanghai venue that evening, we gawked at the night brilliance of this neon city. Much was reminiscent of the Strip at Las Vegas. What will this city look like when the Yangtze River Dam is in full power production?
The finale of our Chinese adventure was indeed a grand one. That last night, we attended the Shanghai Ballet/Circus/Acrobat performance. It seemed to be called all of those things in different circles, and it was all of those things—synchronized choreography, colour and dazzling derring-do, and incredible feats of acrobatics and balance on a grand scale. It was nonstop thrilling. We held our breath many times because we feared the slightest stir might tip some delicate and dangerous equilibrium and bring it all crashing down. What a show!
How many poses can be performed while balancing whirling plates on long rods? Do those women contortionists have rubber spines? How much practice and discipline does it take to pull off these astounding acts? How many sprains and bruises and broken bones?
How long could these acrobats maintain those interminable handstands? How many chairs might that fellow have stacked beyond the 20 or so if he had not been constrained from further handstands atop his wavering structure by the stage height?
And what of the finale of this finale—16 motorcyclists whirling simultaneously within the confines of that wire ball? So brazenly dangerous in seeming disregard of lives and limbs, this feat of spectacular synchronization was accomplished without the expected pileup—this time. The cyclists must use every lucky number and symbol in the catalogue of Chinese superstitions to nightly pull off that act.
After the curtains went down, the performers lined the lobby to accept the gratitude of the departing audience. I was taken aback by the youthfulness of the troupe, who, for the most part, were adolescents!
The grand-scale; the colourfulness; the awesome talent; the unending surprises; the group discipline; the determination and the pride of the youthful performers, the traditional acts like the plate twirling mixed with thoroughly modern ones like the motorcyclists—somehow, the whole gaudy extravaganza that night was a reflection of the China that had revealed itself during my visit. Just like this Shanghai Ballet/Circus/Acrobat performance, China had delighted me, surprised me, impressed me, and taken away my breath. The China adventure was nonstop thrilling. What a show!
Because state supremacy has been ingrained in the culture of China throughout her misty history, the personal miseries of her citizenry have been drowned out by the brilliant lights of her majestic achievements. Such a culture remains an enigma to the Western world—a mystery. When China overwhelms the world center stage in the next few years, we shall hold our breaths because we shall fear the slightest stir that might tip some delicate and dangerous equilibrium and bring it all crashing down.
Barb in BC
Kelowna, British Columbia