So from one extreme to the other….
After failing to get a seat to have high tea
at The Peninsula in Hong Kong I thought I may have more luck at the newly-opened Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund. I was right – no queues, no crush of tourists – although it was a weekday and the place had been open less than a month.
I have to say that I don’t understand why, when you have a prime piece of real estate overlooking the river, that you would decide to give the best front windows to the Chanel boutique, and put all your patrons in a back room with a view of the driveway. It is a lovely back room though, with calming tones of eau de nil and silver in the Art Deco finishes. And forget the tourists, the guests are all wealthy Chinese in town to do business, or wealthy locals dropping by to have a look and a cup of tea.
The High Tea itself isn’t half bad, if you like your tea English style. I particularly appreciate the pot of hot water with which to make your tea’s strength to your liking. Full points for the entire jug of hot chocolate though. Very thoughtful.
The Fruit Seller
I’m extremely shy about asking people to take their portrait even when I speak their language. It’s quite confronting to walk up that close to someone and point a camera right in their face. And you can’t sneak a good portrait, even with a telephoto lens. So I spent a week memorizing how to say ‘may I take your photo?’ (wo keyi pai yi zhang zhao pian ma? if you’re interested) in Chinese, then got an ideal opportunity walking around the backstreets of the Confucius Temple. So let me introduce them.
The Spring Roll Cook
The Egg Lady
The Bicycle Repairer
The Cigarette Seller
Outside the Confucius Temple, you can walk an interesting loop leading you into an old neighbourhood. At the temple gates turn left as you step out onto Wen Miao Lu, then left again into LiuJiang Jie. You will pass by a book market at the back of the temple, and some little street food vendors. Things get more lively as you go further along the street. At the end of LiuJiang Jie, turn left again onto Menghua Jie. Enter another world. This is old Shanghai. Unadorned, exposed and raw. Not dangerous, but very gritty – there has been no facelift here in time for World Expo, and it is quite confronting to realise that less than a kilometre from the opulent shops and restaurants of the Bund, there is a Shanghai without running water or indoor toilets.
Tiny lanes wind in and out. There are no cars because the street is too narrow, but the occasional motorbike gets through, and plenty of bicycles. There is a vegetable market, a fish-monger, a sweet maker, a cigarette seller and all manner of other tiny businesses on the street. In the space of a hundred yards you can buy a fresh fish for your dinner, have it killed, gutted and scaled, choose the vegetables to go with it, then take it all to your kitchen lane to clean and cook it. A lot of outdoor cooking is happening at all hours of the day – no-one here has an indoor kitchen. Life is lived in public view, because indoor space is very limited and very dark.
Children are running everywhere along with dozens of cats and dogs and everyone stops everyone else to chat, argue and bargain loudly. Not wanting to be left out, women yell down to the street from upstairs windows to join the conversation. Everything seems to happen at full volume.
By now you have reached the end of Menghua Jie, and a left turn will bring you back to where you started on Wen Miao Lu, and the temple. By now you maybe in need of some more quietness.
This week I visited the Shanghai Confucius Temple (Shanghai Wen Miao 上海文庙) for the first time. It’s in the Old City, but for me was always a little too far to walk from Yu Gardens what with all the roadworks and detours, and it’s taken me a long time to get there.
It’s worth the trip – you might not be that fussed about temples, seen one, seen ’em all, as I’ve heard many people say. But every temple has something a little different from the others, and all of them offer at least one of three priceless Shanghai commodities – peace, stillness, and silence.
Buy your ticket through the little window in the stone outer wall on Wen Miao Lu, then walk through the heavy red wooden doors with the lion’s head handles to the inner courtyard. Here the incense greets you, and the trees close to the temple entrance are hung with red-ribboned wishes for prosperity, longevity and happiness.
The main courtyard leads to a series of smaller courtyards housing what was once a Confucian school.
There is a lovely goldfish-filled pond too, and an old library. Savour the stillness, add it to your reserves. You will need them when you walk back outside into the mayhem.
In contrast to the other frenetic activity in Zhongshan Park, this gentleman stands quietly outside the park entrance practising his calligraphy on the pavement with long and graceful strokes of a huge brush. He writes with water and in the mid-morning sun his characters are dry before he has finished a row. Passers-by walk over and around his work, oblivious.
Every day I drive past this sign on the Yan’an elevated highway. It reminds me of the aspirations of young working Chinese people. The Chinese Dream, the American Dream, the Australian Dream…… they’re really more similar than different – get ahead, get an education, buy your own home. In Shanghai though, property prices have been on the up and up for some time, with average house prices increasing by a staggering 25% in the last year. So the Shanghai Dream is getting further and further away for most. You can buy an apartment in London, Sydney or New York more cheaply than one in Shanghai.
How does anyone afford it?
Only in China could you make a children’s fairground ride out of shooting endangered animals. So, how many species can you make extinct in 4 minutes?
OK kid, now just sit back, relaaaaxx, and watch the expert at work. They used to call me Terminator Wang……
Ha! Let’s start with the Bengal Tiger….bang!
Triceratops! Bang! Bang! You’re dead! Oh…….I forgot……..you’re already dead……..
The penguin, get the penguin! Bullseye!!
OK kid, next round we’ll swap…….you shoot, I’ll drive.
for more unique stuff to see in Fuxing Park
After writing about all the things you can do around the Yu Gardens, like visit the Ghost market
, have a personalised chop
made, spend up big at the Commodities Market,
or enjoy looking at the lanterns
, I realised that I had never written about the gardens themselves.
The gardens once belonged to a city official, Governor Pan Yunduan, who built Yu Yuan in 1577 as a quiet escape from his busy official life. He built a garden of some thirty pavilions, with intertwining ponds and paths set between majestic gingkos and magnolia trees. Every pavilion faces a different idyllic view, and the garden has many secret corners to explore between its dragon walls. Some of the original trees survive, and are magnificently ancient.
Four hundred years ago a city of merchants sprang up outside the garden walls, selling jade, pearls and silk. Now when you arrive at Yu Gardens you walk through a maze of ancient buildings, still housing merchants and merchandise of all kinds, and some restaurants.
I love the Yu Gardens – they’re ancient and ornate, full of weird rocks and aged trees, and home to hundreds of overfed carp. It’s absolutely essential that you arrive soon after opening time (8.30am) to take advantage of the quietness, and to get a feel for the peacefulness that the gardens can bring to a city full of people and noise.
In the Old City, on the corner of Sipailou Lu and Fangbang Lu is a great street food market. You might find it by accident if you’ve been wandering around Yu Gardens and became carried away on the human tidal wave sweeping you east down Fangbang Lu. You should be able to smell it long before you see it – the savoury scent of dozens of different foods being cooked to order that typifies a Chinese street food market. Enter through the ornamental stone archway and you’re there.
Outside the stalls are makeshift fold-up tables and plastic stools. Just wander along until you find something you like the look of. I ordered ‘liang pi’, literally ‘cold skin’, not the most appetizing name I know, but this is a wonderful dish for a hot day (one so far since last October, not that I’m counting……..) It’s made from a cold rice starch sheet, steamed, sliced to resemble noodles, and then mixed deftly in front of you with bean sprouts, chili, peanuts, vinegar, sugar, tiny tofu cubes and coriander. The chili builds momentum as you eat, and the ‘noodles’ have a dense texture with a great bite, much firmer than regular noodles.
At the next door stall someone has ordered wok fried red-claw, and as the flames leap high and the smell of garlic fills the air, I feel very happy indeed.
Because I love street food so much, and because it is an integral part of a food-loving life in China, I’m working my way through all of Shanghai’s street foods, one by one. This is Number 3 in the Shanghai Street Food series. Enjoy tasting them all!
Number 3 Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4 Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5 Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6 Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7 Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 14 Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 16 Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 21 Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes
Number 22 Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23 Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 25 Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26 Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27 Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28 Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29 Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice