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God’s First Visit to Yu Gardens, Shanghai

I love that after five years, China still has the capacity to surprise me. 
A few weeks ago we visited Yu Gardens in Shanghai to see the Chinese New Year lantern display. For my girls it has become an annual rite of passage, just like visiting the Myer department store was when I was a kid, to see their Christmas window display. Every year they would have a different spectacular theme, my child’s mind thrilled with the colours and imaginary possibilities of the little story in each window.
Chinese New Year is the same for Chinese kids – each year they visit the temple at Yu Gardens with their parents to see the exciting new lantern displays for Chinese New Year, usually followed by something good to eat. Ordinary lanterns these most definitely are not – huge and spectacular 3-D masterpieces of technicolour construction, they are as impressive in the daylight as they are lit up at night.

Year of the Tiger, 2010, Year of the Rabbit, 2011
Year of the Dragon 2012
(I missed Year of the Snake in 2013 because we were in Australia. Also, I don’t like snakes, having grown up in a country that considers itself home to seven of the world’s ten deadliest of that species.)
One of the highlights of the lantern display is the narrative tableaux floating in the waters around the Huxinting Tea House at the centre of the gardens. Past lantern epics have included the story of the Yellow Emperor’s flight into immortality from the top of Huang Shan, and the parable of Confucius’ meeting with Lao Tzu.
This year was different though. This year, the inspirational story for thousands of Chinese people at the biggest celebration of the lunar calendar and in the grounds of a Taoist temple was….Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 
According to the very economically worded placard to one side of the scene:
Cursed forever.
And that will be the beginning and end, the Genesis to Exodus if you will, of most of the visitors’ understanding of the Story of Creation. 
A dude in a red dress, a snake, an apple tree, all the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and a pair of very very pale and awkward humans.

 Okay then.

Thank goodness around the corner everything returned to normal – there were a lot of reassuring horse motifs, and plenty of honest to goodness regular lanterns.

Happy (belated) Year of the Horse everyone! Here’s to the joy of constant surprises. 

Yu Gardens: A Surprising Place to Find Something Good to Eat

When was the last time you ate food worth remembering, let alone writing about, at a major tourist trap? Shanghai has a stack of terrific tourist traps, like The Pearl Tower, The Bund, and Yu Gardens – all beautiful, and all famous for something other than their food. 
Escaping the pressing, elbowing crowds one day at Yu Gardens, I literally stumbled upon this food-court style eatery by accident. It was to be my lucky day. As I climbed the stairs from the ground floor entry, where an uninspiring selection of fried snacks was on display; I reached the upper floor, where in all honesty, the situation looked worse. The vast space was occupied by rows of bench seats and orange plastic tables bolted to the floor, the windows overlooking the exquisite Ming Dynasty Huxintin Teahouse covered in some kind of blue adhesive coating and locked against rogue window-openers like myself. Along the far wall was a row of serving hatches, with a cafeteria style pile of greasy plastic trays.
Disheartened but starving, and expecting nothing more than some modestly edible and grossly over-priced noodles, I took a tray and walked past the cashier seated at the entrance to the rows of hatches, expecting to find very little of interest. In fact, the very opposite occurred, and I did one lap, then another, then a third, trying to limit what I’d like to try to only three or four dishes. Everything looked fresh and delicious, the steam billowing from the kitchen behind the hatches carried scents of ginger, pork and seafood, and the sizzle of wok frying.
Let me take you on a short tour of the goods on offer: I didn’t eat all the foods pictued here, but I certainly put in a sterling effort and hope to complete tasting everything on my next visit. 
The seafood hatch. Steamed crab with ginger and chili. Whole crispy fried scampi. Velvety seafood congee.
More crabs, a different variety this time, simply steamed. Chicken barbecued on lemongrass skewers. Pork wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Jumbo freshwater snails, shells blackly glistening. Next to those, Shanghai’s own treasure, xiaolongbao – steamed dumplings filled with soup, pork, and crab meat.
Gigantic xiaolongbao, complete with straw to suck up the soup, each in its own steamer basket. How gorgeous are they?
Yet more crabs, alongside Shanghai specialty fried nian gao (chewy rounds of rice noodle fried with greens), and guotie (pot-sticker pork dumplings).
The ‘desert’ section – these deep purple unmelting ‘ice-creams’ are in fact sweetened yam paste. At least they adorned them with sweetly smelling golden yellow osmanthus flowers, my favourite scent. Next to them, diamonds of translucent almond jelly.

The dimsum (or dianxin) station had flaky durian pastries, sesame balls, spring rolls, and dozens of little steamed dumplings holding shrimp, pork, and chive and peanut fillings.
The egg custard tarts looked like a particularly good way to finish off the meal, and I was right. They were great.
And that, dear friends, is just a sampling of the many, many foods you may wish to try, with no dish costing more than 20 yuan ($3). My meal of four dishes and a freshly squeezed watermelon juice cost 55 yuan ($8). Unbelievable. Should you be visiting Shanghai anytime soon, here’s what the cafeteria looks like from the outside, just opposite the Huxintin Teahouse.
(Should you know of other great tourist trap eateries around Shanghai, please let me know!)

Song Yun Tower Xiao Chi Restaurant
2nd floor, Song Yun Tower
Yu Gardens, Shanghai
Open daily for lunch and dinner

Yu Gardens

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. 

The Ghost Market, FangBang lu

Another great treasure to explore! I had heard that 457 Fangbang Lu, previously known to me as ‘dull five-story building near Yu Gardens selling all the usual tourist tat’ is actually home to the fabulous and secret antique Ghost Market on weekend mornings. It’s called the Ghost Market because it sets up in the dark, around 4am, and then all the stallholders disappear before the clock strikes midday. Or maybe it’s called the Ghost Market because everything it sells once belonged to someone who is now deceased. Either way, it’s packed with amazing old finds.

The market occupies both the 4th and 5th floors. You will know when you’re in the right place, because you may be able to just make out the stallholders, with their wares displayed on blankets or newspapers spread on the creaky wooden floor, through a dense haze of smoke from hundreds of cheap ChungHwa cigarettes. There will also be a lot of loitering buyers in the stairwells, sucking back a few last dhurries before deciding what to offer the seller for that precious cicada-shaped redwood box. For sale are small antiques of all kinds – jade, porcelain, ceramics, wood carvings, prints, paintings, jewellery, and the odd fossil. 

If you know your stuff, you can really pick up some bargains. If you don’t, it’s a great way to find out what you like and what you don’t, and how much you might have to pay for it. I for one, have no interest in the small jade carvings that Shanghai men spend hours poring over. And no, they’re not that kind of carving either. But I do love all the  simple and elegant shapes of celadon porcelain in their various pale and subtle shades.

Chip Chop

When you go to Yu Gardens, as you will when you visit Shanghai, you can have a stamp engraved with your own name in English and in Chinese – it’s called a ‘chop’. If you bargain hard, you might pay 70 yuan, but the bargaining will exhaust you, and you may need a little rest before buying anything else. And if you bargain too hard, the chop-maker may write the Chinese word for ‘tight-ass loser’ under your name………