This morning when our friend Patrick met us to give us a quick tour, the first thing he did was hand us an umbrella and said, “it is definitely going to rain today.” I asked if he had seen a forecast on the news or the Internet, and he said while wiping his brow with a handkerchief, “no, I just know it from the feel — it’s warm and very humid, which means it is getting ready to rain.” And he was right.
We had planned to walk to The Bund — the famous landmark of Shanghai, a strip of colonial era buildings along the Huangpu River that separates Puxi (the west bank where we are) from Pudong (the east bank) — but the wet weather discouraged us from going further than the People’s Park in the center of what would be considered downtown.
We started walking east on Fuxing Rd., a major avenue through the French Concession but still lined with plane trees (a legacy of the French, obviously) and less manic than Huaihai Rd., which is chock-a-block with fancy retail stores and honking traffic. Instead we enjoyed seeing stores focused a little more on the local population, as well as alleys leading into the building blocks that are where many of the residents live and spend much of their time (similar to Hutongs in Beijing) but are fast disappearing as they are replaced with huge apartment hi-rises and office buildings. Earlier in the morning Patrick took us into one of them to show us how they work: outdoor kitchen prep areas with a spigot, basin, and cutting board/counter; chamber pots that are set out in the morning to be emptied at the communal toilet at one end of the alley; clothes hanging everywhere above the alley on bamboo poles suspended about 15 feet above.
Patrick pointed out that for most of the day we would see only very young or very old people in the alleys because everyone else was out working. He also pointed to a bulletin board at the entrance of the alley common to almost all alleys that contained news important to the residents of the alley, but also contained a list of the “Seven No’s”, or the seven important rules for everyone to follow. One of the rules is “No Jaywalking” but it’s been clear that either everyone on the street must live somewhere without access to a list of the Seven No’s, or it’s pretty widely ignored.
Eventually the plane trees abruptly ended and the concrete, glass, and construction fence dominated the street; everything is either for sale (“Born To Be Different” shouts an ad for the Casa Lakeside residential complex), or on sale in boutiques. And everywhere there’s a construction fence there is bound to be an ad announcing the Expo 2010 coming to Shanghai, usually accompanied by the funny blob of a mascot. We even saw an Expo topiary.
In the middle of this commercial jungle is the “Memorial for the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China” in an older building. It’s a museum that describes the bad-old-days of colonial China at the mercy of the Imperialist western nations, then the events leading up to the formation of the official Communist party in 1921 which took place around a dinner table in Shanghai among ten or so representatives from around China (including Mao), plus two members of the international movement (a Russian and a Dutchman).
After wandering around an area of glitzy malls looking for a xiao long bao dumpling restaurant that had been recommended to us (unsuccessfully), we walked north to the People’s Park and the Shanghai Museum in the middle of it. It’s filled with historical art and artifacts from all over China, and I was particularly curious to see some of the bronzes because they are a motif of one of the books we’ve been reading in preparation for our trip: Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. These are metal objects (primarily vessels for wine and food, but also including bells and drums) that are beautifully decorated in an amazingly similar manner across a thousand years of history BEFORE the year 1 AD. They are at once ancient totems of history (many of them are also incised with early Chinese writing), as well as modern wonders of design and craftsmanship.
However, before we entered the museum we passed a group of four young Chinese people, and they asked if we would take their picture, which we happily did. They immediately struck up a conversation in English about where we were from, how long had we been in Shanghai, what were our plans, etc. It seemed as though they were very eager to practice their English, and they were happy to help us with a few Mandarin phrases. Then they invited us to join them as they traveled to a “Festival of Tea” further on downtown. I was more interested in getting out of the rain and seeing the bronzes so we thanked them for the invitation, but explained that we would like to continue on to the museum, and said goodbye.
We didn’t think anything of of it until after we left the museum and saw two of the group standing in the same spot outside the museum. We smiled and said, “we really enjoyed the museum” as we passed, and only then did it remind us of a famous scam in China where young people ask foreigners to have tea with them so they can practice their English, after which the foreigners are asked to pay an exorbitant bill for the tea…perhaps they had already been to the “Festival of Tea” and returned to the same spot in the Park?
We continued on to the subway stop in the Park, which is the central intersection of the three working subway lines in Shanghai. We bought fare cards that can be added onto (similar to Oyster cards in London), and also used in taxis around the city, then took the Number 1 line three stops west and walked back to our apartment to dry out, but only after we revisited the dumpling shop from this morning so that we could grab a quick sticky rice shumei to snack on before dinner.