您好 (ni hao),
You have surely recognized (or not) the reference to the adventures of Tintin, the comics series by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé… I’ll let you guess the stopover? Come on, make a small cultural effort. I’ll give you another hint: it is the city where Tintin traveled to meet a Japanese business person named Mitsuhirato! Later on, when he managed to get out of jail after some misadventures, he had an anonymous rendezvous on T’ai P’in Lou Street. Congratulation, welcome to the Asian continent with a stop in Shanghai. Contrary to my traditional habit, the astonishing landscapes forged by “Mother Nature” are not my top priority in Asia, but rather the urban landscapes forged by Man (with a large or a small m)… Sometimes we wonder if some buildings do not defy the laws of nature… some architects seem to have delusions of grandeur (of buildings) ?
Shanghai, also known as the “Paris of the East” and “Pearl of the Orient” looks like a forest of skyscrapers, some among the tallest in the world… and the race to build the most towering continues as new, ever taller, ones are already under construction in Pudong, the business district. In Chinese, Pudong means Eastern Huang or east of the Huangpu River, which is where the business district lies. This area is home to the tallest buildings, including the famous “Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower” (东方 明珠 电视塔 pronounced Dōngfāng míng zhū Dianshi Tǎ uh… good luck with the pronunciation !). At 1,535 feet it has become the symbol of Shanghai. It was the tallest structure in China between 1994 and 2007. It was then surpassed. For a short period, the tallest in Pudong district was the “Bottle opener”, rising to 1,614 feet and being the eighth tallest building in the world and the fourth highest structure in China. The “Bottle opener” features an observation deck 1,555 feet above ground. I let you guess which building it is… the name has a direct relationship to its design. But the race goes on: in 2013, Shanghai Tower at 2,073 feet became the second tallest building in the world and the tallest in China. If Pudong impresses by day, at night, we discover the full splendor of Pudong by night when all the buildings are lit, and the illuminated boats sail past on the river. It is hard to imagine that until the 1990s, Pudong was only farms.
Another area close to People’s Square in the Huangpu district rivals Pudong with its extraordinary architecture. In this vicinity on the “people’s Square” (I’m not making this up!) stands the Shanghai Museum, whose architecture reflects Chinese cosmogony: a round top and a square base, symbolizing the ancient perception of the world as “round sky and square earth”, the two poles between which men work. This museum is home to rich cultural collections, over 120,000 pieces, and is a showcase for ancient Chinese Art. Near the museum is the vast Shanghai Grand Theater with an architecture just as extraordinary. The building was designed by Arte Charpentier, a French architecture design company founded by Jean-Marie Charpentier. It owes the nickname “Crystal Palace” to the light installation at night that make the entire site resemble a Crystal Palace.
Over 23 million people work in Shanghai; I say “work” since the means of identifying residents is through their employer… so this figure is well below the real number of inhabitant. Early morning, as soon as 6am, if we walk in Fuxing Park and gardens, for instance, we soon realize that all green spaces are assaulted by an army of practitioners of Tai Chi, sword dance, fan dance, all sort of traditional dances, players of cards, mahjong, and passionate of kite. There is something for every taste! For us Europeans, these moments seem magical.
Another unlikely place full of odd customs for us is the insect market, one of the few remaining traditional markets in Shanghai and located just South of People’s Square. Hundreds and hundreds of small boxes containing locusts and insects of all kinds are arranged on shelves. In choosing locusts people follow special rituals! They hold a lamp in one hand and a small stick in the other. They open the box and check that the cricket is receptive, that is, alive and healthy. Some people spend hours inspecting and observing, before buying the best species for a locust fight, known by its nickname Jiminy, which will perhaps allow the buyer to earn some money ! And yes, even if people buy these insects as pets, many locusts are still intended to be used in combat, which is very popular. Purchasers, train their little champion in the hope that it will win duels and thus enable them to earn a few yuan! The locusts are trained to fight or adopted for their particular song. There is a “real industry” of the locust: you can buy a multitude of accessories for them, such as a table service for crickets in ceramic, cute little boxes in wood or bamboo for transport, tiny nets to catch them. Frankly, a visit to the insect market provides a total change of scenery.
Let’s finish with a gastronomic curiosity: the hundred-year-egg or thousand-year-egg also known as the preserved egg, century egg or pidan. This Chinese delicacy is made by preserving duck, chicken or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, quicklime, tea, soda, brown rice and salt (for the base) for several weeks to several months. The eggs then acquire a texture, a distinctive color and a sweet and sharp taste at the same time… personally, I did not dare to take this gastronomic step !
At the heart of the modern city of Shanghai, west of Renmin Lu, is the old city, the oldest inhabited part of Shanghai, showing everyday life in China before modernization. Small streets, called hutongs, narrow, congested and winding, are lined with typical Chinese houses with red and gold roofs. Despite the artificial atmosphere, it is an excellent place to stroll and buy some “Chinoiserie”. When we are overwhelmed with shopping and crowds, we can go to relax in the heart of Yu Garden. A zig-zag bridge provides access to the garden is of itself a curiosity… It seems that evil spirits do not know how to turn corners, and consequently the zig-zag bridge keeps them away from the garden. If you are not up for an irrational explanation, there is also a rational explanation: the Zig-zags compel the visitor to look successively to the right and left of the bridge and to admire the surrounding landscape (QED). The garden looks like a miniature world: earth piles represent hills, small streams are rivers, a pond the sea or ocean. We go through doors of different shapes, such as the round door called the door of the moon, to access one path or another.
To conclude our overview of the city, a must-see in Shanghai is the Jade Buddha Temple. The temple is built around several rooms containing a large collection of Buddhas, Buddhas, Buddhas… and more Buddhas. The atmosphere is peaceful, and the colorful Buddhas and drapes are beautiful. This temple was built in 1928, replacing an old temple destroyed during the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. The temple houses two Jade Buddha statues imported to Shanghai from Burma by a Buddhist monk called Huigen. One of the statues, a sitting Buddha, 1.90m high, was carved from a single piece of white jade and inlaid with precious stones (emerald and agate). The statue represents the Buddha in meditation and enlightenment (photography is prohibited). Another statue depicts a reclining Buddha, 96 centimeters long, and symbolizes the good fortune of rest – photographs authorized this time !