Dinnertime in the old market

When we got out of the Temple of the City God in Shanghai, it was about 5 in the evening. This is about the time that a typical person in China would be thinking of dinner. It was our first evening in China, and our bodies were still two hours behind. We decided to go with the body clock and treat this as tea time. Our plane would leave at 11 at night, giving us a clear six hours more to finish our dinner.

We walked through the spectacular food market (gallery above) peering at the food on display in various stalls. I always think that it must be extremely tiring to man these little stalls of food. It must take a wonderful person to keep one’s smile while serving hundreds in an evening. I did catch the tiredness on the faces of people behind the counters, but I was distracted by the variety of food on display. Many things were familiar, but the plates of desserts threw me. I saw something like a custard tart, a Portuguese Pasteis de Nata. I had one later in the trip; it was comparable to the ones I’d eaten in Belem and Sintra. The Family and I chose something that we had no referents for, the green and pink blocks which you see when you click on the photos of the desserts. They were wonderful; very mildly sweet like all desserts in China, made of rice and beans. We had to choose one out of all the things on display, and we did not regret our choice.

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The temple of the city god

Reading Western accounts of Taoism may lead you to wrongly believe that it is an austere philosophical way of life. But, in its day to day practice, it is far from this. The religion is full of gods who may be worshipped with incense, fruits, and money. The temples are big and shiny, full of numerous subsidiary gods. The Temple of the City God (Chenghuang Miao, 上海城隍庙) in Shanghai is a glittering example. Every walled city in China would have its city god temple: the word cheng means wall and the word huang means moat. Shanghai got its temple during the reign of the Yongle emperor in the 15th century.

We had missed seeing this on our first visit to Shanghai three years ago. Local tradition holds that if you haven’t seen Chenghuang Miao, then you haven’t seen Shanghai. So this time we paid for our tickets and walked into the busy temple. The main city god seems to be Qin Yu Bo, a 14th century bureaucrat declared to be the protector of Shanghai when the Yongle emperor decreed the construction of this temple. Signs in English are few, and I managed to figure out only the city god and the pantheon of wealth. But all the statues were very impressive (see the gallery above for photos of a few).

The temple was apparently shut down during the Cultural Revolution, and was renovated and reopened only in 2006. There was such a large throng of worshippers, that I did not dare to approach any of the monks to ask about the statues of immortals and gods. This was probably lucky, because I later read that the monks are notoriously bad tempered. If you want information on the Taoist gods then the internet is full of explanations.

An artists’ market

Later in the day we spent some time walking through the market place surrounding the Yu garden and the temple of the City God (Chenghuang Miao). On our first stroll through this area three years ago, The Family and I had found it a little overblown, what with all the gold and silver shops. Now that we had the time to take a closer look, the marketplace began to grow on me. A couple of months earlier I’d traveled through several of the major temple towns of India and was struck by the marketplaces built around temples. The parallel to India was striking: the market here could be the modern version of a historic market that has always existed around the temple of the City God, I thought.

I later found that Frances Wood and Neil Taylor, in the Blue Guide to China, agree with this assessment. This would be the remnants of the prosperous trading town that Shanghai had grown into by the early 18th century, by the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing eras. When the Treaty of Nanjing forced China to concede port and trade facilities to the opium trade of the western powers, those settlements were built outside of this old town. The silverworkers and other artists who have their stalls here may have been here many times in history. We walked through the market and sank into the wonderful craftsmanship on display. Some distinguish China from other cultures: calligraphy, paper cutting, seals, and fiendish wire puzzles. Others are common across the world, though they come with a Chinese flavour here: silverwork and jade, wood and glass work, ocarinas. I wonder how many cultures came in contact with each other over history in order to transport these crafts across the world.

Yu Garden

If you are a casual tourist like me the Yu garden of Shanghai could be the only classical Ming period (16th century) garden that you get to see. The featured photo shows you most of the special features of these gardens: white walls enclose it, pierced by round doors called moon gates, large areas of water are surrounded by trees and rocks, and there are pavilions where you are supposed to sit and enjoy the view. It is worthwhile checking out these pavilions, because the garden was designed so that the view from each pavilion is a set piece to enjoy.

What you see in the photo above is one of these set pieces. I was lucky to be able to capture this view in a little moment when there were no people in the frame. The garden was quiet, and I could hear the soft rustle of leaves. When the Ming dynasty official, Pan Yun Duan, had this garden built in 1565 I am sure the soundscape was also part of the design.

This becomes clearer in another part of the garden, a view of which you see in the photo above. The tiny waterfall is designed to produce a gentle sound of water. After meeting the sound of falling water in tens of upmarket shops across China, I am inclined to think that you are meant to hear a classical Chinese garden as well as look at it. This must be a part of culture which is so deep that little is written about it. In the same way no one really writes about the fact that a traditional Indian garden engages the sense of smell more than sight.

One of the pavilions has a view of the very special stone called Yu Ling Long (玉玲珑, exquisite jade rock) which you see in the photo above. Understanding why this is exquisite takes you to the heart of Chinese aesthetics, and its preference for artful asymmetry. The stone, said to have been collected and lost by the northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong, is said to be shou, zhou, lou, and tou (ie, it is slender, gnarly, full of channels and holes). The holes are said to be such that if you light incense at the base, the smoke pours out from each of the 72 holes in the rock. Also, it is said that, the channels are such that if you pour water at the top, it flows out of each of these holes. Since there is no demonstration of this, I expect these are the usual superlatives which you have to take for granted.

Around the tranquil pond in front of this, I noticed sparrows and turtles. Turtles are supposed to be symbols of longevity, and good luck, on par with dragons and the phoenix. Placing them in the pool was symbolic of good health and long life. Maybe I could have considered the sparrows to stand in for the phoenix. In that case I could count this as a wonderfully lucky sighting.

I am quite certain that this view is not meant to be special, just that foreigners like me find it very typical of China. The pavilion on water and the banana trees around it looked to me like a transformed village house from Assam, Bengal, or Odisha: the kind of parallel with a difference which I use as a private scheme to understand China. This garden has been destroyed many times, and rebuilt again. It is unlikely that there is a single unified design any longer.

This young girl who wheeled her suitcase up to the water’s edge and then sat down to start feeding fish, however, acted within the design parameters of the garden. The carp were seeded here to be looked at, admired, and fed. There was soon a crowd around her. She kept reaching into the suitcase and bringing out feed. That is when it struck me that the large number of people whom I saw wheeling around suitcases were not out-of-towners enjoying a stroll through Shanghai. They are locals. The wheeled suitcase is preferred over a backpack by many people in China. I find that a garden is a good place for people watching.

Watch for differences

One of the ways that I relate to China is to think of how similar it is to India: the crowds, the somewhat cavalier attitude towards public cleanliness, the friendliness of the ordinary person. That’s my mantra for negotiating a foreign country whose language I neither speak nor read. But you have to watch for differences within the commonalities. These give you a frisson of otherness, the newness that one travels to feel.

One such came on me quite unexpectedly. The Family and I sat for a while in front of Yuhua Hall in the Yu Garden of Shanghai, to admire Yuling Long (the Exquisite Jade Rock), when my attention was diverted by a flock of sparrows sunning themselves on an outcrop of rocks nearby. “House sparrows?” I asked The Family. “Maybe”, she responded.

I wasn’t so sure. I clicked a few photos for reference. Now when I look at my field guide, I find this is not the Passer domesticus, but the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus). This is uncommon in India, being found in the mountains, in a belt stretching from Uttarkhand to the east, and in most of the North-Eastern states. My first view of it was in a garden in Shillong. However, it is common across Europe and Asia: from Ireland to Japan, and Siberia to Borneo and Sumatra. You recognize it by the black ear patch on an otherwise white cheek and throat. The sexes look alike, as I noticed while I took the photos. What a lovely surprise hidden among all the wonderful things that we saw.

The garden of peace and comfort

One of the big tourist sights of Shanghai is the Ming-era (16th century) Yu garden. Looking through my photos I realize that I’ve been there in two seasons; once in late spring, 6 May 2015, and once in early winter, 2 November 2018. Did I find it worth visiting twice? In one sense this is a silly question, because gardens are always nice places to spend your time. But we were in Shanghai for only a day; so was it worth going into a garden which was still alive in my memory?

Take a look through my camera on my second day in China. Everything was new; the world vibrated with possibilities; my eyes were not used to China. The Yu garden is divided into six areas. In the third area we came across a beautiful stage called the Feng wu luan yin (literally Phoenix dance and song). My eyes snagged on the beautiful sculptures on the roof, which you can see in the gallery above. Rectangular windows with circular panels set into it also were new to me. I realized later in the trip that they symbolize the cosmos (tiandi); the rectangle is the earth (di) and the circle is heaven (tian). The almost symmetry of the lattice nagged at me.

Although I could appreciate the artistry of the fired-clay sculptures, I certainly missed the layer of literature and somgs which have gathered around the garden, which many tourists will know. The second view was different, not only because a garden is different every time you pass through it, but also because I’d grown a little more used to China. I found it interesting that this garden was being built at roughly the same time as the Mughal gardens in parts of India. The contrast in styles is immense.

Between the two visits, a chance look at a review of a book called The Classical Gardens of Shanghai by Shelly Bryant, made me decide to read it. This put the garden in a broader historical perspective for me. Standing again at the same spot, did I see different things? You decide.

Moon gates and dragon walls

I like to enter China through Shanghai. In my mind this is ChinaLite; many people can speak English, they are used to tourists, and the city is a mash up of old and picturesque China and the brash new China. We’d given ourselves a day of indulgence, full blown tourist treatment, before traveling on. Our hotel was a five minute walk from the famous 16th century Garden of Peace and Comfort: more popularly known as the Yu garden, 豫园. We had a long breakfast and walked over to the garden.

In this SaturdayLite post I wanted to show you that the garden is not just a place for foreign tourists. Nothing in China is. Just as in India, the local crowd of tourists far outnumbers foreigners. I did a bit of guerilla photography, but the trio posing at the moon gate in the featured photo noticed us. We had a nice conversation: their sentences peppered with a few words of English, ours with a word or two of Chinese. We established that they were from Shanghai, and we were from India. We walked through parts of the garden at roughly the same pace, and they continued to point out interesting things to us.

This moon gate is not typical, since there is a closed door behind it. But I like it for another reason: the lattice work on the door behind it (visible through the glass) is typically Chinese. When you look carefully at it you notice that the symmetry is very subtle. The top and bottom halves are not simply copies of each other. This subtlety, the refusal of obvious symmetries, is a hallmark of Chinese art and architecture.

So many more aesthetic alternatives become available when you reject symmetries. One example is in the undulating walls which separate different sections of the garden. When you look carefully above the gates which open in the walls, you notice that the undulations are the bodies of dragons; their heads are seen above the gates which pierce the wall. The one in the photo above shows a little toad below the dragon. Many animals in Chinese architecture seem to have symbolic value. The toad symbolizes longevity. Together with the dragon, it symbolized a long life full of good fortune. A very appropriate symbol for a garden of peace and comfort.

Chinese food (of sorts)

If you noticed that my responses to comments was a little late and terse recently and wondered why, here’s the answer. I spent a couple of weeks traveling in China. The Family and I reached Shanghai late at night. By the time we checked into the hotel, there was only one dinner option which did not involve much walking. You may not think of a trio of sausages with sauerkraut as Chinese food, but I temporarily went by the principle that any food which you find in China is Chinese food.

Looking through the menu I found a beer on tap called Goose Island. I hadn’t tasted this before. It turned out to have an interesting bitter and sweet taste. A quick scamper through a tunnel in the great firewall showed that it is brewed in Chicago. Gulp! The Family, busy with a mushroom soup and garlic bread, asked “This is comfort food for you, isn’t it?” Strangely enough, it is.

It was late. We were tired and sleepy. But this was Shanghai. Even though the night temperature would have been unbearably cold in Mumbai, we took a stroll through the deserted streets of a city which we don’t mind going back to. A few people hurried by, hands deep in pockets. We stopped in front of a kiosk selling sour plum soup. “Maybe tomorrow”, The Family murmured. We walked back to the hotel. The next day was going to be long.

Spring cleaning

Into each life some rain must fall, and the last five days have been a bit of a record for the twenty million people in my city. So I decided to spend my time indoors in moving some of my older photos from my laptop into a backup disk. And, of course, I got distracted by my first photos of Shanghai.

The Family and I landed in Shanghai in early May last year late in the afternoon. We’d flown out of Mumbai in the night, changed planes in Chengdu, taken the maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport, changed to a Metro, and eventually found our hotel. We did not speak or read Mandarin. Our hotel was off East Nanjing Road, and I’d selected it to be close to the Bund. After a shower we took our first walk in China.

It is hard now to recall our feelings, although The Family and I have talked about it now and then. China was still an unknown, even walking on the road was an adventure. We bought a bottle of water, tried out a local sweet, and eventually reached the Bund. I no longer remember what I’d imagined it to be. But it was not the wide promenade full of people at complete leisure. It was so familiar, but, at the same time, so totally different.

Our timing happened to be right, the sun was setting behind us, and lighting up the wonderful high-rise buildings of Pudong new area (see the featured image). Later we would learn to distinguish the buildings. Now we just gawked. It was a mysterious and exciting city. Over time we got to know it better. We still find it exciting, but a less mysterious. That’s the unfortunate side of travelling: the world becomes a tiny bit flatter.