If you saw Friends! in its first season, you might remember that in a rather momentous episode Ross goes away to China for a week. He explained to Monica that a bone had been discovered, and that he had to get it. It was a very current episode for 1994, when new dinosaur fossils were beginning to be unearthed across China. When I passed through Shanghai a few months ago I decided to visit the Shanghai Museum of Natural History. It is easy to find, since there is a metro station named for the Museum, right next to it. The discoveries in China have completely changed our view of dinosaurs. The sheer number of fossils has allowed studies of entire life histories, including growth rates and reproductive behaviour, and even their colour. The fossil whose photo is featured is one of a 100 million years old genus called the Psittacosaurus, because of its parrot-like bill.
Next to the case with the fossil skeleton is a big draw: an animatronic model of one of the species of Psittacosaurus. The explanatory note says that the model is programmed to show it defending its nest full of eggs. There is physical evidence of the colour and proto-feathers. So much so that, if I were an expert, I would be able to tell the species by the colour, like in some bird genera today. I’m sure that much research has gone into the behaviour being exhibited. Predictably, the display was very popular with children, as you can figure out from the soundtrack, if you play the video. For a while now, movies such as Jurassic Park needed a reboot to display dinosaur feathers and their colours more accurately. This model is a nice way to get rid of the outdated iconography of dinosaurs.
In the last thirty years there has been an explosion of fossil discoveries in China. These have added significantly, perhaps even revolutionized, much of our earlier knowledge of some geological eras. I knew that museums in China have wonderful collections of fossil dinosaurs. I was surprised to find that the new discoveries span a much longer history. The Cambrian, which started about 540 million years ago, and lasted for over 50 million years, is part of this. Our earliest knowledge of the biota of the Cambrian came from the Burgess Shale, found in Canada in 1909. The slow fragmentation of the large super-continent of Pannotia, its warm coastal seas, and the complete lack of land plants still supported an immense variety of aquatic life. One of these animals was the Hallucigenia whose fossil from the Chengjiang shales I saw in the natural history museum in Shanghai.
The fossil looks like a crude sketch. It was first described in 1977, when it was reconstructed upside down and front to back. Walking on seven pairs of spiny legs while waving seven tentacles on its back made it something that could be dreamt up on a trip, hence the name Hallucigenia. It turned out that the blob at one end of its body is not its head, but the contents of its guts squeezed out by the clay which buried it. Finally, with electron microscopy, in 2015, a final picture could be created not only of the way it looked, but also how it walked (what a difference good optics makes!). What the animation above does not show is the circle of teeth around the throat, and that is new information which connects it to the family tree of insects. It was once thought that most of the Cambrian animals left no descendants; this may not be true.
I flew in to Shanghai too late at night to fly out immediately. So I treated myself to a room overlooking the runway. There is nothing special and local about most airports, and Hongqiao airport looked like it could have been anywhere in the world. At night even a fairly empty airport looks wonderful. I showered and sat nursing a beer at the window, looking at the last few flights landing. One took off, very much to my surprise. Blinking red lights moved slowly across the tarmac. Blue and yellow lights showed these beached behemoths their way. The bellows of landing crafts were muted by the double glazing. I let the TV play its welcome tune on a loop until I went to sleep.
When I woke in the morning the airport was busy, but the sunlight had robbed it of its magic. It was just a vast expanse of dull gray concrete now. The screaming of jets taking off was just a background hubbub. I was in a hurry, and didn’t pay it much attention. I would have to ease myself into a flying tube too soon.
The celestial animals of China never included the panda. But last month if you had walked through Xintiandi in Shanghai you would have thought that the panda was more important than the dragon. One looked at me very suspiciously as I walked into a mall. I felt like backing right out.
This grandpa clicking a selfie with his grand-daughter, wife, and daughter was a typical family in China. I never tire of people-watching in China. Families are so small that they no longer require the words for the complicated family relationships that are common all over Asia. Pandas know this; China is trying very hard to make pandas give up the one child policy.
A lonely panda is so sad. I stood next to one and took a photo. Of course this was an advertising campaign for a fashion event, but I don’t care. They are grumpy, uninterested in much except shoots and leaves. I still like seeing them on streets.
I’d put off visiting the Jade Buddha temple in Shanghai for several years. Six months earlier when The Family and I had passed through Shanghai twice, we decided to visit other parts of the town. Now that I had half a day in town before catching a flight back home, I decided I must repair this oversight. How do you get there? The simplest way for me was to catch Metro Line 13 and get off at the Jiangning Road station. There are very useful maps inside metro stations telling you about the neighbourhood (I’ve painted the temple in pink in the map here), and I figured that I needed to take exit 3, walk back a little and then walk back west a bit until you hit the first cross road, and then take it two blocks south. In any case, the temple complex is visible as soon as you walk a few paces, so there is no worry about not finding it.
Temple walls are easily visible in China because they are often painted in the bright ocher colour that you see here. Online guides had been a little confusing about whether you can take photos inside, but I figured that this was China. People take photos constantly. I passed the wonderful red doors that you see in the featured photo, paid up my small entrance fee, and walked in. Families were busy taking photos. I felt quite at home taking a large camera out of my backpack.
The temple was first set up in 1882 CE to house a gift of two Burmese white jade Buddhas from the Jiangwang temple. It was abandoned after the Republican revolution of 1911, and restored by 1928. It took me some time to find the reclining Buddha. It is the smaller statue in one of the last halls in the north. Interestingly, it is not even the most prominent figure in the room. I left off searching for the other figure, which is on an upper level. I’ll definitely pass through Shanghai again, and this is as good a place to come back to as any other.
I’d given myself half a day in Shanghai, because it is such a lovely city to walk around in. I decided to have lunch somewhere in Xintiandi. As I walked out of the metro station I saw something which was not there four years ago when I came here to look at shikumen houses: a whole new lane opened to tourists (featured photo). It can’t be too easy to live in such a place, with thousands of tourists tripping in and out. When I take a photo in such a place I make a mental bow towards the family altar of the household which might be inconvenienced.
I noticed a fairly long queue of people standing quietly in front of door number 4. The door was firmly shut, but the reason was clear from the plaque next to it. This small building was where the Korean Government was in exile during the years when Korea was under Japanese occupation. For me it was a little bit of unknown history, but clearly not to the Korean tourists who were going to wait another half an hour for the museum to open.
Nine years after the Japanese invasion of Korea, a democratic constitution was adopted by the provisional government, then in exile in Shanghai, in April 1919 CE. It took as its main purpose the nurturing of an independence movement in occupied Korea. This government had to shift to Chongqing after the fall of Shanghai in 1937. Eventually three years after Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 (exactly 74 years ago today), the provisional government dissolved itself. The first president of the Republic of Korea was Syngman Rhee, who was also the first president of the provisional government.
I would have liked to see the museum, but I did not have too much time to finish my lunch before getting back to the airport. I’ll probably come through Shanghai again, so I resolved to come back to see this museum in the future. Right now I had a photo of the neighbourhood and the stone lined door which is the literal meaning of shikumen. I took a last photo and left.
It was a few hours after lunch, and as we walked around Tianzifang, I began to feel hungry again. What could I snack on? In China it is not hard to find snacks. We passed several kiosks selling skewered meat. That looked good, but did I want such a substantial snack at this time? I have a tendency to pass up perfectly good snacks until I get so hungry that I eat the first thing that I see.
We passed a nice little kiosk (featured photo) advertising a wide variety of things that I could eat. The Family knows how bad I’m at selecting snacks, and drew my attention to the various steamed dumplings. Dumplings! Do I look like a Kung Fu Panda? My attention was on the interesting looking popsicles. And was that an ice cream freezer there? I looked in. I’m never able to pass up an opportunity to take photos of ice cream. I’d just barely recovered from a flu the previous evening, and I wasn’t going to take a chance on catching another throat infection. So I walked away.
We passed a restaurant. It looked inviting. The Family knew that we didn’t have enough time to sit down at a restaurant and eat. She walked past. My hunger pangs were getting more severe by the minute, so I paused here. No menu hanging outside. I took a photo and walked on.
Somewhere nearby, inside a tiny lane we found the perfect place. Yogurt in many flavours! This was exactly what I wanted, a combination of sugar and proteins. The Family also likes yogurt, so we had our little snack here. Nice place, we said to each other as we sat at one of the tables and shared two flavours of yogurt. I was satisfied for a while, and then I said to The Family, “I think I need to eat something more.”
Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.
The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.
We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.
If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.
I love the meaningless phrases that the Chinese put on their tees. That red tee (hong cha, to mistranslate a pun) in the featured photo was a word salad: full of the taste of English without too many of the calories.
When I took a photo of this jacket in a shop’s display the salesgirl was very annoyed with me. Photos of jackets? Seriously?
This shop window was visible from inside a metro station. Truly, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.
And you too. Thanks for all the fish, by the way.
Strolling along the pedestrian section of Nanjing Street at night, The Family and I came across public nostalgia for Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. The 1920s and 30s were a gilded age. In this new gilded age of Shanghai, it seems that nostalgia for that century old era is rife. The photo shoot in the video was street theatre, very deliberate, drawing an appreciative audience. I was happy to do my bit of ambush photography.