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.

Contemporary Chinese food

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I visited an old friend, The Pleased, now living in Shanghai and went out for lunch. She’d picked a restaurant in the French Concession: very chic, all daylight filtered through bamboo groves and undressed concrete walls. After a week of large dinners, I was ready for the modern China. It is different. Take the dish above: not a chocolatey dessert. It is smoked eggplant, with bacon shavings on top. I liked the presentation. The taste is familiar to any Indian who has eaten baingan bharta, but the smoky tone of the original is no longer available in most restauarants in Mumbai. This was very definitely smoky. The black bean sauce was a good addition. I liked its pungency.

The restaurant was a nice introduction to the new China. I’d only seen its art work till now. This lunch introduced me to its food. I’m sure I want to explore more of this.

Ye Shanghai

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On my last day in China I flew in to Shanghai early in the morning. Twelve hours in Shanghai is a nice way to say goodbye to Zhong Guo. The air grew murky as the plane began its descent. On the short flight from Wuhan to Shanghai I chose to keep my camera with me in a window seat. I was not disappointed, although the flight path came from the west to land in Hongqiao, at the western end of the city. We flew over miles of residential blocks: suburban houses, sports complexes and high-rise apartment blocks (below). Finally, just before landing I had a fabulous view of a Blade Runner version of Shanghai: all morning smog and looming buildings (above).

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On the ground the air seemed as clear as it ever gets in a big city. There was a lovely cool breeze as I drove in to Pudong. The sun was bright. It was a lovely Saturday: just right for a lunch in the French Concession with friends. Shanghai is a lovely city, with an open heart. I landed in Shanghai for the first time six months ago, knowing nothing. It took me and The Family a day to fall in love with the city.

If you are wondering what the blog title is about, it is the name of a famous song by Zhou Xian (who could justifiably be called the Geeta Dutt of China). The title means “An evening in Shanghai”.

Modern Chinese Sculpture

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The Chinese art scene is red hot. In the last decade there have been influential shows of Chinese contemporary art around the world. This art is being bought locally and supported by the government, most visibly in the form of public art commissioned by minicipal governments.

2015-05-31 10.37.34I found that contemporary Chinese painting has to negotiate a tightrope. On the one hand it may fail by giving up an unique Chinese visual sensibility and merge into a western contemporary movement. On the other, the Chinese visual history may overwhelm any attempt to modernize. In walking through Shanghai’s M50 or Beijing’s 798 art districts we did not see a single ink drawing showing cars, buses, or cities. There was, however, a very clever calligraphic take on Mondrian.

I find that the cleverest and the most innovative work is being done by sculptors. Three random works which caught my eye are pictured above. These are not, by any means, the most influential works of Chinese sculpture. The first is a clever take on bonsai, the second an edgy representation of a spider, the third a clever quote of classical Greek sculpture. Perhaps the freedom to explore is related to the fact that Chinese sculpture carries less of a cultural load than painting or ceramics.

Birdwatching in the museum

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The first time I encountered realistic Indian miniature paintings of birds was in the museum of the City Palace of Jaipur, a long time ago. Since then I have found little examples hidden away in galleries across the world. They are not as famous as the paintings of court life, but there seems to be a dedicated band of collectors and curators who love to acquire and display these.

2015-05-28 16.17.54From almost the earliest times, Chinese painters have delighted in depicting nature. The most famous subjects which the paintings deal with are grand vistas of landforms, and hidden away somewhere a few people, houses, boats, and domestic animals. They are beautiful.

Now, with a month of visiting museums and collections of paintings, I see that there is a less well-known stream of work: nature in the small, beautifully observed and rendered. The Shanghai Museum had two remarkable paintings: one of a praying mantis done almost calligraphically, with a minimum of brush strokes, and one of a lotus seed pod. I found later that the lotus seed pod is a staple, every master seems to try his hand at it. But also, over the weeks, I began to notice birds. Mandarin ducks are ubiquitous because they represent marital fidelity in the Chinese culture. But there are so many other birds which we saw.

2015-05-28 16.21.46Today, walking through the National Museum in Beijing, our birdwatching instincts came to the fore. We stalked through the galleries looking for birds, and we hit a jackpot. There are lovely pieces in the collection, but photographing them is not easy. There are multiple layers of glass between the painting and you. As a result, you can see my reflection in many of the photos here.

I wish I could have shared more details about the painters and their times. Unfortunately, many of the galleries in the National Museum only have labels in Chinese. There is an audio guide, but I could not get any information on them from the information desk.

The photos here show only the paintings. The jade and bronze galleries hide more birds. Herons and peacocks abound in the pieces of jade, but there are also other birds. A popular genre of jade carving was a scene in a forest. These are usually full of animals and trees, and, hidden in the trees, birds. Hidden among the displays of ritual bronze vessels are small figures of birds.

I wish there were good quality reproductions which one could buy, and information in English.

Noodle shops

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We discovered noodle shops in Shanghai as we walked through the lilongs of Xintiandi. At lunch time they filled up suddenly. The first noodle shop we ate in was crowded with young and well-dressed working people. The food was slow to arrive, belying the name of fast food places, but very good. There were all kinds of delicious little add ons. The one I tried is the famous Chinese tea egg.

After arriving in Beijing I tried a quick lunch in a noodle shop a few times. This was less pleasant. One of these places was run by a Muslim family from Xinjiang, and they made “hand-pulled noodles” right in the shop. This was fascinating to watch. Dough was fulled into flat sheets by hand, folded over repeatedly, and divided each time into thinner and thinner pieces, until you had thin noodles. This was quickly boiled, slapped into a bowl, filled with a simmering broth, pieces of lamb added in, and a hot sauce slapped on top (see photo above). Interesting to watch, but not great to eat.

We tried a few other noodle places, and were equally disappointed. I wonder whether the difference is between Shanghai and Beijing, or between a place frequented by salaried young people versus one which caters to students. Whatever it is, I gave up on noodle shops in Haidian very quickly.

The turning of the wheel

The turning of the wheel of dharma: the Buddha's first sermon in Sarnath. Fresco in the Jing'an Su, Shanghai
The turning of the wheel of dharma: the Buddha’s first sermon in Sarnath. Fresco in the Jing’an Su, Shanghai

The Jing’an temple is a large and beautiful temple in the middle of Shanghai, and is probably high on every tourist’s list of things to do. It turned out that this was almost the last thing we did during our stay in Shanghai. When we came back to Shanghai from our trip to Hangzhou, we took the metro to Jing’an. It was well past noon, and as we emerged from the metro station into the food court of a large departmental store, we stopped for lunch. We had the noodle soup which had become the mainstay of our lunches, but then got snagged by the many sweet shops around. We emerged near the entrance of the temple loaded with boxes of Chinese sweets.

The entrance to the temple is marked by a huge column topped by the lion capital of Sarnath. Interestingly, over two thousand years of separate cultural evolution, the lion capital has become a symbol of the state in India, and of the Buddhist religion in China! We sat at near the base of the symbol of our nation, and tried out the sweets. Chinese sweets are completely different from the Indian variety: they are not so sweet (sugar was, after all, one of the technologies that India gave to the world), and they have interesting but mild flavours. They look like Japanese mochi or daifuku, but the ones we had were not made of rice and beans.

We paid our entrance fees and entered into the usual chaos of a temple in China: incense, monks in BMWs, lots of young people praying, and children donating money. We passed through this into the side chapels on the ground floor. One was made of camphor wood. The carving was beautiful. We walked up the imposing staircase to the main temple with its immense bronze Buddha. While crossing the Himalaya, the Buddha turned from an emaciated ascetic (bhikshu) into a well-fed god. Behind the imposing statue was a large fresco telling the story of Gautama, the Buddha. The four main sections were his birth and encounter with the misery of life, the enlightenment, the sermon of the turning of the wheel, and the mahaparinirvana.

We walked on to a corridor which flanks the main temple, and goes round it to the drum and bell towers with a chapel to the Maitreya Bodhisattva, shown, as always in China, as the laughing Buddha. The temple and towers are dwarfed by the high-rise buildings around it, but the glitter and ornamentation seems to outshine these newer buildings.

M50 art district

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M50 on Moganshan Lu in Shanghai is a collection of galleries, studios and spaces which house art and art projects. I was afraid I would never find it without google maps, but then I searched the web and someone on Tripadvisor had left precise and accurate instructions on how to reach this place. We arrived at noon and had a quick lunch at one of the cafes before starting in.

China has a thriving art scene, and M50 gives you a quick cross-section of the work being done. Quite a bit of it is not new, but there were gems tucked away in several of the galleries. In the middle of a gallery with very decorative colourful canvases I was blown away by three incredible abstracts.

Paintings were only one of the many kinds of media on display. There was also a large amount of porcelain. Some of it used older techniques, but there were some pieces which used the new high-temperature glazes: some of these colours are brilliant. I had an interesting chat with one of the artists about techniques and kilns. There was a time when I’d wanted to learn ceramics, but discovered that it was hard to get time on kilns in Mumbai. This conversation made me wonder whether it would be worthwhile establishing a small kiln at home.

We wandered into a small cafe which had a barista doing great artwork in cappuccino. As we sat there and destroyed her performance art, we saw a fashion shoot in progress. I did some ambush shooting during this (see photo above). Art districts involve all kinds of things.

The crew at the dark room
The crew at the dark room

My current off-work passion is photography. This seems to be a small niche in M50. We walked into a studio which called itself “The Dark Room”. It was manned by a crew of enthusiastic youngsters who showed me their dark room behind the shop. This brought back nostalgic memories of my school days when I was associated with a bunch of others in maintaining a small dark room in a little attic in the school. This had the same enlargers, development tanks, baths of developers and fixers. The kids spoke good English and we had a long enthusiasts’ chat about our first cameras which left The Family with glazed eyes. The kids had never heard of the camera models I started with. That’s a generation gap for you!

Back in the shop we saw some lovely prints. These are by the master photographer who is training the youngsters. We bought a couple of them: they seem to transfer the sensibility and aesthetics of chinese painting successfully into this modern medium. I would love to keep them on my wall and look at them again and again.

The business of beauty

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Beauty is big business in Shanghai. You can’t walk very far without running into a row of hair dressers or nail artists (example above). Interestingly they are all very full. The Family is itching to go into one of them. She regrets having done her hair just before leaving Mumbai, and doesn’t take very kindly to my reminder that her hair dresser in Mumbai is also Chinese.

Games are serious

Tourist guides tell you to visit Xintiandi in Shanghai. This Xintiandi is full of well-preserved and tastefully renovated Shikumen buildings repurposed into restaurants, coffee shops, up-market shops and bars. When you walk through this you see the beautiful people of Shanghai and foreigners. All very posh, but exactly like any other town center in Europe. Why travel to China if all you want to see is Europe?

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The Lilongs on the other side of Xintiandi are more interesting for a tourist with a camera. During my visit I saw two places where crowds had gathered. I nosed in, and saw a very serious card game in progress (photo above). In case you think this drinking and gambling is a man’s thing, think again. The next game had two women!

Luck is serious business in China. I’m told that the colour red is important because it is lucky, and not because it is beautiful.