Shanghai re-deco

With a boom in 1930s nostalgia, China is adapting. Some of this adaptation is dusting off forgotten landmarks, some is redecorating things. Sometimes for an amateur like me it is hard to tell the difference. The Family and I walked down Hankou Road in Shanghai, and came to a building with a facade which confused me a little. If there had been no balconies here, I would have immediately thought of it as an Art Deco building. But the balconies break the clean lines which I always associate with this style.

The Family said “We can take a closer look, if you want.” So we walked into the lobby of the hotel. The port of Hankou stands on the Yangtze river and has lovely Art Deco buildings. Was Hotel Yangtze on Hankou Road an Art Deco building? The illuminated glass ceiling of the lobby confused me. It could be Art Deco, but the lobby looked cramped. Most Art Deco buildings somehow manage to look airy and grand, no matter how small a space they occupy.

The staircase came down in a nice sweep, but again managed to look cramped. The corridor between the lobby and the entrance could have jumped out of a 21st century re-imagination of a Flash Gordon movie. But was it real? The circumstantial evidence was too overwhelming. I noted down the name of the architect, Li Pan, and thought I would look it up later. I did, and I couldn’t find him listed among the names of the architects involved in Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. Nor did old guidebooks list this property as something to watch out for. But of course, hotels change names. Even street addresses change: roads are renamed, buildings renumbered. The problem seemed unsettled.

Eventually I found a Li Pan: an architect practicing today, also called Paul Lin Pan. And that opened a key. According to the somewhat confused records that I have found, the hotel was designed by a Li Pan in the Art Deco style and completed in 1934. However the renovation in 2007, also seems to have been done by a Li Pan, and it has been panned for adding extra touches, like the “zig-zag lines” on the facade, which weren’t there in the original. I wonder whether this confusion of architects has something to do with the Chinese cultural attitude to authenticity (I have been confused by this again and again). Comparing a picture in an old postcard with the new facade shows at least this difference. So this falls somewhere in the spectrum between real and fake, not far from real Art Deco.

The civilized question

The famous travel writer, Douglas Adams, wrote “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?” in the second volume of his definitive book, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After a day spent munching on little snacks I was on the How stage of development. The Family had progressed to Where.

There is a huge food store on the Nanjing Road pedestrian shopping street which we’ve wandered in and out of. Some of the counters there are extremely popular, and I’ve tried out biscuits and cakes from their many bakery counters. But some of the things on display raise questions that Douglas Adams never dreamed of, for example “What is it?” Or “What? Is that something you eat?” The dark things in the photo above looked like cocoons. I’ve eaten silkworm before, and found it quite nice, with a mild nutty taste. Is that what this is? I had no idea. It was clearly expensive, though. Not something to be trifled with if you didn’t know exactly what to do with it.

I was full enough that I wouldn’t have minded trying to order a glass of freshly pressed orange juice from the truck parked off Nanjing Road. I say trying, because it is always a little difficult to order if there is no menu. However, this being Nanjing Road, I was pretty certain that someone there would be able to translate my English. There was also a menu, so I could have pointed if necessary. The truck was doing roaring business, and I looked longingly at it.

We had planned out our dinners and lunches very rigorously in Guangzhou, but had forgotten to plan for our single dinner in Shanghai. The best idea that I could come up with was to walk around the maze of streets just north of Renmin Park and choose a place by looking at it. This could be interesting: the featured photo shows a place which was enormously popular. But this queue was too long for us. We walked through lanes filled with restaurants which looked bright and inviting while The Family spooled through her decision tree. The result was quite interesting and nice.

6 o’clock at the Bund

The lights came on all along the Bund at precisely 6 in the evening. The western bank of the Huangpu turned into a bright gold colour which suits all the banks which look out on the river. The Family gasped, and I think a ripple ran through the crowd as everyone turned from looking across the river towards Pudong to behind them. The Family loves this area; ever since I’d proposed a trip to China, she had her heart set on an evening strolling along the Bund.

It’s worthwhile coming by early. We’d crossed Zhongshan East Road just before the sun set and seen the high walls of the bund covered in a vertical garden. The Bund is a flood control wall (as the Hindi word indicates) built in the 19th century at the time that Mumbai’s merchants, Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, and others, settled north of the Chinese town and poured money into developing this new city. This is a history that is slowly fading from the memories of both sides of the Himalayas, but deserves to be remembered.

The green coloured pyramidal roof that you see in the featured photo belongs to the Peace Hotel, formerly Victor Sassoon’s flagship Cathay Hotel. The domed building in that photo (at the extreme left) is the Bank of Taiwan. This stands on Jiujiang Road. Across the road (The nearest building in the photo above) is the Forex trading center, and then the large frontage of the Bank of Shanghai. A few more banks down there is an area full of nice bars with good views.

Across the river lights had slowly come on in the modern high-rises of Pudong. Unlike the Bund, these lights are not coordinated. This is a delightful sight, which The Family and I enjoy every time we see it. The 470 meter high bulb-on-a-stick of the Pearl Tower, the dark bulk of Shanghai Tower (at 632 meters, China’s tallest, and the second highest building in the world), and the bottle-opener shape of the 492 meter tall Shanghai World Financial Center dominate the view. We didn’t want to cross over to that side today. After chatting with groups of Indian tourists who needed someone to take their photos against this iconic background, we climbed down from the Bund.

We walked west along Fuzhou Road for a couple of blocks. This is an interesting part of Shanghai. Most of the buildings date from the late 19th century until the Japanese invasion. It is an urban historian’s delight, with beautiful buildings and interesting histories. Unfortunately, Shanghai’s Museum of Urban Planning does not say much about this area. I would love to walk around this part of the city with a detailed guidebook of a kind that does not yet exist. It would certainly be as interesting as walking around Manhattan south of the 59th street. At the crossing of Jiangxi middle road and Fuzhou Road we came to this interesting set of buildings openings into a circle. We took a few photos and walked north.

Two blocks northwards is East Nanjing Road, the spectacular pedestrian shopping street which is usually so crowded; the lack of crowds indicated peak dinner time. We walked away from the Bund towards the warren of streets with interesting restaurants closer to Renmin Park. Ahead of us, the double spires of Shinmao International Plaza rose almost a hundred meters from the roof of the building to touch the 333 meter mark. This would be tall anywhere else, but in Shanghai it is an also-ran.

Museum of calligraphy

When I spotted a tiny Museum of Calligraphy near the Bund in Shanghai, I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be. Our flight had been delayed, and by the time we checked into our hotel most things were closing. This was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, and in a street full of book stores and art equipment. There would be other interesting things to look at if this was no good, I thought. The Family had also grown very interested in calligraphy ever since our encounters with painters in Guangzhou. So we walked down to the self-styled museum. It was a room above a tiny shop of calligraphy brushes and inkstones, small but interestingly put together (see the featured photo).

First things first: what are brushes made of? We couldn’t read the Chinese explanations, but the pictorial guide was helpful. When I was young I’d used delicate squirrel hair brushes for fine details, and stiff hog’s hair brushes for larger areas. Mink, vegetable fiber, human hair, bear fur seemed very exotic to me. I looked at the picture of a goat illustrating the parts which yielded fiber for brushes, and wondered about the special characteristics of the brushes.

A large number of displays on the walls answered these questions. They showed the kind of work that each type of brush is used for. We walked around looking at the panels: again quite simple to follow, even though we didn’t read any Chinese. This was the part of the museum that I really enjoyed. They threw light on an aspect of calligraphy which I’d not paid attention to. The next time I go through a museum looking at the collection of painting and calligraphy, I’ll be more alert to the changes of brushes in the painting.

The part of the display which I did not understand at all was the one about ink sticks and ink stones. I understand that you put a little water in an ink stone, and grind the ink stick into it. How does the kind of ink stone you use affect your technique? This was probably the place where knowledge of Chinese would have helped me to understand the display. In any case, of the four treasures (paper, brush, ink stone and ink stick) I now understood more about one. A successful half an hour, I thought.

Plato’s coffee shop

A search for coffee in Shanghai one morning brought home to me Plato’s theory of forms. Plato famously put forward the notion of ideal forms and our perception of them in terms of what we call todau Plato’s Cave. In this analogy, we live in a cave, and the ideals roam outside; we perceive them only through the shadow they throw on the cave wall.

I saw this small coffee shop and walked into it. There were a few customers waiting at the bar, a few at the small table behind, sipping their lattes. The number of baristas was larger, and they were really busy. I waited at the bar, and eventually someone took notice of me. “May I have an espresso?” I asked. There was a double take. “Ok, have you ordered already?” The girl at the counter asked me. Some gears wouldn’t move in my head. “Uh. No. Can you take this as an order?”

As we talked, her phone pinged multiple times, and each time she would swipe at something on the screen. The mud slowly slid off the cogs of my mind, and the machinery started grinding. This was a place which took orders by some phone app. Customers were walking in briskly, picking up their orders and leaving. I noticed this as my order was entered into a queue. Eventualy my mental machinery noticed that there was no payment being made. So the credit transaction was also on the web. This was truly Plato’s coffee shop. Almost everything was on the web, and I was only seeing the shadow of this commercial venture in the brick and mortar shop in front of me.

Sure enough, when I received my coffee and asked whether they would take cash or card the machinery ground to a halt. About seven people had a conference. “Cash,” was the answer. I didn’t have exact change. There was a hunt for change. Someone had to go out and get change for me. I was beginning to feel sorry that I’d disrupted this smoothly functioning venture by actually walking in off the street. Office goers gave me discreet lookovers as they took their lattes and walked off.

Process automation seems to always exist in the world of ideals. I seldom find project designs which can also exist in our cave of shadows.

The Baron of Bombay in Shanghai

Charmed by Guangzhou, we landed again in Shanghai. In some ways this remains our favourite Chinese city. We’d taken a hotel on Nanjing Road for the night since The Family wanted to stroll again on the Bund. Unknown to most Chinese, Shanghai bears a close connection with India, especially in the 70 years between the American Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. This was a time when Indian merchants traded extensively with India. The word bund, is of course, a Hindi word meaning a flood control wall. That’s exactly what Shanghai’s Bund was built to be. Another connection is with Mumbai, through Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, who in the 1920s and 30s invested several millions of US dollars (of that time) in Shanghai, created a real estate boom, and is said to have owned 1800 separate properties in downtown Shanghai. The Baronet was different from other traders. His family had sunk money into the development of Bombay in previous generations. Now he put his wealth to work at the development of Shanghai.

The most famous of his properties is the one originally called the Cathay Hotel, and now the Fairmont Peace Hotel (featured photo). Sometimes called the Sassoon House, this first high rise structure in Shanghai was completed in 1929. The Art Deco building has a granite face, and a pyramidal roof on the Bund-facing side. The hotel’s guests included Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Shaw, and Noel Coward (who wrote his play Private Lives while he was here). During the Cultural Revolution the Gang of Four stayed here. When I told The Family about its once-famous Jazz Bar, she wondered whether we should go in for a drink. As we discussed this, she turned and found that we were standing in front of an obviously Art Nouveau structure. This is the southern half of the Peace Hotel, and was called the Palace hotel when it was completed in 1908.

We pushed through the revolving doors into the lobby and took a few photos as a bemused guard looked on. This hotel once had Sun Yat Sen as a guest, and was later commandeered by the occupying Japanese Army. I wondered whether the elevators here run in their original channels. This building, after all, had the first elevators in Shanghai. The mechanism would have been replaced long back, but it is unlikely that the lift shaft would have been reconstructed. We gawped, and then slipped away to the Bund.

Don’t worry! Leave it to us

Yes, we know it is getting hectic. The pressure is building up. All that shopping! Not that there are that many daylight hours either. Isn’t it nice that there’s always someone to look out for you?

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, click to enter) 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.

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 breezed through 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.