Sun, 13 Jun 2004

Shanghai: Surprises come with patience, a little legwork

Stevie Emilia, The Jakarta Post, Shanghai, China

On my first visit to China, I was intent on seeing the "real" face of the country -- its architecture, arts and food -- all part of the cultural diaspora that has spread across the world.

But as I set my bags down in my hotel in the bustling Pudong area, I saw no trace of the China I imagined. Surrounded by skyscrapers, I could have been in any metropolis anywhere in the world. Even my hotel -- apart from the token sample of Chinese tea on the minibar -- was done in high renaissance style, with statues all over the lobby and my room.

As I had a day to myself before the conference I was attending opened, I decided that I had to discover what the city, once dubbed the Paris of China, had to offer -- or at least what was left of it.

For a tourist like me, whose only word of Mandarin is "thank you", it turned out that the simplest task was a challenge because not many people I met, including the hotel's employees, understood or spoke English well.

In order not to get lost, I took the advice of a friend and bought myself a map with both English and Chinese, as well as carrying the hotel's card stating its name and address in both languages.

The advice turned out to be worthwhile, as I found out that most taxi drivers' English was as good as my Mandarin, limited to "no" and "bye bye".

Ready to explore the city, and following my precious map, my first stop was Yu Yuan Garden at the northeast of the Old Town. The garden was reportedly built over 400 years ago in the Ming dynasty by a rich official wanting to please his parents in their old age. In fact, it is said to be the only Ming garden left in the city.

When my taxi stopped in front of the garden complex, I felt a sense of relief when I saw the distinct architectural buildings, their magnificent design pleasing on the eyes.

As I walked deep into the complex, consisting of more than 30 halls, I felt a little disappointed as I found that most of the halls are occupied by various stores selling handicrafts and food, and even a Starbucks.

I consoled myself with a frapuccino and explored inside the garden, which suffered extensive damage in the 19th century but has undergone much restoration.

It was here that I was pleasantly surprised to find the City God Temple.

Most Chinese still hold to the traditional belief that their cities are under the protection of guardian gods, and Shanghai residents pay tribute to the gods in the temple.

According to my guidebook, the first temple to the God of Shanghai was built in the Song dynasty (960-1279). At that time, a shrine was built in Danjing Temple, far from its current location. The present site was first used during the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-1425) in the Ming Dynasty. There, a statue of General Huo Guang of the Han Dynasty was enshrined in the front hall, while a statue of Qin Yubo -- the god of the city -- rested in the back hall.

Qin Yubo is a Taoist deity famous for his honest character and knowledge. According to local legend, in the early Ming dynasty, Qin Yubo was a respectable scholar who, out of contempt for politics, refused to become a court official. Upon Qin Yubo's death in 1377, the emperor decided to honor him posthumously by bestowing on him the status of deity in charge of protecting the land. With many people still praying at the temple, I could see that the spirit of Qin Yubo remains even today.

Leaving the garden complex, the next thing on my plan was a visit to Jade Buddha Monastery at Anyuanlu street, west of Shanghai. Dating back to 1918, the temple is worth a visit not only because of its two famous jade Buddha statues but because of its resident monks.

One of the jade Buddhas can be found in a sitting position at the moment of his enlightenment on the second floor of Wentang Hall. The second statue is located in a hall in the western part of the temple complex, portraying Sakyamuni at repose during his passage into nirvana. Each of the statues is said to have been carved out of a single piece of white jade.

The temple also houses a collection of valuable Buddhist writings as well as sculptures, the oldest of which is said to date back to the 5th century.

With not much time to waste, and a bit reluctant to leave the serene atmosphere, I headed to the must-see for visitors to Shanghai, The Bund, referred to as a "museum of international architecture".

Here, I stood face-to-face with magnificent structures in 17 architectural styles, including Gothic, renaissance and classical.

The buildings, standing imperiously along the bank of the Huangpu River, are a window into the city's history, especially the early presence of foreign settlements in Shanghai. Reminders of a bygone time, they are also silent witnesses to the city's massive transformation in the name of modernity.

On a boat trip along the Huangpu, the sharp contrast between the little remaining traditional architecture and the advance of modern was clearly seen, with The Bund on one side, and the busy Pudong area on the other. The latter, said to be one of the world's busiest construction zones, has as its landmark the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, said to be the highest tower in China and the third highest in the world.

Unfortunately, all the available guides on the boat were Mandarin speakers.

"All English-speaking guides not in today," explained one of the boat's operators, Yuzhong Guan, in broken English. He added that the demand for English-speaking guides was less than for Japanese.

The new, gleaming, modern face of Shanghai is a recent development, fueled by China's ascension in global trade. A friend who is a longtime resident of Shanghai said Pudong was nothing but warehouses and shipping facilities only a decade ago.

As I savored my dinner in a small restaurant along the riverbank, watching night fall and lights springing life into the cold skyscrapers, I realized I was looking at the real face of Shanghai -- its glorious past, dynamic present and a promising future.