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Wednesday, March 22, 2000

The price of tea in Shanghai

Shanghai gets a lot of bad press. Prior to my first trip to this Hong Kong of the North, I had heard plenty about its high prices, pollution, overcrowding and urban sprawl. I imagined spending hours crawling in cabs past construction sites, as fumes filled my lungs and the meter spun.

Why go then? First, to do a movie-industry story. Second, because all I had heard about the place hadn't been bad. There was its prerevolution reputation as the Hollywood of China -- a den of Western corruption to high-minded communist revolutionaries perhaps, but also a high-living, cosmopolitan city where Marlene Dietrich might have felt at home (though her "Shanghai Express" was filmed entirely in Hollywood).

Cut to the chase: For anyone arriving from Tokyo, the alleged horrors are almost homelike. The main traffic arteries, such as the six-lane carbon dioxide generator that runs along the Bund, are clogged, but hardly more so than Kan-nana. Most of the city's roads are reminiscent of Tokyo's a generation ago, when motorization had moved beyond the truck and taxi stage, but was not yet unmanageable.

Huaihai Road and Nanjing Road (the local equivalents of Dogenzaka) are filled with pedestrians, but the crowds are no worse than you'd find in Shibuya on a Saturday afternoon, and the sidewalks are broader. (A 1-km-long stretch of Nanjing Road has even been turned into a permanent pedestrian mall -- an idea that has yet to occur to Tokyo city planners.)

Prices? Taxi fares will bring tears of nostalgia to the eyes of old Tokyoites, while the rates for some of the so-called luxury hotels are closer to those of a good Tokyo business hotel than the Imperial. Mine, the Jinjiang Hotel near Huaihai Road, was only 420 renminbi (5,600 yen) a night.

Also, getting around is not the nightmare it can be for the kanji-less tourist lost in the Tokyo metro. Most of the city's tourist attractions are within a compact area, easily negotiable by cabs and the city's new subway system.

One was Old Town, a warren of shops, restaurants, temples and gardens that may be as touristy as Asakusa, but is, like its Tokyo counterpart, still a real neighborhood with a real history, full of smells, tastes and sights that are, thankfully, distinctly Chinese. It is also omiyage heaven, with dozens of shops selling traditional craft items -- everything from tacky junk (who, I wondered, turned out all those cross-eyed kittens gamboling in flattened globes of glass?) to works of amazing artistry and, after a few rounds of bargaining, a good price (though it helps to have a Chinese guide skilled in the mock shock and scorn that can quickly shave 50 percent off the first quote).

One must-see in Old Town is Yuyuan Garden, which was originally built from 1559 to 1577 as a pleasure garden for Ming Dynasty officials, then destroyed during the Opium War in 1842. In midwinter, the twisty, jagged masses of rock -- Gaud comes to Shanghai -- were more noticeable than the greenery, but the garden's narrow, mazey pathways were pleasantly uncrowded and the Ming-style buildings contained intriguing surprises, including a shop selling papercuts of a complexity and ingenuity that made them the two-dimensional equivalent of origami.

Another Old Town attraction is the Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse -- a converted pavilion from Yuyuan Garden that sits on pillars in the middle of a pond. Here, as the framed photos hung inside indicate, Bill, Hillary and various other dignitaries sipped tea. The day I visited, however, the first floor was crowded with elderly Chinese men who looked as though they used the place as a social club, while the second floor was nearly deserted, save for a group of Japanese tourists, whose guide was helping them to order. (No problem for me -- the menu offered English translations.) I drank from a bottomless cup of tea (the waitresses seemed to come by with hot water for the pot every time I took a sip) and watched the performance of traditional storytellers who had attracted a crowd across the way. This, I thought, beats Doutor.

A short cab ride away was an old neighborhood of another sort -- the Bund. A strip of Western-style buildings from the early decadence of the last century along the Huangpu River, the Bund was the headquarters and playground of the foreign traders and bankers who had carved out extraterritorial principalities in Shanghai and lived there in colonial splendor until the convulsions of war and revolution drove them out. Though the buildings remain, their decadent glamour and charm has faded. Foreign companies still use them for offices, but it's hard to imagine Marlene swanking through. One exception is the Peace Hotel -- a landmark built in 1928 with a jazz club where Shanghai Lily might have sung.

There is more to see on the west or Puxi side of the river, including skyscrapers to rival (or rather overawe) anything in West Shinjuku. But the best reason to go is the Shanghai Museum, whose collection of 120,000 pieces is housed in an airy, spacious structure designed to resemble an ancient Chinese vessel called a ding -- imagine an elongated pot with an elegantly rounded lid and a large semicircular hole on top for inserting the pot hook. The collection itself is one of the best in Asia, with an atmospherically lit gallery of ancient Chinese sculpture that brings its Buddhas and gods to haunting life, without the glass cases considered de rigueur in Japan.

Though Shanghai had more to offer than I had time to see, I was glad to get out for a day trip to Zhouzhang, a town 45 km west of Shanghai that is called the Venice of China. Though not nearly as large as its Italian counterpart, Zhouzhang had the requisite canals (plied by sampans, not gondolas), romantic bridges and atmospheric old houses -- nearly 60 percent of the town's residences were built during or before the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Though catering mainly to tourists, it still had the look and feel of a living community, not a theme park.

I found not only the cross-eyed cats in abundance, but in the dank recesses of its old merchants' houses, in the incense-filled courtyards of its temples, something of the China of "Raise the Red Lantern." Walking its streets on a rainy winter day, I wondered if it had its Zhang Yimou -- or Luchino Visconti. "Death in Zhouzhang?" Close, but as they used to say in the Hollywood of Thomas Mann's day, no cigar.

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