As someone with European and African roots, travelling in China a couple of years ago was a fascinating and quite literally mind-expanding experience, but of the cities we visited, Shanghai was the one that completely captured my heart as well.
Old meets new: skyscrapers loom behind a roof in the Old City, Shanghai.
Despite the warmth and friendliness of every individual we encountered, Chinese culture seemed sometimes impenetrable, as though behind closed doors existed the world I wanted to understand but couldn’t hope to in a fleeting time...
In Shanghai I caught some glimpses behind those doors. Amazing that in a city of 19 million people it was possible to see everywhere the expressions of personal lives.
People burning incense at the Jade Buddha Temple (top) and City God Temple (below). In Chinese Taoist and Buddhist temples, worshippers light and burn sticks of incense which they raise above the head while bowing to statues of a deity or an ancestor, then place them in a censer in front of the statue.
One of the 70 + resident monks at the Jade Buddha Temple.
The Reclining Buddha, carved in whole white jade, represents Buddha’s death; his pose is called the ‘lucky repose’ and his face shows his peaceful mood as he left this world. I found this an interesting contrast with Christianity's suffering Christ in death.
Parks in Shanghai, like temples, are places of peace and sanctuary in this massively populous city.
Yu Gardens in the Old City. In the centre of a lake here is a pavilion housing the Huxinting Tea House where we experienced the elaborate and contemplative ritual of a Chinese tea ceremony, below.
In Fuxing Park, in the French Concession, designed (unlike Yu Gardens above) in the French style with lakes, fountains, pavilions and flowerbeds, people practice t'ai chi, as these two ladies below ...
or chat and play cards ...
... and walking around this park you hear the sounds of music everywhere, as people come here to practice ballroom dancing, operatic singing, or to meet their teachers for lessons on an instrument.
Man having a lesson on the mouth organ from his teacher on the right
Street scenes in Shanghai seem to reflect unique blends of traditional and modern ways of life ...
Fruit seller (above) and scrap merchant (below) near Zhongshan Road
Women cycling along one of the wide, tree-lined roads of the former French Concession
Petite, pretty girls chat outside a curio shop in West Shanghai
Street food vendor with members of his family
What are Shanghai motorcycle boy's dreams?
Check out the trailer here for 'Shanghai Dreams', Xiaoshuai Wang's (2005) film about a family relocated in the 1960s to a small industrial town, while the father dreams of Shanghai as the future for his children.
The Bund (below) - the famous stretch of historical buildings lining the Huangpu River - has seen some turbulent history. Its architecture reflects the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Shanghai was controlled by foreign powers. These were the banking headquarters and consulates for Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Japan and the USA.
In 1937, after Japan’s invasion of China, hundreds of Chinese prisoners of war were marched down to the Bund and slaughtered on the river bank.
The Bund at night. Its name comes from a Hindi word meaning ‘embankment’. A little upstream from where I took this picture is the place called ‘Three Waters Mingle Together’ – where the Huangpu river, the East China Sea and the Yangtze river meet.
The picture above seems to symbolise the next phase of China's history. One of the most interesting things we did in Shanghai was to visit the museum of the Chinese Communist Party, in the former French Concession, where you can see documented (in English) Mao’s early struggle to rid China of foreign imperialism.
The museum includes this waxwork recreation of the first meeting, held in secret on this site on July 23, 1921, of the first national congress of the Communist Party of China, marking the birth of the Party. A young Mao Zedong, standing, leads the meeting.
Bo Caldwell's wonderful book Distant Land of My Father captures all of this history in her story of her father's journey from expedient and shady foreign entrepreneur in Shanghai of the 1930s to torture by the Japanese and imprisonment under Chinese communist rule. Her opening lines might inspire you to read on:
“Shanghai, June 1937, the air hot and muggy. My father stood on the verandah of our home, a villa on Hungjao Road in the western suburbs outside of the International Settlement. His back was to me as he looked out at the expanse of lawn that to me, at six, seemed vast as an ocean. He faced east, towards the Bund and the Whangpoo River, and I thought I smelled the river’s familiar sharpness, a grimy mix of factory smoke and seaweed and fish, though the Whangpoo was some ten miles away.”
Faces of China, old and young ...