Compared with other Chinese cities, Shanghai is relatively young. Before the nineteenth century, it was mainly a small fishing village, and after the First Opium War of 1842 with the influx of Western commerce, Shanghai became a cosmopolitan center, reaching its pre-communist heyday in the 1920s-1930s. However, what the old city lacks in “cosmopolitan sophistication” it more than makes up for in cultural charm and architectural intrigue. Today, King PITA took a much needed friendly stroll back in time, to Nanshi (Old Town) and a 16th century Ming Dynasty style rock garden called Yu Yuan (Garden of Peace and Comfort).
A Chinese colleague who teaches in the Communication Arts program at the Nanjing campus was kind enough to take time out of her hectic week to take me around Nanshi. She is from Shanghai, and after a fifteen-year sojourn in America, she is pleased to be back in her home town and to reconnect with her familial and cultural roots. She is in the process of finding a new apartment and moving in before the semester begins (in less than a week), so she is clearly extremely busy, and I was grateful that she took the afternoon off from her apartment search to stroll with me. Over lunch in a charming restaurant in the heart of Old Town, she shared some funny real estate agent stories (apparently, another human universal). I was curious, though, why she was securing an apartment in Shanghai, two hours by bullet train from the Nanjing campus, when faculty apartments are supplied on campus. In answer to this quite logical question, she relayed some fascinating details about living in Nanjing that, somehow, nobody told me…. Being that she grew up in Shanghai and has lived in New York City, she is quite used to cosmopolitan life. Nanjing is nothing of that sort. OK, fair enough; this I knew. There is a TV in the apartment, but no cable connection; that is, the TV makes a great modernist artwork and serves as decoration only. That doesn’t bother me, really, since I wouldn’t understand the Chinese programming anyway. (However, I have surfed the channels at my hotel, and there are some really amusing sitcoms, old kung fu movies, and what appear to be rather melodramatic soap operas.)
So far so good. The other main problem is that if you are not careful, you will “run out of electricity.” Excuse me? How does one run out of electricity? Well, quite simple. The local communist municipality doles out electricity in prepaid packets. It’s a lot like purchasing a cell phone with a set amount of minutes, only with the electricity, you don’t know how many kilowatt hours you have. “Is there a meter in the room to let you know?” I asked. “Sure,” she said, “but you don’t know how much you have and when you will run out.” For example, the hot water heater uses electricity, not gas, so you have to turn it on in the morning and turn it off when you finish your shower. If you forget to turn it off, the meter is running, and before you know it, you are out of electricity and CLICK all the power shuts off in your apartment. This happened to her a few times, and it took what seemed an act of the People’s Congress to get her more power. So, this semester, she is planning to train in to campus, teach a few days in a row, and then train back to Shanghai and live in the comfort of undisturbed electrical service. Nice. I’ve learned that there will be a vacant apartment on campus across from mine. Being an enterprising King PITA, I will secure access to that apartment as well, so if in the middle of living I use up my allotment of electricity, I’ll scurry across the hall and wait until I get more juice.
After laughing about some of her experiences and discussing the students in Nanjing, we set out walking around Old Town in search of Yu Yuan. Old Town is aptly named. It’s as if you’ve been transported back in time. Sure, you can hear the traffic noise of a modern city, and you can see the skyscrapers of Shanghai looming all around, but the atmosphere is completely different. Some of you have remarked that you were surprised at how Western Shanghai looks; well, that is downtown and Pudong. If you are looking for that exotic (for the Westerner) scene, you’ll find it in Old Town. I was still a target, even though I was walking with my Chinese colleague. The merchants and hucksters just ignored her and pressed me. She just laughed and told me to ignore them and move away quickly. (In the taxi ride over, I shared with her some of the scams I encountered, and she had not heard of them. I guess she wouldn’t, since she is Chinese and they don’t try to scam locals….) I really can’t describe Old Town in words. OK, I could, but it would not do it justice. Please check out the photo album, and I think you, too, will be deeply moved and transported.
We eventually wandered our way to Yu Yuan. Since the Chinese New Year festivities are still in full swing, the streets are decked with celebratory lanterns and lights, and in front of the Gardens is a colorful display of mythological and folkloric Chinese scenes, floating on a small pond. Though hundreds of tourists from all over China (and the world) are here for the New Year, the Garden still presented a relaxing locale for quiet reflection, people watching, and creative photography. The Garden has a classical Ming Dynasty design, and is a maze of different courtyards, rock gardens, bridges, and pavilions. Again, descriptive words do not do it justice. Please enjoy a sampling in the photo album.
Click to view the photo album (scroll down to “Old Town Shanghai). Enjoy!