It’s Always Shanghai Season

In the city of colossal towers and cultural contrast, a writer builds a temporary home.  
Shanghai
The Chinese New Year celebration witnesses one of the largest annual human migrations in the world. This time, Shanghai's celebration of the Year of the Dog was as colourful and carnivalesque as it gets. Photo by: atiger/shutterstock

I came to Shanghai in late January 2018 to join my partner who had a year-long fellowship at one of the universities in the city. I would spend six months—a timeline that ensured I did not have to stick to a mad-dash itinerary, but adopt a quick enough pace to absorb and assimilate as much of the fantastic new culture that awaited at my doorstep.

If Beijing weighs you down with history, Shanghai uplifts you with its futuristic towers and bright lights. But a longer stay tells you it is also a city of changing seasons, each creating enough spectacle until the next one. A few days after I reached Shanghai, what started as a soft flake shower gathered into a snowstorm transforming the city into a twinkly winter paradise; rust-yellow rooves of gazebos and temples that point heavenwards at the corners had turned pristine white. By March, the snow melted without a trace in our imagination as the cityscape, especially huge garden spaces like Gucun Park and Shanghai Botanical Garden, transitioned from rows of dry silhouette-like trees to create canopies of cherry, peach and plum blossoms. The rains washed off the heady smell of the fruity flowers within a couple of weeks; the leafy phoenix trees which line the French Concession avenues of Shanghai, the regal magnolias, the tall-stemmed lotuses in the ponds and rivers that appear with the rains and keep beat with the shrilly crickets were going to see us through summer. Although one does not visit Shanghai to witness nature, it offers a beautiful backdrop to experience the rest of the city.

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In addition to the cultural relics it holds, the traditional architectural style of the Jade Buddha Temple. Photo by: Grant Faint/ Photolibrary/Getty Images

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Tai chi is a martial art form practised both for defence and to inculcate mindfulness. Photo by: Keren Su/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

 

One of my first memories of Shanghai is of people walking around the streets with suitcases. The phenomenon is called chunyun, Spring Festival travel. During this time, one of the most populated cities in the world sees its migrant workers return to their hometowns and villages to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The month around this lunar festival—this year it was on February 16—witnesses one of the largest annual human migrations in the world and is considered to be the worst time to travel around China because of overflowing traffic, especially road and rail. Serpentine queues outside the otherwise orderly and large railways stations, entire families—with their luggage—travelling long distances on two wheelers are common sights during this period.

But it is one of the better times to experience Shanghai. The deserted streets lined with brightly lit lanterns, or huge statuesque ones—they commemorated the Year of the Dog this year—are a feast for the eyes and spectacular showcasing of Chinese aesthetics. The Yu Garden, an overtly traditional space with only Chinese architecture—Shanghai on a short visit will drastically fail to hold up any Chinatown stereotype, or Hollywood imagination of China—is the best place to experience the month-long Lantern Festival. Walking through the zigzag bridge over the lake (made so because it is believed that ghosts can only navigate straight pathways) with floating and hanging lanterns displaying ancient poems, and larger-than-life dragon boats on either side is a trip down fairyland.

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The Shanghainese witness a wide variety of flowers throughout the year. May-June bring in the lavender fields. Photo by: JOHANNES EISELE/afp/Getty Images

On the chilly night of February 15, my partner and I stood outside the Jade Buddha Temple, hoping to experience a Chinese midnight celebration. But we welcomed the new year braving a steady downpour in a long ticket queue; it was to be a couple of hours before our turn came to go in, way past midnight. But once inside, the fatigue and cold vanished as we looked on at the lively scene of hundreds of devotees seeking blessings for the coming year at that late/early hour. We too bent in prayer, lighting incense sticks and voicing our own hopes and fears in silent chants in the many halls containing Buddha statues, including two white jade Buddhas, one recumbent and the other sitting, both looking on benignly at the praying throng. Entering the temple past the regular opening hours (it shuts for tourists at 4.30 p.m.), in a space alit with myriad candles, their flames hazy in the smoke from cauldrons burning incense, was well worth our vigil.

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All the giant panda videos on social media meant that I found my way to the Shanghai Zoo soon after landing in the city. To see frolicking pandas is adorable but to watch them eat is therapeutic. One sat down and stuffed his face with leaves, stocks, everything, while the other lay on his back, carefully broke out the stocks from the main branch, held them in a neat bundle and then stuffed his face, almost rolling off the platform while at it. The food coma they went into after going through a mountain of bamboo shoot—one lay on his belly as if sunning himself at the beach and the other curled up as if in front of a fire—got us sleepy- eyed as well.

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There are about 10 ancient water towns near Shanghai, south of the Yangtze River, including Zhujiajiao, Zhouzhuang, Wuzhen, Tongli, Xitang and Nanxun. Qibao, 20 minutes by metro from downtown, is the closest and most easily accessible. Photo by: Feng Wei Photography/Moment Open/Getty images

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Nanjing Road is one of the world’s longest shopping streets and the pedestrianised East Nanjing Road is a good point to start one’s exploration of Shanghai. Photo by: thanat sasipatanapa/shutterstock

 

In a modern metropolis like Shanghai, one is constantly on the lookout for the traditional which often peeks out in public spaces during a casual saunter around town. At dusk, as the lights come on, ‘dancing grannies’ take over street squares in every neighbourhood in droves. Square dancing, popular among middle-aged and retired women, affectionately called dama, started as an exercise regime set to pop music to keep them healthy, and occupied. But with time millions of bopping dama have started participating in competitions, and neighbourhood groups now invest exorbitant sums in matching costumes, choreographers and sound systems, creating a booming industry. I have walked past many groups swaying to Bollywood numbers, maybe to add some foreign flavour and gain an edge over the competition.

Other public spaces, like the People’s Park in Haungpu district, a 25-acre green area dotted with lotus ponds, become hosting grounds for marriage markets on weekends. Marriages are negotiated over and fixed by parents of both genders who sit with umbrellas in front of them on which they pin their child’s vital information—age, occupation, income, educational back-ground—for other parents and matchmakers to inspect. It is discouraged to take photos, as I found out the hard way when a few hard pats fell on my back and continued till I put the camera away.

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The Jade Buddha Temple is one of Shanghai’s top attractions. Photo by: Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The meditative martial art form, tai chi, is also practised in Shanghai’s parks by the older generation with hypnotic grace. I found my way to a trial class in the city with a large expat population looking for a crash course to inculcate Chinese mindfulness. The instructor, with a good smattering of English, would come to me now and then, not to break the Zen-like trance created by the slow fluid movements, but to tell me a bit about the different forms the class was practicing that day. In one such form, she asked me to visualise a scene where my hands were to trace the movements of water as if rolling down one’s body. I was told that when I move my hands to the right I should stand on my right foot, and do the same for the other side. I nodded wisely and took on a stork-like posture. But even with my half-shut eyelids I could sense that nobody else in the class was on one leg. Taking this to be a beginner lesson I hopped from right leg to left leg with the grace of a sumo wrestler. The instructor let me continue for five minutes before she came and corrected herself—what she meant by standing on one leg was that I was to shift my body weight to that leg. Not enact a stork’s mating dance. A lot gets lost in translation in China.

Having a vegan partner ensured that some of the first Chinese words we had to learn apart from the usual greetings were names of vegetables. Dofu (tofu), mogu (mushroom), bo cai (spinach) were thrown about often without success because of the tonality of the Chinese language. Very few restaurants have English menus and the Chinese get very amused when they see us poring over paper menus or overhead boards with our phone cameras where an app throws up English translations of the items on the screen. Sometimes the literal translation can be quite an appetite killer; curiously, ‘belly hair’ comes up quite often. Shanghai has a vibrant street food scene; where translation apps fail, I find that the universal language of pointing out the food or ingredients I want always works. My favourite street corner snack, stacked in towering bamboo caskets, is the baozi, a steamed bun with pork or spinach-and-mushroom fillings. For a finer, but affordable dining experience, Shanghai also boasts of the world’s cheapest restaurant with two Michelin stars, Canton 8. The creative baked stuffed crab shell or the beautifully crispy bean curd rolls give you bragging rights without burning a hole in your pocket.

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On an average the giant panda consumes as much as 9 to 14 kilos of bamboo shoots a day. Photo by: Yusei/shutterstock

Every time friends and family visit Shanghai, I take them along my favourite route—a brisk walk down East Nanjing Pedestrian Road, one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. Las Vegas-like, with giant illuminated Chinese calligraphy, minus the casinos, it opens up to the Bund, the Huangpu riverfront. The dazzling Shanghai skyline, with its the colour-changing Oriental Pearl Tower, the quirky ‘bottle opener’ (Shanghai World Financial Centre), the ‘corkscrew’ (Shanghai Tower), and the stately Jinmao Tower with its pagoda-inspired top—they all hold your gaze awhile, and force you to look into the future even as you hop on to the ferry to cross over to the other side and glance at the British-era neoclassical buildings. We soon leave history behind, for another peek into the future up on the Lujiajui skywalk, watching the towers within touching distance. The process of assimilating with a new culture is gradual and it is presumptuous to even imagine oneself as an insider in a brief six-month period. But as I see the lights reflect off their eyes while they bend a little backwards to take in the gargantuan structures, mine sparkle with a tinge of borrowed pride.

Essentials

Getting There & Around

There are direct flights between Delhi and Shanghai; flights from Mumbai require at least one stop at a gateway city like Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Singapore. A single-entry, one-month tourist visa to China costs Rs3,900, and requires visitors to submit their itinerary, round-trip air tickets, and proof of hotel reservations, or provide an invitation letter.

Shanghai’s metro system is cheap and easy to use. Taxis are reasonably cheap and quite accurate, but drivers generally don’t know English, so do collect “name cards” from hotels, restaurants, bars, and people to show the driver your destination in Chinese print.

  • Paloma Dutta works as an editor in a publishing house for her bread, butter and bus ticket (more often than not to the mountains). Travel makes her believe in serendipity, essential kindness of the human heart and the power of Bollywood to build instant friendships anywhere in the world.

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