Monday, August 9, 2010

Shanghai: Day 7

Dragons at Yu Yuan Garden
Our final full day in Shanghai was dedicated to a walking tour. We had a few destinations in mind but were mostly hoping to wander the streets as photographers and detectives. The morning began with a visit to Yu Yuan Garden and the nearby Old Town district. Getting there took us through a complex, maddening maze of stalls and shops, and plenty of determined hawkers intent on selling "genuine" Rolexes. Our maps generally steered us to our destination, but we frequently had to take a guesses to interpret directional signs. Whenever we doubted, we just remembered the advice a cop told us the night before: "Follow the People." Where there are crowds, there's something worth seeing, we figured.

Jenny at Yu Yuan Garden
The sixteenth century Yu Yuan Garden is a lovely and comparatively peaceful respite from Shanghai's heat and crowds. Even so, I found myself regretting my ignorance of Chinese cultural references (yet again). In places like this virtually everything represents something deeper than what can be read on the surface. The curve of stone, the color of tile, the sweep of calligraphy, even more than their literal "meanings," these signs convey historical narrative and philosophical truth, if only you can read them. Lacking the cultural lenses to interpret this place, we contented ourselves with a limited focus on aesthetics: watching carp jostle for pieces of bread near the zigzag bridge, following the undulations of dragons set atop stone walls, and stopping to pet cats lounging languidly in dark corners.

Chinese theater
After our garden tour we returned to the jumble of sights and sounds in the market outside, gobbling up Nanxiang dumplings and watching children gaze upon puppet shows through slots in a curved wooden theater. Thereafter we headed away from the touristy section of Old Town, passing through its nouveau-ancient pagodas to the streetside shops outside. For hours we crawled aimlessly alongside cooking stalls the size of closets and shops selling an impossibly random assortment of junk and treasure.

Low tech Shanghai
As we drifted away from Feng Bang Street, where Jenny was entranced by every shopping opportunity, Shanghai seemed to shrink. We saw shacks stuffed with car parts, cots where old men slept with damp towels over the heads, and seedy-looking guys locked in whispered negotiations over official looking documents. As the streets grew ever more narrow I half expected to wind up in someone's bedroom. In a place like this, toting a bag of souvenirs and seeing the world through a camera lens, tourism becomes voyeurism.

Walking down one cramped corridor I saw a sleeping baby getting his hair shaved. Nestled in his mother's arms, the infant was enjoying some relief from the heat. Nearby a fellow was urinating against a wall. I thought about snapping pictures. Shame stopped me. Here, where public and private blur, melting into each other, the alleys of Shanghai aren't just passageways; sometimes they are homes.

Inside out in Shanghai
A block or so away, cops surrounded two guys locked in a bitter dispute. A crowd had gathered. Chuckles and curses, shouts and applause: the drama was well under way. One fellow had clearly cheated the other, and the victim demanded justice, gripping the first fellow's arm tightly. The officers were trying to resolve things; it was too hot for violence. Everyone knew how this story would end. The accuser would release his grip, the scofflaw would stop his pathetic appeals, and the cops would soon depart. Pretty much everyone looked like they could use a nap.

Haibaos wait for better days
Further down the road, near a skewer of limping blow-up Haibao dolls smiling those crazy blue smiles, I stopped at a shop selling Chinese comics from the 70s. I was drawn to a couple that depicted young kids becoming soldiers and sailors, scenes of resolute youth discovering the joys of patriotic duty. Other comics conveyed pedestrian themes, sometimes trying to show life in the USA. The guy at the booth knew that I had money. He strummed a guitar while I rummaged through his stuff, his tune a gentle rhythm to my shopping.

The revolution is for sale
At the Dongtai Lu Antiques Market, we searched for Mao memorabilia. I felt especially street savvy at this point. But despite my reminders to Jenny that she should avoid getting taken by sellers who saw us as rubes, I was thoroughly bested in my negotiations by a young woman selling Cultural Revolution-era collectables. Oh sure, I summoned a courteous but righteous contempt for her initial offer, a price tapped out on a calculator. But I lacked the toughness to talk her further down. She smiled sweetly while she wrapped up my purchases. Jenny earned a lusty laugh at my expense.

"One day, American tourists will overpay for this book!"
At least we'd gotten somewhat adept at crossing Shanghai's busy streets. We learned to keep a close eye on racing taxies and barreling buses that careened through red lights, remembering also to listen for the almost inaudible buzz of bikes and mopeds racing past us. Finally, after hours of walking, we returned to our hotel and surveyed the condition of our clothes - the ones we laid out in a room lacking even the most rudimentary ventilation. They were almost dry.

Our last evening in Shanghai included a final stroll down Nanjing. We were determined to see those neon lights. Over the past two nights we discovered that many of them shut down by 10 p.m. This time we arrived early enough to catch the blinking show above the pedestrian walkway. The glowing signs were worth the wait, for me at least. Jenny preferred to watch an outdoor performance, so I began to ply the roads away from the main thoroughfare in search of hidden neon art treaures.

Some of the sidewalks were sloshy with foaming soap, a small gesture against the occasionally rancid odors of piss on the street curbs. I felt safe enough, yet I kept an increasingly vigilant focus as I passed dark alleys. An hour later I noticed that the music from the downtown performance had stopped echoing through the streets. Jenny was alone. Was she OK? I ran back to find that my wife had become popular during my neon odyssey. A number of young people had joined her, some hoping to snap photos, others wanting to practice their English with a westerner. She loved the attention. Our feet swollen and sore from the day's travels, we returned cheerfully to our hotel.

Day 6 | Day 8

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