Sunday, November 22, 2009

The other side of the river

The day we decided to go to the Pudong side of the river the temperature dropped over night from a relatively comfortable 27 degrees (and a lot less humidity than we are used to at home) to a bone chilling but thankfully sunny 12 degrees. We had come partially perpared with a thermal top each and sweatshirts but not jackets as we were expecting a rather less crippling, but still cold when you are used to year around 30+, 20 degrees so we layered up and took off at a stiff arms-folded-against-the-building-breeze pace towards the metro station at People's Park. A couple of stops later we popped out of the underground station tunnel onto a massive multi lane, multi road intersection directly opposite one of the most recognisable buildings in Shanghai, the pink 468 meter high Oriental Pearl Tower.

Crossing the road towards the tower to peppy rounded Boyband pop which was kind of appropriate considering the design of the building is based on a verse of a poem by Bai Juyi, penned during the Tang Dynasty. 'Pipa Xing' -Pipa Play- describes a chance encounter with a female pipa player on the Yangtze River.

The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.

Following the road towards the river we ended up on a wide boardwalk butted up against the grey wind churned water of the Huangpu with the most incredible view of the endless contemporary science fiction shapes of Shanghai's skyline...

...which like the Imperial planet Coruscant becomes a 'blaze of light and sparkling colours' after night fall complete with violent red sunsets and daytime smokey haze.

(Actually for Star Wars fans I imagine many of Coruscant's descriptions could be used to describe Shanghai- 'a world with enough diversions for just about anyone'...'the long-overdue fall of the corrupt Old Republic, and the sweeping introduction of the Emperor's resplendent New Order'...and 'The recorded history of Coruscant stretches back so far that it becomes indistinguishable from legend…' )

After a necessary hour or so stocking up on jeans etc at the nearby Super Brand Mall we headed back past the tower to the Aquarium... ride the longest sightseeing underwater tunnel in the world...

...and of course see some really big fish, some really rare aquatic animals and some ugly cute sea creatures...

...oh and the sharks, crocs and turtles too.

When we were done it was dark and much colder than when we went in. Time to head back and find some dinner and a warm blanket to snuggle under.

(We finally got some stable electricity so I uploaded photos like a fiend!)

Monday, November 9, 2009

A museum well worth seeing

The Shanghai museum, on the South side of People's Square, is hard to miss. Designed by a Chinese architect it is supposed to resemble an ancient 'ding', a bronze cooking pot either round or square on three or four short chubby legs, used throughout Chinese ancient history often for sacrificial offerings and buried with its owner as a spiritual utensil.

The number of 'ding' in a tomb can be considered an indication of the rank or importance of the inhabitant. The specific 'ding' the museum was designed after is inside one of the museums ten galleries.

Outside the building appears square at the bottom with a circular open top. Inside this translates to a huge three storey high central atrium topped by a large round skylight with the galleries, arranged by theme rather than dynasty, on mezzanine floors facing inward.

We wandered the darkened sculpture room first inspecting the old, the very old and the almost unimaginably old (or about 475 B.C.E to 1644 C.E for those needing a bit more accuracy)...wood

...bronze and stone...the quirky, the serious and the downright sour...then the ancient Bronze galleries collection of 400 odd vessels (18th to the 3rd centuries B.C.E) including THE three legged 'ding'. Most things were labelled in both Chinese and English with general information on larger wall plaques,, also in both scripts, and on the left of each gallery entrance there is even more information in takeaway leaflet form should you need it. We picked one up at each gallery we explored but ended up recycling most back to their piles after walking around.

We raced through the ceramics gallery stopping to linger longer at the few bits that stood out from the rest of the largely bowls and plates then after a brief team discussion headed to thGallery of Calligraphy. Often described as the 'art' of writing, Chinese calligraphy is, truely, an art. Not only does it perform the practical task of communicating in recognisable symbols, in a similar way as our romanised characters do, but it's form also conveys the character, emotion, culture and even moral integrity of the artist to the reader and has the power to provoke feeling in the viewer the same way a painting might. Created about 4500 years ago Chinese written communication, in pictorial form, evolved from a much more simple set of rather more recognisable figures to the sophisticated medium it is today.

Here's an example of running characters

The final room we saw was the Seal Gallery. I had no idea there were so many shapes, sizes and roles of seals. Seals have been and are still used as official and private identification monikers but did you know that they are magic too? According to one tale, a yellow dragon gave the first seal to the Yellow Emperor during the Han Dynasty. Another story claims it was a phoenix who gave it to Emperor Yao. It is said that he who possess the seal has the Mandate of Heaven and as such the right to rule the empire. In Taoism seals can be used to stamp a protective circle or line that wild animals can not cross (did anyone see the Spiderwick Chronicles?).

Private seals are unregulated in size, material and shape so can be pretty different. The seals above look more like game pieces from a monopoly set than signature stamps. Some of these, called 'leisure seals', can include a short quote or inscription that the owner finds meaningful a bit like the modern day use of imbedded quotes at the bottom of a persons email.

I love the press printing effect and have spent many hours carving and turning the wheel on an old printing press at the art centre in Apia working in positives and negatives, knowing just how much to slick the roller and reworking the tension to get the perfect image. The balance and line of the resulting images of the various seals are delicate and beautiful. What a great way to leave your mark.

This last one is a whole story complete with picture like a tribal tattoo that has been passed down from generation to generation added to as the family history grows in years and experience forever etched in stone.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

An ancient garden and a bit of calm

Tranquil YuYuan Garden- which since 'yuan' means garden literally translates to Yu Garden Garden- is right smack bang in the middle of one of the busiest tourist areas in Shanghai. NanShi or 'Old City', a renovated-in-traditional-style shopping street, was once inside the walled part of Old Shanghai and is still surrounded by non renovated alleyways and lanes where we found some fabulous street food.

The 5 acres of garden have a traditional Chinese feel with rockery, pavillions, doorways and gates and koi ponds. It was created more than 400 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty, as a filial present from a son to his high ranking father. It apparently took Pan Yunduan twenty years and all his life savings to build. The guide books don't say whether his father was pleased after he died it became neglected and fell into disrepair until the mid 18th century when it was bought by merchants. During the Opium Wars in the mid 19th century the British army occupied the area and it was used again during the mid 20th century by Japanese Imperial troops none of whom were particularly respectful of the beauty they were residing in. Twenty years later the Shanghai government restored it to its former glory and reopened it to the public and in 1982 declared it a national monument.

We wandered through the delightfully named gardens and pavillions; Ten Thousand Flower Tower, Hall of Observing in Quietness, Tower of Happiness and watched a pink silk clad all girl orchestra on the balcony of one of the pavillions playing traditional blue and white china, string and percussion instruments.

We ducked through asymetrical doorways (an important Feng Shui principle) of various shapes guarded by Ming stone lions, followed paths over arched bridges and past pagodas their roofs inhabited by tiny protective mythical stone creatures and old Chinese men with long moustaches and thin beards and hung with red tasseled lanterns. The vistas have been carefully created to invoke a feeling of peace and stillness which the garden retains even as a major (read: heavily populated by clumps of flag led tour groups) tourist attraction.

Looking for the famed Nine Cornered Zig Zag bridge we ended up back at the beginning and realised that the bridge was actually outside the walls of the garden in the middle of the melaee of Old Street mall.

Not far away is Chengxian Ge Temple a Buddhist nunnery built in 1600 and another oasis in the middle of Shanghai's tourist district.

Like YuYuan Garden, Chengxian was built by Pan Yunduan, this time to honour his mother and it too was all but destroyed during the cultural revolution even housing a factory for a time. In 1989 restoration began and it is now not only one of Shnaghai's many temple tourist attractions but an important functioning nunnery.

Next was a Daiost Temple, The White Cloud Temple or Xuanmiaoguan, near the former western gate of Shnghai's old city wall. The two story complex is built in a square around a wide square courtyard, rooms facing inwards edged with carved balconies.

This golden god was at the front door complete with a gesture I'm guessing doesn't mean the same in China as it does to a Kiwi (look at his left hand).

Daoism is more a philosophy than a religion. The concept of 'dao', generally defined as the right or morally correct way to behave, is common in many Eastern religions. In Daoism the concept is more broad, complex and inclusive and the dao becomes a force on it's own. Life and death are viewed as stages of 'Absolute Dao', in a cycle similar to that of Buddhism and Hinduism, in a way of life that seeks to bring followers closer to conformity with nature and natural order. It's 'laws' and community order come from Confucianism. When blended with Buddhism Daoism becomes Zen which wasn't surprising because the whole temple complex was simple, open, uncluttered and calm.

We spent a while wandering the balconies and sitting in the sun in the courtyard as the blue clad monks went quietly about their business around us.

And then it was time to brave the crowds again in search of some sustenance to get us through the afternoon.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Potted, stuffed and a bit dusty

We followed the signs to an unobtrusive front door, bought tickets, 5RMB, from the hole in the wall, climbed the steps and pushed through the heavy double glass and wood front doors. The lobby was reminiscent of the 20's with a mosaic tile floor and grimy stained glass windows. The former cotton exchange, still carries echoes it's previous inhabitants with drapped silk and fox furs crossing into the grand atrium with it's domed glass ceiling and moulded architraves. It's current collection of stuffed, ripened and potted specimens, largely donated by the British Museum in the mid 1950's sits gathering dust in grimy cabinets along peeling walls tagged with bilingual (Chinese and Latin) labels typed on an old manual typewriter.

The most exciting bit, the raison d'etre, is back downstairs in the huge atrium where a complete, four storey tall, 145-150 million year old dinosaur skeleton stands it's head tucked into the corner of the dome. The Mamenchisaurus (which looks like a brontosaurus to me)was discovered in 1952 on a highway construction site in Sichuan, China and named after the place it was found.
Beside the giant, sharing it's stage, are two more Chinese dinos; the 12 foot tall herb eating Tsintaosaurus with characteristic duck bill snout is posed reared up on back legs and the lumbering Tuojiangosaurus also from Sichuan with it's fiercesome spiked tail.

And as if thats not enough beside the dinosaurs, on its own plinth is a Yellow River Woolly skeleton, Manfred from Ice Age, the ancient elephant- in fact the mammoth is more closely related to the Asian than the African elephant.
Just around the corner in a red walled alcove are two Ming Dynasty mummies unearthed during the construction of Dapu Lu (road).

So even though the signs sounds apologetic:

"As we are limited by time, ability, and financial capacity, the exhibition might have many shortcomings. Therefore we will be very grateful to those who can give us good opintons."

...we felt like we'd hit the jackpot!

A little bit of history

New Zealand history dates back about 700 years.

Chinese history dates back to 400 000BCE.

When the first Polynesians were making their way towards Aotearoa the Chinese had already been making silk for nearly 5 thousand years, they had fought numerous battles, been ruled by Monarchy, Dynasty, Kingdoms and Emperors, had been using paper currency since 800BCE, invented fireworks, gunpowder, the flame thrower, the wheelbarrow, parachutes, the rudder and compass and been planting in rows all well before the Current Era began. And they had been keeping records for at least three thousand years.

For a Chinese city Shanghai is relatively new it's history spans just eight Dynasties. From a sleepy town of a few thousand families Shanghai grew to 250000 after cementing itself as a cotton and textile manufacturing centre in the 13th century and grew exponentially again during the Qing Dynasty as the British forced a concession after the Opium Wars and trade routes with the West formed up the Yangtze river. By the early 19th century Shanghai had a robust expat population of traders, bankers and real estate investors and an infamous reputation as an exotic 'port of call'. World War II saw Shanghai fall into Japanese hands, it's foreigners left en masse and stayed away even after the war as China became a communist state and firmly closed it's doors for nearly thirty years. Today Shanghai is again a modern cosmopolitan city, the second largest in China after Chongqing.

The city centre is divided into two by the Huangpu River and usually you can stroll along both shores to admire the skyline on each side.

A stroll along The Bund, on the historical side, would typically afford great views of Pudong, the commercial centre on the other side of the murky waters, and a more close up look at the line up of some of Shanghai's most beautiful buildings that once housed banks and trading across the road. I say usually because The Bund is currently undergoing renovation and encircled by a 6 foot tall fence but should be back to its promenading glory early next year just in time for Expo 2010. We walked all the way down Nanjing Road, Shanghai's shopping street, until we hit Zongshan Road, which boarders The Bund, then continued right, down the building side. Fifty-two buildings (minus number four of course) range in architectural styles from gothic to baroque, romanesque to renaissance. Apparently Shanghai has one of the richest art deco collections in the world.

Just south of The Bund lies the remnants of Shanghai's old city wall. In 1553, during the Ming Dynasty, the city of Shanghai constructed a city wall, nearly 5 km around, to protect itself against Japanese pirates. Today just 50 meters is all that is left dating back to the Qing Dynasty and bears the names of Emperors Xianfeng (1851-61) and Tongzhi (1862-74).

The Dajing Ge Pavilion, one of the 30 original towers has not long been rebuilt. For 5 RMB each you can explore. There is a photographic exhibit on life in the old Chinese city and a model in a glass case. The four characters on the piece of the wall of Dajing Ge, a Guan Yu temple, above, translate as 'To keep the faith for thousands of years.' Guan Yu is the Taoist God of War, a Chinese Military General, a hero in ancient China.

There are also shrines to gods inside the temple pavillion but I couldnt find anything about them.

(I've finally worked out I can't upload pictures onto Blogger from home due to the intermittent speed of our electricity at the moment so these are back dated posts I am posting as I add pics using J's work computer.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A lost nights sleep and a fast train

The flight from Phnom Penh to Shanghai was at the inhospitable time of 11.45pm and our plane was delayed another hour and a half. We waited in the terminal, eye lids propped open with toothpicks and caffiene, trying to recall how we had so nochalantly taken midnight flights in and out of Samoa a few years ago. The darkness unhelpfully closed in as the duty free shops switched off their lights, slowly pulled their roller doors down and the queue at the gate grew hopefully longer. Eventually the flight was called and people shuffled towards their polyester clad seats, pulled their blue polarfleece blankets towards their chins and determinedly squeezed their eyes shut. We managed to stay that way, dozing fitfully through the 4 hour flight despite food being served shortly after take off.

Shanghai airport is a massive, shiny hangerlike building with all the mod cons including Singapore clean toilets, fast moving customs queues and uneventful speedy baggage collection. The delay meant we were able to ride the maglev, short for magnetic levitation, which has since January 2004 provided a fast way of getting from the airport to Shanghai's Longyang metro station Pudong . A very fast way. The maglev, with a top speed of 431km an hour makes the 30km trip in about 8 minutes.

For reasons I haven't been able to uncover the train's speed varies depending on time of day and at about 6-30am, one of its first runs, it maxed out at only 301km hour but on our way back 6 days later (at 4-30) we hit 431. We transfered from the maglev's spacious comfort to the Shanghai metro line 2 at rush hour and standing room only. By 8am we were spread out over a comfy chair each in a 15th floor 2 bedroom apartment at New Harbour Serviced Apartments five minutes walk from People's Square downtown Shanghai, ready for a couple of hours catch up kip before exploring our new city.

Driven out by hunger and still a little foggy we made our way back towards the huge park that is People Square and a Starbucks we had spotted earlier. Fortified by coffee and scone we headed back across the road and into the park.

Peoples Square is as it name suggests is a large public square in the Huangpu district of Shanghai, the same area as the infamous pedestrian street, Nanjing Road-'Bag, watch, DVD?' Before communism, and the subsequent outlawing of horse racing and associated gambling, part of the park was The Shanghai Racecourse. The park now includes some pretty architecturally distinct buildings; The Shanghai Grand Theatre, The Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and The Shanghai Museum, where we thought we'd head to next.

The museum, which used to be housed in an office building somewhere nearby, is designed in the shape of a 'ding', a bronze carved bowl which sits on four stout legs used in times gone by for cooking. More specifically the 'Da Ke Ding' which you can see inside. It has a solid square base and round open top which symbolises the Chinese, 'round sky, square earth'. The museum is currently free after a recent Chinese government edict to make some of Shanghai's museums and galleries more accessible to it's people. Eleven galleries and three exhibition halls over three (or four I can't remember now) floors hold ancient bronze works, cjade, eramics, beautiful historic examples of calligraphy, fabulous ancient sculpture and a whole gallery full of seals. We wandered through the galleries until our previous nights lack of sleep began to steer us back to the apartment.

(I have loads of picture I have spent the last week or so trying to upload with very sporadic success. Hopefully I can figure out whats going on and add some more at a later date)