Wednesday, May 8, 2013

China 2013 Part VII: In Shanghai, A Piece of Paris

Attention: Lovers of Culture, and also, but to a lesser extent, architecture buffs and people watchers. And might as well include the folks who feel suffocated by Pudong's overreaching steel-and-concrete denizens or blinded by The Bund's glorious but overexposed restoration.

In Shanghai, skip those who sit atop (almost) every guide book's amateurish instructional lists. Head straight to where the French once baked macarons, supped over bisque and foie gras, and reveled in the awesomeness of cheese-infested air.

To step foot on Shanghai's French Concession is to be transported to a different land - no, a different time altogether. Look at the roofs, the walls splashed red, and the angular buildings all asserting their Western origins. Down an alleyway guarded by balconies (like come on, what is this? Shakespeare?), sit outside a cafe housed in preserved shikumen, or stone gate, houses. Keep still and just... feel.

We're talking the center of Shanghainese Catholicism. This one greeted us "peace" upon exiting the train station.

We're also talking about residences that, put anywhere else in China, would probably attract the curious. Maybe not. But houses with open gates and open front doors - you can be certain they're destined attention-seekers.

And don't we all love chimneys? At least, when they're not out spewing noxious stuff.

One of our online consults yielded an itinerary that placed Fuxing Park as a starting point. Witness nature-loving, stranger-welcoming locals strut their stuff - mahjong games, choir practices, taichi demonstrations. They'll deliver arias to the world, or simply bend a brittle joint when and where they feel like it.

This is not Central Park - that would be Century Park in Pudong, if size were the basis. But Fuxing provides a nice playground for a round or two of "Spot the Terence!"

Now about that stone table in the photo below: Remember when Gimli tried to slice the One Ring with his dimwitted axe, and a magical force field hurled him backwards? The dwarf actually took an Air New Zealand flight to Pudong and tried it again (and we wonder how).

Speaking of Tolkien-dom, a few minutes' walk from Fuxing Park is a mall, and in the mall is a shop that sells this:

Not exactly a LOTR shrine, but a humble movie fan shop, though they don't have the Pale King yet. (That, I asked one of their salesmen, who are all well-versed with these mystical things they sell). (Reference: The Pale King is the half-baked-looking head orc in the recent Hobbit movie). 

If you've yet to see Rust and Bone, watch it now: Le Cotillard's marvelous in it. Then again, she's marvelous in every reel of film she appears in. And that autographed photo of hers is one of the many delights that populate Xintiandi, literally "New Heaven and Earth."

Sometime in the map of the past, someone thought it would be cool if one day, rotting shikumen houses could find new life as uteri housing Starbucks and Coffee Beans. Hence, the birth of this visionary upscale neighborhood that calls to mind the Philippines' very own The Fort (or High Street plus Serendra, to be exact), only smaller and with fewer dogs.  

Maybe it's just me, but for some reason, above photo has "Frankfurt" smeared all over it. Below photo, on the other hand, is the portrait of the shikumen house as a... museum, I think.

But red leaves in spring and corridors flanked by brick walls? Irresistible.

And next, Shanghai says hello to all Harry Potter fans. (Hi!) Welcome to the Chinese gateway to the English Ministry of Magic. This is floo powder by water.

Trust me, a day is far from enough to truly take in the French Concession, and our return on our last day proved just that. Through the kind reminder of a classmate, we dropped by Tianzifang, which, if you ask me, is just out to give Xintiandi some friendly rivalry.

But whereas Xintiandi is dressed to tackle the Oscars red carpet, Tianzifang is headed for a simple family dinner. The neighborhood's storied history is punctuated by its near-demolition and subsequent salvaging through no less than the hands of its own residents. Read about that, but suffice to say, this arts and crafts labyrinth is the product of pure love of home. 

So forget the Jinmao Mansion and the Shanghai World Financial Center, Nanjing Road and The Bund, Shanghai Aquarium and whatnot museum. Get a coffee, a newspaper, a friend. There's lots of that here.

Here in the French Concession, where Shanghai feels most foreign, the authenticity runs high. Au Revoir!

PREVIOUS: China 2013 Part VI: Suzhou in Slices
NEXT: China 2013 Part VIII: At Cannon Bay

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