What to do when you’ve only 7 days in Shanghai..

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During the time we have been here in Shanghai, we have been blessed by many visitors, both close friends and family, who have come to us for periods of 4 to 7 days whilst travelling around China. On arrival in … Continue reading

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At last! A photo shoot with Wang Gangfeng..

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Ever since arriving in Shanghai 16 months ago I had been trying to get a much-coveted place on one of Wang Gangfeng photography walks. They are frequently advertised through the various ex-pat associations I have joined, but, whenever I applied … Continue reading

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Off with a bang… the Dragon enters!

Enter the Dragon...

Well, we survived the 15 days of celebrating and welcoming the new Year of the Dragon; and what fun it was!

Throughout it, we were blessed, along with the time off work for Anthony, with long chilly days of blue skies and sunshine, and the peace and quiet of an almost deserted city.

Anthony walking in a deserted street in the former French Concession

It started, as it must each year, with a bang, or should I say millions of bangs! We were at home, in our apartment in the centre of the city, on the eve of the new year when, at about 11pm, we realised we could no longer hear the film we were watching on television. By 11:45 we were dressed warmly in coats, hats and gloves, standing out on our balcony, thinking that what we were experiencing couldn’t possibly get any louder or brighter but, by midnight, we were in the midst of what could only be described as mayhem!

Everywhere, and I mean this in a literal sense, people were letting off fireworks and firecrackers. They were being set off in the streets, the squares, the parks, and on any open site, across the entire city, as far as the eye could see and the ear could hear. We stood on the balcony, our mouths open in awe and wonder, unable to hear each other’s shrieks of delight (or disbelief), and just watched and watched as millions of brightly coloured lights lit up the skies and loud bangs reverberated around the concrete jungle below us.

I don’t want to insult the people who have experienced war zones whilst under fire, but this must be the closest ‘peace-time’ equivalent. The noise was truly deafening. The video below was shot from the balcony of our apartment.

Eventually the views dimmed as a thick smog of cordite smoke gathered, and it became more difficult to breathe (or see what was going on) at balcony level, so at 12:45am we joined some other residents in our apartment who, having been banned from “playing fireworks” in the communal gardens, let off enormous boxes of rockets and long strings of firecrackers in the street next to our building. However, the main problem with the street fireworks was that there was no way to predict the projectile direction of the rockets and so the roadside of our building was hit by many of them that immediately exploded on impact.

In the midst of all this craziness, Anthony and I were amused to see a street cleaner patrolling up and down our street, sweeping up the debris left by the firecrackers and adding it to the empty firework boxes on his cart (according to City Weekend magazine, 970 tonnes of fireworks trash were collected in Shanghai after the first day of Chinese New Year).

Finally, at about 1:30am, the madness began to wane and we decided we just might be able to sleep so we took ourselves off to bed, our ears (mine already affected by tinnitus) ringing loudly and, apart from one interlude of about 2 minutes when some more huge rockets exploded nearby, we slept well, something we had been told would never happen!

I'm safe up here...

...so am I!

The next day dawned cold, bright and sunny and after brunch we decided to venture out, walking to the Old City, about 20 minutes away. The rest of Shanghai had exactly the same idea! We have never experienced such thick crowds of people; it was very claustrophobic, but all very friendly, and we were carried along in all directions with hundreds of others, children safely on shoulders being afforded the best views. At one stage we wanted to go straight over at an intersection but the crowd were all moving off to the left, so we had to tack our way across, like a yacht through a cross-wind!

On the Bridge of Nine Turnings - Yu Yuan

Most people were desperate to walk across the Bridge of Nine Turnings for luck but, after seeing the crush there, we decided to walk on, and 20 minutes later we were with a much smaller crowd on The Bund, admiring the views over the river to Pudong’s magnificent ultra-modern buildings.

Holiday crowds on The Bund

After a warming hot chocolate in the fabulously Art Deco Fairmont Peace Hotel (previously the Cathay Hotel, where Noel Coward apparently wrote “Private Lives” whilst languishing within with a bout of influenza) we hopped on the Metro and made our way back home.

On the next day, we were lucky enough to have an amusing two-hour lesson with our wonderful Chinese teacher, Rachel, but, instead of a simple Mandarin class, we learnt all about Chinese New Year, the days and their meanings.

Our wonderful Chinese (Mandarin) teacher - Rachel

In many ways, Chinese New Year is similar to the western celebration of Christmas and Thanksgiving; it is all about the reunion of families and hopes for the future, with a mixture of Buddhist/Taoist religion and thousands of years of tradition thrown in, with the emphasis on the whole family, both past and present.

Here are a few of the days with their explanations:

Day 1: Nian chu yi – ying jie tian di sheng ming – welcoming of the gods. At midnight, having already eaten a huge feast earlier in the day, jiaozi (small half-moon shaped dumplings filled with vegetables, minced pork and prawns) – or, in the south, a glutinous cake called niangao – are eaten as the fireworks and firecrackers are being set off to scare away the evil spirits. Many people close their house until the morning lest some of these spirits venture in! Incense – shang xiang – is burned and, in many public places, there are displays of dragon and lion dancing, the loud banging of the accompanying drums and the fierce faces of the animals both warding off evil spirits.

A display of Lion Dancing in the foyer of our apartment...

...and Dragon dancing in Xintiandi across the road...

...watched by this little fellow who was so excited!

Day 2: Nian chu er – a day of praying to ancestors, and a day when married daughters were traditionally allowed to visit their birth parents, relatives and close friends.

Evening of day 4 into day 5: Nian chu wu – welcoming in Guan Yu, the god of wealth. More feasts, more family gatherings and, although we couldn’t believe it was possible, more fireworks! The ‘display’ might not have lasted quite so long, but because this god has to be welcomed as loudly as possible, it was even louder than on the first night! And, on day 5 itself, every business that opened did so after letting off huge strings of firecrackers, so the day was a truly noisy one here in the heart of the city, despite many businesses being closed for the holiday!

...clearing up after Guan Yu had been welcomed!

Day 7: Renri – celebrating humankind on the common man’s birthday, the day when everyone grows one year older, and a day to feast on mian tiao – long noodles!

Day 9: Nian chu jiu – offerings to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang Da Di) – the supreme ruler of the heavens, hell and all mankind, and the highest ranking deity of the Taoist pantheon.

Day 15: Yuanxiaojie – Lantern Festival – rice dumplings (tangyuan), some filled with sesame paste, are eaten, and candles are lit outside houses, to guide the spirits home. Many families walk the street with lighted lanterns, gathering at rivers, ponds and lakes to let them drift away into the air. Sadly, on the night of Lantern Festival here, it was pouring with rain, and there was no sign of any celebrations taking place in our area; I hope that we will see this next year.

...does a dragon live here?

And so the Dragon year begins, with those born in the next 12 months deemed to be passionate, brave, innovative and enterprising, but also short-tempered and conceited. The dragon is the only mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac and thought to be the most auspicious to be born under. Consequently, the birthrate is expected to soar this year! If you are a ‘dragon’ you should wear something red throughout the year; many just wear a red string necklace hidden under their clothing, but the sale of red bras, underpants and boxer shorts go up in the weeks before the new year starts too!

The washing must be done...

...on closer inspection...!

Homes are filled with floral displays for the new year, and the Hongqiao Flower Market stayed open every day, the stalls frantically busy with the preparation of hundreds of displays and arrangements. One of the loveliest items on sale were blue and white china bowls filled with shuixian (Narcissus bulbs), flowers of prosperity, which flowered for weeks in our apartment. The street stalls were filled with baskets of fruit, and we happily munched our way through the sweetest of oranges, kiwi fruit and melon all week.

One of our many local fruit stalls

So, was it worth staying in Shanghai when all our friends and work colleagues were lying on the sun-drenched beaches of Thailand? You bet it was!

What fun!

Anyone fancy a visit here next year to witness this? The madness kicks off on February 10th, and we will be welcoming in the Year of the Snake!

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The last day of the rabbit…

2012 - Enter the Dragon

2012 - Enter the Dragon

Winter is definitely here in Shanghai; most of the days are cold and grey, there is a lot of rain, and the pollution I had been warned about is much more evident. The leaves have fallen from most of the trees, revealing a “kite-eating tree” in Fuxing Park (see below), and also some of the local birds so I can now identify them (particularly the Light-vented Bulbul and the Japanese White-eye). The scenery could look very dull and colourless.

On the road where we live...

On the road where we live...

But folks, this is China, and tonight we will be welcoming the Year of the Dragon at Chinese New Year (CNY). In every tree lining the local streets there are strings of fairy lights, curled around the trunk and largest branches. Hanging from the lowest branches, there are either red lanterns or revolving neon lights. Most buildings are festooned with huge red lanterns, floral decorations and pots of kumquat trees, their branches, already laden with fruit, now also decorated with the ubiquitous hongbao.

Hongbao tree

A hongbao tree

Hongbao (literally, red packet) are long, narrow, beautifully decorated, red envelopes which are traditionally filled with money and given out at CNY. They are presented to employees and, in families, are passed up and down the generations, so a child will give one to his/her parents, and so on, up through to the grandparents, or even great-grandparents, who will then pass this back down to the youngest children. The red colour signifies good luck but this must be continued within the package, the amount of money given ending with an even digit or, better still, an 8 as this signifies good fortune. However, the total amount should never contain a 4; the pronunciation of four – “si” – sounds similar to the word for death and is therefore considered unlucky!

In the nearby Old City all the shops are full of decorations; I have bought paper lanterns, ropes of chilli peppers made in bright red velvet, strings of beautifully embroidered masks, animals, chinese costume coats, and one of every animal in the Chinese Horoscope.

Lanterns for sale

Lanterns for sale in the Old City, Shanghai

The other decorations I have bought are strings with double fish because the fish (“yu”) is a sign of wealth and prosperity; one of the traditional Chinese greetings is “Nian nian you yu” (“every year having surpluses”).

Yu - the lucky fish

our balcony dragon

Our balcony dragon

My favourite purchase, though, is a 1 metre concertina dragon, which I have hung on the balcony to admire!

Festive fare on Danshui Lu

Festive fare on Danshui Lu

Eating over the New Year holiday is very important; on Danshui Lu, where we live, there suddenly appeared, about two weeks ago, shops with rails of dried innards (tongues, gizzards, guts and intestines) plus whole fish, eels, pig heads, chicken and ducks hanging in a grotesque puppet theatre of animals. I’m assured by my young language students that this is “old people’s tradition” – but the popularity of these foods is still prevalent, and there has been lively trading whenever I’ve passed by.

I'm told it's very tasty...!

Earlier this week, the roads were very busy as millions of Chinese people left the Shanghai municipality for the New Year celebrations; think American Thanksgiving multiplied many times over! The trains, planes and buses have been fully booked for many weeks now, with prices for buses in particular being raised to extortionate amounts.

China’s railways alone will carry 235 million passengers during the festive season in what is the world’s largest annual migration, known as chunyun. Most passengers are students and migrant workers returning to their home villages and towns for family reunions. By yesterday, shops, offices and markets closed, some for over a week reflecting the distance that many people will be travelling. Rebecca (our ayi) and her husband left yesterday for their family reunion in Wang Cun, laden with the sort of presents that are highly valued at CNY: sweets, fruit, cigarettes and tea.

A message from our management...

A message from our management: "please do not play the fireworks!"

Today it is chu xi (New Year’s Eve) and tonight, on the strike of midnight, Shanghai (and the rest of China along with the other Asian counties that follow the Chinese lunar calendar) will erupt into total chaos with the setting off of trillions of firecrackers and fireworks. This noisy celebration is essential as it scares away evil spirits. A few local people have been ‘practising’ with huge firecrackers in the past 48 hours, and it already sounds as though we are being invaded!

We have been warned by other colleagues here (the ones who are now lying on beaches in Thailand, the Philippines, etc.) that we may not sleep very well for the next week, especially on the 5th night of the New Year (zhengyue wu) when the God of Wealth is greeted with as much noise as possible! It is thought best to remain at home on this day, lest the God visits you and finds you absent!

The kite-eating tree in Fuxing Park

The kite-eating tree in Fuxing Park

Today, we went for our usual walk to Fuxing Park. It was very cold and trying to snow. Apart from one hardy lady practising her Taiji, the park was completely deserted; even the leaves were being left to gather in untidy piles on the ground! It felt very strange not sharing this space with children fishing, women singing, partners dancing and old folk chatting.

The roads are practically empty of traffic and I doubt I could get run over today even if I tried really hard. Most of the local restaurants in Xintiandi are now closed, with only a few stragglers wandering around. After 6 months of sharing this city with 21 million people, this all feels very odd!

This week I have been saying “Xin nian hao, gong xi fa cai!” (“Happy Prosperous New Year!”) to those I meet; this has been met by huge smiles and many returns of the same greeting.

Anthony and I extend this greeting to you all now, wherever you are.

Banners from Xintiandi

Banners from Xintiandi...

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These have made us smile…

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…some ruefully! Food… Lost in translation… Miscellaneous…

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The Kindness of Strangers – a visit to Wang Cun

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I was thrilled when Rebecca, our beloved Ayi (aka The Pocket Rocket!), asked me to accompany her to her in-laws a couple of weekends ago. I knew that this would be a wonderful chance to see another side of China … Continue reading

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Another watery venue – Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Town

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If you look at a map of Shanghai and the surrounding areas, you will see that there is a lot of land water in this part of China. Situated as it is in the delta of the Yangzte River – … Continue reading

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