Qibao Watertown: Old China in Hongqiao

We took my parents to Qibao, a watertown on LIne 9 in Shanghai. In fact, it seems to be very close to where we live. Out by the Hongqiao Airport and the Railway Station.

The town is made to look old, and some parts of it are actually old. The streets are tiny and crowded, and in the rain it really felt like we were in Old China.

My favourite picture from this lot is the old man sitting in the traditional tea house. It is something of a stereotypical shot; this is not truly what Shanghai looks like and it might never have been. But it makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I am actually living in China.

Here is the guy singing, as promised.

Directions:

Get to Xujiahui on whatever line you find yourself in Shanghai. Take Line 9 (light blue) to Qibao, going four stops. Follow the signs from the station, hanging a right at the intersection just past the massive new shopping mall and a left at the end of the street. The main entrance is on the right. 

Zhujiajiao: A Day Trip Out of Shanghai

We rode a bus out of the heart of Shanghai and into the countryside, over loads of small canals. The bus was just like a normal city bus, but barreling down the highway.

The town itself was lovely. It’s a little down-and-dirty in the pits of the touristy shops on tiny lanes, so small that one could probably touch both sides of them if pressed. It’s great. The pace is palpably different from Shanghai.

Zhujiajiao is a village of 60,000 to the West of Shanghai. It dates back to at the very least the 1100s, and largely preserved itself during the relative turmoil of the 20th century in China. It’s picturesque, with canals the same reflective verdigree of those in Venezia. The day we visited was hot and muggy, and the cafes along the lanes were simply too tempting.

One barmaid shouted, ‘Hello! We have couches!’ as we walked past. One of the weirdest tout-calls I’ve heard in my travels.

We took an overpriced but nonetheless fun gondola ride across town (‘Boat Rule #2: Drunk foreigners will be refused’). We stopped into Zher Bar, which is a cute little place wedged into what was once a family home. Anarchist posters and punk rock paraphernalia everywhere on the walls, but Reggae in the air. We had a sandwich and two cold beers, and enjoyed the quiet in the back garden room.

After lunch, we explored the architecture on the other side of the river. Some project, started years ago, is now empty and vaguely Postmodern in its white concrete and randomly-placed futuristic art. We wandered around, looking into what was clearly meant to be a convention centre, and took in a massive paper-mache head of Picasso while we were at it. The other statue appeared to have gotten wet and was somehow even more modern art-ish now that the seams of the face were ripped open.

We sat at a cafe, having failed to find the Heima Icelandic bar on Donghu Street. It is now apparently a cafe, maybe one that serves European wines. We passed a portrait artist painting the youthful face of a soldier taking a day off on a t-shirt. For himself, presumably. Nothing like wearing a self-portrait.

It was lovely. Great to finally have the time to get out there and see things in China.

Jing’An Temple (The Actual Temple)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Jing’an Temple in the heart of Shanghai. Actually, it’s very near to where my first days in this megacity were spent back in April.

As I approached Exit 1 at Jing’an Temple Station, a slight smell of burned paper permeated the air. I thought in passing that it must be incense burning, and then dismissed that ridiculous thought. Surely there wouldn’t be such a display here in the centre of Shanghai, PRC.

I’d prepared my hair in a Shanghai-Girl style, emulating at once the 1950s and the 1920s.

Swirling hair

Swirling hair

Unfortunately, I took the wrong random direction at the exit. I wandered around the outside of the temple, searching for an entrance. The lower level of the temple is crowded with jewelry shops and clothing shops…money changers. But then, the temple itself rings with the sound of coins tossed into coffers, offerings to those the statues represent. Constant offerings. What’s the difference, really? Temples (churches) are the same, around the world. What’s a coffer to an offering basket. I suppose the latter generally is in possession of a red or purple cushion, silencing that clink of tithe.

I was ripped off by the ayi at the entrance, who sold me incense for 10 RMB instead of five. It’s fine. I can afford it, and she knew it. I’m happy to give her more money.

The temple's interior

The temple’s interior

It was blazing summer when I visited. The incense coffers were blazing, too. I lost some knuckle fur to the flames when the wind came up.

I don’t pray much. I lit my incense. I watched the others. I turned to the four directions. I thought of people who needed thoughts, and sent the incense from my hands away to dissipate and bless those thoughts.

My family.

My students, all over the world.

My school in Shanghai.

Myself.

I wandered around, visiting the various statues. On the second floor, I came upon a girl in her 20s, so asleep from sheer exhaustion and release of safety in this place that she fell into an awkward pose on the steps of one of the bell towers. I paused, waited for her chest to rise and fall. It did. I walked along and out, back to my too-short day off in the summer of 2015.

Happy 석가탄신일, Everyone!

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석가탄신일 (suck-gah-tan-shin-irl) Is the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday in Korea, and this year it falls on Monday the 29th. The weekend before the holiday is a special lotus lantern parade through the streets of Seoul and ending near Jogyesa Temple, one of the largest and most decked out temples in Korea. It felt an awful lot like a cathedral from Italy or Latin America.

Before the parade, we managed to pick up some lanterns to carry from the temple itself. The people in the temple were helpful and kind, welcoming the foreigners to participate in their yearly celebration. I’ve noticed that this is a key difference between Buddhism in Korea and some other religions that I’ve participated in or observed. They go out of their way to welcome, down to helping you twist the lanterns on their wires so that you won’t drop them.

The parade was very long, with representatives from each temple around the Seoul area creating glowing floats depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha or slightly more apocryphal images of Buddha in a helicopter. For some reason, Winnie the Pooh was involved. I suppose he does seem a little bit zen when you think about it.

As each group passed, they would wave and smile and sometimes shout, “Hello!” At one point one of my group yelled, “How are you?” and without missing a beat the children yelled back in unison, “I’m fine, thanks, and you?” This is the true mark of English education on Korea. Standard across the board.

At some point, it was our temple’s turn. We jumped the fence and joined the parade! My lanterns weren’t lit, and try as I might to light them, I was holding up the crowd. A few people said, “Please go!” in a very polite way, so I walked with mine unlit. It was fine. As we passed an intersection, I think the local news filmed us.

Finally, the parade ended up at the temple, which had been transformed with glowing lanterns by the thousand in the darkness. The band from the parade was still banging their gongs and bells and drums, and we were roped into dancing along in a circular pattern. It reminded me a little of the Hava Nagila.

Travelers are often cast as the silent and non-participatory observer, watching the traditions and daily life roll by them without engaging with them. I often am guilty of this, sitting in a cafe and watching the people go by in Seoul or Paris or Santiago, but the experience of jumping into the Buddha’s Birthday Parade and being welcomed (or perhaps the words should be “coerced nicely”) into the eternal dance at Jogyesa made me reconsider.

Until I’ve participated in the traditions of an adopted home, and until I’ve thrown off my cloak of traveler to reveal the willing fellow human beneath, I’ve not truly set foot in a country. In participation lies true travel.