A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shanghai, Part Six: Nine Temples in 27 Hours


I woke up early on Saturday and took the shuttle into town so I could go to Jing’an Temple, a Buddhist monastery in the heart of downtown. It was pouring rain and it took all of two minutes outside before my shoes, socks, and the cuffs of my pants were soaked, a condition in which they would stay all day, but I was undeterred; this marked my last two weeks in Shanghai, and I was determined to soak in more culture than my shoes soaked in rainwater.
The rain fell in sheets from the side of the sweeping gabled roofs as I weaved between chanting monks and praying tourists, taking in each shrine and feeling filled up with a sense of solemnity. From the lower level, the walls of the temple obscured the sight of downtown, but the upper level afforded a view of the nearby skyscrapers and illuminated billboards.


Around the corner from Jing’an Temple, I came across a house in which Mao Zedong lived, which had been converted to a two-room museum. He only lived there for a few months in 1920, during which he hobnobbed with several poets and wrote an important speech to the CPC. One wall of the museum featured calligraphy of Mao’s poetry; the other wall featured photos from that period in his life. Glass cases housed various artifacts: his tea set, his cigarette holder, the pencils with which he wrote the speech. Most significantly, one case held Mao’s copy of the first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto, published in August 1920. In a moment of perfect symbolism, a child about nine years old leaned against the case playing a game on his iPad.

Old China, meet new China.


Across the street from Mao’s house was a mall. This city must have the densest concentration of shopping malls in the world, sprawling in every direction and always packed. Directly across from Mao’s house you could see a DKNY, and next to that, several restaurants. I stopped by Element Fresh for lunch. Element Fresh is a chain found in many malls here that serves pastas, salads, and sandwiches. As the name suggests, it boasts the freshest ingredients you can find just about anywhere. As I’ve noted before, in most Chinese food, the quality of the ingredients is quite low, especially the vegetables.

Note: I didn't take this.
After a while, it leaves you feeling fairly vitamin- and mineral-deprived, so on a couple of occasions I’ve sprung for an overpriced salad for lunch.


After lunch I took the subway to meet Bill and Sara at the China Art Museum, a giant structure in the shape of an upside-down pyramid. I found the artwork inside less aesthetically pleasing than the building itself, but it did provide an insight into China’s cultural development throughout the twentieth century. The early decades of the century were marked by rather uninspiring imitations of French impressionists. Thosee exhibits focused heavily on the rather obscure French artists who came and taught at Chinese schools, as well as their local students. The middle portion of the century, unsurprisingly, was dominated by rather silly and obvious Maoist propaganda; art venerating revolution or a simplistic vision of the pastoral. My favorite piece was titled, “Workers Bring Chairman Mao Good News.” Well, you wouldn’t want to bring him bad news!

My favorite works came from the past 30 years or so: large murals featuring abstract images constructed out of bold brush strokes and dark colors. They were beautiful and haunting in a way that didn’t feel imitative.


Then beer aficionado Bill took us to the Boxing Cat Brewery, a brew pub he had discovered where we could get a hamburger and a proper pale ale--a difficult thing to find in this, the land of flavorless beers with 3% alcohol content. The place boasted large portions and a healthy mix of locals and expats.


From there, back to the Bund to view Pudong at night. Shanghai rests on the delta of the Yantze River, and the Bund sits on Huangpu River, its main tributary. Stand with your back towards the water and you’ll see the Bund, a series of beautiful buildings from the days of European colonialism, now pointedly adorned with Chinese flags. Turn around to look across the river and you’ll see Pudong, an area that, a few decades ago, boasted little more than farmland, but that now boasts a skyline to rival any city in the world. It’s a sight during the day, but it’s really something after dark, when every building twinkles with lights. Meanwhile, illuminated ferries carry passengers up and down the river. If Manhattan and the Las Vegas strip had a baby, it would be Pudong. We stood for a while under our umbrellas as it continued to pour down rain, and we took in the sight.


A cocktail aficionado as well as a beer aficionado, Bill had been frequenting the Waldorf Astoria’s Long Bar, and the bartender had recommended several of the best places around town to get a craft cocktail. Bill’s son being a bartender, he has a foothold in that world, so after taking in the sight of Pudong, we made our way to the Library Distillery. The Library is a speak easy style bar located at the back of Light and Salt, a restaurant which is itself tucked out of the way behind a hotel. It’s the kind of place that is too cool to advertise; you only find out about it if you know somebody and you can only get to it if you go to Light and Salt and ask.

The manager, Rick Starr, might be the most epic hipster alive. Wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and a nice tie tucked into a tuxedo vest over a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing elaborate forearm tattoos, he looks to be about 24 years old. He’s a thin, soft-faced white guy from Brooklyn who had apparently made a name for himself as a mixologist and was invited to Shanghai. He brought with him a fellow Brooklynite, a raven-haired woman in suspenders and a polka-dot shirt, and the two of them manned the bar alongside a Chinese man who never spoke but looked really intense while shaking drinks.

The small space was mostly empty except for the three bartenders, a lone man smoking in the corner while wearing a nice business suit, a young couple that left shortly after we arrived, and a young guy who managed another nearby bar, who had come to have some dinner with his 6-year-old daughter. It was possibly the coolest room I’d ever been in.

Bill, Sara and I sat at the bar, a square island in the middle of the room, and chatted with the bartenders while sipping cocktails. I would need to leave after one to make the last subway home, but Bill and Sara talked me into a second with the promise that I could crash on their pullout. It admittedly didn’t take much cajoling. For my second drink, I told Rick to surprise me, and he supplied me with a large, tropical-themed concoction of his own invention served in a coconut.


High rise apartments litter the sky like flotsam floating atop an ocean of shopping malls. Bill and Sara’s building looks much like all of the others. It’s certainly a nicer location than where I live, and boasts certain amenities, like maid service every two weeks, that my place does not. But, on the other hand, they pay a lot more for it and have a longer commute into work. While living in Xuhui would have made the early weeks here less disorienting, it might not ultimately have been worth it.

I pulled out the sofa bed and immediately crashed. Whatever was in that coconut, it knocked me right out.


In the morning I made my exit as quickly as politeness would allow and took the train back to my neighborhood. I spent the whole long train ride worrying about my fiancée worrying about me; I hadn’t gone a full 24 hours without checking in since I had gotten here. Sure enough, she had worried, but once I explained, she agreed that it was worth it. She knows Bill, so she enjoyed the tale of his cocktail exploits.

So we chatted about our days, sharing a space in my favorite place of worship, the internet.

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