Found significant soulfulness in Shanghai yesterday: Luxun Park, and the historic synagogue in Little Warsaw, both in the old American Concession, north of Suzhou Creek.
In the 19th century, after the Emperor's court seized the ships containing one of the rare non-silver goods foreigners could trade for silk and tea, the foreigners sent in the navy and demanded concessions of the weak royalty. The port city of Shanghai had British, French, American and Chinese sections. The Chinese kept the old walled city area in the south near the river... the British took The Bund out Bubbling Well Road to the racetrack... the French area was south of the British and west of the Chinese... the American Concession was north of Suzhou Creek and the rest. Each had its own government and police... if you were in trouble with one government, it was easy to slip into the jurisdiction of another. Wild times.
I had never been in the north-of-Suzhou area before. There are still many historic buildings, but it is undergoing rapid renovation in preparation for the 2010 Shanghai Exhibition. It shows layers of architecture, things very old standing beside things very new, with things in the middle scattered all through. Sichuan Lu was my target to see this.
After morning internet, shower, exercise and coffee, I took the subway to Nanjing Lu east, the start of the pedestrianized shopping street. I was immediately accosted by three hawkers as I climbed out of the station, and repetitions of "no, bu yao" didn't work as well as speaking harshly and carrying a big stick. You can feel them circling twenty feet away, eyeing you, sidestepping in like a pigeon might approach some bread. "Oh look, a walking wallet, let's get in close and touch it!" No thanks.
After I found a spot out of foot traffic, put on sunglasses to look tough, and aimed the cane at the chests of a few approaching hawkers to give 'em the idea I didn't need another watch, I started up a pipe. Usually takes ten minutes or so to get reliably going, gives me time to people watch and drink in the sights. Saw one older gent across the square looking at me, talking with his friends and laughing. A few minutes later I found him at my elbow, asking something, and I almost assumed him to be another peddler until I realized he was saying "Ni yan shenme?"... he was another pipesmoker, and was asking what type of tobacco I was using. Almost blew him off, all because of the overabundance of street peddlers. We talked for awhile and then I set off, to Sichuan St and north.
In the Bund/Nanjing area some streets are closed to autos. During rush hours this means a fantastic traffic procession of bikes, trikes, mopeds, scooters... I even saw one guy with a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle scooting along the sidewalk, honking at pedestrians to get out of the way. In the curvy streets in this area they come in streams, timed to distant stoplights... a quiet pedestrian street one moment, then a solid wall of bicycles coming at you from the left, soon meshing with another river coming from due left, and a third stoplight releasing its horde of riders from behind and to your left just behind that, each stream splitting off in the curvy five-way intersection. Took some photos, but I'm not sure they can reflect the reality. Standing in the safety between buildings and traffic poles, it was quite a sight to see. Glad I wasn't trying to cross it all, though. ;-)
Crossing the creek, the famous bridges of cinema, Broadway Mansions, the Russian Consulate with its big satellite dish... very historic area, many tears have been shed here. Sichuan Bei Lu takes you all the way up to Luxun Park. Some blocks are parkland, some are walled off for largescale construction, some are old and well-used residential buildings, some are western Art Deco remnants with terra cotta statues, commercial shops of all natures mixed among them all. Looking down a sidestreet shows brick Edwardian buildings, another sidestreet shows shacks, a third shows modern apartments. Clothes are cheaper here, about a third the price of similar storefronts south of the creek. I saw few westerners.
Street hawkers were concentrated outside the hotels and other likely spots. I've been training them on a certain phrase used on Bourbon Street nightly... just repeating it until they go away. Often they start repeating what I say. No beads are involved, but it should be fun, should they ever spring this phrase on an English-speaker someday.... ;-)
Stopped in at a Chinese chain for a rice bowl... I trust the chains a little more, because at least they've had some type of sanitation program set up, even if it may not necessarily have been followed. Had boiled beef in teriyaki-like sauce, corn/carrot/pea vegetables (ex-frozen?), rice, soup and a crueller. Cost about $3 US. Such pricing elasticity here.
Wandered further north on Sichuan, up to Duo Lun streets, just south of the park. This is a historic literary area, where lefty writers lived and wrote before the Communists took power in 1949. It wasn't as kitschy as the other tourist areas, and most of the visitors were from China. Streets were quiet, well-paved... many booths selling gems and other handiwork... architecture was largely preserved, but in nearby streets today's people still lived. I saw one of the few European-style churches with Chinese-style architecture... romanesque arches with tiled peaked roofs. Worth a visit, if you're here... very different feel from other parts of Shanghai.
Then, after consulting the compass and the map a few times, I got my bearings and headed north to Luxun Park. Goldmine. This is where real people hang out. Late autumn afternoon, clear blue sky with leaves nearly fallen to the ground... many benches, tables and seats, all filled with friends chatting, walking... lots of card games, although park rules prohibit mah johng.
Oddest thing was the portable KTV area. Hearing cacophony, I approached. An amplified voice was just off-pitch enough to suggest karaoke rather than a recording. Closer, I saw various groups of two dozen or so, all semicircled and hiding the centers of interest.
Turns out people rigged DVD/VCD players with portable screens, speakers and a mike... sometimes they'd have this all rigged up on a cardboard box... for a small fee you could sing to the world, watching the lyrics on the flatscreen video. I counted six of these stations within a three-hundred foot circle, each with its own singers, its own crowd of onlookers. Volume was quite high. Some of the tunes were long and pedantic, too. I appreciated the novelty of the situation, but avoided taking detailed photos in respect of the apparent happiness this strange scene brought them.
On top of that, the park had its own music system, with speakers spread throughout the trees. Relatively quiet, could only hear it when nothing else was intruding. At one point there was a musicbox rendition of "To Sir, With Love". Atmospheric, in its own way.
Sounded like nothing else I've ever heard in my life, though.... ;-)
There was one section towards the north end of Luxun Park that I didn't explore as I would have wished, called "Korean Plum Garden". The plaque outside alluded to some type of reconciliation, in that artfully vague language which made me wonder what the real story was. The ticket gate was in Chinese and Korean, and I read the admission as 2 RMB, but the gatekeeper told me 40. I didn't press it, and kept onto my original agenda. Looking forward to researching it later, though.
Luxun Park is compact yet extensive, and was full to the brim with real people, just enjoying their afternoon. One of the most revealing parts of actual Shanghai that I've found yet. If you're coming here for a vist, please make time to witness it, respect it, enjoy it.
I left the park through the north gate, taking Dalian Road as it curved to the east and south. This is local commercial area... barbershop girls gave me the eye as I passed by, but pass by I did. Much construction down to the southern end, large swaths of neighborhood disappearing.
A right turn at Changzi/Changyang Road, and I enter the area once called "Little Warsaw", the Jewish ghetto established by the Japanese occupiers. Talk about an area of tears....
Jews had been forced by various pogroms from haven to haven, across most of the mideast and greater Europe. One area of tolerance was in Poland. Then the Hitler cultural delusion invaded these countries, and Jews were forced to move again.
Civilized nations took in as many as they could, but the need was too great for the largest donors. Visas and paperwork were needed to have a chance to win the lottery. But visas and paperwork were difficult to get, from the destroyed Polish government.
For those needing to leave dangerous nations, Shanghai was one of the few refuges. Its multiple governments made it one an open city, where anyone could enter. In the first decade of the century Shanghai sheltered Russians fleeing the Red Socialists, and in the fourth decade it also sheltered the Jews fleeing the Nationalist Socialists.
This safety was short-lived, however. The Japanese took their China campaign south, conducting aerial bombings on Shanghai. The Shanghai Jews were non-people, recognized by no government. Those who remained, and who remained alive, were rounded up for interment camps in Hongkou, in the old American Concession.
I don't know the whole history of why that area was chosen, or when it was built, but there are blocks of residential units around the old synagogue which still show an eastern european influence. Klzemer tunes ran through my head. I saw a cake shop with multi-layer wedding cakes... a remnant, perhaps. Food sellers were mostly Chinese, although I did notice one streetside meatcutter, speaking with that odd set of Arabic-sounding Shanghainese phonemes.
The buildings spoke to me. I wondered who looked out those windows, sixty-five years ago, and thought these were surely the last days of the world. They had good reason to believe so, chased across Europe to the Far East, oppressed there too, no place left on the planet to run or escape. The future founding of Israel would likely have seemed an impossible fantasy.
Yet still, today, we've got failed cultures blaming others for their failures, seeking to lash out at the external enemy instead of confronting their own self-inflicted injuries.
The music of the klezmorim may be the only sensible salve we have.....