Friday 19 December 2014

Asia Summer Series: Shanghai, China (Part 2)

Over December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. Last week I described my journey to Shanghai's Old Town. The adventure continues (there will be dumplings. And tea.)...

Old Street is in constant motion, with crowds of eager shoppers crowding the narrow pavements, cars and bikes passing through, and young men politely assailing me with sales pitches.

They brandish picture cards with images of items including suits and watches, so I can indicate what they should lead me to. Shopkeepers also call out as I pass by, though I’m surprised to find that they’re not overly pushy and will take no for an answer.

There are also food stalls, and strolling vendors selling a popular treat on a humid day - melon on a stick. It’s really as straightforward as that, a long slice of watermelon threaded onto a piece of wood.

On my way along the street I spot shops selling tea, clothing, and products involving Chinese calligraphy. Then I strike the mother lode - a stall containing a range of items from the attractive to the frankly ridiculous. Many of the latter involve Mao Tse Tung, China’s communist leader from 1949 to 1976.

Never one to avoid an amusingly tacky gift, I pick up a small red wind-up alarm clock featuring an image of Mao, with his arm frantically waving his Little Red Book at the masses. 
I also fancy a set of playing cards with interwar Shanghai posters, another set depicting a bizarre 1970s ballet involving women with guns, and a relatively tasteful set of worry balls featuring a dragon and a phoenix. There’s also a dragon bracelet that’ll be too small for Narrelle, but will sit well in her collection of decorative dragons.

The ensuing bout of haggling is carried out by myself and the cheerful saleswoman passing a calculator back and forth, taking turns to punch in our bids. As is traditional everywhere in the markets of the developing world, these figures are accompanied by expressions of mock-anguish and gasps of disbelief. Finally, the bargain is struck, somewhere halfway between our opening amounts.

Having exhausted my desire to shop, I wander further along the street, fending off offers of antiques and dodgy Rolexes. Then I notice a sign above a doorway, inscribed “Old Shanghai Tea House”.

One floor up, in a long narrow room above several shops, is a magnificently atmospheric tea house, with jade-green tables on timber floorboards, lined with small windows overlooking the busy street. On the far wall is an eclectic collection of objects from pre-World War II Shanghai, including vinyl records, posters and a Singer sewing machine.

There are some mysteries I have to work out here. On the menu, the tea looks expensive, but the waitress refills my cup of fresh jasmine with hot water several times during the afternoon. The dumplings arrive on a decorative green plate, matched with a small white bowl of vinegar sauce, and are excellent.

I’m leaning against the windowsill, writing postcards and thinking that life is pretty good, when I receive a surprise of a musical nature. Halfway along the room, a man is setting up two traditional instruments- one a long stringed instrument called an erhu, the other a dulcimer-like arrangement known as a yangqin.

At first I’m not sure whether he’s playing an abstract tune or just tuning the equipment, but his purpose soon becomes clear. He dons a traditional robe, is joined by an accompanist, and they launch into a series of melodious Chinese tunes.

This is a bonus; I thought I was just getting a cup of tea and some dumplings. I sip my jasmine tea while I listen to this beautifully played music within a homage to Shanghai’s past, and feel truly delighted.

Then there’s an odd moment. After a series of Chinese melodies, the duo break into an instrumental version of Click Go the Shears.

I look up sharply in surprise, and the erhu player catches my eye. My expression says “I know where that song really comes from,” and his says “Let’s just keep that to ourselves”. And we exchange knowing smiles.

In this increasing cosmopolitan city with a vibrant international past, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to come across unexpected influences from abroad, moulded into a Chinese form.

Even a transplanted Australian folk song about shearers, played in the heart of Shanghai’s Old Town.

[Back to Part 1]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Shanghai Municipal Tourism and Helen Wong’s Tours.

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