A Mad Whirlwind Weekend in Shanghai: The CET summer field trip July 21-22

I am sitting in my favorite blogging spot in Beijing, the Beijing Bookworm on 三里屯南街.  I cabbed it here straight from the Beijing Train Station.  We arrived this morning at around 10 am after a weekend in Shanghai.  We took the hard sleeper train but it wasn't like any hard sleeper I've been on before, more like a soft sleeper with harder beds and no door.  Despite a Chinese dude occupying our bunk room who turned out to be a major snorer, I had a very restful sleep.

The trip was organized by CET, where I am doing a short teaching stint before heading over to 北师大 to direct the Dartmouth fall FSP program.  Around 16 students and eight teachers came on the trip, including all of the students in my Beijing-Shanghai comparative history course.  For two days I donned my tour guide hat and led them around town by day and by night, to some of my favorite spots.  We hit hotels, museums, restaurants, nightclubs, tourist attractions, shopping malls--you name it, we were there.  Here is how the trip went down.

Day 1, Saturday July 21

The students and teachers arrived by train in the early morning and checked into the Manhattan hotel at 82 滇池路 just behind the Peace Hotel on the Bund.  They chilled out, showered, changed, and had lunch.  I checked into the hotel around noon and met them at 1 pm in the lobby where we began our tour.  The objective of Day One was to introduce them to some key sites in the International Settlement.  Little did I realize that we would encounter some serious obstacles along the way.  The first and most formidable being the searing, record-breaking heat and humidity, which turned the city into a gigantic sauna.

Our first stop was the Peace Hotel, where I wanted to take them up to the rooftop and show them a birds eye view of the Bund and Pudong.  Unfortunately, the entire hotel was closed for renovations.  We had to content ourselves with looking up at the 1920s Deco masterpiece from street level.  I did point out the greyhounds done in iron bas reliefs above the ground floor windows on Nanjing Road.  Spoke to them a bit about Victor Sassoon the real estate magnate who had a grand idea to build the hotel in ultra-modern American style, thus outpacing the staid and luxurious Astor House (see below) and the neighboring Palace Hotel, both done in British neo-classical style.

Next we took the pedestrian underground passageway to the Bund walkway, where we took a good look at the Pudong skyline, barely visible through the thick haze of Shanghai sauna.  I made sure the students kept watered up, by buying out a vendor’s entire supply of bottled water.  First I gave a short spiel on Chen Yi, Shanghai’s first mayor under the People’s Republic, whose statue across from the Peace Hotel is often confused with Mao by clueless tourists.  We then headed northward where I briefed them on the short history of the Pudong skyline and its centerpieces, the Oriental Pearl Tower (‘93), the Grand Hyatt (’98?) and the International Convention Center (’00?) as well as the Lujiazui district which has attracted the city’s stock exchange as well as various banking headquarters and other head offices for multinationals.

Making our way through gaggles of gawking Chinese tourists, hawkers, and vendors of drinks, photos, and Bund-related trinkets, we strolled on over to the 上海市人民英雄纪念塔 or the Shanghai City Monument to the People’s Heroes.  The monument features a tall white obelisk done in a futuristic style which looks over the Huangpu River.  Surrounding it is a sunken circular area surrounded by high walls--one must walk down a ramp into this area, then follow a bas-relief stone sculpture panorama which describes the narrative of Liberation in Shanghai and China, beginning with the Small Swords (the first great fighters against Shanghai’s imperialists who attacked the city in the early 1850s) and culminating in the Great Revolution of 1949, when history officially ends.  There are a few characters here and there providing clues for these images, but mostly they must be read by the eye, and some knowledge of Shanghai and modern Chinese history helps.  This is not for the general tourist from abroad, though they might get something out of it too.  The students enjoyed posing with bas-relief figures of Shanghai’s intellectuals bravely carrying out the great anti-imperialist movements of the 1920s, only to be shackled and bound by the imperialists and authoritarianists of the 1930s, until they were gloriously liberated by Chen Yi and his Red Army troops.  

Next we headed over the Garden Bridge to the Astor House Hotel, now known as the Pujiang Hotel 浦江饭店。Built in 1908-11 on the premises of one of Shanghai’s earliest western hotels (the Richard), the Astor House was the posh spot of its day, until it was eclipsed in the 1920s by the Majestic and the Cathay.  When I first visited Shanghai in 1988, I stayed there along with dozens of other international tourists, since it functioned as a sort of youth hostel.  Since then it has undergone some renovations.  Most recently, the ballroom on the ground floor was restored to its original glory.  this was the first time I saw the renovated ballroom, and it was simply stunning.  Fortunately most of the original decorative work had not been tampered with, so mainly it needed a good paint job.  It had been operating as a stock exchange in the ‘90s.  Now it is once again known as the Peacock Lounge, but I don’t know what sort of events are held there.  I hope it has once again become a favored spot for holding balls.  I gave the students a few minutes to rest up in the air conditioned hotel lobby, where they could view portraits of some of the luminaries who once stayed at the hotel, including Bertrand Russell (who taught in Peking in 1920), Albert Einstein, and Ulysses S. Grant. 

We then piled into seven cabs, smartly organized by the CET RD Nina Roe into groups of teachers and students, and drove to our next stop, the Park Hotel or 国际饭店 across from the People’s Park on Nanjing Road.  I had two goals there.  One was to show them the display of photos and text running around the walls of the second floor balcony overlooking the main lobby, where one can trace the narrative of the building of the Park Hotel in 1934.  The photos and stories focus on the architect Ladislaus Hudec, who designed the hotel.  Hudec was a Hungarian architect who was recruited in WWI to fight for the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was captured by the Russian Army.  He managed to escape a train en route to Siberia, and made his way to China and to Shanghai (as did so many thousands of Slavic peoples during and after the war and the October Revolution of 1917).  Fortunately, his training gave him a big leg up over most Slavs who lived in the city during the 1920s and ‘30s.  Hudec started an architectural firm which became a big success.  He designed many of the city’s landmark buildings including the Park Hotel and nearby Grand Theater as well as one of my personal faves, the Normandie Building on the corner of Huaihai and Xingguo Roads, also known as Shanghai’s flatiron.  For more info and images of Hudec and his buildings, see the following website:  http://students.washington.edu/lrh/hudec/

The second goal was to take students up to the 14th floor ballroom and show them the view of Shanghai including the People’s Park (formerly the Recreation Ground of the International Settlement), the French Concession and the old Chinese town.  This didn’t happen however because the entire floor was closed for more--gasp--renovations!  I don’t know what they are doing up there but I hope they don’t ruin it, since there are some great Deco -rations overlooking the ballroom, known in the 30s as the Sky Terrace.

We then crossed Nanjing Road and made our way southward around the perimeter of the People’s Park on Tibet Road, to the Urban Planning Museum.  Every time I take students there on a field trip it’s always a big hit, and this time was no exception.  The students loved the gigantic model of the city in the year 20XX, which dominates the second-to-top floor.  I got into the diagrams and images of urban planning for the city’s greener, better future.  Whether or not one accepts these as imminent realities or as possible dreams, the museum impresses upon one the lengths to which the government is thinking ahead.  Highlights include a model of the Pudong airport showing the four terminals that will be completed in the next decade or so allowing for 60 million passengers per year.  A map of flight routes shows how all roads will lead to Shanghai in the next few decades (assuming there’s enough fossil fuel left on this planet or that we discover a radical new solution to air travel).  There are sections on Dongtan and the numerous other “eco-cities” that are being planned in or near the Shanghai municipality (word from a very close source has it that a lot of money is now searching for cities and towns outside the Shanghai municipality for eco projects, since the taxes are lower).  All in all, one can easily spend a couple of hours on the top two floors alone, assuming one is as fascinated with Shanghai’s future as yours truly.

We then grabbed cabs over to Xintiandi where we met at the Starbucks.  Xintiandi is such a famous spot now that I don’t feel the need to describe it in any detail.  Suffice it to say that it’s a tourist area with renovated old brick houses, one of which once held the first meeting of the CCP, now holding upscale restaurants, bars, clubs, boutiques, and live music houses.  Thousands of people were evicted to make way for the Shui On company’s renovation of the entire district.  If you are in Xintiandi and want to learn more about it’s history, visit the museum on the southern end of the main walkway along the northern part of the complex before it passes over another street to the southern part (sorry I can’t be more accurate right now).  There’s a museum built out of an old house (or an idealized version of one) where one can pay 20 RMB to enter, pass through the rooms and floors and see an idealized replication of a bourgeois/petty bourgeois household.  It’s really a melange of stuff from chamber pots to old photos and furniture, nicknacks, a fascinating old kitchen, bedroom, study, and so forth.  Be sure to check out the photos and descriptions of old Shanghai on the top floor which includes a visual and textual history of the building of Xintiandi since 1996.  The point of this display is that the buildings were severely dilapidated, but of course the thousands of displaced people aren’t given a mention.

After that, at around 5:30 pm the group disbanded and people went their own ways for the rest of the evening.  Some of my students and I went over to the Paulaner Brauhaus where we indulged in half-pints of the finest...er, soda brewed outside of Germany, along with bratwurst and  sauerkraut to match it (to the tune of 100 RMB or so a piece).

They wanted to go over to Yu Garden for dinner, and at that point my wife showed up with our daughter, so we split cabs and took them over there.  After walking across the Bridge of Nine Turnings and seeing the Willow Pattern Teahouse, we chose a restaurant next to the teahouse for dinner.  The 小笼包 or Shanghai-style soup dumplings were out of this world--I still reckon that Yu Garden is the best place on the planet for 小笼包.  

By the time we’d finished eating, the Yu Garden area had turned into a misty wonderlands of gaudily-lit faux Chinese-style buildings--a Disneyland for the eyes.  Sarah was in heaven.  She became mesmerized by a brightly lit top that a local vendor was spinning by the pond.  She was so wound up from a sugar-and-starch filled meal that she became that spinning top, and took off at high speed, her mother following helplessly as I focused my attention on my students.  To my great shock, she bolted across the road to the other side, narrowly missing the bikes and cars.  Her guardian angel must have been guiding her to safety, but for hours afterwards my wife and I were very upset at ourselves for not keeping her closer.  I’m beginning to sympathize with people who keep their kids on a leash.

After dinner we went back to the hotel, which as my wife commented must have been a KTV lounge before it was converted into a hostelry.  It still bears a sign for 会所 or club.  The rooms don’t have windows and the place is so gaudy it immediately made me think of a brothel when I first entered.  The hall reeks of Karaoke lounge.  Sarah and Mency went home and I showered and changed for the night’s revels. 

I’d promised to take my students to the hot club-of-the-month, Muse.  As luck had it, one of the city’s hot live music clubs 芷江梦工厂 is located just next door in a warehouse-arts complex known as 同乐坊 on 28 余姚路。Upon the advice of my local informant Wu Jun, who I’d had a great interview with the day before, I headed over there to hear a Wuhan-based band called 花伦。  The space was located on the fourth floor, accessible by an elevator in the rear of the complex (don’t take the factory stairs at the front entrance, they lead to the back door which is locked).  One has to pass through a separate restaurant-bar to get to the music hall, which is through a door and down some stairs.  It’s a cavernous factory space, perfect for loud music.  

I arrived around 10:30.  There was a small crowd hanging close to the stage, and the rest of the place was empty, making me wonder why live Chinese music is not more supported in this city.  Wu Jun was there, hanging near the stage.  The music the band played was entirely instrumental--no vocals, just waves of sound.  The typical song started out as a mellow, melodic, repetitive guitar solo, which was joined by the bass and drums and got progressively louder, until after a few minutes it burst into a furious ear-jarring climax.  As usual, there was an emphasis on volume for volume’s sake.  While I appreciated the band’s style, the volume, amplified by the cavernous, barely filled hall, made for a cacophanous experience.  I think that most bands here are of the Spinal Tap mentality i.e. “ours is different, ours goes up to eleven.”

About fifteen minutes later, a group of students joined me.  They mostly hung out near the bar at the far end, which I agree was the best place to be as it was far enough from the stage and amps that one could actually have a conversation.  Some settled on the stairs near the bar, which also made for a good listening spot.  Several of the students gave favorable comments on the band and its music.  Of course I got in close now and then to do a bit of filming but mostly I hung out at the back with them.

We then headed over to Muse next door (see my previous blog on Muse) where my old Shanghai mate TQ (actually he’s from Beijing) was waiting at a table along with his buddy 77 and some girlfriends, rolling dice as usual.  EC also an old Shanghainese pal was there too.  The theme of the evening was “prison break” and several hired dancers were running around in S&M outfits and “prison gear”.  It was kinda cheesy.  For the next two hours I hung out with my mates, sharing a bottle of whiskey adulterated with green tea.  Each of the guys forked up 300 RMB for the night, while in usual Shanghai style, the girls drank free--well, sorta free if you discount the “favor” of their attention and company--not that Muse is a hostess club, but even if you bring your own dates the rules operate similarly.  Among our circle was a stunning crazy girl named Cleo, who had a wig to match her Egyptian namesake.  Later in the night she led some of us over to a new club called Mao where her friends were hanging out.  

Club Mao is on Yueyang Road right near Dongping Road.  A DJ was spinning techno tunes accentuated by a great light show which barcoded the crowd in waves of green and red neon.  All in all it was a pretty cool place.  But I had to get my students and myself home for the next day’s tour, so we cut off just as the place was beginning to peak.

Day Two, Sunday July 22

Well, I got in enough sleep to survive the second day of the trip.  We started at 10:30 by assembling in the lobby.  This time our destination was Pudong and the French Concession.  We funneled into the Tourist Tunnel which took us underneath the Huangpu River to the Pudong side at the price of 35 RMB.  I’d never done the tunnel before.  It was a cheesy experience (can I find another word?)  involving a light and laser show, an English narrative and inflatable dolls coming at us as we passed through the small tunnel in a tram reminiscent of intra-airport rail lines. 

We exited near the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower and spent the next hour inside the Shanghai History Museum, located inside the base of the Tower.  I’ve taken students there before and they enjoyed it.  The museum features models of the old city, its buildings, stores, people, and places.  Highlights included scale models of the Bund in the 19th and early 20th century, as well as a detailed model of a Peking opera house.  Personally I love the model of the Majestic Hotel ballroom, which is strikingly accurate and features dancers who spin around in ballroom style, though the plastic dolls in the model sport hairdos more reminiscent of the ‘70s than the ‘20s.  

At around 12:30 pm we reassembled outside the museum and by 1 we were on our way into the 陆家嘴 subway station down the road.  This was one of the tricky parts of the day.  It’s not too hard to keep 25 people together on a street, but much more difficult to navigate the subway lines with such a group.  We managed to all keep together though despite a line change to the 1 line at People’s Park involving a long tunnel crawl reminiscent of 42nd street in NYC.  On the 1 line we made our way to Xujiahui 徐家汇 where we popped out near the Metro City 美罗城 and headed to the basement food court for lunch.  It was extremely crowded there but we managed to get everyone fed and reassembled near the KFC on the ground floor around 45 minutes later.

At that point the majority of the group mutinied and rejected my plan to walk to our next destination, Sasha’s restaurant on the corner of Hengshan and Dongping Roads.  Hengshan Road is one of my favorite walking streets, and a great street to see both Old and New Shanghai.  However, most of the students and the female Chinese teachers, who were a bit grumpy throughout the whole tour but did their job (hard to please a Beijingren in Shanghai--they just don’t get it) opted to catch cabs and wait for the hardcore group to walk over.  Me, Nina and the boys--Bobby, Nate, James, Vero--and AJ and one of the Chinese teachers headed across the Xujiahui Park, formerly a factory complex, to Hengshan Road and strolled up it to Dongping Road and Sasha’s under the shade of the French plane trees, passing famous landmarks such as the Picardie Apartment, now Hengshan Hotel, another Deco masterpiece from the 1930s (my Dartmouth students are slated to stay there in October) and the club formerly known as Real Love, kindling memories of many a sordid night in the bad old days.  By the way the club that has replaced it (called MT I think) is well worth going to.

We found the other students and teachers recuperating in Sasha’s, which for those of you in the dark is an old French mansion converted into an upscale restaurant and bar (by now a familiar theme for those of you who’ve been reading my Shanghai blogs).  In the 1930s it housed none other than T.V. Soong, brother of the famous Soong sisters and finance minister to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime.  There’s a portrait of the Soong family testifying to their historical presence.  It is now frequented by foreigners and upwardly mobile Chinese who can afford the 35 RMB ice teas.  

I convinced the students and teachers to take one final trek into the hot summer afternoon.  We walked down Dongping Lu, a narrow, winding street containing old walled-in mansions which has been gentrified over the past few years and now features boutiquey shops, restaurants, and bars.  We then turned on to Yueyang Road and headed south.  With its uncut plane trees, this is one of the leafiest, greenest, and finest streets in that part of the city.  We passed Yongjia Road and my old digs, the first place I lived in Shanghai back in ’97, which again brought back a flood of distant memories of my first Shanghai experiences.  We also passed by the Mao club which brought back more recent memories of the strange and exotic night before.

Near the corner of Jianguo Road, we passed by the old shikumen compound known as 建业里 jianyeli or “alley of building careers.” I first discovered this compound in ’97 and had visited it occasionally for years.  I’ve taken hundreds of photos and have filmed the place when it was full of families bursting with activity.  This neighborhood to me always typified the delicate, degraded beauty of lilong life in the city.  The people were always outside hanging out, playing cards, talking, gossiping, preparing food, washing vegetables or dishes, getting their hair cut in the local barber’s chair, selling fruits, hanging out their laundry, making brooms in the local onsite broom factory--you name it.  Then in 2003 the government ordered them out for renovations.  I have a heartbreaking filmed interview with an off-camera resident talking about how they all have to move out to the outskirts of the city, losing their communities, schools, and workplaces in the process.  Not that this doesn’t happen in other parts of the world, but the rapidity and scale with which this removal/renovation process and the destruction of shikumen neighborhoods has happened in Shanghai is unsurpassed perhaps with the exception of the hutongs of Beijing.  For those interested in learning more about shikumen neighborhoods in Shanghai and their impact on the lives of the majority of the city’s residents, read my colleague Hanchao Lu’s oustanding book Beyond the Neon Lights.

Anyhow, the entire compound was blocked up with concrete.  We didn’t have time to check if any section of it was open.  It’s been this way for three years now and I’m wondering f the renovation project was delayed or halted.  Shame, shame, shame.  But as my interlocutor stated four years ago, “we are moving out so that you rich foreigners can move in.”And thus the struggle between the haves and have-nots continues to rage on, with the haves currently boasting the upper hand.

Our last destination for the tour was the 太原别墅 or Taiyuan Guesthouse on Taiyuan Lu near the corner of Yongjia Lu.  This was a 1920s French mansion, one of the most glorious from the era, surrounded by high walls and blessed with a large garden.  One of its earlier occupants was a lawyer named Du Pac du Marsoulais (sp?) who was an official in the French Concession government and a member if memory serves of the French Municipal Council.  In 1932, the French government put pressure on their concession to loose its close ties with the Shanghai Green Gang, whose bosses Huang Jinrong and Du Yuesheng had made the concession their stomping grounds.  In short order the members of the concession government were sent home and/or replaced with more “solid” officers, and Du and Huang were forced to move their operations over to the old Chinese walled city.  Heroin factories, opium dens, brothels were all trucked over the border to the less regulated part of town.  In honor of his French “friends” who were departing the city, Du held a banquet for Du Pac and his copains.  Within a month, they’d all died of mysterious causes.  One source blamed poison mushrooms served at Du’s farewell banquet, but a reliable source, namely Brian Martin who wrote THE book on the Shanghai Green Gang, told me that the real cause of the illness might have been germs carried to the city from central Asia by a Citroen rally that was held that same year.  Who knows what really happened?  (Incidentally the story I have repeated here can be found in Fred Wakeman’s book Policing Shanghai as well as Martin’s Shanghai Green Gang).

The second claim to fame of this mansion is that it housed General George Marshall during his unsuccessful bid in 1946 to bring the CCP and KMT together into a coalition government.  Ignoring Marshall’s best advice, the hamfisted g’issimo sent his troops up north to Manchuria, where the Red Army (now called the People’s Liberation Army) was spreading rapidly, having moved into the region after the end of WWII.  Chiang’s troops starved and froze to death or else joined the PLA and the rest is history.  The breaking point for Marshall was in December 1946 when a Peking University female student was raped by American Marines.  The incident was drummed up into a frenzy by the CCP underground and soon after Marshall and his men went back to the States with their tails between their legs.  That was the last time the USA intervened heavily in Mainland Chinese politics (unless you count the US government’s support of ROC Taiwan over the past 60-sthg years).

The third claim to fame is that it became the base of operations for Madame Mao, aka Jiang Qing aka Lan Ping aka .... the list goes on.  The greatest femme fatale in modern world history spent time here orchestrating the Cultural Revolution along with the other three members of the notorious Gang of Four.  Or so I’ve been told.

The fourth ctf is that in 1999, my wife and I had our wedding ceremony in the Taiyuan Guesthouse.  My parents came over along with my sister and stayed in the guesthouse in luxurious rooms.  We had a western-style processional and vow-taking ceremony on the lawn in front of the mansion, and then went inside for a Chinese-style banquet (12 tables I believe, a small but cozy number for a Chinese wedding) followed by dancing to the tunes of Coco and his jazz band, and then upstairs for a bit of the old 闹洞房.

Needless to say, I was utterly shocked when we entered the compound only to find that it had been entirely deracinated.  That is to say, the beautiful grounds of the compound were now covered with holes and piles of dirt, sweaty construction workers, and steel pipes everywhere.  The mansion itself was completely shrouded in scaffolding.  As with the Peace and Park Hotels, it is currently undergoing a major renovation.  I hope they don’t f*k these places up as I’d hold them personally accountable.  Whether or not they represent the evils of foreign imperialism, these are all sacred sites in Shanghai and deserve the best of care.  God knows whose hands they are in now, but if anybody knows what their plans are, I’d sure like to be briefed.  (I’ve read about the Peace Hotel renovations but I don’t trust any developers, least of all the Jinjiang Group, to adhere to the historical beauty of these places.  Please, please prove me wrong).

Thus endeth the two-day tour of Shanghai.  I’ve written it down in such detail not only to preserve it in my own memory, but also in the hopes that it will be a useful example of how to or how not to plan their own tour of the city.  Just be prepared for unexpected surprises if you do for the best laid plans ‘o mice and men gang aft aglay.