Shanghai’s secret ancient town

An old man fishing the canal by long pole

Timing is everything, so the saying goes. Well the timing of our trip to China saw the continuation of our lucky run. As it happened, we were in Shanghai at the same time as Frank, an old mate from Melbourne. Frank was back in his old hometown to share the New Year festivities with his family.

Frank offered to show us one of Shanghai’s hidden gems. Who could refuse an offer like that? So we jumped on the subway and made our way a short way across town. We exited the subway onto a broad commercial boulevard and the anywhere nature of our surrounds led me to question whether we had got off at the wrong stop, but just ten minutes down the road we found the Qibao Ancient Town.

Qibao is an ancient water town hidden in the heart of a metropolis, just eleven kilometres from downtown Shanghai. Crossing the threshold we left the soulless high-rises, neon signs and broad traffic laden roads of modern Shanghai and walked into the bustling cobbled laneways.  It was like stepping back in time. The street was alive with colour and movement, red lanterns were strung up in every doorway and street corner. Multi tiered wooden pagodas and temples with tiled roofs finishing in a flurry of curved flourishes that draw eye and soul skyward. An old man smoked beneath the quaint stone bridge and fished the freezing canal waters by long pole. Shops and street vendors crowded the lanes with their wild and wonderful wares: foods of every kind, fireworks and rice whiskey.

I kept my eye out for one of Mr Wing’s suppliers so I could pick myself up a wholesale Mogwai but unfortunately we didn’t stumble across one. My disappointment was well and truly tapered by the stinky tofu, beer duck and beggars chicken. For the latter, a whole chicken is seasoned with herbs then wrapped in a lotus leaf then slow baked in a clay coating. The legend goes that the cooking method was discovered by a poor man who stole a chicken. He was preparing to cook it on the fire when the landowner happened along. To conceal his crime, he quickly wrapped it in mud and threw it in the fire, later he discovered the succulent cooked chook inside.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the streets reveling in the atmosphere. Then it was time to go. I got myself a porcelain flask of rice whiskey, a box of dumplings and walked back to the subway feeling thoroughly grateful to Frank for having shown us something we would never have otherwise seen.

Beggars chicken for sale at a street vendor
Chinese temple at Qibao Ancient Town

The lanes of Qibao Ancient Town

A red-letter stay in Shanghai

The streets of Shanghai on the eve of the Year of the Tiger

A week in Shanghai was a fitting end to our six-month expedition; we were there to share the New Year festivities with Amy’s cousin Toby, his wife Bonnie and their little boy, Sonny. It was a great time to visit, Shanghai is at its least crowded during that time of year, factories are shut and many of the people are on holiday. That being said, we were still left in awe of the sprawling metropolis, Shanghai is very much the archetype city of the new China.

I noticed very early on that the Chinese have a very different idea of the concept of luck. It is obvious that it is fundamentally important in all aspects of everyday life but I also noticed that it seems to be also something that can be influenced. Not content to wait for the winds of chance to blow favourably, Lady Fortune is coerced and courted.

By visiting during the New Year celebrations, we had definitely made our own luck. We saw a different side of the city; the weeklong national holiday had the city moving to a different beat. In a place where a sense of urgency is the norm people seemed to be taking a moment, pausing to reflect. As we ate, shopped and strolled amongst a maze of skyscrapers that just a generation ago would have been town houses and fields there were times when it seemed as if everybody had packed up and gone. Apparently that wasn’t too far from the truth, for many, the New Year holidays provide an opportunity to travel back to the towns and villages of their birth to spend time with family and friends.

With all the factories closed, the air was fresh and clear. The roads, while still chaotic were negotiable. There were times when the streets were largely deserted. In places usually hectic to an inch of your life, not a soul was to be seen. There were also times when a flood of unexpected visitors converged on what would normally be the city’s sanctuaries meaning that they were mercilessly devoured back into the metropolis.

There were a couple of staples of Shanghai life that even the celebration of the New Year couldn’t alter. The malls were full and so were the restaurants. I shudder to think what they are like when the city is in full swing.

Food is one of the fundamental aspects of Chinese culture. Meals are to be enjoyed, a time shared with family and friends. And so it was with us, we spent many hours eating and laughing with Toby and Bonnie. It is those eating experiences that will linger most vividly in my memories of Shanghai.

This isn’t to say that the Shanghai dining experience is a walk in the park. As an uncouth Australian, the language barrier was a very initiating hurdle as was the plethora of delicious looking digestibles. This meant ordering wasn’t a matter of peruse and pick rather a complex series of negotiations. As luck had it Bonnie is fluent in both Shanghaise and Mandarin and a shrewd diner to boot. She asked the hard questions and demanded the best but she always got results. This meant that we sampled a substantial share of Shanghai’s finest fare. So many satisfying meals make it hard to pinpoint the highlight but the crab and egg stew, a mixed mushroom stir-fry, chili beef and the shared hot pot stand out.

The actual New Year celebrations were something to behold. Shanghai was at its eerie best for the start of the Year of the Tiger. Bonnie and Toby live in an apartment on the 12th floor so it provided the ideal spot to sit back and watch the city put on its show. And what a show it was. In the hours leading up to midnight the city was flooded with flash and flare to the point of being reminiscent of a coordinated carpet-bombing campaign. But the lead up proved just a flash in the pan when compared to the New Year extravaganza that followed. Forget the choreographed and coordinated fireworks displays you see at events and milestones in Australia. This was a free for all of epic proportions. Families, friends and individual punters had brought bulk explosives and put on dazzling excessive displays, competing against one another to see who could pull off the biggest bang. The entire skyline was engulfed with colour, light and noise. A million different explosions overwhelmed all senses. Then came the calm after the storm. The city was left shrouded in a haze of smoke and the ground covered in a blanket of red, the shredded remains of the fireworks. Then the snow began to fall.

The following day – New Years day – we again went in pursuit of luck, this time at the Shanghai zoo. We practically had the place to ourselves meaning that all the luck associated with seeing Bengal and Sumatran tigers, on the first day of the year of the tiger was heaped upon us.

That was how we welcomed in the Year of Tiger in Shanghai. We ate, drank, laughed and became creatures of the night. We braved icy winds, smokey jazz clubs, explored the lonely streets and marveled at the spindled grey skyline. Fortuity, providence, chance, serendipity, whatever you call it, landed us in Shanghai. Our time with Toby, Bonnie and Sonny made it great. I count myself lucky to have visited Shanghai.

Sonny Mak: a little tiger living it up in the Year of the Tiger
Amy in the early hours of New Year's day
Amy in the early hours of New Year’s day

Toby Mak playing at the Melting Pot