I don’t think anything could have prepared me for Shanghai. With my cheek pressed flat against the window pane of the taxi, I kept on looking at the astonishing world around me. At first glance Shanghai was far from pretty, but driving on the highway surrounded by crumbling, yet still majestic, skyscrapers was the closest I’ve ever gotten to travelling in time. It was as if someone transported me into the future – not the glamorous science fiction kind though, but the slightly decaying one of the dystopian novels. I have never seen blocks of flats so big; rows of rusty grey boxes of air conditioners adorning the walls over 20 storeys tall. I felt overwhelmed and unwelcome in this world of not so great greatness wreathed in the haze of a heavy smog.
When the idea of the trip to Asia in 2017 first entered my mind, out of the three countries we were going to visit, China was the one I was least excited about. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure how I felt about going to a country whose politics I wasn’t a fan of and which seemed to become the world’s leading economy at the expense of it’s people’s rights and the environment. I wasn’t looking forward to the “modern” China, but much more interested in its past, the rich heritage of its beautiful culture, before its consumerist spirit disguised under communist slogans. And now that we left the Forbidden City for the concrete jungle of Shanghai, I was experiencing what I had thought I would feel upon arrival in China- the grey emptiness of a busy metropolis devoid of culture and filled with hunger for profit. Luckily, I was soon to find out that underneath the colossal buildings the city had much more for me in store.
The first thing my husband and I did after dropping our bags at the Yun’s Paradise Yun Garden (which was as far from a paradise or a garden as they get), was a visit to the Yu Yuan which was just a short walk from the hotel. The area surrounding the Yu Yuan (meaning Garden of Happiness) was as close as I was going to get to the “old” China.
We walked through the tall, gold adorned gate guarded on both sides by two stone lions, finding ourselves on a Fangbang road filled with small shops selling anything from antiques to tea. It was clearly a tourist area, but as anything in China, there were more home-grown tourists than foreigners around. Walking past the eager vendors who tried to entice us to visit their shops, we managed to eventually arrive at the Old Cheng Huang Temple snack square and Yu Yuan bazaar where hordes of hungry Chinese youth gathered to eat the plentitude of local fast food. Eating a crispy, thin local fried pastry surrounded by the beautiful wooden buildings with elaborate rooftops and ornamental balconies, one could easily get tricked into feeling that they were experiencing the “authentic” China.
Although at a first glance the traditional architecture surrounding the area looks historic, a significant part of the original Old City has been demolished and redeveloped into tall-rise buildings, leaving only some of the ancient houses. Much of the remaining architecture, however, includes renovated features or has been completely rebuilt in exact resemblance of the initial building – a practice popular across China.
Despite McDonald’s and Starbucks embedded in the historic looking houses, the area brings to life the essence of the old China. Underneath the dark, carved,sloping layers of the rooftops, you will find some wonderful tranquility of the teahouses. One of my personal favourites was the Huxinting Teahouse, dating back to 1855. Overseeing a small lake inhabited by water turtles and koi fish, this intricately decorated pavillon took me back in time. Sitting over perfectly brewed green tea and enjoying the delicious tea-stained quail eggs and bite-sized tofu, I could almost imagine busy teahouses and opium dens of this port city, filled with bustle of merchants selling silk and trading tea leaves. Realising I would never get to see THAT Shanghai, I felt a certain ping of nostalgia and sadness for the world gone. But it wasn’t my past that I was pining for, it wasn’t my heritage that I wished to see but a stereotype I had created and now felt disappointed that reality did not reflect it. To me China lost some of its beautiful past, but perhaps to the Chinese the future with its promise of what it could become was more important? Maybe they had just as much of the old as they were prepared to hold on to? Perhaps a 19th century teahouse and quality tea were just the right amount of past for them. Or maybe there was a whole lot of the forgotten world that was still alive, safely tucked away from the curious gazes of the foreigners? Only the Chinese would know.
As I pondered China’s relationship with time, I suddenly wondered: don’t we all do the same? Don’t most of us either impatiently embrace the new and efficient, bigger and better without stopping to think at what cost this progress comes; or hold on to the past in a senselessly habitual rather than reflective way? Perhaps one of he biggest art of living this life is the ability to strike the right balance between the old and the new, the past and the future, creating enough space for the here and now.
Sitting in Shanghai’s teahouse, holding a tiny steaming cup of tea in my hand, I focused on its delicate jasmine fragrance. I took a sip and tasted the warm softness of the comforting liquid on my tongue. I didn’t have to rush anywhere, physically or mentally. I could simply be. Living in the present moment, appreciating life right here, right now.