A “Ding How” Day in Shanghai, China

by Martha Wiseman

A girl performing at the Children's Palace Arts Center
A girl performing at the Children's Palace Arts Center

Visiting Shanghai while on our Asia cruise, was such a great experience, we almost considered getting off the cruise ship and staying there. As we sailed up the Huangpu River to where it meets the Yangtze, we took on immigration officials at 2am so that all the paperwork would be finished when our China shore excursion began at 7am. Since we have become geezers, we only get up early when we are on vacation, but this day of touring China’s largest city was well worth it.

Because it is still national holiday week here, our bus made it into town in record time without rush hour traffic. We walked through a garden full of fellow geezers doing tai chi and taking their birds in their cages out for a walk. In one corner music blared and elderly couples were waltzing with great vigor. Then we came to the Old Town area, a loving reconstruction of old style Chinese architecture, housing souvenir shops and eateries. Hidden between the restaurants selling sticky buns and mystery meat on a stick, we saw familiar friends such as Starbucks. This complex has grown around Yu Gardens, which contains more than 30 pavilions linked by a series of corridors and bridges over ponds. The classic Chinese garden always has rocks, water, a pagoda, and a bridge. There was so much to admire here, I had shot over sixty photographs before we left. It was only 9am.

The next tour stop was a silk factory. We were shown how the worms spin cocoons after feasting on mulberry leaves. Silk clothing is made from the single cocoon which unwinds readily. This factory also processed double cocoons which have multiple threads intertwined and comforters are made from them. Bewitched by it all, we found ourselves plunking down some plastic for a fluffy silk comforter. Gorgeous silk clothing and rugs were also for sale here.

Then we visited the Children’s Palace, a large complex complete with auditorium where children ages 5-13 come after school to learn some aspect of the fine arts. We heard some great Chinese musical stringed instruments as well as a very credible accordion. Two adorable girls screeched some passages from Chinese opera. The screeching was as it should be. No westerner can stand to listen to this stuff for more than fifteen minutes!

All this and it was only time for lunch. We feasted at the five-star Jin Jang hotel. This historic spot was where Nixon met Mao and began to break through the wall of Communism in 1972. The venerable old building was among many constructed by Europeans during their concession time. After the first Opium War merchants from Britain and France were given chunks of land to use as if they were their own. Today this is known as the Bund area. Until ten years ago, across the Yungpu River from the Bund, farmers toiled on marshy land. The only way across was by ferry. In the early 90′s a dramatic looking TV tower was erected in the marshes and the rest is history. Now the Shanghai Pudong skyline rivals that of any world city with one glamorous high rise after another. Visiting dignitaries today have many striking and unique hotels to choose from. Architects must be clamoring to have an opportunity to put the imagined into reality here.

As we drove around, we caught sight of occasional old, picturesque neighborhoods, but these are rapidly being torn down for new high-rises. The photographer in us made us sorry to hear that, but life is much better for the locals in the new construction. The old homes did not have running water, toilets, or stoves. All cooking was done over coal, which made the neighborhoods dingy and dark. However, our whole time in Shanghai, we did not see a single family home of the sort that is the American dream. Our guide said that 3,000 buildings have been erected in the last ten years and they are working 24/7 to build comfortable housing for everyone.

Stuffed full of mysterious, but tasty Chinese food, we resumed the tour with a stop at the Shanghai Museum, an extensive collection of artifacts from this country’s extremely lengthy history. We saw jade pieces form 5,000BC.

The final stop of the day was the Jade Buddha Temple, a huge complex which housed many Buddhas including the jade one which was stolen from the Burmese (no bad karma here) and is an active temple as well as tourist destination. Our guide alerted us to a gathering of monks who finished their final worship of the day amid flashing cameras. To increase the temple coffers, we attend a lesson on various medicinal teas and how to prepare them and were offered a chance to purchase and improve our circulation, blood pressure and whatever else ails.

The Shanghai Museum, Jim Mao & Yu Garden excursion was finished, but the day was not. We headed to the ship’s theater for a performance of acrobats that would cost $100 to see in Las Vegas. The pretzel shapes they tied themselves into and the feats of balance caused us to clap so much our hands stung by the end. One man rode a unicycle while he flipped plates from his foot up to his head. When his head was full, he kept riding while balancing twirling rings on his foot. Amazing.

Shanghai is a city on the must return list. Our guide taught us the Chinese words for “fantastic” — ding how. It was a ding, ding how day!