Discovering Shanghai

China’s fast and furious big-city dynamo also has a slow gear that’ll soothe your soul. Ellen Himelfarb finds Shanghai’s pulse

In a swish of flowing black changshan robes, the master enters the room, and the impatient tap-tapping of my foot is stilled as if by some enchantment. Wordlessly, he makes jasmine tea, pours it into tiny ceramic cups and sits, in balletic posture, to unfurl a fabric roll harbouring Lilliputian brass implements: brush, tongs and razor-sharp spatula. Beside the tools sit clay bowls of aromatic powder, urns of fine white ash and brass stencils cut in lotus-flower shapes — the raw materials of my ‘incense appreciation’ lesson. Mirroring my teacher’s movements, I place a stencil on the ash and pat out the powder on top: another tap-tap, only calmer this time. Using my spatula I tidy the edges: a quieter swish.

Neon advertisements light the night sky in Shanghai by Getty images

As I focus on sweeping up the fine, heady dust, the master speaks mellifluously about this ritual — thousands of years old — performed to heal, tell time, smoke away evil or, as today, simply help us mellow out. Then we lift our templates to reveal incense patterns that resemble flourishes on a cappuccino. We light the ends, and watch the embers smoulder, like cartoon TNT in slow-mo.

In what seems like 10 minutes of deep concentration and deeper breathing, our hour flies by. Is this what they call… Zen?

I was beyond excited for the bigger, taller, faster, everything-now rhythm of Shanghai, the organised chaos of 26 million strivers. For the better part of a week, I’ve shopped the neon megastores of Nanjing Road, drank in lounges 100m higher than London’s Shard. I’ve battled sharp-elbowed tourists on the sacred ‘zigzag bridge’ to photograph the ancient temples of Yu Garden. I’ve even taken part in the latest rite of passage: a fix of nitrogen-infused tea in a throbbing 2,694sq m rotunda — one of the biggest Starbucks in the world.

Mission accomplished. But if I carry on this way any longer I’ll need a holiday from my holiday. What’s required for the next few days is some stillness, some tranquillity, some peace and quiet and contemplation, and breathing out. Some serene ancient yin to the city’s hectic modern yang. And Nanshufang, this soft-lit school of ‘scholarly arts’ — tea ceremonies, flower-arranging, calligraphy and more join incense on the curriculum — is the perfect place to start. While outside, in the Xintiandi neighbourhood, shoppers dash around trendy trainer shops tucked into traditional grey-brick shikumen houses, I bend over to inhale the fragrant scent of a Qing-style table in historic Chinese nanmu wood, while a teacher and student pluck their zither-like guqins in the background. ‘The speed of life is taking its toll,’ explains the teacher. ‘People are reacting to the pressure by returning to Confucianism and Buddhism, exchanging material values for culture, slowing down.’

That may be true, but my blood pressure shoots right up again as soon as I leave. Dinner’s in an hour at a restaurant deep in the former French Concession — the southwest quarter of the city cordoned off by French occupiers in the 19th century — but crossing Xintiandi requires the agility of a street dancer. My moves aren’t up to it, so I hop in a taxi, thinking it will be more relaxing.

It’s not. Hurtling westward, I slide down in my seat to take in the sheer height of the new towers edging the French colonists’ old haunt, as my driver veers around buzzing swarms of electric scooters and maverick pedestrians with the skill of a video-game champion. This is edge-of-the-seat stuff, until, at the marvellously named Wulumuqi Road, the traffic grinds to a hooting, honking halt. The cabbie taps the long nail of his pinkie against the wheel.

‘Ni ho hala mia wan wo ga lai!’ he says.

Colourful pavilions at Yu Garden, Shanghai by Getty Images

Or something of the sort. Surely he’s not talking to me, I think, until he repeats himself with the assurance of an American tourist expecting everyone to speak his language. My stress levels ratchet up further. Rather than mangle words plucked from my Chinese phrasebook, I pay the fare on the meter and flee, nearly colliding with a bicycle cart carrying bananas, as he continues to speak in my direction.

At first, the pavements teem as much as the tarmac. In narrow shops wide open to the street, fishmongers sink their nets deep into tanks to pull out wriggling ‘mitten crabs’ with claws encircled by fuzz, like tiny fur muffs, as I dodge queues of clocked-off workers buying buns from bamboo steamers. This is not the tranquil French Concession I’m craving right now.

But as I turn into a side street, suddenly the scene fades — until the only sound is the swaying branches of the mature plane trees forming a canopy overhead. Clay-roofed villas sit back from sepia-toned walls, the last light of the day dappling the stucco. It’s no wonder the French clung on to this little enclave of quiet for nearly a century.

The landscape unfolds like a film set after the director has wrapped and the cast has left for the day. Here and there a window glows with a scene: a smocked barber wielding electric shears, or a candlelit bar stocked with French imports. A rusty bicycle leans like a prop against a dress shop. Passing an Art Deco manor retrofitted with wires and satellite dishes, I feel a drop of water. In an upstairs window, an old lady pins a pair of large white pants to a wire rack jutting out over the street. She adds a bright pink shirt, then unfurls a patterned bedsheet like a welcome banner. As I move on, the drips stain the pavement behind me.

Tai chi at sunrise in Shanghai by Getty Images

My friend April has chosen our restaurant, Old Jesse — it’s a tranquil tonic following my days spent immersed in the thick of ‘new’ Shanghai. The two of us meet on an otherwise vacant tree-lined street, but our table in the 1930s terraced house isn’t ready, so we wander aimlessly up the road and into a residential lane, where we’re met with more drizzle as a woman pours a bucket of water over her head to wash her hair.

When our table becomes free, April and I squeeze around a small square of wood in the house’s former living room. Platter after platter of meat is coming out of the kitchen to every mismatched table, and patrons are chomping the chunks, fat and all, at an alarming rate. Ours comes supple, as if it’s been cooked for a day, and perfectly crisped on the fatty side so that the two parts ooze together in a salty swirl. Wilted pea shoots doused in garlic sauce mitigate this heart attack on a plate. Only the ‘drunken chicken’ — slices of breast steeped in rice wine and served cold as per tradition — fails to charm me.

Back on Wulumuqi Road, en route to my hotel, the traffic is still buzzing but the streets are quietening. The noodle shops are closing up, with just the last few patrons finishing their meals over calming games of smartphone mahjong. Four pensioners in white singlets play cards around a plastic garden table. Students headed for the clubs buy skewers of meat from a small mobile barbecue, the smoke billowing around their pastel-dyed coifs. And among it all, a young man has rolled out a woven mat on the pavement and fallen fast asleep, presumably to sneak in some zzzs before his morning shift. I admire his zen. 

A woman holding up incense sticks at Jade Temple in Shanghai by Getty Images

At 9am the next morning, I’ve installed myself on the Bund, the riverfront boulevard strung with palatial European landmarks, like diamonds in a flamboyant headdress. I know it well, at least by night, when it glimmers from lights arranged strategically around the spires, columns and domes. Earlier this week I joined the frenzied passeggiata along the promenade, facing the new city of super-tall towers flashing and pinging with adverts across the river. Ducking all the selfie sticks criss crossing the path, I felt like a bride passing under an arch of sabres.

That was then. Now, on my last day in town, I’m still not as decompressed as I want to be. April has recommended coming back to the Bund: ‘It’s a different place in the mornings,’ she says. In place of the hordes, six pensioners dressed head to toe in black move with exaggerated slowness in a t’ai chi dance to a tinny soundtrack of pan flutes. I try to find patterns in their gently waving arms and gradual lunges, to align my breathing with the gentle pad of Adidas on pavement. And slowly, surely, with the sun’s glare almost obscuring the hyperbolic skyline to the east, I feel myself slipping towards another world.

I’ve still got some sightseeing to do, but rather than navigate through the thick of downtown, I’ve mapped out a route along the Suzhou River, a curly wisp of water snaking along the north side of the city. A landscaped path clings to it, passing century-old textile warehouses and factories converted into lofts, shrubbery peeking out from rooftop gardens. The infamous smog diffuses the sun into a downy duvet of light.

I wander under rows of oak and chestnut, no cars or bikes playing the usual game of Intersection Chicken, and end up beside the yellow-ochre walls of the 19th-century Jade Temple, five minutes’ stroll from the river.

Statuettes of terracotta warriors on sale at a tourist market in Shanghai by Getty Images

Last time I was here, the crowds were four deep around the ceremonial urns, and the threat of third-degree burns from their smouldering joss sticks was anything but Zen, so I brace myself as I enter. But inside, I find couples wandering hand in hand, shaded by swooping eaves, exploring lacquered red halls in peace and reverential quiet. Monks in sighing saffron robes slip by in silence so pure I can hear the slap of their sandals.

Why so calm? Last year, I overhear a guide murmuring, the entire temple was hoisted up on rollers and shifted 30m backwards. In the void, a vast courtyard emerged in which to breathe, reflect, and freely swing a joss stick.

For a while I sit on the temple steps, breathing in incense and feeling my slouch sink into a slump that almost matches the Buddha’s. I glide to the Metro. Shanghai’s mass-transit system is the longest in the world — and, thanks to its 430kph airport train, the most breakneck-fast too. But by early evening the crowds have dispersed from the immense ticket hall, parting the way to an English-language kiosk. How easy it is to drop in my handful of coins for a ticket, how clear the signs to the platform, how quickly my train arrives, how strangely… relaxing it all is.

The train speeds away, causing light projections on the tunnel walls to move like a zoetrope. I lean against a pole and watch meditatively as the air chimes with gadgetry lullabies. This is the last place I would have looked for serenity, but Shanghai surprises even — especially — when it’s not trying. And I think I’ve finally found peace.

Words by: Ellen Himelfarb

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