Four more photos of old Shanghai

(For background, read my posts Chinese family history and Child of the atom bomb first)

In Shanghai, Rosemary and I went to a few more places related to our family history. Shanghai has undergone massive development, knocking down of whole areas, building of new skyscrapers. Amazingly, everywhere we went was still there. A hundred year old colonial buildings, with quite different architectures to those surrounding them. And still used in modern China. It was also great that the guards and porters would let us in. When Rosemary went 20 years ago, all she managed to do was peer from a distance. China is opening up, and relaxing.

The red building on the right of the left photo is the school that my grandmother used to teach in. She was a Physical Education teacher, and it was a school for Eurasians, people with one Western parent and one Chinese parent. The date above the entrance says 1893/1894, and it is now the Shanghai Installation Engineering Co, Ltd. The men on the left were arc welding some metal railings together.

The photo on the right is of the back of the hospital where my mother was born. It’s still a hospital. At first they wouldn’t let us in, I think because I’d been taking photos too obviously. Rosemary insisted she wanted to go round the back, I wasn’t sure why. Eventually a kind Doctor who spoke English was summoned, and escorted us round. The gardens were beautifully kept, and the rear of the hospital (photo) better architected. You can see the tall tower of the new wing rising up on the right behind the old building.

The bottom left photo is of the former Jubilee Court, where my grandparents, mother and aunt lived before they were interned by the Japanese. There was a sign on it saying “Monument under the Protection of Shanghai Municipality”. It’s still residential, we chatted to a woman whose mother lived in one of the other flats.

The right hand picture is of Yuyuen Rd camp. It’s where they were first interned before being taken to the Yangtzepoo camp at the end of the war. The camp used to be a school, and now is again. It’s called the Shi Xi High School, and had very well kept grounds. There were some kids playing basketball, even though it was the weekend.

Holy mountain

(Just to explain, I’ve been back from China for a couple of weeks now, but still have blog posts to make about it, which I’m gradually catching up on)

When we were in Chengdu we went on a trip a couple of hours south to Emei Shan. This is where the religious thread of the holiday met the family history one.

My grandmother went on a journey up the Yangtze river to Emei Shan in 1936, with her friend Gracie. She’d been in Shanghai for six years, and in her summer holidays had already visited Peking, the Philippines, Saigon, Angkor, Bangkok, Korea and Japan. So by 1936 there wasn’t much left – they had to go to inland China. At the time, this was a very adventurous thing for two unaccompanied English ladies to do.

This verdant mountain is an ancient place of pilgrimage, both for pious Buddhists, and for seemingly millions of Chinese tourists. But as soon as you take a hard route away from the temples near the road, it becomes quiet and calm, you can watch the dragon flies, and be at peace.

We walked up the long route, but only went half way up. Even so it was very steep, so for some sections Rosemary got herself carried (photo). This was following her mother – who went up the mountain carried by 7 men! “3 to carry me – 2 Gracie and 2 baggage”

We stayed the night on the mountain in a Buddhist temple, in a surprisingly luxurious room. I’d hope for something a bit more down with the monks (I’d accidentally been to a service with some at the monastry in the town at the bottom of the mountain the night before), but Rosemary needed as much luxury as we could find. It was peaceful wondering round the glen in the twilight, with lakes and bridges. I went up onto the roof garden, watched and briefly played cards with a monk and some of the lay workers.

On the way back down (via foot, cable car and bus) in the morning we saw two donkeys struggling their way up the steps from the valley below. They were both loaded with panniers containing fine rocks for building. Panting all the time, they would sometimes stumble. Their two minders had spades, which I saw one beat his donkey with when it had fallen down once too often.

That afternoon we went to see the largest Buddha in the world as Leshan, carved in a rockface by the river. I climbed down the steps to his feet, and looked up in awe (photo). The Chinese tourists hardly looked, as ever busy snapping souvenir photos of themselves in front of him. I put my camera away. I thought about impermanence. He looked down at me and told me that life is change, and that I would never see him again. In the end, that’s the way it is with everything in this fragile world.

And my grandmother? She stayed five days at the top of the mountain, sleeping in a temple on their own camp beds, and eating tinned beans and pork they’d brought with them. The weather completely failed to clear, so she never saw the rarely visible fantastic view, and had to set off on the weeks of journey home.

She never mentioned the Leshan Buddha in her letters, even though her boat must have gone past it. This had puzzled my mother. But now we know. It is actually quite hard to see the Buddha from the river, you’d have to happen to look when the boat was right next to him.

Holy island

Even though I’m an atheist, it’s fun and moving to seek out pious people and watching them going about their business. A few years ago I used to do this in the UK via Cambridge Interfaith, who organised such things as a visit to the synagogue on a Friday evening, and a day trip to the Hari Krishna temple George Harrison paid for in Hertfordshire. And I saw lots of religious places with Phil in Burma (see parts of this post and all of this one).

China’s religions are in resurgence, as things continue to loosen up following the Cultural Revolution. Numerous temples have been rebuilt recently. Just before leaving Shanghai, Rosemary and I went on a two day trip to Putuoshan. It’s a Buddhist holy island, a few hours journey by bus and boat south east. We spent the first afternoon going up to the top of the mountain and exploring temples. There were pious people there, lighting incense (photo left), and praying to Guanyin, goddess of mercy. Some pilgrims were even climbing the 1200m path of steps up the hill by prostating themselves forwards on the ground. They would stand up, step forward to where their head had been, and bow forwards flat, again and again.

The photo on the right is of a food area in one of the temples. You could pay a few yuan to a monk at a counter on one side of the temple, and get led off down side passages to the food area and dining room at the other side. There a lay assistant would fill a bowl with excellent vegetarian food, tasty aubergines and mushrooms and more strange Chinese vegetables. You help yourself to rice from a big vat of it, eat as much as you need. I think this is the same food the monks and their assistants ate, made available for anyone.

As well as Chinese pilgrims, there were also lots of Chinese tourists, most of whom we found in the morning down by the coast, coming to look at the brand new (well, 1998) shiny statue of Guanyin. She is golden, holding a small ships wheel in one hand to bring luck to fisherman. She towers what must be 30m above you, you climb up steps to her, flanked by guardians. She rests on a tower of two halls, on a promontry with almost 360 degree views of the sea. One hall contains amazing detailed wood carvings, and another 400 statues of her past lives. A stone carving frieze encircles the halls, skillfully carved with scenes of Guanyin helping locals. I’ve seen quite a few spectacular Buddhist statues, and this one was pretty good. Not to be diminished because she was new, she was awesome.

What I really want to know is how she was funded. The Chinese government have, I remember being told a few years ago, paid for lots of temples to be rebuilt, if only to attract tourists. But are there also rich Buddhist benefactors, paying millions for new statues? I haven’t found the answer, but here is a description of the Guanyin statue and some photos of her.


If you fall off the eastern edge of the Himalayan mountains, the first major city (population 4.1 million) that you come to is Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province. You’ve heard of it from the spicy Chinese food, called “Szechuan” in the west.

Rosemary and I spent 5 or 6 days based around there. A few of those were visiting a Buddhist holy mountain, and the largest Buddha in the world – I’ll write about them in another post.

Chengdu itself was like every other large Chinese city – endless streets with few distinguishing features. My fault for hoping it might be a bit better than that. It has some super parks, but you have to deliberately go to them, you couldn’t stumble upon them by accident.

We saw real Giant Pandas at the breeding centre outside town – they’re super cute, mainly because they have a sixth thumb-like finger so they look like people as they eat bamboo. The Red Pandas are even better. I hope somebody domesticates some soon. They were running round playing, happy like dogs, but cute like cats.

The surprise attraction in Chengdu itself was Du Fu’s “cottage”. Really a whole complex of buildings and gardens (photo right), originally where an 8th century poet lived in a thatched house. There was lots of good bonsai trees, and also calligraphy of Du Fu’s poems. Those are the two arts which I’ve seen that are both still practiced properly in China, and are uniquely Chinese.

Quick post

Just a quick post to say what’s happening. Rosemary is flying back to Shanghai tomorrow, and then home later in the week. I’m in China for another 10 days, heading tomorrow into Northern Sichuan. I’m writing some more about things we’ve seen in the last week, but won’t put them up until I get some more photographs out of my camera.

Hope in the air

We took the magical modern teleport from Xi’an to Chengdu. 18 hours in a train a bit too much for Rosemary, and saving a day was useful.

I wandered round the airport looking for an English language newspaper. A shiny glossy building with high ceilings, much nicer than Heathrow. Clear layout and signs, clean toilets. Well, I guess Xi’an is the capital of a province of 38 million people, so I don’t know why I was surprised. But I was.

These are the railway stations of our times, as spectacular as the London stations of 150 years ago. And as remarkable in the social change that they are bringing about. Our discounted tickets were about the same price (300 yuan or 20 quid) as the soft sleeper train. Everyone will be flying all over China before we know it. Well, OK, round about 2022.

To try to stop this seems to me impossible. And to have hope without action is pointless. So I wept a bit, hoped that what I’ve read about climate change is wrong, but didn’t believe it. I can take some more Climate Care as a palliative when I get home.

In the end, I managed to find an Asian edition of the Economist.

Warriors or pigs?

Two emperors, roughly 2000 years ago, supervised the creation of their own burial treasures before they died. One (called Qin Shi Huang) created an entire pottery army, in formation, with infantry, cavalry, chariots, archers and a command section. The other (called in various places Han Jing, Liu Qi, or Jindi, I can’t quite work out his name) created pigs, horses, goats, carts, pots, peasants, managers of food supply and representations of judicial functions. Han Jing the yin to Qin Shi’s yang. Which would you take?

Rosemary and I have just taken a lolloping rail route from Shanghai round past the Yellow river in northern China. We passed through Kaifeng – still with bicycles, men playing chess, puppy dogs for sale in the street in cages, OK tourist attractions. The photo of the square by day above, after dark turns into a night market, with hundreds of food stalls selling freshly grilled kebabs, stir frys, geletinous desserts from elephant kettles, freshly rolled filled pastas and thousands of people.

Then Luoyang. In the cliffs of a river near Luoyang, Buddhist emperors and empresses had Buddhas as high as 15 story buildings carved deep into the face of the rock. The photo on the left below is of the river Yi nearby, and the photo on the right of a Heavenly Warrior. Bigger than he looks, 15m tall I think.

We’re in Xi’an at the moment, site of numerous ancient capitals of China. It’s in terms of development all that I had expected Shanghai would be. It feels wealthy, with valuable cars. But it’s also just that bit cleaner, and more relaxed than Shanghai. Bell Tower Square at night feels like an evening square in Italy, well dressed people enjoying the balmy night. The old city walls are still complete, and together with the gardens where the moat used to be form both a landmark and a sense of space.

“These tiles are clean! I wonder if the plaza there pays for them to be scrubbed every day?” “Oh no, it’s because they’re brand new, look even though it’s the evening, the workmen are still laying them.” I was shy about photographing them, but once I did they all started posing with their shovels (photo below left). It looked somewhat ad hoc.

It seems that if you dig a hole more than few metres deep, you’ll stumble upon buried treasure anywhere in Shaanxi province. The cute little lamb on the right is a couple of thousand years old, and was recently found by the Xian Lightbulb Corporation during construction of a new building.

And those two emperors, planning for their afterlives?

The famous Terracota Warriors, found accidentally by peasants digging a well in the mid 1970s, were the treasures of the first yang emperor, Qin Shi. Well worth going to – make sure you see the movie there, which was filmed with a 360 degree camera and gives more useful historical information than the broken English signs. The surprise hit (found via the most recent Lonely Planet, and only discovered at all in the early 1990s) is Han Yangling, the mausoleum of the second emperor, Han Jing. It’s in many ways more fascinating than the Warriors. Much less busy, with time and space to linger. Glass floors going above burial pits, you can see the excavations of all the animals and people close up.

It’s difficult to decide which emperor I’d follow while preparing my afterlife. It’s much more in my character to follow Han Jing, and take enough peasants, animals, equipment and administrative functions to form a new civislisation. But, alas, I know that Qin Shi’s pottery invasion force would plunder it all as soon as we got there. So, on balance, I’d have to defect in this prisoner’s dilemma, and take the army.

Penguins in Shanghai

Most people wouldn’t have seen it, but it instantly caught my eye. I saw this (picture left) last week in Shanghai, on the corner of Shaanxi Lu and Huaihai Zhonglu. It’s an animated advertising hording, which as you can see was mostly black with a cartoon Penguin and the words “Welcome to”. The mirror writing gives away that the Pepsi logo is a reflection of a sign opposite, and is only noticeable in my photo. The Penguin wasn’t moving at all.

I don’t think Rosemary had any idea why I suddenly stopped and whipped my camera out to photograph it. It’s a brand thing and a cultural thing. To a whole group of idealogues in the computer industry, the Penguin logo represents freedom, community, and control. All valuable things, in a world exponentially screaming out of understanding. Unfortunately, the logo also means that something had gone wrong with the hoarding. Not exactly a great advert for Linux, the computer “operating system” which the Penguin represents, to see it rebooting on one of the busiest intersections in China. But encouraging that it is being used as an embedded operating system there.

We went past again a few minutes later, and animated adverts were spinning over the display once again. Optimistically, I thought maybe it was just starting up for the evening. However, I think I saw it a few days later in the day, and it runs all the time.

Shanghai, goodbye

It’s always a bad idea to have expectations. There’s been lots of hype about how fast Shanghai is developing – accelerating out of poverty, and into a world class city. And it’s true – Rosemary was here 20 years ago, and is amazed that you now can’t cross the road without being killed, that everyone is fashionably dressed, rather than in Mao costumes. However, I had higher expectations. This is because I’d been to Kunming, far away provincial capital of Yunnan, and was surprised how developed it was. So I thought Shanghai would be more like Tokyo than Bangkok.

Actually, it is quite dirty. There isn’t the century-long burnt in elegance of a European capital, the clean efficiency of a Japanese megalopolis, or much culture backing the poverty, as in Bangkok. Shanghai has old-style department stores with goods and prices that people don’t want. It has no large open spaces. There are lots of new buildings, but they don’t look like they’ve been built terribly well. The forest of new skyscrapers are (to me – Rosemary liked them) tacky, and the main city is badly laid out.

We went to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (it’s in the wing roofed building, SE of Renmin square) where the government tried to impress with descriptions of the greening of Shanghai, and new housing areas being built in the mud flats to the East across the river (Pudong). There are new trees and bushes planted everywhere, on the side of every road and in every corner. Which is great, but they are regimented, like they have been placed by an engineer – if plastic cleaned the air, they’d have used that instead.

I am impressed by the graphical style, for example in adverts. Perhaps partly because I don’t understand them! The picture above is of a typical example. Chinese writing has some beautiful fonts, and they have lots of stark white backgrounds, with colourful, uplifting images.

We went on a cruise along the Huang Pu river, up to where it meets the larger Yangtze. This was a great opportunity to see Shanghai’s real function, as a sea port. Hundreds of derricks lined the coast, and the river was full of boat traffic. Typical, and most curious, were the boats people lived on (picture right). They had their washing hung out to dry at the back, and zipped up and down on cargo errands.

We left Shanghai the day before yesterday, on a soft sleeper train to Kaifeng.

Child of the atom bomb

Imagine it’s May 1945, the war in Europe has ended, and the Americans have captured (parts of?) Okinawa, the tropical island in the very south of Japan. Allied air raids are starting over Shanghai.

Your husband has been sent by truck with your belongings, and you are with your two daughters, aged 3 and 6. You’re being marched by Japanese soldiers part of the way from one internment camp to another. You haven’t been out into the streets for over 2 years. You’re probably suspicious, afraid. Where are you really going? Will you continue to be treated tolerably, as you have been the rest of the war? Will you and your family survive?

On Saturday morning, we went to visit the site of an internment camp where my mum, her sister and their parents had been held hostage by the Japanese at the very end of the war. This was Yangtzepoo camp (on modern Yangshupu Lu), the second camp they had been in after Yu Yuen Road camp. Judging from the meter on our taxi, the march from the Bund to the new camp was 6km.

To our amazement, we found the camp not only intact, but thriving. It’s near the river, the Yangpu Bridge flyover arching past along Ningguo Road. The photo above is of Rosemary in front of its heritage architecture plaque. It’s called the Sacred Heart hospital, as it was before the war. The guard was very friendly, and let us wonder all round – it seemed a modern, clean, hospital. Well sign-posted in Chinese and English. The photo below is a detail from the ceiling in the main building. I took lots more photographs which we’ll put up somewhere when we get back.

We walked back, following the route of the family’s forced march 61 years before. It’s now a run down corner of Shanghai with tiny cramped shop/house hybrids and street food. We walked past the waterworks, which is a fantastic set of old crenelated buildings, well maintained, re-pointed and landscaped with flowers. You can’t get in, it is very much still in active use.

So, what was the new camp like? It was worse than the old one. Cramped, and left in a terrible state by the Japanese soldiers who had been using it as a barracks. The soldiers had moved into the old camps the internees had just left. They were afraid that the Americans were about to bomb them. Fortunately, the war ended and the internees were released before any bombing.

My grandfather always said that the atom bomb had saved the family’s lives. If the war had dragged on for even a short while longer, the Americans would have almost certainly bombed the camp, as they thought it was still a Japanese barracks.

So, this leaves me in the unenviable position that if it weren’t for the nuclear bombs, which killed over a hundred thousand people and introduced the world to its most devastating weapon, then I wouldn’t exist.