Shanghai Literary Festival, Yu Yuan Garden, and a Thwarted Scam,
A wonderful aspect of Shanghai is the variety of experiences it offers. Recently Barry and I attended a few sessions of the annual Shanghai International Literary Festival at the Glamour Bar, a very trendy place near the Bund. The setting and the sessions were fantastic. Our first session was a panel of photographers. The one I liked best is the Chinese photographer Jiang Jian. He showed us photos from Heroes, all of farmers in their houses.
Heibei Farmer – photo by Jiang from http://www.china.org.cn/pictures/chinadocphotos/2009-06/04/content_17888403_2.htm
Jiang said that although the dwellings look poor and messy, the people are happy; they are his friends and live in Heibei. Now the children of these farmers (and this is true most places in the world) want to move to the cities to have material goods and to avoid the hardships of farm life. We wonder if they will find the happiness and camaraderie that their parents have–or is that our idealized vision?
To see a few of Jiang Jian photos go to: http://www.china.org.cn/pictures/chinadocphotos/2009-06/04/content_17888403.htm
The second series he shared is of orphans. Jiang is photographing 1000 orphans every five years and hopes to show they are no longer lonely and helpless. The first set shows them in black-and-white film standing alone without any possessions. Each has an idenitiy card.
Jiang photos from: http://en.dipephoto.com/portal/?action-viewnews-itemid-14982 Powerful photographs:
We also saw American writer Edward P. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Known World, which I haven’t read yet, but I will. In the Q & A after his reading, a Chinese woman asked him about being able to talk about the Devil since Jones had read from his short story “The Devil Crosses the Anacostia River.” The woman was concerned if he would be able to talk about the devil as freely in America as he was doing here in Shanghai. She had heard that people shouldn’t talk about religion in the U.S. We laughed, and Jones assured her that we could and do talk about religion–at least so far.
In a similar misconception, a friend from home recently wrote worried that we couldn’t talk about democracy here in China. We assured her that we can and do. It is funny and sad that we have so many misconceptions. My students here in China ask lots of questions from why Americans have so many divorces and fight about politics to what schools they should apply for in the U.S. I find out much about them and their lives too. I learned today, for instance, that those people in People’s Park who are in great debate–that Barry and I thought was about politics–are really arguing about stocks. Who would guess? Mao would be shocked.
On another afternoon, Barry and I ventured to Yu Yuan Garden, “the gardens of contentment,” a peaceful oasis in the touristy Old Town, near the Bund. Rich Ming-dynasty officials founded the gardens in 1559. The gardens were bombardment during the Opium War in 1842 and again during French reprisals, but restored, they offer a fine example of Ming garden design in a peaceful setting.
Although we were still too early to see Magnolia blossoms or other spring flowers, the rockeries, pines, and paths that wander through the gardens are a contrast to the teeming Shanghai streets (at least if you go off-season and during the week as we did). Before we got to the quiet of the gardens, we did have an experience, however.
As we had walked up the steps from the Yu Garden Metro stop, a college-age girl asked us to take a picture of her and the two Chinese guys with her. They were friendly. The older guy and the girl said they were from Beijing and visiting the younger guy who has been living in Shanghai for six years and working for an American company based in Florida. They said they had just been to Yu Garden but could not get in because it was very crowded; they had had to walk around outside for a couple of hours and were giving up and leaving since the officials limit those in the gardens to 200 at a time.
(This story started to sound familiar. When we were in Bangkok, friendly guys with great English said the temple were were headed to was closed. But they knew a jewelry place that was doing a special one-day sale).
This Yu Garden set invited us to see a tea ceremony. We’ve read this tactic is a big scam; the “friendly” group takes you to a “special” tea house, orders hundreds of yuan of “special” tea and then threatens to call the police if you don’t pay. When I said that last year we had been in Lin’an, considered the best tea region in China, and had seen many tea ceremonies, we were told we could also see a Kung fu demonstration while we were having tea together. I’m sure that special feature would have added hundreds of yuan to our bill.
However, we politely said no and went on our way feeling smug we had figured out the situation (unlike the time in Thailand). Although almost everyone we have met has been really nice to us, we are in a huge city with all kinds of people.
Similarly the moderator of the Shanghai Literary Festival mentioned in passing that some foreigners who come here chasing money do things that they would never do at home. They rationalize it is O.K. because they make money; it is probably the same with these three seemingly “friendly” Chinese. Machiavelli encouraged this way of thinking. So be beware and aware wherever you are!
We did get into Yu Yuan Garden, Yu Garden for short, without a problem.
The Yu Garden tourist shops sell things at a great markup; the same water canal silk print that I bought in Suzhou last year for about $8.00, here was listed at $45.00! Although the price was quickly cut in half, I wasn’t interested.
Barry and I enjoyed ambling and looking at everything.
Once we left Yu Garden, we sampled street food and walked through the crowded streets
On our way back to our apartment, we stopped at the Muslim noodle shop near us and each enjoyed a spicy plate of vegetables and noodles.
Our time here in Shanghai is interesting and varied. Come visit.