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Nanshi and Old Shanghai

Although our hotel is technically located within the Nanshi (“Southern City”) region of Shanghai, it’s actually a few blocks over towards the Huangpu River where the “picture-postcard Old City” begins.

Nevertheless, the short walk through the winding lanes and alleys of local poor housing to get there reminds you of what it’s really like to be poor in Shanghai in 2005. Certainly not part of the “tourist trail”, the area comprises of shabby, densely packed housing. People sit outside their homes and watch the world goes by whilst others hawk their wares from dilapidated shop fronts and even just open suitcases on the ground.

Having passed by the simple wood and brick houses, we arrived at the start of the aptly named “Shanghai Old Street“. Here the buildings have a much more traditional feel to them – dark wood fronts and pointy Chinese roofs. Initially it almost appears too perfect, verging on the cheesy, as clearly everything is kept as it is to attract the tourists. However, this is actually a conservation area – the cheesiness can be found in the Yu Garden Bazaar later on.

Shanghai Old Street is the place to buy your Yixing tea pot – a simple, maroon-brown unglazed teapot whose porous qualities are said to make the perfect cup of tea. Many shops along the street sell them, both individually and in sets comprising of 4 or 6 cups.

Prices here are always up for negotiation, and we were able to haggle the price down to 90RMB (£7) a set, although later on I witnessed one western couple who spoke Mandarin get the price down to 65RMB (£5) – still a good deal compared to the 180RMB (£14) originally being asked for.

Bargaining over prices requires a clear head, and emotion can’t come into it. Even the opening prices are trivial for Westerners, and so it’s easy to decide the hassle of negotiating isn’t worthwhile. However when you are able to knock off 70% of the original asking price (and the trader must still be making a profit) you soon realise that most of these people are more than happy to rip off a Westerner where possible. I emphasise ‘Westerner’ and not ‘tourist’ because most of the tourists here are still domestic Chinese and I got the distinct impression that their starting prices were a lot more ‘reasonable’ than the ones we were being quoted.

Other items on sale in Nanshi that make nice souvenirs include mahogany chopsticks, traditional paintbrushes and jade jewellery. “Antiques” are also available, although the guidebook warns the authenticity of many of these items is often questionable.

A number of shops sell traditional Chinese Quan long swords (think straight Samurai swords) which are beautifully engraved both on their holster and on the blade itself. Most of the ones we saw were blunt “ceremonial” swords, although one dubious character in a slightly seedier “off-street” market took me out to the back of his stall where he proudly handed me one of the razor sharp examples he had for sale. Suffice to say pleasantries were exchanged and we made a quick exit – although not before noticing the range of flick knives, ninja stars and other similar paraphernalia displayed on the opposite wall.

A trip to China is not complete without purchasing some silk, although sadly we have still not been able to locate an allusive silk bed spread that Sofia has got her heart on. I, however, purchased a beautiful black traditional Chinese style silk shirt with dragon stitching and toggle buttons for 200RMB (£14), negotiated down from 380RMB (£30).

Like the rest of Shanghai, and the rest of the world I guess, McDonalds has managed to locate itself in the otherwise picturesque street of Jiujiaochang Road. Starbucks also manages to make two appearances, including one branch directly opposite the world famous Yu Garden Mid-Lake tea house (not by coincidence, I’m sure).

Yu Garden Bazaar is touted as the main shopping area of Nanshi, although in reality it consists of traditional looking buildings that have been converted into small department stores and tacky tourist souvenir shops. We found the prices and quality of the shopping here disappointing compared to Shanghai Old Street, although the experience is a lot more civilised, especially for those who don’t want the hassle of haggling over prices.

Looking back on it, I wish I had purchased a traditional Chinese chopping knife from the only knife store in The Bazaar. 100RMB (£7) got you a very high quality cooking knife which had a slight curve in the blade to facilitate fast chopping. There was probably even some level of negotiation available there.

The jewel in the crown of the Nanshi district is the Yu Garden itself, which dates back to the 16th Century. It was built by Ming dynasty official Pan Yunduan in 1577. Yu means peace and comfort, which is exactly the vibe I felt was we wondered around it.

It’s a classical Suzhou-style garden consisting of 30 pavilions connected by bridges, walkways and rocky passages. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, in that it consists of spectacular gardens joined by open-air rooms. However, at just 5 acres in size it’s a lot smaller than the Alhambra.

A visit to the Yu Garden is definitely a must, although it’s worth planning your trip to Nanshi so that you take it in first before shopping – otherwise you risk damaging your purchases as you traipse around the grounds with your heavy shopping!

Finally, whilst visiting the Bazaar we saw our most apparent manifestation of the Chinese regime at large. Three soldiers, dressed in khaki-green uniforms briskly marched past us in formation on what looked like a very deliberate pace towards a shop or restaurant. From the looks of their faces, they were clearly engaged with some kind of task. The most chilling memory for me will be their menacing looking machine guns which looked as though they had come out of a Vietnam movie – wide and bulky looking unlike the sleek western ones you are ever-more used to seeing slung around the shoulders of police officers on the streets of London.

The trip to Nanshi, Shanghai Old Street and the Yu Garden has definitely been my favourite day out so far in Shanghai. The ultra-modern, almost futuristic, district of Pudong appeals to my high-tech mentality. But realistically it could be located in any city in the world. Nanshi, despite being a little on the cheesy side at times, is the closest reminder left as to what Shanghai was like in yester-year. That coupled with the neighbouring local housing acts as a stark reminder of what life is like in China for the majority of the population who are not part of the economic revolution that’s sweeping through this amazing country.

Published in China & Japan


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