Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shanghai Highlghts

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We did, indeed, meet Roxanne, Ed, Patti and Russ at 9:15 in the Ocean Bar for another Asian adventure. Once on the dock, we waited only a few minutes for Kiana and Mr. Wong to appear. Our first stop was the old Jewish Quarter, often referred to as “Little Vienna” because so many Austrian Jews settled there prior to WWII. According to Kiana, there were three distinct in-migrations of Jews to Shanghai, the first two occurring during the Nineteenth Century. The last, best known group came to escape the Nazis prior to and even during WWII. Despite public protestations of support for Jewish refugees, no government would set quotas or willingly accept large numbers of the Jews; Shanghai was the only city which would take them in. As things turned out, many went from the frying pan into the fire when the Japanese occupied Shanghai. As allies of the Germans, they established a ghetto about 1 km on a side for the Jews. They could leave during the day for work or whatever, but had to be in the ghetto from evening until morning. Several Jewish refugees joined the Communists in their fight against the Japanese, a move which may have protected all of them when the Japanese were pushed out.

Our journey back to the late 1930s and 1940s began at Huoshan Park. Although the park comprises less than 1 acre, it is currently a busy place, filled with elderly Chinese who come to relax, dance, exercise and socialize. During the Second World War, the Jewish refugees from Europe often came to this park to relax and socialize; the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the park is a monument commemorating the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees.”

When we left the park, we walked through “the old neighborhood.” Although there are no Jews left, the basic architectural structures are still visible – Chinese style roofs with European windows. There are probably no Jews in Shanghai anymore, but their memory is being kept alive by the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administrative Commission which has printed brochures about the area and which maintains the old synagogue. Among the residents of Little Vienna and the Shanghai ghetto are Michael Blumenthal, former US Secretary of the Treasury who is currently curator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the late Rabbi Benjamin Steinberg, MA’s principal at the Bais Yaakov School.

We walked to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue. In 2007, the government of Hongkou District budgeted the equivalent of $1 million USD for the complete renovation of the synagogue in accordance with the original plans filed with the city. We donned clear plastic booties before entering the interior of the building. The first floor was rather stark. There are few furnishings although the second floor, which we assumed was where the women prayed, contained some photographs of refugees as well as some artifacts including an old sewing machine. The main floor had a tall wooden ark to hold the torah scrolls, but the scrolls themselves are apparently in storage somewhere; the docent did not know where they had been taken. Park-style wooden benches were arranged in the first floor, too, but there was no seating on the second level. Whether that reflects the reality of the synagogue in 1928 [its date of construction] is an unknown –it is possible that those responsible for the 2007 renovation either were not interested in the interior fittings or had no way to know what they looked like. The third floor held more photos memorializing reunions of former residents or their children along with a conference table; no explanation was offered for the table’s presence.

We retraced our steps from the third floor to ground level and, still wearing our booties, went to an out building which serves as a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Shanghai refugees. After viewing a short film which placed the displaced Jews in some historical context, we were free to look at displays showing various aspects of life in the ghetto. There were reproductions of period photos with captions in Chinese and English. This is the first instance of full English transliteration we have seen in our five field trips so far. Even the film had English narration. After we had seen as much as we could or wanted to, we crossed the courtyard to a display of works by Canadian artists; the artists had used the Shanghai refugees as their inspiration in creating paintings and tapestries. We finished there and went back to the synagogue to return our booties and meet Mr. Wong with the minivan.

Our second major stop today was the Bund. MA and D had visited the Bund two years ago but thought it was worth seeing again. Besides, Roxanne, Ed, Patti and Russ had never seen it before. The Bund is a pedestrian esplanade which parallels the river in Shanghai. On the near bank, “behind” the Bund are many European-style buildings which represent “old” Shanghai, the city of the 1920s and 1930s when there was a distinct European flavor to this mercantile center. On the far bank stand many of Shanghai’s newest skyscrapers, representing the “new” Shanghai. The city’s signature the Onion, is directly across the river from the Bund. It is a 1500 foot tall television mast, the third tallest in the world. Its distinctive architecture is easily recognized around the world in advertisements and stories about Shanghai. Its tower consists of a series of spheres topped by the TV mast. It is visible for miles from shipboard as one sails up the river, and it is visible from much of Shanghai if one is willing to look through the construction cranes which are ever-present.

We did not spend too much time on the Bund. The vendors were thick and aggressive and there really isn’t much to do other than take in the two opposing skylines. There were too many other tourists, mostly Chinese, to just stroll, so we left and headed to the Yu Yuan Garden. Once again, this was a venue which we had visited two years ago but which the others in the group had not seen. Russ and Patti opted to wait outside the Gardens for us as we and the Pettuses, led by Kiana, paid for tickets and entered this sanctuary.

The Yu Yuan Garden is more “garden” than the house we visited yesterday in Zhouzhaung, but it is still basically a series of buildings in which a family lived and conducted business. Larger and more elaborate than yesterday’s, it is a zig-zag of paths, rocks gardens and buildings. Dragons abound, at one point appearing as a wall and at others as ornaments on the roofs of buildings. There are figures of other animals on the roofs as well. Add in several bridges, tree and rock formations, lots of water and koi which respond to hand-clapping, and you have some idea of what this place is about. Mostly, though, it is peaceful. After the hubbub of the shopping and food plaza outside, a recreation of old-style Shanghai, the calm of Yu Yuan is refreshing. Sadly, the exit takes visitors right back to the confusion of thousands of people, Chinese and Western, jostling for space at the food vendors, Starbucks, McDonalds, Dairy Queen and Quail-on-a-Stick.

We chose to postpone lunch and shop for pearls, so we hiked back to Mr. Wong and the car. Mr. wong is no Kusnadi, Jon and Briton’s driver, but he was skillful and alert and nobody died. Our kidneys and other internal organs may have suffered temporary damage on the streets of Shanghai, but Wong delivered us, eventually, to a building which housed a pearl “manufacturer.” We got the VIP treatment which include the sacrificial slaughtering of an eight-year old fresh-water oyster so we could see how the pearls formed inside the shell. These are cultured pearls, so the staff was confident the oyster would have a pearl. It came through like a champ with about ten distinct pearls plus some unformed ones which will become mother-of-pearl. The sales staff was attentive, but, once again, we were the only people there. MA bought a strand of pearls and matching earrings; Patti bought two necklaces and Roxanne bought a mother-of-pearl slide on a chain. The other husbands were not as happy as their wives about this stop.

Finally, we went for lunch. We waffled about staying out or returning to the ship but decided to eat in Shanghai since we could always eat on shipboard. Another factor was the fact that we had promised to take Kiana and Wong to lunch today. Kiana picked what she said later was her favorite restaurant and, in hindsight, we can understand why. The d├ęcor was authentic Chinese with lots of reds. We were shbown to a table for eight and Kiana began to explain some of our options. We decided to let her do most of the ordering but reminded her of all the food we had left uneaten yesterday. When the food started arriving, it was placed on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table; we spun it around to get the food within serving distance. And what food! Dishes included eggplant; chicken and cashews; sweet and sour pork; fried shrimp; pork in pancakes; street noodles and probably others. We had hot tea made by pouring water over whole tea leaves and soda by the can [not rationed]. The eight of us ate every scrap of food but were neither hungry nor over-full; it was just the right amount of food. Kiana’s timing was perfect, too. She explained that the chef left at 2 o’clock so we had to order quickly. Sure enough, we were the last patrons in the restaurant and watched as the staff started turning off the lights. We were fat and happy and really glad that we had stayed out for lunch. D paid the bill for the group and left a tip as well. Lunch for the group, including the tip, came to about $80 US! We thought that the bill was wrong because it was so low and Kiana was worried that we thought it was too high.

We drove back to the ship, then, and received a surprise when Kiana asked to be paid in cash for the two days’ excursions. D went to the cabin to get enough cash and returned to pay her the $660 due. We all made nice, made sure she had our cards in case she is ever in the States and boarded the ship. Roxanne and Ed went to their cabin; Russ and Patti went to play trivia; and we got yuppie coffees and sat on our verandah and watched the barge traffic on the river.

This river is amazingly busy. At one point, there were 20 barges coming toward Shanghai, a dozen heading toward the South China Sea and others anchored in the middle. And that’s just what was visible from the stern of the ship. Even when we ate dinner last night, beginning at 8 o’clock, the river traffic had not let up. We can’t figure out why there are no collisions [but we felt the same way while Wong was trying to kill us in the car for the past two days]. The barges are filled with logs, coal, sand and more. They just keep coming like lemmings marching to the sea. It is a fascinating and unending parade. Tonight, we will be part of it as we are scheduled to depart at 9 p.m. The tides in the river are tricky, so we may leave early – two years ago we left at 1 p.m. instead of 6 o’clock and all the tours for the day were canceled. Passengers have been warned to be back by six tonight to be safe because anyone who misses the ship has a long walk to Hong Kong.

We’ll be at sea for the next two days so we can recover from the last two.

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