Chasing Unicorns

  • [Friday] 29th Aug,2014
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by Kathleen Siddell

As I mentioned in my last post, my dad and brother were visiting. We ran out of time to make a trip out to a proper canal town, but hiding in one of the last pages of my brother's Shanghai guidebook was a page about Qibao, an ancient town accessible by metro.

My brother took the book home with him, but I'm pretty sure the description read something like, "Hey Girl, you should definitely make a trip here. Your family will get to see some of traditional Shanghai, with narrow alleyways full of authentic shops making fresh noodles and showcasing never-before-seen goods. It's like Tianzifang, but not quite so gentrified."

And then I read the first sentence of an online description, which said: "Qibao Ancient Town can satisfy your curiosity about ancient water townships without the bother of either long distance or the rush of crowds."

Done and done.

If you have not been, forgive my spoiler alert here… but that Lonely Planet description above is totally off.

Not that you shouldn't go. It's easy to get there (metro line 9), and you only need half a day. But it's more like a smaller Yu Gardenwith a canal. It feels about as traditional. They sell the same wares. Offer the same snacks. Attract crowds. The two highlights for me:

1. A bell tower dating back to the Ming Dynasty (maybe just the bell, not the actual tower) because it looked old and refreshingly not repaired, buffed or restored. 

 2. A Catholic Church, not because I'm particularly Catholic but – having been raised one – images like this are odd to see. (Like female taxi drivers: Why shouldn't there be? I'm just not used to seeing them.)  

But I can't say my curiosity about Chinese canal towns is satisfied, nor would I say the place gave me an authentic feel for an ancient Chinese town.

One of the coolest, most mysterious and intangible things about Shanghai is her age. China is thousands of years old (which is sometimes as hard to grasp as the concept of billions of dollars). Maybe that's why we're so desperate to try to find the old and authentic. The shiny, new or newly refurbished is great (it's clean and sturdy), but there is something that draws us to the old and original. Maybe we're looking for something concrete to connect us to those who came before. Maybe it's nostalgia? Can you feel nostalgic for a place you didn't know way back when?  

When we were at the Forbidden City, I remember feeling a little disappointed that so much of it seemed refurbished and parts of it were covered in scaffolding. Yu Garden loses its charm when you realize it was actually all redone in the early ’90s. And a walk through Old Town, where it seems everything is under construction, can make the sentimental history nerd in me a little sad.

Maybe we long to see the original because it gives us a sense of comfort. If we bulldoze over what was, will it be forgotten? And if so, does that mean we'll be forgotten? Or maybe because old places that have remained intact and untouched are rare. So finding these places is cool – just like seeing a unicorn is cool. (After all, thousands of years of weather damage with absolutely no restoration would mean no Great Wall at all.)

Qibao could never be what I wanted it to be because it's not 1950.

My grandmother is 98. Maybe it would be like telling her, "I want to see you when you were younger. I want to see what your life was like and what you looked like." As if the woman she is now is not authentic. Like people, places grow and change with time. Just because the Forbidden City has a fresh coat of paint doesn't mean it's any less authentic or any less historic. To see how it has adapted, and changed, and remained the same is all part of its story.

Shanghai is changing. Progressing. Modernizing. You have to look a little harder to find the old. But it's there. When I look at my grandmother, look closely and remember what I know about her today, I can see the 20-year-old girl inside. If you really look, beyond the construction, through the reflection of the new glass skyscrapers, you just might be able to see Shanghai's history reflected back.  

If not, I'd recommend skipping Qibao and making a trip out to a more-traditional canal town. And take me with you!