BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, March 28, 2014

Notes from Shanghai

SHANGHAI, China - In a garden in the old town, I dreamt of emperors and their age-old dynasties, their empresses and their sweet smelling concubines. Their armies, too and their bloodied wars; pools of red, red blood splattered all over.

I wondered whether their spirits still roamed the garden, nestled perfectly at the end of a nine-corner bridge that blocks the passage of evil spirits and guarded by two fierce imperial guardian lions at the entrance.

I am in Shanghai, where dreamers can dream of faraway dynasties and centuries old opium wars. China's largest city after all is more than a city of skyscrapers and blinking traffic lights.

Its magnificence is found in its nooks and crannies, in well preserved gardens that transport you far back in time. 

Shanghai is a memory of the tail end of the winter season, where bright pink plums and cherries and sparkling white magnolias start to bloom. The thermometer reads four degrees Celsius. It is a river cruise at 7 in the evening, with its city lights glittering in the dark blue horizon. It is braving the gusty winds to savor the evening skyline. 

It is drinking eight kinds of tea -- jasmine, green, chamomile or what-have-you -- for whatever affliction you may have -- a forlorn spirit or a splitting headache, a broken bone or a broken heart. 

Shanghai is a thousand and one memories that begin in quiet labyrinthine gardens. It is ignoring the impulse to buy because souvenirs are more for those who cannot remember. Indeed, it is filling one's suitcases with memories instead of little warriors and Shanghai shirts; It really is about enjoying the sights and the music of Chinese flute masters serenading passersby; of savoring the scent of grilled strawberries wafting in the air; of watching little boys and girls -- the only child in the families --run around the city's crowded streets in their shaolin hair cuts.

It is for those ready to be swept off their feet; for those who can take them all: the biting winter air, the music, the lights, the skyscrapers, the red round tower of the Rabbit's Foot, the giant bottle opener, the laughter of children, the gastronomic adventure and the living and the dead. Here in Shanghai, be it in a garden in the old town, in busy streets, in crowded restaurants or in one corner of the hotel while watching two old people do Tai chi at 6 in the morning, one goes through an overwhelming ebb and flow of emotions. It is, indeed, an assault to the senses.