February 26, 2012

CHINA: Charm pervades nooks, crannies in memory lanes off beaten track

SHANGHAI, China / The Shanghai Daily / Feature / February 25, 2012

AFTER exhausting all the well-known scenic spots in Minhang, some people develop aesthetic fatigue and complain there's nothing of interest left to explore.

That's not necessarily true. As the French sculptor Rodin once noted: "Beauty is everywhere. It is not that she is lacking to our eye, but that our eye fails to perceive her."

So let's open our eyes to the hidden beauty just around the corner and continue our tour of interesting old streets off the beaten track.

Our meandering along cobblestone paths and beside carved stone bridges took us last month to Duhang, Zhudi, Jiwang, Hexiangqiao and Maqiao streets. This time, our journey continues on to Chenhang, Zhuanqiao and Caohang streets, which also have plenty of old tales to whisper in our ears.

Zhuanqiao Street, faded past

The name Zhuanqiao originated from an eponymous stone arch bridge (qiao means bridge in Chinese) dating back to ancient times. The bridge, once the center of Zhuanqiao, was dismantled in 1969, but its memory remains in an area filled with interesting nooks and crannies. 

The street is not easy to find, which adds to its charm. There are a number of branch roads on Zhuanjian Road, and the north and south sections of Zhuanqiao Old Street are among them. They are filled with small grocery stores, a post office, street vendors and residences.

The best guide to the street are the old grey roof tiles still seen on buildings dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Nobody is quite sure anymore who once lived in the buildings.

The north section and south section of the street are divided by Zhuanjian Road, but there are signs at the entrance of the street to help you find your way.

It is a narrow street. Local residents are few and close-knit.

A visitor with a camera is immediately spotted as an "outsider" and may arouse a bit of curiosity. This area is off the tourist route, but strollers will find the local people warm-hearted and eager to serve as guides to their neighborhood.

The north section of the street is very short. You can see its end while standing on one side. Zhuanqiao Shuchang (a place for people to enjoy storytelling) is a two-story building.

It looks a bit worse for wear, though it's been renovated several times. The building was constructed during the Qing Dynasty.

Zhuanqiao Shuchang, founded in 1979, and was once a bustling place. It has seating for 240 and played host to huju operas and pingtan musical storytelling performances in its heyday.

Its owner, who declined to be identified, said sadly that the site was closed last year because of difficulty making ends meet.

"A performer of shuoshu (storytelling) charges 100 yuan (US$15) a day, and we can no longer afford it," he said. Admission to a two-hour performance usually costs about 2 yuan or less.

Shuoshu is a traditional one-man artistic form of storytelling - a great favorite of older people.

Now, the banister bearing woodcarving patterns is crumbling, the corridor is littered with rubble and old furniture lies randomly around. The owner said they will be burned as firewood.

The building is divided into several single rooms and rented out.

There is a teahouse near Zhuanqiao Shuchang. For local people, it's a place where the past survives. For decades, from dawn to dusk, people would congregate there to sip tea and talk.

Zhao Genyu, 78, a retired farmer, has been patronizing the teahouse for more than 50 years.

"I can sit here for hours and chat with others," he said. "It's my favorite pastime."

His house is 15 minutes away by foot.

"I like taking a stroll on the street everyday," he said as he sipped green tea. His distinctive Minhang dialect seemed smartly at home in the mottled old building.

In the past, there were shuoshu performances in the teahouse. Zhao said he used to enjoy them very much because they swelled on historical themes.

* Caohang Street, fine food and hip clothing shops
* Chenhang: three families
* Old streets bear silent witness to yesteryear 

Copyright © 2001-2012 Shanghai Daily Publishing House
Credit: Reports and photographs are property of owners of intellectual rights. 
Seniors World Chronicle, a not-for-profit, serves to chronicle and widen their reach.