Monday, October 25, 2010

Shanghai: accidental Pushkin

Yesterday morning I walked out of the hotel with the intention of walking over to the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, supposedly located only a block and a half from the hotel. I decided to take the long way there, and turned right where I could've turned left. I used the opportunity to explore the quieter residential areas of the French Concession. Battled some school kids in line for candy and gum (I, too, it turned out, wanted candy and gum), watched men on rickshaws transporting bags of Styrofoam in all directions (recycling?), people opening market stands for the day's business.

The French Concession boasts not only platane-lined streets, but also once in a while tiny little parks at street corners. In one of these, I spotted a familiar face. "Boy, can this statue here, in the middle of Shanghai, really be a monument to the greatest Russian poet of all times, Aleksandr Pushkin?" I asked myself and crossed the street to look. The curly hair and abundant sideburns, the flamboyant collar and tie, the eyes gazing into the distance all fit the traditional Pushkin image. The name on the monument was inscribed only in Chinese characters, but the dates of birth and death were given in Roman script: 1799-1837. Pushkin!

I guess this is not surprising: Russians have a good long history of engagement with China in general and with Shanghai specifically (and I mean besides the shared Communist history), but it was really lovely to keep encountering the physical manifestations of this relationship all throughout my day. On the Bund, for example, I saw a strangely familiar-looking building that, on approach, turned out to be a former "St. Petersburg Russo-Sino" bank building, now a foreign exchange center.

(As a subset of this history, there's also a story of the Russian Jews in China -- but I haven't come face to face with it yet).

In the afternoon, I moved with Dave and his coworkers from our hotel in the French Concession to the new hotel on the Bund -- the actual site of the conference that started yesterday. This took up a big chunk of the day, and then Dave had to get back to work again, and I set out to explore the town on foot. I walked all the way back to the French Concession and spent the evening at a foreign language bookstore/ice cream parlor, Garden Books. Pushkin is great and all, but I know virtually nothing of Chinese literature (or culture, or language -- but fiction is a good place to start from), and now that I'm in love with Shanghai, the lack of information is unacceptable. My plan now is to see as much literature-related sites in the city as I can manage, more bookstores and libraries included. Sightseeing in a completely unfamiliar land is a daunting proposition, and limiting what I should try to learn and to remember makes it seem much more doable (and fun!).

Oh, meanwhile, the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts is perfectly charming. The coolest part about it is that in addition to displaying works of art (mostly 20th Century handcrafts: intricate ivory and wood carvings, silk embroidery, clay figurines, etc) they provide space for artists to work on new projects -- and to sell their work to the visitors. Almost every piece in the museum had a price tag attached to it, and some of it was very reasonable. Or, rather, the prices were conveniently arranged to match the pockets of all kinds of depth.

Dave has a contest running on his blog today. Check it out and participate!

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