The Object of Your Story

                                                                               

Occasionally it’s mentioned in workshops or books on the craft of writing, how effective a physical object can be when subtly weaving it through your story.  Recently I finished reading the book The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman which uses a large 19th century portrait of a Parisian courtesan as an occasional object from beginning to end. Even without a picture to physically see, the author showed the reader the gilded frame, the woman’s posture, colors, and fabrics.  It easily came to mind whenever the painting was mentioned at various intervals of the story. It was a familiar object.  And, what I loved about this book was how the author wrote it as a fictionalized account of a newspaper article. It was a story of a family learning about their great-great grandmother’s apartment in Paris which was locked up for over 70 years. When the apartment was opened by family heirs in 2011, it was as if time stood still and they walked into 1940s Paris. I remember reading the newspaper article and posting it on Facebook.  I was fascinated by the story and thrilled someone wrote a book about it.

If you decide you want an object for your story, how do you discover what it will be?

As writers, we understand inspiration arises from unexpected places. You may be in a writers’ group when a new story pops into your head and the first draft is soon underway. Perhaps you are sitting at your desk or on a plane thousands of feet in the air when an idea for a new character is born. You can be anywhere.  That’s the beauty of being a writer.

It wasn’t long ago, as I was housecleaning, when an object in my home reminded me of someone I once loved.   I wiped dust off the Asian antique mirror and remembered a time, 43 years ago, when the man I loved looked at his reflection in this mirror, standing in my mother’s home.  I was across the room watching him when his reflection caught mine and we locked eyes. It was a moment which stood still in time for me. He’s been gone many years, but, oddly, his reflection and the memory of our connection remain embedded in  the wavy glass of this mirror.

My thoughts, as I continued dusting, trailed off to another time I could only conjure up in my imagination. It occurred to me my grandfather may have bought this mirror for my grandmother when they were first married in Shanghai in 1929. The mirror, with its new glass, survived WWII hidden in a Shanghai cellar. It was kept with other curios and precious objects out of sight and protected from the Japanese invasion and ensuing confiscations since these objects were in the cellar of a White Russian friend of my grandmother’s. If a Russian (or any nationality) was married to a citizen of an enemy country, they were sent to Japanese internment camps, which was the case of my grandmother and mother who spent 4 years in a camp because of the marriage between my  Russian grandmother and  a British man.

A couple of years after the war, in 1947, the mirror took a journey by ship to the United States and hung on the wall of my grandmother’s San Francisco flat well into the late 70s.  The mirror had additional journeys over the next 37 years when it lived in my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; then to my home in Seattle, and eventually settling in Edmonds 11 years ago. I imagine one of my children and one of my grandchildren will take it from here.

And so it was a day of simple housecleaning which created my story-object. If I choose to do so,  I can carry this mirror through my book for almost 100 years of my family’s history.  I can write a historical fiction showing the reader many of the faces reflected over time, some known and some imagined; we have so much freedom as writers to create whatever we wish!

Stories and ideas pop up for writers from unexpected places and we are delighted when they pop up at all.

Vivian C. Murray

10/16

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Bookshop in Venice

On my first visit to Venice in 2003, I stayed in Cannaregio, one of six historic districts in this City of Canals. Exploring, I found the simple Santa Maria dei Miracoli, known as the ‘marble church’, which sits prettily next to the Campo dei Miracoli (a plaza) but it was closed at that hour.  I had just met my future son-in-law’s parents and learned they married in this church, and Cannaregio is where their children were born and raised.

The next day, I leaned out my hotel window and shot photographs of delivery guys in high galoshes slosh through ‘aqua alta’ (high water) while forcing flatbed carts piled high with UPS and FedEx packages.  Two hours and a couple of espressos later, the water levels finally subsided and I could walk back to see inside the church.

Midway to the altar, I sat immersed in peace, quiet, and streams of dust motes colored by reflections from stained glass. All of a sudden, I was disturbed by loud crinkling noises and talking; it was a gaggle of chattering tourists who walked in wearing black garbage bags over their shoes and tied at their kneecaps.

Outside the 15th century church, two shops flanked one side of the campo (plaza). After peering into the pristine stationery shop window, I headed to the bookshop next door. The tinkle of a bell was triggered as I opened a heavy glass-inset wooden door.  I immediately noted very little semblance of order. It was my dream come true and a librarian’s nightmare. Wooden tables and bookcases held stacks of books ascending several feet while postcard racks with a mixture of cards were pushed up against the little bit of wall space available in the shop.

A weathered, yet dapper-looking, elderly gentleman appeared from the back while chirpily announcing “Buongiorno!”  He wore a business suit, a sweater vest and tie which looked like it was all from a much earlier decade. We hand gestured, due to language barriers, miming my wish to browse and his delight to have a customer. Soon, a children’s book, legal-sized with a water-color cover, caught my eye.  The artwork included Basilica San Marco, Venice’s iconic image.

The title “Ondina e Pesce Gatto” was loosely translated to “Water-Nymph and Catfish from Paris to Venice” by Claude Morhange and Cassandra Wainhouse.   As I picked the book up, the gentleman became animated.  “Molto bene!”  he exclaimed.  Pointing to the English words, he said, “You speak!”  With a twinkle in his eye and a gentle smile, I found him too endearing to refuse.The story was printed in both English and Italian;  I read the English side aloud and ten minutes later while closing the magical book, I noticed a wistful look on the old man’s face as he said, “Grazie mille.” (“Thank you, very much.”)  If I had small children in my family, I would have bought it, but my children were grown and there were no grandchildren.  Back into the chilly November sunshine, postcards in hand, I felt as if I had been in a magical time warp sprinkled with stardust.

Two years later I returned to Venice and ventured back to Campo dei Miracoli.  It was going to be my first grandchild’s baptism and I was searching for the right gift. In a beautiful stationery shop, I purchased a hand-blown glass wax seal with Gabriel’s initials. Going back outside to the sunshine, I strolled over to the bookshop. The elderly man who I met before was not there but I met his son who helped me find “Ondina e Pesce Gatto” on a table outside. I bought it, while I also inquired about his father; he told me ‘papa’ was home that day but was doing well.

Both items I bought were treasures for my six month old grandson whose baptism would be the following day in a villa near Venice. Happily, there was now a small child in my family, even an Italian one, who would someday read “Odina e Pesce Gatto“, perhaps he will be able to read and understand the Italian version, too.Ondina

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shanghai Spirits

Recently I wondered when the first ghost sighting was recorded, so as anyone would do these days, I Googled it.  There was mention of a book, “Ghost Sightings” by Brian Innes, where it is said the oldest written report of a ghost comes from the Bible. Saul goes to a medium (“a woman that hath a familiar spirit”) and asks her to conjure up the deceased Samuel, which she, it says, does by Samuel appearing in the form of “an old man covered with a mantle.”

Whether you believe in the spirit world or not, unexplainable ghostly appearances have been shared for centuries. But we can also sense the ‘spirit of a place’ or the ‘spirit of a person’ if we listen quietly.

While researching information for a book I’m writing about my family, one thing was missing. Reading and watching documentaries from my easy chair was not going to give me the “sense of place” I needed to continue.

With a few small miracles falling into place, I was off to Shanghai and my cousin, John, and his wife flew in from England to join me. Via email, we hired a private Shanghainese guide, recommended by John’s sister who hired the same guide two years prior (my grandfather, Sam Sharrock, was their uncle).

While waiting a day for my cousin, I explored the Bund and Nanjing Road solo while discovering I loved the culture shock of experiencing an Asian country for the first time. So many people wore the ‘good luck color’ of red, it was also crowded, and Chinese vendors would follow trying to lure me into an alley to see their wares. It’s also hard not to mention how a father thought it was ok for his young son to urinate on the sidewalk. This was China.

Little boy peeing

Little boy peeing

Glitz

Glitz

Exploring the fantastic British colonial buildings, I thought of my mother and grandparents visiting embassies, art deco hotels, and even the same department store on Nanjing Road which still operated as the No. 1 Department Store. These buildings were part of their lives during the 1920s-40s, when living there was envied as Shanghai was called the “Paris of the East.” It was a wild ‘free’ port of call with immigrants arriving from all over the war-torn world.

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Astor House Hotel – side wing

Lao Feng Xiang Jewellers Store (with handsome Caucasian man in front)

Lao Feng Xiang Jewellers Store

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Peace Hotel atrium

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Astor House Hotel

Our guide, Henry, picked us up in a large van. Since my grandfather was a British police officer, we began the tour at Jinxing police station in an old Shanghainese neighborhood. It was fortuitous to find a couple of men chatting in front of the station. I photographed the exterior and the people in the neighborhood while listening to Henry speak in rapid fire Cantonese to the men. I’m not sure if there was a bribe involved, but 15 minutes later a key appeared and we were allowed through the iron gate into the compound.

Kashing Road

Jiaxing Road Police Station, 290 Harbin Road, built 1907, known for having arrested Chen Duxiu, one of Chinese Communist Party founders

Jiaxing Road Police Station, 290 Harbin Road, built 1907, known for having arrested Chen Duxiu, one of Chinese Communist Party founders

Taking in the scene, I noted sagging roof lines, rain gutters hanging by a sliver of bracket, and rusted iron bars on the ground floor windows.

In the back of the compound I found a collection of clean, brightly flowered enamel chamber pots next to a door which led me to think someone must be living in this squalor.

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Laundry and boy with balloon in doorway with old woman looking out window above - we are a curious lot
Laundry and boy with balloon in doorway with old woman looking out window above – we are a curious lot

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I could almost see spectral wafting figures of prisoners being held here before transferring to the goliath Ward Prison nearby. I only knew of Sam from stories shared by my grandmother and mother, the black and white photographs, as well as letters he wrote to them. I envisioned him in his crisp high collared black police uniform patrolling these same grounds. I was fascinated by what secrets this building held; was this where the bomb went off in his office?

Climbing back into the van, we were pensive while chatting about Sam and his tragic end. The driver took us a short distance to the apartment building where the family lived and after exploring the honeycomb of entrances, we found the red door of F01, our family’s apartment. Unfortunately we were not able to see inside as the tenant was in a rest home, of which the guard informed Henry. This building had a historical plaque and was in good condition, so it was unlikely it would be torn down anytime soon.

The Family Apartment's Front Door

Sharrock’s front door on Weihai Road

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Partial exterior shot of apartment building on Weihai Road

While taking photos of the rosebush in the central garden of the gated complex, I wondered if these roses served as inspiration for my mom’s love of roses. I remembered memories she shared with me with one scene in this  driveway. Young military men picked Nona up for dates in their American issued jeeps and she told me how nervous she felt. I have a photo of one of those times and now I could actually touch the brick on this side of the building.

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Inside the apartment courtyard

Another time of reminiscing, a  fond memory my mother shared was of hopping her bike and riding out the gate full steam ahead. The rickshaw drivers shouted obscenities in Chinese admonishing her for going too fast as she weaved around them. My mother said she loved the ‘freedom of flying’ with the wind blowing her hair back off her face while she pedaled in pubescent madness. This was a happy time shortly before she would spend 4 years in a POW camp.

Now, seventy five years later, I jay-walked the busy lanes in front of the imposing brick building and imagined the spirit of a young girl flying down Weihai Road on her bicycle; in my mind’s eye I could see her disappearing in the distance.

My six senses were brought alive by traveling to the city of my mother’s birth while giving me the “sense of place” I needed to write their story.

Nona and a friend with jeep of a GI (who is probably taking the photo)

My mother (on the right) and a friend with jeep of a GI (who is probably taking the photo) next to her apartment building.

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Standing in the portal leading to the family apartment door

Eat, Wok, Stare – Just Another Shanghai Kind of Food

Full disclosure: “I am not a foodie.” I am not going to show you luscious examples of all the savory dishes I ate in Shanghai, mostly because I forgot.   And, I basically eat when I have to eat something to keep my energy up, but I do choose carefully so I don’t become ill. Fast food is not my favorite so it’s only out of desperation that I go to one of those joints. (I feel that way about coffee at a certain coffee chain started in Seattle, too.)  There is something ‘too corporate’ about these chains and I would rather give my money to smaller businesses.

I also prefer food brought to me at a table rather than buffet-style, and in a foreign country, it is helpful when a menu is in both English and the local language, but a few photos illustrating the dish will do fine, too. I’m not that fussy. Otherwise I take a look around at what other diners are eating or ask the server what they recommend if they happen to speak English. No matter what, you won’t starve if you can’t speak the language. You just figure it out.

With that said, I absolutely relish seeing different foods in other countries and it is common for me to take photos of food-related items which are different from what I am used to seeing. Like sculpted ice cream on a stick:

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Terrible photo because I was being rushed by others.

Eating in China was not totally ‘foreign’ to me since I grew up in a family who went to Chinese restaurants in our neighborhoods as special treats. And San Francisco was full of awesome Chinese restaurants. As a bonus, I learned how to use chopsticks early on in life. Shanghai carried on in my mother and grandmother’s lives until the day they died.  And now that I think of it, oddly enough the last meals I had with them were at Chinese restaurants, 17 years apart.

Arriving at the Pudong airport in Shanghai in March of 2015, one of the first signs I saw was for  Burger King.

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The next day, I had breakfast in the dining room of the Astor Hotel, where I was staying, with an elegant and scrumptious buffet.

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And on my first walk along Shanghai’s busy Nanjing Road, a colorful case of lacquered fruit popped into my sight.

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These colorful fruits seemed to be lacquered with a thick clear icing. Sugar, I presume.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day later, during the first of two personal tour days my cousin John and cousin-in-law Denise, and I had with Mr. H., we were taken for lunch in locally well-known, too expensive (we paid for lunch on top of his hefty daily fee, although I admit he was worth it), and well-established restaurants somewhere in Shanghai. These restaurants were never obvious from the general tourist point-of-view and I doubt I could find them again.

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The first restaurant (and only one I photographed) was this weathered and splendid building with flying eaves, and which was definitely old enough to have been a place my family ate in the 20s and 30s.  We arrived after 1pm when most customers (looked like all locals) were finishing up lunch and taking their time talking over desert.  It was a busy Saturday and we had an extremely long wait before we were seated.

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While waiting to be seated, I looked at this wall for longer than I was interested.

In contrast to seeing the ‘real Shanghai’ neighborhoods that morning during our drive, it was obvious there was no poverty in this opulent establishment and it was far from being a working class restaurant.

   

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Koi swimming beneath our feet.

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This shrimp dish was excellent.

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Denise and I were picking leaves off our lips and out of our teeth as we drank our tea.

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The little pond roped off in the center of the dining room. Seemed a bit weird since no one could drown. But, maybe they were afraid of ‘other things’ happening.

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One of several dining rooms in this palatial building.

While we were eating our pleasant lunch, there was a young Asian boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, who appeared to be fascinated with Caucasian people eating. I even ate with chopsticks which may have blown his little mind. I don’t know why, but he couldn’t stop staring and hovering, standing very close to our table, gravitating into my personal space to the right of my chair and maybe a step behind me. He openly watched our every move.  The boy’s family (presumably chattering away in some other area of the restaurant which I never could figure out) either never saw him to correct him about lurking or maybe he was the owner’s son? I have no idea.

In China, I noticed personal space is practically non-existent. This was my first time in Asia so if you have ever been in an Asian country you have noticed there is always the somewhat disconcerting feeling someone is looking over your shoulder or standing practically flush by your side.  I suppose with the high populations in these countries it is necessary and a non-issue to be so cozy with each other. It takes some adjustment to get used to the closeness of our fellow humans.

But, back at the restaurant, Mr. H.  finally barked out some stern Chinese words spurring the boy on to skedaddle over to the other side of the pond, closer to his invisible family.  I occasionally glanced around to find him in yet another corner continuing to keep his watchful eye on us. What was he so curious about, I wondered.

As we were leaving, I turned and looked back  to see the boy now standing at the edge of the dining room entrance, with a curious, almost wistful expression, watching us leave his familiar world. I smiled and sent him a small wave goodbye which prompted a sweet crooked smile from him as he happily waved back. It was kind of sweet in an innocent, stalking sort of way.

Later we went to another police station where my grandfather worked sometime during 1922-1942, and wandered through the imprisoned and creepy area which was down one of the alleyways I didn’t venture off of Nanjing Road. It was cordoned off by high concrete walls with a rolled barbed wire deterrent on top. The day had turned out to be very warm, which made me thirsty. As we were leaving to rush off to the next destination I saw the sugar cane carts outside the walls. I am not sure where the memory came from, maybe Chinatown in San Francisco with my grandmother, but I knew I liked sugar cane juice. I ground to a stop (Mr. H. was always in such a hurry!) and bought a cup of the juice while being reminded how refreshing it tasted.

Delicious sugar cane juice

Delicious sugar cane juice

During my 10 day stay, I ate at various places on my own. Most were a success, but not all. (During the 2 days with John and Denise after our time with Mr. H, we ate at the Subway on the Bund out of sheer desperation. Not my favorite place but it was close by when we were walking the Bund, plus we were hot, tired, and knew what to expect.)

One of the poor choices I made was ordering a burger from the bar in the Astor one early evening. I can’t seem to erase the taste of or the memory of the consistency of this so-called meat.

But to give the hotel credit, the little café in the lobby served excellent soup and the buffet breakfast served in the same ballroom where my family members must have danced at some point, tasted amazing.

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The wonton soup in the Astor House café was excellent, the salad was sad, and they always served a banana with a meal.

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Elegant way to have a cappuccino in the Astor House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, the little café across from another hotel not far from the Astor was another one of my random decisions which did not work out in my favor. Hope I don’t get sued, but this had to be my worse food experience in Shanghai. I thought I was being smart by avoiding the $12 for breakfast at the Astor by venturing up the road to what looked like a possible breakfast place. I had noticed the sign when getting dropped off at the hotel one night.

Unfortunately, another taste I can’t seem to forget was the ‘bun’ I ordered which also had some sort of indescribable meat inside. There was nothing fresh offered here and I should have known that if it was pre-packaged, odds were not in my favor. After one bite, I gave it back to one of the two women  saw working there and she started eating it with a big grin. Neither of them spoke English.  She seemed to be proving to me that it was delicious and I was the picky tourist.   I saw a cake slice which I figured would have to do as breakfast. That was tasteless. Perhaps that’s a good thing. The sad ending to this tale is it cost me more than what the breakfast at the Astor would have charged.  Not so smart, on my part, after all.

Overpriced restaurant

Overpriced restaurant

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At another desperate moment, I saw an exterior Starbucks sign, walked the length of a enormous department store with individual stalls selling shoes, clothing, and cosmetics, only to fin this “Brewing Soon” sign. Luckily on the following block I found one already brewing and open.

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Thinking this was milk with a ‘cute character’ on the bottle, I found that when there is a peanut, it usually means it is peanut milk. I have never heard of peanut milk and after one sip, I never need to hear of it again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was an evening I found a 7-Eleven type market during a downpour, when I just wanted a glass of milk and a cookie to take to my room. (See milk bottle caption.)

And the day I wanted to sit and have a cup of coffee. (See Starbucks caption.)

To end my stay, I had dinner at the local restaurant just up the street from the Astor. I don’t know what happened, but I have no photos to mark this particular visit. It may be that I was distracted by the stares (again). This time it was a whole working family in this empty restaurant who seemed bored to death, so perhaps an old American woman having dinner alone was their entertainment. (It was late afternoon before most people went out for dinner. As I was leaving they were becoming busy with locals.)

Everything on the menu was in Chinese and no one spoke English, but there were some photos alluding to ingredients. I chose a soup with shrimp which was very good. And as I sat there being the center of attention, they were distracted for a little while by a delivery of  large plastic crates holding fresh fish (I could see them swimming inside when l stood up in my booth and glanced over the top of a couple of the crates.). This was obviously the catch of the day for their dinner menu.

This Shanghai journey was a time when it would have been helpful to know the Chinese language, but I got by and never got sick. Plus I learned something: I know to pay attention to a peanut character on a bottle of  milk.

Two Faces of Travel: Traveler and Tourist

During my travels, I tend to seek out less traveled spots, therefore these places are less crowded, which makes me feel less surrounded, and makes traveling feel less stressful, and much more pleasant. But on this Sunday in crowded Shanghai, I understood it was time to surrender to a day of jostling with other tourists to see the sites. And we were paying a pretty penny for the personal tour, so I should try to pay attention.

On Sunday, Henry took John, Denise, and I to a few of the tourist spots around Shanghai. 

 YU GARDEN 

Before entering the Yu Garden, you must negotiate the Yuyuan Bazaar, an example of sprawling commercialism contained in 10 streets. However, shopping was not on our itinerary so we were whisked through the modern-built-flying-eave-structures to the ancient gardens with barely a glance or clear photo. 

The classical Yunduan Garden was completed in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty. Pan Yunduan built it for his parents to enjoy a tranquil and happy time in their old age. They lived only a short time after the gardens were finished, since there was a 20 year gap when Pan had to be in Beijing. 

Yu in Chinese means pleasing and satisfying.  The garden has gone through many different phases in 400 years. Some rich merchants bought it in 1760 during the Qing Dynasty and rebuilt the dilapidated buildings but it was severely damaged in the 19th century during the Opium Wars (1839-1842) but in 1956, then had a five year restoration period, and was finally opened to the public in September, 1961. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) partly destroyed it again but from 1986-1993, the government repaired the garden to what we see today. 

It’s only my assumption that during the time my family, The Sharrocks, lived in Shanghai, 1922 – 1947, it was nothing more than a park for opium addicts much like in the slums of any large city.

The 5 acres of Yu Gardens include 30 pavilions in six separate sections. Vaulted bridges and winding pathways lead the visitor through a world built for Chinese scholars, politicians, and wives with genteel lifestyles (imagine: women in cheongsams drinking tea, discussing politics, and gossiping in one of the gazebo-style structures with pretty birds chirping, water gurgling, and grasses swaying from frogs hopping.).

Hawker making too much noise selling what Henry said was a ‘peep show.’ I think he was being sarcastic…

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New pavilion construction at Yu Gardens entrance.

 

Moon Gate

Moon Gate


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It’s almost easy to forget there are hundreds of other people who have joined you on this contemplative walk.  Note the word “almost.”

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Bridge leading to tea-house

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Ancient and original Yu Gardens Tea-house

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Moon Gate

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“Good old boys club” in a Chinese Tea-house?

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Dragon’s head rising…

Dragon Wall

Dragon’s Body Framing the Top of the Wall….

 

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Meditative pool next to one of the wive’s pavilions

   It was a lovely place to see. Just try to imagine it is just you and a friend taking a Sunday walk.

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SUN YAT-SEN

Onward to Sun Yat-Sen’s former residence. “Sun Yat-Sen set up the Military Government of the Republic of China in Guangzhou and took office as the Generalissimo of the Navy and the Army in 1917.” The house was nice, he was quite a versatile and intelligent man who was not only a politician but also a medical doctor. It was somewhat interesting, but  if I had to choose, I would not have bothered. Unless you are into Chinese politics (he was a revolutionary, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China, and his 2nd wife’s sister, who was one of the 3 Soong sisters, married Chiang Kai-shek) or the fact that this 1924 European cottage style (he died in 1925 so he only lived there a year) was China’s first major government-protected cultural site, you may want to choose a temple or one of many gardens in Shanghai. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s former home in Shanghai is located at No. 7 Xiangshan Rd. (FYI: There is also a classical Chinese garden in his name located in Vancouver, B.C. and is purported to be the largest classical Chinese garden outside of Asia.)

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Denise and I found this book display humorous. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen apparently needed some advice in the department of “women managing.”

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Pigeon House in the backyard.

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Dr. Sun Yat-Sen


Another residence we visited was the Shikumen Open House Museum at 25, Lane 181 Taicang Rd, Huangpu District. A Shikumen is the “most representative residential form in Shanghai, had the height of its popularity from late 19th century to the 1930s. The general layout resembles European terrace houses, but with the inside the structures of the residential style of South China.  Such buildings have a stone doorframe, which looks like a ‘Sui Gu’ (stone  hoop) over the dark solid wood door leaf, so it used to be called ShiGuMen (stone-hooped door). Due to the similar pronunciation of ‘Gu’ and ‘Ku’ in Shanghai dialect, it became Shikumen and is still in use today.”

The shikumen seemed to be a comfortable home and this display was nicely decorated for the 30s. It was a bit like visiting my grandmother!

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Not a bad place for ‘grandma’ to sleep.

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OLD NEIGHBORHOOD

When I mentioned to Henry I’d like to see an original neighborhood, I wasn’t prepared for where he took us. The sprawling network of small living quarters and narrow passageways  seemed to be more in line of what was once called a “shantytown.”   Henry seemed  to even forget his manners by walking us through this neighborhood as if it was a living museum. At one point he even walked into someone’s kitchen with the tenant inside washing a pot. She promptly shooed him out of her kitchen and gave us all a look of utter shock and disgust; I didn’t blame her.  Henry was unfazed and carried on with the tour.  I felt uncomfortable and took less photos than I would have if these had been abandoned. It was heartbreaking to see how the people lived, and have lived,  for generations.  I would not be surprised if this neighborhood is slated for demolition very soon.  Many Shanghainese throughout the city have been offered compensation for new living accommodations as the Chinese government turns the country into a sprawl of high-rise and quickly made condos. The deal includes relocation away from Shanghai and into towns built miles away from other family and friends.

 

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Pedicure

Pedicures

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Myna Bird
Hair Salon

Hair Salon

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Life Growing Up
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Each water faucet is metered for the individual families.

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Electrical meters for various families.

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Crossed wires?

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Lilong (alleyway).

Moved, No Forwarding Address

Moved and left no forwarding address…

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Sometimes 4-5 families share one small apartment.

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Shared outdoor sinks.

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Statues for sale. I would have bought one for my garden if I could have fit it in my carry-on.

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Interesting looking little guy.


Shanghai Library

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Henry took us to the library to vouch for me to be approved to carry a Shanghai Readers Library card.  This process involved forms, my passport, computer entries, and finally  my own card. I cannot check out books and physically remove them from the premises but I can read on site. 

From the main library, we were whisked off to the Bibliotheca, a library annex established by Jesuits many moons ago, and where they preserved and archived old newspapers and other historical documents. Taking photos of the outside would help me remember what it looked like when I returned on my own in a couple of days.  This was a very thoughtful thing for Henry to do; he did a similar thing for my other cousin 2 years prior.

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Shanghai Library Bibliotheca Zikawei

Archival Building 

Exterior of the Archives Library

The Tour of the Traditional Tourist was drawing to a close (although the library doesn’t normally qualify as ‘traditionally touristy’) with a whirlwind walk of the Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si). This Buddhist Temple was where an enormous and quite beautiful white jade reclining Buddha resides as well as disciples of the Buddhist religion.

The temple was built in 1882 but moved to its present location in 1918. We caught part of a formal ceremony with all of the monks chanting, and which I love to hear. There were many Buddhist devotees lighting bulky wads of incense and praying before several of the Buddha statues in the Pavilion. It was a peaceful place to wander around; I could have easily spent more time finding a quiet bench somewhere. The temple is located at 170 Anyuan Lu, Puto District in the northwest section of Shanghai.

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Prayers to Buddha

To finish the day, we took a quick walk through the pretty and obviously well-used and well-loved  Jing’an Park, which, unfortunately for my family and many others, was once called Bubbling Well Cemetery. My grandfather, Sam Sharrock, had been buried somewhere on these 8.3 acres in January, 1942.  However, in 1955, all burial plots and headstones were allegedly moved to somewhere in the countryside, and maybe to other cemeteries, when the Chinese government decided to make the entire area a public park. The government put out notices to family members but if you weren’t on the list, you weren’t notified. Obviously, neither my mother and grandmother in San Francisco, nor my cousins in Northern England, were on the list. Trying to find my grandfather’s final resting place has been futile thus far. Plus, we are still trying to find written documentation about Sam’s assassination, and why he was killed in action on that fateful day of January 20, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor. Was the story of my grandfather’s death, which was told to my mother and grandmother, true or was there some even more sinister reason other than the story he had uncovered an opium ring? In case there is something in writing to explain all this, at least now I had my Shanghai Library card to search.

 The Jing’an Park is located on Nanjing Rd (formally Bubbling Well Road).DSC01090

The former Bubbling Well Cemetery  

 

Family History 101

  

Sam Sharrock, my grand father, who makes a point of writing he had been in uniform for 4 months until now when the photo was taken. The period he was uniformed 24/7 was the 1937 Japanese-Chinese conflict.

My cousin John and his wife Denise arrived in my hotel lobby about 9:20 a.m. And it was wonderful to see them again. This was only the third time we have met since meeting for the first time in Colorado for my mother’s small memorial service in 2012.

John was as interested in his uncle’s life as I was interested in my grandfather’s life. Both men being one and the same: Sam Sharrock. 

 

Henry was our personal guide and hired a driver and van which took us to our family’s places of interest. He done the same thing with another cousin two years prior.

During the day, we explored the back of old police stations where Sam worked from the time he arrived in 1922 to the day he was assassinated in 1942. 

My grandmother saved the old photos Sam had taken during his life in Shanghai. I had seen them many times over the years and  when very young, I would secretly sneak them out of my grandmother’s Chinese carved trunk in her flat in San Francisco. It was always a great treat for me to scour through the photos to see family, most of whom were from England and whom I didn’t know, but also to see the aftermath from bombings by the Japanese in Shanghai. This included dead bodies, an infamous dog who fed off them, and buildings demolished.

  

Now I was in the city I had only fantasized about. We were in and out of the  van all day. We went to the apartment house where our family lived and in a childlike prankster mode, we rang different doorbells hoping someone would let us in. There were several ways into the apartment complex and we were looking for a specific apartment. Eventually someone would appear and after Henry explained, in Chinese, why we were showing up uninvited to their homes, we were granted access to the inner courtyard.

  

 

                                             The courtyard on Weihai Road

I tried to picture how the G.I.’s in their jeeps drove in to pick my mother up on dates, as she had told me about. It was only when we got to the final entry point that it all made sense. It was a bit of a disappointment to learn that the current inhabitant of the apartment was in a nursing home. The apartment was shut tight and we couldn’t get in to see the layout. 

  

But how cool it was to be there! After all these years I could actually touch the same brick walls and walk the same ground I had seen only in photos for more than 60 years.   

Henry was a gem for talking rapid fire Chinese to security guards all over Shanghai convincing them to let us into various properties due to his dogged persistence. The only place his tactics didn’t work was at Holy Trinity Church. We couldn’t even get inside the gates to see where my grandparents got married and where my mother was baptized; that particular guard wouldn’t budge. Henry also took the initiative to bang on a back door to the church in the event someone was inside working.  He was well worth his price in gold, as the saying goes.

We saw parts of Shanghai which most people would not be privy to seeing. It was an experience of a lifetime.

One of the most intriguing moments was when one of the workers at a police property beckoned me into the back area of one of the station. Denise followed behind and we were both a bit unnerved by the man showing us the way as if it was something he shouldn’t be doing or leading us to the chopping block. There were old rusty jail cells stacked with old furniture from schools, as it appeared to me, anyway. Chairs, desks, etc. A jumbled cobwebbed jailhouse mess with metal doors and old rusty locks. It looked like a damp nightmare for any prisoner.

  

We were led to a big metal door which he proceeded to unlock and then motioning us to enter. I looked at Denise and we both couldn’t talk as if we might break the spell this man was under to show us a room so secretive in Communist China. And this was done totally unprovoked and out of the blue. 

With a slight bit of trepidation, I started taking photo after photo of all the men’s faces framed and hanging on concrete walls in what may have been an administrative office for the police. Denise asked if she should get John so he could see it too  and I said yes! Unfortunately, the man started getting nervous and told me we had to go. I kept shooting photos as we were led out of what I learned was some sort of a tribute room to the communists who were killed. How/what/why I have no idea. Maybe the Nationalists killed them. All I know is we saw a secret place in Shanghai and I certainly love the idea of secrets as long as no one is murdered for them. By the time John and Henry got to us, we were already walking back into the prison yard so they missed the display.

  

We also went to Ward Prison which was built in the 30s and the largest prison ever built in China. This place was scary. But not content to only take photos of the exterior, I started down a passageway, passed the check-in booth with the guard looking the other way, and into the outer yard while taking photos before I realized the guard was yelling at me. I finally looked into the glassed in booth to see the uniformed guard waving his arms and yelling at me in Chinese to get out. He was probably swearing at me in Chinese, too, I thought it was pretty funny but Henry was not amused. He probably didn’t want one of his “paying guests” to be arrested and detained in a Chinese jail. Imagine all the paperwork that would involve!

  

Racing along, we took a quick peek into the Fashion Mart because I wanted some Chinese clothes, specifically old fashioned wide legged pants which I couldn’t find anywhere. Henry thinks I can get a pair made here. I just wanted a set of outdoor pajamas which so many Chinese used to wear. I was a bit disappointed to see how ‘Westernized’ Shanghai had become.  There was so little of the authentic way of life left to see. But from what I have read in other blogs, it is still feasible to witness Chinese life out in the countryside. It is apparent Shanghai is still a cosmopolitan city, as it always has been, but it is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world’s economic race to the proverbial finish line of wealth. A bit sad to me, but inevitable. 

  

Everywhere, any time, there are women in wedding dresses and formal wear being photographed. What I thought was a wedding photo was most likely a fashionshoot.

After seeing what I witnessed the next day, perhaps progress wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all…

An American in Maoist Fashion

It was exciting to know I had the world of Shanghai  outside the hotel doors. 

There were only four to-do items on my list for the day. Get my hotel room payment straightened out, walk over Garden Bridge (right around the corner), walk down the Bund, find the infamous No. 1 Department Store where Lola, my grandmother, and Nona, my mother, would have shopped in the 30s, and see the Peace Hotel.

To clear up the room payment, my credit union emailed how there should have been no trouble with my card, there were no declined transactions, and to tell the reception desk to get their act together and try to manually enter the card numbers (well, they didn’t actually say this, but I felt like it). The front desk employee ran it through without a problem, and I headed into the dining room for the over-priced, but fabulously opulent and delicious breakfast in the dining room which was the old hotel’s ballroom. Lola must have had cocktails and a dance or two here back in the 30s. Perhaps even my mom  danced here after returning from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after WWII in the 40s. She would have been of age by then, just barely eighteen years old.

   

 

To  top off the delicious food and smooth service, a lovely young woman gave me a customer service card to complete a customer service survey along with the gift of a fabric covered and mirrored lipstick box. Nice touch.

   

 

The Garden Bridge is an iconic image from my grandfather’s photos which I have seen all my life and now I was finally able to walk over it taking my own photographs.

  

 The Garden Bridge, also referred to as “Grandmother’s Bridge” because you can stop and gaze at the river.

The Peace Hotel, once called the Cathay, was a place I remembered my mom telling me about. What a beauty.  However, historically,  In 1937, a miscalculated bomb fell on the street right outside the hotel killing a massive amount of innocent strangers who were shopping on Nanjing Road.

      

  

 

  There are four of these large gold relief panels, depicting Shanghai, on the atrium walls of the Peace Hotel.

There were quite a number of people walking and shopping on this Friday, but nothing in comparison to what I would see the following Sunday.

As I wandered  up Nanjing Road, a movement caught my eye so I turned my head to catch a young boy, 2-3 years old, squatting and jiggling as he urinated on the sidewalk. Not even the gutter, just in the middle of the sidewalk. The boy’s father stood, a small distance from the boy, looking up to the sky as if he didn’t know this child nor notice he was behaving in a rather unsightly and inappropriate manner. 

  

Little boy pulling up his britches

A pleasant woman started talking and showing me her brochure of handbags (these are everywhere) and I found her to be an interesting companion for several blocks. We separated when she pointed out her alley with the stalls and I declined to be led down an alley.

   

 

My new friend who wanted me to follow her down the alley to buy handbags

I desperately needed to sit down and have an espresso. Although I try to use other coffee shops whenever I can, I saw the Starbucks and went for it. 

  

After walking through a maze of shopping stalls selling shoes, clothing, jewelry, etc., I found this:

  

Finally the No. 1 Department Store appeared in its grandeur. And, there was another Starbucks sign to investigate.  Resting up with a cappuccino, I tackled the department store.

The first escalator in China was installed in what is now the No. 1 Department Store in the 30s. Once again, this would have been a place my family would have shopped. I rode the elevator to all the floors looking for something rven remotely Asian looking. All I found was this special section dedicated to cheongsams in sizes I haven’t worn since my 30s! 

  

On the top floor finding a movie theater, I was tempted to hang out with Liam Neeson but knew I had other things to do.

 

 In People’s Park, I was asked to take the photo of a young couple. After the photo, he milled around me and she disappeared, which I noted to him. “Hmmm, where is your friend?” I soon realized this was another scam and high-tailed it out of this concrete haven for criminals. (I didn’t like the feeling I was getting from the other characters wandering around.) 

However, thanks to this young man, I learned something about myself. It had been apparent people were looking at me a lot. I thought maybe it was that I was alone and Caucasian. But when someone stared and smiled saying she liked my coat, I was rethinking my position. I was wearing a new London Fog raincoat (great deal from a thrift store back home), and the same beret I have been wearing for years with a couple of small pins on it from places I have traveled. 

This guy pointed out the obviousness of my attire. I looked very militaristic with the coat’s wide lapels, epaulets on the shoulders, and the ‘military green’ color of both my pants and the coat. The young man said, “Ah, military look.” I probably looked like a throwback to the Maoist Era!

Walking on, and wishing I could be invisible, to save some energy I paid 80 cents to ride the trolley for a bit. 

  

  

                              Statue of The People in People’s Park

After the rain, the temperature was mild and perfect for walking but the humidity made it seem warmer than it was. 

Back on  the Bund, another couple approached me for the photo scam. I felt good being the wiser from my earlier experience. Although, at first I gave them the benefit of the doubt and took their photo. It was obvious when, once again, he was getting chummy. “Where are you going?” he asked in a fake little boy voice. Oh, please, spare me. I had no qualms leaving him in the dust.

I loved Shanghai even with the quirky people. I felt a sense of having been here before and a fond familiarity with the buildings and knowing the history.

Everything on my list was accomplished while walking the  4 mile round-trip stretch.

For the next two days I would be with my cousin and cousin-in-law led about by Henry our personal guide. My other cousin and cousin-in-law hired him two years ago for the same family itinerary. Henry knew what we were looking for, plus we would be traveling in a vehicle saving us both time as well as bodily wear and tear. 

I was more than ready to plunge into the “inner sanctum” of Shanghai.