I was pleased to find Shanghai’s very Communist-sounding People’s Square is, in fact, a park. Full of trees, shady paths and a lotus pond spread out between museums and other showpiece buildings, it is much more like Central Park than, say, Tiananmen Square. And like Central Park, it is ringed by fabulous skyscrapers – here there are angular jutting blades, Star Trek towers, solid Gothic piles hulking in dark stone and even the faux-Arabian fantasy of the pond-side Barbarossa cafe.
Under the trees, young men boxed and old men played chess, while one elderly gentleman practised his violin (impeccably.) Feral cats darted through the flower beds nervously (I wondered if there had been attempts made to catch them for dinner), families fed pigeons and people from the provinces sat with suitcases on park benches, staring straight ahead with expressionless faces – maybe ready to start a new life in the big city, maybe scared with nowhere to go.
I had come to see the area’s two museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art was running an interesting exhibition exploring how contemporary Chinese artists respond to the external world, a very broad topic and one which I had trouble grasping. Some of the work though was fabulous – giant skulls made of glistening seashells hung on strings, intriguing wicker body parts and abstract patterns on a screen which responded to the movements of passers-by.
At the much larger and busier Shanghai Museum I went straight up to the fourth floor to see the Ethnic Minorities hall – my guidebook had helpfully signposted an interesting item, the salmon-skin tunic of Northern China’s “Fish tribe” people, located among a range of other spectacular and outlandish costumes once worn across China. In the neighbouring jade gallery a pale white figure gleamed in its cabinet – I was surprised to see how Maori or Polynesian it looked, not Chinese at all I would have said.
On the way out I noticed the line-up of fierce lions and mythological beasts, copies of smaller carved originals housed in the museum’s collections.