The art of a city

02:25, Nov 12 2012
Tianzifang art street in Shanghai.

In a tiny dark room, in nasty yellow pyjamas, I'm being pummelled and wrenched about by a small, wiry man who speaks no English.

My yelps of pain need no translation. They call this torture Chinese massage.

Aching, but oddly rejuvenated, I climb back into my own clothes and stagger out again into Shanghai. I'm here for the art, but there are many arts practised here, massage being just one of them. Another is the city itself, a massive work in progress, and how its people live in it.

Tonight the legendary Bund teems with many Chinese, both local and out-of-towners. It's China's National Day, when millions travel back to their home villages, but people here are gazing across the river to the glittering Star Wars realm of Pudong by night, risen triumphantly from formerly swampy land opposite the former historic city centre.

Its high towers reflected in the Huangpu River, itself glittering with slow-moving pleasure craft, the effect is like a living propaganda poster for the new China. Since 1993, when development of this area began, its population has soared to more than five million. Shanghai itself is the largest city in the world, by population, with 25 million inhabitants, and you'd swear most of them were right here.

The peaceful crowd mills around policemen busily blowing whistles and being ignored. Red and green traffic signals are notional; people cross the road when they feel like it, and cars just ignore them. Children wave their red flags as their parents admire tomorrow, Pudong embodying what in the city's Propaganda Art Museum is called, "The indomitable nature of the human spirit, the transformational power of unbridled industriousness, and the soaring spirit of the peoples' optimism".

This was planned as the financial and commercial hub for all of China.

High up in the Peninsula Hotel, in an open-air bar looking over the crowd, it seems only right to order a pink gin. Chinese may remember the European colonials of the past with scant affection, but they loved a cocktail.

By day People's Park, framed with plane trees brought by the French, teems with people - asleep on the grass; playing cards; walking children or dogs; seeking suitable marriages for adult children; posing for wedding photographs.


Vibrant beds of annuals, triumphs of the gardener's art, are massed in small, individual terracotta pots, to be replaced with duplicates if they wilt. I guess the same applies to the fluffy ducklings and chickens a woman sells here, jammed into small cages without shelter, water or food.

Next morning in Xiangyang Park women line-dance to Finiculi Funicula or perform tai chi, while two men practise a strange form of non-boxing involving close-up, rapidly moving entanglements of their forearms. Other men create flowing water calligraphy on the ground, the characters drying poetically almost as soon as they're made. At dusk and into evening the park will fill again with women ballroom dancing to recorded music in the soft light.

A local wet market's ground floor writhes with life destined for chopsticks; fish, meat and fowl. A slithery eel makes a dash for freedom; chooks tied up by their feet, wings flapping, await the cleaver. I head swiftly for the next level, where fruit and vegetables glisten in unbelievable colour, freshness and variety. A stallholder, seeing me looking at something strange but edible that I've never seen before, breaks a piece with her small brown hands to share with me. Sweetish, crisp - is it vegetable or fruit? I can't tell. Outside, a man is literally selling snake oil.

We head for Mainland China's tallest building, and the second-tallest building in the world. The Shanghai World Financial Centre in Pudong is 101 storeys high, with the world's highest viewing platform. We look down through plate-glass windows set in its floor on the city below, people spilling through its streets like tiny, multi-coloured beads from a hippie's broken necklace.

I'll see this building again by night, when the sun sinking in the polluted sky will make a glowing golden haze falling on this vision of the future. The ever-hovering pollution, rather symbolically, blocks a more distant view.


National Day this year marked the official opening of two vast new art galleries in the city, both recycled buildings from the 2010 World Expo. The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, or China Art Palace, is destined to hold the biggest collection of modern Chinese art in the world, along with visiting collections from other museums. The Power Station of Art currently hosts a biennale exhibition that's also spread out over other city locations. In one of these, a stripped-out church on the Bund, Vincent Ward, the only invited New Zealand artist, is showing an enigmatic film-based work.

The huge Power House space is taken up with a stunning range of international works based on the biennale's theme, reactivation. I'm struck by the work of Chinese and Russian artists new to me.

Huang Yongping's enormous Thousand-Armed Guanyin, 1997 is a gigantic Tower of Babel in the foyer, while Olga Chernysheva's life-sized, layered photographic work explores the idea of the gaze with layers of reflections of viewers - including yourself - looking at a painting.

Wang Yuyang's work, Light, Falling Like a Feather, has white tubes of electric light tumbling through several storeys of open space, a computer monitor displaying the many ways they could fall. Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov's series of photographs, Yesterday Sandwich, bears witness to the effects of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, with confrontational images of alienation, disintegration and collapse.

There's yet more disillusionment in Moscow artist Irina Petrakova's Fucking Nothing 2012, and Uzbekistan artist Timur Khakimov's ironic Museum of the Most Expensive paintings. American photographer Jeremiah Day offers disquiet of another kind with a group of deceptively bland, annotated crime scene photographs called LA Homicide.

Meanwhile the China Art Museum, an enormous red pyramid turned upside down, has cameo exhibitions from many countries in honour of its opening. Among these the British Museum has 19 artefacts, including a 19th-century Maori carving and an Assyrian relief sculpture from Nimrud (in modern-day Iraq).

The Rijkmuseum has lent masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer, while France has sent an exhibition from the Maisons de Victor Hugo; Hugo was an artist as well as a writer. The Whitney Museum shows top 20th-century American art, and our own Te Papa's room of contemporary art looks fresh and crisp in such heavyweight company. We are less familiar with the work of major contemporary Chinese painters with big reputations whose work is displayed in other gallery space.

Also visit: Minsheng Art Museum is showing an impressive range of work by Geng Jianyi dating from 1985-2005. In the sculpture park nearby, big dragonflies fly toward you like toy helicopters. In the Red Town Arts Precinct of small galleries, also nearby, you can commission a copy of any famous painting you like.


Din Tai Fung: It's reminiscent of Breaking Bad as you enter this buzzing Taiwanese-style restaurant, passing a glassed-in roomful of cooks in white coats, hats and masks making snow- white dumplings that will soon be a revelation in your mouth. Imagine soft, thin white wrappers encasing both a savoury pork ball and rich, clear soup.

Lost Heaven: Described as Yunnan Folk Cuisine, the spicy food here introduces your palate to fresh new seasonings like sand ginger leaf and fragrant willow leaf. The Burmese Tea Leaf Salad and the Wild Vegetable Pancakes are simply stunning.

Breakfast Pancakes: Perched by the footpath a woman cooks on an upturned metal barrel. She spreads a slick of batter, wide and thin like a Breton pancake, then breaks an egg on top and spreads it around till it's just cooked. Next come a flurry of fresh coriander, a brown paste of some kind, a dark chilli spread, and two sheets of deep-fried wonton wrappers, the whole folded, sliced in half, and presented in a small plastic bag. Time taken: a minute at most. Cost: a dollar. Jianbing crepes are the best breakfast ever.

Lucky Zen and Veg: Strictly Buddhist, strictly no alcohol, but intriguing ingredients: horsebean, lily bulb, pleurotus mushroom, boletus edulis and caraway for starters. The standout dish is walnuts, smashed with a hammer, but still in their shells, in a rich, hot, herby sauce flavoured with star anise and a seedhead of something fresh that looks a bit like cardamom.

Chestnuts: Buy hot from a street vendor. They're a small variety with papery shells, and taste like kumara.

Baker & Spice: Track down Dean Brettschneider's coffee bar and bakery in the leafy French Concession, with its virtuoso display of breads, cakes and sandwiches. You'll find other Kiwis there, also a few adventurous Chinese; coffee is starting to take off here.

Barbarossa: This Middle Eastern-style restaurant in People's Park opens out onto a pond where the last lotuses are fading, and the water lily leaves have curled-up edges. Good dips, breads and spreads.

Mercato: The waiter recommends Chinese chardonnay with my wild mushroom pizza. It's not bad. The pizza, covered in a variety of fungi, is the best I've eaten in years.

Fact file

How to get there:
Air New Zealand flies five times a week from Auckland to Shanghai (Monday, Wednesday to Friday, and Sunday). Return economy prices start from $1662 per adult (including taxes but excluding the $35 CC fee).

Where to stay:
The Langham Xintiandi, 99 Madang Road, Xintiandi,

Where to eat:
Din Tai Fung, 123 Xing Ye Road,
Lost Heaven, No 38, Fumin Road,
Lucky Zen and Veg, 2/F, 428 Madang Lu, Luwan
Baker & Spice, Shanghai Centre East Tower Rm 118, 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu,
Barbarossa, No 231 Huangpi Road Mercato, Sixth floor, Three on the Bund, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, near Guangdong Lu, Huangpu district

What to do:
Peninsula Hotel, 32 The Bund, 32 Zhongshan East 1st Road, Huangpu,
Shanghai World Financial Centre, 100 Century Ave, Pudong, swfc-
The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, People's Park, 231 Nanjing West Road,
The Power Station of Art, Lane 20, Huayuangang Lu, Near Miaojiang Lu, Huangpu district China Art Museum, Guozhan Lu, near Yuntai Lu

- Rosemary McLeod flew to Shanghai with Air New Zealand. She stayed at the Langham Hotel, Xintiandi.

Sunday Star Times