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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Here Comes Dr. Sun

It's supposed to be the world's largest annual migration: the hundreds of millions of Chinese migrant workers who return to their hometowns before the onset of the Lunar New Year, aka the Spring Festival 春节, which this year begins on January 31. Things are supposedly peaking right about this time, but you wouldn't have known it judging the relative lack of crowds this Sunday afternoon at Shànghăi's 上海 main railway station  上海火车站.

I went there hoping to see and photograph the immense numbers of people I was expecting to find lined up outside the station. Instead, the expansive plazas (Chinese city planners love huge, open spaces) on both the northern and southern sides of the train station were relatively empty. Even the lines at the ticket window were not very long. Sure, there were plenty of people pushing themselves and their belongings through the ticket gates, but the scene wasn't even remotely like the news images I had seen in recent years of the sea of humanity attempting to return home in what for many is the only chance they'll have all year to see the families and hometowns. Either I was too early or too late, or the authorities have gotten better about scheduling additional trains to handle the passenger loads.

From the Shanghai Railway Station, I made my way (alone, as my daughter was at home recovering from a cold and my wife wanted to rest) via the Metro to the French Concession area 法租界, one of Shanghai's nicer districts. From the Xīntiāndì Metro station 新天地站, it was a ten-minute walk to Fùxīng Park 复兴公园. Laid out by the French in 1909, it's one of the city's more pleasant green spaces.

Throughout the park, groups of old men could be seen playing card and board games...

...while a handful of elderly people were still doing tai chi exercises 太極拳, even in the middle of the afternoon.
The Chinese parasol trees 梧桐 were looking barren in the winter air, but in the heat of a sweltering Shanghai summer, they're no doubt a welcome sight.

Today was an ideal day for kite-flying, a popular activity in China

Nobody was paying any attention to the fathers of Communism

I'd assumed these groups of men were intent on watching some sort of Chinese version of chess, but in fact they were engaged in discussion amongst each other. A bystander told me they were "complaining about the Communist Party."

Reading newspapers posted on reading boards, in a scene that probably was a lot more common in the past than in this day and age of the Internet (even one that is heavily censored behind the Great Chinese Firewall).

The 1933 St. Nicholas Church 圣尼古拉斯教堂 is a short walk from the west gate of Fuxing Park. It started out as a Russian Orthodox house of worship, before morphing into a washing machine factory and then a French restaurant. It now houses Kinloch, a "Scottish cafe". 

Also close to Fuxing Park is the Former Residence of Sun Yatsen 孙中山故居, consisting of the Shanghai home of the "Father of the Country" and "forerunner of democratic revolution" (top) and a museum dedicated to the time he spent in the city and as the president of the Republic of China 中华民国 (bottom).

Dr. Sun Yat-sen 孙中山. Considered a great hero in both China and Taiwan, he was the first president and founding father of the R.O.C., and author of The Three Principles of the People 民族主义, a work of political philosophy as much fun to read as Das Kapital. Truth be told, although he had long worked toward the overthrow of China's imperial system, the 1911 Wŭchāng Uprising 武昌起义 caught him unprepared. His tenure as the country's first republican president was less-than-successful, as he was soon pushed aside by Yuán Shìkăi 袁世凱, who briefly made himself emperor before dying in 1916. Even with Yuan out of the way, Sun was never able to see his vision of a modern Chinese state realized, due to in large part to opposition from warlords. Following his death in 1925, Sun's Kuomintang party 国民党 was taken over by Chiang Kai-shek 将中正, who led it down an increasingly authoritarian, corrupt path that resulted in defeat at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party 中国共产党 forces and a hasty retreat to Taiwan.

Photography wasn't allowed in this national shrine. Sun's home, especially, is considered sacred ground where plastic covers have to be placed over your shoes before you're allowed to venture inside and have a look at what is a fine example of an affluent family's house in Shanghai in the early years of the 20th century. The museum next-door has some interesting displays, including Sun's uniform as well as a mini-revolver that he carried on his person. The English captions, however, assume that Western visitors are already familiar with this period in Chinese history and that there's no need to go into any background or give the items and photographs any sort of context.

From the Nationalists to the Communists: down Sīnán Road 思南路 from the Sun residence is a house that was briefly occupied back in 1946 by none other than Zhōu Ēnlái. Photography isn't allowed inside here, either, though the bare room decorations ensure that you aren't missing much by not being able to do so. The house has a terrace in the back with rattan chairs that gives it some colonial atmosphere, somewhat ironic considering the former occupant.

Next door, there's a small but pleasant garden, and an adjoining building that manages to overcome the dull (Communist) party-themed displays on the ground floor.

Zhou is still looked upon favorably by many Chinese, as he was seen as being more moderate and pragmatic than Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. That being the case, you don't survive as long as Zhou did in the eat-your-young world of internal CCP political machinations without making a number of morally questionable compromises, and Zhou shares at least some of the blame for the tens of millions of Chinese who perished under the idiocies that were the Great Leap Forward 大跃进 and the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命.

The neighborhood where Sun and Zhou lived is still filled with Western-style buildings from that era, including the house across the street from Zhou's that was used as a KMT outpost to spy on him. It's great to see the houses being lived in, though at least one had poles sticking out from the side with laundry hanging from it. This being Shanghai, there has to be at least one horribly-pretentious commercial/residential district, patronized by the city's nouveau riche and homesick ex-pats. In this case, it's called Sinan Mansions, located halfway between the Nationalists (the Sun residence) and the Communists (the Zhou residence). Much like modern-day China, you might say...


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