I didn't know where to go next after I emerged from Shanghai Metro Line 9 Qibao Station into a largely residential area, but questioning a few bystanders soon put me in the right direction—towards the enormous sign across the intersection I'd somehow missed that proclaimed: Qibao Old Street. The rest of the way was a fairly simple trek following intermittent signs along the refurbished shopping street until hitting the hard to miss páilou (牌楼), a traditional, decorated arch marking the entrance to Qibao's northernmost Bei Dajie Square (Běi Dàjiē Guǎngchǎng, 北大街广场). At 10am on a weekday the square wasn't crowded, which boded well for my visit to an area I had heard could get packed, especially on weekends and holidays.
People strolled around the square or sat on the benches and it seemed like any other park in town. A building on one side of the square's clock tower housed a snack shop and was connected by a sheltered walkway to a police station in another. A vendor next to the rockery and pond just inside the square caught my attention. He sat beneath a large sun umbrella behind a booth whose arched eaves matched the surrounding buildings. The booth was stacked high with colorful plastic and white painted metal cages housing lizards, parakeets, hamsters, rabbits, mice and even a squirrel. A little kid stood next to me, transfixed. He was no doubt pondering (along with me) what channels this man had gone through to obtain this squirrel. Hanging from the side of his little pet stand, the man had ball-shaped woven-wood cages housing enormous crickets (xīshuài, 蟋蟀), taunting bystanders with their menacing chirps. Past Bei Dajie Square on Bei Dajie (Běi Dàjiē, 北大街) itself, the crowd seemed suddenly bigger on the tight pedestrian street. Lined with the overhanging second stories of the traditional buildings whose first floors were stuffed with standard Chinese tourist trap souvenirs, it reminded me a bit of Yangshuo's West Street only with more polished buildings.
Museums of Qibao
While Qibao Old Street is free, stands outside sell tickets that get you in to most—but not all, as I would find out later—designated tourist sites in the area. The first I came across was the Cotton Textile Mill (Miánzhī Fāng, 棉织坊). Like most of the museums in Qibao, it occupies a refurbished traditional building which proved somewhat more interesting to me than the museum itself where eerily real wax mannequins operated long-outdated wooden devices spinning, dying, stressing and weaving cotton into garments like an educational Madame Tussaud's.
From there, I peeked into the Shadow Puppet Museum (Píyǐng Yìshù Guǎn, 皮影艺术馆) where a friendly older gentleman informed me they would be putting on a shadow play at 1pm. Surely I wouldn't be there that much longer, I thought. Qibao wasn't that big. After visiting the Memorial Hall of the Artist Chang Zhongren—one of my favorite museums in Qibao—my friend and I decided no trip to a watertown or old town on a canal was complete without a boat trip.
Dropping a mere RMB 10 per, we boarded the little boat at Qibao's wharf (yóuchuán mǎtóu, 游船码头) and proceeded to go away from Qibao. The shops and apartment buildings replacing the refurbished Qing and Ming Dynasty buildings were lovely, but not quite what we were looking for. Luckily for us, our spry boatman was just warming us up. Slowly.
Flipping around, he took us back into town, passing beneath the three stone bridges and buildings that peeked out over the canal walls, or perched on stilts in the water. Tourists sat around the gazebo next to Nanda Jie (Nán Dàjiē, 南大街), the main food street. Between two restaurants, a man sat on some stairs leading down to the water with a plastic bag of snacks and a fishing pole. The boatman took us as far as the canal lock at the other end where tourist-ready buildings are bookended by structures just as old, but not refurbished. Steps once used to fish, or take clothes down to the canal or draw buckets of water for washing (probably not the best idea anymore in the midst of Shanghai) were blocked off by a new concrete walkway built for tourists. Across the river, a skeleton of metal poles and green plastic netting marked out construction sites.
Beyond Qibao's eastern edge, Qibao Temple's (Qībǎo Jiàosì, 七宝教寺) pagoda peeked up over the jumble of rooftops. After our boat ride, we found the Old Trades Museum (Lǎo Hángdang, 老行当), which housed a recreation of traditional town trade shops on the second floor. Like the Cotton Textile Mill, it was populated with wax mannequin butchers, blacksmiths and the like but while the mannequins of the Cotton Textile Mill had lined one side of the open, brightly lit rooms, these mannequins surrounded my friend and me in the dim light. Like a haunted house in an amusement park, our eyes played tricks on us and we periodically glanced behind us to make sure the blacksmith and his raised hammer didn't actually move.
Qibao's Miniature Museum
Slipping through Nanda Jie past sellers hawking street food favorites the crowds seemed to tighten, drawn in by the aromas of cooking food. We discovered the limits of our tickets when we could not access the Calligraphy Museum (Qībǎo Shūfǎ Yìshù Guǎn, 七宝书法艺术馆), so we dropped into the nearby Zhou's Miniature Museum instead. While I didn't expect to get much out of a museum dedicated to the crafting of miniatures by one man and his daughter, I must admit to being pulled in by the shelves of dizzyingly complex but tiny pottery, statues and tablets covered in delicate calligraphy and miniature furniture that would satisfy even the most discerning Lilliputian decorator. Continuing our museum trek, we ended up at what is definitely the least interesting of Qibao's museums. The Qibao Pawnshop (dàngpù 当铺) consists of a single room displaying money from China's Republican era alongside pawned teapots and the like. Behind us, a wax mannequin of a sleeping pawnshop employee rustled and my friend and I jumped, suddenly realizing he wasn't a dummy. He wasn't even wearing a costume. Between laughs I tried explaining it in awkward Chinese to the girl checking tickets, "I thought he was not real person because the other museums had those not real people," to which she responded with a blank, confused look.
Qibao's Church, Crickets and Qibao Liquor
Not far from the pawnshop, the Cricket House (Xīshuài Cǎotáng, 蟋蟀草堂) had the largest collection of dead crickets I had seen since I cleaned out my parents' garage as a kid. The specimens were preserved in little boxes with labels in Chinese. Not a cricket enthusiast myself, I found the cricket paraphernalia far more interesting. Beautifully crafted ceramic and wooden cricket houses were on display along with plaques detailing in English and Chinese the importance of cricket keeping in China and Qibao. A frieze in the building's garden illustrates the story of Qibao's legendary crickets, said to be the progeny of a cart full of fine specimens destined for the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty that escaped when the horse transporting them through Qibao slipped and lost its load. Strangely, though there were crickets in tiny cages chirping away throughout Qibao, the Cricket House had nary a one. Nary a living one anyway.
To the south of Qibao, my friend and I took Nan Jie (Nán Jiē, 南街—literally "South Street,") in search of the Qibao Catholic Church. After asking a German couple who couldn't speak English (unfortunately, I don't speak German either) if they knew where the church was, I passed a gate in front of what appeared to be a school yard with a basketball hoop… and a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Some way past that, down an alley conveniently named "Church Street" in Chinese (Tiānzhǔtáng Jiē, 天主堂街), we spotted the church's gate through which sat a statue of Jesus in the middle of a wide open courtyard. The building looked to be in quite good condition for a church originally built in 1896 (with a facelift in 2010) and suffering bomb damage in World War II.
A poster in Chinese advertised Sunday school lessons. Back in Qibao, we followed our stomachs back to Nanda Jie and it was while perusing plates of duck neck (yā bózi, 鸭脖子), zongzi (zòngzi, 粽子), skewers (chuàn, 串), beggar's chicken (jiàohuà jī, 叫化鸡) and any other number of street snacks that I spotted it—a genuine ICEE machine. Though this frozen beverage would not fill my stomach, finding it among the stalls of Qibao Old Street was excuse enough to indulge.
Not content, my rumbling tummy led us on to the Qibao Old Wine Shop (Qībǎo Jiǔfáng, 七宝酒坊), or Qibao Distillery (open daily 10:30am-9pm), where they brew the local Qibao alcohol (Qībǎo Dàqū, 七宝大曲). The second floor restaurant would have been a great place to sit down and enjoy lunch if only the staff hadn't decided to take their break (2pm-4:30pm) fifteen minutes early.
Defeated, we made our way back downstairs where curiosity about the open brewery room overcame my hunger. Inside, the friendly Mr. Tang invited us to take a whiff of the local brew. Dripping out of a bamboo pole and into a ceramic bowl it spilled into a brown clay jug used for storing liquor. The fragrance was definitely alcoholic, but far more floral and pleasant-smelling than the cheap baijiu I was more familiar with. "Drink," he urged and I noticed the bowl still contained a little alcohol. Again, I was surprised at how smooth the liquor actually was. After a bit more banter, I bought a jug (RMB 60, prices vary by size and variety) and bid Mr. Tang goodbye.
The New Face of Qibao
From the three bridges of Qibao, the gate and pagoda of the nearby Qibao Temple beckoned us, poking up above the rooftops and surrounding trees. Heeding the call, we followed the canal east. Passing into the decaying residences outside of Qibao's more polished streets, I stopped and bought popped rice (bàomǐhuā, 爆米花) from a vendor selling pop corn (bàoyùmǐhuā, 爆玉米花) and other snacks made in a little blackened metal contraption like one on display at the Old Trades Museum. Puffing from a long, strange pipe, he and his mobile snack stand were stationed on the other side of a wall separating Qibao's tourist area from the surrounding residences.
Following the spire of the pagoda and the large bell visible across the canal from Qibao Old Street, we traced a long winding path along the canal through apartment complexes and finally found the Qibao Buddhist Temple. Beyond its gate at 1205 Xinzhen Lu (Xīnzhèn Lù, 新镇路) was a temple that looked less like an ancient Buddhist temple and more like a provincial museum, its structures mostly stark concrete topped with dull blue ceramic tiles. Hoping for a redeeming feature after our walk, we headed to the top of the seven story pagoda where only one open side looked out onto a completely uninspiring view of Minhang district traffic and construction.
In the main hall, I asked a monk when the temple was founded. Looking up from his cell phone he said, "2003." The ancient temple I'd expected (and supposedly from which the town got its current name) appeared to be no more. Deflated, we left the main hall and people-watched in the wide courtyard. Untroubled by the same cynical expectations as a spoiled laowai tourist, worshipers made clockwise rounds of the halls, lighting incense and bowing before the statues of bodhisattvas. Out at the edge of the temple grounds, we found the giant metal bell that had, along with the pagoda, led me to the temple. Sitting in the corner of a lovely garden against the canal, a sign next to it described its history. Or something like that... as with the rest of the signs in Qibao Temple, the Chinese was not accompanied by English translation, unlike the rest of Qibao. As we made our way to the corner near Xizhen Lu to catch a cab it was just after 3pm and I realized I could have caught that shadow puppet show after all. Next time, I suppose.