World Traveller September 2019



In a swish of flowing black

changshan robes, the

master enters the room,

and the impatient taptapping

of my foot is stilled

as if by some enchantment.

Wordlessly, he makes jasmine tea,

pours it into tiny ceramic cups and

sits, in balletic posture, to unfurl a

fabric roll harbouring Lilliputian brass

implements: brush, tongs and razorsharp

spatula. Beside the tools sit clay

bowls of aromatic powder, urns of fine

white ash and brass stencils cut in lotusflower

shapes — the raw materials of my

‘incense appreciation’ lesson. Mirroring

my teacher’s movements, I place a stencil

on the ash and pat out the powder on

top: another tap-tap, only calmer this

time. Using my spatula I tidy the edges: a

quieter swish.

As I focus on sweeping up the

fine, heady dust, the master speaks

mellifluously about this ritual —

thousands of years old — performed to

heal, tell time, smoke away evil or, as

today, simply help us mellow out. Then

we lift our templates to reveal incense

patterns that resemble flourishes on a

cappuccino. We light the ends, and watch

the embers smoulder, like cartoon TNT

in slow-mo.

In what seems like 10 minutes of deep

concentration and deeper breathing, our

hour flies by. Is this what they call... Zen?

I was beyond excited for the bigger,

taller, faster, everything-now rhythm

of Shanghai, the organised chaos of 26

million strivers. For the better part of a

week, I’ve shopped the neon megastores

of Nanjing Road, drank in lounges 100m

higher than London’s Shard. I’ve battled

sharp-elbowed tourists on the sacred

‘zigzag bridge’ to photograph the ancient

temples of Yu Garden. I’ve even taken

part in the latest rite of passage: a fix

of nitrogen-infused tea in a throbbing

2,694sq m rotunda — one of the biggest

Starbucks in the world.

Mission accomplished. But if I carry

on this way any longer I’ll need a holiday

from my holiday. What’s required for

the next few days is some stillness,

some tranquillity, some peace and quiet

and contemplation, and breathing out.

Some serene ancient yin to the city’s

hectic modern yang. And Nanshufang,

this soft-lit school of ‘scholarly arts’

— tea ceremonies, flower-arranging,

calligraphy and more join incense on

the curriculum — is the perfect place

to start. While outside, in the Xintiandi

neighbourhood, shoppers dash around

trendy trainer shops tucked into

traditional grey-brick shikumen houses,

I bend over to inhale the fragrant scent

of a Qing-style table in historic Chinese

nanmu wood, while a teacher and

student pluck their zither-like guqins

in the background. ‘The speed of life

is taking its toll,’ explains the teacher.

‘People are reacting to the pressure

by returning to Confucianism and

Buddhism, exchanging material values

for culture, slowing down.’

That may be true, but my blood

pressure shoots right up again as soon

as I leave. Dinner’s in an hour at a

restaurant deep in the former French

Concession — the southwest quarter

of the city cordoned off by French

occupiers in the 19th century — but

crossing Xintiandi requires the agility

of a street dancer. My moves aren’t up

to it, so I hop in a taxi, thinking it will be

more relaxing.

It’s not. Hurtling westward, I slide

down in my seat to take in the sheer

height of the new towers edging the

French colonists’ old haunt, as my driver










veers around buzzing swarms of electric

scooters and maverick pedestrians with

the skill of a video-game champion. This

is edge-of-the-seat stuff, until, at the

marvellously named Wulumuqi Road, the

traffic grinds to a hooting, honking halt.

The cabbie taps the long nail of his pinkie

against the wheel.

‘Ni ho hala mia wan wo ga lai!’ he says.

Or something of the sort. Surely he’s

not talking to me, I think, until he

repeats himself with the assurance of

an American tourist expecting everyone

to speak his language. My stress levels

ratchet up further. Rather than mangle

words plucked from my Chinese

phrasebook, I pay the fare on the meter

and flee, nearly colliding with a bicycle

cart carrying bananas, as he continues to

speak in my direction.

At first, the pavements teem as much as

the tarmac. In narrow shops wide open

to the street, fishmongers sink their nets

deep into tanks to pull out wriggling

‘mitten crabs’ with claws encircled

by fuzz, like tiny fur muffs, as I dodge

queues of clocked-off workers buying

buns from bamboo steamers. This is

not the tranquil French Concession I’m

craving right now.

But as I turn into a side street, suddenly

the scene fades — until the only sound

is the swaying branches of the mature

plane trees forming a canopy overhead.

Clay-roofed villas sit back from sepiatoned

walls, the last light of the day

dappling the stucco. It’s no wonder the

French clung on to this little enclave of

quiet for nearly a century.

The landscape unfolds like a film set

after the director has wrapped and

the cast has left for the day. Here and

there a window glows with a scene: a

smocked barber wielding electric shears,

or a candlelit bar stocked with French

imports. A rusty bicycle leans like a prop

against a dress shop. Passing an Art Deco

manor retrofitted with wires and satellite

dishes, I feel a drop of water. In an

upstairs window, an old lady pins a pair

of large white pants to a wire rack jutting

out over the street. She adds a bright pink

shirt, then unfurls a patterned bedsheet


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