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Thursday 20 March 2014

A quiet oasis in frenetic Shanghai

The sun has only just risen above the Shanghai skyline but already thousands of locals have descended on Fuxing Park - the leafy backyard for many apartment dwellers in this sprawling city.

There is an eccentric collection of Shanghainese going through their workout regimes, which range from swordplay to tai chi; ballroom dancing, kite-flying to head-butting a tree; playing musical instruments and card games.

All age groups are involved; some of the dancers appear to be in their 80s. Some move energetically, others more languidly. Some are dancing to traditional Chinese music blaring from portable loudspeakers, others to 1940s big-band tunes.

The tai chi devotees are similarly diverse. Some move with considerable vigour, others barely at all, although all stay well out of the way of their active compatriots who are waving swords.

There are a few joggers, a makeshift stand where locals are queuing to have their blood pressure tested, two choirs practising and one man fast asleep on his motorbike.

A trio of elderly gentlemen playing saxophones combine to create something of a cacophony, while on an open expanse of grass, a small group is doing what looks like maypole dancing. A lone elderly man, meanwhile, works on his calligraphy skills. 
All take their pursuits seriously and are scrupulously polite about getting out of each other's way but the mahjong devotees appear to be pretty intense and aren't too keen on being watched.

This beautiful setting seems to attract people of all ages and interests and is a part of the city that is not seen by many tourists.

Fuxing Park - known as French Park until 1949 - covers about 10 hectares in the former French Concession district and is designed in a classic French style, with a central lake, several fountains, fish ponds and flower beds. It is just a 15-minute taxi ride to here from downtown (taxis are cheap here - and even take public transport pre-paid cards as payment), or a short ride on the ultra-modern subway.

If you are taking a taxi, it pays to have the name of your destination written down, as few drivers speak English. But getting around Shanghai is surprisingly easy, from the high-speed Maglev train from the airport to a busy subway system that puts those of Paris and London to shame for cleanliness and ease of use.

At any time of the day, Shanghai's green expanses are reached easily, offering the chance of a stroll away from the manic pace of one of Asia's fastest-growing cities.

Shanghai is very much on the move, with high-rise office blocks and apartment buildings sprouting at an amazing rate but there are oases to be found.

Around the corner from Fuxing Park is the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, modern China's founding father. His house, now a museum, gives the visitor an idea of what Shanghai was like during its first heyday as a trading post.

Another island of greenery, People's Park, provides a different window into modern China, where a growing shortage of eligible women poses a problem for upwardly mobile parents.

Every weekend, anxious parents set up shop with flyers, photos and resumes and try to find the perfect match for their offspring. Trees, benches and walls are covered with ads posted by parents spruiking the merits of their sons and, occasionally, daughters.

It's called zhenghun: marriage seeding. This open-air marriage bureau is another unique slice of local life. Head for People's Park Gate 5 off Nanjing Xi Lu, across from the Grand Theatre, on Saturday and Sundays from noon. You can't miss the hubbub.

Another link to the past can be found at the Dongtai Road Antique Market, which is perfect for browsing for communist artefacts, Buddhist statues or even opium pipes.

While many traditions survive, Shanghai's new wave of upwardly mobile thirtysomethings are thriving - and enjoying decidedly Western pleasures.

This growing tribe - witness the number of Lamborghini and Bentley dealerships opening up all over town - populates new nightlife and dining precincts, such as Xintiandi and Cool Docks.

Xintiandi proper is a new pedestrian-only shopping, eating and entertainment district created in an area of reconstituted traditional houses on narrow alleys, some adjoining newer houses that now serve as bookstores, cafes, restaurants and shopping malls.

This is an active nightlife area, frequented by rich locals and expats who enjoy dining alfresco, while the surrounding areas are a typically Chinese mix of old and new and the streets and laneways are well worth exploring. 

Cool Docks, on Zhaongshan Road, an extension of the main thoroughfare The Bund, is the city's newest cross-cultural hot spot, with a combination of restaurants, cafes, bars, boutiques and massage shops.

With about 20 million people to do battle with for pavement space and subway seats, a massage just might be the best investment you could make.

It's been said that being in Shanghai is to experience where the world is heading. If that's true, our lives are going to be pretty frantic.
Qantas has daily flights from Sydney to Shanghai. See 

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