Once upon a time in Qibao

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 19, 2018
Life in the slow lane: Qibao elders at a teahouse. Photo: Zac O' Yeah

Life in the slow lane: Qibao elders at a teahouse. Photo: Zac O' Yeah

An amazing array of street food in Qibao. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

An amazing array of street food in Qibao. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

Zac O’Yeah

Zac O’Yeah

An ancient town that Shanghai swallowed up before turning it into a suburb brings flavourful respite from futuristic skyscrapers

In Shanghai, I kept hearing about a nearby ‘ancient town’ called Qibao. But being a modern sort of dude I focused on the pleasures of present-day Shanghai — its jazz bars, rock clubs and speciality restaurants. I filed Qibao away at the back of my brain, under the label ‘miscellaneous data’.

As my two-month stay in China progressed, I gradually got more and more interested in food history and culinary traditions. Whenever I ran internet searches for traditional snacks, Qibao popped up as the place to go to. It looked nice too in the accompanying images: bazaar streets, bridges straddling a river, traditional houses with those raised eaves that one mostly sees in old photographs from China. Qibao was said to be at least a 1,000 years old; it was a prosperous trading centre during the Ming dynasty, after which it fell into disrepair and, until recently, it was apparently merely a slum. About a decade ago it was restored and today it is ranked as one of the lesser -known tourist attractions of the Shanghai area.

Then one day on the metro, I spotted the name on the network map — and realised that the ancient settlement had been swallowed up by the humongous megacity of Shanghai and turned into yet another suburb. The fact that it had a metro station suddenly made it much more attractive as a destination.

I swiped my travel card and headed out on a very long subway line — the train took me about 18 km west from downtown Shanghai. Qibao turned out to consist of two ancient main streets (surrounded by a handful of alleys), a canal and those picturesque bridges, which had been developed into a tourist attraction along the lines of ‘Old Towns’ all over the world. Eight buildings had been converted into small museums covering topics as diverse as textiles and cricket fighting — the latter has nothing to do with cricket as it is played in India; in China we’re talking of the insects, which are made to battle each other while onlookers place bets. Qibao crickets are known as the toughest winners in this combat sport, and tournaments are held in May and October even today.

The most interesting museum, from my popular culture point of view, was devoted to a famous local sculptor by the name of Zhang Chongren, who studied in Belgium in the 1930s where he became close friends with the cartoonist Hergé of Tintin fame. It was Zhang who educated Hergé about all things Chinese and was thus immortalised as the character ‘Chang’, a sidekick to Tintin in the The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet.

Wandering about, I indeed got the feeling that Qibao looks a bit like the China imagined in the Tintin comics. Crammed with souvenir shops selling handicrafts, faux antiques, and calligraphy paintings, it had the vibe of a tourist trap. But soon I found a teahouse where old-timers sat and nursed their umpteenth tumbler of tea while listening to a folk drama being recited from a podium. A pot of the cheapest variety cost a mere 3 RMB (or ₹24) and it came with a three-litre thermos flask of hot water, allowing one to sip tea for hours on end.

And in the streets there was the most amazing array of junkfood I’d ever seen: my perpetual favourite, the fermented and deep-fried stinky tofu, was of course there, but also cakes of glutinous rice filled with red bean paste, banana rice in bamboo tubes, roasted sweet potatoes, dried tofu wrapped in lotus leaves, fried sparrows on sticks, deep-fried silk worms, chicken feet, soy-braised pig’s trotters, intestine soup and even smoked toads! Just to name a few peculiarities on offer.

Which was tastiest? Although I am a fan of stinky tofu (chou doufu in Chinese), which has the flavour and texture of a fine matured cheese, it can be a bit heavy on the digestion, so perhaps the gourmet experience of the day was the steamed and subtle crab roe flavoured pork dumplings. Also known as xiaolongbao, these dumplings cost about 18 RMB (₹150) per plate at the fast-food eatery next to the square by one of the bridges.

Furthermore, I must admit that due to squeamishness I skipped all the chicken claws and toads, and instead sat down in a restaurant by the canal, ordered a local beer, watched people mill around, and realised that epic food adventures can be had within a subway ride from the futuristic skyscrapers of central Shanghai.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His latest novel is Hari, a Hero for Hire; zacnet@email.com

Published on January 29, 2016

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