It’s all too easy to walk around central Shanghai these days and think that it is a place devoid of history. When I’m strolling around Jing’an on a lazy Sunday afternoon, having had a pick-me-up coffee from Starbucks before meandering towards Carl’s Junior, I sometimes look around at the gleaming new supermalls and towering freeways. Often I feel like I’m in some kind of alternate dimension, a kind of Blade Runner meets Hennessy commercial, a bizarre world where there is no past, only a frenetic present and a hyper-capitalist future.
Well, as I would find out on the Shanghai Ghost Tour, Jing’an has many tales to tell. Within the nooks and crannies of a neighbourhood transformed by breakneck development, the haunting voices of Shanghai’s past can still be heard. When our editor suggested we go on the ghost tour, I was slightly apprehensive. You see, I believe that ghosts exist. In fact, I am utterly convinced of it. I’m not the type who does séances or uses voodoo dolls, but I certainly think that there are some things that cannot be explained. My colleagues, however, were less convinced: ‘THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS GHOSTS! EVERYONE AGREES NOW! GO AND SIT IN THE DUNCE CHAIR!’ they all hooted in unison.
It has to be said though, as we embarked on our journey into the dark and forbidding underbelly of Jing’an, even the sceptics amongst our intrepid party were looking a bit nervy. Our guide for the evening was Daniel Newman, founder of Newman Tours, and one of those affable English characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery. The first stop was Paramount Theatre, which, back in Shanghai’s raucous heyday in the early 20th century, was the place to be seen. It’s a building with a pretty sordid past, and a few skeletons in its closets.
‘During the Japanese occupation this place a high call dance hall, but it is well known that more dubious things went on there’ Daniel remarked in a matter-of-fact way. ‘One evening one of the ‘taxi-dancers’ as they used to be called, refused to dance with a Japanese officer, who, angered by this slight, ordered her death. The hit-man did his job, and it is said that to this day, if you go up to the ballroom late at night, you can see the ghost of the young woman dancing alone in the dark.’ As we ventured around the building, things got weirder. Without giving it away, let’s just say that our editor, the biggest sceptic of them all, wound up hurling her can of beer in the air in a terrified panic.
As we ventured through some of the old ligong neighbourhoods, with Daniel regaling us with several stories of murder and intrigue, it seemed like the spectres of old Shanghai could be found around every corner. We made our way towards a small park, and as we entered, everyone, including the skeptics, felt the temperature drop noticeably.
‘A few years ago, when the local government was building Yan’an elevated highway, they were drilling down, and hit a layer of rock they couldn’t get through,’ Daniel began. ‘No one could understand why, until an old monk claimed that the rock beneath their feet was actually the tail of an immense dragon slumbering beneath Jing’an. Since they had no better ideas, the local government asked the old monk if he could help. So the monk went off and recited numerous incantations and so forth, and came back with the answer that if the dragon was honored in some way, he would move his tail. So it was agreed that a pillar would be erected in honor of the dragon, and when work recommenced, sure enough, the drillers were able to get through the rock. It is in this area that we are now standing that the locals claim the dragon moved his tail to.’
The Dragon Pillar on Yan'an Highway
We’ve all driven past that pillar at some stage, the silver one emblazoned with dragons, and wondered why it’s there amidst the concrete of Yan’an expressway. Well, now you know. This is just one of several examples we were given of how old superstitions have shaped the modern architecture of Shanghai. ‘But that’s only half the story of this park,’ Daniel continued, pointing to a disused building overlooking where we were standing. ‘Back in the ‘80s, that building was quite a popular hotel. One evening, a young waitress accidentally spilled a drink on a guest, and her boss locked her in an upstairs room as punishment. It was bad timing, because that evening there was a fire. Everyone evacuated the building, forgetting the poor girl in the upstairs room. She burned to death.’ Hearing this chilling story, I have to say that just being near that place made me feel very strange indeed, and I wasn’t the only one.
The Haunted Hotel: We also got a snap of the fabled ghost, but deleted it by accident. Technology eh?
‘Over there, that window, is where it happened’ Daniel went on, pointing up to a large gap in the wall above us. ‘Sometimes, if you look through your camera lens, you will see the ghost of the young woman peering out at you.’ When our attempts to see the ghost on camera yielded no results, the skeptics naturally thought they’d won that round. Noticing their smugness, Daniel posed a question. ‘Here we are a stone’s throw from Jing’an. This is prime real estate. Why then, has this old building not been knocked down and redeveloped like everything else? Several companies have tried, but after a couple of days the construction workers always refuse to continue. Why is that?’ Why indeed.
Jing’an Park, formerly a cemetery for foreigners who died in Shanghai, would be our final destination. We were told the story of the scholar Fang Xiaoru, who, at the hands of the Emperor Yongle, suffered the punishment of zhu lian shi zu (translated as ‘Death of Ten Generations’, an innovation of the usual ‘Death of Nine Generations’, which involved executing not only the accused, but also nine categories of relations in his family.) It is said that after he was cut in two, Fang Xiaoru wrote the character cuan (篡) or ‘usurp’ twelve times on the palace floor, in his own blood. We were given a taste of Fang’s ordeal by writing the character in water into the pavement of Jing’an garden. I can’t really compare my suffering with that of Fang, but it is a pretty difficult character. Apparently, the pond is also infested with shuigui (water ghosts) so be careful of that next time you go for a stroll along there.
Fang Xiaoru, the unfortunate recipient of Zhu Lian Shi Zu
Against all odds, we all got through the tour in one piece. Even I made it out alive, and if all the horror movies I’ve seen are anything to go by, as the token ethnic minority in the group I was odds on to be picked off first. Beyond that, we all had a fantastic time, and learned a lot about the hidden secrets that haunt the metropolis to this day. So, if you ever need a reminder that Shanghai was not always skyscrapers and supermalls, Newman is your go-to guy. We’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg here - for the real thing go to newmantours.com and find out for yourself.
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA