It is said that if you want to know how Shanghai looks in the recent decades, you should go to Pudong (the east of the Huangpu River); if you want to know how Shanghai looked a hundred years ago, you should go to The Bund (the western foreshore of the Huangpu River); and if you want to know how Shanghai looked a thousand years ago, you should go to Qibao (near Xuhui District). (十年上海看浦东，百年上海看外滩，千年上海看七宝)
Shanghai as a great metropolitan is a rather recent phenomenon, but as the urban settlement surrounded by one of the most fertile farmlands in China with the most advanced textile industry and a highly progressive culture, it is as ancient as Suzhou(苏州), Wuxi (无锡), Changzhou (常州), Jiaxing (嘉兴), Hangzhou (杭州) and Shaoxing (绍兴), which all have an urban history stretching back thousands of years.
There were numerous ancient towns in Shanghai, from City God’s Town (城隍庙) in the heart of Shanghai, Zhu Family’s Corner (朱家角) near Lake Tai (太湖) in Qingpu District, Jiading Old Town (嘉定老城), a township that suffered genocidal massacres three times as a result of its fierce resistance battles against Manchurians invasion, to Wusong Town (吴淞镇) at the mouth of Huangpu River where the Huangpu meets the Yangtze. Yet few have survived the decades of redevelopment and Westernisation since the late 1990s. One such lucky town is Qibao, Seven Treasures Town, in Minghang District.
Like all those old cities and towns in the region, Qibao is surrounded by numerous water channels that not only provided a source of freshwater but functioned and still function as the transport highways linking the town to its surrounding areas and to the rest of the country.
The town divided by the waterways is connected by bridges.
The bridges not just physically link the town together but serve as elevated open spaces for people to congregate and view the townscape.
In the old days, the areas around bridges are like town squares where the locals came to view the boats passing through and to exchange news.
This is an archway entrance to the shopping streets of the old Qibao town.
An old shopping street on an intimate scale with the slab-paved ground and the shops fully opened to the street.
A traditional bamboo ware tradesman and his store on the shopping street.
A classic liquor store selling self-made Seven Treasure Rice Wine (七宝大曲)
A store selling Old Street Dumpling (老街汤圆), one of the most renowned Qibao snacks made of sticky rice with sweet sesame paste filling.
Another well-known Qibao snack: frying pork mince buns (生煎包).
Qibao is also known for its variety of cakes, made of sticky rice flour or green bean flour, filled and topped with edible flowers.
Qibao’s wonton soup is rather unique – its filling is flavoured with minced saury fish.
The soup with super-thin noodles and lean lamb sliced to paper-thin is also popular among the locals and visitors.
Qibao was the first to set up a commune – a collective farming organization – in Shanghai in 1958. The commune system offered basic financial cover, health care and education needs for China’s vast rural population, and enabled the villagers to collectively purchase expensive farming equipment and machines.
The system has its merits and flaws. But instead of finding a way to improve it, all communes were ordered to be dismantled nationwide in the late 1970s after a farcical show staged by Xiaogang Village peasants in Anhui, who were used by certain forces to push their political agenda.
This is where the office of Qibao Commune was once located and now it becomes a teahouse.
The locals, particularly the retired, enjoy their time at the teahouse with a pot of green tea and the visual and audio feast of pingtan performance – a musical storytelling art in Suzhou dialect.
A pingtan actress performing at the teahouse.
In the past on market days, peasants and vendors would put their farming products and small goods for sale on the roadsides (sometimes blocking access to the shops and homes), attracting buyers and browsers from nearby towns and surrounding villages.
It’s time to call a day.
In the old days, there were always residents living in the rear quarters and upstairs of the shopfront. Homes were integral parts of the townscape, which is what made the streets vibrate throughout the seasons at all times.
During the hot summer nights (that was long before the air-conditioning era), in the towns around Yangzte Delta like this, the residents would bring out bamboo chairs, wooden stools, or place door planks on stands in front of their homes for breeze-catching and gossip-exchanging.
But nowadays the buildings in most old Chinese towns have been utilized for commercial purposes only.