Shanghai is a particularly popular place for people to go and then tell you that they have seen China.
If not to tell you that they have seen the future, and it is China.
In large part, however, Shanghai is not China.
What is most visible in that city has roots in Chinese drive and motivations, but it is as representative of the whole as if you took 5th Avenue New York and put it forth as the USA.
There are connections, though, and they are nicely found in the temples I decided to visit and let you know about.
Three actual, Buddhist, temples.
Jing’an si. Yufo si. Longhua si.
And two ‘ temples’ of foodies.
Jiajia Tangbao. Xiaoyang Shengjian.
Why this selection?
Well, Shanghai is a great place for various dumplings; they are both nicely traditional and local and, at the same time, foodie-tourism-influenced straight into modernity.
Buddhist temples have been a favorite object of #GetAtHome exploration of mine for a while.
They all quickly become somewhat familiar.
And at the same time, in their contemporary context of a China that is officially anti-religious but actually quite spiritual (and both in quite commercialized ways), they are fascinating symbols of historical connections and modern relations.
And I only had two full days to spend in this city…
So, let’s go.
Jing’an Si – Temple of Tranquility and Peace
A bit like the Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing, the Jing’an Si is also in the midst of the city and at a subway stop of its own name.
It is also rather popular.
The fascination of the Jing’an Si is the way it sits in the middle of Shanghai’s crass commercialism, on a (if not the) major traffic and shopping artery of the Nanjing Road, surrounded by a shopping mall, stores, and assorted other high-rise buildings.
Jing’an Si itself, different from pretty much all other Buddhist temple structures, does not spread out, but rises up.
The whole structure seems to compact the usual layout of a temple into a much smaller area, and as an effect of that, it’s all gone up and stacked one part over the other.
The hall that is normally behind a screen wall at the entrance lies above the entrance gate;
the main hall is put on a pedestal reached by steep stairs;
a vajra throne structure stands at the northwestern corner on top of a tower that basically makes for a pagoda.
Living quarters, going by the laundry hanging outside to dry, are not off to the side but above halls of deities, putting mortals above Buddhas in a way that is far from the usual.
Still, rebuilt and changed as it has been – especially considering that the temple’s founding is said to go back all the way to 247 CE (though at a different place; it was moved to the present location “only” in 1216)* – the temple still stands and is used as a temple, not just as a tourist sight.
*That, in fact, makes the temple older than the city, as Shanghai has an official founding date of only 1292!
Yufo Si – Jade Buddha Temple
Just a few roads north of the Jing’an Si lies another Buddhist temple that covers quite a bit more ground, looks like it must be old as well – except for all the construction work going on just now… and yet, it is young.
The Jade Buddha Temple, or really Jade Buddha Zen Temple if one goes by its complete Chinese name of Yufo Chan Si, was only founded in 1882, on the occasion of Monk Huigen having returned from a pilgrimage through Tibet to Burma with the Jade Buddha statues that gave the temple its name.
There is also a restaurant here, apparently (as I only learned later), but I’d recommend going to this temple just for the contrast(s) of temples and surrounding cityscape between Jing’an Si and Yufo Si.
Studies in contrasts are also an excellent reason to visit the third temple I went to in Shanghai, the Longhua Si – and so, that will be occasion for another story.
Now, though, let’s continue where I started and ended the Shanghai tour, with food.
Shanghai is well-known, not least since e.g. Anthony Bourdain had to sing their praises, for its soup dumplings, tangbao. Or actually, for various iterations of such dumplings, from the real soup version of tangbao to smaller xiaolongbao and on to pan-fried shengjianbao.
One of the dumpling places I found to come with the greatest of recommendations was Jiajia Tangbao, and with as little time as we had in Shanghai, we went there immediately.
Even at the somewhat unusual time of 10:30 a.m. (breakfast eaters come earlier, lunchtime starts from 11:30, typically), there was already a bit of a line, and the selection was reduced to just three different types of xiaolongbao.
One was pork with egg yolk (for 23 RMB), one pork with shrimp (for 30 RMB), and the last one with fish roe in a luxury version that would have cost 99RMB.
Even the cheap ones are not cheap for China, compared to street food – and normally, xiaolongbao are street food.
Line up, get to the counter, tell them your order, pick up the tab, wait to be seated, sit and wait for the food. Steaming bamboo basket arrives. Enjoy.
As xiaolongbao, these are not quite as dangerously full of scalding-hot broth, but care should still be taken; they are still plenty hot when they arrive!
It was funny.
The wrapper was nice and thin, the taste of broth and filling was good, if a bit too fishy for our tastes (in the case of the pork-shrimp version).
Not at all bad, but not amazing, either.
Until, that is, we found ourselves at a place that was even named Handmade Shanghai Dumplings later on – and it was obvious even just from the thickness of the wrapper, let alone the taste, that the dumplings in that other place were far from handmade (as in, made from scratch).
Having had such an example to contrast Jiajia Tangbao with, their dumplings were excellent!
Long a favorite of mine, even whenever I could get them in Hunan, I also had to go and try Li’l Yang’s Fried Dumplings – Xiao Yang Shengjian.
This has long since become a chain with several outlets along Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, and one of them turned out to be in the second story of a food court just on a road we had passed through before.
(There, the interchange from one subway line to another leads through that road… Another outlet of theirs would be right across the street from Jiajia Tangbao.)
Where xiaolongbao are usually small but with a thicker crust (the way I knew them from street food sellers) and tangbao are big but thin-skinned, the dumplings used for shengjianbao are bigger and thicker-skinned.
At Little Yang’s, they are also quite strongly fried, making for a pretty crunchy bottom, partly crunchy side, and chewy top, all with quite the juicy filling.
Not the easiest to eat, but a combination I find utterly enjoyable.
I only went for the standard pork filling, but they would offer a few others, including in mixed samplers.
Just know that here, you pay at more of a fast-food-like counter, then go to a window where you get what you ordered (either to go or to eat there), then go or eat there ;)
Take care when eating! – and Enjoy!