‘Sometimes the best adventures aren’t found in a travel book’

By Alex Wise

There are many paths that lead one on an adventure. Travel Guides can give you a glimpse and point you in the right direction, but how do you find the unique experiences that nurture your taste and feed your soul? Sometimes the best adventures aren’t found in a travel book, but instead are the result of not taking no for an answer. Searching for that experience that unfolds only because you keep asking questions…

A Private Concert for the Price of Tea.

When one visits Yuyuan garden there are a couple of things that come to mind. The exquisite beauty of the garden itself, a sprawling example of 16th century Suzhou style landscaping; the Bazaar with every knickknack you could dream to take back to your friends, but never keep for yourself; and the Huxinting teahouse. The teahouse draws particular attention because, well, it’s in the middle of a manmade lake. The first time I visited I was taken by its beauty and design. The famous zig-zag bridge is always packed with people trying to squeeze in for the best picture and move on with their day. Some venture inside for a cup of tea, but most have no clue about the traditionalShanghainese music that is performed there on a weekly basis.

On my first visit, I too was clueless about the hidden gem that happens every Monday from 2-4 pm on the second floor of the Teahouse on the Lake. Being a musician and wanting to learn more about music in China, this came as a shock to me. Something so unique was passed over by hundreds of people a day. It wasn’t until I was recommended a decade old book by a friend that I began to investigate the teahouse a little deeper.

It first started with a phone call. I wanted to see if the music described in this text was still performed, the response, “Sorry, no performances here”. I resigned myself to go take a few pictures from the inside to send to my friend. I decided to go during the performance times mentioned in the book, just incase. When I arrived I was met with silence. No performance. I took my pictures and on a last whim I pulled out my book and showed a staff member a picture of the group playing. The first lady looked puzzled, and then yelled some things to another employee. With what little Chinese I knew at that time, I heard from the other room, “Tomorrow, 2 o’clock!”

It’s silly how excited I got. Not only did I prove the person on the phone wrong,I was going to get to hear this music. I arrived the next day early to get a good seat. Not only did I get a good seat. I got the only seat.

The group of 10-15 men was in a small room to the left of the stairs. The central area was full of traditional instruments. The players occupied the tables on the side. Reading their newspapers and sipping their tea. Only one table was empty in the small room. I sat down and ordered some Jasmine tea. The group was all men, some younger, but most older. At 2, the music began, and I was treated to one of the best concerts of my life, all for the price of tea.

Now it’s interesting to me how some of the most important things happen over tea. China’s reverence for tea is mystical and magical. Somehow drinking tea and listening to this music at the same time creates a special kind of experience. It just wouldn’t be the same if you were in a concert hall. As the tea bloomed in my cup so did the music. The smell, the atmosphere, the sounds; it’s so unique and so special that no other environment would do. There are some recorded examples of this music, some you can even find onYoutube, but you would be getting less than the true experience. This music is made for the teahouse.

To my knowledge, groups like these are somewhat hard to find. In the early years of the PROC there was a huge push to identify a type of “National Music”. Any type of music that didn’t exactly fit that purpose was often pushed aside. This created many groups of solely amateur musicians, even though some could be considered of professional caliber.They get together to play for the simple purpose of making music and keeping the tradition alive.

For a westerner, the music is hard to describe. Each traditional instrument has its own unique sound and color. Even though each instrument varies greatly, they still combine to create a full range of sounds you would expect with any ensemble. Each piece has a memorable melody that I am sure is familiar to many Chinese, but for me everything was new. What is interesting about this type of music is its uniqueness to Shanghai. JingnanSizhu, also known as “Silk and Bamboo Music” has a very light and graceful texture. Each piece lasted about 5-8 minutes and seemed to follow a similar pattern. Beautiful, flowing melodies with moments of increased excitement and a fast, exciting finale. Throughout the session people that were sitting to the side would often switch out with one of the other players, taking turns to play with the group. Some will even switch to a different instrument playing with just as much ease as before.

Now there are a few things I noticed from the beginning to the end of this 2-hour session. The first half seemed mostly to be pieces they play often; everybody knew them from memory and performers switched out frequently. The second half seemed to be towards less familiar music. There was the occasional mistake and a restart from the whole group, but the quality as a whole was what impressed me the most. I have no doubt if I was proficient in a traditional Chinese instrument that I would have been welcome to join in. Aside from the occasional tourist that would pop in for a picture, there were only a few people that would attend for maybe one or two pieces. Some friends of the players would seem to stop by to say hi and listen for a few minutes, but it was only me that stayed for the entire 2 hours. It is an experience I will never forget.

So, if you are looking for a unique music experience that you can only find in Shanghai, head to the Teahouse on the Lake every Monday from 2-4 pm. Pick out some tea and sit back to enjoy what very well could be a private concert.

Sometimes the best adventures are discovered. Music isn’t always about the sound itself, but the process of searching, listening, and experiencing. Don’t just be content with the Shanghai the books tell you about. Ever investigated something interesting from an old book on Shanghai? Have a unique experience that led you off the beaten track? Let us know in the comments and tell us what you do to unbehave!

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