Shanghai and the Surprise of Old Dreams

Tim Leffel here, the editor of Perceptive Travel and the man behind the curtain with this associated blog. I’m a few hours late in introducing our newest contributor here at the blog: Alison Stein Wellner. We go back a ways, to when she interviewed me for an intriguing story for Inc. Magazine titled, “How to tell a good vacation story.”  Inc. ended up killing it before it ran, but it did eventually see the light of day here on We got to talking about her travels, i got her advice on a trip to Honduras I was taking (she had just come back from there), and we traded tips on the world of freelance writing. Now much later, here we are.

I’m honored to have someone with us who has written for the likes of Robb Report, New York Magazine, Fast Money, and a slew of airline mags and newspapers. But she’s been a blogger for a long time too—a good one at that. I hope you enjoy her posts and if you want to see more about Alison, look to your right for her bio page. – Tim

Post Office Museum, Zhujiajiao

“It’s Surprising to Remember the Old Dreams Again.”  So read the caption for a collection of old post cards on display at a Qing-era post-office museum, in a town outside of Shanghai called Zhujiajiao. The apt poetry of it arrested me, and in fact, stopped me in mid-giggle.

Now, I’m not generally one who is overly amused by the postal service, but this is one of the museums in China where the English translations have not been done  with a great deal of finesse.  “According to literal recordation, the history of the postal delivery system and organs dates back to over 3,000 years ago”,  I’d just read, and photographed, and texted to some friends back home.  It was as I was composing some quip about proper postage for organs that I was confronted by the surprise memory of old dreams, atop a display of sepia-tinged postcards of sketches and black and white photos of the architecture of the Qing dynasty, the last imperial rulers of China.

That would have been the heyday of Zhujiajiao, this little suburb that I was standing in, locally known as a “water town”, for its network of canals that the buildings and narrow streets all Zhujiajiao, China, Where the Good Life Was hugged. The waterways were the lifeblood of merchants, primarily rice merchants, and it became a town where one could live the good life. After the mid 19th century, rice became less profitable than silk and tea traded in Shanghai, and Zhujiajio’s glory days, which stretched from the 14th century, went no further. Today, you can see the remnants of the old dreams – in the detail of the curved tiled roofs, in the intricacy of the wooden lattice work that covers windows and balconies that look out on the grayish waters of the canals.

But the canals are now only occasionally trafficked with boats carrying tourists, and the houses are filled with retirees playing mah jong. When you stand on one of the town’s many bridges(for which it is domestically famous), and contemplating purchasing a bag of goldfish to pour into the canal (for good luck, although, judging from the gray tinge water, to the sure doom of the fish),  you can see the fluttering of laundry out the window.

It’s especially interesting to stroll the streets of Zhujiajiao, because while it’s something of a tourist attraction it’s also still a place where people live. And it’s a place where the good life has been and moved on. And that is totally not what you feel when you first arrive in Shanghai — in the whoosh of that high-speed mag lev train from the airport and warren of its highways lit up at night like a pimped out car,  and the 360 degrees of skyscrapers and the lithe women so fashionable that a Parisian would feel frumpy – when you first arrive in Shanghai, everything feels so new, it’s almost as if it hasn’t happened yet. The past, and its pesky problems and unfulfilled promises are somewhere back from where you came from.

Urban Planning Museum, Shanghai

It’s not a feeling that holds up too long – it can’t possibly, in a city of 20 million people.  But that utopian shiver comes back here and there, and most especially at the Urban Planning Museum in People’s Square. The key exhibit is the scale model of Shanghai’s urban plans, approximately the size of a tennis court. In the dramatic lighting, you can walk over it and around it like a God. The plan is so massive and so complete (and so much has already happened) that it’s hard to believe that anything could stop this totalitarian capitalist creative country from doing anything it so desired.

That sort of irrational sentiment needs a corrective, and so it was good to visit Zhujiajiao, and to remember  that here, as anywhere, history is long, and filled with dreams of the good life that have ended many times over.  The surprise — if there is one —  is that the old dreams keep repeating.


  1. Antonia Malchik September 10, 2009
  2. Alison Stein Wellner September 11, 2009
  3. liz September 13, 2009

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