If you have spent any amount of time in China you will know that belief in ghosts and spirits is deeply engrained in the country’s collective psyche. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius declared that Chinese people must “respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them” and Chinese legend and literature is rich with stories of ghosts, hauntings and deadly curses. As if that wasn’t enough, traditional folklore has it that the seventh lunar month is a time when the gates of hell gape wide and the spirits incarcerated therein return to Earth to pay a visit to their relatives until they have to retreat back to Hell at the close of the month.
Despite this wealth of ghostly folklore, in a sprawling metropolis like Shanghai (my new place of residence) the paranormal world feels decidedly far away; just a shadowy mirage lurking out of sight, engulfed by the sheer size and pace of the city. And yet Shanghai is home to the only ghost tour in China, and apparently – if you know where to go – you can find an impressive number of haunted spots in this city of towering skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and expensive nightclubs.
For instance, one of the most well-known haunted buildings in Shanghai is the Paramount Theatre on Yuyuan Road in Jing’an, rumoured to be the residence of an angry poltergeist, the spirit of an unlucky passer-by who was killed by falling scaffolding outside the building several years ago. Supposedly he now vents his immortal rage by throwing objects out of the Theatre’s fourth floor windows. The building is also said to be haunted by the melancholy spirit of an unfortunate Chinese woman who was murdered in cold blood by a Japanese soldier when she turned down his offer of a dance.
Not far off, the ornate Nine Dragons Pillar which stands at the intersection of the South-North Elevated Road and Yan’an Road is also marked by an eerie legend. The story goes that construction workers were unable to dig into the earth on the place where the pillar is now placed, and eventually a young monk was called in to consult on the problem. The monk informed the workers that a dragon had been sleeping for hundreds of years in the ground in that very spot and now they had woken him with their digging. They must apologize, pray, and build a beautiful pillar on the spot to soothe the dragon’s ire.
This was duly done and the construction workers found that they could then continue with their digging – but the young monk who had advised them mysteriously died the following day, despite being fit, healthy and in the prime of life. Obviously the dragon required sacrifice, as well as an apology and an ornamental pillar to appease him.
Meanwhile, near the popular shopping street of Nanjing Xi Lu, the burnt-out husk of a building pays testament to one of Shanghai’s most mournful ghost stories. This building once housed a hotel and teahouse where, according to legend, a young waitress who worked in the teahouse spilt tea over a customer one fateful day and, as punishment, was locked in a store room by her boss. Unfortunately a fire then broke out in the building and everyone escaped except for the poor trapped girl, who had been forgotten and subsequently perished in the flames. Now her ghost haunts the building and though several new owners have purchased it throughout the passing years with the hopes of renovating the former hotel, the appearance of the girl’s spectral form so terrified construction workers that now no one will work there and it remains empty and abandoned to this day.
Nearby – on Nanjing Xi Lu itself – stands another haunted building, though this one has a rather happier history, having been successfully built despite the presence of a paranormal entity. Plaza 66 suffered a series of setbacks during its construction, leading to the “discovery” that the building’s foundations were home to an ancient goddess – the cause of the problems. Supposedly the goddess would only allow the construction work to go ahead if the design of the building was changed and incense sticks were burned in her honour. The building plans were changed, as a result, to resemble a giant incense stick and there were no more problems with construction after that, although apparently the mischievous goddess still plays tricks on hapless victims who may become inexplicably lost as they wander through the Plaza.
These stories, combined with the spooky rumours of wicked water spirits in Jing’An Park and spectral doves inhabiting Qiu Mansion on Weihai Road, show that, despite appearances, Shanghai is still an abode of spooks and phantoms. If you are ever in the city, either on a business trip or visiting as a tourist, and you find yourself intrigued by the stories behind these creepy locations, why not book yourself a place on the Newman Ghost Tour? This fascinating guided walk, which departs from the exit of the Jing’An Temple Metro Station at 7pm on Mondays and Saturdays, lasts for two hours and is suitable for families. If you pay a little extra you even get dinner and a spot of fortune telling into the bargain! Check out www.newmantours.com for more information.