Searching for Shanghai’s spooks

By Ewa Manthey Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-30 22:17:59

The stone lions outside the Jing'an Temple are the first stop of the Ghost Tour. Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Newman
The stone lions outside the Jing'an Temple are the first stop of the Ghost Tour. Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Newman

Halloween is about ghosts and there isn't a more appropriate time for sharing ghost stories than Halloween. Shanghai has its own special ghosts and if you look a little into the city's past, you will find a host of ghosts that can help you shiver your way through Halloween.

For two and a half years, British expat Daniel Newman has been running a ghost tour in the city. He established Newman Tours in 2010 because he wanted the city's expats to learn more about Chinese history and culture. His ghost tour is apparently the only one of its kind in China.

Newman has lived in Shanghai for five years. "I come from London and we have lots of ghost tours there. When I moved to Shanghai, there was nothing here so I decided to start my own tour company," Newman told the Global Times. "I thought it was a good idea to introduce expats to Shanghai's history.

"I researched different ghost stories on the Internet, I read a lot of books and talked to locals around the city," he said. "I got a big map of Shanghai and marked the location of each ghost story on a map with a red dot. Then I hired a van to go around the city with my friends and told them the stories."

A lot of superstitions

Newman decided to set the ghost tour in the downtown Jing'an district, as most of the ghost stories are centered around that area. "It's probably because the oldest temple is located there and with the temple come a lot of superstitions," said Newman.

The Shanghai Ghost Tour takes the visitors on a two-hour walk around Jing'an, starting at Jing'an Temple and ending at Jing'an Park.

The Ghost Tour begins outside Jing'an Temple, where the visitors first ask the temple's guardian lions for protection against the evil spirits of the night.

Now protected from the evil, the tour moves on to the Paramount Theatre, on Yuyuan Road near Huashan Road, which rose to fame in the 1930s when it was known as "the grand dance hall." Today, the theater is home to two ghosts. Rumor has it that in the 1930s an occupying Japanese soldier shot a Chinese woman who refused to dance with him. Her ghost still hangs around the original dance floor on the fourth floor, scaring night-shift workers.

Many years later, during a 1990s renovation, an unfortunate passer-by was killed by falling scaffolding. It is said that his ghost decided to stick around and often throws objects out of the windows of the theater. "So remember to keep your head up when you pass by the Paramount Theatre," Newman reminds his listeners.

The next stop on the spooky list is the Nine Dragons Pillar at the intersection of Yan'an Road and the South-North Elevated Road. "This is probably the most famous ghost story in Shanghai. Shanghainese hear about it from their grandparents when they are young," said Newman.

The ornate silver pillar carved with nine golden dragons has its own story to tell in the midst of a maze of busy elevated highways and major roads. Legend has it that during the construction of the elevated highway, workers found it impossible to dig a hole just where the pillar stands today. Not knowing what to do, they called in a monk who told them that they had woken a dragon, who had been sleeping underneath Shanghai for centuries. The monk advised the workers to apologize to the dragon, pray and, as an offering, build a beautiful pillar. It worked - but the next day the young and healthy monk died mysteriously.


The Nine Dragon Pillar under the South-North Elevated Road has a number of versions of how it came into being. Photo: CFP
The Nine Dragon Pillar under the South-North Elevated Road has a number of versions of how it came into being. Photo: CFP

Nasty spirits

Newman said that one of the most haunted places in the city was the Jing'an Park. This was once the site of an expat crematorium and cemetery that was exhumed in the 1950s. 

Newman tells his groups that it is "dangerous" to walk too close to the lake in the park, as there are nasty water spirits waiting to pull victims into the lake. "The exhumation of the cemetery disturbed the souls and now they are walking around the park at night scaring away passers-by," he said.

Near the intersection of Nanjing Road West and Yongyuan Road is the site of another Shanghai ghost story. "I learnt about this story from the locals," said Newman. Legend has it that once, when there was a teahouse here, a young waitress spilt tea on one of the customers. Her boss got angry and locked her inside a room to punish her. While she was locked inside, a fire broke out and the girl, unable to leave the room and forgotten, was killed.

Newman said that she still hasn't left the building and she keeps scaring construction workers and potential new owners away. "If you take a picture of the old building, sometimes you can see the face of the frightened girl looking out of the window," said Newman. "And if you go inside the building, you can feel her spirit still there."

The construction of Plaza 66 on Nanjing Road West was long and difficult. The work kept running into delays and finally the developers asked a feng shui master for help. After examining the construction site, he discovered that there was an ancient goddess living in the building's foundations.

So the design of the building had to be changed to look like a stick of incense to honor the angry goddess and keep her quiet. "Ever since then the building has stood solidly," said Newman. "But sometimes the goddess likes to play tricks on the shoppers. You should never use the escalators while you are there, as she will play with your mind and without realizing it you will become lost."

Phantom animals

Then there are the phantoms of the Qiu Mansion. The old mansion on Weihai Road near Shimenyi Road was ready to be knocked down few summers ago but the workers were unable to finish the demolition. They complained about being constantly bitten by things but no animals had ever been caught around there. They were too scared to return to the work site and eventually the whole project was abandoned.

Newman said the mansion once belonged to the infamous Qiu brothers, who came into money in 1915 or thereabouts when they found a huge stash of paint that had been abandoned by a German merchant. They used their money to build two extravagant mansions which featured a huge garden with live Myanmar tigers, peacocks, and crocodiles.

The legend has it that every day at noon, the brothers released 2,000 doves from the towers of their mansions. Then, suddenly, the brothers disappeared without telling anyone their whereabouts and were never seen again. They abandoned their exotic animals, which were later sold off or eaten by famished Shanghainese residents. Some believe that the spirits of the animals came back to protect the old mansions from being demolished.

Newman also warns his listeners about the dangers of shopping in Shanghai, especially in Xujiahui. "One of the department stores there plays rather disturbing children's music at closing time," he said. "Where the shopping mall is now standing, long ago there used to be an orphanage where unfortunately many children died." The children's music is played to pacify the screams of the orphan ghosts, who can apparently, still be often heard by security guards working late-night shifts.

The Ghost Tour can be followed by a Ghost Festival Dinner where the group learns about the Chinese superstitions and traditions involving the food they are eating. They can discover their futures using traditional Chinese fortune sticks and invite a "hungry ghost" to dine with them (usually they invite ancestors who have died to come and join them).

The dinner ends with the guests lighting paper lanterns and floating them on the water. "The lanterns symbolize the spirits that we invite for dinner with us. We don't want them to follow us home, so after the dinner we need to send them away and the lanterns help us to do this," Newman explained.

"The tour is very interactive," Newman said. "We want everyone to have a chance to participate, whether it is by lighting lanterns, fortune telling or learning water calligraphy (using a giant brush to create characters which vanish as they evaporate)."

Newman Ghost Tour

The Ghost Tours take place every Monday and Saturday from 7 pm to 9 pm. Newman Tours also offer private ghost tours that can start anytime but require a minimum of three adult guests.

Cost (without dinner): adults 260 yuan ($41.60); students 240 yuan; children 190 yuan. With dinner: adults 430 yuan; students 390 yuan; children 290 yuan.

The normal meeting point for the ghost tours is outside exit 1 at the Jing'an Temple Metro Station on the corner of Huashan Road and Nanjing Road West

Tel: 138 1777 0229 (RSVP required)

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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