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October 31, 2011

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The weird, the unexplained and the supernatural

METROPOLISES like London, New York and Paris often have a dark side. There are creepy ghost stories, tales of romances that ended tragically, wandering spirits or even gruesome murders.

Some of the stories are set in the back streets but others are in famous tourist attractions.

The stories live on because tourists can take "Ghost Tours" or "Haunted Tours" when they visit such cities. Some of the tales are true, some are partly true while others have been embellished over time and it's difficult to know what is real and what is made up.

Shanghai has its share of ghost stories. Many of these haunted tales are connected to the city's rapid economic development.

Yuan Shan, a local fortune-teller and feng shui master, says a lot of these urban legends have a similar ring, often starting with a troubled construction project.

"The stories then lead to the murder of the site's original owners or theirs guests," he says.

"Most of these murder stories, believe it or not, can be found in old newspapers and archives, it is just a question of whether they are really related to the construction project."

In celebration of Halloween, here are three of the most popular "scary" tales known in the city.

Bubbling Well

Many local Shanghai residents may remember reading about the famous Bubbling Water Well in 1998. It was discovered under Jing'an Temple during the construction of Metro Line 2. Water came out from the long-dry well. The water utility checked and said it was not related to broken water pipes. It was never explained where the water came from.

The Bubbling Water Well was once a famous attraction at Jing'an Temple, the oldest in the city. It is said to have been built during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) and moved to the current street before the city existed. The street was once called Jing'an Si Lu because of the temple, and its former English name was Bubbling Well Road because of the well.

The well, originally outside the temple, was famous for its bubbling water. Some believed the well was connected to the ocean and the water inside rose and fell along with ocean tides.

Feng shui master Yuan remembers seeing the well when he was little.

"It was a square well with inscribed granite walls, but the water was not boiling, just normal water. I heard from my master's friends that Buddhist texts were once inscribed on the walls, but when I saw it, the inscriptions were not recognizable anymore," he recalls.

The well was sealed in the 1960s and disappeared due to various construction projects that took place afterward.

Back in 1998, the tale goes that the Metro construction team was scared and troubled when they saw the strange water from the well. People believed that the water came from Huang Quan (yellow well), or a well from the underworld. So instead of going through the well, the construction plan was changed and they avoided it.

In reality, the original site was sealed. A water fountain, which is called the Bubbling Well, was built in front of the plaza, opposite the temple. The fountain is said to be on top of the original Bubbling Well.

Dragon pillar

It is the most widely known tale of Shanghai. Newcomers to the city are often informed by local friends or cab drivers.

The tale goes that when the city started building Yan'an Elevated Highway and the North-South Elevated Highway, construction was halted when piling work could not be completed where the two elevated highways cross. Work crews could only sink the piles a few meters deep.

It is said that several feng shui masters and engineering experts were invited to take a look and no one could figure out what was going on (or they simply didn't want to reveal the secret).

Chinese fortune-tellers believe that punishment is inevitable if they foresee and reveal big heavenly secrets to others.

Only Master Zhen Chan, former abbot of the Jade Buddha Temple, was brave enough to tell the secret. He said the spot is where the city's protective dragon lies, which is why the piling can't go through.

He prayed to the dragon and asked the workers to continue the piling work in the evening, when the dragon turns around in its sleep. A few days later, the abbot died at the age of 80.

Some feng shui masters also claim the spot to be the most fortunate place and a feng shui center in the city, where fortune and qi (energy) gather. They claim the abbot had set up a feng shui method through the dragon pillar so that the fortune and energy will stay for a long time to protect the city. In reality, construction work did take place in November 1995, and the abbot died in December of that year.

The pillar's designer, local sculptor Zhao Zhirong, refuted the master's story long ago. He admitted that the piling work did encounter a lot of difficulties, but it was due to geological conditions and outdated equipment at the time. The piling couldn't go as deep as engineers planned, so they made the pillar thicker. It was decided the pillar needed to be decorated to make it look good.

Zhao was inspired when he sat near the spot, and imagined that if a bird was flying overhead, the elevated highway would look like a dragon, hence the dragon design.

Paramount Club

Shanghai was known as the "Paris of the East" in the 1930s due to its Western-style buildings and luxurious lifestyles. The Paramount, a dance hall built in 1933, was the biggest and most popular entertainment club for wealthy businessmen as well as powerful politicians at the time, both Chinese and foreigners. It was also famous for its beautiful and seductive dance hostesses, or high-priced courtesans. Many famous love stories involved these hostesses, but there were also many tragic endings for these women.

Chen Manli was one of the most famous and popular in the late 1930s. One night in February 1940, she was murdered by a gunman in the club when she was drinking with two customers. It was commonly believed that she was killed because she had once refused to dance with Japanese officers.

Another version goes that Chen was a secret spy in charge of collecting information at the club against the Japanese aggression. But her secret identity was discovered by the enemies and she was murdered.

In either case, the tale goes that Chen's spirit stayed in the club, her favorite place.

After 1949, the club was shut down and the Paramount become a cinema. It was later deserted. Over the years, many people said they could still hear music from the empty dance hall at midnight.

In 1990, some pieces of the building fell, killing a passer-by, adding another twist to the tale.

In the early 1990s, feng shui master Yuan was invited to an event in a lane behind the Paramount. A dozen families living in the lane claimed that they had seen spirits at night.

Other famous tales
? Haunted Station
Caobao Road Station on Metro Line 1 is known as the "haunted station." The station is close to Longhua crematory, a place where many spirits are said to have gathered. Some say the trains often stop abruptly at this station for no reason. Passengers have also claimed to have seen others suddenly fall from the platform, as if pushed by an unseen force.

? Incense Burner
Plaza 66 on Nanjing Road W., a famous shopping mall, is also related to a popular tale. The plaza is designed by the famous architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, but many people believe it is also related to feng shui. They say that problems occurred during construction and that feng shui masters suggested building it in the shape of an incense burner to house and calm the spirits in the area.

? Concentrated Ghosts
According to some feng shui masters, People's Square is in a place where ghosts and spirits like to gather. These ghosts have negative energy, which means it is necessary to have positive energy from large groups of people to create balance. This is why a horse-racing venue was built here in the past, and the area is a traffic hub now, feng shui masters said.


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