Friday, February 27, 2009

Books: Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

Reading a book after seeing the movie—especially after seeing the movie five or six times—can be a challenge, especially when the movie follows the text so closely as it does in this case. Reading, I heard Ed Norton, Brad Pitt’s voice. I saw their faces. The only marked departure at first was Marla Singer, who seemed in the book quite other than Helena Bonham Carter’s character—the filmic Marla is isolated and alone; Marla-in-the-book has a mother (a mother, in fact, whose liposuctioned fat provides the first batch of soap-making material, rather than the biohazardous waste dumpster our heroes raid in the movie), though we never actually meet her.

But a bigger difference emerges quickly—the Tyler-is-Tyler (i.e. the Brad Pitt-is-Ed Norton) truth reveals itself sooner; is, dare I say, over-foreshadowed. And rather than buying into Fight Club the way I think director David Fincher does, writer Chuck Palahniuk knows from the start that it’s a sick joke—the book is completely without the film’s dark optimism, Nietzschean (positive) nihilism. Instead, Tyler (the Ed Norton-Tyler) is sick, insane, and therefore just sort of sad. The book ends not with the dark and glorious explosions of the film, but with Ed-Tyler padding around a hospital for the insane, swallowing pills from a cup. There remains a very slight sense of menace—some of the orderlies sport black eyes and tell Tyler that they miss him—but all-in-all, the nation-sweeping reclamation of individual power championed by the film just isn’t as promising in the book. I finished it feeling a little mopey, rather than completely charged and ready to grab my life by the hair.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Movies: Two Seconds and Little Caesar

Two Mervyn LeRoy movies featuring the unmistakable Edward G. Robinson showcase the actor's favorite roles, at two extremes—the schmuck condemned to suffer eternally for one bad decision (we know this guy from The Woman in the Window) and the hard boiled gangster determined to claw his way to the top of the city's bloody ladder. Either way, his performance seethes with the mealy-mouthed pathos that made him famous. Me? I can take it or leave it; Robinson's schmuck is almost too much to bear (Two Seconds could put an edgy person over the brink), and I like my villains leaner and meaner—I'll take Richard Widmark any day over Eddie G.

In Two Seconds, we see the man's demise in lengthy flashback, supposedly all recalled in the two seconds it takes him to die in the electric chair. He had started out as an okay guy, a riveter who worked on a skyscraper's steel skeleton, rooming with his co-worker and best friend, just looking for the right girl. After another botched double date, he wandered into a taxi dance hall (oh, how I wish these still existed!), where he met a conniving vixen who played to all desires. Against his roomie's warnings, the schmuck took her out again, and she got him so drunk that she was able to bribe a justice of the peace to marry them. Arguing about the situation up in the sky, the idiot raises his hand against his well-intentioned friend, sending the man plunging to his death. This sends our man into a permanent nervous state; he can't work, so his new wife goes back to the dance hall, against his insistence. She buys herself dresses and pays their rent, along with grocery and doctor bills, with this "dirty" money, while her husband sits at home with the shakes. When he comes into an unexpected windfall, he really looses his mind. He goes to the dance hall and finds her there, in the arms of another man. Paying back his debt in cash, he pulls out a gun and shoots the woman dead. We see him briefly in front of the judge, pleading for clemency in his famous whine, insisting that he deserved to die while he lived off the dirty money, but that he should be free, now that he's paid his debts. Of course, the judge can't abide by this logic, and we return to the chair, where the crank is pulled: the necessary two seconds have passed, and he's dead now.

What a delightful ending! Little Caesar's is no brighter. This time, Robinson is Rico, a small-time crook who decides to up his game after reading about a famous gangster in the paper. He joins a small gang of organized thugs and quickly takes over the operation, winning the boys' approval by joining them on the front lines, unlike their previous leader. His next target is the head of the neighboring territory; he and his gang quickly knock off their casino and when The Big Boy (!)notices Rico's hunger and ability, he makes him the new head of the North territory. Rico is suddenly living large (though we never see him with a nice dame); he has a swanky pad, his picture in the paper, and the city vice squad following his every move. Too bad he slips when the real heat comes on—his buddy's girlfriend, who loathes him for keeping her man in the gang, traps Rico and calls the police, insisting that her boyfriend testify against him. Rico's friend silently refuses, but Rico is long-gone, jumped out the window and run away. His old landlady, who has hidden all his money, hides him over night in a secret room, but won't give him more than $125 to escape with, and he can't kill her because she's the only one who knows where the stash is. Stranded, Rico finds himself drunk and unshaven at a flophouse, listening to a group of bums read a newspaper out loud. Hearing his name, he springs to life—his ego is more important than his safety, and he doesn't like hearing himself called a chicken in the papers. He calls the head of Vice and starts running again, but they find him, and shoot him down dead. The End, dead, again. Poor Eddie G.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Movies: Mills of the Gods (1934), Ex-Lady, Female

Last night's line-up at Film Forum's "Breadlines and Champagne" Depression/Recession festival featured pre-code films at their best—not because they are racy (though Ex-Lady is, a bit) or because they're racist, but because they all featured high-powered career women who run their sex lives as efficiently as their businesses. Of course, the final minutes of each film flips back on its promises and silences the woman with a wedding—pre-code audiences, it seems, for all their delight in debauchery, couldn't stand the precedent of a single girl having a happy ending all to herself.

Mills of the Gods is the only exception to that rule, perhaps because its didactic intentions are more pointedly about class than gender warfare. A nerves-of-steel matriarch who has run a mill since her husband's death finally decides to retire, but none of her family members—a lay-about son, a fur-collecting daughter, a saucy granddaughter, and a weakling grandson—want to take over; they are having too good a time spending her fortune in Europe. When the Depression threatens business to the point that the mill may close, and the workers rise up in revolt, she sends for them all, and they return to the states. But they refuse to give up their personal trust fund to keep the business going, and plan their return overseas. Before they leave, though, the leader of the labor rabble seduces the saucy granddaughter; she drives him up to a woodland hideout and then spends the night (though he cooks the dinner and she invites him to her bed). After that, she's a convert, and convinces her brother to vote along with her and grandma to release the trust fund and reopen the mill. Her one-time lover refuses to remain with her (her only punishment for transgressing society's sexual morays) because of their economic differences, but she and grandma ride off happily ever after, career women to the death.

Ex-Lady, conversely, sees a career girl married off. Bette Davis, luscious in long white silks in a grand apartment of her own, makes her living as an illustrator and gets her kicks having a secret affair. When her lover insists that they get married, she refuses. When her parents drop in one morning, uninvited, and catch her with her lover, and insist that she get married, she refuses. But when her lover threatens to leave her because of it, she yields. They marry, but she's soon frustrated; every fear she had about the arrangement has come true. Both partners are unhappy, bored, jealous; her husband flirts openly with another woman; to get back at him, she successfully pursues a business account that he himself lost. They decide to separate, and try to live as lovers again, but the "open" arrangement only feeds the fire of jealousy. Ultimately, they decide to move in together again and live as husband and wife, certain that a little tedium is better than burning suspicion. I think I prefer the "unhappy" ending of this movie's contemporary version (The Break-Up), in which the parties move on instead of settling. I'm not ready, personally, to accept that being bored together is better than being lonely apart; the first option has less potential for redemption than the second.

If Ex-Lady reminded me of myself in a relationship, Female reminded me of myself out of one. The super-powered heroine runs an entire automobile company (having taken over after her father's death—family business seems the only way for girls to get their start in the '30s), barking orders to her boardroom, her secretaries, and her phone by day. Each night, though, she's invited another intriguing young man from the company to her home for dinner. There, she's dropped the suit for something slinky, and the postprandial discussion turns constantly to romance, rather than business. She pages her staff to bring vodka, incapacitating her victim, and when the man shows up at work the next morning, with flowers and promises of devotion, she has him transferred to a far-away department where she'll never have to see him again. She goes on in this desperate way, having less and less luck, when she meets her match—a new engineer who won't have any of it. They'd already met one night when she went out into the streets "in disguise" as a nobody—she picked him up at a shooting gallery, they went dancing, ate a hamburger, and then he got away. When he finds out that he's working for her, he won't give her the time of day in a romantic way, instead preferring his fawning, doe-eyed secretary. Our heroine takes her male secretary's advice, and plays at being girlish and silly; this works to a degree, but when she laughs at his proposal of marriage, he storms off again. It's not until she's caught in the middle of work and love and chooses the later—blowing off a meeting with bankers to follow the engineer once he's run off—that he takes her back. To cement their love, she insists that he take over the company's operations so that she can have nine children, and driving off to the bank together, the man back behind the wheel, those cheerful letters spell out The End.

The End! The end of her freedom and desperation: why do these things always come hand-in-hand? It's reassuring for a girl to see that her 2009 problems infuriated girls 75 years ago, but disappointing to find out that 75 years haven't brought about a better solution.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Music: An Evening of Opera Scenes

When people ask me what kind of music I like, I honestly answer "everything—except opera." I'm snooty enough that I really should like opera (I don't think that classical music is boring, I go to see lots of performance arts, and I sang soprano in all eight semesters of high school chorus. But I tend to prefer chamber music to orchestral, and contemporary to traditional ballets—I don't do well with performative hyperbole (though I like it in literature and painting), and what is more hyperbolic than The Opera?

But this evening of opera scenes, which I attended to see a co-worker do what she really does (how weird is it to see a girl who walks past your desk all day with stacks of presentations, headed to the binding machine, on stage in a floor-length white gown and madly-teased hair, wailing in Greek?) reminded me that, just like there are ballets quite unlike Swan Lake, their are operas quite unlike those of Mozart and Puccini. It's true that the plots were still a bit "big" for my taste (melodrama, again, only works for painters), but the music—it was different! It was beautiful, lean, voices plus piano swooping in and out of each other, almost experimenting, rather than showing off. . . groping, feeling, and blindly finding bliss.

What were these delicious pieces of music? The end of the second act from Gian Carlo Menotti's The Saint of Bleecker Street (Karen Suarez's low, foreboding voice so atypical, wonderfully strange), the aria from Kurt Weill's Broadway opera Street Scene (which made me cry), Clytemnestra's murder scene from Richard Strauss's Elektra (a fantastic struggle between female voices), and the opening scene from Jonathan Dove's Flight (the best piece of the show for its humor, its unapologetic contemporaneity, and the brilliant physical drama of Courtenay Symonds, who supports her hysterical performance with full-speed-ahead vocal achievements), amongst others. Now I can't say I don't like opera. When people ask me what kind of music I like, I'll have to say "everything—except Puccini."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Art/Performance: FLUXCONCERT 20090220-21

After Mr. Garvin’s last FLUXCONCERT—epic on a Fluxus scale—this evening of Brecht event scores, pulled at random from a surprisingly ornate vase, and enacted by an unrehearsed group of performers (the usual crowd), felt a little small, incidental, mild. As most of the chosen scores give little—if any—specific instruction, responsibility for the audience’s engagement rested with each performer. Because this is a creative group of fellows, those scores with the least-specific instructions generated the most interesting events (although the audience was in surprising good spirits and applauded avidly after each event (perhaps too avidly)).

One score, Suitcase, which instructs “from a suitcase” and nothing else, somehow inspired Anthony Clune to roll onstage in a wheelchair and pop the longest wheelchair wheelie I’ve ever seen (have I ever seen a wheelchair wheelie?) while telling a story about a night spent at a bus station. The literal suitcase never appeared. Another score, called Smoke, instructing “(where it seems to come from)/(where it seems to go)” brought Ethan Wagner on stage with an elaborate candelabra plugged with unlit burgundy tapers. But rather than light the candles, he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and stuck one in his mouth. But rather than light the cigarette, he struck an elegant wooden match with a flourish, watched it burn a bit, and blew it out. He held the smoking match to the bottom of the cig, and then left the stage.

These open scores made me wonder what could have been for those scores listed on the program that were not performed (the program adhered to a time limit, rather than a certain set of scores, and the surprisingly long Winter Event, expressed simply as “antifreeze,” for which Wagner melted an ice cube in his right hand (refusing to transfer it to his left hand, or his mouth, as the audience occasionally demanded) burnt up a good amount of performance time). What, for example, might a person do to enact “-yellow/-yellow/-yellow” as part one of Three Yellow Events?

Alternately, Mr. Garvin chose to include a few of Brecht’s very specific scores, including Comb Music, Recipe, and Concert for Clarinet, Fluxversion 1. These fail to interest, despite the performer’s flourishes (in Recipe) and determination (in Clarinet), because the scores explain almost precisely what the performer will do. They leave little room for the visual punning, the surprise physicality, and the threat of the unknown which make Fluxus events worth watching, rather than just reading (because they do have a particular lean elegance on the page*).

Two events staged by Ryan Anthony Donaldson, which all engaged the audience, came off particularly well: Event Score (“Arrange or discover an event. Score and then realize it.”), for which he staged an impromptu three-minute birthday party, complete with invitations, silly hats, and a cake, and Position (“an insect nearby”). Position, in particular, got a delicious rise out of the crowd; Donaldson released a small spider from a Tupperware container onto an upper riser in the audience. Responses ranging from detached interest to embarrassed fear rifled the audience like an unseen breeze for the rest of the show; the older woman sitting next to me, who had often checked the time and jangled her jewelry with boredom, bent down and picked her handbag up off the ground. Fluxus can teach us to fear the ground! Later, when the creature reappeared near the stage during Winter Event, I shouted “Kill it!” and the vegans sitting in front cried “No!” in various tones of ecological self-righteousness. Too bad I was too far away to stomp on it; the ensuing brouhaha would have been another version of Event Score.

*Less so, again, the longer, more specific ones, which begin to read like technical manuals, whose jargon shoots your interest on a trajectory away from the text.

More about FLUXCONCERT at

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Movies: Three on a Match

Brutal! Movies from the thirties (this one from 1932) always make me wonder why they don’t make them like they used to—lurid, cruel, and unapologetically cautionary. In only three minutes over an hour, Joan Blondell, Betty Davis, and Ann Dvorak grow from their eighth grade classroom (where their destinies are already pre-determined—the flirt will grow up to be a showgirl, the valedictorian a secretary, and the popular beauty the wife of a rich lawyer), to adults on a roller coaster ride.

The beauty, bored with her husband and three year old boy, runs off with a no-good man and is quickly on skid row, dark circles under her eyes from an unfed cocaine addiction (we never see any powder, just her raving and a few twitches of the nose). Her concerned girlfriends divulge her whereabouts to her husband, only so that he can rescue his son. In gratitude, the wealthy lawyer marries the showgirl the day his divorce is finalized, and gives the secretary the job of governess.

When the no good lover needs more money for her habit and to pay off debts to a gangster (whose right-hand man is a young Humphrey Bogart), he kidnaps the toddler for ransom. Smelling a profit bigger than two grand, the gangsters take over, and try to kill the boy when the heat comes. To save her son, the socialite, who had never been satisfied with life anyway, jumps out the window, a message about the boy’s whereabouts scrawled on the front of her dress in lipstick.

Because of time (or budget?) constraints, the movie marks the passage of thirteen years with newspaper headlines, on everything from the optimism on Wall Street (ha) to the shortening length of dresses to the explanation that the old saying “Three on a match means one will soon be dead” did not originate in war (where a match lit long enough to light three cigarettes could provide too good a target for enemy gunfire) but from a manufacturer of matches, who enjoyed increased profits when more matches were used. But the film’s closing scene rings ominously: the two remaining girls share a match to smoke in front of their mansion’s fireplace; the third, who shared that match at a reunion luncheon just a few years ago, is now dead.

Particularly in these times, it’s good to see the ungratefully wealthy go punished onscreen, and it must have been even more delicious for audiences in the 1930s.

Movies: Dead End

A super surprise treat on New York’s East River in the 1930s (shot on an unrecognizable corner perhaps located near today’s Sutton Place), where a grand new apartment building has brought the hoi polloi in direct contact with the tenement slums. The local kids (the real stars of the movie, who give it genuine vibrancy with their loudmouth clowning and physical antics, fighting and throwing each other into the river) watch the drama unfold: an old neighborhood boy (golden Joel McCrea) who took the straight route versus big-time gangster Babyface Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who’s come back to see his mother (who slaps him across the face and says she hopes he’ll die) and his old girlfriend (who now makes ends meet as a prostitute).

Refusing to leave empty-handed, Babyface hatches a plot to kidnap the same rich kid the local kids have just beat up, but the good guy senses that something’s up, now that he’s no longer big-eyed over the rich girl who had been leading him on (he sees her disgust at the roaches in his apartment building). After a great chase scene in the shadowy hallways and across the dark rooftops and fire-escapes of the slum, our hero shoots Babyface dead, winning rights to a $4800 reward. His rich girl comes back, thrilled that they can live on the money in style for a year (and after that? Who cares, at least she’ll get one year of happiness, she says), but he sends her away, at last seeing the beautiful but poor local girl as his honest match, and pledging his reward money to hire a lawyer to keep her little brother (one of the local kids, under arrest for the most innocuous knifing you’ve ever seen) out of reform school.

Bogart’s heart-broken tough-guy is fantastic, but the movie belongs to the rag-tag kids, who make their own rules and seem to be having a pretty good time, despite their lack of future. Stripped to their shorts for swimming in the filthy river, their narrow chests are big with bombast as they do mocking impressions of the doorman and the rich men and women coming in and out of the fancy-pants building, plunked right in front of their hangout. I’d love to see this movie remade today, in gentrifying Harlem or East Williamsburg, though I suppose I’m the bad guy now.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Books: Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov

It is rare that I admit I’m not smart enough to enjoy a book—usually, I simply dismiss the author as too obtuse. But Nabokov presumes too much. In Ada, at least after its introductory and obfuscating thirty pages (enough to turn away even the most committed of readers), a legible tale of young (and incidentally incestuous) lust promises genuine quality—somewhere behind the bandied phrases in French and Russian (only a few of which anagrammatic Vivian Darkbloom deigns to translate in a set of arch end notes*). Not only does the author demand a minimum of trilingual fluency, though, he also expects us to be intimate with Anna Karenina (the Veens, the family to which our lovers belong, seem distant relatives of both Tolstoy and the Karenins, if such a thing is possible), the works of Chekov (and a few other Russian literati), and the oeuvre of Proust.

Not that I haven’t dipped into these novels, and fairly recently, but my gosh! Nabokov also assumes that we’re familiar with his own oeuvre, Ada being in a way an extended reworking of the introductory section of his most well-known novel Lolita. The term “nymphet,” coined in Lolita, appears repeatedly without definition, the reader's comprehension taken for granted. The word “Lolita” appears as well, explained in the footnotes by “Darkbloom” once as a city in Texas, and another time as a long, full skirt. Ada is a Lolita herself, a vixenish, pubescent twelve year old who doesn’t wear underpants, who immediately becomes fourteen year old Van Veen’s lover, heedless of their consanguinity.

In fact, because this tale spans the lovers’ entire lives, during which they are often separated, both by circumstance and, eventually, family intervention, there is ample time provided (seventeen years) for Van to pose as Humbert Humbert and diddle the actual, poor Lolita—the entirety of that novel could fit between Ada’s parts two and three.

But it’s unquestionable, though I’m not clever enough to catch half the man’s inside jokes and references, that this is a brilliant man’s novel for other brilliant men, for insiders. It’s a comp lit PhD candidate’s wet dream, tightly packed with fodder for research and investigation. Nabokov swings from epic Russo family history to pants-wetting lusty eroticism (with bonus x-rating for double pedophilia) to wandering philosophical tome (a challenge of Space by Time—dare I say he is writing a parody? If I could penetrate it, I might! But perhaps that is the point. . .) to, yes, a memoir, in which the book collapses on itself, with editorial notes throughout by Ada Veen, who we see is revising the manuscript as an aged Van Veen writes it (awkwardly, both in first and third person). All of this cleverness distracts us from any apprehension we might feel about Nabokov’s creepy-old-man-ness.

Most readers love Nabokov for his glittering gem sentences, but tire of his full-scale work; Ada is no exception to the rule. And so, I can never list him as one of my favorites, even though I keep reading his darned books. Too bad he didn't decide to just be a poet.

*Note: I positively loathe end notes, particularly those that are not indicated. I do, on the other hand, love footnotes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Books: Middlesex, by David Eugenides

I didn't expect this book would be good because everybody reads it. I expected it to be good because I loved The Virgin Suicides, and because gender issues are interesting (if you managed to miss it, despite Oprah's best efforts, it's the epic tale of an intersex narrator, a child raised as a girl who develops facial hair, a too-large clitoris, and no breasts during adolescence, who is painfully attracted to a redheaded girlfriend, and whose parents follow a doctor's recommendation for "corrective" surgery, causing the narrator to run away, hitchhike across the country, and start a new life as a man).

Indeed, this sounds like a fascinating story, with immense opportunities (to both titillate and increase social awareness). But Eugenides gets bogged down in family history; half the book is spent deploying two generations of love stories (repeated incestuous marriages are the reason for the narrator's condition). The lusty, live intensity of The Virgin Suicides—which allows for a total immersion in that 1970s suburban Americana of AM Radio and homemade prom dresses, of teenagers' constant struggling for more, of parents' fear and silence—is exchanged for a sentimental romp across continents, filled with whimsical incidents and cherished traditions.

Accidentally reading Nabokov's Ada (another epic tale of an incestuous love affair) immediately after Middlesex, it's easy to see where Eugenides goes astray—Nabokov goes astray himself in the exact same way. However, the master of childhood sensuality keeps his (obfuscated, unreadable) family history limited to thirty pages, while Eugenides runs on for nearly 300, culminating in a kind of wooden, sexless narrator too estranged not only from his body, but from from his inner self, to engage the reader.*

*Of course, Nabokov's characters are very comfortable in their own gender roles, and so his challenge is smaller (or greater—he writes an as-long novel with only 1/3 of the potential intrigue).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Movies: Red Cliff 2

"This is the emotional part," the elderly Chinese woman said to her husband in Shanghainese, as translated to me by my friend and tour guide.

Zhao Wei, who has spent the majority of the movie dressed as a male soldier, spying on the enemy, reunites with her only friend from the other side, right on the battlefield. He doesn't recognize her since she's no longer in costume, but she reminds him "I'm Piggy!" and, at the moment joyous recognition spreads across his face, he freezes, his back shot with arrows.

And indeed, it was the emotional part: we both burst into spontaneous tears. She was sniffling, and I was sticking my fingers up behind my glasses to wipe at my running makeup.

That was the only emotional part in this epic war film, based on the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history (a good reminder that I know too little Chinese history), in which a group of regional warlords band together to overthrow the Emperor's power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao. The natural leader, played by Tony Leung, is the classic Chinese epic hero, well-versed in war and sword-dancing, but also music and love-making (we intimate, based on his wife's fluttering attentions (Xiao Qiao, the consummate fetish object). His partner to the death is the mystical reader of the winds, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, who helps the cause with his cleverness (not only tricking the enemy into giving them the hundred thousand arrows they need to fight by sending straw-covered ships in the foggy night masked as attackers, but also predicting a shift in wind that allows them to burn Cao Cao's entire fleet). We know both of these actors from Wong Kar Wai movies, in which their performances are far more subtle, but director John Woo is hardly the master of the same—particularly not in movies for Chinese audiences.

Yes, I saw this movie in China, at an IMAX theatre where you are assigned seats when you buy tickets, and where people talked (not loudly, but still) and texted throughout the feature. I hadn't expected to be able to follow the movie at all (it being in Mandarin), but the theatre kindly (or unkindly, if you are Chinese, as most of the audience was) provided subtitles, in both languages. So much for my experiment in total language immersion. . .

Monday, February 9, 2009

Shanghai: Day Eight

Today, I slept though our daytrip again! We would have had to leave before eight, and I wandered out of my bedroom after eleven, slightly confused about why I had slept so long. Lynn, though, like a concerned and benevolent grandmother, was happy that I’d slept, and decided to reward me by taking me to the movies.

And so, after futzing around the house for awhile, we went off to my favorite mall in Shanghai (there is stiff competition!): Raffles City, where we purchased tickets for the IMAX showing of Red Cliffs II, in spite of the fact that neither of us had seen Red Cliffs I and that the movie is in Mandarin, of which my knowledge now encompasses hello, how are you, yeah yeah, I don’t have it, and I don’t want any. First, though, we sat down for brunch at Babydoll, a favorite restaurant for cute young girls to congregate with their friends over fluffy desserts in big pink and orange booths. Lynn had never tried it, and we were sucked in by the aura. Unfortunately, it was a gustatory bust, with sauces too heavy, soups too bland, and dishes too weird. We left still hungry after eating half our food, which was half the portion and an eighth the quality of the lunch at Gu Yi, but the same price. Boo to teenyboppers—we should have known not to trust them.

With another hour to kill before the movie, we wandered the mall a bit so that I could buy some last-minute gifts, and I tried my first and last Chinese Starbucks. It was passable (I’m not such a fan of American Starbucks, so the bar was low); the price was about as obscene as it is in New York.

In the theatre, we had assigned seats (!), which we had been able to pick on a computer screen when buying tickets. But the real surprise was that the movie had subtitles—both in Chinese and English, so I was able to follow much more than I had expected (this was at first a bit disappointing; I had been psyched up for a completely passive experience of language indoctrination, and instead I ended up scrambling after subtitles as usual). After the movie, we caught a cab back to Moganshanlu, so that I could buy some heavy photography books I had lusted after the last time we were in the shop. We took all my purchases back home in a cab before going back out to meet Josh and John for dinner at Element Fresh, a California-styled restaurant that probably serves the only edible salad in Shanghai (Chinese people don’t seem to understand uncooked vegetables). I stuck with an “Asian Set” dish, which came out (in some odd foreshadowing) like California’s Chinese food rather than China’s: chunks of chicken sautéed in a black pepper sauce with broccoli, served aside a sculpted mound of white rice flecked with black sesame seeds, with steamed bok choy and a small hot and sour soup on the side. This was soothing for my belly, and I washed it down with a Tsingtao (which I now know to pronounce “ching-dao.”)

To top off my last night, we decided to hit a notorious expat bar called The Spot, which was pretty much not the spot that night, it being Sunday. The rap was loud, but the walls were white and the lights were pretty bright; most of the tables (except the pool table) were empty. We had one round and called it a night.

And the next day, I flew home.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Shanghai: Day Seven

Lynn had originally planned a day trip to a picturesque outlying village, but given my illness, she decided that we were better off staying close to home and having a mellow day. And so, she dragged me off to dim sum (!) at the incidentally eponymous Lynn, known for its snazzy Shanghainese cuisine and 78 RMB per person ($11 or $12) all-you-can-eat special on the weekends. This was not my ideal breakfast, given my still-roiling gastric sea, but we were meeting her friend (the poet Sawako Nakayasu) and I had to be game. Luckily, the food was light and fresh, and came in small portions, though there was a shocking amount of it (two fried rices, two types of egg rolls, dumplings steamed, fried, and in soup, salty and translucent lettuce root, tofu rolled with shepherd’s purse, leaf-wrapped sticky rice, assorted unidentified vegetables, and other things I can’t remember, all topped off with smooth, cool mango pudding (the cooling dairy affect I had been unknowingly craving for days). This time, I stopped myself at full, and watched the better acclimated polish off the table’s entire offerings.

From there, we went for a walk to another Fulbrighter’s apartment. Aynne had just returned from a long stay in Hai Nan, one of China’s balmy islands, and had brought back a motherlode of tropical fruit for us to taste… as if we hadn’t just spent the past hour eating! Aynne, a fascinating character and a bit of a ham (and a non-Chinese native English speaker with conversational knowledge of four other languages, including Mandarin), played fruit sommelier, describing each item before bringing it out for us to taste. We had starfruit (a yellow, waxy-skinned thing that slices into five-pointed stars and has a firm, juicy, mild-tasting flesh), dragon fruit (an eye-catching grenade-shaped thing in magenta with green spikes, whose equally firm, wet, mild flesh is even more eye-popping: white and dalmatian-dotted with tiny black seeds, which are edible), passion fruit (a dark green, golf ball sized pod packing an olfactory assault, filled with a runny, sour, seed-filled liquid—indecent to see and inelegant to eat, sucking and slurping with a spoon, with an incorrigibly potent flavor), and the most exotic, the mangosteen, which I’d seen street vendors carrying in two baskets balanced across their shoulders by an ample wooden rod (not a good time, I don’t think). This fruit, which looks from the outside like a wasted, plum-colored persimmon, but opens to a cluster of white, fleshy pods, whose taste and texture somewhat resemble lychees, was my definite favorite, though Lynn disliked the look of the wet globules on the dish, which look a bit like cubes of raw beef (if you squint).

We stayed chatting for hours, until everyone (except for me, that is) realized that they were starving (it was, surprisingly, nearly nine o’clock). After quick debate, we decided to eat Uyghur food (mostly because I hadn’t had it yet)—the wheat- and lamb- based diet of the Western Chinese people who live so far west that their flavors (and visages, and outfits, and entire culture) verge on the Middle Eastern. The food was heavy (and our servers appropriately hearty)—I’m not sure that I liked it. We had wheat-based noodles with vegetables in a spicy tomato-based juice (too thin to be properly called sauce), and a dish of diced cucumbers in a similar dressing. There were two lamb dishes, one with bony chunks of meat (from indiscernible body parts) with flat bread absorbing the juices, and another a kind of hollowed flatbread with ground lamb stuffed inside. We also had fried eggplant spears and fried potato medallions (both so tasteless I couldn’t discern which was which). We were the last people in the restaurant and the servers sat around singing native songs while one played guitar while we finished our dinner, so, an interesting dinner if not necessarily a tasty one. By then it was nearly eleven, so we paid ($150 RMB, or just over $20 for four people!), said our goodbyes, and caught cabs home.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Shanghai: Day Six

Today, I woke up not feeling so good at all. The plan was to go to the old city, see the Yu Gardens and the Yu Yuan “Symphony of Lights,” and to go indoor karting with another two expat couples living in Shanghai. Since Josh was coming along, we would have lunch at his favorite place, the Gourmet Café, a burger and sandwich joint run by an Englishman.

When Lynn told me we were breakfasting Western, I was excited. “So I can have oatmeal?” No. “French toast?” No. “Pancakes?” No. In case you don’t notice the trend, I wanted something bland; my belly was roiling. When we got there, I ordered a chicken sandwich against my better judgment, the only other choices being hamburgers, veggie burgers, falafel, and salads. I should have just had a smoothie.

With Lynn and Josh leading the way, and me trailing a few paces behind with my hand on my stomach, we went to Weiwei and Blackhead, a notebook/stuffed animal shop where I bought some gifts, and saw this amazing lamp (yes, that is the switch).

Then, we kept walking. We walked for half an hour. I must have looked horrible, because Josh kept asking if I wanted to stop and get some tea, or if I wanted to go home. I was certain that I would feel better eventually, and insisted on powering through. Every time we saw or smelled something like this (which is often in Chinese streets) another wave of nausea would come over me and I would pray to puke, but I couldn’t.

I decided that a medicine should be invented that made you instantly puke when you wanted to, but couldn’t. Finally, I broke down and asked Lynn how much farther we had to walk. She told me another 30 minutes, and I tried to puke next to a bicycle, but just ended up coughing. I told them I needed to go home. They wanted to come with me, but I refused, as we had friends to meet in that far-away district in just a few hours. Finally, they put me in a cab, told the driver where to go, and sent me off, keys in hand.

The ride took a long time; my face was flushed and sweating, and I clutched the door’s handle to minimize the bouncing. The television in front of me (cabs here have mini touch-screen TVs that show advertisements, like the ones now installed in New York) was loud and went through its cycle of commercials four times before I got home. There at last, I got in bed and curled into an unhappy ball, sleeping on and off until the next morning, waking up once to let Josh and Lynn in, and again to (at last) blow chunks all over the toilet. Now I feel so much better.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Shanghai: Day Five

Today, we took the subway across the Huangpu River to Pudong, the steel and glass, sky-scraping business center that gives Shanghai its famous skyline. That skyline includes the world’s tallest building (though two taller buildings are currently under construction in Dubai): the Shanghai World Financial Center.

At an ear-popping 492 meters (for comparison, the Eiffel Tower is 324 meters tall, and the Empire State Building 381 meters), the observatory at the top, whose elevator ride costs 150 RMB (over $20), is also the highest observatory in the world. But first, we had to eat lunch.

The day had started with writing and an orange as usual, and we’d made a quick stop at the post office to mail my postcards. This took us in a different direction, so we crossed a bridge over the creek near Lynn’s apartment; the city is trying to rehabilitate the area (Lynn and Josh predict that within two years it will be wall-to-wall luxury condos) so the streets are filled with rubble. Surprisingly enough, the subway stop in Pudong took us into more rubble—the Shanghai landscape, with its soaring skyscrapers in the distance, its concrete tower-block housing in the mid-ground, and its filthy hovels, clanging with metal pots and old men slurping noodles, which we approached through an almost war-torn field of broken concrete and garbage, can only be described as surreal.

When we arrived at the SWFC and took the escalator down into the basement-level food court, with it’s brown leather couches, dark wood tables, uniformed hostesses, and flattering warm light, piped in with soft euro lounge music, I saw the Shanghai I had originally expected: a Chinese version of New York, at its most posh. Circling the restaurant choices (four kinds of Japanese, one Chinese, one wood-fired pizza, one Western rotisserie, and a coffee bar) twice, we settled on udon. To buy food, we first had to buy and fill swipe cards at a central station, which we would later return for our 5 RMB refund. The presentation was gorgeous, but the food was average. I topped mine off with a cappuccino (best so far in China) and some pastries (three for 12 RMB, just under two dollars), which were quite tasty—doughnut dough, but a bit lighter thanks to the delicate, twisted shape.

Before going up to the observatory, we stopped at the bathroom. Bathrooms seem to be a big deal in Shanghai, and this was the finest thus far (probably the finest I’ve ever experienced). First, the toilet seats were heated. Then, along the console (what toilet seat has a console?!) was the kind of offering one might expect from a Sharper Image massage chair, complete with diagrammatic icons: rear cleansing, soft rear cleansing, and front cleansing, with a +/- menu for pressure. Of course, I had to try it. Let’s just say that it was a bit weird. And maybe just a tad too intense. The sinks, though, were the ultimate disclosure that no expense had been spared: they offered hot water, which no sink in Shanghai, not even in Lynn’s kitchen, has done yet.

So then up up up we went, in an elevator crammed with tourists that offers a mod light and sound experience designed by a Japanese artist in order to distract people from the long, uncomfortable climb. The LCD screen ticks off not the floors, but the number of meters ascended. We were let out on the 97th floor, whose skywalk observatory is 439 meters high. This was heady and strange, but nothing compared to the 100th floor skywalk, which we accessed by escalator. The building is shaped not unlike a bottle opener or a well-designed wine bag, with a kind of handle at the top. The 100th floor is the bottom of the handle, and the floors are glass, so that you can see the city winking beneath your feet. The closer I moved to the edge (lined with steel handrails, probably for this reason), the more intense was my vertigo. I’m not afraid of heights, but the view definitely made me tipsy. Although the city was enshrouded in fog (as it’s been my whole visit), we were able to see the near distance—the tiny roofs of those tower block houses, which now looked as inconsequential as the roofs of the hovels from the top of the Slaughterhouse. We stayed a long while.

Back down on the ground, we walked out to the river promenade, sighting the Peace Hotel from the opposite shore, and looking up at the SWFC’s handle, trying to comprehend that we had been up there, almost touching the clouds. We stopped for a beer at a very touristy (and very empty) restaurant, and took the Pudong Tourist Tunnel back across the river, a 1980s-style, wannabe Disney experience, in which you sit in a bubble-like tram that glides through a tunnel filled with flashing lights and blow-up dolls who pop out at you, while a low-voiced narrator makes strange announcements about the surroundings (“Nascent Magma!”. . . “Hell and Paradise!”). This spit us out into an arcade, where Josh played a few rounds of free throw basketball, while a small knot of Chinese teenagers stood and stared at him as he speedily sunk basket after basket, to the point where he had to take off his sweatshirt.

Back at the Bund, I quickly bought some cheap gifts and we stopped at a mall, considering going to a movie (either English with Chinese subtitles—Transporter 3!—or Chinese with no subtitles—an Andy Lau romantic comedy that looked like it had such a stock plot one wouldn’t require knowledge of the language). Nothing looked terribly compelling, so we went back home to rest before dinner, which was Nepalese food—very tasty (and the non-Chinese wait staff spoke the best English yet). As usual, I ate too much, and went to sleep clutching my belly.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shanghai: Day Four

Today, Josh had the morning off, so he, Lynn, and I, after spending the morning writing, caught a cab and zipped off to meet their friend John, another Fulbrighter. After a minor argument with the driver in Chinese (we needed him to pull over, then make a u-turn, then pull over again while waiting for John, and he shouted that we were wasting his time), we reached our destination: Moganshanlu, a compound of galleries converted from old factory buildings. We had some tea at a world-themed coffeehouse (they had tea; I embraced my American nature and had “coffee milk,” since I’d only had some oranges that morning and lunch was nowhere in sight) and then began to wander the near-deserted structures. Many of the galleries were closed, or just filled with art my tour guides deemed unworthy. The spaces we did see were interesting, if not great. An artist at island6-ifa gallery had installed rudimentary figures onto LCD screens behind old Chinese scrolls and mirrors, so that the withered parchment or scratched furniture lit up with flashing Chinese characters and dancing bodies. At a smaller gallery, the room was strung up with curving rows of loudspeakers one had to duck between. There was also a great Bandi Panda video—a fashion show that assigned panda-based costumes to people on different walks of life (middle school student, nurse, sanitation worker), which was hysterically funny.

Josh went off to work, and after poking into a few more galleries and a great bookstore (where I immediately stumbled onto two different photographers who had photographed the exact same apartment building from the exact same angle), Lynn took John and I on a long march toward the famous YANG’ SPAN FRIED DUMPLINGS [sic]. This is a chain with four locations, each of which usually has an insurmountable line down the street; we went to the one right across the street from our soup dumpling shop a few days ago, as well as “Best Noodles in the World” (Lynn concurs that their noodles are pretty good). Because it was after two, though, the lunch crowd had dispersed, and we didn’t have to wait at all for three bowls of steaming, crispy dumplings scraped up out of a three-foot wide fry pan by a masked attendant. Eating here is a four-fold process; you wait in one line to order and pay, where you’re given receipts that serve as tickets. Then, you wait in the dumpling line (this is the long one) until you have your tin dish of deliciousness. Then, you go inside and give your soup ticket to another attendant in the back (there is a beef and curry soup filled with clear, thin noodles that go with the dumplings), then you fight for a table upstairs. Of course, we didn’t have to fight since it was empty; we immediately sat down, poured vinegar from the table’s teapot into our dumpling dishes, and dug in.

These dumplings are larger and more doughy than the steamed ones from across the street, but also filled with a meatball and boiling, oily broth. As usual, I made a mess, and as usual, there were no napkins. I ate all of my food and finished Lynn’s last dumpling (I will pay for all this soon enough). And on the topic of paying—all this cost 14 RMB each, which is about two dollars.

John said goodbye after lunch and Lynn and I went off to do some shopping. She took me to the street where expensive, fashionable, independent designers have set up boutiques. Everywhere we went, I saw things I wanted—mostly coats with unusual lines, or made from leather so silky it made me shiver—but the prices ran from 4500-15,000 RMB (a few hundred to a few thousand). We did finally find a less expensive shop, the closet-sized LIU2, where I tried on ten of their light wool coats before settling on a red plaid one with long, clean lines and a big, boat collar, for 1,250 RMB; it’s something that I could never get at home, especially not at that price (around $175).

We were getting tired and stopped for coffee at another expat joint (which, except for the air hung with stale cigarettes, could have easily been back in San Francisco or New York’s Chelsea), and then decided to go home to rest for awhile, since we were meeting Josh and John again for a late dinner. Back home I scribbled out my postcards and read a bit before we got ready to go out again, to yet another expat-styled restaurant, the Chinese-Italian Trattoria Isabelle. Lynn and Josh apparently eat there a few times a week, so the wait staff was attentive for once, bringing a bottle of wine before we ordered it. My dinner companions all ordered pasta, but I thought that if I ate another starchy item I might go into shock, so I ordered steamed cod, wrapped it paper, garnished with tiny clams (no fat lip this time!), shrimp, and broccoli. It was the first Western meal that held up to my Western standards.

After dinner, Lynn wanted to show me some Chinese clubs, so we popped into Richy (!), a huge, smoky place filled with flashing colored lights and louche Asians with big hair. Typically, whites are not let into Richy (no expats here), but Lynn was our passport. I had been expecting more bubble-gum pop, but the beats were recognizable: Snoop Dogg. We snaked through the packed bodies, moving all the way to the back, where Lynn tried to sit down before informing that in order to do so, we would need to start ordering: bottle service. The security guard from the front door had followed us all the way to the back, and then followed us all the way out. Then, Lynn took us to Muse 97, an expat-friendly club (where the music wasn’t as good), but it was more of the same. We tried to sit down in one spot, and were escorted to another, in an empty room in the back with a wall-length fish tank. This of course meant that we were expected to order bottles, and so we left. Lynn wanted to stop at another Muse location, one closer to her apartment, but John didn’t want to dance, and I didn’t feel much like it either, so we just went home and stayed up late, splitting another bottle of wine and tooling around on the internet (LOLCats, it seems, have not made their way to the Shanghainese audience yet).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shanghai: Day Three

Lynn was second-guessing her plan to take me to “the spicy restaurant” (the Hunan Gu Yi) after our little chili pepper debacle, but I insisted that I was up for it, so after another morning of writing at home, and breakfasting on two steamed pork buns that she brought me, we set out for another gustatory adventure. Again, she did the ordering, and announced that I would be eating bullfrog, kidney (“whose kidney?” I asked, but she wasn’t sure, suggesting, perhaps, pig), tofu, and a vegetable. All was delicious, and even though each dish came heavily mixed with chilies (after we finished eating, it looked like we hadn’t eaten a thing, because the dishes were still full of peppers), the heat was bearable. Lynn broke into a sweat and had to strip off all her layers, but I was a champ, spitting tiny frog bones onto my plate, and demanding a second bowl of rice when the tingling on my inner lips wouldn’t quiet. As usual, we ate too much.

Then we snagged a taxi to go to the Slaughterhouse, a 1933 British-built structure that the Chinese are rehabilitating from a cattle-killing station into a mall (as if there were a shortage of malls in Shanghai). The building is circular, concrete, dark, with a cattle-running ramp around the circumference, and curious staircases and corridors in the middle. The shops are only beginning to open, and much of the space is empty, littered with a few art photographers taking advantage of the strange angles and light.

The view from the roof was fantastic: a look into the neighborhood's secret corridors.

We then progressed to 696 Weihai, a pseudo-abandoned warehouse filled with artists’ open studios—except that, perhaps because of the time of day, or the day of the week, or Spring Festival, they were all closed. We did wander the wide hallways, though, admiring the peeling paint, the old, wide windows, and the ways the artists had decorated their doors. Lynn thought it too dark and damp a place to work, but I thought it was gorgeous.

By then I was in desperate need of coffee, so we took the subway to another neighborhood, stopping at a bakery to procure giant wedges of sweet, spongy bread encrusted with sugar. We sat down for espresso at Paul, a French pastry chain that seems to cater to the expat community with surprising success; Lynn explained that it’s the only place to get really good bread, which one starts to miss after being here for awhile. As usual, the service was dreadful, and every time I wanted my water glass refilled, we had to ask (and it would only be filled half-way). How I miss the land of tipping!

Then Lynn took me to another gallery, Plum, so that I could meet her friend Little Punk. Plum is in one of Shanghai’s charming enclaves of brick row houses, a suite of white-walled, high-ceilinged rooms with a pretty little courtyard where we sat chatting with Little Punk and her Swedish friend Joey until it got too cold. Then we went inside, where she made hot water with lemon and we chatted some more. Joey, in a lumpy jacket and skinny jeans and red socks, with a Danish novel in his pocket, worried about his pot-smoking habit and insisted on his commitment to China. Little Punk, reading a book about Man, God, and Rock and Roll, in brazen, idiomatic English, blurted “Fuck!” rather often, while bemoaning the fact that she had cut her pubic hair.

Joey, Lynn, and I went to the store to get her some beer, then Lynn and I said goodbye and went to English First! to pick up Josh for dinner, since it was his early night off. On the way, I ate an oyster procured for 5 RMB from a street vendor. It took too long to cook, but it was delicious.

Because he prefers Western food, Lynn chose Casa 13, a tapas restaurant opened by a successful Argentinian (who has opened ten such restaurants in Shanghai alone in very short time). We ordered sangria, baked scallops, tuna carpaccio, mussels, asparagus, and, for Lynn’s longing palate, mashed potatoes. They were very happy with the meal. My verdict? In China, eat Chinese food.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Shanghai: Day Two

I woke up early enough (before light) to do yoga, shower, and make tea before Josh and Lynn got up. Traveling west is so much easier than traveling east! Breakfast was a mere apple (peeled—this is another country where eating fruit exteriors is a bad idea) and I spent the morning writing, since that Josh and Lynn’s daily program (he’s an editor, she’s a translator, and they are poets both). Near noon, we all left together for a brief visit to Lynn’s grandmother to pay rent (unlike at every other grandmother’s house, we were not invited in and fed). Instead, Lynn took me to the best soup dumpling joint in the city, where the line was not too bad when we arrived, but snaked down the street soon after. Here, we ordered and paid at the register upon entering, then took seats at pseudo-communal tables, waiting for our food.

I say pseudo-communal, because the tables seat two, four, and six, but a group of two doesn’t wait for a table for two—we just sat down at a table for six, facing three strangers sucking on dumplings. After five minutes, we were asked to move to a table for four, where two strangers sat sucking on dumplings, as a group of three had arrived. Ten minutes later, when those two strangers had finished, a party of five arrived. Two of them sat across from us, and the other three at our old table. But soon, they began asking us to trade (in Chinese of course, so I didn’t quite realize what was happening). Lynn began shouting at them (I have never heard her shout, and never in Chinese), and then we picked up our coats and our bags and our tiny dishes of vinegar and moved again. Lynn was shaking. “It’s so rude!” In a restaurant so tiny, such inefficiencies can only be expected, but having lived in the US for almost 20 years before coming back, she finds her original culture’s presumptuousness infuriating. I just kept watching the women making our dumplings, because I was starving. And they were so, so, so good, in spite of the fact that I’m still a bit chopstick-challenged, and make an enormous mess (and joints like this don’t provide napkins—you have to bring your own). One of our table mates was embarrassed enough for me to give me a tissue from a packet in his pocket.

Our original plan had been to hit the dumpling shop across the street immediately afterward, but we were too full (having eaten 18 tiny dumplings each), so we moved directly on to the Shanghai Art Museum, a stunning, English-built structure in People’s Park. With its creamy walls, dark paneling, wide marble staircases, and cool, airy galleries, we could have easily been in one of America’s older cities—Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC, except for the museum’s stark emptiness: no permanent collection on view, and only two exhibitions: a retrospective of Chinese oil painter Wu Guan Zhong, and a smaller show, very academic and text-heavy, on a famous seal cutter. If there is any lacuna in my art education, it encircles completely traditional Chinese art, so that I could not engage with either of these exhibitions in any way at all. Lynn didn’t care for them much either, somewhat reassuring, since she knows quite a bit about traditional Chinese art, but concepts like the economy of the stroke and the harmonic balance of a landscape are lost on me; I like my art seething, gritty, aching, and the ideals of Chinese painting seem diametrically opposed. The only thing that caught my eye in the entire place was this cluster of birds, comprised of a few tiny flecks of ink, in the upper corner of one of the paintings.

From there, we needed a pick-me-up, so Lynn took me to the Old China Hand Reading Room, a café housed in a colonial structure turned library (with ceilings and furniture that reminded me of another colonialist setting—the Gymkhana Club, where I spent a few nights in Delhi, built in the 1920s by the British). We had strong coffee (the first so far—though Starbucks do dot the city, I’ve yet to visit one) and sat chatting for hours while it rained outside. At the start of dusk we left, and took the subway to another part of town, near the Bund. Here, the buildings are bigger, older, more imposing; we stumbled into a circular square onto which four prime examples of Chinese Art Deco architecture curved. But in spite of the narrow facades and elegant arches, the buildings are made of cinder block, and stained with years of soot. And so, they are sturdy, dark, imposing, opposed to the glittering beacons of New York’s Art Deco buildings.

We found our destination—the Contrasts gallery—where the main exhibition was an earth-mound installation. I’ve seen work somewhat like this in the US without being impressed, but I really liked this. The gallery itself is a gorgeous, winding space of white walls and Art Deco ceilings, and filled with the sifted mound of rich, black earth, empty of people except me and Lynn, inside from the filthy, damp streets, it felt the way good churches feel. The artist also had photographs of mountains he'd made from ash (made in turn from burnt calligraphy copy books); the effect was a dreamy landscape as vast as it was miniature. He also had scrolls with characters and images burnt into the beautiful paper, the kind of thing I usually don't have patience for, but this time found captivating.

Downstairs was another exhibition, a group show of contemporary Iranian artists, and some of the work was great.

We left the gallery and made our way to the Bund, the river promenade that looks onto Pudong’s Disneyland skyline. I stopped to buy an octopus on a stick for 3 RMB (about 50 cents) simply for the novelty, but it was delicious—juicy (a tad oily), burnt, sweet, and hot (but everything tastes better when you cook it outside on a stick). I made Lynn document my gustatory adventure.

We walked a bit along the Bund, which is rather like every other city’s water promenade at dusk—the unsavory characters pray upon the tourists and feels just the slightest taste of danger that probably isn’t there—I’d felt it before on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, the ghats in Varanasi, New York’s East River promenade, even the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California (although none of those waterfronts looked onto boats with larger-than-life moving advertisements). We couldn’t gawk at the famous Peace hotel because, under renovation until 2010, it was wrapped in green a la Christo.

Instead, we went to two snazzy cocktail lounges on high floors with sweeping river views. Amusing English descriptions of cocktails inspired me to make the mistake of ordering a tequila martini at Lounge 18, a huge, dark, empty bar decorated with caged candles and low couches. Garnished with a chili pepper and an orange slice, the cocktail was strong enough to have me under the table in minutes. Lynn convinced me to take a bit of the pepper (insisting it must be part of the cocktail experience), and for the next ten minutes my eyes watered while I waved my hands and ate crushed ice from her too-sweet mohito. Attempting solidarity (or just to show me that I was being a woess), she then took a bite of the pepper and found herself in the same predicament. We laughed and screamed and cried, and the bartenders gawked at us. This bar had the nicest bathroom I’ve seen in Shanghai, perhaps in any bar around the world.

Then we hit the Glamour Bar, where the cocktails were better (she had another mohito, I stuck with tequila but this time had a “proper” margarita (although it was splashed with Grand Marnier). This lounge was just as big, just as swank, and just as empty (it was, after all, a Monday). We got good and giggly and finally left, catching a cab to Hai Di Lao, which Lynn insists is the best hot pot place in Shanghai. Of course, I had never had hot pot, and didn’t even know what it was, so she could have fooled me, but the sprawling restaurant, which really must seat 1,000 people, where you can have a free manicure while you wait for your table, was packed, so I believe her. We sat at a giant white formica table, square, with a big metal hole in the middle. Lynn did the ordering, checking boxes on a tear sheet attached to a clipboard that offered more than 100 choices. Then she took me to the sauce bar, instructing me to make my own sauces (one spicy, one not) from the thirty vats of sauce available and labeled in English and Chinese. I made one with Thai chili, sesame oil, soy sauce, chili paste, sesame seeds, and some other things I can’t remember, and another richer, sweeter one from satay sauce, peanut sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped peanuts, and again, some other things. Back at the table, I tasted them with my chopsticks and then had to go back to make amends, sweetening the peanut sauce, kicking up the spice in the chili sauce (which I think I overdid). The meal began when they brought an enormous vat of boiling stock and put in the hole in the table.

The pot kept boiling the whole meal, while Lynn dumped various things into it: tiny whole crabs, shrimp balls, rolls of meat, leafy greens, stringy mushrooms, porous tofu, fat, slippery noodles. We both had tiny pots of rice, and ate by fishing the food from the hot pot, dipping it in sauce, holding it over rice, and then scarfing. We had a big bottle of Tsingtao to cool the heat (it didn’t work; I had to take off my sweater). The finale was a particular noodle that comes with a show—it’s five meters long, and a man dances with it (think rhythmic gymnastics), holding one end in each hand, swirling it around his body and in the air so that it almost but never touches the floor, hits you in the face, and catches onto someone at the table next to you. Quite the spectacle. Then he threw them in the pot and we ate them too. I realized that I had eaten so much that I might just die right there. I asked Lynn to order a forklift to take me home, but she promised that we were only a block away. Moaning and holding my belly (she was moaning a bit too), I followed her out of the restaurant and back home. It was only after ten, but I couldn’t even wait for Josh to get home before I crawled into bed and fell dead asleep. My poor, poor stomach. I don’t think I’ll ever eat again. . . once I get back to the US, that is.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Shanghai: Day One

Considering the obscene time difference, I woke up at the rather respectable hour of 9:30, when I heard Josh and Lynn padding around the living room in their slippers (I was also immediately given slippers upon my arrival; street shoes stay by the door). Breakfast was tea and slices of watermelon, which I sucked at greedily, not realizing that lunch would be soon. My mouth was still swollen, but it didn’t hurt anymore; I merely looked like a victim of Botox. Josh went off to work (he teaches at English First!; we would later go spy on him through the windows of his classroom, the only word on the board: “commercialization”— advanced class!) and after dallying a bit, we set off as well.

As usual, I have been a lazy traveler and have not so much as cracked the guidebook I checked out of the library weeks ago. Luckily, Lynn has planned a five item itinerary for each day, complete with restaurant choices (I’d admitted that I liked to eat, and only wanted to eat local cuisine, when she mentioned that Josh mostly liked to eat Western food). And so, we got on a bus, and went to Cheng Cheng’s Art Salon, a restaurant modeled on Old Shanghai, with big red booths and green glass lamps, baskets hanging from the ceilings and WWII-era tchotchkas scattered around the tables. We were the only diners, perhaps because it was early, perhaps because it was Sunday, or perhaps because of the holiday (Chinese New Year celebrations go on for nine days). But the food was delicious. There was some kind of ground green vegetable mixed with finely minced tofu; served cold, it had a mild, nutty flavor. Then came a giant bowl filled with murky brown liquid with an inch-thick floater of clear oil. “Sesame oil,” Lynn explained. Inside the bowl, eel, in rich, sweet sauce. Shanghainese cuisine is known for being two things: sweet and oily; this doesn’t necessarily sound good, but it is. We were also brought a giant crab meatball swimming in juices, a dish of chewy gluten with spongy tomatoes and more of that juicy green loofah, bowls of plump, sweet rice, and a pot of delicate floral tea.

Walking to our next destination, I admitted again that I liked to eat, and Lynn pointed out that there is really no other good reason to visit Shanghai—it’s not very pretty, not very cultural (except, she noted, for the fact that it’s a different culture), and food is perhaps the best thing the city has to offer. Looking around at the concrete landscape around me—ugly towers built quickly to house lots of people, power lines thick enough to create an outdoor ceiling, roads so wide and choked with traffic that the only way to cross is by concrete overpass—complete with escalator up!, and laundry hanging from every balcony, I had to agree. All of Shanghai smells like stale cigarettes (though I haven’t seen that many smokers), and the air quality keeps all of us blowing phlegm from our throats and noses all day. This is really an ugly city, the skyline draped in smoggy mist (not so bad as New Delhi, but something like it), the entire thing under constant construction, this time in preparation for the 2010 World Expo. Everywhere, tiny broken down kiosks filled with fruit or gutted fish huddle in the shadows of climbing condos, but even the new construction looks dated and dusty, as if the project had been started twenty years ago and left unfinished.

We walked and walked and walked and walked, until we came to Taikang Lu, a tiny enclave of quaint, twisting streets and low stone buildings. Hung with bird cages, the alley’s dead ends housed rusty bicycles, the walls papered with fading pictures. Though this looked more like the old city I was expecting, the experience was partly constructed; the shops were all high-end, selling handcrafted jewelry, scarves, and candles one would find at any American seaside resort town. I took pictures, but bought nothing.

We walked more, and then took the subway, an ultra modern transit system so clean and safe as to make New York’s subway seem unimproved since the late 1970s. The tracks (free of both foul water and litter) are protected from the platform by plexi-glass walls that slide open only when the train has arrived. Once on the train, one can move freely between cars because they are completely open to each other. We went only one stop, to Raffles City, where Lynn promised “all the young people are.”

And it was true—while the city’s streets are filled with elderly Chinese people in button-down padded jackets, curled hair, metal glasses, tottering along the sidewalk with canes and standing in front of their doorways doing “exercises,” the mall is where I finally found the city: Chinese youth, not unlike Americans, congregate in this circular high rise filled with sparkling lights, innocuous pop music, bare-torsoed underwear ads, raucous food courts, and overpriced merchandise (which no one seemed to be buying).

We wandered in and out of a few shops, making our way to the top floor to rest for awhile over coffee at Charme, a posh Hong-Kong style eatery where the waitstaff brings a piece of cloth to drape over the coat on your chair so that it doesn’t get accidentally splashed. But don’t think that means that the waitstaff was attentive—tipping is uncommon in China, and the wait time for a menu, for your order, for the check, quickly demonstrates the purpose behind this Western practice. Again, Lynn ordered (although the menu was in enough English that I ordered my own drink—mostly out of curiosity—“Hong Kong style mix of tea and coffee with milk.” Once I added a lot of sugar, it was rather drinkable. We had a giant plate of thin fried noodles with shrimp and onions (mind you, we’d only lunched four hours ago) and the specialty of the house: a desert loaf I saw on every table. “Everyone orders it,” she said. “Yes, everyone orders it, but why doesn’t anyone eat it?” I asked, looking around at the brown bread cubes on every table. “You eat the inside!” she laughed at me, and oh, yes, you do. This is probably the least healthy thing I’ve had thus far: a warm quarter loaf of spongy, super-sweet white bread, cut inside into bite-sized cubes, and topped with a generous scoop of butter. We devoured it, even peeling up the bottom and tearing sweet, white swaths from the inside of the hard, brown exterior fortress once it was clearly all gone.

We strolled into People’s Park, where old men gathered around stone tables playing cards.

A lone man walked too close by us and whispered “Acid!” He proceeded to follow us until Lynn got the willies, while I guided her to the part of the park where a few unhappy children played on forlorn, washed out fair rides, fished half-dead goldfish from a pond, and sat at picnic tables painting pictures. We made our way to the Shanghai MOCA, a tiny museum with an innocuous exhibition of “Couple’s Art,” most of it dreadful, with the exception of some fiberglass nude sculptures by Xiang Jing—slightly reminiscent of those by Ron Mueck, a bit more alienesque, a bit more emotive.

The best part of the show was the hysterical wall text, the beginning of which read: “Marriage and family can be listed as the most important civilization achievements in the evolutionary theory of mankind, with the relationship between spouses as the ultimate relationship between the two genders, said anthropologists.” Which anthropologists?! This was only one of many paragraphs ripe for deconstruction. I proposed the China’s paternalist government has effectively defanged the country’s artists. Lynn agreed, adding that Chinese artists have a less than complete understanding of irony as it functions in the Western art world because they weren’t exposed to any Western art until a few years ago.

And then, we walked some more. Lynn was killing time until it got dark. We went into a shop where I bought some gifts—notebooks with amusing Engrish captions (“Two People’s Happiness: We are the best friend. We take a walk together, cry together, and share all happiness together. We can’t lose other.”), teacups, a pencil box. We went to another mall, where I bought a stuffed doll, and a display was advertising an alarm clock for children. I tried on some sweaters for which my arms were far, far, far too fat, being an overfed American. And then it was dark.

We walked along Nanjing Lu, which Lynn explained was once illegal for Chinese people to walk along. Now, it’s filled with them, riding along in trolleys, taking pictures in front of the golden ox set up for the New Year, going in and out of department stores. The street burns with neon characters and flashing lights, a kind of extruded Times Square, much more beautiful in a language I cannot penetrate. I took a million blurry pictures, and we walked until the end.

Then we took the subway to the swanky Haiku, the number one sushi restaurant in Shanghai, where we had a small meal: two bottles of exquisite sparkling sake (as pink and sweet as Tab up front, with that delicate lingering of sake at the end—dangerously drinkable), live scallops rolled with red and white tuna, and elegant stacks of seared salmon and tuna with avocado, topped with radish slices. The flavors were very mild but the fish was excellent. We dawdled, spying on the other patrons and discussing whether or not the bathroom entrance is the right place for a restaurant to be subversive (I had gone, for the second time, into the wrong one, and been corrected by a glowering attendant; the first time this happened, at People 7, the doorknobs were all affixed to the hinge side of the door, so that trying each one, they seemed locked, until the surly attendant pushed one open for me from the other side; here, the two doors had the men/women logos on them, but with the universal sign for “no”—the red circle with a bar through it—so that the women’s room was marked “no men,” and the men’s room “no women.” Of course, I went into the men’s room).

A taxi took us home where we filled empty jugs with water at the vending machine in front of Lynn’s building (tap water here is non-potable). Josh came home while we were doing this, and after some chit-chat about the day, we all crashed out.