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.

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