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 cafĂ© 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.

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