Oh dear, I’ve fallen behind. We’re sitting in our hostel in Tokyo now and have already had a few adventures here, but you’ll have to stay tuned for that. For now let’s talk about Shanghai.
Remember our friend in Xi’an who we shook hands with for good luck? Well he sure must have saved us from some sort of disaster because we each got out with just a cold. Unfortunately it’s been kind of a lingering recovery process so rather than describing all our time in Shanghai – which was mostly filled with long naps and huge meals – I’ll try to just cover the highlights.
Shanghai is a very large, business oriented city with a lot of western influence. It’s another one of those port cities like Hong Kong and Singapore that were pretty much little fishing villages until the West came in and declared that it was a good spot for trade. I feel like all of my texts in school that talked about the Opium wars described the after effect as the western powers carving out “slices” of China like a pie.. (or pizza? Something baked anyway..) and I think Shanghai shows a pretty good example of that. We stayed in a part of it called the French Concession, where the architecture, clubs, restaurants, and even the large amounts of expats in the area make it pretty obvious that it isn’t exactly traditional Chinese. There’s also a big high-rise, downtown, business district called Pudong that boasts what has now been demoted to the 3rd tallest building in the world, along with some other impressive office space. Across the river from Pudong is the bund, which has a lot of the old European style buildings and hotels and an impressive view of the cityscape.
(fireworks leftovers outside our hotel)
So let’s see... The day we got to Shanghai was Chinese New Year Eve. Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. Pretty much everyone gets a two week break from school or work to go home and spend time with family, or to travel. From what I can tell, the people who stay behind, along with the explosive happy expats spend most of their time setting off boxes and boxes of fireworks and firecrackers on every street corner, at all hours of the night. Most things were closed that day (and the next) but we did end up finding a great New Years Eve party a block away from our hotel at a place called No. 88 Bar. We just stumbled upon it but it turns out it’s one of the most popular ones in Shanghai, so we got to experience some interesting live singers and dancers and get blasted with confetti after the midnight countdown. The singers had a selection of American pop songs that they serenaded us with throughout the night, but they clearly were having trouble with the English words – saying things like “I saw your face, in a shrowded place.. and I donno whattenn dooo..” Later on that night our friend Tal - fellow WashU DG and freshmen floor buddy – came out and met up with us. It’s a small world after all.
One of the most impressive sights we saw was the Shanghai Museum, which has four floors of just about everything Chinese you can think of including: jade, bronzes, traditional costumes of the ethnic minorities, currency, painting etc – much of it dating back hundreds to thousands of years. Apparently the day we chose to go was also the day everyone else in Shanghai went, because we had to wait outside in the rain for over an hour just to get in the door. All the bronzes that were left from thousands of years ago were wine vessels, food vessels, and musical instruments - looks like they knew how to live.
Another afternoon we stopped by the Jewish Refugee Ohel Moishe Synagogue that had been built for the 30,000 Jews who fled from Europe and Russia during the Russian Revolution and also WWII. Neither of us had any idea that there had been that many in China. Apparently during WWII all the other countries made immigration almost impossible, but Shanghai was relatively easy to get to and kept them safe. The building is now a museum and was actually closed for the whole New Year holiday, but after seeing our forlorn faces staring through the bars of the front gate, a nice Chinese man came out and let us walk around for free. I told him that Carly is Jewish and he excitedly said “Shana tova!!” and “Shalom!” He was not Jewish himself, but seemed very proud of his Hebrew. We walked through the Synagogue, which is three stories, but pretty small, with brick on the outside and dark wood on the inside, and then through a very high tech little museum building that they have in the back courtyard. The museum had videos, pictures, and descriptions of some of the refugees. It seems like most of them left Shanghai within 10 years or so of coming, either for Europe or other Asian cities like Hong Kong. I don’t think there are very many who stayed. Anyway, it was a very interesting side of Shanghai that I’ve never seen before.
Later on, we went to check out the Bund. Sadly, it’s currently a massive construction site that will someday be a very pleasant walkway with impressive buildings and a stunning view of the city. We did manage to get lost in an underground tunnel that lead to massive crowd of people milling around with random arcade games. I’m still not really sure what that was. I guess it’s just one of those moments lost in translation.
One of the days we went to a place called Cheng Huang Miao, which is supposed to have amazing Shanghai style dumplings and buns and some nice souvenir shops. Instead, it ended up being a lesson on why most Chinese people support the “one child policy.” If there is such thing as an ocean of people, we found it. You literally could not move on your own accord once you were in the area – basically you were smashed against the person in front of you, and constantly being pushed by the person behind you until you desperately flung yourself towards an exit. The poor children who were being dragged along with their parents must have gotten pretty trampled – I think we each tripped over a few very small, unsuspecting victims. At least we got an authentic Chinese crowd experience before leaving.
The last of the big sites that we saw was the Jinmao tower – literally meaning “Gold Trade” tower. It was the tallest building in Shanghai until the World Financial Center came along and cast a pretty large shadow on it. Fortunately, unlike the WFC, you can still go pretty far up the Jinmao tower for free. The 54th floor is the beginning of a large hotel, which has a 50+ storey atrium of open space going up from a little café to the top of the building. It’s pretty stunning and looks kind of like a seashell. We got up to the 87th floor to take some pictures of the buildings stretching as far as the eye can see, and then passed up the expensive coffee shop for our new favorite slice of home – Starbucks.
I can’t express how nice it is to see a familiar face every now and then when you’re abroad - and we got really lucky in Shanghai because Tal happened to be there, living not too far from our hotel. She’s been in Shanghai since November working for an Architecture firm. She told us they’re designing a new club, and that since everything is so cheap in China, it’s been moving very quickly and is currently under construction – due to be finished in April. As part of their design research, their client took them out to a bunch of clubs to show them what he liked and disliked about them. It sounded like a pretty amazing job. She introduced us to some of her co workers – from France and Switzerland – which was really fun and gave us a taste of the diverse expat community in Shanghai. Despite her busy work schedule, we got to have dinner with her a few times. On the last night, I went out with her to a little Jazz club, that seemed reminiscent of the pre war Shanghai days. It’s pretty crazy to think of the glitz and glamour that was in Shanghai and how westernized it was even over 50 years ago.
The last thing I have to say about Shanghai, is that we gave the “best red bean buns of the century” award to the buns we had at the DingTaiFeng in XinTianDi. Ding Tai Feng is the soup dumpling restaurant that I mentioned back in Singapore, and although it’s actually from Taiwan, the food it serves is supposed to be classic Shanghainese food. After some amazing dumplings, we had double servings of these magical buns. Life will never be the same.
Okay, well we’ve officially spent too much time in our room in Tokyo now and have to get out and explore a bit. Look forward to some fishy stories for next time. Zai Jian (goodbye)!