The "Non-Expo" Trip


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August 5th 2010
Published: August 6th 2010
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1: Workshop in Qibaozhen 21 secs

China Trip Part III - Shanghai



I have caught a lot of flak from my Chinese friends for not going to see Expo when I visited Shanghai in July, and I have a hard time explaining to them why my parents and I opted not to see it. I have nothing against Expo, but Expo was not why my parents came to China, and not why I would choose go to Shanghai. Expo is like part of China's "coming out party" that nominally began with the 2008 Olympics. It is part of China's present and future, and represents part of its past, but it is a global park, with a focus on technology and innovation. We were in China to see China - not as it is represented in the pavillions, but as it is represented in everyday life. And with so many interesting examples of Shanghai's cosmopolitanism to be seen in the city, from the colonial concession areas to the old city to futuristic architecture of Pudong, we had plenty to do.

We stayed on Nanjing Road, very close to the People's Park and not far by metro from the Bund. We arrived late at night after waiting in line on the runway for about an hour after boarding our plane in Xi'an. Flying into Pudong, we had to take an hour-long taxi ride to cross the river and pass into the heart of the city. We ordered a late dinner from room service and planned to get up early the next day to visit the Bund and Cheng Huang Miao.

After a nice breakfast at the hotel buffet, we set out walking from the hotel, going east on Nanjing Road. Our goal was to walk to the next subway station and ride to the station near the Bund. We soon discovered that we were in a primo shopping district, mainly selling jewelry and watches, a fact not lost on the entrepreneurial breed who would approach us in the street asking if we needed a watch (think man in NYC with a coat full of fake Rolexes, just not that flagrant). I was often distracted by the outfits I saw in Italian-brand stores: there is nothing like Italian fashion; Dad was looking at the Italian shoes and Mom had to herd us along; that is, until we reached a store selling everything Puma, and then all of
Colorful fruit store near QibaozhenColorful fruit store near QibaozhenColorful fruit store near Qibaozhen

They were selling cherries from the U.S!
us gave in to temptation and entered the lovely air-conditioning and modern music of an outlet for affluence.

This place was made for burning money: there were purses, clothes, unbelievably expensive crazy-looking shoes, in addition to more reasonable (and wearable) stock. We limited ourselves to a pair of flip-flops for Dad (whose current pair, we had discovered, were a health-hazard on wet ground, and we were afraid it might rain later in the day). We decided to come back later to buy gifts for relatives (there were actually some really cool T-shirts with "Shanghai" printed on a "luggage tag" design).

Once outside again, it was not far to the metro station. We got on and emerged at East Nanjing Road in the pedestrian area close to the river. This was when the Expo part of our "Non-Expo" trip kicked in. The number of people near the river was unbelievable. Earlier this year, I had come to Shanghai to spend the Chinese New Year with friends. At that time, Expo was still in the works and everyone was out of town to visit relatives in the suburbs or other cities. I walked vast distances in the city without thinking much of the number of people; the streets were largely empty. What a contrast to come back to Shanghai in the tourist season and during Expo, too. After exiting Nanjing Road and walking down a side street to the River, we practically had to push our way forward through the crowd.

Signs of Expo were everywhere: entrepreneurs hawking the ubiquitous blue Expo-mascot plush toys, more watch-sellers, people going to and coming from Expo; we were pretty set on getting to the Bund and I was pressing a bit ahead of my parents in my quest to blaze a trail when suddenly, I saw it: a music store, selling Chinese instruments, against all odds as it was not in a "culture street." It was probably geared towards tourists, anyway, but I hadn't seen a shop like this in months, and the last time I entered one I didn't get a chance to try anything out. I suddenly became a little girl, begging my parents to go into the store, practically dragging them in, totally side-tracked from my agenda.

It wasn't busy inside; I asked one of the clerks, "Which of these instruments would be easiest to learn?" She replied that erhu, the two-stringed violin, was relatively easy. I looked at the wall with erhu and asked, "May I try one?' She was more than happy to take one down from the wall, fetch me a stool, and point out some basic techniques. I was ecstatic. I played a scale: "Do-re-mi-fa;" I switched to the other string: "so-la-ti-screeech!"

Laughter and applause broke out as I hit that last off-key note, and that was when I realized I was surrounded by a crowd, watching, taking pictures on their cellphones and commenting, "Look at this foreigner playing erhu!" I'm sure I'm on a webpage somewhere with a caption saying "Stupid touristy laowai," but I don't mind. I finally got started learning a Chinese instrument. It started my musical fire going and it would come back later, after the trip.

After this interesting cross-cultural moment ended and we left the store, we didn't have far to go before we reached the riverside. This, too, had changed significantly in a few months. Elevated platforms for sitting and walking had been built; people were everywhere. And oddest of all: many of them were staring at us. In Beijing and Xi'an, only the occasional group of people (perhaps tourists from other parts of China) had stared. Here, not only did people stare, they took photos. It seemed to me that they must be out-of-towners.

One group of girls that came up to get photos with us owned, upon my asking, that they were from a smaller town in Jiangsu and wanted pictures with us to show their classmates. Before they approached, a young man sitting below us on the platform had been "surreptitiously" snapping photos; as soon as we stood up with the girls and their family, the young man stood up too and openly began photographing us all.

Having enjoyed the riverside and the architecture of the Bund as much as we could in the approaching-midday heat and the mass of humanity, we hailed a taxi and headed to Cheng Huang Miao (actually, the Yu Gardens but more people recognize the name of the famous temple in the gardens). We did some bargaining at crafts stores, and then I made the fateful suggestion that we eat at the restaurant "Nan Xiang Xiao Long," near the zig-zag bridge. Famous for its steamed dumplings, there was a long line for the take-out window, and a not-much-shorter line waiting to get seats upstairs.

We stood in line for about an hour, slowly climbing upstairs and sweating in the humid, close hallway packed with people. Lots of photographers here, too, and surprisingly few foreigners. About twenty minutes from being seated, our conversation seemed to grab the attention of an elderly woman with kind eyes, who was standing ahead of us. When she smiled at me, it seemed as if she understood what we were talking and laughing about and sharing in the humor. I asked her in Chinese, "Do you speak English?" She shook her head and said that her daughter who spoke English, and some friends from England were coming soon.

Sure enough, about five minutes later a woman in her forties joined the older woman, who introduced me to her daughter as speaking "very good Chinese." The daughter proceeded to introduce me in English to a boy, perhaps in his late teens and maybe her nephew, who spoke with a British accent. He had come to China with his girlfriend to visit family and to see Expo. As the aunt(?) explained to me, "We just escaped from Expo." She told
Looking Forward...Looking Forward...Looking Forward...

...to dumplings!
me that lines for the most popular pavilions were close to four hours long. When I told her that we hadn't come for Expo but rather for things like this famous dumpling restaurant, she exclaimed, "You chose the wrong time of year for this! I'm from here, I come to this restaurant all the time and usually there's nobody!" I didn't quite believe this was completely true, as I had heard Bill Clinton ate here once (or somewhere close by), but the point was taken. Even if this was the "Non-Expo" trip, we couldn't escape Expo.

Finally we were admitted to a air-conditioned dining-room and seated. Coming in, you pass the kitchen, which has windows onto the cooks packing the dumplings, grabbing handfuls of pork from ungodly piles of meat and deftly squishing the wrappers up and around the morsels. I wanted to adhere to my normally pescatarian diet, but I was foiled when I found that my shrimp dumplings contained, guess what: pork. I wasn't willing to go hungry, and the dumplings were excellent, so I ate my fill and scraped out some of the pork when my parents weren't watching too closely. Still have to admit: good pork.

I think we all decided the dumplings were worth the wait. It wasn't just the food, although the appetizers (including tofu and mushroom spring rolls) were exquisite, and the dumplings delish; it was the surroundings, the hurried wait staff and the people eating together with their families and having a good time. It gave a kind of common impression that everyone had waited together for the same experience; we were all tasting a local specialty and not rushing about it (the staff made it very easy to close the bill as soon as possible, but to their credit they did it without putting on any pressure).

After lunch, we were tired and headed back to the hotel. We sat for a while in the lobby and had drinks; the hotel bar was nice but really expensive. After cooling off we headed back up to our rooms. I took a swim; I love hotel pools but this one wasn't anything to write home about; I wanted to get a manicure or a massage but there wasn't enough time in the following days.

The next day we headed out to Qibaozhen, taking the metro almost to the end
The aftermathThe aftermathThe aftermath

No dumpling was spared
of the line to get there. Qibaozhen, which means "Town of Seven Treasures," is an ancient canal town on the edge of Shanghai; it dates back as far as the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.). I came here during Chinese New Year; at that time I was with knowledgeable Shanghai natives, and they took me to all the best places, including an ancient tea house at least 700 years old, and some of the shops selling tubs for all purposes: soaking feet, washing, taking a bath; and they are all made from wood.

The tubs are a specialty of the town and manufactured locally. The historical houses have no indoor plumbing, so carrying water into the house and bathing in these tubs was necessary, I suppose. Because it is so humid in Shanghai, the wood doesn't dry out and crack, and the lacquer prevents rotting, so they last a long time. I had seen plenty of the finished tubs the first time I came here, but this time, as we entered the town again after following a street along a canal, crossing a bridge and nearing the town wall again, we stumbled upon a workshop. Inside were two men, working the wood, and surrounded by tubs in various states on completeness, from wood just beginning to be planed to un-lacquered, white-wood tubs to the honey-colored, silky-smooth finished product.

My father and I wandered into the shelter of the door and asked one of the men if we could watch. He seemed to be resting. The other man was planing a board; my father had me ask what the purpose of the planing was and the man answered that it was to give the wood a slick, smooth texture after it was lacquered. I took video and then thanked the men and left; I wished I had taken more photos of the tubs and wood-working tools.

After we left the shop and reentered the town walls, we saw a small store selling jade. I looked in to see if I could find something suitable for my sister; though lovely, most of the pieces were too big and heavy to make a pendant. As I was weighing pieces of jade in my right and left hands and comparing, four girls wandered in. I began to perceive that their behavior was a bit odd. One of the girls said, "Let's get
The "Non-Expo" TripThe "Non-Expo" TripThe "Non-Expo" Trip

So many people! There was no avoiding Expo.
out of here;" I thought maybe they wanted to shop and I was taking too long in my decision-making. When I spoke to the shop-owner, one of the girls exclaimed, "She can speak Chinese!" It was at this point that they engaged us in English as we left the shop, they pointed out that there were many tea-houses in the area, and here was one right across the street. They ushered us in to "take a look."

We had been completely taken in. It became obvious that their mission to find foreign tourists and steer them into the teahouse, where one of the girls worked. This in itself was fine, but they hovered and made conversation, perhaps out of curiosity but also perhaps to keep us there as long as possible, thus spending more money. I ordered fried pumpkin cakes since I was hungry, it was lunchtime and we were far from the nearest dumpling shop; it took an hour for the cakes to appear on our table, and only after multiple inquiries as to their status. It was reported to us that one of the workers had had to leave by bike to buy fresh cakes to fry.

I wish I could say that I always roll with the punches and always see things in a positive light; but I was annoyed by the fact that we were delayed, keeping us from getting a real lunch and from going to some shops we had originally planned to see. Not eating lunch really took its toll on me, and as my blood-sugar dropped and dropped, Irritable Samantha came out. Fortunately Mom and Dad seemed to have an ok time with the experience, quasi-contrived as it was.

As we planned to see the Shanghai Museum before it closed, we now had to eat our cakes and rush to the subway to get back to the People's Square. The son of one of owners walked us all the way out of Qibaozhen and to the right station; I infinitely preferred him to the girls as he was more genuine in his interest in us and told me of his dreams and ambitions: he was majoring in museum studies and hoped to one day work in prestigious museum in New York, for example. He knew all about the Shanghai Museum and its operating hours, etc.

We entered the subway
Man carving characters into pendantMan carving characters into pendantMan carving characters into pendant

Qibaozhen: I got some pendants for friends inscribed with "gongfu" (skill acquired through time and effort) and "li" (strength)
system, which is very easy to navigate, and reached the city center about thirty minutes later. What wasn't easy to navigate was the massive interchange station; we spent a good hour of so underground, trying to find our way out. After thirty minutes of searching for the exit, I was thoroughly flustered; Mom being Mom, she made me stop and get something to eat. We eventually did re-enter the sunlight, not far from the Museum and just in time to queue before closing time.

An interesting contrast: in the middle of winter, during Spring Festival, I had stood in line for forty minutes to an hour to get into the Museum. Now, in the middle of summer, it took us only fifteen minutes. But once in, we discovered that it was a complete mob scene. We had just time to see the bronze collection before the Museum closed for business. And any of the collections is worth singling out for close study. Some of the pieces in the bronze collection are so original and beautiful while being almost inconceivably old; I guess good art and solid craftsmanship stand the test of time. I think my favorite piece is an urn with a lid crowned by five bulls, with broad, pointed horns and all positioned in different postures and states of motion.

As we began to feel people shifting towards the exit, we popped into the reputable Museum gift shop, looking for ceramics. Afterwards we soon found a taxi and headed back to the hotel. We once again sat in the lobby for an hour or so, near a window looking out on a coi pond and a stand of bamboo. My mother remained jet-lagged as far as food was concerned the entire trip; dinner was out for her, so Dad and I cleaned up and had a late meal at the hotel Chinese restaurant, where we got a very decent whole filleted fish in Sichuan-style sauce. My Dad, the fisherman, wanted to know what kind of fish it was and where it came from. I translated to the waiter as best I could and determined the color of the fish (if not the species, since I don't know fish names in Chinese) and the river it came from.

I took another swim before bed, and we prepared to set off for Hohhot (Huhehaote or Hushi) and our Inner Mongolian leg of the adventure in the morning. I was very excited for my parents to see my workplace, friends and coworkers, and my humble abode; even more so to be all set to go out to the grassland to spend the afternoon and night the following day. From urban chic to Mongolian cowboys; we were ready for anything!

More on the trip soon. - Sam




















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In the bronze collection at the Shanghai Museum


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