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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bond...Father/daughter bond...

Shànghăi Children's Palace 少年宫

This paragraph has been removed by the author, who, now having vented through the printed word as well as with a couple of cocktails to go with his dinner, feels much better. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blogpost currently in progress:

Yes, we have visitors in town: my brother-in-law, one of my sisters-in-law and a friend of my wife's. They're all nice people and I have no problem at all with playing host to guests from out of town (and country). As I wrote earlier, the four of them spent several days earlier this week in Huangshan 黄山, meaning it's been only Amber and me here. For the past few nights the two of us have gone out to eat dinner at various Western-type restaurants, like the Belgian place we went to yesterday...

...and our conversation topics have run the gamut from popular music and school to the games Amber likes to play online. It's been a great (though not inexpensive) opportunity to spend more one-on-one time with my daughter, and this afternoon has been no exception. With Pamela and the others having driven into central Shanghai 上海 (why?!), I thought it might be nice to take Amber to the Shanghai Children's Palace. Formerly known as Kadoorie's House, the building was once the home of Elly Kadoorie, one of the wealthiest men in prewar Shanghai. The mansion is now used as an activity center for kids, and there were a number of classes being held while we were there, including ballet and pottery-making. For me, it was a chance to see how of one of Shanghai's most influential Western residents lived. For my daughter, it wasn't so interesting. At one point, a woman approached us and asked Amber which class she was enrolled in. When my daughter replied that we were just having a look around, the woman seemed very surprised but didn't say anything more, and walked away.

It would've been nice to have seen the rooms presented as they would've been used when Kadoorie lived there; the house's current function as a workshop for children only hints at the former glories. In the China that emerged after 1949, however, the mansion would've been too bourgeois. Seeing the kids in their various classrooms this afternoon brought to mind parallels with Pyongyang's Mangyongdae Children's Palace, where talented tykes are nurtured to perform for the greatness of the state and its leaders. Shanghai's house of fun isn't quite as sinister, but it wasn't hard to imagine that at one time children were drilled on the correctness of Mao Zedong Thought, the successes of the revolution and of the necessity to serve the Party. It wasn't the 1920's mansion housing the Shanghai Children's Palace that felt anachronistic; it was the very idea of a "children's palace" in the first place that seemed out of place with the Shanghai that surrounds the building and its grounds today.

Amber found the simple pleasures of walking the streets of Shanghai with her father to be much more enjoyable, like stopping to look at Jìng'ān Temple 静安寺 from one side a pedestrian bridge...:

...and a landscaped garden area on the other side:

Lunch was had at a small hole-in-the-wall called Uncle Toast, which specialized in dànbǐng 蛋餅 (Taiwanese-style omelets) as well as sandwiches, noodles...and toast:

A pair of cats watches pedestrians go by on Fùmín Road 富民路:

I don't know if this building really dates from 1937, but we both thought it looked kind of cool:

Amber was much amused by the name of this small clothing shop on Wŭyuán Road 五原路:

She also liked the moniker of this establishment further down the same street:

The "Avocado lady" is a greengrocer on Urumqi Road 乌鲁木齐路. She carries a number of imported food items in addition to the usual fruits and veggies, and is popular with the area's resident expats. I don't know why so many were lined up outside as we walked by today, however:

Checking out some gourmet chocolates on Huáihăi Road 淮海路. Today was one of those days when I wished we lived in a neighborhood like those found in the French Concession 法租界, with its numerous cafes, restaurants and small shops. It's not even close to being indicative of modern-day Chinese lifestyles, but it would make living in a hectic metropolis like Shanghai much more bearable:

Back in our area this evening, we went to a place called Cosmo for dinner, where my daughter enjoyed a Shirley Temple while I downed a couple of Moscow Mules. I really needed them tonight:

Pamela and the relatives will be back later this evening, which is too bad, really. From going out to dinner and hurrying Amber to get ready for the school bus in the mornings, to taking her to the consulate's medical unit to have an ear infection treated and to discussing the finer points of Minecraft, these last few days have reminded me of just why being a father is probably the single greatest pleasure in life:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Comedy is not pretty

Our cat defends her turf from an intruder

A friend of mine recently posted on his blog a link to an article about an American family that had relocated from their native Texas to Tianmu 天母, one of the more upscale neighborhoods in Taipei 台北, Taiwan. He described the story as being “comedic”, sarcastically describing life in Tianmu as being “brutal”. Looking forward to a good smirk myself, I followed the link to a piece that was, to paraphrase the Bard, a little ado about nothing much in particular. Expecting to read about a well-off family of ignorant Yanks whining about life in an Asian country, I was surprised that the only critical observation they made was that they were paying more for a place to live that was half the size of their home back in the States. Considering Taipei’s overheated real estate market, it was a valid criticism. True, Taiwan was rather condescendingly described in the article as “a small island in the Pacific Ocean”, but this was a remark made by the writer, not by any of the members of the family. In fact, the family in question seems to be enjoying their life in Tianmu, and generally had nice things to say about their new expatriate mode of living. Far from an unintentionally hilarious and risible story on a pampered group of people who don’t realize how good they actually have things, the article was a pleasant piece of fluff written for the local paper back home about a typical American family enjoying themselves in a foreign land. Pointless and without anything of note to say, but still a harmless story that doesn’t portray Taiwan in some ridiculous exotic Oriental light. 

I think I understand the overreaction to a small newspaper item that was never worthy of being cited in the first place. For people who have spent a good portion of their lives in a foreign land, who have settled down  and started families there, who have learned the local language and have striven to understand the different customs, it can be frustrating to have to hear or read about the experiences of relative newbies on the scene. What makes it even harder to bear is when said newbies have been put up in neighborhoods much nicer than the ones where the long-term residents have set up home. I know because I felt the same way when I lived in Japan and Taiwan. 

Most of the years I lived in Tōkyō 東京 were spent in the city’s Setagaya Ward 世田谷区 or in neighboring Komae City 狛江市. The neighborhoods where I lived were quite pleasant, with relatively short commutes to and from central Tokyo and enough dining and retail options to satisfy most of my daily needs. But I still resented those gaijin 外人 who were living the good lives in areas like Hiroo 広尾 or Nishi-Azabu 西麻布. They had larger apartments than the ones I lived in, easy access to supermarkets like Meidi-Ya 明治屋 which stocked goodies from home, and were just short taxi rides away from Tokyo’s nightlife zones. Everything they ever needed was available on a short stretch of the Hibiya subway line 日比谷線, and to add insult to injury, most of them were on generous expat packages paid for by their employers. So when one of those members of the privileged elite had the gall to complain about some facet of their Tokyo life, I was ready with my sharpened tongue and deadly venom.

In Taiwan, it was even worse. Living in a typically ugly Taiwanese row house, with its narrow spaces and lack of natural light, located in Shengang 神岡, a typically ugly Taiwanese town with its combination of small farms and equally small factories, I seethed with righteous rage and indignation every time I read a blog entry from some Westerner living what seemed to me to be the life of Riley in relatively cosmopolitan Taipei. What got me particularly riled was how these people would assume that what they experienced in the capital was true for everywhere else on the island, and then presume to write about “Taiwan” and “the Taiwanese”, when they were actually referring to Taipei and its denizens. My previous blogs were filled with such resentment-fueled entries aimed at these bloggers, and I would leave equally caustic comments on various Internet forums whenever someone commented about Taiwan when in fact what they were talking about could only be relevant to Taipei.

And yet, if the opportunity had ever arisen to leave my rabbit hutch in Tokyo’s suburbs for a large, Western-style apartment in Shirokanedai 白金台, I wouldn’t have hesitated to have seized the chance. Likewise, only a masochist would continue to live in a shithole like central Taoyuan 桃園市 or in the barren wastelands of Yunlin County 雲林縣 even if they were given a choice to reside in Taipei’s Neihu 內湖 neighborhood. We feel resentful toward those who have what we would like, too, and find it incredulous when such folks have the gall to say something critical of their present situation.

Here in Shànghăi 上海, my present situation is somewhat, ahem, different. The housing I’ve been provided is not the typical type of residence for most of the city’s denizens, and as my neighborhood is in an area popular with expat families of various nationalities (Asian, European, North American and Oceanic), import supermarkets and familiar types of restaurants abound.  For me, in particular, having a native Mandarin-speaking wife and child has made interacting with the local population a generally stress-free experience. If I were to complain about some aspect of my life here, I would not be surprised to be mocked mercilessly by any Westerner who came over here on their own, and struggled to make a life for themselves in a place where they will always be treated as an outsider.  

As our two-year tour winds down, I’ve been surprised with how much I’ve enjoyed it here (I was never bitten by the "China bug" and will never become an Old China Hand). But I know that I would be feeling a lot differently had I come over on my own to teach English, for example, living in a so-called "model quarter" and eating too much greasy food. It doesn’t mean, however, that I should refrain from any honest observations of our life here in China (which must be expressed with the tact that is a necessity in my current occupation, and with all relevant disclaimers posted on the bottom of this blog). You can't really learn from your life abroad without taking into account everything you experience - the good, the bad and the ugly.

However, if I start complaining about the age of the exercise equipment in our compound's gym, feel free to tear me a new asshole - I'll deserve it. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015


Happy Mother's Day!

Our celebration of this second Sunday of May took place with lunch at a Taiwanese restaurant that was recommended to us by someone who should've known better. The food wasn't bad, mind you, but there are more atmospheric places in the greater neighborhood that claim to serve Formosan food. Afterward, we took a stroll through the grounds of the Cypress Hotel 龙柏饭店, the site of the former weekend residence of Victor Sassoon, a name that pops up repeatedly in the history of Shànghăi's 上海 International Settlement. Here's hoping your Mother's Day celebration was at the very least as pleasant as ours (photo below excepted).

One of those oddities of modern-day Shanghai architecture. The front of this apartment complex is intended to resemble an ancient Chinese gate. However, if you look closely, you'll notice the two halves are not joined together, meaning it doesn't serve as a passageway as I'd first assumed. Which begs the question: just what is behind those circular, curtain-drawn windows?

On the way to the hotel after lunch, we passed by this unfortunate scene

Amber enjoyed the interior spiral staircase. The Cypress Hotel isn't in the greatest of locations (unless you have an early morning flight to catch from the nearby Hóngqiáo Airport 上海虹桥国际机场), but it does have a certain faded retro charm.

A wedding ceremony was being held outdoors. Fortunately for the participants, the predicted rain for today didn't fall this afternoon.

This section of the grounds was the most English-inspired, though Pamela was typically unimpressed. Too bad for her we're going to be spending the next couple of years in Europe, with all those cafes, gardens and parks...

Not all areas of the grounds were being tended to

An onsite gallery was showcasing some calligraphic works. The Cypress Hotel grounds are a very minor sight, but being just down the road from our housing compound, the location can't be beat, although the spillover of parked cars from the next-door Shanghai Zoo 上海动物园 can make getting back out onto Hongqiao Road 虹桥路 a challenge on the weekends. There apparently is a parking fee, but for some strange reason no one collected any money from us. Wonder why...

Buying a milk tea and taking a leisurely stroll home on this Mŭqīnjié

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sing, sing a Soong

On this most socialist of national holiday weekends, what could be more apropos than to pay our respects to one of modern China's most revered women, Soong Ching-ling (Sòng Qìnglíng 宋庆龄). Born into an influential family, she and her two sisters married into the upper echelons of Republican China - Soong Ai-ling 宋藹齡 (the oldest) tied the knot with H.H. Kung 孔祥熙, a wealthy banker and politician, while the other sister, May-ling 宋美齡, hooked up with Chiang Kai-shek 蔣中正. But it was Ching-ling who arguably came out on top by marrying none other than Sun Yat-sen 孫中山, the first president and "founding father" of the Republic of China 中華民國, who is also a revered figure in the People's Republic 中华人民共和国. As Madame Sun Yat-sen's mausoleum is only a short drive from our housing compound (and having already seen just about everything else there is to see in Shànghăi 上海), we made our visit on what turned out to be a glorious May Day (well, May 3) afternoon.

The sign that greets you as you enter the Song Qingling Exhibition Hall 宋庆龄陈列馆 sets the tone. Truth be told, other than marrying Sun, and choosing to side with the Communists at the end of the Chinese Civil War (proving that she could tell which way the winds were blowing at that time), it's hard to see what made her "one of the greatest women of the 20th century". But as this is an officially-sanctioned museum (and free of charge to visit), it's best to keep such potentially heretical musings to oneself and just enjoy the photographs:

Sister May-ling with Chiang. Attractive, Christian and fluent in English, it was she who mesmerized the U.S. Congress, and convinced the American public and its elected officials that it was better to side with the right-wing dictator of a corrupt regime instead of trying to find common ground with the new leadership of the world's most populous country:

Mr. and Mrs. Sun Yat-sen. I was surprised to learn that their 1915 wedding took place in, of all places, Tōkyō 東京, though the captions didn't explain why:

Soong's wedding dress:

Soong pictured with General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, probably talking about their mutual aversion to "peanuts". The general's career was ruined in part by Ching-ling's sister (the one who slept with Cash My Check):

Here Soong is seen with Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. While the exhibition hall covers her work with the Communist Party, including her stint as a deputy in the National People's Congress 全国人民代表大会, no mention is made of what Soong went through during the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命:

In contrast to the hagiography of the exhibition hall, Soong's outdoor tomb was surprisingly modest:

Also low-key was the statue nearby, unlike the figure depicted holding doves of peace in the museum foyer:

Skipping the "celebrity cemetery", we walked over to the small international cemetery near Soong's tomb, where my daughter checked out the grave of a Japanese couple, Mr. and Mrs. Uchiyama 内山:

There were some recognizable surnames on a few of the tombstones with strong connections to Shanghai, such as Sassoon and Kadoorie...:

...and some headstones explaining why these non-Chinese are buried here:

But most of the grave stones gave no information other than the person's name:

The grounds also contain a sad children's museum. Although there are displays extolling the recent successes of the Chinese space program, quite a number of the so-called "hands on" exhibits were not functioning properly, and everything looked as though it was laid out in the 1970's and hadn't been updated since. Of most interest were the mini propaganda comic books, which were being completely ignored by the kids present this afternoon, but were being avidly read by adults who presumably remembered them from their childhoods:

It was with a great sense of relief (especially from my Kuomintang 中國國民黨-supporting spouse) that we finally left the grounds of the Song Qingling Mausoleum for the short drive to that bastion of Japanese capitalism known as Takashimaya 高島屋, where an exhibit of a different kind was being held inside the department store:

It's been 25 years since Chibi Maruko-chan ちびまる子ちゃん made its debut in anime form on Japanese television. Amber used to watch the show when we lived in Taiwan, and judging by the crowds of young women present at Takashimaya this afternoon, it's also very popular in China:

Maruko-chan's enduring popularity is mainly due to the chord she strikes with Japanese women of a certain generation. The stories are based on the real-life experiences while growing up in Shimizu City 清水市, Shizuoka Prefecture 静岡県 of the manga's creater, Miki Miura 三浦美紀. I'm not sure what sort of connection is felt by Chinese or Taiwanese women born after the cartoon's debut in Japan in 1990, but the adventures of Momoko Sakura さくらももこ appear to be of greater relevance to the current generation than, say, Soong Ching-ling, demonstrating that there's still hope for the youth of China: