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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The other Shanghai?

Mention Shànghăi 上海, and the first images that probably come to mind are those of the Bund 外滩 and its spectacular waterfront; the futuristic skyline of the Pŭdōng 浦东 area; or the Western-style residences lining the leafy streets of the French Concession 上海法租界. But minus those distinctive neighborhoods and the modern financial districts (not to mention the relatively little in the way of traditional Chinese architecture Shanghai possesses), this city isn't much different in appearance from other urban centers in China. What follows are a few photos I took this morning in the area near the Liánhuā Road Metro station  花路站; my daughter takes Go (wéiqí  围棋 in Mandarin Chinese; igo 囲碁 in Japanese) lessons in a building not far from the subway stop.

There is always some kind of promotional event being held on this small stage in front of the Metro station. The rain may have kept the number of curious onlookers down this morning. The sign behind the stage heralds the arrival of 4G mobile phones. 
 
The plaza in front of the station, with a Line 2 Metro train pulling out. Behind the subway platforms are tracks leading to and from Shanghai South Railway Station 上海南站, one of the city's major train stops.

Looking down on the traffic under the Hùmĭn Elevated Road 沪闵高架路. If I had made a video recording of this scene, you would've heard a cacophony of honking horns. 

One of Shanghai's gigantic mega-malls, this one anchored by a Carrefour

Entertainment of a more "adult" nature...


A covered, multi-story shopping arcade. This one tries to replicate the atmosphere of a night market, with its food stands and clothing stalls on the ground floor. The upper floors have a number of restaurants that serve appetizing food prepared under dubious sanitary standards. In any event, this arcade appears to be losing customers to the newer, more modern shopping centers located nearby.


Shanghai neighborhoods often consist of busy roads lined with small shops fronting apartment blocks. Convenience comes at a price - pedestrians must always be on the lookout for the silent electric scooters riding on the sidewalks.

The giant Ferris wheel of the Jĭnjiāng Amusement Park 锦江乐园 looms over the neighborhood. It looks much better in the evening, when it's lit up. Of course.

Shanghai is crisscrossed by a number of canals, such of which still see a lot of barge traffic. It goes without saying that you wouldn't want to go fishing or swimming in any of them.

A "model quarter", according to a plaque on the wall out front. Shanghai is a remarkably safe city considering its size, but the presence of guards out front and barbed wire on the tops of surrounding walls is evidence of the fact that the threat of property crime is a real one.

Newer developments like this one are springing up all over the city.

Lianhua Road - your typical Shanghai neighborhood involved in a typical Shanghai daydream. Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings...










 




Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gardening in Shanghai

"...(A)n escape from Shànghăi's 上海 synthetic cityscape." That description of the Shanghai Botanical Gardens 上海植物园 from Lonely Planet's Shanghai city guide is an apt one. Located in a part of the city far removed from the glitz and sophistication of the Bund and the French Concession, the 202 acres (81.86 hectares) that encompass the gardens offer a pleasant respite from the noise and grime of this city of 23 million. There are opportunities for catching flying insects with a butterfly net, riding a scooter, playing catch with a glove and ball or tossing a Frisbee around - activities for which we have the necessary implements with us here in Shanghai, and none of which we remembered to bring along with us today in the car. Oh,, well, there's always another time...


From the northern entrance to the gardens, the first thing you encounter (after the souvenir stands and toilets) is a temple dating from 1728. 

The temple is a memorial to one Huáng Dàopó 黄道婆, a woman originally from Hăinán Island 海南岛 credited with introducing cotton spinning to Shanghai beginning in the late 13th century.

The grounds are surprisingly huge. A thorough exploration would take the better part of a day.

Foam-and-metal dinosaurs, insects and jungle animals added the necessary "WTF?" element that every landscaped garden needs to make itself complete. 


With our usual impeccable timing, we showed up at the particular time of the year when none of the flowers the Botanical Gardens are noted for were in bloom. No matter- my aging Nikon proved itself unable to take any decent close-up shots. 

A typhoon approaching to the south of Shanghai lowered the temperature considerably this afternoon, but my daughter still persuaded me that an ice cream cone was in order.



Random garden imagery...


For Amber and me, the highlight of our visit was going inside the Tropicarium, a large greenhouse filled with tropical plants.


An elevator slowly took us up six stories for a view of the gardens outside...


...and of the Tropicarium inside.


The Shanghai Botanical Gardens may be worth a return visit when there are blooming flowers to be seen...and with proper recreational equipment in tow.










Getting into a Baltic state of mind


Recognize the flag? Yes, it's one of those tricolor European banners, but of which country? Assuming you haven't looked at the URL link above, the answer is: Lithuania. On Friday came the official word from Washington: my next post will be at the embassy in Vilnius (population 540,000), capital of the Republic of Lithuania (population 2.95 million), for a two-year tour that is scheduled to begin in May 2016. What lies ahead is another year here in Shànghăi 上海, followed by seven months or more of Lithuanian study, a language "often said to be the most conservative living Indo-European language, retaining many features of Proto-Indo-European now lost in other Indo-European languages." The mastery of archaic tongues could become my legacy when I retire from the Foreign Service. 


Feelings? Surprised, in that I was fully expecting to remain in Asia for my next tour. The top five choices on my bid list were Tōkyō 東京, Naha 那覇, Seoul (two different positions, at numbers three and four, respectivley) and Manila. Had I wagered, I would've put my money on the last one, for reasons of timing and language (as in it's an English-designated post, meaning there would've been no need to return to Washington for language training). Pleasantly surprised, in that Vilnius was at Number Six. Generally speaking, I'm not interested in serving at large embassies outside of East Asia, so the small size of the mission in Lithuania should be a plus. At this stage, I don't know much about the country, other than it's one of the three small Baltic republics, the others being Estonia and Latvia; that those three countries won their independence after the Russian Revolution only to be invaded and absorbed by the U.S.S.R. in 1940, according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; that the U.S. never recognized the annexation of these countries as constituent Soviet republics (USA! USA!); and that independence finally returned to Lithuania and its neighbors following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lithuania is a member of the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the World Trade Organization. It's also part of the Visa Waiver Program, so as a Consular official, I'm not sure what exactly why workload is going to be like once I get to Vilnius.

Dinner this evening, at a small (only three tables) Taiwanese restaurant. I didn't think the Jīròufàn  鸡肉饭 (雞肉飯) was that good, but my wife was satisfied with her stinky tofu 臭豆腐. 
 
In any event, I'm glad to be leaving China. It's not that I don't like living and working in Shanghai. On the contrary, it's a fascinating city, the consulate is a great place to work and both my wife and daughter like it here. However, I don't want to end up as an Old China Hand, with this country becoming the focus of my career. If I'm going to be tied to one particular country, I would like that place to be Japan. Otherwise, I'd prefer to experience living and working in as many continents as possible before I have to leave the State Department, while avoiding returning to Washington unless it's for language training. After all those years living and working first in Taiwan, and now in China, I've tired of  Mandarin-speaking Sino-based cultures. Which is why I'm looking forward to the Baltics, their long winters be damned...
 
Amber enjoyed her chicken-and-rice bowl, not to mention the fried chicken and milk tea 奶茶

In the time that we have remaining here, I hope to do some more traveling in China. I don't know when I'll be in Taiwan next, but for obvious reasons there is always going to be a connection to the sovereign state renegade province former Japanese colony. But for now I can finally say "再见" to the frustration that has been Mandarin (aka 國語, aka 普通话) and start getting ready for Lithuania and Lithuanian.

In Shanghai, all things Formosan are considered to be cool, like these fried chicken and tea stands. There is also a large Taiwanese expatriate community here, particularly in our area.

Maybe now I can take the first steps to learning how to converse on a primitive level in Taiwanese 臺灣話...

 



Sunday, August 3, 2014

Can you tell me how to get to Foreigners Street?

"Lăowài老外"

Anyone of the non-Asian persuasion who has spent any time at all in China will no doubt be familiar with this word as they will have heard it on many an occasion, usually accompanied by stares as people point out the obvious to their companions. In a country that the government likes to trumpet as a multi-ethnic society, it's a common refrain, especially as you leave the major urban areas and tourist sites. Chinese people will say it's a term of respect (probably because it includes the character for "old", reflecting Confucian values yada yada yada); in any case, laowai (along with wàiguórén 外国人) are words you just need to get used to if you want to preserve any sense of sanity while living in China. And, in any case, they're certainly much more preferable to the oft-heard in Taiwan "ah dok ah" 阿凸仔, aka "Big Nose".

A short walk from our housing compound in Shànghăi 上海 is a street called Lăowài Jiē 老外街, aka Foreigners Street. The name is no more offensive than calling a section of a Western city "Chinatown". It's a roughly block-length stretch of restaurants and bars, the overwhelming majority of which serve Western cuisine that is mediocre in quality and inflated in price. Still, everyone needs a break from Chinese food every now and then, and so it comes as no surprise to find significant numbers of Shanghai's expat community strolling up and down Laowai Jie, especially on weekends (though the sight of middle-aged Western men moving around in packs in the evenings is a little disconcerting). What amuses me is the way the street is promoted to the Chinese as a tourist sight, complete with brown street signs pointing the way (as in Taiwan, in China the color brown on signs at intersections denotes sightseeing areas) and even a tourist information booth at one end of the street. It makes me wonder what the average Chinese visitor to Laowai Jie finds more interesting - the different restaurants serving exotic foods or the exotic people dining indoors and walking around outdoors. 


A train sits parked at one entrance to the street (the one closest to where we live). Why it's there isn't exactly clear from the English explanation on the wall plaque. 

My daughter poses on the street. The girls came back to Shanghai just over a week ago, after spending a month in Taiwan visiting family. Bachelorhood wasn't all it was cracked up to be.


The lucky receiver of our much-desired patronage this afternoon was Fat Cow, a burger place that has only recently opened for business, in the process leaving Laowai Jie bereft of any French restaurants. The food wasn't bad, but like much of the Western fare in Shanghai, it sat like a stone in my gut for a long time afterward. The bill came to RMB 221 ($35.80) - roughly equal to what we would pay eating out as a family in the U.S., but a lot more that what we usually fork out when we eat as the locals do (the $8 chocolate milkshake certainly played a big part in the final bill). We have neighbors who go to Fat Cow on an almost-weekly basis. With all the cheaper and better-tasting dining options available in Shanghai, it'll probably be a long time before we go back.

It may be called Foreigners Street, but there are still subtle reminders of where you actually are.

A local animal shelter had set up on this Sunday afternoon, trying to find homes for needy cats and dogs. It reminded me of a similar scene we often saw in Taichung 台中 on weekends, opposite People's Square.
A Thai restaurant we haven't tried yet. In addition to American-style burger joints and brew pubs, there are Iranian, Greek, German, Japanese, Belgian and Mexican establishments. Ironically, the best place we've been to so far on Laowai Jie, both in terms of quality of food and reasonableness of price, is a Chinese restaurant called Amy's
Amber points to a so-called Taiwanese restaurant. The cuisine served there is listed as being "Taiwan China" and the flag of the People's Republic of China 中华人民共和国 is used. Which shouldn't come as a surprise, of course. The local English-language Shanghai Daily often refers to Formosa as "China's Taiwan" and officials in the government there as "Taiwan authorities", never as "Taiwanese".

Lurking across the street from Laowai Jie sits one of those large emporiums full of cheap clothing outlets, shady jewellery stores and aggressive sales staff that you find all over Shanghai (and probably the rest of China). I took this photo while standing in front of a popular pirated-DVD store selling movie and television titles from the U.S. and Japan. 

Enjoying a cold cup of milk tea 奶茶, especially welcome on this hot, humid afternoon (though the weather this summer has been much better compared to the brutal furnace-like conditions we endured upon arrival in the city last year). This năichá came courtesy of Yī Diăndiăn 一點點, a Taiwanese chain of tea stands that has been making an aggressive push into the Shanghai market in recent months, opening up outlets all over the city. While making my purchase, the woman running a small food stand next door was in the midst of an epic argument with some construction workers on the other side. Apparently, she was upset with the impact their work was having on her business, and a couple of times she picked up a heavy piece of wood and had a go at the building at the center of the dispute. Scenes such as these are an almost-everyday occurrence as I go about my business in China. People here are under a great deal of stress, and with so many competing for the relatively few resources, it comes as no surprise to see someone snap. The police and the courts are of little help, so often things get settled either through intimidation or by acts of violence. It makes one glad there's no equivalent to the Second Amendment in this country.

Laowai Jie - Foreigners Street. So when is Taichung going to set up Ah Dok Ah Jie - Big Nose Street? I'd look forward to seeing Compass Magazine struggle to put a positive spin on that!












Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mindless thoughtlessness

It's been lonely around here the past 3½ weeks. The girls have been back in Taiwan, and while I've been busy with work during the week, and trying to ride my bike as much as possible on the weekends, I'm long past the bachelor stage in life, and it would be nice to have the family back together again. Which should happen by the middle of next week, when my wife and daughter are scheduled to come back to Shànghăi 上海 from Fēngyuán 豐原.

I've received word that our next post is going to be in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, beginning in May 2016. This won't be officially confirmed until the middle of next month, but in all likelihood we're headed to one of the Baltic states after Shanghai. While my hope was to remain in Asia (preferably in Japan or South Korea, though Manila was also high on my list), I'm not complaining about this assignment. Vilnius was in my top ten, and it was the first choice for a European post. It'll mean having to learn Lithuanian, but I'm sure I'll like it more than Mandarin.

So we have about a year left in Shanghai. It's been a great post, but after all those years spent in Taiwan and now here, I'm done with living and working in Chinese societies. Today's bike ride only reinforced that feeling. I didn't mind the sweaty 30K+ round trip to the northern part of Shanghai (though I had some pretty bad leg cramps after coming home!), but in addition to the usual stress of maneuvering around careless drivers and clueless pedestrians, this afternoon I also had to deal with Hàn 汉 chauvinist convenience store clerks and petty-minded traffic wardens. I certainly could've (and should've) handled the situations in a more level-headed manner, but it'll certainly be nice to finally get away from all of this (I hope!). Unlike many of colleagues here, I don't intend on making China the focus of my career. The government may have different ideas, but for now, I'm going to enjoy the time remaining here before focusing on a different part of the planet.

One of the classic views of Shanghai. The monstrosity on the left is the Broadway Mansions, an Art Deco mistake dating from 1934. 

Not sure what this building is being used for, or whether or not it dates from the International Settlement era, but its appearance was much more pleasing to the eye than...

...the nearby China Tobacco Museum.

Shanghai's rapid development as China's commercial capital in recent decades has meant a disappointing number of  remaining Communist/Socialist "artistic" relics, but I did come across this at a park where I stopped for a water break. Appropriate as it was close to the National Anthem Gallery, whatever that may be.

A wall sign outside a large construction site. Other panels referred to ideas of a "Beautiful Shanghai" and "Wise and Farsighted Innovation". The "Chinese Dream" 中国梦 is Xí Jìnpíng's 习近平 attempt to leave a lasting legacy when he eventually steps down from the offices he currently holds. Like much Chinese socialist thought, no one is sure exactly what it means.

The area where I rode my bike to was once a sanctuary for Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of Nazi persecution before and during the Second World War in Europe. Across the street from this wall is a museum devoted to Shanghai's Jewish history. I would've gone in to have a look, but I was a sweaty mess by this point. Something to save for another day...

Shanghai in many ways reminds me of Tōkyō 東京 during the late 80's and early 90's - a booming city where anything goes when it comes to architecture. I have no idea of the purpose of this building - though it appeared to be almost finished, I couldn't find a name or any signs describing what it will be used for.

On the way back, crossing over Sūzhōu Creek 苏州河. The building on the right is the Main Post Office, which houses a mildly interesting Post Museum 邮政博物馆.