Archive | January, 2012

New years

18 Jan

So now that Christmas and New Year have gone by and we’re all nursing away our holiday blues, it feels like it’s a long way until the next time off. Not in China! Even though the Bund was filled with people on December 31st and there were nice projections on historic buildings (see picture below, courtesy of my Italian friend C.), the Chinese don’t really give a toss about the Gregorian new year, at least until now. That’s just entertainment for them, and in fact when midnight hit, nothing happened. No countdown, no fireworks in the country that invented them and in a city where there are fireworks any given day and during daytime.

The Bund on the 31st of December 2011

They’re saving themselves for the really important thing which is just about to start over here and in much of southeast Asia. We’re about to celebrate the Chinese New Year (xīn nián in Mandarin) on the 22nd of January, and not just any new lunar cycle, the year of the Dragon! The dragon is the only animal in the Chinese horoscope that doesn’t exist. (The other ones being, in no particular order: rat, monkey (me incidentally), dog, pig, horse, rooster, snake, tiger, ox, rabbit, boar and sheep). This means that the Dragon is a tad more special than the others in this 12-year cycle. Dragon years are meant to bring prosperity to all and it is considered to be especially good auspices to be born or get married during the year of the Dragon.

With all this fuss about it and remembering how colourful and eventful, even though generally contained, Chinese New Year celebrations used to be in London, I was expecting more visual manifestations of the build up to the event in Shanghai: street decorations, mighty and live dragons everywhere, some sort of Chinese carols or the equivalent. None of that. Compared to Christmas decorations (even in non-religious China), the Chinese New Year so far is quite a modest affair. True they have hung small red lanterns in most places, like building or restaurant entrances, banks, or something a bit more overstated in my local supermarket. There are also special edition packages, on the Danone yoghurts, and some other products that I don’t know. Yesterday only, the fruit vendors started displaying special fruit baskets and selling fireworks of all sorts in their shops. My same friend C. received a cute dragon from her bank. And, apart from some palpable tension prior to a big holiday (and one certainly well deserved for Chinese workers who have a meagre yearly holiday allowance and live far from their families) in office mostly, that’s about it.

So have they managed to escape the commercial exploitation typical of Christmas and New Year and keep Chinese New Year a family affair? Or do they just celebrate wildly on the D-day – there’s so much fireworks it feels like you’re under siege for literally the whole night – then spend a week resting and go back to their workplace? Where’s the beef? It’s too quiet…

At the entrance of my compound

The entrance of my building

In the lobby of a hotel

At the supermarket

Yoghurt pack


Local eateries

12 Jan

There are loads of restaurants in Shanghai. The choice is great in terms of variety of cuisines. There is no such thing as Chinese cuisine or a Chinese restaurant. You’ve got Shanghainese, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Hunanese (both of which are super hot, though in a different way), Dongbei (literally eastnorthern, i.e. from Beijing and the northeastern provinces), Xinjian (from western China, where Muslim Chinese communities are) and Taiwanese. In terms of international cuisines, there’s French, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan, etc., French-Chinese Fusion (like Yin by Le Garçon Chinois) or other cuisine “fusioned” with Chinese, whatever that is. On top of this, you’ve got trendy and less trendy restaurants. People 7 is trendy, so is Yin, but in a totally different way. Da Marco isn’t but it offers good hearty Italian dishes. Prices also cover a really wide spectrum. The gastronomic(al) end is not underrepresented with Maison Pourcel, Jean Georges, Franck or Mr. and Mrs. Bund.

Food is in fact almost everywhere and at the other end of the price spectrum are local eateries. These are tiny restaurants, seating between 4 and 10 people and are often partly sunken below the street level. They’re characteristically devoid of any type of decorum, looking almost improvised. Many just have plain white walls, just painted or covered with white ceramics. The tables are also very basic, often in white formica or plain wood, and the kitchen tends to be visible, either at the front of the place (sometimes outside) or on the side. Some of the front kitchens are extremely filthy and obviously you’d never ever eat there. But many of these local eateries look very tempting. The smell of the food and the heartiness of the meals served is just so appealing… Maybe it’s also the fact that they cater for an exclusively Chinese clientele that makes me want to experience eating there. However, you feel you can’t just go into one of these, but have to be introduced.

I discovered that my friend A. shares my curiosity for these eateries. I therefore asked him if he’d be interested to try the one most recommended by my Shanghai Time Out guide. The date was immediately set and we met at Chun’s on Jinxian Lu (Road). We got there and pushed the door only to be greeted by a lady shouting at us “Mei you, mei you!” (I don’t have or there is no) and unambiguously kicking us out with her free hand. Given we don’t speak Chinese well enough yet, it wasn’t clear to us whether she didn’t have any food anymore for the lunch slot, which is common in these places as the menu is limited or non-existent, or because it was simply personal (there was an empty table). Thankfully, we barely had time to ponder on our disappointment as another door, two shops away, opened and another lady with a smile invited us with her forthcoming hand gesture to come into her place.

Although the place had the size of the local eateries, it was a bit of an upgrade in terms decoration and menu. The experience was no disappointment. For less than 4 pounds each (very upmarket eatery!), we shared generous portions of warm tofu served with a bit of egg yokes and chives, steamed bean sprouts in a sweet sauce and minced pork cooked with ginger and a sweet sauce too. An egg was half buried in the meat and the bottom half of the yoke was amazingly yellow and translucent. I curse myself for not taking any pictures of the food! There was some confusion over the braised pork I thought I ordered and which was never served. What we had was actually enough and the sight of the mid-aged over-dressed Chinese ladies lunching behind A. made this meal perfect.

The very bottom of the food chain is in reality street food, but I’ll leave this for another post when I’ve had more of it.

P.S. A word of caution: I have recently been told that many of these local eateries use oil collected and derived from rubbish and usually delivered in blue gallons. So if you do happen to go eat there, it’s preferable to go to a recommended place or go with a Chinese person. And at the slightest sight of blue gallon, run away! There was a huge scandal last year over the death of a young woman caused by re-used oil, following her meal in one of those popular places…

Why do I…

4 Jan

… put myself in odd situations? Now that I feel a bit more settled here and that the weather is too cold most days to do long walks, I have started going back to the gym. After two weeks of procrastination (technically one as we were in the Philippines for Chinese New Year), I finally put on my trainers and sportswear and headed to a 45 minute “Basic Aerobics” class, starting at 19:05. Although I am not at all a fan of aerobics, I thought it would be soft way to re-awaken my numbed muscles.

After making sure I wouldn’t be the only one to attend this class, I went into the studio only to find myself with about 25 mid-aged Chinese women and the male instructor. They obviously all noticed me but never looked directly at me. Conscious of the awkwardness of the situation, I really couldn’t help myself from having a big smile on my face.

The class started with some warm-ups. We then did a few basic moves which I was able to follow fairly well. Then the teacher started to get into a frenzy of various moves, which all formed a routine. I did my best to follow and was able to do it to some extent, but nothing compared to the ten women standing in front of me.

At 19:15, I was out of breath, had a look at the watch and thought I’d never make it until 19.50. I tried to follow the routine, but couldn’t help being distracted by the instructor’s shouting, alternating between “four, three, two, one!!” and “sì, sān, èr, yīīīī!!!!”.

At 19:25, the routine felt more like the behaviour of an overly drunk and excited clubber. I really wanted to get out but made it a point to stay.

At 19:30, although the class was losing more and more people but gaining spectators at the door, the instructor maintained his weird choreography, adding twists and moves and occasionally turning around like a princess with his arms lifted at waist height.

At 19:37, I was really ready to leave but then Madonna’s “Hung up” came up and gave me an extra boost.

At 19:45, it felt like that wretched watch was broken and just would not move to the next minute… At some point, I just gave up and exchanged compassionate and amused smiles with a Chinese lady, also unable to follow.

At 19:50, we were only 10 survivors to leave the class.

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