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The Year of the Horse – Part 1: Celebrating with noise!

2 Feb

On Thursday and Friday, China and a few countries around celebrated the Chinese new year and the forthcoming year of the horse. After the year of the dragon and that of the snake, it is our third lunar new year – or Spring Festival –  since we moved to Shanghai. For the first time, we decided to stay around, first because we took too long to buy our plane tickets to Cambodia and second because we thought that we ought to spend a Chinese new year in China at least once. We had been told or warned by a few foreign veterans that spending Chinese new year in Shanghai was great, was terrible, was a bad idea, was a “special” experience, etc. etc. etc. The most precise information I got though was from a colleague who told me that she loved it because, overall, Shanghai is very quiet because most people head back to their hometowns. At the same time of course, one should expect a lot of fireworks. Not the pretty kind done by professionals in a wide open space for everyone to see. The small, noisy, non-visual type that anyone can buy and blow on the street. She also said that the only way to enjoy it was to take part to the hype. So I decided that we should embrace the whole idea. This year the holiday started on the day of Chinese new year (that was Thursday 30th of January). Those of us who didn’t flee the country went to work on that day. The city had already considerably emptied up and, after a short day at work, I ran a few errands before going for dinner with friends. At 5:30ish, the normal rush hour, streets were empty. Commercial activity, which never ever stops in Shanghai, was practically non-existent. Eight if not nine out of ten shops were shut, anywhere you looked. In addition, the very high pollution levels and consequent low haze and glaring light gave the city a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere,  intensified by the either distant or closer sound of fireworks interrupting the general, heavy silent. Truly an apocalyptic atmosphere suited for movies…

The AQI levels on that day

The AQI levels on that day

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Oddly our friends managed to find the restaurant they wanted to go to open – Di Shui Dong (very good incidentally) on Maoming Lu. The restaurant itself is quite a warm place in terms of its décor and relaxed atmosphere. It was quite full and lively and therefore a welcome contrast to the outside vibe. There we met other friends, a group of six boys arriving with their stash of fireworks. Although J. was not keen about the whole fireworks thing, I insisted that we join them later as part of my embrace-the-event plan. And so after dinner, I asked a friend where we should actually pop the stuff (I might’ve spent too many years in France and the UK, being so mindful about health and safety issues) and was a bit disturbed when he found the question a bit stupid and replied “Just here… anywhere… on the street…” I didn’t quite have the time or space to tell him that we should perhaps look for a suitable place, we were already out of the restaurant and one of his mates was already lining firecrackers just at the entrance of the building. The guy wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him to do it elsewhere and just lit it here and there, causing more noise and smoke than anything else.

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

We then headed to a nearby (small residential) street close to another group of lǎowài (turned out it was my colleague, her family and friends) who had already started their festivities with their young kids and who were greeting one another with “Xin nian kuai le!” – happy new year in Mandarin. Our stock lasted half an hour I guess. It was fun, convivial, noisy, unconscious, slightly dangerous, spontaneous, childish, traditional, not very mindful of local residents or traffic, smoky, scary, not environmentally friendly at all and brought back childhood memories of celebrations of Eid el Saydeh (the Virgin Mary’s Day) in Lebanon… J. and I then headed back home while the others split to continue their evening. At midnight, all hell broke loose with noise levels truly high and fireworks reaching us all the way to the 18th floor and lighting up our flat with their colours. It lasted for a while into the night. But since then (3 days now), I can’t say that there have been more fireworks than the usual. I liked the whole experience and I will remember it fondly. We may not be locals and never will be but after the third one, Chinese new year is now part of our calendar and the lunar signs of the dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, etc. siding next to the scorpio, taurus, pisces, virgin, balance, etc. * lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

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Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

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Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

The groupie in me

8 Sep

Yesterday evening as we were leaving Din Tai Fung (an excellent Taiwanese chain of restaurants specialised in yummy dumplings) and walking on Nanjing Xi Lu, we saw a small group of paparazzi waiting for someone to leave the Ferragamo store and enter a car waiting just outside. Then we saw a young lady, dressed in a short champagne sequin dress, leave the place and get into the car under the excited eyes of photographers and some passer-bys. Out of curiosity, I asked a foreigner with a big camera who she was. He didn’t seem to know much despite his camera but told me she’s an actress called “Sūn Lì”. Not being experts in Asian cinema, apart from the big international stars, we didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about the encounter as we had no clue who she was.

We carried on our walk on Nanjing Xi Lu, slowly making our way home. Two or three blocks later, by the newly opened massive Louis Vuitton store, we saw that same car stop, with the same bodyguards all dressed in black shirts and trousers getting out first. I told J.: “There she is again” and, encouraged by the excitement around, I screamed in my totally toneless Chinese accent “Sun Liiiii”, ran towards the car and took a shot of her with my phone. I hadn’t realised I had actually come quite close and there she was, she looked at me and gave a nice big smile to her only lǎowài* groupie while I continued to fake it. One of her many bodyguards then gently blocked me from getting any closer to her while J. stood a bit further, totally dumbfounded by my infantile behaviour.

My shot of Sun Li

Once at home, I looked her up. It turns out she’s also known as Betty Sun Li and is more of a soap opera comedian but her cinema career is taking off. Her latest films are “Mural” or “The Lost Bladesman”, neither of which sound familiar to us. Anyway, she was cute enough and, until we meet Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, Chow Yun-Fat or Fan Bingbing, that’s the closest we got to Chinese celebrity.

Images of Sun Li when you do a Google search

*lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

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…

Deux jours à Shanghaï

3 Nov

Bon deux jours à Shanghaï, moins de 36 heures officiellement, mais déjà plusieurs différences, curiosités voire chocs culturels au compteur.

Jour 1 – Différences et/ou curiosités 1, 2 et 3

Hier, arrivés quasiment à l’aube et déjà crevés. Normal, après 11 heures de vol. Mais la journée ne fut pas consacrée exclusivement au rattrapage sommeil, particulièrement pour J. Après une ou deux heures de somnolence à l’hôtel, rendez-vous à l’agence de relocation ou Mylène (française) et puis Tiffany (chinoise) nous prennent en charge. Tiffany nous mène ensuite à la banque à quelques mètres de son bureau. Elle se charge de remplir les formulaires tout en mandarin. Nous signons deux ou trois papiers auxquels nous ne comprenons strictement rien, sauf pour un qu’ils ont bien voulu traduire en anglais et grâce auquel nous certifions sur l’honneur ne pas être de PEPs. Comprendre: politically exposed personalities. Un(e) PEP est défini(e) comme étant ne pas être un haut gradé militaire d’un autre pays et autres choses que j’ai sincèrement oubliées. Ce dont je me souviens par contre c’est que les définitions étaient extrêmement détournées et indirectes.

A force de nous observer signer des papiers, Tiffany pousse un cri d’étonnement et nous dit: “Mais vous écrivez tous les deux de la main gauche?!?!”. On acquiesce. Elle poursuit: “Tout le monde écrit de la main gauche en Europe???”. Nous la rassurons et lui disons que nous sommes les représentants de quelque 5% de la population. Elle continue: “Ici il y a des gens qui mangent avec la main gauche, se coiffent les cheveux, etc. avec la main gauche mais personne n’écrit de la main gauche. A l’école tous les professeurs demandent à leurs élèves d’utiliser leur main droite pour écrire.” Circonspecte, je ne sais comment interpréter cette information… M’indigner au nom des gauchers ou relativiser en me disant que les sinogrammes sont plus propices à l’utilisation de la main droite?

Le temps de cette conversation et nos comptes bancaires sont créés et nos cartes de débit remises et actives. En Europe, on aurait dû attendre au moins deux semaines, avoir une adresse permanente, justificatifs de domicile, sources de revenus, etc. Incroyable, d’autant plus que j’ai le statut d’une touriste pour le moment. Les pin codes ici sont de 6 chiffres. Candidement, J. fait remarquer à Tiffany qu’en Europe ce n’est que 4 chiffres. Elle répond subtilement qu’en Chine il y a bien plus de monde.

Jour 2 – Chocs 4 et 5

Nuit réparatrice avec 7 bonnes heures de sommeil (pour moi en tout cas). Mis à part un petit passage au bureau pour J., la journée est consacrée à la recherche d’appartements. Nous fûmes productifs: 10 appartements visités dans 5 compounds. Deux compounds et au moins quatre appartements sont éliminatoires (comme dit JP ☺ – bisous au passage) d’office. Les noms sont drôles: Edifice, La Doll, First Block, One Park Avenue et Merry Apartments! C’était aussi l’occasion pour moi de voir l’artère commerciale de Puxi (rive ouest de la ville). Il y a surtout des malls, et beaucoup de chaînes de magasins plus ou moins connus et luxueux.

Retour à l’hôtel vers 17h20. Repassage à l’agence de relocation et au bureau de J. Repos puis diner au resto chinois littéralement en face de l’hôtel. On est encore déphasés, j’ai eu un gros accès de sommeil complètement inexpliqué avant. Nous étions prévenus que les restaurants fermaient tôt en Chine et même en Asie en général. Mais bon, nous n’étions pas vraiment préparés à ça… On nous admet très poliment au resto. Très peu de temps après nous avoir installés, le serveur vient prendre la commande. Pas encore prêts (les menus offrent un choix énorme ici), nous demandons un sursis. Le serveur nous dit qu’il faut quand même passer la commande vite vu que la cuisine ferme. Rien d’inhabituel jusque-là, il était bien 21h passées. Nous commandons très vite après et recevons notre repas. Un petit quart d’heure plus tard, une serveuse arrive avec l’addition. Bon nous réglons en nous disant que ce n’était pas grave, que ça leur faisait gagner du temps sur la fermeture. Autour de nous, tous les serveurs s’affairent, rangent, nettoient, redressent les tables pour demain, etc. Puis revient notre serveur initial qui nous demande de but en blanc si on voudrait prendre le dernier plat servi en “take away”. ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?. Sonnés, on comprend qu’en fait on nous vire! Et sans beaucoup de ménagement. J. demande si on peut quand même finir de dîner. Je ne pense pas que le mec ait compris, en tout cas il réitère sa question. Cinq minutes plus tard, nous étions dehors l’appétit coupé avec un sac contenant le bœuf sauté, le riz et les dimsum dans des tupperwares. Pour couronner le tout, deux jeunes filles franchement très correctement habillées et parlant l’anglais ont mendié les dimsum que, dans le dégoût, nous leur avons cédés avec un franc sentiment de nous être fait doublement arnaquer.

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