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The Avocado Lady

30 Mar

In more than one post I have referred to the Avocado Lady. Far from being an elusive character, she is nothing short of a celebrity for the foreigners’ community of Shanghai who regularly go fill up their fridge and pantry at her very unassuming shop in the former French Concession. There you can find all sorts of Western food products as well as fabulous vegetables at really reasonable prices. I think she sometimes has more on offer than expat supermarkets. I never went there to shop and not found what I was looking for! Polenta, couscous, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, parmeggiano, parsnips, San Pelegrino, very good dried fruits, red and green lentils and other pulses, tehini, De Cecco pasta, etc.

The shop is held by two Chinese ladies, but the one with short hair is the one in charge. Just Google: Avocado Lady Shanghai and you’ll see what she looks like. She speaks English or at least knows the English name of all her products and so you can ask her for whatever you want and she’ll find it somewhere in her tiny shop. She’s very friendly and will never hesitate to round down what you owe her which, amongst other things, makes her a great trader. I was told three years or so ago, her shop was half its current size but due to her success and being able to win the loyalty of many foreigners, she’s expanded into the next unit.

She’s been dubbed the Avocado Lady because avocadoes used to be a very rare commodity in Shanghai and she was one of the first to sell them. Now you can find them in many places but the nickname stuck, which comes in handy because her shop, like most fruits and vegetable shops of the city, has no name.

So next time you’re despairing over the expat supermarkets’ prices and complaining about not finding this or that, head to the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Wukang Lu and walk southwards on Wulumuqi Lu on the right hand side of the street. Just watch for the many laowai holding blue plastic bags and you’ll spot the place!

The Avocado Lady's shop

The Avocado Lady’s shop

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.

Nopes, no way, can’t do it!

12 Dec

I recently got overly excited about an online “premier” “safe, high quality” grocer called Fields. Their website is very well done and they’ve got quite a large variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and pantry products, which they deliver to your home. This is primarily why I was so interested. As a foreigner, you probably find 90 to 95% of what you need here to cook the dishes you are used to. The trouble is you have to go to a few places to get them. I get my meat from Yasmine’s, an Australian butchery or from some specific supermarkets renowned for their good products (mainly Metro). For pantry and dairy products (and anything else really), you could go of course to City Shop but it costs an arm every single time. So I usually go to the Avocado Lady (on whom I still need to dedicate a full post), on Wulumuqi Lu/Wuyuan Lu, who just has everything you can think of at very reasonable prices. But, it sometimes feels like a mission to get all you need, hop on a cab, get to the other place and hop on a cab again to go home.

This is why Fields sounded brilliant. And it is! I had my first delivery last Saturday. The vegetables, most of them organic, look fabulous. I had ordered, amongst other things, their value pack which is filled with all sorts of vegetables (including green and purple kohlrabis, which I need to experiment with), as well as 10 organic eggs and a free-range chicken. When I received the package, the chicken was frozen in its bag. It looked small and I tried to figure out if it was a whole chicken or two legs or… I couldn’t so I simply put it in the freezer and only got it out yesterday to be defrosted for today’s dinner.

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So here I was just a few minutes ago, enthusiastically getting some spices out and opening the bag to start marinating the beast before putting it in the oven. I get it out and find out that a) it is a whole but really small chicken and b) it still has its full head and two feet!* I got a squeamish “eeewww” out and put it in a dish. I froze for a while, took a deep breath and thought: come on, this is your dinner, man up and just chop the neck and feet. With two fingers I grabbed a leg and, as the neck and head unfolded from under the body, the full head appeared and a black eye, mostly pushed into the head but still able to peak out through translucent skin, gave me a horrible deadly look. That’s when I thought, ok no way, can’t do it… I froze again, wondering if I should throw the animal or what, then decided better let the āyi (cleaning lady) do it for me tomorrow. I’ll give her the feet to munch on** and have pasta tonight.

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* That’s how chicken are sold here – see the post Chop the head yourself!

** Chicken feet are a big delicacy in China.

1933

30 Mar

Historic buildings in Shanghai, unless of very high profile like those on the Bund, do not currently have very long life expectancy. The notion of urban regeneration is not really widely practiced here and wholesale redevelopment is generally preferred to re-use or adaptation of the built fabric.

1933 is a welcome and refreshing exception to the current paradigm of Chinese urbanism. It is an ex-slaughterhouse, which has been converted in 2008 by Axon Concepts into a retail venue, with some shops, restaurants, cafés (all of which are independently owned) and a few offices. It is located in northern district of Hóngkǒu.

As its name suggests, the slaughterhouse dates from 1933 and was built by a British architect. Sadly that is as much information I’ve been able to gather from the net and the few books I’ve got about Shanghai and China. The structure is mainly characterised by the use of concrete throughout and by the way it is organised. It consists of originally two fully open buildings, a round one enclosed by a large square one, which are linked by a series of steps (for humans) and ramps (for cattle), which spiral around the structure’s four storeys into a series of bridges between the rotunda and the square, creating amazing views and perspectives. The place is a real Escher-like maze and after visiting it three times, I still get lost but somehow make my way to the roof very smoothly.

Every time I go there, I am amazed by the care put into designing a slaughterhouse (!) and the refinements of the details, such as the “balcony” or passages’ geometric balustrades, the facetted columns (or flowering columns as they are called) or the wrought iron on the windows, which are either original or are faithful replica. The redevelopers have been thoughtful enough to provide some explanation (in both Chinese and English) along the way, but you still feel you need to understand the meta-organisation of the place better. Apart from the segregation between cattle movement and human movement, I still can’t tell where the slaughtering actually took place (logically somewhere on the top floors), then how the meat was channelled and where it was stored and how were the carcasses disposed of.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently seen the movie “Temple Grandin”. Temple Grandin is an American scholar specialised in animal husbandry. She is behind what you could probably call humane slaughtering of animals, i.e. creating stress-free environments for animals before they are slaughtered. Grandin also happens to be autistic and has made use of her condition to understand animals better (she has also written a lot about autism). Visiting 1933, you can clearly see that some of her precepts were applied way before her time, namely through the spiralling internal movement, the sloped ramps and the high barriers, all of which, according to Grandin, replicate the natural moving patterns of cattle and therefore significantly reduces stress. In 1933, they even allowed spaces for animals to rest and feed before they eventually met their fate.

Anti-slippery ramps for cattle

Adjacent neighbourhood

Canal on the other side

The only negative thing I have to say about 1933 is that I am a bit worried it isn’t successful enough. Every time I’ve been there weren’t many people and those who come don’t seem to spend much, however impressed they are by the place. Take me for instance, I’ve only had a cup of tea there. Across the road, there used to be an artist’s residence, which clearly didn’t work out well as it is now only used for private parties. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate being able to enjoy the place without it being over-crowed, but I fear that if it doesn’t pick up it might be stamped with that red character, which I’ve been told translates into “erase”.

Piracy and incompetence

23 Feb

In Europe or the US, if you had a pirated version of a DVD or software you wouldn’t advertise it out loud and, if you did tell anyone, you’d probably admit it a bit shamefully. In other countries, you’d find them easily on street corners from the dodgy sellers. Here in Shanghai, it’s not a taboo at all but just common practice or business as usual to acquire pirated copies of anything digital. And you can get pretty much anything, even the most recent movies, from one of the many, well visible DVD shops around town for a shoestring (1 or 2 US dollar for a movie).

Although I don’t actually buy pirated copies myself, what is surprising in most cases is that the packaging of DVDs is actually quite well done. Sometimes the resolution of the cover is not absolutely spot-on but certainly good enough and, on occasions, the DVD would be sold in a simple sleeve. But most of the time, the pirates actually go through some trouble to give you a box with front and back covers. The packaging is mostly impressive when they sell series boxes containing a few seasons. However, if you look long or well enough you will spot really critical copying mistakes, attesting to a certain freedom to improvise in order to make the packaging more appealing or supposedly authentic. Two case-studies to illustrate my point.

Below is a quite sweet movie with Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood, whom I didn’t know as an actress. While watching, I wanted to know who she was and had a look at the bottom of the back cover to see the main cast. I found it strange when I read Alicia Silverstone first and then Andie McDowell, neither of whom features in the movie, and no mention whatsoever of Michael Douglas…

As some of you may know, “The Wire” is a realistic series about drug trafficking and the economic, social and political aspects around it. It is wholly set in Baltimore and therefore offers a contextual approach to the theme, interweaving issues and places that are very specific to this city. Yet, why is the Sydney Opera House the only thing shown on the box’s cover????

Sum sing zwong.

Brilliant indeed

Pharmacies

6 Feb

Entering a Chinese pharmacy feels more like entering a witchcraft shop, even for a modern pharmacy. For most of us non-Chinese have a very clinical idea and relationship with our drugs. Little pills containing very specific doses of medicine and wrapped individually in plain packages; the long lists of guidelines and caveats that accompany each drugs, explain its uses and potential side effects. Even the off-the-counter drugs which are more aggressively marketed are just a pack of powder that we swallow without really knowing what are its constituents.

Those drugs do exist in Chinese pharmacies, but when you get in you are mostly drawn to all the funky stuff displayed around the shop and which you are not sure you can recognise or know at all. It looks like the primary resource is sold to you with barely any prior transformation. Dried mushrooms, ginseng’s thin roots, dried sea cucumbers (I think), and other things which can be roots but which really look like long dried worms. I don’t know what these things do to you and against which illnesses they are meant to cure you. However, I think there’s something quite amazing in being able to have access to the very product of pain relief or cure without the rest of the junk that we have to swallow knowing that it might affect something else in our body. True a single product can have both a desirable and undesirable effect, but the fact that it has not been subjected to so much transformation and has not been mixed with too many other products is quite interesting and perhaps altogether saner to the body. The problem with being used to totally clinical drugs is that I wonder if I would try some of it in its original format.

Chop the head yourself!

7 Dec

Going to the supermarket, except for Carrefour as you may have read in a previous post, remains a constant source of amusement. My local supermarket is called Lian Hua. It’s not very big but it offers a really good range of products, including a very decent selection of European goods. It’s only to buy meat that I go to the fancy City Shop, which sells Australian meat.

Somehow, until today, I had never been to the very back of the shop at Lian Hua. That’s where you will find meat, fish and poultry. Again, the choice is wide. You can get live fish. It may respond to the (Lebanese) anxiety for freshness when buying fish but the water did look like it needed changing. The fishes were trying to gulp air from the surface.

It also appears that it is quite popular for Chinese (or Shanghainese?) people to eat many more parts of the animals than most people in the Middle East or Europe do and that they are especially fond of animals’ heads… Chickens and ducks are sold with their heads. On the streets, you will find ducks’ heads sold separately. Fish heads are also either sold with the fillet or on their own. No wonder that they use and sell these really scary knives everywhere. It’s to chop the heads (and in some cases feet) yourself!

Joli canard :s

Like for the dogs’ attires, there’s often a culturally cuter side to things, like forks and spoons being sold individually!

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