Sunday, May 28, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

Is there anyone else out there who likes White Rabbit candy as much as I do? They’re little Tootsie Roll-shaped candies, very chewy. They come wrapped in edible rice paper, and they’re very sweet. The basic flavor is like condensed milk, but you occasionally see mango and sometimes lychee flavor in the United States.

The wrappers on the American candies give a Shanghai address, so Pipi and I made a pilgrimage. The factory was a long walk from a metro stop. The street was easy to find but we didn’t think we’d ever get to the right number until finally I noticed that the high wall we were walking beside had strange little rabbit decorations on top. A few steps later, we realized we could smell the intoxicating scent of hot condensed milk and we knew we were in the right place.

We entered the gate and walked past a guardhouse, where there was a giant map of the complex, all in Chinese. We were allowed to look at that as long as we liked (not that it was much help), but as soon as we went a step further, the guard started yelling. I’m not sure what he said—something about capitalist running dog candy spies, maybe? At any rate, we sweetly explained that we were looking for White Rabbit. We meant the factory, not the candy, but he directed us to a doorway covered in plastic flaps near the main gate. It wasn’t the kind of doorway that said “Factory shop here.” It was more the kind of doorway that said “Here’s where the dangerous machinery is; keep out.” But in fact, it was a little factory store. The main counter inexplicably sold cigarettes, but in the back room, there were bags and bags of White Rabbit, in all kinds of flavors we’d never seen, including mint and yoghurt (both good) and red bean (not so much good).

Afterward, Pipi and I decided to walk around the perimeter of the factory. The front was on a busy street, but the back of it was flanked by a small, poor, crowded residential neighborhood. I saw some people watching TV, and Pipi swears she saw someone on a computer, but for the most part, it was a classic overcrowded Chinese city scene, with communal bathrooms, adults sitting around fanning themselves, and children toddling around wearing pants with a split down the back rather than diapers. It was pretty shockingly squalid, but I was almost relieved to see a glimpse of what I remember China being like after the Emerald City experience of downtown Shanghai.

What made the scene even more poignant was that our next stop was the Shanghai Center, a complex containing both a theater where acrobats perform (our reason for being there), and the Ritz Carlton hotel. Going from a neighborhood of filthy row houses to umpteen stories of opulence, built in a faux Chinese temple style, was a jarring juxtaposition. It made me wonder what elderly Shanghai residents, those old enough to remember the international concessions, think when they see white faces on the streets. Do they see visitors with an honest curiosity about their culture? Or do they see a second wave of Europeans flaunting their wealth and doing as they please?

Shanghai photo gallery

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