Friday, May 26, 2006

What We’ve Been up To

Pipi keeps asking me what I did when I was in Shanghai last, and the strange thing is, I can’t really remember. I remember walking along the Bund, Shanghai’s famous European-style main drag, and I remember multiple trips to a general-delivery post office to try to pick up an absentee ballot that never came (it’s harder than you might think to vote absentee in a Communist country). I barely even remember where I stayed, except that it was near a cigar factory, and that the bus that went there was always so crowded you couldn’t see out the windows—you just had to start pushing your way to the front as soon as you smelled tobacco. They’re probably still talking about the day I realized I’d never make the door in time and squeezed out a window instead.

Then again, maybe they aren’t. I can’t seem to remember any of my personal history in Shanghai, and the whole city seems to have a similar problem. There aren’t many signs of Shanghai’s history around. This is a city that is looking to the future. And in fact, the first sight we went to see was the Shanghai planning museum. This museum is essentially a big advertisement for a world expo that is being held in Shanghai in 2010, but it’s a really cool one. It’s full of interactive video and virtual reality exhibits showing how fast Shanghai is growing and how quickly it’s modernizing. It’s all spun very positively, but once you know what to look for, it’s hard to ignore the cranes and wrecking balls knocking down old apartment buildings so that new high-rises with plumbing and air conditioning can be built—not necessarily with the same tenants. (I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying it’s interesting.)

We also took a tour of Shanghai’s Jewish history, which sounds like a joke, but isn’t. Jewish real estate moguls built a lot of Shanghai’s famous hotels, like the Peace Hotel (seen in the movie Empire of the Sun). Later, the city sheltered tens of thousands of European Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s. There’s not a lot of this history left, but you can see bits if you are shown where to look. We were taken to one alley in North Shanghai, for example, that was home to about 1500 Ashkenazi Jews. Today, everyone there is Chinese, but if you look closely, you can still see nail holes in each doorway where a mezuzah (a tiny box holding a Hebrew prayer scroll) once was. It’s very moving, and a little chilling, but still, this story is still a lot happier than that of most Jewish families of the time.

Don’t worry; we’ve done a lot of fun things, too. We took a cruise up the Huang Pu River to the place where it meets the Yangzi River. We shopped Nanjing Lu and discovered the fine art of haggling while shopping for artwork. (The dramatic man who sold Pipi the scroll swore we’d talked him down so far his boss would punish him, but we left before the beatings began.) We made a pilgrimage to the White Rabbit candy factory. We saw the Shanghai Museum, said to be the best museum in China, and I guess I agree even though the coin exhibit was closed for “inner re-arrangement.” I walked around People’s Park early in the morning and watched elderly people start their day by doing Tai Chi as well as badminton and ballroom dancing.

We’ve also eaten ourselves silly, of course. We’ve made discoveries ranging from Shanghai’s trademark Xiaolongbao, which are broth-filled pork dumplings that I think I could eat every day for the rest of my life, to McDonald’s taro pie. Almost every day I have a pork bun for breakfast, unless I have a greasy egg pancake. I missed out this morning, though, because I slept until the outrageous hour of 7:30, when Shanghai is beginning to think about lunch. So it was croissants for Pipi and me. Tough day. At lunch, Pipi and I decided to splurge and go to a famous old restaurant. The food was great—crab dumplings and the best bok choi ever—but the ambiance was so weird we left before dessert. The whole time we were eating the staff were yelling back and forth to each other and throwing plates around setting up for dinner. It made us long for the florescent-lit lunch counters we’d been thinking we needed a break from.

Next up: The French area of Shanghai, Old Town, and Pu Dong, an entire city that has sprung up across the river from Shanghai in the time between my visits.

Shanghai photo gallery


don clausing said...

Sounds like you're having a great time. Don't they eat any weird things in Shanghei? Seen any chickens without feet, for instance? I guess a McDonalds taro whatever qualifies. Even I'm a little squimmish about eating anything that might be a pet--okay,rabbit is borderline--but anything else?

Nicole said...

This is the dog question, isn't it? I never saw that on a menu. (Once, in Wuhan in 1992 I did see a pen of puppies behind a fancy hotel restaurant, though.) Shanghai food isn't any weirder than food in the rest of China, just greasier. Honestly, Japan, with its fermented tofu snacks and squid-on-a-stick, was a lot weirder, cuisine-wise. And Russians put jam in their tea. That's stranger than anything I encountered in Shanghai. I suspect it has to do with Shangahi being relatively prosperous. They don't have to eat strange things anymore if they don't want to--they can just go to McDonalds now.