Doing the Dougie in Shanghai (上海人 Part 3)

Like I said, Shanghai is an attitude. People just don’t care what you think. If they want to dougie, they’re going to dougie.

Spotted in People’s Park.

Or relive their old Shaolin training days…

Or roll out of bed to get milk…

This is not the same woman. Which worries me.


上海人 (下) Shanghai People Part 2

More than anything else, Shanghai is an attitude. But this post is incomplete because I often only thought to photograph people when it was too late – they had walked by, the moment passed, or it would have just been plain creepy for me to do so.

I use a small camera, not the kind that lends me much credibility as a photographer and thus am often turned down when I ask to photograph a subject. They assume, I presume, that I’m keeping their photos for a giant psycho-sexual voodoo collection. Which is true. But no, I’m joking. It lends me even less credibility when I say, “It’s for my blog.” or in China, “Boo-luo-guh.” So I have to be discreet, feeling half triumphant and half villainous, leery pervert- when I do snap a photo of someone without their knowledge… or sometimes, with them staring straight at me:

Arguably the best place to read the Sunday paper.

 What I’ve noticed though, is that laborers really don’t give a damn if you take their picture. They might give you a strange look here and there, but moving to the city (most laborers are not from Shanghai but from the countryside) has made them develop a thick skin to protect them from the sorts of evil only a big city can bring out in people  – what’s one young woman with a camera?

But for the most part, life is good. Hard, but good, with pockets of rest and gossip in between shifts:

After each day the brooms are fed to pandas. Just kidding. But seriously, these brooms work better than the ones with bristles.

And the shift itself, which depending on the restaurant, flies by because of the sheer volume of people you must work to feed:

A different kind of sweatshop at Xiao3 Yang2 Shen1 Jian1.

 Some people make a living – and friends- fixing the darnedest things, living by an old code: “Why throw it away when you can fix it?” The economy of it amuses and inspires me: 

A pot mender. His shoes however, are quite new.

 There is the calm before the storm:

A small hole in the wall thirty minutes before noon.

And then the storm itself:

The crowd only grew, as did our curiosity and appetite. We must have that rice! 

 And if one is not Shanghainese by birth, there is the process of becoming naturalized, by force. My cousin successfully shoved her way to the front of the crowd and seized one of the last few bowls of fragrant rice.


 A good day for the rice vendor; bad day for the dish washer. 

All around us, Shanghai.

上海人 (上) Shanghai People Part 1

In 2006, I went to Shanghai with this man:

Grandpa Ho in Shanghai’s Park Hotel, aged 97.

Shanghai was his town. He wore it on his sleeve, in his breast pocket, on his tie. You could see Shanghai reflected in his smooth shiny forehead and carefully polished shoes. You could smell it in the lanolin of his neatly combed hair. He passed away two years ago in Taipei, but up until the very end he traveled back to his hometown at least twice a year. We say he went to see his daughters, but in truth, it was to refresh his lifeblood. A city can do that for you.

Some twenty-nine years ago my brother Howard was born in Taipei and five years after that, I came along. Technically, for those who care, we are Taiwanese. Our parents were born in Taipei, where their parents had come to during the Cultural Revolution (and at the mention of this, we are supposed to frown at China and at Communism). We are more familiar with Taiwanese customs and cultures than we are with China’s. We spent months here every summer and some winters too. My brother lived in Taipei until he was five and I, if one were to add up the dates of entries and departure stamps in my passport, have probably spent the same amount of time, if not more. And yet we say we are Shanghainese. We say we are “people from outside of Taiwan” (外省人 wai4 sheng3 ren2) and when people ask “Where?” We say proudly, “Shanghai. We are from Shanghai.” Such is the custom.

If life is about symmetry, or about fulfillment of some unspoken duty, then it would appear that someone in our family, a clan so inwardly Shanghainese despite being so outwardly Taiwanese (and American, for that matter), would inevitably go back to where it supposedly all began. But when my grandfather was interred after a very distinctly Taiwanese funeral, a strange thought invaded our collective conscience:  Were we still Shanghainese? Could we really say we were when the only man in our family to have been born there was now buried in Taiwanese soil?

Sure we have relatives in Shanghai, but they were more like vaguely familiar acquaintances, a jumble of smiling faces with titles like “second great aunt” and “third cousin twice removed.” We mulled over this for two years. My uncle, who had done a little business in Shanghai before, closed shop and thought about selling the small house he had bought there. In the meantime my brother went off to graduate school to complete an MBA. Upon graduation, he put on his resume, “Speaks Mandarin,” and a smattering of other details that caught the eye of a man who put him in touch with another man. He was interviewed. Weeks went by. Then months. And for a while it seemed as though my brother would be employed, if at all, by an American company, not too far away from home in Orange County, California. Then seven months after graduating, he got the call. Would he relocate to Shanghai?

“Of course,” he said with confidence, and after a brief moment, a wavering identity was restored: “I am, after all, Shanghainese.”

From now on, I will go to Shanghai to see this man (on the left):

Brother Howard with cousin Karen, aboard Shanghai Metro.

Looking for Old Shanghai

I’ve always liked old things. Old people, old houses, and all the old things that come with them: yellowing letters, faded photographs, dented tin cans that once held fragrant cigarettes. Perhaps it’s a psychological byproduct of being born in a young nation (Taiwan turns 100 this year) and then becoming a citizen of a nation only slightly older. Or perhaps it’s that old saying, “The grass is greener on the other side…”or in another time. Maybe it’s all the movies from the American 40’s and 50’s. Or the beautiful, rosy posters of China in the 1920’s.

Back then women did their hair, painted their lips, wore stockings and garters and painted their nails. Lights were softer back then, as were their figures and voices. Chinese Bergens and Bardots. But it’s not all glamorous. Sometimes, it really is just about the age – the forgotten time when people lived and thought a certain way.

Now, I take photos and have a penchant for overdoing the “antique” effect – I can’t help it. It brings me back to a time I will never know except from letters, books, movies…and even then, who knows if they’re accurate? But I can’t go to anywhere without trying to see it: the time on the cusp, when the city or the country was on the verge of entering the “first” world… where is that line drawn? When does a place make the leap into now? I’ll never know. Shanghai’s nearly completely there, but it’s still got at least a pinky toe in the past… I hope all cities keep at least that.

The irony here is this photo was taken at Tian2 Zi3 Fang2, a relatively new establishment made to look old.

Some things never change. Chinese people believe the sun is the world’s best dryer. I agree.
Wang Ying, my cousin, took me to Qi Bao or “Seven Treasures,” a bona fide government protected old village.
Qi1 Bao3 means “Seven Treasures.” Chi1 Bao3 means “to eat until full.” The Shanghainese say, “To qi1 bao3 to chi1 bao3.”

Young people in a crowded room, making famous soup dumplings from a very old recipe.

On their lunch break, before lunch.

Upstairs at another dumpling shop, an efficient if questionable refrigeration system.
I love old furniture. But those benches are quite uncomfortable.

It’s hard to imagine how Qi Bao looked years ago with all the brightly dressed modern tourists (myself included), but I imagine the sounds and smells are the same.

Bamboo strips waiting to be woven into baskets to steam dumplings in. Sometimes the old methods are the best methods.

A Kitchen in Shanghai

I arrived in Shanghai late Thursday night at the wrong airport. My brother, uncle and cousin had already made the hour and a half drive to Pudong International Airport, where I was scheduled to land but which, due to fog, had been closed. My flight was redirected to Hong Qiao Airport midflight and when the announcement was made, the handsome Australian man in front of me turned around and away from his newspaper (incidentally, he was reading this article) and asked, “What just happened?”

Luckily two terse but nice Shanghai men in my row (two friends on their way home from a week of gambling in Macau) were kind enough to lend me a cell phone so I could call my brother with the wonderful news that yes, he had in fact, just spent an hour and a half driving to the wrong airport. Thankfully for me, Hong Qiao is oodles closer to “home” than Pudong and a 44 Renmibi cab ride later I was back in the cold apartment I first visited some six or seven years ago, upon my first trip to Shanghai.

My uncle bought the flat a little over a decade ago, when he had the good sense that all things money were headed across and above the Taiwan Strait, straight into the heart of Shanghai. Later, when business died down he sought to tie up loose ends and considered selling the flat. By then, the Shanghai flat had become something of a popular destination amongst family and friends and friends of friends. The idea was thus: Hey, the Ho’s have a house in Shanghai. We have family/friends in Shanghai. Let’s visit and stay at the Ho’s house. And happily, my uncle lent them the keys and happily, they stayed rent/rate free in one of the world’s grandest cities. It is ideal for visitors and residents alike. Situated west of the Yangtze River at a now less busy crossroads (before, it was home to Shanghai’s busiest Street of Bars and Drunken Rowdiness), the flat is a ten to fifteen minute walk (extravagantly convenient by Shanghai standards) from two major subway lines and, if one resides on a higher floor, boasts hazy views of the city’s skyline. Naturally when it came time, for my uncle at least, to sell the apartment, there was a resounding “No!” that emanated from all who have stayed and all who planned on staying. My uncle put his hands up in defeat. He shrugged. “Alright, alright,” he said, “It was just an idea. We will keep the house.”

And so the house remained ours, filled with my uncle’s tasteless furniture and many plastic tubs filled with mysteries of business passed. Who knew that less than two years after my uncle had sought to sell it would rise to such eminent use?

It is here that my brother has made a new(ish) life for himself. I woke on a cold, gray Friday morning in an empty apartment, knowing that my brother had left for work and that I would soon step out to see the city. I opened the door to the balcony, feeling both the bitter cold wind and several rusty hangers strike my forehead. I squinted, then closed my eyes, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in this city. Then opened them. What would it be like, every morning, to take in my laundry with my back to this view?

I couldn’t imagine it. Closing the door behind me, I stepped back in and walked to the room most familiar to me, in any house: the kitchen. It is, I believe, in the kitchen where one can gauge the “settled in-ness” of a person’s residence. As I saw that day, my brother has yet to “settle in.”

Emeril Lagasse’s nightmare.

Of these items, the cereal, Swiss Miss, pasta and peanut oil are recent purchases. The other items may very well be antiques, remnants of my uncle’s periodic visits of yore.
Like any reasonable and well educated person, my brother keeps his vitamins atop the microwave.
And subsists, when he is not being treated out to dinner by our vast army of relatives, on microwavable buns and dumplings, so that he may warm the vitamins at the same time.

Calcium deficit beer lover’s delight: Asahi Milk. The cows only chew malted barley.
Not the kitchen, but what is now the “guest” bedroom, with a sterling example of Chinese interior decorating at its finest. How many prints doth thou seest? Too many, methinks.

I returned to the dining room where on the table, which has been rechristened my brother’s “office,” I saw this:

In China, they don’t believe much in euphemism.

I did not like the flat. Not for me. But I could understand it and its being fitting for my brother. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said to me, “but I’m looking forward to slowing changing things my way.” It takes a big heart and an open mind to see a home for yourself, anywhere. I was glad that at least one of us was able to do so.