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.