Taikang Lu, and why I love it

The reinvention of neighborhoods in Chicago, you know, gentrification, is formulaic and tends to end badly. The story goes a little something like this: First, you find a major intersection to serve as a social and economic hub. The Six Corners in Wicker Park is a fine example of a successful one, Broadway and Lawrence in Uptown, less so. Briefly, interesting people move into the area, giving it a Bohemian feel. Alas, soon the edgy magnetism becomes too strong and others arrive en masse. Prices for housing and food are driven up. Identical boutiques take root. You are never quite sure how they stay in business. Many of the interesting pioneers move on. Forget about the original inhabitants that gave the area continuity and character; they have been priced out or marginalized. The condos dominate the landscape. Corporations usurp landmarks (e.g., Bank of America ousting Filter at the Six Corners). And finally you are left with a neighborhood that is something of a caricature of its earlier, hipper self. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

Shanghai has its own model for gentrification known as Xitiandi. It's nice, just nice. There are some interesting shops and good higher end restaurants, but one has the sense that the evolution was not exactly natural. The sleek, comfy coolness is all too perfect. It feels like a planned community for yuppie invaders. The hipness of any neighborhood needs to be called into question when it links to "Hot Stores" on its official website. Image is unabashedly emphasized over character, but by the looks of it, it is thriving on that formula. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

If you are walking in the French Concession, there is an alley at 155 Jianguo Lu that you should probably turn at. It is utterly nondescript, but bear with me. Sure, there are few markings and it looks like a thousand other winding alleys in Shanghai – you do get a lot of winding alleys when not using a grid system like Chicago. Anyway, the turn is worth it.

At first, there appear to be a few storefronts in the distance, nothing much. Almost imperceptibly you start to realize that you are in a very different place, an alternative Shanghai. All indicators as to place, directionality, and scale disappear when you enter the maze known as Taikang Lu. Sightlines are too crowded to situate yourself beyond what you just passed by and whatever you find as you turn this or that corner. Unlike all of my other walks in this city, I could never grasp my cardinal bearings and any notion of how much ground I covered and how much more there was to see was distorted beyond meaning.

Information cobbled together from a restaurant menu and a few subsequent and painfully slow internet searches told me that Taikang Lu is a classic example of shikumen, a type of tenement design common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is unique to Shanghai. (Well, the same menu informed me that the area is called “Tian Zifang,” but that name is of unknown origin.) The vestiges of poverty are still there, namely in aging residents who sit on wooden chair outside their backdoors and watch, unphased, by the shoppers and strollers. But these tenement dwellers of generations ago seem to coexist peacefully with the present.

The architecture of poverty has merged with an architecture of secrets. The result is an Escher neighborhood: a labyrinth of narrow alleys where everyday life, commerce, and Bohemia fold in on each other. And none seems to take center stage. A man locking up his rickety bike outside of his gate may be in the background as you peer into one of the innumerable tiny cafes. Or two women shucking vegetables in the alley out their kitchen door may be in the foreground of an art gallery you spot down an alley off an alley off an alley. Discovery can't help but be a pleasure. Spaces alternate from being lit by shadows, lamps, and the warm lights of deceptively sized restaurants. Stores, galleries, and, one assumes, the apartments above them are cramped, but this urban ecosystem runs smoothly and seemingly every space maximizes utility and your interest.

We browsed and spent in art galleries, dim bookshops, and cozy stores that sold anything under the guise of modern Asian cuteness. We found a Thai restaurant, much to the pleasure of the Thai traveler among us. It seemed passable from street level, but the hostess led us up a steep staircase of dark wood at showed us to a private balcony giving us a dusky view of the alleys and rooftops. We gorged ourselves on basil-redolent beef, a sweet and savory vegetable curry, prawn soup, a light squid salad, and shrimp cakes. We capped off the meal with gelato in a café. Never a huge fan of the real thing, I found the honeydew gelato the refreshing gem of their flavor lot.

Prawn soup

This neighborhood enchanted me. It's what travel is for. We could have lost ourselves there for hours, but there was work in the morning. Still, those alleys make you want to stay forever and explore because you are certain that you can never possibly see everything. I felt it had no duplicate anywhere in the world. Who could duplicate something so physically confusing and fascinating?

As you turn and walk away, you hardly notice, but suddenly you are back in the rest of Shanghai, just like you were before. My co-worker summed it up best. Tian Zifang is like a fairy garden. You can bring your friends to the very same spot the next day, but in daylight you won’t find a trace of it. In the face of their doubts, you will swear it was there the night before, that you saw it with your own eyes, but all you will see is an alley off of a tree-lined block, just like some many others in the city.

Lunch counter in Taikang Lu


Restroom Anthropology

In the United States, all of the automatic flush mechanisms are triggered when you step away from the urinal. In China, they are triggered when you arrive there. It will not flush again until the next person steps up. Can this be conflated into a cross-cultural comparisons of hygiene and sanitation beliefs? Discuss.


Historical Adjacencies

I am not going to make it to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. While holocaust is a trope of every good Jewish boy's and girl's upbringing, I am trying not to make it a theme of my personal travels. Plus, Iris Chang did well to bring me up to speed. However, not planning tourist excursions around something is different that not knowing about it. So, a quick word about one of my current neighbors.

A block down from my hotel is the John Rabe House. Rabe, of course the subject of a new major motion picture (aren't they all?), was Nanjing's Oskar Shindler. Perhaps, given the scale of his efforts, he was Nanjing's Raoul Wallenberg. When the Japanese entered the city, there was little protection for the Chinese here. The army had largely fled or surrendered and the Japanese, reports say, killed with little rhyme or reason, other than women were sometimes spared death for the purposes of brutal and repeated rape. The little authority that could be exerted in the Chinese defense rested in the hands of a few westerners who did not flee in advance of the Japanese army.

The westerner who wielded the most influence was likely John Rabe, who was in China working for Siemens and was, nominally at least, a member of the Nazi Party. Given the alliance between Japan and Germany, Rabe was chaired the International Committee of the Nanjing Safety Zone, a small area centered around Nanjing University. The Zone was ostensibly off limits to the Japanese army, though was, in fact, only a permeable barrier, as frequent raids were made. The efforts of Rabe and his International Committee colleagues were difficult and imperfect, but did end up saving the lives of countless Chinese who either lived in Nanjing or were refugees from the countryside to the erroneously perceived safety of the city.

Soon after the Japanese invaded Nanjing, Rabe wrote a personal letter to Hitler asking for Germany to exert its influence and have Tokyo call back the army. Nothing happened. After seven weeks the worst of it was over and the war moved on to other gruesome chapters. Upon his return home to Germany, Rabe and his family fell into poverty, a result from his affiliation with the Nazis, though he seemed relatively apolitical and showed little interest in their inhumane policies. In the last few years before his death, Rabe received food and support from Nanjing and the Chinese government in thanks for his service to the people of Nanjing.

Entrance to the International Safety Zone Memorial Hall and the former house of John Rabe


Xiǎo lóng xiā

There are two kinds of carnivores: those who are okay with reminders that what they are eating was a living animal and those who prefer their prey filleted or pattied beyond recognition. Not really a judgment of the latter carnivore species. Let’s face it, the division of labor and highly refined modes of food distribution have really taken the edge off our predatory instincts. Heck, I have never hunted, skinned, or butchered anything I’ve ever eaten, but I will get my hands dirty now and then, especially if it means being up to my elbows in carapaces at the end of the meal.

Xiǎo lóng xiā is a local delicacy that is in season. Literally translated as “little lobster,” they are better known in muckier parts of the States as crawdaddies. Unlike its Cajun cuisine cousin, xiǎo lóng xiā is not cooked in Old Bay, but rather in a rich spicy broth which has as its secret ingredient, as is so often the case, cinnamon. It’s fragrant and succulent and served by the steaming bowl full.

Tonight was my second night in a row eating xiǎo lóng xiā. Last night my co-workers and I ventured out with our project’s sponsor, an ex-pat, specifically in search of the dish. He seemed like a man with a mission – or at least a man with a stomach with a mission – and we are always happy to eat. We didn’t know exactly where we were going, but a rough vicinity sufficed. We headed for an area of Nanjing called Lion’s Bridge, a pedestrian street which has, as far as I could tell, nothing except neon and restaurants: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, milk tea shops, skewered meat stands, KFC, as long as it can be eaten its sold there. Not a single storefront is wasted on lowly inedible wares.

Lion's Bridge, Nanjing

The client, not overly familiar with Nanjing, used a time-tested formula for seeking out food that is tasty and reasonably authentic: walk down a side street, look for patrons who look local, and never under any circumstances consider the standards of sanitation beyond what you can see. Try that formula out. It works.

The alley in question

Tonight was a little more targeted. Eleven us had a reservation at a restaurant on Zhongshan Lu (I quickly abandoned the notion of actually knowing the names of the places where I eat. I now just hope for menus with pictures. I much prefer pointing over mime as a means for ordering food.) that is known (famous?) for it’s xiǎo lóng xiā. Given the size of the group, we ordered far more than that – duck, goose legs, incredibly silky tofu, some delicious green, fish with black bean sauce, winter melon soup, fish balls with black mushrooms, pepper steak – but the four or five bowls of crawfish were the centerpiece.

Oh, was it good. The spice of the broth seemed to permeate the shells and flavor the tail meat far better than last night. And you can just dip the unsheathed tail back in the broth anyway. These were not unsubstantial for crawfish either. They were not quite holding up the xiǎo end of the “little lobster” formula. They were big enough to make the claws worth plundering, usually more a lobster eater’s undertaking than a crawfish diner’s, but as I don’t know how to say “medium” in Chinese I won’t attempt to rename them. I will, however, let you meet them.



Foshan, you kiln me

My three days in Foshan were definitely more work than play. There are no free lunches, though there may be expensed ones. Nevertheless, I did find a couple of hours here and there to see some of the sights (and the sites).

Nothing makes a trip more rewarding than going halfway around the world to find that the must-sees are under construction, tarp-draped and scaffolded. It happened in Shanghai with the riverwalk that will reinvent the Bund for the 21st century and it happened in Foshan with the temple that helped invent kung fu for the world in the 20th. I am learning that this is an occupational hazard for visitors to the rapidly wealthifying corners of the globe which are trying to simultaneously preserve their heritages and make them more attractive for tourists.

The Foshan Ancestral Temple was about a five minute walk from our hotel. These walks, even the shortest of them, are always adventures in themselves. The streets and sidewalks of China are a game of Frogger, you as frog and the countless motorbikes, scooters, and bicycles are the pixelated tractor trailers. The China version is far more dangerous than the arcade one. For one thing, you can suffer actual bodily harm rather than having to hit 'restart.' The real problem though is that there are no pedestrian-only areas. The bikes, motorized or man-powered, are all terrain vehicles. On top of that, many are electric and perfectly silent. They sneak up on you and you don't see them until it is too late (NK, if you are reading this, there are sidewalks here, but they won't do you much good.)

The temple itself is definitely older than your church or synagogue. It was first built about 900 or so years ago. I wish I could speak to about the enduring splendor of it all, but it was being hogged by the construction folks. In the meantime, you can still wander through some of the court yards, halls, and the museum dedicated to its most globally significant resident, Ip Man. He was the master of Bruce Lee and could have take down you and twenty of your friends all at once.

Ip and Bruce

Kids rehearsing a dance. Note that the one on the left forgot his head at home and had to mime.

I couldn't stay at the temple for long. There were stores to visit. A shopping post may never be written, but I can say that somehow Chinese Wal-Marts are not nearly as offensive as their American kin. It might be scale, or perhaps that the "roll-back" icon is not that damned happy yellow dot.

I took another stroll in the afternoon.

* * * * *

As someone whose pottery skills culminated in successive firings of coin dishes/ash trays back in elementary school, it's a little hard to appreciate the finer points of ceramics. And a casual stroll through the ceramics district of Foshan doesn't help any. Capitalism there prays to a porcelain god. Storefronts feature all manner of "sanitary ceramics," but most especially the gleaming white toilet. I suspect that you all have found relief among Foshan's wares. The hub of this industry that has left Foshan flush, is China Ceramics City, a four-story mall, the top two of which are dedicated to better excretion through industry. Fortunately, in history there is dignity and art.

The couple that craps together...

Walled off from all that commodal commerce is the Nanfeng Kiln Ceramic Park. If you have any love for ceramics, these 6000 acres should be what you dream about. It is a beautiful urban green space dedicated to the nearly two millenia during which this town has served as a ceramics captial. The area that can more traditionally called a park is centered by a huge lake with paths, sign posts, and greenery flecked with sculpture and tiles, some of which were made at a DIY center (they call it "DIY") in the southwest part of the park. That area is where the fun really begins.

The Ancient Nanfeng Kiln has been in business non-stop for about 500 years. It is a 34.4m long and slopes up a hill, given it its name of a dragon kiln. A set of stairs runs alongside it and is also flanked by Nanfeng's sister kiln, also a dragon kiln, only very slightly newer. As you climb the stairs you can peek your way into low-ceilinged entryways and see the people at work moving pieces, to-be-fired and just fired, back and forth. I never approached them to understand how the kiln worked. It was more than enough to wander in an out, discover a stack of pots here, happen upon an ornate glazed planter there.

The base of the Nanfeng Dragon Kiln.

The Kilns

Behind the hill housing the kilns is perhaps the coolest aspect of the Ceramics park, and the one that gives it its vibrancy and continuity. A Ming- and Qing-era village has been preserved as part of the park. The original residents are obviously gone, but the homes now serve as studios for ceramics artisans. You can wander the cramped alleys and find doors that are opened to dark rooms where someone is working alone at ancient wooden tables on pieces. If the doors are open, you are welcome to walk in and watch them work. One man, well into middle age, and a residence of the park for who knows how long, gave me a pointing tour of his shop. Granted, he ultimately wanted me to buy one of the hundreds of ceraminc animals crammed on his shelves, but regardless he never begrudged my glimpse in his process.

On to Nanjing...or rather next up Nanjing, blog-wise, as that is where I am writing from.


Dateline: Foshan: The International Sign for Big Noses

I took a walk after our first interview today. Just out for a 30 minute stroll in the muggy afternoon in an area of Foshan where there appears to be little to see except for travel agencies and bootleg CD/DVD emporia. Halfway through the walk, as I am turning back towards the hotel, four children, about 8 years old, say "Hello." They all have backpacks with cartoon characters on them and are presumably on their way home from school.

Then they begin asking me questions. I would have been happy to answer, if only my Cantonese were a bit better, that is to say, existent. We five keep walking, they peppering me with one or two of the same questions, me responding with a something of a Jackie Mason pose - shoulders shrugged, arms tucked to my sides at the elbows and then akimbo through the forearms. "I don't know what you're saying, but 'Hello' anyway." This continues.

The children, through their giggles, smell blood in the water. They know I know not a lick of their language. And they start mocking. One in particular is bold and will walk up to me, ask a couple of questions, and then skitter back to the pack for a group titter. It would go on for about three more blocks, but he would play his trump card well before they left. Hand to his face, cupped inward, then he dramatically pulls his forward. It was no reference to my particularly Semitic schnoz, but to the relative prominence of Caucasian snouts more broadly: The International Sign for Big Noses. And so I am, for the first time, the victim of a grade school Chinese hate crime.


Shanghai Walking Tour: Part I, The Morning

Ayun Halliday’s travel book No Touch Monkey features a couple of tales of travel woe, backpacking through Europe with a boyfriend who clearly didn’t see eye-to-eye with her modes of exploration. I vaguely remember grimy college summer tension in a train station or hostel or something that nearly doomed their relationship, or perhaps did doom it, given that in subsequent stories she writes more fondly about her husband-as-travel buddy. I suspect I wouldn’t cut Hallidays’s mustard either, but that’s not the point. The real lesson is that travel compatibility is crucial to the success of any good relationship. Some travelers are first classers, others a hostelians, still others Travel Channelites, preferring their living rooms to security checkpoints and phrase books. I am a street walker. Luckily, my two travel companions, AS and MCZ, were game.

* * * * *

It all begins with a good breakfast. Now, continental breakfasts can be excellent fuel and sustenance, providing that the continent in question is Asia. We were neither blown away, nor repulsed by the “century egg.” I had always imagined it to be the Icelandic rotted shark of China. Not quite, but should this trip turn me into a sinophile, I think I might still prefer my eggs scrambled, over easy, or rancheros-ed. Breakfast bao, fried rice, dumpling soup, fried string beans, and peach juice, however, put Wheaties to shame.

When we set out after breakfast, it wasn’t clear how walkable Shanghai would prove to be. With 18 million people to house, one might expect a bit of sprawl. As someone pointed out to me later in a bout of obviousness, all maps are roughly the same size, but what they represent tends to have a bit more variation. In other words, we weren’t really sure what we were doing. Our strategy for the day was something like “small ball” in baseball. We adopted station-to-station tourism: pick a place to go, get there, and then worry about how to get moved over to the next place. Stop 1: People’s Park.

Immediately upon hearing the name of the park, I started having visions of People with a capital P, you know, of the communist revolutionary sort. Maybe instead of the crazy street corner preachers we have in Chicago, there would be old time Maoists reading from The Little Red Book on milk crates. Not quite. While the park notably houses the Shanghai Museum (we are going to try to see that on our return to Shanghai), it really has neither the beauty, nor the life we saw in other parks later in the day. Perhaps it is actually a vestige of the old China and the other parks are more representative of China's future of prosperity demanding green cultivated backdrops for their urban leisure. It would be a few more hours and none too little inappropriate footwear ruing before we got to those parks. One nice People's touch though is that the park posts the daily newspapers for people to gather around and read. I would like to think that this creates a public square for gathering and, one presumes, the discussion of events and news for People's Park regulars, but this is probably idealist given that most of the people by the papers were of a far older generation.

Running on the northern edge of the People's Square, which is itself on the northern edge of People's Park is Nanjing Lu or Nanjing Road. Wikipedia will tell you that this is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. I will tell you that I think it's a tourist trap and the people who were there seemed less like city dwellers and more like Shanghai's equivalent of Schaumburgers or Napervillians, suburbanites headed for the big city. Nanjing Lu may also be the site of some sort of government economic development program because we were constantly accosted by men waving what seemed to be standard issue laminated cards featuring pictures of "Rolexes" and handbags. I was a treacherous walk, hordes of pedestrians posing a danger to other pedestrians, but we happened upon dancers in groovy sweaters, so it was all worth it.

Nanjing Lu terminates ate the Huangpu River and the area known as the Bund. The Bund is where it's at if you want to see the international influence on Shanghai. The buildings are virtually all western looking, edifices of the European and American financial power that took root in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century. The area, however, has been thoroughly reclaimed since its days as Shanghai's International Settlement. Next year Shanghai will host the World Expo and a massive effort is underway to build a riverwalk and park for the event. There also appears to be a massive effort to market Haibao, the mascot for the Expo, to fund the construction. MCZ wondered if Haibao is supposed to be a dollop of toothpaste. We could not confirm or dismiss this theory.

For now the 21st century Bund is a fenced-off, earth-moving, scaffolded work-in-progress, and therefore kind of an eyesore. The real draw is not the Bund itself, but the vantage from the Bund. The heavy industrial river traffic and the view of the skyline of the financial center of Shanghai on the other side is worth the price of admission. Tourist lore says that the view of all views is from a restaurant called M on the Bund, which is where we ate brunch. Not exactly traditional Chinese fare - my meal involved two course of the pastry variety, one savory and puffed, the other sweet and baked. It was tasty, but less a site for food porn and more one for skyscraper porn. Though I hear banana fritters with mascarpone are the doctor-recommended treatment for a morning of walking.

Coming Soon: Part II: Back from the Bund!