I was only able to have one day to explore Shanghai with the rehearsals, run throughs and sound checking that needed to happen for the first gigs. The hotel and theater we were in are in an area called Pudong New Center. The “new” bit of the name is there because just 30 years ago this was boggy farmland. Now it’s the financial center of Shanghai with towering skyscrapers including the tallest building in China.
But there’s also a hint of middle America. There are chain restaurants, strip malls, “American” things and the two aforementioned Irish bars are in Pudong. There is an ill-named area near the theater called “Originality Street” with establishments as original as Starbucks, Papa John’s and a recreation of the Munich Hofbrau Haus. I trust you’ve picked up on the irony.
Then there are all the apartment and condo buildings. As you can imagine, in a city of nearly 20 million people, you would kind of have to live on top of one another, and they do. Picture a stereotypical, new condo building in suburban America, make it 10 times as big and then put 12 of them in a block. Then do that with another design again and again and again till there’s a sea of them.
The area’s a bit soulless, to be truthful so I wanted to get across the river to the older part of town and explore some neighborhoods there. When in a new city, I am quite content to walk around for hours, people watching and window shopping, without a particular destination. I headed to the former French Concession neighborhood to do just that. As soon as the taxi dropped me off there, I was glad I made it. The French handed the area back over the China in 1943 but it retains a French character with European style residences, charming boutiques and little cafes. The streets are lines with trees called London Planes adding to the charm and atmosphere of the neighborhood.
I did have one destination in mind, though, and that was Yang’s Fried Dumplings. It was about a 3 mile walk closer to the city center and by the time I got there I was starving.Yang’s is on a little lane, full of food vendors, that cuts through the upscale shops, hotels of (what I believe is) the Huangpu neighborhood. It’s easy to spot right away because there’s usually a long line of people out front. They’re famous for their soup dumplings and a box of four costs a whopping 60 cents. Now, I’m not going to lie, this spot was plucked straight from the No Reservations Shanghai episode and Bourdain did not steer me wrong.
I ordered and waited, watching the dumplings being made then fried. The whole operation happens right in front of you. The dumplings are made and then given to a woman at the front window who fries them with sesame seeds and oil, scoops them up and hands them to you in a paper carton.
They were steaming hot so I left them to cool for as long as I could possibly stand it which, honestly, wasn’t that long. There’s a specific way you are supposed to eat them and I’m glad I saw Bourdain do it first. You bite the top off then slurp out the broth, which inevitably ends up looking very ungraceful because the broth is so frigging delicious that you’re just trying to get every last bit out. I had it running down my chin onto my jacket and purse. I couldn’t bear to let that go to waste so I actually wiped it with my fingers and proceeded to lick them. I know. Gross. But I am confident you would have done the same had you tasted the broth. I even drank what broth ended up in the carton. It must have been a sight. The dumplings themselves were delicious too, part of them being crispy from being fried and part being chewy and tender. In the middle was a delicious pork meatball.
After that I hopped into a taxi to head to the Old Town neighborhood, which as you can imagine, is the oldest part of town. That day I added another thing to my List Of Things I Would Never Ever Like To Do, right beneath swimming with sharks and sinking in quicksand, and that thing is driving in China. It’s total and complete mayhem especially in a downtown area like Shanghai. It makes driving in the city of Detroit look like the picture of traffic obedience. I can’t say we stayed in one lane for very long, or that we were ever truly in only one lane at a time, or that we were ever truly on one side of the road at a time. I found it was an experience best handled with my eyes closed or at least looking up, admiring the many skyscrapers and neon signs.
My guidebook said to avoid Old Town on the weekend unless you don’t mind crowds. I went on a Sunday. I would go a little further and say, don’t visit Old Town on the weekends unless you really, really love crowds and people touching you and bumping into you and taking your photo if you’re not Chinese. That’s right, not being Chinese means I get my photo taken a lot here. It’s much worse for the blonds. I’ve heard horror stories from a couple blond cast mates going to the Great Wall last year and having their hair touched constantly. For now, I’ve just been really owning it, throwing up a peace sign, posing, asking them to tag me on facebook.
Despite the crowds and the kitsch, I’m glad I went. The buildings were beautiful and I was able to hit my first temple, the City God Temple. I can’t say it was a very spiritual experience as it was ridiculously crowded and I didn’t even know which faith or spiritual practice it was built for upon entering (I now know it’s Taoist. Thanks, Wikipedia).
It was beautiful and it was interesting to see people pray or worship even though I felt like a bit of a voyeur. But I know that’s how I’m going to feel with the Chinese the whole time I’m here. I have no hope of communicating with them apart from some desperate hand gestures. I’m traveling around with a pack of Westerners with little personal contact with any Chinese. Combine that with the inevitable culture shock and I realize that I’m going to feel like an outsider looking in the whole time I’m here, taking photos and never penetrating the surface. So I take pictures of them and they take pictures of me. It’s an arrangement that seems to be working out so far.