April 1996, after 2 days of driving on European motorways I reached Komarom in Hungary where my (now long lost of sight) Hungarian girlfriend was waiting for me. This was the second time I entered the (ex-)communist world after Prague in 1993, but this time was for good. Since 10 years I have lived in countries where the dominant but dying ideology of government had been Marxism-Leninism and all it’s regional versions. Central Europe in the late 90’s, China and Vietnam in the 00’s, 10 years living where the planned economy gives way to full speed capitalism, creating this social and economical tsunami that the Chinese authorities call “The transition from planned economy to market economy”. Ten years in worlds where the future has nothing to do with the past and people have to fully re-invent themselves to survive. Ten years of living in the world of “la demerde”, i.e. having to cut corners and constantly find ad-hoc solutions to make ends meet at the end of the month. Ten years of looking at young people suddenly swallowed in the wave of new consumerism, mesmerized by new shopping centers full of brand names propelled by millions spent in the new science of marketing and video clips on the local version of MTV. It was also ten years of exploring the nights of these big cities, transformed by the new freedom and struggling to keep something of their past. Ten years of parents raising their children in a world where all is available but everything cost so much, when they grew up having so little available. Ten years of rigid Kafkaian administrators and civil servants making every move in daily life a nightmare of pleads and intrigues, suddenly shaken from their throne by these unwelcome foreigners that dared to oppose and criticize their rulings… to sometimes win. Ten years of hearing that “Here it’s different”, but finally proving that a lot is just the same as anywhere else.
Stalin and his friends expanding communism created a world parallel to the western one. Despite the enormous cultural differences, I still could recognize a foreigner’s residence permit or a local person identity booklet anywhere in the red world, from East Berlin til Shanghai. Brown or Bordeaux color booklet, with the holder’s picture in the center of the first page, sticked by bad quality transparent plastic film and no other text on this page. This design of Soviet invention was certainly one of the most popular, as the exact same was used from East Berlin, to Jerevan, Shanghai, Hanoi and Vladivostok. Along with AK47s, Ladas cars, Kamaz trucks and social-realistic buildings, they are the design legacy of the Marxist/Leninist/Maoism era to the world.
Restaurants in Shanghai abound, new places opening constantly. This should lead to a lot of diversity, imagination and surprises… but it does not. Western restaurants are all of the same for the most part. There lot’s of American joints serving burgers from McDonald’s to (soon to open) upper-class burger restaurant (please explain me what that is exactly). We also have about 20 French restaurants, from the cheap bistro to the creme de la creme Relais-et-Chateau. Real Italian restaurants are in number in Shanghai, but the one I (sarcastically) prefer are the Japanese copies of Italian restaurants. I think I have to explain this more in depth as I also needed some time to understand the concept of it. They are chains of Italian restaurants, that were started in and expended all over Japan. They often already have outlets in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Korea… and now they come to China. Having very little link with real Italy… the food can be sometimes surprising. The pictures on the menu are always great, it’s when your pizza, fettuccini or espresso arrives that the surprise pops out. The result generally ranges from “more or less right” to “I think an Italian would have a nervous breakdown when eating it”.
Among all this repetition of variable quality western food, one also find some peculiar places, trying to serve a cuisine away from the norm. I recently had lunch in a Suriname restaurant. I am not sure all internationally minded readers know where Suriname is… let alone most Chinese people. I admire the lady who opened this restaurant, as she probably spends many hours explaining to people where her country is, and what you can expect to eat there. Anyway, I had my roti like in Holland (where Surinamese restaurants are available in mass) and the feeling that I had taken a trip away… 10 minutes from my office. I’m looking forward to far and unknown places… with more of those coming here, Shanghai is really becoming a world city.
This song called “A l’arriere des taxis” (On the back seats of taxis) keeps on coming in my head. The band who sings it is called “Noir Desirs” (Black desires). I actually saw them life at the Sziget Festival in Budapest in 2002. It used to be the most popular French Rock band, until the lead singer and composer killed his girlfriend and his career in 2003.
The song is about people spending a lot of their lifes, taking taxis to link the different points of their live in these big and incredible cities. “C’est Paris, Moscou, Berlin, Berlin l’enchanteresse” (It’s Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Berlin the magic one). The song is from 1989, just before the Berlin wall fell, and the world changed forever. Had it been a little later, you could add Prague, Budapest, Beijing, Shanghai and many more of the fallen cities of marksim. The song is full of references to Moscow and Russian communism. I can’t stop having images of Lenin statues being toppled by crowds and falling communism when I hear it.
“Ils s’aiment a l’arrière des taxis, tant que les heures passent” (they love each other on the back seats of taxis, as long as the hours fly away). People live and love at the back of taxis, flying around the arteries of Shanghai. Taxis are just so much a way of life here you take them to go everywhere… particularly at night time. I take taxis about twice a day on average… Taxis are where we live, work and love. I have so many memories on the back seat of taxis… As in Budapest and Saigon before, a lot of my Shanghai life takes place “A l’arrière des taxis”.
Standing in a Metro entrance, waiting for a friend who is late. I have time to look at people passing… as well as being showered by the looks of the hundreds of people passing in front of me. It’s about lunch time, and this entrance is the connection of most busy metro station of Shanghai, with one of the main brand new shopping centers. The Shanghai metro is like all metros, functional, used by thousands of people a day. The shopping center is just a different world, clean, bright with marble and bright lights of advertising flashing around.
I noticed a little girl about 5 with a women about 35 (her mother probably) and a man 60 (I would guess the grandfather). I would guess they come from one of the neighboring provinces or one of the faraway parts of Shanghai. They are not really at ease with the whole environment, somewhat looking for their way in the labyrinth of corridor. They have just bought a Mickey Mouse puppet for the little girl. I guess, it comes from one of the street vendors and it’s probably a fake one. I also guess it’s a substantial amount of money for the family, just to please the little girl. They stop just before the entrance of the shopping center, the grandfather squatting like Chinese people do in the country side. The face of this man is marked by nature, hard work and age. He probably spent many years in the factory, the field or something even worse. They start to unpack the puppet and play with it.
It took about 1 minutes for the security guards from the shopping center to ask them to move away. They were polite but firm. The family wanted to stay but after a short discussion stood up and started to move along. What marked me was the look of total incomprehension on the face of this old man. He obeyed the big guys in white shirts, just as a routine because they represent authority and this is what he has learned all those years. Having been through years of hard work and political turmoil… he just to find himself pushed away again, because they say he does not belong here. I guess the new Shanghai is just impossible to understand for people like him. I have seen the same look from Budapest to Saigon, on the face of these people that the disappearance of the communist dream world took by surprise… it still deeply touches me.
On a small street, at the heart of the French Concession, there is this cafe that a friend mentionned over diner, Boonna Cafe. It’s not a bar, nor a French Grand Cafe type, but definitely kind of a Manhattan inspired coffee joint. About 10 meters by 5, with 9 tables and 25 seats, it’s not the biggest Cafe I know in Shanghai but it’s really friendly. Yellow and Red walls, giving light when the Shanghai suns goes away (i.e. most of the days). Lot’s of books, black and wait pictures on the wall… even a ganja leaf somewhere in a corner. Some blues notes playing in the background. This place has a slightly artistic, alternative touch. It’s not really Chinese, but these kind of places are so needed in Shanghai to make it more international. I love the atmosphere of a small place owned and run by a couple of friends. It’s just the opposite of big chains, the opposite of standardisation, though globalisation and media overexposure gives it an air of deja-vu. Starbucks has opened the way, now it’s time for more intimate places with a real atmosphere. Great place for a date, for starting a relationship, for closing one or meeting this friend perdu de vue since a few months… and last but not least, they have no smoking policy today… Definitely recommended for frequent visits.
I have passed so many times in front of this landmark of Shanghai that is the Jing Jiang Hotel. Tonight, I was walking next to it on the way home and decided to visit it for a change. So I am having a Cafe Late in the upstairs Cafe. One gets through the underground entrance to the hotel, and the Cafe is on the first floor, after climbing the grand stairs. The furnishing is certainely not the original from the 1930’s and the renovation has been done without really taking care of the original decor, but this place still has an atmosphere. The current JingJiang hotel was a high class serviced appartment (Cathay Mansions) when it was built in 1928. Like in all the JingJiang hotels, the service is mediocre and the company is mostly exploiting the grandeur of the buildings taken over at liberation. It feels like air of old times in here, looking through cafe glass roof towards the hotel walls. The music is tasteless and very few people sit in the cafe. At roughly 7:00pm, I am about the only customer. It’s easy to think about all the activity that was happening here in the 30’s, and how this point of the French concession was clearly the center of the activity. The Lyceum Theater, the Club Sportif and the Cathay Cinema are just few steps away, this place must have been the ideal place for a coffee before the entertainment. Sitting here, I cannot help thinking about the Astoria Hotel in Budapest, or another old hotel in Prague that I forgot the name of.
With all the new hotels being build in Shanghai (starting with the new JingJiang next door), it’s easy to understand why there is so little activity here, but sitting here is a time travel to old Shanghai.
It was a bright and sunny afternoon. I decided to walk a little in Pudong, after my meeting next to DongFang Lu. I walked back toward Lu Jia Zui, waiting for a friend to call back for maybe having a coffee together. As this friend never called back, I hanged around this area a little, taking pictures as the sky was blue (rare in Shanghai nowadays because of the pollution). This side of the tower was enlighten by the sun, enhancing this golden color. It’s always funny to me, how people associate taking pictures with being a tourist. I guess that only tourist actually take pictures. The rest of us (like me most of the time), just pass in front of buildings and situation, without really seing them anymore. Blue sky days are rare in Shanghai, so I am carrying my camera with me all the time, just to be able to snap with an opportunity comes along.