Tourists in summer Shanghai

Summer in China is not really different from other seasons. Schools are closed for holidays, but the activity does not diminish much. Despite the heat, people keep on being pursuing their activities as usual. Summer in Shanghai is a very different matter. Downtown Shanghai is the host of many foreign companies… who’s manager often go on vacation during summer. Clients and colleagues abroad (particularly in Europe) are also on holiday, releasing a lot of the pressure on employees shoulders. Bars and (foreign) restaurants tend to be less crowded their main costumers have disappeared. During this quiet time, foreign regulars are complemented by another crowd of strangers. Tourists in Shanghai are clearly on the rise, helping China to reach its future status of number 1 tourist destination in the world. Shanghai is the main door in and out of China for tourists. No tours of China can take place without showing the wonders of economical progress in Chinese economical capital, the Jin Mao Tower and LuJiaZui. You can also find many groups at the various temples of Shanghai and around YuYuan Garden. They are looking at all these Chinese wonders that are often fake or seriously transformed by renovation. I always find it amusing, that tours focus on traditional Chinese scenes in Shanghai, when much better examples can be found in Beijing or other Chinese cities. Most of these group miss what is really unique to Shanghai, the small streets and old buildings of the old concessions.

People with backpacks and lonely planet guides often seem more adventurous. They also go around the business districts and modernised Shanghai, admiring the brand new towers and one can also find a lot of them on the Bund and around YuYuan Garden.  But the French concession part is where many western tourists go, looking for the glory of colonial times. With the renovation going on (for the part that is not being destroyed), this part of town is transforming into a major entertainment area, with small restaurant and cafes opening everywhere, creating a great atmosphere and lot’s of nice spots for a rest between two visiting walks. With more cafes and tourists, Shanghai is really becoming a world city.

Cancoillote Girl

The famous cheese
Center of our conversation

Cancoillote is a semi liquid cheese from Franche-Comte, a region of North-East France, next to Switzerland. It’s quit stinky and has a strange taste for people that are not used to eating French cheeses. It’s a very local cheese, being unknown by most of the rest of France (and the world).

I was spending time at a professional networking event a few days ago, when I engaged conversation with a pretty western women. She was from Kansas and we talked a little bit about America as I recently made my first trip there. She explained how different life was in Kansas where she grew up, and in New York or Chicago, that I had just visited. This is when the conversation took a very different turn.

She started to speak to me in French, and said “I have spent a year at the University of Besancon”.  Besancon is the capital of Franche-Comte, the French region next to mine. It’s a charming city and supposed to be very lively, though I am not quite sure how it could retain the attention of a foreigner for one full year. She also knew my town (Dijon), that is a little larger as she was spending weekends there. Then she said a really unexpected sentence: “Do you like cancoillote?” Here I was in Shanghai, drinking sparkling white wine dressed in a suit in a professional gathering, being asked about a cheese that I did not eat since about 10 or 15 years by this very pretty women from Kansas that I had just met. I have to admit that I was truly flabbergasted. We then chatted for a while about this cheese (that she did not like at all) and this part of rural France that I used to go skiing to. This was a really nice conversation and I could not help thinking about the wondeful taste of cancoillote on freshly boilled potatoes for a few days afterwards.

This conversation, with it combination of surprise and real fun, was typical of the new Shanghai. Shanghai today is the place where people from all over the world come to work, visit or study. As most of us have left friends and families, we go to cafes, bars, restaurants and networking events to make new friends and meet people. It’s a melting pot of every nationality you can think of, coming here attracted by business opportunities and adventure in this world famous city. I have stopped counting the number of countries or Chinese provinces (larger than many European countries) that I have friends from, but it’s probably around 100 by now. This is Shanghai today, and was also Shanghai yesterday. The old Shanghai was also a place where people from all nationalities and origin would meet and live together. The French concession did not have only French, nor the international settlement only Brits and Americans. Large numbers of Europeans, Russians, Americans and many other as well a Chinese immigrants from other provinces were attracted by the spectacular growth. The old Shanghai was the melting pot of Asia, as much as Hong Kong became later. Like New York or London, this city has a talent to bring people from everywhere in the world and make them meet and interact. Although it was frozen for many years, the spirit was kept alive in the memory of many people both abroad and in China, and it has come back. Shanghai is really becoming a world city again.

PS: I am going to France in a few weeks… be sure that I will have some Cancoillote then.

Lost in transmission

Old Shanghai was a city based on trading with the world, communicating with the tools of the time… airmail and telegram. I recently found one telegram from 1947 in an antic market. 1947 is only 60 years ago, but communication was using means that are so different from today. Touching this old piece of paper is like a trip through time. Images of morse code floating around and cruise ship travel come instantly to my mind. This reminds me of the first page of the “Lotus Bleu”, where Tintin painfully listen to and decodes morse transmissions.

Being a telegraphist was one of the crucial jobs for the community. A telegraphist would listen to messages, uncode them and write them down. The enclosed telegram was received in Shanghai from London on the 6th of February a 6:35 pm, and delivered the next morning at 7:00am to the receiver, a trading company in Shanghai. Telegraphists would also resend messages that they received, as the communication around the world was not necessarily direct, the message would be relayed from one operator to the other until destination. The network or relay used was often displayed on the telegram, in that case The Chinese Government Radio Administration, or CGRA.

With high technology costs and lot’s of people needed to operate it, sending a telegram was expensive and charged by the number of words sent. This why “telegraphic style” of writing was invented, to carry the most information for a minimal cost. Telegraph was also generating error in the transmission, as one can see on this one. The receiving telegraphist hesitated or corrected on the CIF bit and on the name of the sender.

In the days of internet, email and VO-IP phones, it’s difficult to even imagine how it must have been to live and work with so little ways of communicating. They were the days of a slower pace, when time had a different value, and life in the remote outposts like Shanghai was spent waiting for the next arriving ship or telegram. For a travel into time, I recently found a website where one can send a telegram to anywhere in the world. I have not tried it yet, but it’s sounds like a fun way of travelling through time.

10 years in the red

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”.

Looking forward to socialist paradise

10 years in worlds where the future has nothing to do with the past and people have to fully re-invent themselves to survive. 10 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. 10 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 10 years of exploring the nights of these big cities, transformed by the new freedom and struggling to keep something of their past. 10 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. 10 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. 10 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, soviet copies of BMW sidecar motorbikes and social-realistic buildings, they are the design legacy of the Marxist/Leninist/Maoism era to the world.

A short trip far away

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.

A l’arriere des taxis

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 live 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 Marxism. 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.

A l’arrière des taxis

“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”.

Clash of 2 worlds

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.

Boonna Cafe (Xin Le Lu)

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 white 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.

JingJiang Hotel Cafe, Rue Cardinal Mercier (Now Maoming Nan Lu)

Jjhotel002I 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.
Jjhotel001It 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.

Pudong tower at Sunset

Ns00001It 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.