Shanghai Stories

June 5, 2011
On Thursday, we took a mid-morning flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Upon our landing and a quick trip through customs (YES! We are now in China!), we boarded the MagLev train. This high-speed train makes the 22 mile trip into the downtown area in 7 minutes. For you Chicagoans, that is the equivalent of going from our house to Wrigley Field in the time Zambrano walks 3 batters. It reaches a top speed of 431 kph (259 mph). It is a smooth but quick acceleration, but you can really feel the seat-back pushing you.

We passed mile after mile of high rises. Our guide told us that Shanghai is built on the Huangpu river. The 'other side' of the river, the Pudong area, was, until 30 years ago, all rice paddies and farms. At that time, there were 238 skyscrapers (officially: buildings of 20 or more stories) in Shanghai. After Mao died, a great expansion began. Now, Shanghai has the most skyscrapers in the world: 5,000! It is the home to 30 million people, and is a huge financial and shipping center. It is called the City of Lights, and every night the entire downtown area is lit-up from 6 - 10. Many of the riverfront buildings display video graphics across their entire surfaces. And, no, the term 'shanghai' (meaning to kidnap) has nothing to do with the city. In Chinese 'Shang Hai' means 'City over the sea', as it sits on a delta into the East China Sea and the silt flowing down adds land to the city each year.

As we drove into downtown, an overall haze was apparent. We think it is smog, though did not affect our eyes or breathing in any way. After checking in, we took a short walking tour on the Bund. This is an Indian word meaning 'riverfront' and is pronounced like 'bun', not as in the German 'boond'. One side is 52 blocks of magnificent buildings (most of which were built from 1880 - 1940) in a variety of architectural styles. On the other side of the street is a wide walking path directly on the river. We then went onto Nanjing road, part of which is pedestrian only, which is a huge retail shopping area. The temperature was 37C, the highest of the year! But it was not as humid as Hong Kong. There were many, many cars and motor scooters (which, we learned later, all run on batteries - you cannot get license to drive a gas-powered scooter). And there were a few people on bicycles, but not like what it was just 30 years ago.

We are staying in the newly-renovated Waldorf Astoria. Allow us to digress for a moment, as this is an extraordinary hotel-- blending upscale old-Shanghai 30s glamour in the public areas with amazing high tech amenities in the private areas.  This is not a hotel where mere mortals stay (as a testament to that, the Shanghai Film Festival was opening while we were here and friends had a Susan Sarandon sighting; we had to 'settle' for Matt Dillon, omg)... so we are fortunate we could stay here with the group.  Anyway, to our amazing room -- it had ornate ceiling moldings, a chandelier over the bed, a 42 inch TV which also features a wireless keyboard for internet access, gas masks (in case of a fire), a bedside touchpad which shows the outside temperature,  lets you turn the lights on and off, open / close the curtains, call for your personal butler (from bed!), adjust the A/C, and allow you to check the local time in over 50 cities around the world. Yes, it also has a clock and an alarm. In the bathroom there is a TV behind the mirror! You only see it when you turn it on! And the piece de resistance: a hands-free toilet! You walk into the toilet alcove and the lid opens automatically (the boys have to press a button to make the seat also go up). It has a heated seat, and you can press buttons to 'rinse' and 'dry' when you are done (toilet paper is provided for those who wish). Of course, when you stand up, it flushes automatically and the lid closes. It almost made it hard to want to leave the room! For the record, our time there was limited.

Thursday evening, we joined (eating) forces with a family for a sumptuous set Shangainese feast. As with our other dinners so far, there are multiple courses served to each person.  We began with an artfully-presented plate of four Chinese amuse-bouches-- sauteed trumpet mushrooms in a delectable sauce, barbequed pork belly, yellow croaker fish (which sounds like amphibian but was a lightly dusted river fish) and marinated fungus.  Lest you recoil in horror, this dish was the tastiest of any on the plate (once we got past its gray palette).  It tasted like the Chinese equivalent of cole slaw, bathed in rice vinegar.  Next course, hairy crab soup.  We missed hairy crab (a Hong Kong delicacy in HK) so wanted to be sure to 'catch' it somewhere.  The soup was somewhat gelatinous, with a strange aftertaste but at least we can say we had hairy crab.  Next up, a lightly dusted scallop served in an oversized spoon with serving handle, followed by sauteed beef, then asparagus and broccoli and topped off with the ubiquitous fried rice.  The dining room was vintage 30s Shanghai. We left the meal quite satisfied and eager to begin our official exploration of Shanghai the next day.  (One last aside, we think it should be obvious that we do not do the Jewish dietary laws in our household.  Pork and seafood seem to be strongholds of the Chinese diet so far.)

Friday morning we got up early and saw from the delivered newspaper that the forecast was for the upper 70s with rain expected 'for the plum reaping season'. They made it sound like it was scheduled! But we went out anyway. There was a little mist, but many people were on the Bund promenade. Lots of people flying kites!

And groups doing tai chi!

How Chinese is that! We walked to the 'Memorial to the People's Heroes' which is dedicated to those who fought in the Opium Wars (the British!), the Democratic War (1910; Sun Yat Sen), and WWII (which is referred to as the 'anti-Japanese War' in Chinese textbooks). Then back to the hotel and another sumptuous buffet breakfast.

Then the group headed out for the day. We walked partway along the same stretch of the promenade and then down an escalator to take an amazing ride under the river to the Pudong side. They have these 'pod cars' that hold about 20 people standing up. The doors close and you go into the tunnel. Then the walls come alive with colored lights in different patterns. At another point swimming fish are projected as if you can actually see into the river. It is a true Disney-like experience. The ride takes about 5 minutes (for the 1/2 mile distance). Then we were in Pudhong. The mist had turned into a light drizzle, but all were prepared with umbrellas. We took a short bus ride into the old section. This area has been populated for at least 400 years, and many of the buildings are several hundred years old. We walked through Yu Yuan Gardens, a small but magnificent oasis built by a wealthy man for his parents. Adjoining this is a touristy shopping area with many small winding passageways (it reminded us of Venice...the same feel and some of the same goods for sale!). There were also restaurants selling buns (very popular),

candies, and baked goods. There were even 3 Dairy Queens and 2 Starbucks!

Our guide said this is not the area for 'the real thing' but great for authentic tschotkes. In other words, don't look for Rolexes, real jade, or real pearls here. And you must bargain! With a little stubbornness, you can get them 80% down from their original asking price... and we did!

Friday afternoon, we ventured out on our own and took the Jewish tour of Shanghai.  Sephardic and Russian Jews started settling in Shanghai in the late 19th century but Jewish immigration really picked up between 1933 and 1941.  At that time, Shanghai became a modern day 'Noah's Ark' accepting approximately 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.  While Jews did need to have a visa to leave Nazi Germany, Shanghai was one of the only places in the world that didn't require an entry visa for Jews--so in they came.  The Jewish tour we took was in the 'Tilanqiao Historic Area' and included a monument in Huoshan Park, an architectural complex where the Jewish ghetto was (where Jews and middle class Shaingainese lived side by side), and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue).  This was a wonderful tour highlighted by us doing our own navigation (with unknowing taxi cab drivers) in a torrential downpour.  The museum was fascinating and included many profiles--both of people who made the move (either via train across Siberia and down to Shanghai--over two months, or via boat through the Suez Canal, around India and up to Shanghai--approximately 23 days) and those who enabled their journeys.  Some Shanghai Jewish trivia:  did you know that Carter's Secretary of Treasury Michael Blumenthal was one of these Shanghai Jews? The story was fascinating; the museum was well done; and we were inspired by the beneficence of the Shanghainese who enabled the refugees to seek haven in their community.  Services are no longer held in the Ohel Moshe Synagogue as, apparently, the Torahs were taken back to Europe.  Indeed, the lion's share of the refugees left for Israel, America, Canada, or back to Europe after the Holocaust.  There is a Jewish Community Center on the west side of Shanghai were services are held for Shabbat but we did not have an opportunity to visit there.

Rather, we spent our Friday evening at a Chinese Acrobats show.  Think Cirque de Soleil but death defying, heart-stopping, breath-taking, how did they do it and one centimeter short of ruthless.  There were many segments in which this writer literally could not breathe (and I am the risk-taker of the family).  It is obvious that OSHA concerns have not crossed the ocean.

Saturday morning brought us to the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. Shanghai is in the middle of a 20-year urban plan. And not only do they have a plan, they built a museum to tout it! The plan includes building, 'greening', waste and pollution control, transportation, commerce, etc.  Hmmmm....a plan....what a concept! One our new friends said that his overwhelming reaction to Shanghai has been anger that we (Americans) cannot do what they appear to have done.  We then moved to the Shanghai Museum where we viewed ceramics, jade furniture, bronze, and calligraphy exhibits.  Impressive. We spent the afternoon at a silk factory where we actually restrained ourselves from making any purchases at all.  For those fashionistas among our readership, Chinese sizing for women is very interesting.  You can't wear a size small unless you are 5 feet tall and weigh under 100 pounds, with no chest. hmmm

But, back to impressive.  Very impressive was our 'farewell to Shanghai' dinner at Jean-Georges--highly acclaimed by a past NYTimes restaurant reviewer as one of his world favorites.  Also in New York, this bastion to French cuisine was a 'must visit' on our list-- so we did.  And it was worth the (lofty) price of admission and calorie count (thank goodness for elastic pants).  This writer started with a glass of champagne (but not one of the US$80 glasses!).  The amuse-bouche was a pinkie-sized glass of warm asparagus/lime puree with brioche croutons, accompanied by a warm eggplant bruschetta.  Next, for Wayne was a chilled crab salad, garnished by market vegetables and edible flowers in a floral vinaigrette. 

I chose ribbons of ahi tuna on a bed of pureed avocado, garnished with spicy radishes, and bathed in a ginger marinade.  OK, let's be real.  At this point, we could have readily gone back to the hotel and called it an evening.  But, no.  Four more courses for each of us!  Wayne continued with sea scallops garnished with caramelized cauliflower and floating in  a caper--raisin emulsion (absolutely the best caper raisin emulsion he had every experienced). 

I chose a delicate parsnip soup poured atop a coconut, lime and mint foam. OK, Spiaggia, try to top that!  Suffice it to say, this course was amazing.  Next up... the main course.  Wayne chose onion and chili crusted short ribs atop French lentils and marinated in a sherry vinaigrette.  (Custom House/Chicago, your short ribs need to step aside!).  My main course was sauteed lobster served with herb pudding and porcini and potato gnocchi.  Goodness, I have never seen so much lobster in my live -- no work required -- and it was extraordinarily delectable (Bob Chinn's:  sorry about that, no comparison). 

For dessert, Wayne chose crackling lime tart with vanilla chantilly mousse (an upscale key lime creation) and my choice was pineapple chibboust (a pineapple frozen custard that was simply splendid), and pomegranate sorbet served atop the most decadent gingerbread ever.  Oh my.  Again, this would have been more than adequate but you certainly realize that in a restaurant of this sort, the last course will be friandises, additional sweets.  So, they came to the table with a small platter of delicate truffles and cookies.  We couldn't just look!?!  A fitting close to a memorable meal.  We walked back to the hotel (downpour still continuing) amidst the papparazzi waiting for the stars to show up AT OUR HOTEL for the after Film Festival opening night reception!  (We found out this morning that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is debuting here... too bad we're leaving!)

Anyway, it is Sunday morning, June 12. We just got back from a walk around the neighborhood - we find that is the best way to really experience the people and culture of an area. Here are some pix of what we saw: 

We are leaving in an hour for our Yangtze River Cruise.  From the boat, we will send a 'bonus' news letter based on our overall perceptions and observations so far (as a preview, our views are altogether different from what we expected at the beginning of the trip).

Until then, be well.

much love,
wendy and wayne

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