Excerpts from the Journal, Shanghai 2011

Sometimes first impressions are all we get. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in China, let alone Shanghai, so these reflections, formed after just four days, may kick around in my head for quite some time.

October 8

Second-story window view in the Jade Buddha Temple

Striking how much more intimate and compact these areas of devotion are. Western culture has us accustomed to expansive cathedrals and architectural feats to touch the heavens. Shanghai’s glorifying praise is to twenty-first century money — skyscrapers that stream colored lights like a nightly fireworks display, populating the Pudong, an army of freakish sentinels of finance and prosperity. But true temples? Religious devotion? Wooden buildings of two or three stories, a series of rooms holding statuary of no overly imposing size, carpeted in red cushions for brief periods of kneeling, incense burning, or admiration. Beautiful, intricate, but somehow secretive. Perhaps a remnant of private worship before the government made it okay to be spiritual again…

October 9

I joked with Benett this morning that we may have found the cure for his insomnia/involuntary early rising: cigars and alcohol.

My roommate is a fifty-four year old ex-New Yorker who has been living and teaching drama in Los Angeles for over a decade now. He’s enthusiastic, adventurous, and charming. His approachability (or apparent need for female company) had led to dozens of offers for “massage? sex massage? sex?” Always in that order. That, and the ubiquitous pressure by street vendors to sell watches and bags, is all we are ever asked in the streets.

He admitted yesterday to having trouble both falling and staying asleep. In fact, his get-up-and-go yesterday morning led us on an hour-long wander before our group tour convened, walking the local park — Xujiahui — and out of the French Concession, into the busy commercial blocks of South Shanghai.

Basketball on a smoggy Shanghai Saturday morning

The park, on a Saturday morning at least, was filled with health-conscious Shanghainese running, walking, and performing their Tai Chi movements in big groups. It was just like a weekend morning in Golden Gate Park, without the sprinkling of white people joining in for morning wiggles.

It is a well-manicured park/garden, run through the middle with a bit of a creek (“No Touch Water”) and featuring a large Adidas-sponsored basketball area. Four outdoor courts, full-size, teeming with Chinese men (and a few women) of all ages playing basketball or exercising with basketballs in what seemed to be a curious mix of dribbling drills and stretching. Derrick Rose is everywhere.

This is the park where George, the Canadian head honcho in the purple shirt and blue suit who greeted us Friday night, came early yesterday morning to join in on the exercising. In the middle of a burpee, he apparently tore his Achilles and had to get shipped back to Montreal for surgery. I can only imagine the head-shaking wonderment and serves-you-right glances he must have received from the slow, patient practitioners of Tai Chi as his violent, American-style workout led to a violent, painful end.

Yesterday’s morning jaunt that buffeted us with billboards, traffic, and commercialism forged of diodes, glass, and steel, reminded me repeatedly of Jing Mei Woo’s reactions to Guangzhou in the last chapter of The Joy Luck Club: “This is communist China?”

Benett, Joanna, and still in Shanghai

There was no morning jaunt today, however. Today I was the first one up, shockingly, sleeping in until almost seven. A late night at Sasha’s a few blocks away from the hotel took care of that. In a city otherwise seemingly starved for space, where towering apartment buildings pack together so tightly barely leaving enough air passage to properly dry all the clothing hanging from the windows, this bar seemed to be an anomaly.

The building itself was a recently built three-story in Concession (i.e., European) style, with a beautiful interior bar area and, more impressively, an expansive outdoor patio shared with neighboring bar Zapata’s. The weather, setting, modernly styled furnishings, and attentive service made it feel like we were in Downtown Disney. This is Shanghai? This is communist China? I suppose we’d have to seek out the opium dens and dank, sinister alleys some other night. There was even an outdoor pizza oven that would’ve made my dad envious, the smells of which mingled with cigar smoke over Hoegaarden and Kilkenny…

Tonight’s eating and drinking experience was at an equally anachronistic and expansive establishment — the Paulaner Brewhaus, voted “Best Beer” this year in That’s Shanghai!

A drunk Chinese fellow introduced himself to me and Benett as “Paul. Paul Simon.” He practiced his English with us and made repeated entreaties to dance along with him to the three-piece cover band that was performing everything from Abba to Gaga. I thought he was fucking with us. But I think he really did go by Paul Simon. His mother had just died (on the sixth, actually), and he and his fiance had square pieces of black fabric safety-pinned to their sleeves in mourning…

October 11

Our last night in Shanghai was much like every night in Shanghai. Soaked in booze (“Don’t drink the water! Here, have more beer.”) and addled by conflicting sights and sounds. Are we still in China? Is this Shanghai? Plenty of evidence to support either case: best Chinese food I’ve ever had, Singapore Slings in a 30’s-era bar, and dancing with college kids, ex-pats, and local Shanghainese to a Colombian afrobeat band in a below-ground Latin bar in the French Concession…

My dumpling experience at the World Financial Center culminated with a promise to reunite with Yos and Los Angelinos Benett and Hugh in order to eat at the LA branch of this Michelin-rated XiaoLongBao establishment. This, of course, would be done solely in order that we might gush, “these dumplings are amazing, but they’re not quite as good as the ones we had in Shanghai.”

If you have just one night in Shanghai...

For dinner, Sean promised something special. His favorite style of Chinese cuisine comes from the Yunnan province, about 1,000 miles southeast of Shanghai, influenced by neighboring Burma, Laos, and Thailand. The restaurant, Lost Heaven, was another stunningly decorated building, this time in a European style, reminiscent of what I pictured to be turn-of-the-century Shanghai. Dark wood and red paper lamps; folk art mixed with gorgeous photographs of the Yunnanese countryside; cloistered bedroom-style dining areas that, while ostensibly meant for entertaining wealthier diners accustomed to lounging while eating, could just as well have been opium beds from the 1920’s.

The staff were outfitted in the traditional garb of the Yunnanese people, a colorful cross between Russian peasantry and Latin American regalia. And the beautifully outfitted wait staff kept bringing food. And bringing food. Oh what food it was. Without a doubt the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. And I say this not because of the obvious “fusion” (such a silly culinary term, I realized — when a culture, like any culture, becomes influenced by others, their cuisine is no more a “fusion” of styles than English is a fusion of German and French) of south Asian flavors present in dishes like the pork samosas or yellow curry-and-coriander chicken, but mostly because the dishes that were traditional Chinese fare, from the fried Shanghai-style noodles to the Kung Pao chicken, were fresher and more flavorful than any Chinese dishes I’ve ever tasted. Even Yos, who, in his position as globe-trotting ambassador for a multinational corporation with a confessed food obsession, admitted, “This is the best fried rice I’ve ever had. In my life. Ever…”

Prominent on the Pudong: Oriental Pearl, Jin Mao, and World Financial Center

Despite my early cynicism regarding Shanghai’s temples to business at the expense of taste and decent design, I came around in that regard as well. Somewhat. From atop the WFC one can appreciate the much better looking Jin Mao tower. At the same time that I feel disdain for the blatant competitiveness that spurred one corporation to outdo a rival by building a taller skyscraper within spitting distance of the other, I can honestly appreciate the blend of new and old — an enduring quality of the city itself, really — present in the Jin Mao. As it turns out, that building was actually designed by an American firm.

The bottle opener appearance of the WFC came courtesy of the Japanese, whose original intent to create a circular opening at the top was vetoed by angry Shanghainese who didn’t want an enormous Japanese flag towering over their city, a constant reminder of the war and occupation. Hence the agreed-upon, but somewhat soulless, bottle opener impression.

the Oriental Pearl TV tower is the stupidest looking thing on the Shanghai skyline. It was designed by the Chinese…

Sean! And that silly, stupid tower.

Does an emphasis on math and science during early schooling stymie creativity? Does the pursuit of wealth and related popularity of university degrees in finance and computers dry up artistry? Or is it more of a political influence? Art and design inherently involve creative expression, and freedom of expression is still severely controlled in communist China. All media, television especially, are pistons in the propaganda machine and even our tour director Sean, himself a native Shanghainese, despite some very honest and forthcoming responses to my questions on the education system, is a registered communist and is forced to toe the party line.

As Yos explained, all tour guides and drivers in China are registered with the government. As such, there are restrictions on what they can and cannot say. I was able to pry past the verbiage he was forced to use in response to certain questions, I think, to reveal a genuine love for and pride in his hometown, but you can’t help but think that you’re still seeing things through a filter of some sort. Masks and facades.

Little kids don’t wear masks. There is nothing more genuine and honest than the emotional response of a child. Seeing those kids jump around and buzz about in giddy excitement during our visit yesterday reminded me so much of American students. So much of how the classrooms operated — as well as the school overall, from morning songs and exercises on the lawn to crystallized obedience once class was in session — was extraordinarily different from the operations we’re used to in the States, but the fact remains, all little kids seem to start the same way.

Happy, excited Shanghai students

For better or worse, China’s future is being shaped and driven by the style and focus of their educational system. Better City, Better Life is Shanghai’s slogan, adopted a year ago for the World Expo, and it’s interesting how the impetus is on City Creating Life and not the other way around. Better lives, educational opportunities, understanding of the world around them might result in a better city. Not just a better city, but a better China. That’s not the way it works here, however. The government owns, sponsors, creates. Uproots families and mandates standards of thought and practice. It funnels money into this financial mecca and appeases its pilgrims with a “better life.” Benett asked Maia and myself at one point what Chinese theater was. Literature? Apart from reminders of Peking-style masks from ages ago, we were unaware. National acrobatics performers? Pure discipline, not creativity. Does artistry need to be reinvented, reinvigorated to constitute art..?