December 2008: Shanghaied - Where we leave lovely Singapore for the mysteries of China.
It was the best of times....
No, that's from another novel. It was time to move from our comfortable tropical life to the great unknown - China. Who would have thought our minimalist Singapore lifestyle would generate 137 cartons. The slow boat to China will take 6 or more weeks and then a long customs delay courtesy of the Olympics.
Not just THE Olympics. We are told everything is being held up until after the Special Olympics that follows. I wonder - Al Qaeda in wheelchairs I presume and thank you very much, the visas have been a nightmare. Not a brilliant start!
Ellen had been living at our friends Graham and Indira’s town house in Shanghai for a month while I packed up Singapore. They are our lifeline in Shanghai; just married in an amazing dual ceremony in Vancouver and Jakarta, (he is Canadian and she Indonesian) they moved up from Singapore to Shanghai earlier in the year. Ellen, busy at her new ‘innovation’ job and me busy giving stuff away, again. We have left a trail of plants, pots and paraphernalia across two continents now. Sad to see our perfect space at Robertson Blue thin out day by day. Still, did I mention 137 cartons to ship? Where does this stuff come from?
The hot weeks of August drag on as we wait for our shipment to arrive. We hear it’s in town and held up in customs. Finally, after 8 weeks or so, it arrives and we move into Yanqing Lu. In the end, after seeing dozens of places, we decided our home had to be in the French Concession.
This vast area was home to the French traders after China had to give up most of the developed city to the Western powers after the Opium Wars of the 1840’s. The French, unlike the Brits, Americans, Russians, Japanese and Germans who were also there set about to create something lasting. Broad boulevards, wide sidewalks, French architecture, and thousands upon thousands of ‘Plane’ trees (like oaks) planted every 20 feet or so on every single street. Here you could buy fresh Baguettes and eat Pot au Feu in dozens of bistros. This all still exists. The trees are spectacular and give a real European flair when you are strolling along eating a warm Pain au Chocolate in the sun on a crisp fall day. One spooky moment early on was ‘The Flood’. An all night thunderstorm that flooded our street up to nearly three feet. Odd to see the interesting street market offal floating away. We thought cholera couldn’t be far behind.
Our house is quite plain versus the so very sexy stuff we saw early on. The Concession certainly has uber cool places but, it is a premium area and commands premium prices for rents. We call our house “The Pig” in memory of Sarah Palin’s hopefully short career in the national limelight. We have spent the last 4 months trying to put some ‘lipstick on The Pig’ and we have had some success. Our neighbor Aziz sold us a lovely rose carpet from Turkestan and we found a fabulous antique store called Guyi who provided an antique desk, dining room table, chairs etc. Then, of course, there have been the multiple IKEA trips that I loathe and Ellen loves. Bookshelves, lamps, end tables and storage bins of every size and description.
Life in the hood
Our house is big by most standards. It has four bedrooms, an open kitchen, living and dining room, three bathrooms and a laundry room. The downstairs bedroom is now an office and one of the upstairs bedrooms is now Ellen’s dressing room. There is a good sized front terrace that we enter through an iron door from the street. Initially, it had the look of a prison yard but, some big terra cotta planters from Ferguson Lane, a cantilevered umbrella over our patio furniture and some sexy garden lighting has warmed it up a lot. In Shanghai, everything arrives on the back of a tricycle; that includes our giant 150 pound terra cotta pots (6 of them, delivered 3 at a time) and even a 42 inch flat screen TV. It is the delivery vehicle of choice. There is an enclosed back lane that we enter from the kitchen for BBQ’ing and bike storage. It’s real saving grace is European windows and doors with 13 hot water rads. All those sexy places we saw with single pane quadruple French doors had gaps a small bird could fly through and they are are freezing tonight. We discovered early on that tap water is undrinkable everywhere and installing a house filtration system costs over $10,000 U.S. All our cooking is done from bottled water dispensers and we even have one upstairs for brushing teeth. It seems only Coke and Nestle sell real bottled water, most of the rest is fake; right from the tap. Ellen has a car and driver, her company has an on staff concierge, we have a maid (an Ayi) who comes every second day and the flower man. Yes, we have a flower man who provides us with fresh flowers and replaces things in the garden that we kill.
Speaking of killing, there is a street market out our front door and 20 feet to the left. Here you can buy everything if your stomach is up to it and absolutely nothing if it isn’t. Understand the typical Chinese home hasn’t got a big double door SubZero fridge. In fact, some places are about that size. Everything is bought fresh and all the better if it is killed right in front of you. Chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons, fish, crabs are dispatched in the most inhumane ways throughout the day. For example, pigeon killing I have learned, is accomplished by simply holding the little guy under your arm and squeezing the beak and nostril for a few minutes while chatting amicably with your neighbour. Fish are scaled alive. Don’t ask about the geese. On occasion someone’s dinner attempts an escape under our steel door. Sorry, no diplomatic immunity in our house and I prefer my dinner not to walk, hop, fly or crawl into the house under its own power.
Food and drink
Since the street market isn’t an option for us, getting groceries to expat tastes in a city of 20 million Chinese has some challenges. There is no Pusateri’s like in Toronto or Jason’s like in Singapore where you can grab great food (already dead). Yes, there are places like Carrefours, City Shop and The Pines that are pretty good but, really nothing special. Fact is most people eat out. And why not ? There are thousands of restaurants, hundreds and hundreds in the French Concession alone. Within a few hundred yards of our house is ‘El Willy’. Willy runs a Spanish tapas restaurant and Torres wine bar. Great food and even an organic market in his courtyard on Saturday mornings. Then there is ‘Agave Taqulleria’. Rafe, an Armenian from South Philly, has opened the coolest little Mexican place with over 100 different tequilas and the best nachos in town. Of course, he knows about as much about Mexican food as I do about quantum physics. Our first nachos were made with Velveeta for God’s sake. We straightened him out and his food is now great and better every visit. Sadly, our friend Graziano from ‘La Dolce Vita’ next door has left this nice Italian restaurant due to his ongoing disappearing acts that freaked his Chinese partners. Our local noodle house is run by William, who speaks perfect English and makes the best noodles and stewed beef. A bowl each with two beers is 52 RMB; or about $9 bucks. Then there is Shintori for fab Japanese, Maya for ultra pricey Mexican, Des Lys our local French bistro and more Korean, Sushi, Chinese than I could count. We don’t lack for options and these few are all just minutes from our front door.
This is a young town. Clubbing is an art here. On The Bund, the glitzy retro strip on the river, there are Glamour Bar, Laris and Club 18. In our hood are Velvet and People 7. There are hundreds more. Packed with expats and high-end Chinese, these places run until dawn and pretty much anything is acceptable behavior. Even our quiet hood transforms at night when a doorway you never noticed lights up and lines up.
Unlike Singapore, access to places is more challenging in Shanghai. No longer is Bali or Thailand just 2 hours away. Yes, Hong Kong is just over two hours and so is Taiwan but where is a little weekend retreat we can count on? Aha, we found one!
In the Xin Tin Di area we found an amazingly beautiful restaurant called ‘T-8’. They opened a resort 3 hours drive south of Shanghai called ‘Fuchun’. Designed by the architect who created the original Aman Resorts, it is an oasis. Huge but very zen like. Great rooms, wonderful restaurants, a stunning spa and a golf course within a tea plantation with tea terraces lining the fairways. The ball retrievers on the golf course driving range are...people. Just a few dozen people who run out when a whistle blows and pick up all the balls..by hand. Speaking of golf, Graham and I joined Binhai. This 36 hole course with a gorgeous clubhouse is out by the airport. It is a bit of a drive but, we joined for 1900 RMB. That is a years membership for less than $400 CDN! My game has never been better. Like Singapore, you have one caddy per player who gives you distance and lines up your putts. They are also your personal cheerleader and scream and giggle when you hole a putt or crack a good drive. Great fun and you can buy Titleist Pro V1’s from roadside stands at $10 a dozen. At least I think they are Pro V’s. You can also buy Footjoys for $20 bucks and a Rolex for $30 bucks. Maybe not.
So, these are our initial impressions of China and our new home in Shanghai. A culture thousands of years old and speeding into the 21st century at a furious pace. One example of that speed is the Maglev train that runs from the airport to Pudong (downtown) at 431 km per hour. That’s 37 km’s in 8 minutes and it was only built as a test for a new line linking Shanghai and Beijing that is being built now. If you are unfortunate enough to be on the adjoining highway caught in traffic, it flashes by above you in a whoosh of air; no wheels, no tracks, no sound at all. Just imagine that linking Toronto and Montreal or New York and Washington. Oh wait, we all know that won’t happen in our lifetimes. Made in China. How odd that the same culture that tragically have put melamine (basically plastic) in baby formula to register higher protein can build this at the same time.
We could end by telling you about our weekend in Hong Kong and how we spent the Saturday night in the Central Jail, but that’s a story for next time.
Wishing all of you a Happy New Year and a much, much better 09!
Jim & Ellen
Update 2013: We spent 3 wonderful years in Shanghai, including Shanghai Expo; an event that changed the landscape of the city and cleaned it up beautifully for a full year. We moved from The Concession to a swish condo behind the Ritz when I found used hypodermic needles clogging the kitchen sink. Shanghai is back to normal now and pollution is again terrible; some days approaching the horror of Beijing. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of new restaurants, the restoration of The Bund is long since completed and the city has a great buzz as usual. It doesn't have the culture of Beijing but it is the new China; all flashy and sexy if you can see it through the smog. Still, we love Shanghai, even if I love it a lot more than Ellen does.