Sunday, July 31, 2005

Fun and Buildings

I'm recovering from a bit of the flu over here - I felt pretty bad over the weekend. Making it even worse, this was the weekend my friend Emiko chose to visit from Tokyo. So rather than be able to hit up all of Shanghai's restaurants and bars, we ended up having to take it easy. We did manage to check out some of the sites, such as the foreigner bars along Maoming Lu (which ended up feeling only halfway removed from a strip of hostess/Korean bars), an embarassing-but-fun Chinese Hip-Hop event, outdoor Dim Sum at Bi Feng Tang, and the panda and outrageously lawyer-tempting Elephant Show at the Shanghai Zoo. I'm sure these will all come up in future blogs.

Anyway a part of the fun of having a friend visit when I'm still new to Shanghai is having another voice to second all my observations and confusions. She seemed to be most surprised by the difficulty of finding anybody who could speak English or Japanese. This was a problem when she had to go to the store solo to buy things for my ailing self. She was impressed by how big the city is, and the amount of buildings going up - it is truly startling. Maybe a third of the skyscrapers in town (and there's a whole lot of them) are in the process of being built.

This is most true in Pudong, which was a swamp until a decade ago, and lies across a large river from the historical city center. Today the skyline is pure science fiction, and will only get more so when the World Financial Center gets finished in a couple years - it'll be the world tallest building, and has a large circle distinctively "cut" out of its silhouette.

The skyscrapers are also scattered throughout town, particularly near the city center, and are often as bold as in the Pudong district. These buildings are located near People's Park and the most concentrated area of Nanjing Lu.

Even as a newcomer to the city, I can't help but feel I'm in the process of watching either the most spectacular boom or the most spectacular bust in the world's history. Of course new offices are a necessary part of a booming economy. However, even not including all the buildings coming onto the market, office occupancy is supposedly in the vicinity of 25%, and much of the market is driven by speculation - and many of the occupied offices must be occupied by construction and development companies.

It's not all skyscrapers, though. It's difficult to walk a block without coming across some building being either constructed or renovated, driving pedestrians onto the streets.

One thing to note is that rather than an American-style system of scaffolding and catwalks, the scaffolding around Shanghai buildings will be made with bamboo, with workers walking on bamboo mats that vaguely resemble tatami mats. You can walk under them if walking on the street isn't a good idea, which it generally isn't. It vaguely feels like walking through a movie set or forest. It also causes the odd site of seeing construction workers walking down the street carrying huge pieces of construction-grade bamboo.

Supposedly even very large construction projects will use bamboo scaffolding, but perhaps that's a thing of the past. With skyscrapers and most medium-size buildings, you'll see a combination of steel pipes (arranged in a bamboo-esque manner) and bamboo being used.

One final word of note: OK as much as I love China (so far!), I truly think the censorship is counter-revolutionary. For those who've been trying to access me, has apparently joined the domain and is being censored (although is a big Chinese business, so who knows). Now perhaps Skypeout is being filtered so my voice doesn't go through? So I can't call people. Hopefully it's just a Internet connection problem I'll figure out soon. In the meantime, I can still talk over Skype if you sign up, or I can e-mail, or I have a Chinese cell-phone now, mail for the #. So that's the good way to get in touch with me.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Five Initial Surprises from Shanghai

I'm posting this from an Internet cafe rather than my laptop computer, so I have to excuse myself for the boring non-graphical nature of this posting - I'd like to turn this into a bunch of photo-essays! That's also why I'm temporarily not answering phone calls made me over Skype. Hopefully I will get re-hooked up soon!

Anyway I've been here a week and here are five initial surprises I have with Shanghai.

There are parks everywhere!

Crikey, this is by far the greenest city I've ever been in. PArk-building obviously boomed just as much as skyscapers, and a park is never more than a couple blocks away. Most of them are obviously newly created, along with a very few parks associated with temples, Colonial Buildings, etc. They're not just unused tracts of land, either - they're right in the highly-developed center of town, and are well designed and well manicured. They're everywhere and they really add to the city.

The food is not so wack

I was half afraid and half relishing meals composed of frog brains or some such. Instead the food is very comparable to what's available in the Chinese restaurants in downtown Oakland. I tend to just ask what's good, there's been nothing odd yet. Although there's a couple caveats: Lots of foods are sweetened which is kind of weird, Shanghai-style food isn't as commonplace as I had imagined and hoped for, and I'm still new here and don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Foreign foods are definitely limited: Japanese, Fast Food Hamburgers, Italian, and Portagee (via Macau) is common, but it seems I won't be able to find other cuisines like Hawaiian or Pilipino. The highlight is that the food is high quality and cheap. My favorite so far is the manapua/bao/buns, they are maybe a nickel and so tasty!

The art of stink-eye is underdeveloped

Every time I travel I get stink-eye like crazy. This was especially true in Japan, where doing anything in public and not getting stink can be considered a major accomplishment. In China I don't think I've gotten stink-eye once. I've done more than enough to deserve it - I completely misread China's insane traffic patterns, for instance, where red and green have no real meaning. However it hasn't happened yet and I'm considering doing something really outlandish just to see people's reactions.

No Mao

OK it's kind of crazy but I was looking forward to seeing evidence of the cult of Mao. I realized it wouldn't be everywhere but I thought there would be at least some evidence, like a poster or statue somewhere. I've seen one single statue dedicated to Marx and Engels but that's the full extent of public evidence that I'm living in a glorious revolutionary state, kind of dissappointing!

Obvious stark class differences

There are parts of Shanghai stuffed with outlandish skyscrapers, botique stores, neon lights, and chic restaurants, which put anything in New York or Tokyo to shame. There are also neighborhoods with building that look like a good push would topple them, where they still use chamber pots, etc. These neighborhoods will often be about a ten minute walk away from each other. Oakland was maybe the same (rich Montclair looking over the crime-ridden flatlands) but the two environments seem to co-exist a lot more closely (and orderly) than in any other city I've been in.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

First shots of Shanghai.

Nothing too exciting here I'll admit, these are my first few snapshots from Shanghai. More and better will be up later!

There's skyscrapers going up everywhere. This one reminds me of the evil skyscraper from the climactic scene in "Ghostbuster."

A Communist hero from the People's Park. I forget who. They sell cheap Pearl Milk Tea right around the corner.

It's really busy on the streets, nowhere in the US can compare!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Best parts of Downtown Oakland

I'm starting out with this post, my first post to my first blog. This blog is intended for my friends and family, but I will try to keep it of general interest for anyone curious about foreigner life in Shanghai.

I'll start this with a list and some pictures about my favorite places from my old neighborhood, downtown Oakland. Downtown Oakland is the only place in the Bay Area with a concentration of places worth going to. I'll admit my list tends towards eating and drinking, which is partially because that's what I like, and partly because that's what the area is best for. So without further ado:

Bird Leg and the Tight Fit Blues Band:

Bird Leg is a charismatic Blues Harmonica player who only has several teeth. Every Wednesday night at Pat's Bar (15th and Franklin) from 8-11, he MCs over a Blues event with a regular band. Various guests drop by to take over or accompany for a song or two, and some of them are amazing. My favorite is "Preacher," who can tapdance with a beer bottle on his head.

Cam Huong

A Vietnamese deli on Webster between 8th and 9th, that serves good pho and takeout, along with a pretty good collection of packaged crack seed and excellent fruit smoothies. The raison d etre, however, is the excellent banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. They sell for $2.25 and the taste is excellent, especially lathered in chili sauce. Go for the BBQ pork!

Jahva House

I'm not a cafe person but this cafe, near the corner of 14th and Alice is definitely my favorite - with the caveat that it closes early many days of the week. It's owned by Dwayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone who it's worth mentioning is also a really excellent solo act even if he doesn't perform often. It's attached to the Oakland Arts and Ballet company, and bunch of lofts upstairs. The interior is eclectic international, but it still manages to look really cool. Depending when you go it's a hangout, an internet cram rooom, or just a cafe.

As of 2007 it seems that this place has closed down.

Lake Merrit

Right next to downtown Oakland is Lake Merrit, the first national park (half a year before Yosemite). There's a three and a half mile path around, it's all surrounded by skyskrapers and cool old buildings. It's a popular resting spot for birds migrating between Mexico and Alaska, and the scoping on a warm Sunday afternoon is impossible to beat.

Orient Market

A Chinese store on 7th, between Market and Franklin. Probably it's better to get produce at the stores on 8th and 9th, but if in a hurry Orient market is fine. The things to get are: mochis with bean paste stuffing, well-priced French brandy and prestige alcohols, plum wine intended for Japanese export, Hot Shin Hyung Ramen, Lemon & Honey Tea Jelly, Wasabi peas, live crabs (or live frogs and turtles if such is your interest), Schweppe's Grapefruit soda and other canned sodas and juices.

Parkway Speakeasy

A movie theater, mostly they play 2nd-run movies and art-house cinema for $3-$5, and increasingly they host one-night events. The attraction is that you sit on a bunch of couches or barstools to watch the movie, and the concession stands sell pizza and beer. The inane movie introductions are strangely amusing.

Shan Dong Mandarin Restaurant

A Korean-influence Chinese restaurant on 10th, between Webster and Harrisson. The pork or vegetarian buns are less than a dollar and make the ultimate snack, or a light lunch (you might want two). The meals are more expensive but excellent - the hand-pulled noodles, as shown, are my favorite in the Bay Area.

Radio Bar

Right next to the Tribune tower, this is a chill bar with a DJ off in the corner and friendly bartenders who are occasionally given to "Coyote Ugly" type flourishes. The pan-Asian interior is pretty cool in its corniness.

Shanghai Restaurant

I'm sure the actual food in Shanghai will blow away Shanghai Restaurant, but still this is my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. It's a little inconsistent but the food is excellent and the waitresses are very friendly (and perfectly willing to give honest appraisals of what's worth ordering and what isn't). Highlight include the pork in Sichuan style, the Steamed dumplings (pictured), Shepherd's Purse and Tofu Soup, and the Braised Eel. They serve stinking Tofu, it really smells horrid. Out of respect for their neighbors, they won't cook any until after 6:00.

The Sweet Booth

My favorite of the 300 places that sell Bubble drinks in downtown Oakland, inside the Pacific Center on 9th and Webster. There's also a good crack seed store across the way.

The Ruby Room

I like the dark bars, and Ruby Room (On 14th near the corner of Madison) is about as dark as it gets. If the photo seems boring, it's because it's the only place there was enough light to take any sort of picture - it can be difficult to see the person sitting next to you. Anyway the music is always good, it's always busy, there's always a fun crowd, and it was the ultimate neighborhood bar.

Yung Kee

Yung Kee is a restaurant on the corner 8th and Webster. As a restaurant the insides are entirely grote and the food is often so-so. However the BBQ meat is the best around, I particularly like the BBQ pork, and it's hard to go wrong with any BBQ dish. Get the meat to go, or try the BBQ pork & tofu plate, or a BBQ-meat crispy noodle.