Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cell Phones

This update is about a subject very dear to the heart of Shanghai: Cell Phones. Just as iPods are the conspicuous consumption of choice in the Bay Area, cell phones in Shanghai are for showing off. And I can't help but admit, I've bought into the frenzy. I'm embarassed of my Motorola V188, and wish I was one of the cool kids with an Ericsson Walkman model!

Plan-less cell phones, and other electronics for that matter, are surprisingly expensive in Shanghai - there's a big markup from what they cost in the United States, even though everything's manufactured in China. My phone was on the cheaper end, still costing about $90, whereas the cool-kid Ericsson model costs $400. With the much lower wages and cost of living most people have in China, this price is totally obscene. Perhaps to show it off, people seem to prominently display them on their subway rides.

To be fair, the cell phones are also watches, just like in the US. Also, sending SMS messages is extremely popular over here, even though it can be difficult to do with the Chinese language. First you choose the english reading of the character with your keypad, and then you scroll through the list to choose the correct character. Just one character can be a very large amount of button presses.

Getting a cell phone in the first place was a little difficult for me. The cell phone system here won't work with US cell phones, you need a new one. So you either buy a cell phone with a plan, as in the US, or you buy a cell phone without any plan, then buy a chip that gives it a phone number for another $20 or so. What's cool about that is I didn't even need to write down my name or show ID to get this phone - the policy has since changed, though, to cut down on SMS-spammers and other criminal activities.

If you don't have a plan, you have to buy cards that allow you to charge up the account of the phone, in multiples of 100 RMB (about $12.50). One minute of a local call is 8 cents, one SMS is 1 cent. I bought this card on the left, it has Yao Ming's picture on it, he was a local basketball star before getting big in the NBA. These cards have scratch-off systems like you're playing the lottery. Instead of winning a prize you get a series of numbers, which you enter after calling a special number.

The price for long distance to the US over these is $1/minute! So instead I buy special long distance cards, each can call the US for 40 minutes. The trick is, even though they're also marked at 100 RMB, the price is negotiable. I buy them off the street for $5, although now my roommate can hook me up with the cards for $3.50, he knows somebody. Skype is still five times cheaper, but the quality isn't so great with outgoing calls.

Shanghai is supposedly the biggest cell phone market in Asia, and it shows. There's advertisements everywhere, and everything from the largest department stores to small side-street shops will sell phones, chips, or the various charge cards you use to activate them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Parks in Shanghai: A Sentimental Recollection

I love the Eskimo lifestyle. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and Nanook of the North are two of my favorite movies. At the same time, I never had any plans to go to the frozen wastelands of the far north.

I regret to report that the frozen wastelands of the Far North have come to me. Some could accuse me of a certain lack of fortitude. It doesn't actually snow in Shanghai, for instance. I've heard that can be rough. And I haven't had to buy my first scarf yet, either, or my first pair of gloves.

Still, it is with a wistful melancholy that I look back on my pictures of sunny days spent at Shanghai's parks. I've had my word on the eccentric Fuxing Park, but parks serve a larger set of purposes within Shanghai. Not least important is to absorb the heat and pollution from the extremely crowded city.

But of course they also offer a respite from the surrounding. Yan'an Park is in the center of the city, a minute or two walk from the downtown on one side and the large shopping streets of Huaihai Lu on the other, but the lilies and the willows make you want to kick back and have a picnic.

Although to be honest, you'll probably have somebody motion you off the lawn if you did try to do that. The free parks have a strict no-romping-about policy. It's pretty much stuck to, leading to the strange sight of large green empty meadows, with people sticking to the concrete pathways. The parks have a set of rules, most of which are pretty obvious, but some that are weird:

Rules against teasing cicadas or fish? I took a picture and had a laugh. Although it didn't seem quite as odd when I saw this lady apparently doing just that - she was picking up some fish or something with her umbrella, then putting them back in. Odd.

The parks are also popular places to exercise - you'll see people playing basketball, working out at the outdoor gyms (mostly stretching), or even working on tapdancing routines. The basketball players are pretty good, and the sport is very popular in Shanghai. At these courts near the center of town, it's impossible to get a empty hoop until they turn off the lights at 9 pm.

Century Park is an example of the pay parks they have in Shanghai. It's in Eastern Shanghai, the Pudong district, otherwise known as the boring part of town. There's a few other such parks, all around Shanghai. The park costs $1.25 to get in - most parks in Shanghai are free, but these are very large, and allow you to sit on the grass. As shown on the left, this park anchors the neighborhood, and on a nice weekend, will get really crowded. To me the area seems like a bad place to live, but I've heard the apartments are extremely exensive. There's frequent meetings at the park, and for one picnic I had there, we were surrounded on both sides by the face-to-face meetings of online dating services!

The parks are all well kept up, both the pay and the free ones, with workmen constantly keeping the park in the best condition.

Even small parks usually have spaces set aside for the kids to play. Usually it's a playset, but People's Park has a fountain to run around in.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Not for all the Tea in China

Tea in Shanghai is not what it is in the US. I don't mean to say it's made from something weird, but that it occupies a different niche than what you'll get in Chinese restaurant back in the US. Most of those places in the US, they'll give a nice pot of tea, with some minced-up leaves that settle at the bottom of your glass. I believe that's a perfectly authentic Cantonese style of drinking tea. But it doesn't jibe with how it's done in Shanghai.

Here, if you go to a normal Chinese-style cafe, you'll be given a glass of incredibly hot water, with some leaves in it. These leaves float on the surface, flavoring the water. The idea is that as the water cools, the leaves will sink down to the bottom. With the higher-quality teas, they'll rise and fall a few times, before eventually sinking to the bottom. However in practice the leaves never all agree to head to the bottom of the glass. There's a certain art to drinking the tea without getting any in your mouth - an art I haven't quite mastered.

Note the two teas, which are probably the most popular ones in Shanghai: on the left is green tea, it was delicious if I recall. On the right is flower tea, it's a bunch of dried white jasmine flowers. Jasmine tea's taste isn't my favorite but it does look really cool. Once you've reached the bottom of the glass, somebody will re-fill it with more incredibly hot water.

The tea starts out life a little uglier. Here is some tea in my apartment, right out of the bag. It's green tea on the left, and Oolong tea on the right. The leaves look like something from under the sofa, until they're soaked in water for a bit. Even a small grocery store or convenience store will have dozens of these dried teas for sale, and premium tea stores are pretty common.

But of course tea is consumed in other ways, you can't get away from it! A large amount of people will carry around thermoses of tea. Partially the tea sun-dries and partially there's hot water easily available in a lot of places. Sometimes these thermoses have a little of this and a little of that, it's strangely artistic, although I have no idea how or why you'd want to mix up the various kinds of tea.

And of course pearl milk tea drinks (with sweetened milk mostly overwhelming the flavor of the tea) are found on nearly every block. They'll cost maybe a quarter or fifty cents, and are often served warm or even hot. You can also find iced tea at convenience stores, but they're all lightly sweetened, which I find repulsive.

Surprisingly, most local restaurants I go to will not have tea available. Instead, the liquid comes from ordering a light soup. If they do have any drinks, it'll be soy milk, or a juice, or a milk tea (with or without the pearls).

And you do see teabags around, I'll notice them in offices or situations where free leaves would be too messy. They're also available at the cafes you'll see in the more Westernized areas, which attract a certain kind of clientel:

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Happy Avenue-Rock Music!

Given the choice, I'd go to a concert every day. Not just for the music - I like the possibility of seeing something unexpected, I like scoping out the hipsters, I like talking story with friends before and after, I like kicking it for a bit before going.

In the Bay Area I average at least one a week. When I'm really feeling the spirit, I probably catch more than two a week. In China, I've only been to a few. A very few. I hate to say it, but the music I've seen has been pretty much god-awful. 80s cover bands (usually imported from the Philippines) play at even the most prestigious clubs. I was beginning to get all analytical, wondering if the comparative difficulty of finding any CDs beyond Celine Dion and the top HK pop stars indicated a general distaste for pop music in China - perish the thought!

I'm not qualified to do anything more than muse idly, but I was happy to run across a cool band and a cool club on Friday night. The name of the band is, unfortunately, Happy Avenue. The club is alternatively called Club 288, or the Melting Pot. Neither name really fits the club but I like the first one better. It's located at 288 Taikang, an address that took a couple of native Shanghainese quite some time to find on the map.

The club itself is small and cozy and dark and dominated by the color red. That more or less exactly fits my demands for a perfect bar - although it is hard to photograph, so I cheated on a couple pictures here, and used the flash. One unusual thing is the music started at 7:30, ending around 9:30 or 10. That's around the time bands start in San Francisco. It means you have to rush there after work, you can't chill out before, and the concert is the start of a night rather than the end. However, the bar is a little on the small side, and it got packed full. It was hard to move, and it got pretty hot. Perhaps living in Shanghai has numbed me to that, though. And in response to what my sister asked, I held the camera up to take these pictures, I'm not two feet taller than everybody else in the club.

The band was fun! Their first few songs reminded me of the Talking Heads. The singer's vocals were crazy, although mostly a different form of craziness, with strange sounds, and vocals being used as an instrument. Perhaps if I spoke the lingo better, the art-school vibe would have been more distinct - the website mentions some prestigious literary university. My main comparison was, the rhythm section was really on-point and funky. I was also impressed by the guitarist who inserted stylings that at first seemed to clash with the rest of the songs, but quickly grew on you. After the first half of their first of two sets, I was ready to follow them around like the Grateful Dead.

However they didn't quit keep it up. Their music progressed towards slower songs that almost resembled an annoying rock ballad or even a Canto-Pop ballad, yuck. What kept it going was the occasional oddball guitar solo and the singer inserting weird vocal flourishes into the ballads.

There were a few demographics you couldn't help but notice. The band was 10+ years older than the average audience member, who knows why. Also, the audience was 10-20% white people, a huge percentage, mostly they hanged out in the back and drank beer.

When the concert ended I picked up a CD. I like to support the scene and it's all that much easier when a CD goes for $2.50. It's a good album, but maybe I'd prefer a bootleg of the concert. I did like the weird blue-and-red album art, predominated by knives and qipaos.

Finally, on the way back I walked through the French Concession. It's nice, I wish I lived there!