Sunday, December 31, 2006

Wujiang Lu Food Street & Xiao Yang Shengjian

One of my (too many) New Year's Resolutions is to not eat a single hamburger over the next year. It's not that I love hamburgers, but that I can't really get into the Chinese food around Jing'an Si, the neighborhood I live in. A sub-part of the resolution is to go and check out other neighborhoods a little more. So today I took the subway, one stop away, to Nanjing Xi Lu.

To be honest, the food is probably better if I take the subway one stop in the opposite direction - I've been pretty happy with the places I've been to near Jiangsu Lu. But, there is a really cool back street near the station, that's where I was headed. This food street is a bit of a surprise - the actual Nanjing Xi Lu is one of the most tony parts of town, with lots of elite shopping and upscale apartments. So it's a weird ammalgation, with the street hawkers and small food shacks operating in the shadows of 5 star hotels.

Adjacent to the station, a little to the east of most of the food, are a number of little stalls selling odds and ends, for example there is a collection of a few booths selling genuine-looking air pistols. They look realistic enough, I can't see these without thinking about the fake guns used in Hong Kong gangster movies, like "PTU."

But they're selling all kinds of things, high-end and low, here's a collection of women's shoes that seems fairly high-end, at least compared to what you'd expect:

I've mentioned bootleg DVDs before, and this area has them, but I haven't mentioned bootleg books. They're not nearly as common, but in the more central parts of town you'll see them every few blocks. The quality is good, and they often have foreign books, both translated and in English. In this case, if you look to the bottom right corner, you can make out the Lord of the Rings, some Stephen King, Harry Potter...

On to the food! The first picture was a surprise to me. I've never had them before, and I don't even think oysters are all that popular in Shanghai. It appears they're minced, mixed in with pork and onions, and then cooked on the half-shell? I'll have to try it, but first I'll have to work past my fear of food poisoning - street food stalls aren't the most hygenic, and even on a cold day I hate to eat foods which aren't being cycled through quickly. Oh, there's also some barbequed chicken, that's probably the most commonly seen food on this street.

Coconut Milk! Looking back, I wish I had bought one of these. I've never had it in China, truth be told. You can see this is just being sold from a large cart. As crowded at the street is (just click on the picture to the right, if you don't believe me for whatever reason), she manages to push her way through the crowds, coming to a full and complete stop when making a sale.

And the infamous Stinking Tofu makes an appearance. The taste is OK and surprisingly mild, but the smell is literally something like a sewer's.

There's not only food along this stretch of road, as my pictures might be suggesting. People are still selling clothes, bootleg DVDs, and various knick-knacks. Also, to the side of the streets are small street-side restaurants. They're generally casual snack restaurants. They're either sit-down, or more often places with the option of taking the food to go. Some of them are extremely popular, and have crowds lining up outside. You can see one such place in the background:

And on the more casual side, here is a guy selling roasted sweet potato and corn, from a oil-drum barbeque. You see this around Shanghai, they're actually pretty tasty.

Anyway, that takes me to my final destination: Xiao Yang's Shengjian. It's really popular, there's actually two of them, standing right next to each other. The food is sold as quickly as it gets made, and you can see two lines: on the left is for placing the order, and on the right is waiting for the food. There's some tables, but not many, and most people get it to go.

Shengjian are something like a fried xiaolongbao, a doughy outside with a soupy-meat inside. Instead of being steamed, they're fried in a pan. You get the shengjian right off the pan, and with the soup inside, they're incredibly hot. Just plucking one in your mouth would result in serious first degree burns! The normal way to eat them is the punch a hole in the top to let the steam off, and drink the soup, first. My preferred (if unusual) method is to get them to go and then take them home. It takes 10 minutes or so, and by that time the soup is merely hot, rather than scalding.

It's fun to see them being made: the volume is seriously high, and it's somewhat of a factory line affair, with a huge quivering mass of pork-meat being stuffed into the wrappers. It seems like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but even though everybody is in constant motion, it seems to always work out smoothly. Here's a short video of the proceedings, I think it's pretty cool! But I'm afraid the Internet link between China and the rest of the world is still seriously frayed by the Taiwanese Earthquake. If it doesn't load, check back later.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Jet Set Jeff in Beijing, Part 2

I'll start off the second part of this post with a few observations that I don't have accompanying photographs for. All these observations are made after only several days, so take them as you will.

Beijing is Large - The population isn't as great as that of Shanghai, but I have to believe the physical size is much larger. What I saw of Beijing did not at all have the busy, crowded feeling that much of Shanghai has. Instead, there were wide streets and boulevards. If that sounds scenic, it didn't at all lend itself to walking around, and even in the center of the town, I felt like many of the streets were dead!

Beijing has Good Food - I had never heard this before, and the people I tell this to in Shanghai (none of whom have themselves been to Beijing) just don't believe me. But there's no denying that the random restaurants I popped into off the street would have been in the top tier of Shanghai restaurants. Perhaps I had good luck, but I suspect it's something more.

Beijing People Speak Mandarin - Kind've weird, being actually able to understand people talking on the street - here in Shanghai, so many people speak the local dialect. Beijing people do have an "r" sound ending a lot of words, I'm not used to it and to me it sounds so ugly.

Beijing People are Friendly - Again, it's a difficult thing to tell from just a few days in tourist areas, but I met a lot of friendly people, that happens few and far between on the mean streets of Shanghai.

Beijing is Cold - My God. I also hear it's the most polluted city in Asia, but I didn't think it was all that bad, when I went.

Anyway, back to the normal programming: I visited the Tibetan Temple, a relic from when the Tibetan Buddhist Manchus were in charge of the nation, and pushing Tibetan Buddhism as a unifying force for various ethnicities. The entranceway, for one, has a sign in Manchu, Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian:

Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of elements that distinguish it from Han Chinese stylized Mahayana Buddhism, and the temple had a different feel from most others I've been to - if not nearly so different from the Buddhist temples I've seen in Japan, Thailand, or the US. The temple had fallen into disuse over the centuries, but was protected during the Cultural Revolution. It since been restored and is very popular with Han Chinese, I'm guessing mostly as a tourist attraction. There's a mini-industry of people selling incense outside, and people were buying them by the armload. The incense gets offered at points throughout. These areas get incredibly crowded with people bowing and burning incese, it looks like they're risking smoke inhalation!

One of those boring things that I still get into, all across Asia, is the elaborate roofing. Notice the figurines on the corners, or the stupas, a feature common to Buddhist temples.

Interesting to note, this temple was originated as an expansion of a royal building, and in almost every regards, including size, layout, decoration, building design, etc., there was a strong parallel to what I had seen earlier, at the Forbidden Palace - this lion is half a step removed from the lion seen in my earlier look at Beijing.

I should mention a couple things: first, I had a look at the parks to the Northwest of the Forbidden City, they were formerly a part of the Forbidden City compound. They were fun, with lots of people going there to practice dancing, or sing in groups, or play badminton, and so forth. If it seems silly, people are having fun, and that's what parks are for, right?

These parks also featured a few hills, that provided looks over the Forbidden City, maybe they give a better glance at its scale:

And of course I went to a nearby section of the Great Wall, to have a look. One of the surprises (or at least, things I never had thought about before) was that the Great Wall is located on the top of a series of hills and mountains.

So naturally getting there, and getting around, involves a lot of climbing up steep (and as you can see, very crowded) terrain. Actually to get from the parking lot to the wall, they had a silly little cart and pulley system, it felt like when the roller coast starts out the ride by going uphill for a minute, except it was longer. A natural thought, upon seeing all of this, was what an insanely difficult job it must have been to construct a gigantic wall on what amounts to the worst possible terrain. It did offer amazing views, even if the sky was a little hazy:

The work isn't done - it requires constant upkeep, but hasn't been of military use for centuries. In the less tourist-acessible portions, the Great Wall has greatly deteriorated, often all the way into pebbles.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Jet Set Jeff in Beijing, Part 1

After an earlier escapade in the Three Gorges, I hopped the first plane over to the capital city of Beijing. That was an adventure in itself, with an airport located in the middle of a cow field, serviced by a 1 and a half lane road, but I digress...

Anyway the first stop was to Tianmen Square, and the Forbidden City right across the way. Tianmen Square is really boring. It's a big stone courtyard, flanked by really ugly Soviet style architecture, ugly in a way that puts the ugliness of any Shanghai Government architecture to shame. It still remains massive and crowded.

I guess you could say it's popular the same way Washington DC is, despite similarly having nothing to offer outside of government kitsch. Most noticeable was a spectaculalry long line, it led to a mausoleum where you could catch a few second's glimpse of Mao Zedong's pickled corpse. I didn't partake, but I did take a picture of a very Communist-looking statue, right outside.

And maybe you can see from squinting at the top picture, the portrait of Mao looking over the Square isn't nearly as large and imposing as it always looks in the magazine articles about China. Perhaps it's poetic license?

Anyway the gate under the portrait leads to the Forbidden City, where after walking for half a mile or so, you finally enter the main compound. The Forbidden City is immediately stunning, if for no other reason than that it's spectacularly large. This is just a portion:

There was a lot to see. A favorite was the massive gilded lions flanking the various gates:

Scattered about were some glazed wall tiles and displays, some of them were extremely beautiful.

This turtle opens itself to Freudian analysis?

If there's a complaint to be made, it's that it can at times have the feeling of a barn. Corners of the palace could be surprisingly empty and peaceful, but also had grass overgrowing the roof. And from what I understand, most of the insides were carted away by Chiang Kai-Shek, and are now on display in a Taiwanese museum. So many of the buildings were closed, and when the insides were open, the exhibits were sparse and didn't match the opulence of the outsides. I don't want to concentrate on the negatives, however, there was still a lot to see, and just the scale made it all the more impressive. Rather than ending on a negative note to a very impressive site, I'll show the cool little figurines, put on the cornerstones of the rooftops:

That night I decided to have a look at what music I could find! While I often talk bad about Shanghai's music scene, Beijing's seemed better. Of course it's hard to tell from one single night of going out to check the scene, but that one single night I did go out was to a really cool spot, with a casual feel, a friendly crowd, and cheap bottles of my favorite Chinese draft beer. Maybe the music wasn't quite my normal style, but overall it was still much superior anything I've run across in Shanghai.

Oh, and then I started talking to some musicians I met in the audience, and we were talking about old-school 30s blues musicians, and maybe we were drinking too much, and I dared them to go onstage and play, and they dared me to go up there and sing with them, and we did it. I was terrible, I freely admit it, but they were awesome and it was a lot of fun. I snapped a picture onstage:

Anyway I'll have more to say on Beijing soon, stay tuned!

(And if the videos don't work, that's probably because of the Taiwanese earthquake disrupting Internet service - check back later, although it may take a while)

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Very Plate Lunch Christmas

This isn't about my actual Christmas in Shanghai, but about a small but important subset of my Christmas experience: the popular reaction to the food I prepared for a party.

A little background information: I invited about 10 friends, all Chinese, to come over on Christmas Eve. These are people whom I've gone out for food with plenty times, and about half of them I've been to their place for food. None of these people particularly cares for Western foods, and although I haven't really talked about it with them, I have the impression they think it is all very simple and bland and involves eating a lot of bread.

Deciding what to cook was a challenge. I hadn't cooked a single proper meal since I arrived in Shanghai a year and a half ago, and had forgotten such simple things as what I liked to cook. My apartment lacks an oven or microwave, I only have two stove tops and a rice cooker. I didn't want to attempt anything Chinese, I knew I would be out-classed at it. Finally, a lot of the ingredients I'd like are impossible to find, or perhaps only to be found at a ridiculous price. I ended up with a kind of weird list of foods that would read like a Hawaiian plate lunch menu. That's not as bad as it sounds; one of my more absurd dreams is opening a Hawaiian plate lunch stand.

Corn Chips and Salsa

If potato chips are to be found on every city block of Shanghai, corn chips are a weird foreigner-only thing that you pay the exorbitant foreigner-only price for. $6 or so for this bag, although I also saw cheaper ones. I was strangely excited about this, considering I've never made salsa before - chopping up the tomatoes, onions, and so forth. I ended up thinking it was very delicious but it didn't go over well at all - people had one bite, and pronounced it weird. Raw vegetables are kind of a pariah, maybe having to do with a suspicion of the hygenic standards of Chinese produce. One person liked it, the two of us scarfed most of it down.

The pseudo-guacamole was canned, a sweet green paste manufactured in Scotland. Really disgusting, I don't know why I didn't toss it. I wanted to make real guacamole, but even the ugly looking avacados at Carrefour were selling for $3 apiece!

Pickled Onions with Chinese Vinegar

Pickled Onions are kind of a local specialty, although they're very bland to my tastes. I bought a jar and added some Chinese style vinegar - it's brown and flavorful, not having been distilled like American white vinegar. The results are seriously delicious, and even if pickled onions are kind of an odd snack, I'd recommend anyone to try this. I thought this would go over well, being kind of local and all, but nobody even touched it!

Brie Cheese

I have fond memories of a Japanese friend who would go crazy with disgust at just the sight of cheese. I don't like cheese so much, but I went to a French-branded grocery store and saw some cheap French-branded cheese for $2, and took the plunge - mostly just curious if it would inspire the same reaction. A few people tried it, just once. They didn't care for it, but in all honesty it wasn't all that great. I'll have to re-attempt this experiment in the future, with a higher grade of cheese.


A lot of people brought over chocolate, this is just part of the take. We didn't even open most of it, and I ended up with enough Dove bars to make up for spending Halloween on a plane to Bombay.

Fruit and Kettle Corn

If you've been paying attention, you see my snacks didn't go over so well, people tried a little bit and then gorged in on fruit and popcorn. A friend bought the popcorn off the street, I had never had it before, although I see people making it all the time. It's higher cooked and heavily sweeted, like the kettle-corn Hawaiian style popcorn. Anyway that's all well and good, but at $6 for a bag of tortilla chips, I was a little nonplussed that people were hovering around sweetened popcorn, I can't deny. Oh, and the citrus fruit shown is one of the examples of the dozens of variations on citrus fruits that I had never even seen in the US, but are commonly available all around Shanghai.

Anyway, on to the main meal:

Kalua Pig

Kalua Pig is a tender pork flavored with salt, shoyu, and copious amounts of liquid smoke. It's supposed to be made in an oven or even an underground pit, but I don't have either in my apartment. Actually I was pretty impressed with the results from stovetop cooking. It's undeniably simple, but the flavors are strong, the extremely soft and juicy texture is unique, the liquid smoke flavoring was something new to all the guests, and in general this recieved very favorable comments. And no that isn't my picture above, I didn't make one-tenth that much!

Chili on Rice

The central meal has no place at Christmas: Chili on Rice. For me it's an everyday food and not so special. Still, I had a lot of fun preparing the dish, randomly adding things that were lying around my kitchen until I was happy with the taste, including lime and tequila, lots of garlic, and every hot sauce I ran across - I like things on the spicy side, and most of my guests were born in the Szechuan area, so no problem there! Nobody else there had had it before, or anything like it, and everybody really dug the strong flavors and the complexity of the final taste. I definitely made some converts to the cause - unfortunately the only restaurant chili I've tried in Shanghai has been seriously boring and over-priced, which is about standard for Shanghai's expat-oriented restaurants.

Hawaiian Style Macaroni Salad

Actually I toned down on the mayonnaise and added some self-imported Huy Fong Sriracha Sauce to this one, I knew the genuine style wouldn't go over that well and maybe I pushed the boundaries of authenticity. Still this wasn't very popular, even if people ate it. "Too bland" was the universal comment. In a formal plate lunch the blandness of the macaroni salad acts as a counterpoint to the central dish, but here I admit it was kind of an odd duck. I also had some vegetables. Not having enough stovetops or time to do anything interesting, they were just there out of a general belief that one should eat vegetables.


As a crazy cocktail enthusiast who doesn't know anybody here who likes to drink cocktails, I was kind've trying to push these on people, also making the sweeter drinks that the amateurs go for. Results were poor. Drinking anything other than a beer or two at a casual social dinner is out-of-the-place for the crowd. Some cocktails were had, but people found them too strong, and watered them down to the point of oblivion. One person got pretty into a Rum drink (Cuban Rum, the same brand as the weird picture above! But that's a topic for later), well anyway that's something. A Sloe Gin Fizz, a Whiskey Sour, and a Margarita, each made with fresh juice and top-shelf ingredients, all recieved low marks.

Anyway if the summary lists more negatives than positives, it was a fun night with a cool group of friends, and the central food was extremely popular, keeping my strange dream of opening a Shanghai Plate Lunch Stand alive! All in all it was a great Christmas Eve, even if I didn't spend it con mi familia. Christmas was just another day at work, and studying Chinese...anyway Merry XMas to all friends and family who are reading this!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I've been absent for too long, not having a home computer to post blogs off of. Getting a new computer in Shanghai isn't as easy as I had hoped. It's part of living under a Communist system - high-end electronics all get slapped with a hefty luxury tax, making computers cost far more than the invisible hand in the US charges, despite the products having actually been manufactured here in the People's Republic.

Anyway a short post on a subject close to my heart: weird underground music!

In this case, it was Nana at 4Live. 4Live has an interesting history: Tang Hui's co-owner used to own the eminent music bar, Tang Hui, which moved to a new location and went upscale. Then Tang Hui's former co-owner opened a new bar, and dedicated it to being the same general sort of bar the Tang Hui had been before it moved. If it all sounds a little pointless, it's a general outlook on the nightlife of Shanghai, where what little does exists changes with a great regularity!

Anyway, getting on with the music: It was trip-hop. If you're not familiar with the sub-genre, imagine music that is about as trendy as possible. The above picture even shows Apple iBooks on stage, my god. Nana featured a torch singer going along with simple computer-generated beats and melodies, and the look was like something out of Twin Peaks or My Bloody Valentine's Loveless album.

I go to concerts for those instances where I am unexpectedly shocked by the beauty of it all, and momentarily consider following the band like the Grateful Dead. Nana didn't quite have it. The electronic backing was too generic.

Her voice was relatively beautiful but the melodies didn't at all let it play out - and furthermore, some of the songs felt half-thought out, going on aimlessly for just a minute or two, before stopping.

If you're curious to hear the music, check out the band's Myspace page. There's a music video made with the computer game Sims 2 that's pretty cool.

The club itself is a top spot. I chose to walk from the nearest subway, it's about 15 minutes past mostly empty streets. The final location is surprising, it's in a small strip of souped-up bars and restaurants, feeling like a miniature Xintiandi - the recognized ritzy-tourist center to Shanghai. The insides hold a couple hundred people, with an open-floor bar downstairs, and an upstairs with the little nooks and tables that allowed private parties to gather - including a top-down look at the next band, New Pants, also from Beijing. They were punk-pop, or something, and my god did they suck.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Excuses, excuses...

Again I'm giving the impression of having abandoned this blog...which I haven't! My home computer was touch and go for a while, and finally died. I hope to have everything sorted out by next week.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Jet Set Jeff & the Three Gorges

I haven't posted in a fair amount of time - that doesn't at all reflect a waning commitment to writing this blog. Truth be told, I hope to turn this blog into something approaching journalism. It's mostly just a matter of being spectacularly occupied with travels, and with catching up with works, and with turning my Chinese studies up to an 11.

Among other things, my parents visited, and we together saw some famous parts of China. The first place we traveled was the Three Gorges, taking a three-day boat cruise down the Yangtze river. Actually I was pretty excited about starting out with a half-day in the city of Chongqing, because I know a few people from there, and I know a lot of people from nearby Sichuanese cities.

But in all honesty, I didn't have the time to give the city more than the quickest of glances - a shame, it's not the sort of city you make a special trip for, but I'd have liked to seen more. As a very quick impression, it seemed extremely poor, but with an impressive downtown. Most spectacular was that the streets were incredibly steep, and looked over a huge river gorge. Even three days upriver from the Three Gorges, the water level had risen some, and was still set to rise. Later, my Chongqing friend told me the city has been greatly improved from what is was five or ten years ago.

From there it was on down the Yangtze river, a boat ride that took two days and three nights, mostly through farmland. It was foggy pretty much the entire way (as I had been forewarned) - a certain eeriness was added by the knowledge that the current waterline was far up in the sky, compared to where it was only several years previous. You saw half submerged trees, and the occasional sign measuring where the water would come up to, once the dam gets completed. Below the line you saw foundations, but you didn't see many houses. In the picture below, the "156" marks the current meters above sea level, and the "175" measures the final height - meaning, another 60 feet to go.

I took pictures of the river traffic because it looked kind of cool, but to be honest there wasn't very much, either large-scale or small scale. You did see some other large tour boats. One of the hopes of the Three Gorges dam is that Chongqing will become a major port, despite being far into the middle of China.

The trip itself was low-key, but entirely beautiful. Maybe it's a little similar to driving on Highway 1, along California's coastline: a sustained but repetitive beauty. You felt somewhere stuck somewhere between a constant awe, and the view becoming mundane and monotonous. But as a backdrop to being able to spend time with my parents, it was about perfect. Here are a few snapshots:

A highlight was a side-trip: right before the Third Gorge we were taken to a side-river, the Bellows Gorge, where there was strictly-for-the-tourists recreation of how coolies used to tug smaller boats by hand, to minimize the dangers of travelling through the dangerous Three Gorges.

That was fun, but really the trip there was much more impressive. The tributary cuts it way through dramatic cliffs. At times you felt trapped between walls of rock, it was difficult to believe that the gorge had been hundreds of feet lower until only recently.

And you could also catch small glimpses of the locals going about their lives. They're of the Daxi ethnic minority. I don't know anything about them and won't pretend differently. However, you did see a lot of small boats for fishing, and small hillside farms:

The quality isn't quite what I'd like, and singing minorities are an ugly cliche in China, but here's a short clip of one of the coolies singing a traditional Daxi song. It's about a guy who loves a girl, but can't marry her.

I don't use this blog to editorialize, but it's more-or-less objectively true that the dam is a disaster waiting to happen, that's already done a lot of damage to China. I'd invite anyone with an interest to look through the unprofessional but interesting Wikipedia entry on the subject. For those keeping track, Wikipedia is now blocked from the Chinese Internet, after a brief period of working fine. Additionally, blogspot (which hosts this blog) is again blocked, after several months of being freely available. Anonymouse remains an easy way to access these pages from inside China. 11/24/6 - The day after posting this, blogspot became unblocked, but wikipedia remains blocked, huh.