Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mi Barrio

I live in the South part of Shanghai. The way-far South, a little south of Xujiahui even. Being that it's Shanghai, it's still a densely populated area, but it's about a twenty minute subway ride to the center of town. I never minded subways before, but Shanghai's system can be a grind. Definitely my next place will be more central.

But if I don't so much like the location, the actual place I live is pretty cool. While newer apartment complexes are pretty much the same as American apartment complexes, my apartment complex is older and has a different, very interesting feel.

The first difference is that the whole place is sealed in with a wall. Maybe it's about 8 feet tall, and it's thick. I'm guessing a group of Visigoths with a battering ram would need quite some time to make their way in, if we were under such an attack. The only way in is through a front gate with a security guard. Maybe that sounds like I'm living in a gated community, but gated communities don't have sharp glass shards embedded in the walls - scary!

Two other things worth noting in the above picture: First is the building being built just ouside the apartment's walls - kind of a bummer actually. Shanghai's pollution isn't bad except for the dust in areas where they're building new buildings - which is just about everywhere. Second is the sheer quantity of laundry being dried. It's everywhere in older residential neighberhoods - hanging from lanais, resting over walls out front of my apartment, even hanging from lines out on the street.

It's not just laundry, and sometimes people will dry meat, vegetables, or chilis out in the common areas to the apartments. I guess that's not so strange in itself, but when they're being dried together, the juxtaposition gets to me:

It's not quite sanitary, and neither is another common albeit convenient practice: instead of a big garbage bin that gets picked up once a week, like an American apartment complex, there's a large number of places around the complex where you dump your bags of garbage on the ground. Somebody comes by every few hours and picks it up. Plus, if I leave my plastic Diet Coke bottles or other obvious recycleables out there, they will inevitably be picked up within 10 seconds, somebody else getting to collect the recycling fee. The other garbage is sorted by some guy out front. Trash-collectors with large pushcarts of carboard or paper or somesuch then come by to take away the goodies. Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure how the system works, but it seems pretty efficient.

The garbage on the street and perhaps the drying food helps feed a native population of stray cats - maybe there's four or five of them who hang around the apartment complex. Pets are a new phenomenon to Shanghai, and I hear a lot of them are abandoned by their overwhelmed owners.

There's fourteen six-story apartment buildings in my complex, and that's a lot of people. Inside the walls are a bunch of chairs set up as a common area. Old people sun themselves there - now it's usually just a few, but on a warm day it'll be a couple dozen people. There's a newspaper pinned up in the display case behind the seats, that's pretty common in Shanghai. There's also a couple of small playgrounds for the kids. They're not that much used, though.

Also inside the gates are a couple of really rinky shacks, I can't imagine they're very comfortable places to live. The people who live there run a small store out of the same building, it sells snacks and drinks and bootleg DVDs and the like. Another guy has set up shop near the front gates, he mostly fixes bicycles and repairs shoes, but I've seen him trying his hand at a bunch of other fix-it jobs.

In the immediate vicinity of the apartment (literally across the street) is some more shops: two convenience stores, five restaurants ranging from cheap noodles to a somewhat nice place, a barber, a bootleg DVD store, a foot massage place, and a bakery that sells fancy breads.

There's also a fruit stand right next to the apartment's entrance gate. Sometimes next to it at night will be a guy with a fire-heated iron bolt. He puts popcorn inside, rather than a bunch of small pops it makes one big exploding noise. It's very mysterious and I'll have to have a better look someday, even if I don't like popcorn.

And across the opposite street corner is a massive apartment building site. This photograph only captures a third or so of it:

Looking over these pictures, I hope I don't make it seem like some kind of slum! I guess it does bear a superficial resemblance to the ghetto in that "Kung Fu Hustle" movie, but I really do have a nice place. And I like the neighborhood - it's very safe, it's pretty chill, there's a lot of people, and there's plenty places to eat. People are friendly and don't give a foreigner incredulous looks. Also, the shared areas and the local shops give the apartment complex a sense of community, a sense that apartment complexes I lived in in the US never had. I do get a lot of comments or questions about my height, but as far as pet peeves go that's pretty small.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Potato Chips!

Yes I must admit the topic of this update is potato chips. Before any talk about this blog "jumping the shark," potato chips are found in every convenience store on every block of Shanghai. They get more shelf space than any other snack, with the possible exception of preserved fruits. And I think the flavor options reflect on Chinese tastes in ways that may not be entirely obvious. So here's four flavors out of the 10 or 15 different flavors offered by Lay's, the most common brand.

Lemon Flavor

Fruit flavored potato chips struck me as odd, but I was willing to give it a chance - maybe some lemon flavoring, some rosemary, and it could be a good chip. However really this tastes like those lemon cookies. Totally artificial taste and sweet, almost like candy. Leave it to Shanghai to make even the potato chips sweet!

Cucumber Flavor

If Lemon flavoring is weird, Cucumber flavoring tops that. But actually I've gotten used to Cucumber flavoring in Shanghai, it's a little common. Cucumbers are a type of melon, they're more spicy and less sweet than other melons but the juice is pretty good. It's a bit strong of a taste even, you need to mix it with other flavors. Here the Cucumber flavoring is a little weak, and again it's sweet. It's not as sweet as Lemon chips but it's still not to my tastes.

Texas Grilled BBQ Flavor

About half of Lay's flavors are from this "International" line, along with flavors like Mexican Chicken, French Chicken, Swiss Cheese, etc. "Texas BBQ" sounded like one of the less exotic flavors. However instead of a tangy tomato-based flavor, it tasted like it was flavored with a big hunk of BBQ meat - I think Beef Bullion is one of the ingredients. Shanghai doesn't really understand the idea of meatless eating and even seemingly vegetarian-friendly foods will use meat broth or other meat products. I'm not a vegetarian but if I was I might be limited to eating Lemon potato chips all day.

Beijing Duck Flavor

A "Chinese Favorites" potato chip - are the other potato chips not particularly liked by Chinese people? They never answer this but I have to presume I'm over-analyzing. This is my favorite of the flavors I've had. I don't like duck on the plate, but on the potato chip it makes for a nice combination of salty and savory.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Rock Around the Clock Concert

Half of Shanghai's bands came together this past weekend for one...decidedly minor event. Shanghai Streets is an excellent resource on the Shanghai music scene, but you can't help but notice that it only lists about 20 bands total, in a city of 20 million people - you do the math. By contrast, the Foopee Bay Area Concert Calendar listed more than 100 rock bands playing on that same date, not getting into the various other styles of concerts you find in the Yay Area.

Much as I love music, it pains me to say I just can't get into the Shanghai scene. Between the small size and the popularity of punk & metal, I imagine the music scene would be more appropriate to a small Midwestern town, one without a college. Regardless, I still hold the hope of being pleasantly surprised, so I decided to make the Rock Around the Clock concert, which went on for most of the PM.

The location was pretty cool. It was maybe a twenty minute walk Northeast from the extremely crowded Bund area, but the area still seemed distinctly under-developed for Shanghai. I'm sure that will be change in the next few years, though. This waterfront building was getting knocked down, expect a skyscraper to come up soon.

I walked past the place the first time, without catching any concert going on. It took place in a big warehouse called DDM Warehouse, the upper floors are used to house art and the occasional mega-concert. It's a huge building and a really cool space, it reminded me of the warehouse parties I enjoyed so much in Oakland and San Francisco. There were a few vaguely artsy looking things scattered about on the walls, and a completely nonsensical projected video that seemed to have something pretentious about it - I felt right back at home!

But only a small part of the space was utilized for the concert. Truth be told, maybe it was too small, the area was packed with people.

The bands? Well, I wouldn't call them incompetent, but I wouldn't call them particularly creative, either. To me it felt like some high-school talent competition. They could keep time and didn't miss the notes, but the songs were nothing and the sound was impossibly generic.

This band, Loudspeaker, does the metal/rock thing. Most amusing to me, was the band's singer was just terrible, in contrast to the other members of the group who were competent on their instruments - the drummer was actually pretty good. So, the sound guy turned the mic's volume way down, by the end I don't even think it was being amplified.

I don't want to come off too negative - the $5 entrance fee got admission to a cool space, a Tsingtao beer, a raffle for some pretty nice prizes, and a lot of bands. And even the worst music is fun on some level. At the same time I couldn't help but be amused at how thoroughly the scene is being documented, irrespective of the quality of the scene. In San Francisco every hipster thinks they're a great artist, in Shanghai maybe every hipster thinks they're a great photographer. People with quite nice digital SLRs roamed around, snapping away at everything they saw, and when bands first came on stage it felt like half the crowd was holding a camera, a video-recorder, or at least a camera phone. Obviously I was one of this number - when I got bored with the music, it was something to do! I don't know how bored you have to be before you start taking photographs of other photographers, though.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Xujiahui is the second busiest area of Shanghai, after the downtown's Nanjing Donglu. It's in the South of the city, and all the seven or so major streets in South Shanghai (the ones that don't allow bicycles or foot traffic) converge there.

In America that would mean traffic jams and lots of parking garages, but in Shanghai that just means traffic jams. Lots of them, really bad ones. Pedestrians are spared the hassle, with walkways that go over the street. There's escalators on the way up, you walk the way down. The day I took pictures it was raining, so there was the hassle of making sure you don't fall down the stairs, it's a little slippery!

And any escalator or series of stairs in Shanghai wouldn't be complete without people who don't get the concept, and come to a full and complete stop at the top or bottom. Sometimes merchants will set up right there. It can get ugly, especially on these raining days, where there can be one umbrella seller after another and you can't get out. This transaction was a little more low-key, true:

But even without sellers these walkovers can get over-packed. It's best to avoid large parts of Xujiahui after work gets out - the walkways are just too narrow, you can get surrounded by people and nobody's moving fast.

The main way to get to Xujiahui is by taking the Metro, there's a huge subway station there. The station is in the process of being re-built, adding a second series of guard doors, to keep people from pulling a "My Sassy Girl" I guess. Many of the subway exits go directly into the basement level of nearby malls. Even on the way, the hallways are full of small vendors selling a little of this and a little of that.

Xujiahui is most famous as the best place to buy electronics in Shanghai. There's huge advertisements for electronic companies, and the glass sphere has been converted into an Adidas soccer ball:

There's also smaller advertisements all around, listing offered prices. These listed prices are more a recommendation than anything. The large electronics malls of Shanghai operate like bazaars, containing large numbers of small stalls, where the people will bargain to sell you things. Each stall has a specialty or two - maybe computer speakers, or iPods, or a particular brand of digital cameras.

It doesn't matter how hard you bargain, it's still not cheap. You'd think that with electronics being made here they would be cheaper here, but by some strange regulation, electronics made for export to, say, Japan, must be shipped there, then shipped back. They get a big luxury tax, in addition to import/export charges. I haven't done any serious study but I believe the mark-up is 10% to 25%, depending on the item. Supposedly it's best to get electronics from the US, and have them air-mailed!

There's more to Xujiahui than electronics, though. They also have large malls and boutique stores - definitely it caters to the wealthy, although it's not as elite as Nanjing Xilu or some other areas of the city. Perhaps to address this, they've added statues here and there, I guess they're supposed to give a vaguely European air to strolling the streets:

It still has the bright lights and the fast food restaurants you expect from any rich part of Shanghai:

It's hard to make out, but the decorations from above aren't there the entire year: they mark Chinese New Year's, which is coming in a couple weeks. It's referred to as Spring Festival and is a week-long celebration, it has to do with China's traditional lunar calendar. Many stores and districts are rolling out the red decorations in force.

Xujiahui also has some impressive older brick buildings scattered about, such as this large Concession-era church - most older buildings are limited to the more central downtown area and the French Concession to the West. And you wouldn't want to go in the rain, but Xujiahui does has a small but pretty cool park dedicated to a Confucian scholar.

And you can play this game in almost any area of Shanghai, but here is a picture of Xujiahui from 20 years ago. Except that there's lot of streets coming in at weird angles, the area is completely unrecognizable - it's all been replaced.