Sunday, April 30, 2006

And to Think That I Saw It on Tianlin Street, Pt. 1

I've mentioned Tianlin Street a few times recently, it's a shopping street near my apartment. I can't claim that it's a tourist highlight of Shanghai, and there's nothing especially amazing or unique to the street. At the same time, there's always something interesting to see, and in a low-key way it exemplifies the busy bustle I enjoy about Shanghai.

This update will be mostly the form of a picture diary, showing what you can see on a ten or fifteen minute walk along a stretc of the road. I took these pictures today, the day before International Labor Day's week long holiday. Even though it's a Sunday, it's still considered a "Work Day" - with longer holidays in China, work days are often jumbled around, people work the weekend and then get the rest of the week off. So it's not nearly as busy as it would be on a normal Sunday - or it will be on Labor Day, I'd imagine.

The walk starts with a small park. Like a lot of small parks it's well manicured, but you aren't allowed to walk off the pathways. This Eagle statue strikes me - how does it look like anything besides Americana?

It's just across the street that they have several illicit massage parlors. Particularly naive readers may be startled to find that massage parlors can be fronts for prostitution. Girls in miniskirts will sit around, bored. Sometimes they'll motion for you to come inside. Probably the most common front is barber shops. That doesn't mean every barber shop is a front - of course there's huge amounts of legitimate barber shops and massage parlors. The naughty places will often have pink lights. It's not like Amsterdam, but really it's nothing subtle. Beauticians and Karaoke joints are also common fronts.

A lot of shops along this stretch occupy the first floor to larger apartment buildings. It must be said, some of these apartment buildings are about as ugly as any you'll see in Shanghai:

Street traffic is mostly bikes, motorcycles, and mopeds, although there's also a fair share of taxis, busses, and private cars. It's a little chaotic and you occasionally see small accidents, such as this electric bike rider, who ran into the cart rider. The cart got knocked over and so they yelled at each other, and the cart rider hit the bike a few times.

There's a few restaurants around this area. This one is on my short list of places to go - it's a Muslim restaurant. Muslim restaurants are pretty common to Shanghai, especially around the area I live. A lot of them aren't much more than shacks, although this one looks pretty nice. And perhaps a more proper name would be Xinjiang restaurants - it's a majority-Muslim area in Northwestern China. There's also this Shanghai-style diner, across the street:

It looked like an OK place and it seems to be popular, but I'd have to recommend against it. The Xiaolongbao I ordered there, if edible, were still the worst I've gotten in Shanghai:

Just a little down the street, on a busy corner, is a Yong He Da Wang, a fast food chain restaurant. I think they're pretty good - everybody tells me they're actually terrible, but they're all over Shanghai and they're always busy. Maybe there's the same psychology as with McDonald's, in the US. Anyway, whenever you go it seems half the people are snacking on oil rolls with sweet Soy Milk:

Apartment buildings are often built off the main street, and the side-roads can contain either small parks, or in this case, a row of small restaurants and stands selling snack foods:

On this street corner, coffee is sold from this van, which will stay parked here all day. It sells sweet coffee drinks and the like - Starbuck's are relatively common to Shanghai, but they're more expensive than in the US, which is a little crazy by local pricing standards.

There's too many pictures for one update, so I'll finish the bunch in the next couple of days, stay tuned!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Flower Store

Last month, I got some goldfish and a fish tank as a gift. I didn't know the first thing about fish, and raising them has been more of a challenge than I expected. This is compounded by being in China. Somebody looked at my fish, and told me it needed anti-fungus medicine. I didn't get them to write it down, and really had no idea how to even suggest the idea at a pet store. Regardless, feeling courageous, I asked where in the area I could find a pet shop, and they told me in the back of a local flower store, oddly enough.

I'm not the flower-buying type, and had never been inside, but truth be told it was an interesting place. First of all, the inside of the main mall was packed solid with every type of flower and plant that comes to mind, from cactuses to Anthuriums.

There's also the arranged sticks of bamboo sprouts that often decorate restaurants. Here they're behind purple flowers that look like they've seen better days.

But more interesting are the shops in the back. Shanghai tends towards fixed prices, at least in comparison to the rest of China. Still, you'll find yourself in situations where there's vendors one after the other. It's interesting to see but I consider it a pain. It slows down the buying process, and foreigners always get high balled.

These vendors often sell arrangements of flowers, whereas the main store more sells potted plants. The flowers on the left of the picture, raised up on a stand, are intended for store openings. When a new store opens in Shanghai, they'll invariably light off firecrackers and line up maybe two to eight of these flower displays, they're kept up until the flowers are nearly dead. Within earshot of my apartment I hear firecrackers going off nearly every day.

Am I getting too froo-froo with this update? There are also some pets being sold. Mostly it's birds and fish and decorative pets like that, but this bird vendor also had a couple of kittens, who were playing with each other inside this cage.

And on a more basic level, you can buy decorative rocks. They're separated by size, and purchased by weight.

Finally I found a fish shop. Conveniently enough, a lot of the fish products had English as well as Chinese written on the packaging.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Moon River - A Construction Site

Shanghai is in the midst of the world's largest construction boom, ever. There's no getting around it: no matter what area of Shanghai you're in, you're likely to be within view of at least one massive high rise going up.

There's a particularly large apartment complex going up near my apartment. It's still going to be a while before it's finished, but it seems like it will be a fairly upscale, if fairly generic, place to live. It's called "Moon River," a kind of cute name for an apartment built along a polluted stream:

But I like to stay positive, and hope that the apartment complex reflects a commitment to cleaning up the stream, which actually is true with some other Shanghai housing developments. If you notice the bridge, it's a temporary walking bridge. The current bridge is one-lane only, and will be torn down soon.

The bridge doesn't look like it's up to any sort of safety code, and I suspect that's true of the entire project. A simple example is the fact that I could walk through the whole project snapping pictures. There's also the scaffolding on the outside of the buildings, to give access to contruction workers. The shot on the left shows the underside of an American scaffolding system - obviously it isn't a permanent structure, but it looks pretty solid. By comparison, Moon River's scaffolding system is just a series of bars, both on the sides and on the 'floor' of the scaffoldings. Sometimes bamboo stakes are lay down on the floor to make them more stable, but not always.

The workers seem to have a hard life. They used to live in a temporary housing on the worksite, it obviously didn't have plumbing or any amneties:

But that has since been torn down. The construction workers now live in the lower levels of the half-completed buildings.

That might sound overly strange to those outside of Shanghai. Half-finished apartment and office buildings are often occupied in Shanghai, even by fairly normal people and respectable-seeming businesses. I've been inside such offices and you wouldn't know the building was still being worked on, if it wasn't for the occasional drilling noise. With some of Moon River's buildings, floors are still being added to the top of the building, even while windows are being installed in the lower levels. Anyway I can't comment on the living conditions insides of these buildings, I've never been inside to have a look. I've just noticed the laundry hanging outside. There's also a few metal shacks, at night you'll glimpse a few workers laying in hammocks. There's small kitchen areas and card tables nearby.

I wish I could comment more on the work being done. A lot of it is hidden from me, taking place inside the shells of the buildings. What I do see doesn't look substantially different from what you'd see on an American construction site, although you do see a few things being done with massive groups of people rather than a machine, or machinery that looks like it's past its prime.

The picture below is of a different job site, but I was still impressed - how did they get that up on top, anyway, and why?

There does seem to be more workers on hand then there would be at an American site, they don't always look like they're working very hard. It's a hard thing to photograph, but this guy was going slow at it, and a few people were watching him go slow at it:

Sometimes the work goes on through the night, but here workers seem to be coming to an end with the sun setting, 6:00 on a Sunday evening:

And speaking of the sun setting: South Shanghai has a big problem with dust from construction, and today was particularly bad. The haze was something fierce.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Maglev Train

Shanghai's Maglev Train is pretty cool! Or at least that's my opinion. Nobody I talk to agrees with me about this. They say it's overpriced and only foreigners who don't know any better would use it.

The maglev is a Magnetic Levitation train, using magnets to suspend the train a fraction of an inch above the monorail, and then uses magnetic propulsion to zoom the train forward. I don't want to get into the technical details, the point is that you go really fast and it's a very smooth, quiet ride.

A ticket to ride the maglev costs $6.25 one way, compared to a $1.50 bus offering the same route. The entrance gate area is bright and clean and has a small check-in process, giving the station the feel of an underused aiport, or maybe a subway system from the future.

Looking at the picture, it obviously has an empty feel - it's a matter of logistics. The subway goes extremely fast, but only for 19 miles, from the International Airport to a train station on the far end of town. From my apartment to the train station is 14 subway stops, which isn't slow, but isn't at all fast. So truthfully it's somewhat absurd. They talk about expanding to the domestic airport across town. I don't doubt it could happen, but first they'll need to knock down some massive apartment buildings, directly across from the station.

The errors of the system are obvious, but it's not all negative. The maglev train is faster and more convenient than taking the bus from the aiport to the subway, only a few dollars more expensive, and it makes for a fun introduction to the city. I would definitely recommend it to new arrivals who don't require a taxi. The insides are a lot more pleasant than your average bus or taxi, and this simple photographic evidence shows that Chinese (or at least, East Asian) people also use the Maglev.

The train works on a monorail system. There's two monorails, but for whatever reason only one is used. Probably because the ride only takes about 10 minutes, and there aren't enough people to require two trains operating in parallel. Taking the train is a rush, way better than a Disney ride. The train goes 270 miles/hour right alongside the ground, it feels more like a low-flying jet than a car or a subway. It doesn't stay the top speed long, though - after just a minute or two it starts slowing down, for arrival at the destination.

The train goes through a lot of turns, and there's no friction from the rail, so the track leans over an absurd amount - maybe 45%? Of course the g-forces cancel that out, and you wouldn't even know the train was leaning, without looking out the window. Things fly past so quickly, it's really strange. As soon as you notice any details, it's out of sight. For the most part the view is nothing exciting, though - the train passes a lot of farmland, although there's the occasional factory or group of housing.

Even though I like the train, it's something of an albatross to Shanghai. That'll be less true in the future - for one, the system would probably be very useful if it gets expanded across Shanghai. And more interesting, Shanghai will have a Maglev train built to the city of Hangzhou, 122 miles away. Unbelievably, while it started just a few months ago, it's supposed to be completed by the International Expo in 2010. It seems like a good idea, if done right - it'll cut the travel time down from more than two hours, to half an hour.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Bootleg Music

Just as there are bootleg movies in Shanghai, CDs are also bootlegged. It's not quite the same, though. Sure, CDs aren't all that difficult to find, and a lot of the stores that bootleg movies will also have bootleg CDs available for sale. On the other hand, it's obvious that CDs are an afterthought to bootleggers. Mostly I think pop music simply isn't all that popular in Shanghai, whereas movies are extremely popular.

Take the example of Faye Wong. She's long been one of the top Chinese pop stars. I'm hardly expert, but I consider her album Restless the best Chinese pop album. Still, good luck finding any of her music besides greatest-hits collections, or the last 3 or 4 albums she's released. Despite her popularity, most of her back catalog is only available as a set, or isn't even in print!

The bootleg CDs available reflect this. Mostly you'll find the latest bubble-gum pop from Hong Kong, or the most mainstream of American music, the type Americans have gotten tired of long before I arrived in China: Kenny G, Celine Dion, etc. Perhaps the reason (and the relief) for this is music is largely downloaded off the Internet. Even major search engines, such as (heavily owned by Google), will offer services like a MP3 search engine. It's hit-or-miss, but you can often find even relatively obscure American songs.

Sometimes the bootleg shops will have a few CDs that seem worth getting, but just by chance. So I admit I was surprised (and even delighted) to run across a cool CD shop in Shanghai.

It's a little out-of-the-way, even relative to my out-of-the-way apartment. It's on the shopping street of Tianmu Lu, which is kind of interesting for being a pretty busy place, even though (as far as I know) it's not near any Subway or Train Station or something that would bring a lot of people there.

It has both movies and DVDs inside. Strangely enough, the shop will sell both legitimate and bootleg editions of the same movie. The music selection is more interesting. Like the Velvet Underground or not, a music store needs to have the Yellow Banana somewhere, to be considered any good.

It can even get a little obscure. Bootleg-only albums by major acts such as the Smashing Pumpkins were there, as were Frank Black's solo albums. Kim Deal is cooler, and the Breeders are on the right. Also pictured is Sun Kil Moon's and the Cocteau Twin's discographies. On the other hand, by no means is this an Amoeba's, or Jelly's - massive record stores where you might find anything, whether it's in print or not. It's more a small shop with an interesting but slipshod collection of good albums.

The bootleg movie selection is pretty good, but very expensive by Shanghai standards - $.90 to $1.50 for a single DVD! Strangely enough, the bootleg CDs are even more expensive than that, going for $1.50 to $2.00. On the other hand, these are basically exact replicas of what you'd find in a legitimate CD store, aside from a few typos and such. Whereas, the bootleg DVDs are pretty obviously bootleg DVDs.