Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Street Vegetable Market

Vegetable markets are very interesting, and yes my standards of excitement have been lowered by living in Shanghai for more than two years! But this market is more than that: who wouldn't be interested in markets selling live ducks, chickens, and pigeons! If nothing else, being in Asia and in close contact with poultry violates several US Government recommendations for citizens abroad - I like to live life on the edge.

The particularly keen-minded of my readers may note that ducks, chickens, and pigeons are not actually vegetables. However I still call it a vegetable market because it was about 95% vegetables for sale, aside from a couple places with poultry and one with the local crab (it's basically all shell). Most places just had the basic vegetables, however some of the vegetables were rather exotic, at least for the time of the year.

Most of the vendors were selling right off the street, actually "on" the street would be more accurate. Often the vegetables were in bags, although sometimes they were just laying on the ground. This goes a long way in explaining the Shanghai taboo against salads and raw vegetables - you'd want to wash the vegetables thoroughly and then cook them thoroughly, before eating them.

The vegetables sellers are side to side with each other, the streets are narrow and winding, second stories look like they're about to tip over the first story, and laundry is hanging everywhere. It gives the area a very cool, somewhat hectic feel to it. This is made even more so by the area it's in, the neighborhood is a very scenic collection of old style brick houses and winding alleys - the picture on the right is a of a nearby brick house of about the same era and style. For me it's a good opportunity to look around such a neighborhood without feeling like I'm trespassing private property! This picture is near the entrance where there's a little more room to maneuver. It all gets a lot tighter, farther into the market.

This vegetable market is behind Zhongshan Park south of Suzhou River, a little off Wanhangdu Lu, and I'm guessing only operates on Weekends.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Scenes of City Life, Redux

Half a year ago, I wrote on this blog about "Scenes of City Life", a 1935 Shanghai movie. As a huge film enthusiast, I thought it was a very enjoyable movie, with an interesting look at a pre-war, pre-Communist Shanghai, and a bizarre madhouse take on some of the conventions of older movies, to show the tragicomic lives of its main characters.

Since then I've subtitled the movie, and I've made the movie and subtitles freely available online - Chinese movies become public domain after 50 years. I'm using to host both the movie, and the subtitles - the subtitles are separate, and stored as a normal text file, with time sync codes included.

The movie is in xvid format, it can be opened with lots of players, including bsplayer 1.37 at filehippo (newer versions of the player aren't freeware and I don't recommend). While playing the movie, right clicking takes you to the menu, where you can choose a subtitle file to display.

I thought it was kind of fun - I've never translated anything similar before! The principle translation just took a couple days, but refining and checking the subtitles was a huge process, and there's inevitable compromises between natural speech and sticking to the Chinese text as much as possible.

Anyone with enough interest in Shanghai to browse this blog should enjoy the movie, and I'd really appreciate comments, either as responses on the blog or as an e-mail.

Click Here to Download ScenesofCityLife.avi (734 MB)

Click Here to Download ScenesOfCityLife-EnglishSubtitles.txt (44K)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Chinese Zagat's, Decent California-Mexican

Feeling guilty about not updating my blog more regularly is pretty low, maybe a little pathetic even. But that's exactly how it is. So now that I've got my SLR set up, a mental list of what I want to talk about, and a stockpile of photos, I hope to come back with a vengeance!

But not quite yet. In this update I'm just passing on two recommendations - first is a Zagat's type site, It's a review of many of the restaurants of Shanghai, and while it mostly concentrates on restaurants on the expensive side (whereas I mostly eat just normal street-side restaurants), it's introduced me to a number of great places and I recommend giving it a try. Like Zagat's, it rates restaurants from one to thirty in three categories, first on taste, then environment, then on service. The listings divide into sub-sections, by type of food or district of the city.

The site is Chinese only, but is usable (if a little weird) run through machine translation into English, from Babelfish or Google Translate.

Here's what they had to say about Thai House, Lao Kele, City Diner, and, uhh, Burger King.

Also, I've resolved to not write anything more about Western Food, at least not for a while. But I very much enjoyed Cal Kitchen, the Cal is for California. So, I'll mention it in passing, and maybe I'll talk about it in the far future if it's still around. Here's a menu:

There's only four things on the menu: Burritos, Quesadillas, Chili, and (oddly enough) Corn Dogs. But the Burrito is in the San Francisco style and actually they do a pretty good job of it - you choose the type of meat, the type of beans, and it all gets wrapped up in tin-foil.

The menu mentions that it's based off instructions and recipes from Los Hermanos, a restaurant in San Francisco. I looked it up, and it's in the yuppie-ish Marina. Cal Kitchen's burrito tastes almost exactly like what you'd expect a burrito purchased in the Marina to taste like, for both better and worse. The chili is decent, and I'll say this is my favorite casual Western restaurant in Shanghai - with the caveat that Western food here is terrible.

It's on 376 Dagu Lu, a street of high-end bars, restaurants, and wine shops, a little South-East of the Nanjing Xi Lu station.

Update 4/28/09 - It moved to Jing'an District, right upstairs from exit #7 of line #2 of the Zhongshan Park Subway station - kind of off to the side as you go up the escalator. It's a small mall-court location that seems to specialize in doing deliveries, and they now also serve Japanese-style dessert crepes. But despite a recent influx of Mexican restaurants to Shanghai, it pains me to say that Cal Kitchen is still the only place in town to get a burrito anywhere near authentic.

Oh, and by a wild coincidince, some friends and I found ourselves by the Marina in San Francisco, and we stopped by Los Hermanos for a burrito. Not very yuppie, but not very good and not very similar. It didn't look like the sort of place to branch out to Shanghai. I didn't ask about it, but I should have.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Xinjiang Rather Go On Expedition A Restaurant

This review covers a restaurant with a rather unlikely name, Xinjiang Rather Go on Expedition A Restaurant. I almost apologize for trotting out Engrish to be laughed at, but it's an accurate translation of the Chinese Name. I assume the restaurant's name makes more sense in Turkish, represented with Arabic characters. Xinjiang is a region in the Northwest of China, with a history and culture more related to Turkey and Central Asia than to China. It's tragic that in more than two years I've only mentioned Xinjiang in the context of the delicious food I get from Xinjiang restaurants.

But I don't really see any reason to stop talking about Xinjiang food, either. Xinjiang food is simple, but makes an excellent alternative to the normal dining scene in Shanghai, where the main alternative to Chinese food is overpriced, poorly-interpreted renditions of Western food. This particular Xinjiang restaurant is very popular with foreigners, who at night will invariably take up a table or two out front - pole position for seeing the restaurant's worker's kids, who turn the sidewalks into a sort of impromptu playground.

Most of the dishes I've tried at the restaurant are decent, but not extraordinary. These noodles are a little on meat and vegetables, and only a very light eater would make an entire meal of it.

But in a way that's fine with me, as the raison d'etre for the restaurant is the Lamb shish kebab, and ordering a few is a must. They're covered in hot pepper, enough to make it spicy rather than hot. They're large and go for a locally expensive thirty five cents apiece. While I'm no shish kebab expert, I consider these the best in town:

They're grilled outside, over a flame. A lot of them are sold to people walking by, rather than restaurant customers.

They also serve Sinkiang/Xinjiang Black Beer, which I've heard mentioned as the best Chinese beer. Personally I have to disagree. But it's definitely drinkable, and makes a nice alternative to the super-light lagers that dominate in China. I've only seen it in Xinjiang Restaurants, never in a store. There's also Sinkiang lager beers, they aren't as good though.

The restaurant is very near Jing'an Si, on Yuyuan Feeder road (a short street parallel and south of Yuyuan Road), and the corner of Wulumuqi Road. It has English menus. And, my pictures on this one were a little sparse, but this Japanese-language review has a bunch of very nice pictures.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Shanghai Concert Hall

The Shanghai Concert Hall is located in a park between People's Square and the shopping street of Huaihai Lu - when I first came to Shanghai, I lived just around the corner. It's in the center of town, and is lit up to match. Most notably, there's a large television jumbotron on a nearby building. It plays commercials, and there's speakers lying about to play the commercial's sound at night. Kind of annoying, really.

The concert hall looks the part of a concert hall - a big stately building with arches and pseudo-Grecian pillars scattered about.

But it started out in the 30s as a movie hall. It was the setting of a big scene from the old pre-war movie "Scenes of City Life," which by the way I've subtitled - I'm getting the subtitles looked over and working on a good method of hosting the movie, and then I'll put it on the web. Here's a look at the same spot, but from the movie. This shot is from a different angle, but I wasn't about to go climbing any trees:

The more detail-oriented of my gentle readers that the old picture has cars right in front of the theater, as opposed to being in a park - the road (Yan'an Lu) was turned into a highway, and there's also a subway nearby. To lessen the noise, the hall was moved half a block, even though it was more expensive than making a new building. The surroundings park is mostly empty, despite the location - at night there's a bunch of couples making out on benches, and occasional homeless people wandering around.

I went a few days ago, the Chinesey prog-rock band Cold Fairyland was playing - a little surprising, as it's the only time I've ever heard of the concert hall holding rock concerts. I think the band has a cool sound, but their actual music isn't interesting - I was mostly there to check out the insides of the theater. Unfortunately, the show took place in a smallish basement theater, not the main hall. It was a good match, though, the acoustics were really great and let the band's sound come out well.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Specter of Food Inflation

Inflation in China is a complex subject that's outside the typical range of this blog, however at a 6.5% inflation rate last month, the subject's become difficult to ignore. Inflation is being led by rising food prices, which hurts more in a poor country like China, where food tends to be a larger percentage of people's daily spending.

I'm going to reveal my personal biases in this one, as I don't much shop at grocery stores, mostly I go out to the high-quality restaurants like this corner manapua/baozi shack:

The most commonly consumed (by me) manapua, with plain pork, goes for a whopping 13 US cents, up from a reasonable-ish 9 cents just a few months ago! It's outrageous, obviously, but it's also to be expected. Pork prices have climbed 50% from what they were last year. It's the default meat of China - the sign doesn't actually specify that it's pork, but when they say "meat" it's a given. Most other staples have also gotten more expensive, generally around 25%.

That's a big price jump for manapua, and most shacks opt not to raise prices, and instead have ever-decreasing amounts of meat in the middle. The profit margin on these is incredibly small, so I'm sure the amount of meat used closely follows the daily price of pork.

Anyway this idea of just lessening how much pork is used has had a broad influence on Shanghai dining, at least with the cheap eats. Here's a Tofu and Shepherd's Purse Soup, from a favorite Shanghai-style restaurant. Obviously pork isn't one of the two main ingredients, but on a recent visit the meat was looking a little sparse:

Western restaurants haven't adjusted prices or portions, though - they're already much more expensive than Chinese restaurants, so in the short term that's to be expected- I wouldn't be surprised to see changes coming soon, though.

In the meantime, a lot of local restaurants paste new prices over their old ones, or are constantly updating their signs: check out the bright fresh "5", to go along with the old dull .00 beside it. It's something like how prices are done at the local gas station! At this shop, the price of xiaolongbao has gone from three to four to five kuai, in just the past half year.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Qixia Temple

Qixia Temple is a large temple complex, fifteen miles Northeast of Nanjing. I very much enjoyed it all and would even recommend it as a day trip from Shanghai, although there certainly aren't any Disneyland-type thrills, and it's not nearly as busy or as elaborately decorated as even the Jade Buddha Temple, in Shanghai.

It's not approached quite as casually as ideal - supposedly there's a bus from the train station, but I couldn't find one, and ended up taking a private taxi where we payed 10 kuai ($1.25) apiece for the ride there, with a few strangers - there was no English possible, obviously. It was in an old beat-up mini-mini-van, it took about a minute to get up to speed once we got on the highway.

Once there, we passed by a few bored touts and passed through the gates to get in. The temple occupies a huge, beautiful grounds, it has a large number of Buddhist monks and Buddhist seminary students going about their business - I actually went with some Methodist seminary students. It's a curious mix of the old and the new, and Qixia temple seems to be in the middle of a massive building project. For instance, the pavilion looks old and worn, and is right next to a fountain and a modern-looking Guanyin, riding on a Dragon throne:

The grounds aren't particularly well marked, but it's a lot of fun just wandering through the paths, they steadily but not particularly steeply make their way uphill.

Things weren't particularly well-marked and I wasn't sure what to expect anyway. I just enjoyed wandering around the forest grounds and seeing what I came across. It's so much fun to chance one's way across a fourteen-hundred year old stone pagoda:

Right next to it are a number of stone Buddhas, carved out of the side of a small cliff. A lot of their heads are smashed in, I assume it's a relic of the Cultural Revolution. I similarly guess that a lot of the construction being done is actually re-building Cultural Revolution damage, but really it's just a guess as I didn't ask anybody about this - next time I'll make a it a point!

Towards the middle heights of the temple complex were the living quarters. The day I visited was the first sunny day in a while, so the laundry was hanging out to dry in force. Which is an inane thing to point out, there's no denying, but it was interesting to see the every-day life of a monk.

Most of what I came across was smaller, though - little pavilions and ponds and vantage points and so forth.

Here a short video of myself turning around in front of the central temple complex. It's about the same as the center of every other Chinese Buddhist temple. The music in the background is Buddhist chant/singing. There's a guy at the end, wearing shorts without a T-shirt! So obviously the dress code is more relaxed than, say, Sikh Temples.

There were massive incense bells, even though the temple wasn't particularly busy. I wonder how busy they'd be if I had gone on the first or the fifteenth of the Chinese calendar, corresponding to the full moon and the half moon. Those are the days that draw the big crowds in, and I imagine that would be the best time to visit.

There's also elephant statues, very interesting. It suggests the strong perceived connection of Buddhism to its native India, although I had never seen Elephants before aside from Jing'an temple. I'm no Buddhism expert, and I'll post if I learn anything more about this.

Finally, although the bus station was a five or ten minute walk from the temple, we ended up taking a private bus, carrying maybe twenty people. It was interesting, it took a somewhat meandering route back to Nanjing. If the driver saw people walking alongside the road on the way, she offered to give them a ride - we ended up spending a quarter for our ride, once the bus got closer to town the fare dropped down to half of that.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lao Kele

Lao Kele is a restaurant that I heard about through the excellent Like a Local blog, which has tips on favorite restaurants in Shanghai and what to eat. The writer mentioned it as his favorite restaurant, putting out old-fashioned, authentic Chinese cooking. A strong enough recommendation that I had to try it.

While I basically agree that it's a very good restaurant, I'm going to have to take quick exception: the restaurant serves fried cheese sticks. No really. So on some level I just can't call it strictly Chinese cuisine. Rather, it's a Chinese take on Western cuisine, it reminded me a lot of the fusion noodle restaurants in the Bay Area, generally I'd see them in shopping malls and so forth. That's a pretty negative comparison, but here's a quick look at about a third of the menu, I could completely imagine seeing the exact same menu back in California. It's about 8 kuai to the dollar:

Similarly to a mall chain, Lao Kele also has a bright, clean, cafeteria-like interior:

But I don't want to pick on the restaurant, just point out the somewhat eerie resemblance. The food is most important, and here I think Lao Kele is excellent. There's a range of fried appetizers, including the cheese, which is served with Thousand Island Dressing as a dipping sauce! Much better was this fried squid:

The noodles are hand made and very high quality, much better than would be available at the California mall. There's a variety, spinach noodles and carrot noodles and egg noodles and so forth. The meat generally still has the bones attached to it, you spit them out while eating, I hate that. Anyway, here's egg noodle with chicken in spices, #316 on the take-out menu above:

I don't have a picture, but there's also very high-quality fruit juices and smoothies going for about a dollar. I've been three or four times, and everything I've ordered has been excellent. Except for the cheese sticks, but my expectations were low for that one anyway. The location is convenient, right near People's Park at Huanghe Lu and Fengyang Lu - so for me, I can take the #2 Subway there, and it's just a minute or two walk North from the #9 exit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Loco Moco: A Quick Second Take.

While I want to avoid this blog being a Foreign Food Information Repository, here's a re-examination of both City Diner, a prominent American Restaurant, and Loco Moco, a Hawaiian food that any monkey with a skillet should be able to cook correctly. I'll steal a picture from 'Ono Kine Grindz:

I happened to come across a menu for City Diner and noted that they offered Loco Moco for breakfast, very interesting. I wouldn't call it a breakfast food but I guess theoretically it could be eaten in the morning, and anyway City Diner advertises they serve breakfast all day. The food was even described as being "onolicious" which I guess was promising enough to make me look past that the food from my previous visit was expensive and totally hopeless. Really the restaurant was so bad I couldn't imagine any way it could get better, it would be best just to burn the restaurant to the ground and start over.

Eventually when I felt I could in good conscious buy an $8 Loco Moco I came in and made my order, this is what I was served:

Huh, from the picture it seems to be a platter of steak-and-eggs, like they do it in Texas! With a little bit of rice on the side, too. I did some minor surgery to make it more authentic, dumping all the ingredients on top of each other:

That's better, but still the proportions were off, it was dry, and the tastes weren't quite right - especially with the macaroni salad, which was prepared like a German Potato Salad and didn't use any mayonnaise. On the other hand, it was enough food that I basically skipped dinner and only wanted a half-lunch the next day.

So I have to recommend giving it a miss, too bad! I did notice one interesting thing, that the very good Gordon Biersch Marzen, and the decent-if-light Kona Longboard Lager, were both available there - I haven't seen either at stores yet. Along with Dead Guy Ale, there seems to be a recent trickle of American micro-brews getting imported, which is nothing if not excellent news.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Few Days in Nanjing

Nanjing is a couple hours from Shanghai - geographically it's in the center of China, but the name means "Southern Capital," historically it was the capital of a divided Southern China, fifteen hundred years ago. It was again a Ming Dynasty capital five hundred years ago, then a capital of the short-lived Taiping Rebellion one hundred forty years ago, and then the capital of the Republic of China, before and after the Japanese invasion.

I won't go into the historic details, I just listed what I did to show that it's an ancient, important city. When I visited, I didn't know what to expect, but perhaps a lesser Beijing or Seoul, which are filled with ancient temples and palaces. But I felt it was more similar to Shanghai - generally modern, with historic sites scattered about.

I had put off a visit because it's a five hour train ride, what a pain. However there's a new train service going to Nanjing, it looks something like a French LGV train and does the trip in only two hours. It's also a very comfortable ride, the downside being that it's $12 each way, whereas the slower, older trains start at $2.50 according to this nifty if unfortunately Chinese-only train website. Travelling about Nanjing is also easy, there's a brand-new Subway system that goes straight from the train station to downtown.

A lot of the main sites to Nanjing revolve around its more recent history, and that includes memorials to the Nanking Massacre, Dr. Sun Yatsen's mausoleum, and the Taiping Rebellion. I wasn't quite feeling history when I went, so I either gave such places a miss or just had a cursory look. A lot of it is lost on me because I am still way more ignorant of Chinese history than I should be, and what I did see often wasn't very well presented for a clueless English-language tourist. Here's a small teahouse, located inside the re-constructed Taiping capital building - the reconstruction had its own history, as a government building of the Republic of China.

But the obvious highlight of the city is to the North-East of the downtown, with the Xuanwu Lake Park, and the adjacent Purple Mountain. Xuanwu Lake Park is reached by passing by the Jiming Temple (pictured at the top) and some scenic, gigantic, Ming Dynasty walls. These walls don't form a complete circle, but the large majority still exists, and surrounds a huge area of the downtown.

The park is a big lake, with a thin strip of land that meanders through it - it's nothing historic or amazing, but it's a pleasant walk - with a couple of caveats. First, the park is absurdly large, but when I went all the shops were closed, and there weren't any working water fountains, and I had been walking all day, and fell into some kind of panic mode. Secondly is, the pollution in the area is thick and disgusting, and combines with all the fog to make an impenetrable haze - there might have been great views, but it was hard to tell.

The pollution is more of a problem at Purple Mountain, where there's a half-hour ski-lift to the top of the mountain. It's a fun ride, but then when I go to the top I realized it was almost impossible to look back down at the city - I could also see that the nearby mountains held the pollution in. Another interesting perspective was the the very large city seemed to be built almost directly against thick mountain forests. Here's the best shot I got:

I've mentioned before that Shanghai is in the midst of a crazy building boom. Well that news is outdated. Shanghai still has a lot of building going on, including some extremely high-level projects. But it seems to have calmed down a bit, and there's no longer a new building going up on seemingly every single street. Whereas, going to Nanjing seemed to be like stepping into a time machine, and visiting this mythical quick-building Shanghai of 2005. These buildings generally looked a lot more bland and cheap than the buildings going up in Shanghai, though:

The downtown was the typical Chinese strip of brightly-lit shops and malls - which can be fun for a visitor, but I've gotten more than enough of that in Shanghai. More interesting was a long strip of restaurants and shops near Nanjing University. Four friends visiting from the US, and I, went to one place that looked nice - it served Nanjing cuisine. Everything was so cheap, I assumed the portions were small, and ordered to match. I came to realize that in truth, food in Nanjing is much cheaper than in Shanghai, and for less than $20, I ended up ordering a completely absurd amount, we ate less than half of it. This is just a part of the feast - note the roast duck heads up front! The food was excellent, the highlights being the country-style tofu and the pumpkin soup:

A little quirk on Nanjing is that even though I looked in a number of places, it was impossible to find Diet Coke - which would definitely be a major crimp on my lifestyle. I also never saw any Chinese beers except for the cheapest, lightest versions, the kind I wouldn't ever order in Shanghai. That was negated by running into the kind of bar I like: dark and dirty!

So while I can't say Nanjing is my favorite place in China, I definitely think it's worth a weekend trip, especially when factoring in the nearby Qixia Temple complex, which I'll talk about within the next week.

And for those in China dealing with blogspot and Wikipedia frequently being blocked and un-blocked for no apparent reason, the Lost Laowai blog shows how to set Firefox to automatically get past the Great Firewall.