Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Buddha Box

A friend from America recently asked me to get him a Buddha Box. What a cool name, in Chinese it's called a prayer reading machine, and that's just what it is: a cheap plastic device that plays out one of several Buddist chants through an internal speaker or headphone jack. Here's a ten second video of the song one of them plays:

The Buddha boxes are for sale alongside Changde Lu, a little north of Beijing Lu, they cost from one to four dollars. There's a Buddhist Monastery there, although it's generally closed for visitors.

I remember there's also a lot of religious shops near the Jade Buddha Temple. There aren't these kind of shops right near Jing'an Si, though, maybe it just doesn't fit the image. Plastic Buddha icons take up most of the store, the Buddha Boxes are in a shelf on the right.

There's other stores nearby that have cooler Buddha Boxes. But I did like this other blue Buddha Box, mostly because it's cheap and about the size of a pager (remember those?).

It all sounds pretty inoffensive and maybe even interesting, until one realizes these walkman-like machines only have a few loops that are only about a minute long, or even a few seconds! To wit, the lady who lives upstairs from me used to just blast the music out. It was definitely annoying, but she would quit it after fifteen minutes or so, and I just laughed it off.

Then one fateful day she had been listening for a long time, and I was having a lingo teacher come over to my apartment. I went up to complain, it was an old lady, she only spoke Shanghai dialect - Shangainese is about as related to Mandarin as Spanish is to French. While I'm an incredibly kind person, I think the experience intimidated her a little, and I haven't heard her play the chanting since then. I feel kind of bad, it's probably not doing her karma any good.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Scenes of City Life: Shanghai in the Movies

I bought the movie "Scenes of City Life" (Dushi Fengguang) mostly because I thought it an interesting title for a movie, and because I saw from the box that it was a 1935 movie set in Shanghai. Beyond that I knew little and so my expectations weren't particularly high, but perhaps luck is going my way! This movie turned out to be a classic. I'll wait a while and re-watch it later, but right now I have to say this is both one of the best Chinese movies ever made, and also one of the best movies from the 30s worldwide.

I'll concentrate on what the movie has to say about Shanghai, but those interested and located in Shanghai may want to pick up the DVD from, say, one of the Fuzhou Lu bookstores (bootleg shops and piracy sites won't have a copy). Additionally, the movie is in the public domain, I put up a very low-quality rip on tuduo, part 1 part 2. The movie unfortunately does not have English subtitles available! But for those who follow the lingo, I recommend watching the movie before reading this.

The movie starts with an interesting dialogue-free sequence that even if it resembles stock footage (although I'm guessing it wasn't), still gives interesting quick looks at historic scenic spots of Shanghai. There's scenes from Nanjing Lu, Fuxing Park, and the Bund.

It's a whimsical way to start the movie, and the movie initially feels something like Charlie Chaplin - a poor boy who loves a girl, trying to make it in the big city of Shanghai. This plays off as a series of gags, some deriving from silly sight and sound jokes, for instance the male romantic lead is so poor, his shoe has a gaping hole in the sole.

The lead character is mostly concerned with going on dates. Here he's shown going out to the Nanking Theater, now known as the Shanghai Concert Hall, near People's Square. It's most famous as the building Shanghai moved down the block, because the nearby freeway and subway of Yan'an Lu were too loud.

Interestingly enough, the movie they go out to see is something like Steamboat Willy-era Mickey Mouse! The characters are quick to identify themselves with the cartoon characters, and the girlfriend's caddish other boyfriend in particular is later shown to have purchased a cigarette lighter with the villian's picture on it.

As the movie progresses, it increasingly turns into a mad-house version of the familiar conventions. There's no dignity to the poverty, as there is to movies of the American Depression. Characters are obsessed with money, but purely as a means to prolong their empty lives for as long as possible. It's frequently pathetic, and the main character's prized pocket-watch is pawned without a moment's hesitation:

Which is about enough money to go on a date with the girl in an upscale club, where she immediately ignores him for her other boyfriend's rich manservant. Here's a four minute sequence:

The characters are intentionally shallow, but not one-dimensional - the characters who seem noblest are quick to compromise their ideals, and even the most unlikable characters are themselves victimized and exploited. The one character who seems to have a chance of happiness obtains it through a sudden, cruel act of theft, and with a man who flippantly tosses her pet dog away, for no other reason than a mild annoyance:

The movie is clearly a critique of the shallow values and basic moral failures of 30s-era Shanghai - a popular sub-genre of the time, which "The Goddess" also falls into. It was directed by Yuan Muzhi, most famous as an actor who frequently showed intelligentsia abandoning Western influences to fight for Nationalistic causes. That's another popular sub-genre of the time, one that resulted in some seriously boring films. He had very strong Communist ties, and was one of the two singers for the soundtrack song "March of the Volunteers," that went on to become the National Anthem of the PRC.

Also, I should probably fit in here that this movie was China's first "talkie," and frequently made visual miscue-ing jokes, had actors act in a definite silent-movie acting style, had hilariously bad background noise effects, and had two characters who talked to each other like the adults from Peanuts!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Wujiang Lu, Redux

Shutter (shŭt'ər) tr.v. - To cause to cease operations; close down

This is a quick second take at Wujiang Lu, which I blogged about late last year.

This second look is because I said the street was recently shuttered to make way for the construction of a ghost mall, which was an exaggeration. The street is still going strong and is still one of the funner places to stroll in Shanghai, particularly for hungry ghosts!

What did get changed is that the small booths in the middle of the road were removed. They sold books, clothes, and a large variety of street foods, look at the previous update to see more info on this. Before you could barely make your way through all the people, now it's a lot less crowded:

But to be honest it's hard to say how much is due to there being a smaller amount of people, and how much is because there's no longer the constant bottlenecks. I'd guess it's about midway between the two. There's still a lot of restaurants, many of which sell directly from the storefront. And the more popular ones still have people lining up:

And a lot of the same snacks can be found. So I'd love to say the street is different, but not much worse - unfortunately while I think that's currently true, it won't be for long. There's hotels and shopping centers going up nearby, word on the street is the small restaurants will be closing down to make way for fashion shops! The process hasn't started yet,though, and people gotta eat, so hopefully it won't go through. It's hard to photograph speculations, so here's a funny new bronze statue I saw:

I'm not sure where all the small food stalls went. A very few of them apparently moved to Beijing Lu's Fashion Mall, which has a few new sellers - I'll talk about that in the near future. I've heard they went to Yunnan Lu, but I was there recently and it didn't look any different - anyway with narrow sidewalks and roads open to traffic, that would be difficult to arrange.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cloud 9 Ghost Mall

Shanghai is in a construction bubble, fueled by anticipation of a continued meteoric growth in city population and wealth. The flip side to the incredible amount of construction going on is a very high vacancy rate, particularly with upper-end apartments and shopping malls.

This update will look at Zhongshan Park's Cloud 9 mall, although there's plenty of other examples. It's actually got a much better location than many of the other ghost malls, being located in what's a fairly crowded, fairly recent district of large apartment buildings. It's built directly over a busy subway station, and actually the basement level is fairly crowded. There's clothes stalls, an unpopular electronics chain, a popular Pizza Hut, and in the far corner is a Japanese-esque noodle chain that is so terrible and overpriced, I don't know how it has chains all over the city.

The basement level also has a Carrefour. It's a French megastore, something like Target or Wal-Mart, and is always spectacularly crowded.

The mall is only about a year old, and the insides are clean and brightly lit. It's full of shops, mostly clothing brands. Maybe this picture gives the idea: most of the brands in the mall are international, well-known, solid brands, although perhaps not the most elite or upscale.

It's a hard thing to show, but each floor is very large. They're not entirely centered around the big escalators, there's also long hallways that go off in two directions, with shops lining each hallway:

I hope the angled photograph gives the unsettling "28 Days Later" feeling - looking at the above two pictures there's not a person in sight, well aside from a cleaning lady. There's a definite eeriness to being in a well-lit mall with shops on all sides and not having a single non-salesperson around - particularly when it takes place in a city of twenty million people. No trick photography was involved, I didn't sneak in right before closing, etc. It really always looks like this!

There's a little more activity to be seen. On the top two floors are some restaurants, many of them serving Korean or Japanese food. A few of them do get very crowded.

The sad part of the story is, Shanghai has ghost-mall after ghost-mall, and more continue to be built. If they were off in places I don't care about, I suppose that wouldn't mean much to me, but recently Wujiang Lu Food Street was shuttered, to make room for the development of a new ghost mall. I guess it's meant to match the ghost mall across the street, or perhaps the ghost malls a mile down the road!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

In Which Is Detailed a Novel Method of Window-Washing

This will be a small update, about an everyday sight in a country with weak OSHA laws. Rather than explain...

If there were a caption to that photo, it would be - "people sitting on seats that are hanging from ropes, off the top of a large skyscraper." There's no apparent secondary support or even belt, crazy! They're all wearing hard hats, though, which is a rather optimistic take on the powers of modern hard-hats. There's also buckets next to them, filled with cleaning fluid I guess.

Some of the windows aren't quite so easy to reach, this window-washer is put in a very awkward position to reach them...

This requires another guy on the ground, pulling the rope to the side. This picture also gives a better idea for just how thick the rope isn't.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mexican Food in Shanghai

I'm an avid reader of the city's English-language magazines, and the city site Shanghaiist.com. I even clip out particularly promising reviews from these magazines. However, I just as promptly entirely ignore every single piece of advice they give. No good reason for that - mostly it's because the restaurants they recommend are more than half a block from my apartment. Either I'm at home and feeling lazy, or I'm out and about and not carrying magazing clippings with me.

However I was motivated out of my wan slumber when Shanghaiist.com recently put out the good word for NYC Deli's burritos. I'm a big fan of Mexican food, it's definitely one of the top fifteen foreign foods I miss now that I live in Shanghai. Here's a look at what they have:

Ha Ha I wish. Actually that was ordered in a burrito shop in San Francisco's Mission district, last year. Obviously it's California-style Mexican food, as opposed to anything served in Mexico City. For those not familiar it might look disgusting but it's a glutton's dream food. I'd like to mention that I prefer the much less decadent burritos, without the sour cream and cheese and guacamole. Well maybe the sour cream is OK. Anyway, that's much closer to what I actually got from NYC Deli:

The keen eye of the gentle reader may notice that it's missing some crucial ingredients: namely beans and salsa, additionally the sour cream was few and far between. I was willing to forgive because the ingredients that did show up were all of excellent quality, particularly the pulled pork which was way delicious. I spent the extra $2 and got a tub of salsa. This is a lot of food:

The burrito was more than a foot long and fairly wide. My god. This is probably enough food for two, three might be stretching it but just a little.

So in the end I wouldn't call this an outstanding contribution to the Shanghai quality of life (which a taco truck in Shanghai would be), but the food was decent and I'll probably order there again. Enough about that, I'll move on to my favorite Mexican food in Shanghai, although it isn't actually Mexican food. It's a roadside snack, one without an interesting name. I'll just say roasted pork and tortilla, or something:

This snack is associated with the Eastern Turk minority from North-Western China, definitely I hope to blog about the ethnicity in the future. But for me, while I realize it's a Turkish thing, the main connection is what I could find in East Oakland, ordering the al Pastor style pork. It's the same basic idea, with the rotating spit and the meat gets sliced off the sides. A host of lettuce, tomatoes, hot spices, and even cilantro gets added to the mix, have a gander:

If the connection between Turkish-Chinese roadside snacks and California-Mexican food still seems weak, here's a look at the inside of one of these. I could straight up be given one at an Oakland taco truck, and I wouldn't think about it twice! The largest difference would be that it's still a little dry. I tried adding the salsa I had left over from NYC deli, which was OK - it would have worked better if only they had given me green salsa.

Other Mexican food in Shanghai? Well there's not much to speak of, and what I've had has been pretty weak. Taco Bell weak. Really, as in Taco Bell Grande. It's a souped up version of Taco Bell, re-imagined as a sit-down restaurant with slightly higher-quality ingredients and totally uninteresting meals, along with a locally high price. I went a couple times when I first came to Shanghai, it's OK I guess, but who wants to pay $8 for this (and, in fairness, an additional appetizer):

There's also Taco Popo, which places itself next to foreign bars and stays open late - the logo is at the top of this update. I've also been a couple times, I'd put the food as a step or two below Taco Bell Grande's, but at least it's cheaper.

As far as I know, that's about it - although if there's anyplace else worth knowing about, I'd be happy to hear about it.