Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Old Shanghai

Shanghai isn't purely a colonial city - it's existed as a smallish city for thousands of years. The area of the old city remains interesting - it was modernized during the colonial era, but has mostly avoided massive re-development since then. So the area remains a look back at what much of Shanghai looked like in the first half of the century. Even though it's in a central area of Shanghai, it's very easy to ignore - there's no subway there, there's not much in the way of major streets, and there's not many obvious attractions. An exception is the very impressive Yuyuan Gardens. There's a bunch of really corny shops nearby, they sell Chinese chotchkies in a collection of Disney-cized buildings. The picture in the upper right was taken in the line to Nanxiang Xiaolongbao, a famous snack. They're OK, if not worth the hour-long line.

It's easy to ignore the nearby neighborhood. This area is mostly composed of old row houses and two-story buildings called shikumen. They're a collection of very small apartments, with communal areas, something like "Kung Fu Hustle." They're made from brick, generally populated by old people, and they invariably have laundry hanging out front.

It's hard to imagine living in a place like this. There's no privacy, I wonder if the people there come to view their neighbors as always in each other's business, or as some kind of extended family.

Not having individual water is an obvious problem. There's faucets in the courtyards, so walking at night you can see men in swimsuits bathing themselves in the street, I think most people use a sponge bath. Disgustingly enough, the apartments are forced to use chamberpots, walking around it's pretty common to see people carrying their chamber pots around, there's special areas to dispose of that. There's a chamberpot in the bottom of this picture:

Most of the streets in the area are narrow, and not very long. Walking around gets repetitive, it's street after street of these small buildings. There's a lot of bikes on the road, but there's very few cars, and there's not any buses.

There's a lot of small shops scattered about, here's a bunch of steel beams to use for small-scale construction projects:

But more common is this, just about every single block will have a fruit & vegetable market or two. There's a bored employee up front, reading a book, which is a definite requirement for these sorts of places.

I'm a big fan of photoethnographer Karen Nakamura, who has a few excellent shots of the same area on her blog. I'll also have a little more to say about these buildings in the next couple days.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Cold Fairyland

Most Shanghai rock music feels like an impossibly bad imitation of music I wouldn't want to listen to anyway. The big influence seems to be eighties "hard rock", maybe, but it's kind of hard to tell as it's all so generic and boring.

So it was refreshing to see Cold Fairyland, one of the most respected Shanghai bands. Rather than bad rock, it felt like some mix of the classical Chinese sound and a progressive rock band.

The concert was at Zhijang Dream Factory, the new location of Yuyintang, which was closed recently for not having proper permits - it's all BS, considering Yuyintang was in the middle of absolutely nowhere and still couldn't get a noise permit. The new location is more convenient, but missing the cool/weird underground feeling - it's now basically a box, in the back of a lounge, in an under-utilized shopping complex for foreigners. Anyway, it was a CD launch party, the $5 ticket cost also bought a copy of the band's CD.

The most distinct element was a pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument that featured prominently in most of the songs. It's a string instrument, and the sound is somewhere between a banjo and a plucked guitar. It really stood out in the mix, also there were constant fills, the lady was very talented at it. She also was the singer, maybe a third of the songs had vocals. She wasn't quite as good at that. It's hard to see in the picture, but she was wearing some kind of wedding dress to the concert, cool cool!

It was contrasted mostly against an electric cello. I'm a big fan of cellos, and I think it could have stood out more. There's also an electric bass player here, to go along with the (unpictured) guitarist, and the drummer. In prog-rock fashion, they were all given a chance to stand out, even the drummer was given a solo, although the guitar and the pipa had the most emphasis.

I won't lie, I think the band has problems. They're obviously talented, and have a very interesting, unique sound, one that manages to be a hybrid of Chinese-Western music. But it's not especially melodic, nor are the solos particularly interesting, and I don't know if it qualifies as more than very skillful background music. But it's definitely worth the gentle reader having a listen, the band has an English language website with some interesting pages - first an entry on their most recent album, with free MP3s of the CD's two best songs, and also the site's front page, which has a number of songs from their previous albums online, as well as a link to purchase the albums.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Macau is Colorful

A year or so ago, I met with some friends in Hong Kong, and took a day-trip over to the former Portuguese colony of Macau, right across the bay. I was really taken with the city, and decided to come back sooner, rather than later.

I had a vacation a while ago, and headed right back over! Once again I enjoyed the city, it's very beautiful with excellent food. It's become my favorite Chinese city, with certain qualifications. I could go on and on about the city, instead I'll just limit this post to snapshots that show how colorful - or at least pastel - the city's architecture can be.

The city's historic downtown center is mostly buildings that are painted a canary yellow, and at night the area is colored with a bright yellow light. It's a fun area with a lot of shops and also a lot of side-streets full of restaurants. Most of Macau's many churches are also painted yellow:

When I was walking around one night, I came across a huge group of teenagers in some kind of lion-dancing practice. Very cool, in Shanghai I never see anything like that:

Just wandering the streets is a lot of fun, especially in the older areas which are painted all shades of pastel, with all the paint faded. There's also a banyan tree in this picture, it anchors a small plaza-esque park.

Neighborhoods could turn into some kind of apartment psychedelia, with every respective apartment complex given an intense, clashing pastel coloring. I also liked how Macau is built on a series of hills, and I was constantly walking up or down a hill. It's what I'm used to, whereas Shanghai is totally flat.

Macau was considered something of a slum until the last ten years, a lot of the buildings from the more modern colonial period look a little like they're concrete boxes that are falling apart. But from the outside, they still have an interesting, distinctive look to them, and often a pastel paint that is just barely visible behind all the fading. I think buildings like this explain why Hong Kong's buildings are all tiled - the hot humidity wreaks havoc on anything else.

The Portuguese influence is obvious throughout, it's also on the street signs, which are in both traditional-character Chinese and in Portuguese. A lot of menus and public notices were the same way. Shanghai uses modern characters rather than traditional, and I can get by in Spanish, so I sometimes found myself cross-referencing the Portuguese and Chinese to get at the meaning of things! Also I sometimes had waiters and waitresses try to speak to me in Portuguese.

There were older, somewhat deteriorating but extremely beautiful neighborhoods of brick buildings, it reminded me of a less crowded version of Shanghai's shikumen - interesting to walk by, quaint to the point of being beautiful, but I wouldn't want to buy that kind of house.

I said that I liked Macau, but with certain qualifications? Macau seems like a very sleepy city, I suspect it's a better place to visit than to live. And as a Mandarin speaker in Shanghai, I found it difficult to understand the traditional characters, and impossible to use Cantonese. Although people I ran across almost always understood Mandarin, a lot of people could only respond in Cantonese, and very few people knew English.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Shanghai Gymnastics Tournament

A couple weeks ago I went with a group of friends to a Gymnastics tournament in Shanghai. That's an amazingly dry way to start a posting, but I ended up really enjoying the event and thought I'd post a few quick pictures.

The event took place at an indoor sports stadium near Zhongshan park, a five or ten minute walk south of the subway exit. I'd been there before, because the grounds are part of a larger sport complex and also have a bunch of badminton and ping-pong courts to rent - the badminton courts rent at about five dollars an hour. Badminton is a serious competitive sport in Shanghai, I'll have more to say about it later. Anyway the stadium itself is pretty large, although it doesn't have all that much space for fans - the seating on the side isn't all that much more than at the ends, so I'll guess it could fit about a couple thousand people at most. There's a girl on the balance beam, in the foreground.

I'm not one to watch gymnastics on TV, and I don't think I've paid attention to the Olympics since the one in Barcelona. Still I have to say I was wildly impressed. What they were doing looked indescribably fun, and they were doing it so well. My sister likes trampolines enough to put it on her wedding registration, any good person could have some fun bouncing around on one, but amateurs could never dream of going twenty-five feet in the air, doing triple flips:

The physiques were amazing. Men and women gynmasts were generally short, with amazing musculature. Of course it translated into moves that seemed unhuman - the effect was definitely magnified by seeing it from a rather close distance, in real life instead of on TV. Particularly on the women's balance beams, with the short bursts of intense motion that just as suddenly stop, I couldn't believe what I saw them do. Check out this girl's legs, they seem more muscle than not:

In addition to being able to see the athletes up close, it was also interesting to see what went along with it - the girl gymnasts went into the stands after their event, and acted like basic annoying, giggly teenagers, cheering on the men's events. Professional cameramen and photographers were everywhere, both on the floors and in the stands, clicking down on the entire performance (they generally lasted a couple minutes apiece). And the athletes and the coaches also had to stretch out for each event, get over their jitters, and just get their equipment set up.

Overshadowing the event was that a female gymnast, a week earlier at the same event, took a bad fall and went into a coma. Initial guesses were at life-long paralysis, although her prognosis has since improved.