Sunday, June 29, 2008

An Interesting Music Video

A while ago I wrote about the movie Scenes of City Life, and later I subtitled the movie and put it up online at That led to an interesting if short conversation with Dave Liang of the Shanghai Restoration Project, a electronic music band with a Chinese-y bent to the music. He ended up using the movie as the basis for a music video. It's all very ethereal, and I think it's worth the watch.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sanmao - Zhang Leping's Cartoon Look at Old Shanghai

This is not about Sanmao, the Taiwanese author. I say that because I first bought the Sanmao cartoon book off the Internet, not realizing that she had taken the pen name from a Chinese pre-Communist comic strip. Although the comic Sanmao is well known to Chinese people, I had never heard of it before, so it was a lucky coincidence that I ended up very much enjoying the comic book.

The book collected comics written in 1948 - Sanmao is a hard-scrappin' young kid, much in the mode of young heroes from early American comics. The difference is that the world Sanmao inhabits is much rougher and violent. If I may start off by showing the last page of the book, it shows Sanmao in the middle of a chaotic Shanghai, surrounded by rioting protesters, violent police, suicide and self-destruction, and general degeneracy:

Which is the general theme of the comic. Sanmao in more modern incarnations is a healthy but mischievous child, he menaces like Dennis and rides rockets to the moon and experiences Chinese history first-hand and boring things like that. In these older strips, though, he's barely getting by, in a world gone wrong. I love this following comic. It's so funny, about a subject that is so completely sad:

It's probably obvious, but those signs are price tags.

Sanmao starts out the comic as a war orphan, his benefactor killed in a battle between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Coming to Shanghai, he finds himself ignored by a generally resentful city:

Or even worse, treated as a pawn in some money-making scheme, by low-level scamsters who are themselves just trying to get by:

These comics were written after WWII but before Communism, and are very much aligned with then-current themes of Chinese Communism. San Mao's good heart and poverty is constantly contrasted against the disgusting wealth and complete selfishness of the rich:

While US soldiers, having defeated the Japanese forces only three years earlier, were depicted as brutal, ape-like alcoholics:

So I very much recommend having a look at Sanmao's original comics. The only English-language version was the 1981 "Adventures of Sanmao the Orphan," it shows up on EBay from time to time. However, the Chinese edition should be very easy to find, and there's no dialogue at all in the comics - written language is only important for a few background details, like sign fronts and so forth. But make sure to get these original, 1948 comics - most collections are of the newer, incredibly lame Sanmao. Here's a Chinese-Amazon link to what looks like the original comics - although I haven't myself confirmed this. It's about $1.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dali's Erhai Lake and Surroundings

This is my final post about Dali - I wish I had more to say, unfortunately I was just there for a short weekend. I very much enjoyed it, and really hope I can visit again, perhaps as a longer visit of Yunnan Province.

Dali Old City is situated between the Cang Shan Mountains and the Erhai Lake. Erhai Lake itself is surrounded by farmland and valleys, and is dotted by small villages. It's the home to one of China's ethnic minorities, the Bai people. I can't claim to be any kind of expert into the minority, and the biggest difference I noticed is that I often saw Bai women, particularly older women, wearing hats, scarves, or elaborate head-dresses. They're not generally Muslim, the way that might suggest:

That is some powerfully bright clothing, and I don't think I ever saw Bai women wearing clothing that overpowering, although I only saw them at work and not as a social occasion where bright clothing might fit in. One of the local specialties is tie-dyed clothing, it strongly reminded me of being at some tourist shop around Haight-Ashbury. Here's some of the bright clothes, with a simple pattern:

The farmland wasn't totally flat, there was generally a gentle slope. As in Fujian, but to a much smaller extent, this slope was made into a series of flat steps, and then worked by hand. I was told the crop shown below was garlic, although it didn't smell like I was in Gilroy:

There's a few workers visible if you squint at that picture, here's a blow-up of another picture:

Looming above much of this were above-ground graves. A lot of the nearby hills were covered with them, they were often on vantage points that could be seen anywhere in the valley. Additionally, it was relatively common for these graves to be in the middle of the farmland. Crops went right up to the side.

I didn't get as good a view, but the lake was also obviously important to local life. There were a lot of fishermen, numerous temples located on small islands, and I ran across small boats, throughout the area:

Also, there was an interesting market in Wase, on the other side of the lake from Dali. These markets only go for half a day, and they rotate locations - it would be another couple weeks before the market returned to Wase. I guess it's popular with tourists, but since I went in the off-season, it was entirely women selling basic foodstuffs and material for making clothes. That may not seem like much, but the market just went on and on, and was incredibly crowded the entire time. It was a lot to see, and I didn't really feel like playing the photographer, but on the right and below are a couple of quick snapshots I took.

Finally, Buddhist Temples. They were common throughout the area, and somewhat to my surprise, looked entirely Chinese - I didn't notice any Southeast Asian Influence, although Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam are directly south of Yunnan. Perhaps Xishuangbanna, in Southern Yunnan, would be different. The obvious highlight temple is the Three Pagodas, which I showed in my last update on Dali. While they were impressive, they weren't impressive enough to convince me to pay the $20 entrance fee and see them up close! The temples I visited were picturesque, if nothing special.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Delongguan's Xiaolongbao - Quality Over Ambience

Continuing on with my look at Shanghai's best-regarded xiaolongbao is Delongguan Dim Sum - it's a local chain with a few branches around Shanghai. These branches tend to top's list of top xiaolongbao restaurants. However the chains don't look like much, and I'm embarrassed to admit that after all my time in Shanghai, and having walked past these places a number of times, this was the first I had ever tried it.

I found Delongguan to be just about the polar opposite of my recently-reviewed Din Tai Fung. While that restaurant's interior felt modern, and the restaurant was heavily staffed by responsive servicemen, Delongguan (on Jiangxi Lu) was a dirty hole in the wall, with cigarette butts on the floor and the kitchen staff sitting around, bored:

So it's probably not the best place to bring the important business client, who would probably prefer Din Tai Fung. I kid - even for a hardened street eater like me, it seemed a little dirty. However, the taste is excellent, much better than Din Tai Fung's. The wrapper was thin, if not extremely thin, and maybe a tad mushy. The vinegar hit was just about the right strength, if nothing fancy. However, the meat filling was excellent and the soup was incredibly flavorful. Here's a look at the xiaolongbao. You can't tell, but it's one normal pork, and the other shrimp:

I also thought it was just about to my tastes - these xiaolongbao are in the running for my favorite Xiaolongbao in Shanghai, against Fuchun's. I'll reserve final judgement until I've tried all the top-ranked xiaolongbao restaurants, but I think any xiaolongbao fan in Shanghai should try both. While I prefer the environment and the wrapper at Fuchun, there's a slight sweetness to the xiaolongbao there, it's not something I particularly care for.

These pictures were taken at the branch on 473 Jiangxi Road, North of the Bund, South of the Suzhou River, and just a couple short blocks West of what becomes Zhapu Lu.

Update 9/1/2009 - This place was recently torn down - here's a Chinese-language list of other Delongguan Restaurants, although none of them are as convenient. I'm most familiar with the branch on 29 Tiyuhui Lu, near the Hongkou Football Stadium and around the corner from the excellent Hunanese restaurant, Guoyuan.

It's all an interesting area, and I'd really advice anyone in Shanghai to stroll the area, and to get a steamer of xiaolongbao while they're at it - although there's a lot of great street food and smaller restaurants in the area. Unfortunately, this restaurant (and the surrounding area) is Chinese only - but saying "xiaolongbao" should get the point across. Here's the menu, they also serve soups and noodles and won-tons (that aren't particularly good).

There's several other branches around Shanghai, none of them particularly convenient. The other ones I've seen are a bit cleaner, though. Here's a picture of the Jiangxi Lu storefront - it's easy to walk past it without giving it a second thought, as I did dozens of times.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dali's Cangshan Mountains

Dali is an extremely beautiful area - as opposed to the generally polluted, entirely flat, entirely urban Shanghai, Dali is located in a peaceful valley surrounding a lake and overlooked by a Mountain Range, with beautiful blue skies. The mountains come down less than a mile from the heart of Dali Old City - these three pagodas, the most famous landmark of Dali, are basically down the street.

I decided to go on a mountain hike - it was a lot of fun, and I while I don't know if it alone justifies a trip to Dali, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who visits. Like the few other Chinese hikes I've been on, the feel is a lot different than the hikes I've been on in America - where maybe one drives to a parking lot at the bottom of a mountain range, and from there is pretty much on their own. Instead, the actual hike started with a twenty minute long gondola ride, over steep, forested mountains. It's all extremely beautiful:

There's a guide station on the way, and then a path left and right from this point. Again, instead of the cleared-brush paths and foot-worn paths I'm used to from US hikes, this was something more like a sidewalk:

That pictures conveys how flat and smooth the path is, but it takes place on fairly level terrain. However, there's large portions on the trail that happens along the side of enormous cliffs! Even so, there's almost no gradient at all to the trail, one could easily travel on a bike or maybe even a skateboard. I found it truly strange to be going through a rugged mountain range without even having to hike up or down, just sideways. This is about as steep as it got, and it's not as steep as it might look.

As is obvious from above, the path must have been dynamited out of the side of a cliff at points. It went back and forth directly against the mountain, it could feel like cruising the contour lines on a map:

There's even includes the occasional tunnel going through the mountain, here's a dramatic example:

The picture above shows the lake valley peaking out. While there were no dramatic lake vistas in the portion of the hike I went through, the valley occasionally peaked out, it was a beautiful view. Most of the path winded through the mountain range. I was there in December, and even though the weather was about as nice as could be asked for, it still got pretty chilly. Fortunately I missed the clouds coming in, or it would have been worse:

There were also stopping points along the trail, with small sites to be seen. They were just a couple minute's diversion, but interesting. For instance, some small waterfalls:

And there was also a small shack selling drinks and soup, along the side of the pathways. They seemed to have a small home alongside the pathway, from which they raised live chickens and sold fresh meat:

Due to a broken chairlift, I walked my way down the side of the mountain when I was done. The trail conditions were pretty bad and I can't say I recommend this to others. However, it did take me past some farms and an interesting Bai graveyard. The graves stand up above ground, and there's a lot of them on hills that look out over the countryside: