Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shangweiguan Nanxiang Xiaolong

It's been a long while since I've posted an update about xiaolongbao, but please believe it's not from a lack of eating them. I've actually gone a little wild about them, more than I should be considering that the “soup” of xiaolongbao is largely coagulated fat, heated up in a steamer until it melts. I've been frequenting Delongguan the most, and perhaps that's become my favorite xiaolongbao. But I still go to and enjoy all of the xiaolongbao places I've mentioned so far, except for Din Tai Fung which isn't really all that.

Shanghweiguan Nanxiang Xiaolong is currently the top rated (by taste) Xiaolongbao on Chinese food website While these rankings change from time to time, as more and more reviewers pitch in, it appears that Shangweiguan Nanxiang Xiaolong is stuck permanently in the #1 position. It scores a 27 out of 30 on taste, there's no grade inflation on Dianping and that's about as high as ratings get. The #2 xiaolongbao, Jia Jia Tang Bao, currently scores a 25 out of 30.

The branch mentioned here is located in a neighborhood area, rather than a shopping district. There's mostly large apartment buildings nearby, with a small strip of low-key restaurants at Xingshan Lu. It's pretty obvious which is the xiaolongbao restaurant, from all the workers inside making xiaolongbao, there's also steaming pots out front.

Nanxiang Xiaolong's Chinese menu is pretty minimal: the standard pork xiaolongbao, shrimp xiaolongbao, and won tons. As always, for non-Chinese speakers just saying “xiaolongbao” and giving an appropriate amount of money should do the trick. Drinks are next door at the convenience store. This is 3.5 kuai's worth of xiaolongbao:

It doesn't look too promising, to be honest. But it's easy to tell why these are the top rated xiaolongbao in town. Xiaolongbao is supposed to be delicate, and these are as delicate as I imagine possible- they seem to dissolve in the mouth. That's true of the dough in particular, but even the meat is obviously very well ground, and unlike the vast majority of meatballs can be described as “light” and “silky.” The taste of the soup and meat is also very nice. Personally I wouldn't claim these are the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai, just because the competition is so strong. However they are still excellent, have a unique vibe to them, and I definitely recommend anyone in Shanghai to try them.

The restaurant is located on 598 Xingshan Lu. The big problem with the place is, it's not very convenient to get to. Personally I walk from Jinshajiang elevated subway station, it takes about fifteen minutes. There’s a whole lot of lefts and rights involved, so I don't imagine there's an entirely convenient bus – of course a taxi, or a motorcycle taxi, is also a possibility. Here's a map, in Chinese, of the local area – the “A” in the upper left corner is the location, and I don't think it's as confusing as it may look.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Child Swapping

Going to People's Square on the weekends is a daunting prospect. There, they run “English Corners,” which seeks to match up Chinese people who would like to learn English but don't want to pay, to foreigners who would like to teach some English but don't want to be payed. Since there are a great many more people in the first category than the second, these corners will start aggressively chatting up foreigners walking past.

I don't go to People's Square on the weekends all that often, even if this area is nearish to the excellent restaurants on Huanghe Lu, Lao Kele and Jia Jia Tang Bao. Last time I did, I was surprised at how greatly the English corner had expanded. There were hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people in their older middle age, hanging around and talking. I noticed a number of them were holding up signs. I had a closer look:

They actually aren't part of the English corner. The area has been overrun by parents who converge on the weekends to match-make for their children, it has the feel of a salesman convention. There's signs everywhere, often listing a short resume including their name, phone number, sometimes their pictures, their age, their height, their interests, and their schooling. There's no standard form, so different parents put up whatever would make the kids look attractive. I don't think I should put the information up on the web, so I erased some of the information in Photoshop, and then blurred it all, and I'll only include a couple of pictures with this update. Still, people looking for a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend should definitely send their mother over!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hongkou Street Fair

Hongkou Stadium is in Northern Shanghai, it's the place to catch soccer games and perhaps the occasional Jay Chou concert. Despite having a few foreign-language schools in the area, it's not the normal place for foreigners to be, although with the new subway line #8, it's only a 4 station commute to the centrally-located People's Square. I think the area has a lot of life, and a fun example is the street fairs located in the stadium's surroundings.

The time of these street fairs is irregular: they happen on a lot of summer weekends (and I have to admit that's when these photographs were taken), but they also happen on holidays, or occasionally for no apparent reason. While there's probably some schedule somewhere, I've asked a couple locals and they have no idea, so it seems o be a very mysterious process. Anyway, despite the lack of advance notice, these fairs can get busy with people. One of the attractions is makeshift alleyways of tents, each offering various street foods – in the foreground here is Japanese takoyaki:

And unlike with most street food in Shanghai, there's tables set up, for people to eat at:

Here's another picture of the foods. I don't want to give the impression the stalls are all Japanese style, but here it's a mish-mash of mochi-based sweets:

There's also a lot of clothes being sold, it's always low-end, everyday sort of clothes, and they never have anything nearly my size – I recently saw 6'0" listed at XXL! So I don't have exciting pictures of that. Here's a picture of some of the knick-knacks being sold. They often have an ethnic focus to their products, which I guess goes along with being operated by the ethnicity in question – I believe this would be Yi, or Dai?

And more rarely, there's things like massages, hair stylists, and product demonstrations, often operating with headset-type mics hooked up to amplifiers, and generally being annoying.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Yuxin Sichuan Restaurant

Sichuanese food is well-regarded throughout China, and that includes in Shanghai, where people's tendency is towards bland-ish foods, with the strongest flavors coming from the sugar. Consequently, I think a lot of the Sichuanese Restaurants here get overly localized, and a number of friends from Sichuan or neighboring Chongqing confirm this – Hunanese Restaurants are a better bet, for those looking for a fix of spicy food.

Yuxin Sichuanese was introduced to me as the most authentic Sichuanese Restaurant in Shanghai. While I've never been to Sichuan and can't go into any detailed comparison, it definitely gets spicier than Shanghai's other Sichuanese restaurants, and some dishes have a pronounced ma flavor – it's a peppercorn with a numbing effect on the mouth. Here's one of the spicy dishes, covered in peppers:

It's rabbit, and it's quite good, although it's swimming in oil – which is perfectly authentic Sichuanese. However, I wonder how much the menu has been adjusted to suit local tastes. Really, only a substantial minority of the menu is marked as being spicy, and these sweet fried eels, while excellent, definitely strike me as belonging to Shanghai's cuisine, rather than anything out of Chengdu:

This is an easy restaurant to recommend. Two locations are downtown – one on 333 Chengdu Lu & Weihai Lu, plus a more convenient location on 399 Jiujiang Lu, directly south of the East Nanjing Lu Subway Station. There's also a Pudong Location, on the third floor of a mall on 796 Dongfang Lu. A meal comes to about 100 kuai per person. It's a good idea to make reservations on weekends or Holidays - 6361-1777 is the Jiujiang Lu restaurant's. There's English menus with lots of pictures, and it's a nice if crowded environment, with tables divided off from each other, a professional waiting staff, and tablecloths that start out sparkling white. I wish I had a better picture to demonstrate:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shanghai in the Movies: Shanghai Baby!

I could never blame somebody for not liking Wei Hui's Chinese novel “Shanghai Baby,” and similarly I hope no one holds it against me that I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. It was fun in a campy sense, in the way a really bad movie can be, where there's a mean-spirited sense of fun of laughing at a work of art that fails on so many levels. Books don't usually have that sort of appeal, but “Shanghai Baby” played like a Hollywood movie, with a fast pace, shallow ambitions, and a general appeal to crasser instincts. While the characters and plot got boring and weren't quite enough to make it a camp classic, I'd still recommend it.

So it's a disappointment that the German movie version of “Shanghai Baby” fails to deliver on a work with so much potential for camp. I don't think that's the fault of the location scout for this movie. The movie is really poorly shot and gives one the tritest possible views of Shanghai. The movie starts with a framing device in Germany. Here's the first shot shown of Shanghai, at 4:50 in:

This clichéd view of the office buildings of Shanghai is shown over and over, dozens of times throughout the movie, including three more times in the following minute. Shanghai Baby lives within sight of these offices, and goes to clubs within these offices. These offices are invariably seen in the back window whenever she rides a taxi, and the offices are frequently used as an establishing shot, when the movie's actions have moved from distant locales back to Shanghai, or sometimes just to establish the transition from day to night.

Ever the dedicated blogger, I re-watched the movie in fast forward, to determine the longest period of time between shots of the Pudong office towers. I clocked it in at nine minutes twenty three seconds, starting after the Shanghai Baby anachronistically takes a ferry to cross the Huangpu River away from the office towers:

From there, she takes a quick break to Hainan, in Southern China. When she gets back, the movie establishes this with a look at the office towers:

While a non-resident may think of these office towers (and upper-end apartments) to be the Wall Street or Le Défense of Shanghai, or perhaps as being really centrally located to Shanghai's downtown and looming over the city, in reality the area is off to the side of Shanghai, and nobody goes there unless they work there, and the large majority of office space in Shanghai is located elsewhere. It would be as ridiculous as showing Alcatraz in every single shot of a movie set in San Francisco.

It must also be said that I could make a similar exercise out of the number of times Shanghai Baby's breasts appear onscreen – the movie verges on being soft porn. However, Slums of Shaolin is for the children, so I won't show screen captures.

The area around the Suzhou River (in particular the old post office) is shown a dozen or so times, actually it's a favorite area of my to wander:

And really there's not much more to the movie's Shanghai than that. A few other postcard views do make a one-off appearance, though, here's Jing'an Si:

The movie played a few festivals and is now going straight to DVD in several countries. Its problem was that it lost the novel's sense of wannabe bohemianism and self-congratulation, made the storyline more cliché, and made the characters even more flat. To its advantage, the Chinese people living in China speaking with other Chinese people spoke in English, and it seemed that they had learned how to pronounce the words by rote, or at least that they weren't fluent enough to put inflection into what they were saying. I thought that was pretty funny. Additionally, Shanghai Baby has cool hair.