Sunday, March 29, 2009


Sukhothai is a city in Northern Thailand, which I went to after visiting Chiang Mai. While Sukhothai and Chiang Mai both have a lot of old temples, for a tourist that's about as far as the relationship goes. Chiang Mai is a large vibrant city, with a large amount of attractions – actually, for most tourists, the nearby trekking is the highlight. Sukhothai is a one-horse provincial city that happens to be built next to the ruins of the ancient Thai capital and its numerous stone temples.

But that's not to denigrate these ruins – they date back seven hundred years, and in terms of beauty, convenience, and general pleasantness, if not scale, I ended up appreciating these ruins more than those of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. The comparison isn't specious – I can't claim anthropological expertise, but many of the temples were built in the same time frame, at a time when the Khmer culture, from its capital in Angkor, dominated South-East Asian culture.

I don't want to delve too much into Thai history, I'll just attach a few of favorite pictures:

What also made my visit interesting was that I visited during a large festival, where people from all over Thailand flooded into the city, and at night the ruins were lit up. I found all the celebrations very underwhelming, honestly, but it contributed to a festival-type atmosphere.

I ended up staying in a very nice, low-key guest house called “No. 4 Guest House,” for the grand total of about $6 per night. I grabbed the last room, and I was afterwards told by another guest that it was the only place in town with rooms left - I guess I narrowly avoided disaster! Despite being not too far off the main road, there were a number of rural Thai-style houses nearby, and it was overlooking farmland - temporarily flooded, I'd guess for the production of rice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guoyuan Hunanese Food

Guoyuan is a small Hunanese Restaurant, near the Hongkou football stadium. While in most regards it looks the part of a standard local restaurant, it stands out in one regard: there will almost always be a line out the front door, day or night.

It's actually a favorite restaurant of mine, and a restaurant that's very convenient for me. I don't go as often as I might like, and I'd like to take a moment to blame my friends – while it's near two subway stations, it's still not a very central location for most people. And the people I do know in the area, for the most part, can't take the spiciness. As opposed to the sweetness and even blandness of Shanghainese Foods, Hunan Food is spicy, and Guoyuan plays the part. As an extreme example, here's a plate of bamboo, covered in peppers, along with garlic, ginger, and other spices. Not to be macho, but most Shanghai residents, local or foreigners, just couldn't handle it!

The restaurant is entirely Chinese-language, and while the service is friendly, they're a bit rushed. A foreigner who doesn't speak the language and doesn't have a little familiarity with Hunan food might have a tough time. There is a list of the most popular dishes on the first page of the menu. One of the recommended dishes is found on almost everybody's table, and is really very attractive-looking, twin pepper fish head. I admit I'm not the #1 fan of fish head, so when I brought the camera I instead got fish soup. It's an interesting mélange of spices, including herbs that I usually see in a cup of tea!

How authentic is Guoyuan? There's obviously a few concessions to local tastes. For example, Shanghai people love cucumbers, and I'm guessing that spicy-oil cucumbers aren't a menu item at most restaurants in Hunan, although I quite enjoyed them:

But while I've never been to Hunan, or have any friends from Hunan, I assumed the restaurant was for the most part authentic, and I've also heard the chef is from Hunan. However when I went with a Sichuanese friend, she told me that while she enjoyed the restaurant very much, it wasn't at all what would be served in an authentic-style Hunanese restaurant in Sichuan, which borders Hunan. While obviously that could be a reflection on Sichuanese restaurants, she guessed that the restaurant adapted a lot of foods to local ingredients and tastes.

Anyway, the restaurant is on 520 Dongjiangwan Lu, a five or ten minute walk North of the Hongkou Football Stadium subway stations of both line #3 and line #8. Prices should amount to around 40-50 kuai per person, that's six or seven US dollars. The restaurant is open from 11-2 and then from 5-10, daily. There's no reservations taken, and there's usually a line, although the line isn't too bad except on weekend nights. While the restaurant is small, and patrons are often smoking, the décor inside is simple but classy.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Shen Hao Professional Camera

Shen Hao Professional Camera is a small Shanghai company that makes large-format view cameras – old-school cameras which use larger film and contain many completely different mechanisms than a 35mm camera. They're much heavier and inconvenient than a normal camera, and really you don't see them around Shanghai at all, any more than in the US anyway.

As I haven't used their cameras, I can't provide much first hand information. Their only sales department is inside the Xin Guang Camera Mall, on the fourth story, room 419. There's several other camera stores in the mall dedicated to large-format cameras, as well. Shen Hao cameras are also sold online in foreign markets, with their 4x5 camera going for $645, and there's a company website with more details, although the website doesn't ever want to load. Additionally, Ken Rockwell, who's a little controversial with camera nerds, compiled a lot of excellent data on using and purchasing a large-format camera. He actually recommends the Tachihara, which is a very similar camera being produced in Japan. Finally, Ansel Adams wrote several interesting guides to photography, which often focus on the use of a view camera – his most famous shots were made with large-format cameras.

These large-format cameras have some advantages. There was a recent exhibition of photography in Shanghai, where pictures of Dongbei citizens standing in the snow were taken on 8x10 film. Even with the large prints, the fine details were both obvious and impressive, which is really the raison d'etre of large-format photography. One could say the resolution of 8x10 film is equivalent to 800 megapixels, although the actual number depends a lot on use and who you talk to – anyway, with the increase in film size comes a corresponding increase in detail, and the total resolution is around 50 times greater than that of 35mm film, or of a DSLR for that matter. There's also an ability to change the plane of shooting, where perspective can be altered, or the focus plane can be changed.

However, large format view cameras aren't quick to use, and at ten pounds or so for a complete setup, are heavy and bulky to carry. They're also expensive – even a minimal setup will cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Additionally, buying the film and having it developed costs several dollars per shot (Weima, on Wulumuqi Lu, services large-format photography). So it's not a camera for casual photographers, and is probably best used by a devoted landscape or nature photographer who wants to make poster-sized prints.

There's also a host of accessories that are needed: a lens board, a focusing screen, a film tray, and even a little cloth to hide behind, to see the focusing screen when there's light outside! Shen Hao sells many of these accessories, although they're interchangeable between brands. Really, the cameras Shen Hao sells are more of a chassis, to put all these accessories into – as long as the camera is a stable, light-tight platform, with a degree of movement, technical image quality boils down to the separately-purchased lens, and the film. Shen Hao does have a good international reputation as building a cheap but acceptably solid camera.

In addition to the most well-known film sizes, 4x5 and 8x10, they also offer cameras and film backs with wider perspectives such as 7x17, having ratios around 1:2.5, about twice as wide as a picture taken with a 35mm camera. Interestingly, they also offer view cameras in medium-format size, both 60mm x 170mm, and 60mm x 240mm. They'll take respectively four or three pictures on a normal roll of medium-format 120 film, which is much cheaper and easier to purchase and develop than large-format sheet film. They offer about the same total resolution as 4x5 film, although with much narrower perspectives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chiang Mai

Thailand falls outside of the scope of this blog, in that it's not actually a part of Shanghai. But on the other hand, proximity to South East Asia is one of the best parts of living in China. It's convenient to travel to, it's extremely cheap, and there's really a wide variety of attractions. I'll have a few posts concerning Thailand and Cambodia over the coming months, and I had a few posts about Bangkok, a couple years ago.

First I'll mention the city of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, about a hundred miles from Yunnan and the southern border of China. Chiang Mai is a city of 1.3 million people that extends on and on, but the city center has something of the feel of a small city, only there's hundreds of ancient temples. I'm a big Buddhist religion nut, just walking around looking at the temples was so interesting:

Thai Buddhism is of a different variety than Northeastern Asia, and the temples are much more interesting (and even, mysterious) than the temples of China, which are the ugliest and most uninteresting temples in Asia - to be fair, Chinese temples usually don't get government funding or official encouragement, and were actively destroyed during the Cultural Revolution only 35 years ago. In Thai temples, there's many more statues, decorations are much more intricate, there's more worshipers, and there's iconography and interesting practices I tantalizingly only half-understand, like these ropes tying together the Buddhas.

While I found the temples to be the highlight, and also the most fun to photograph, Chiang Mai is simply a pleasant city to be. I could easily imagine spending an entire vacation there. People are friendly, the weather's beautiful, tourist infrastructure and foreigner-oriented businesses are extensive but easy to get away from, and there's a lot of different sites and activities. There's a lot of interesting markets, I tried a very fun one-day Thai cooking school, also there's popular treks around the area, often multi-day excursions amongst hill tribes. While I had to leave the longer treks for a future visit, I took a one-day trek where, amongst other things, I went around the Thai countryside on an elephant.

I didn't run across any Thai restaurants that I would call excellent, but there was a whole lot of very good, very cheap street food. Here's a typical bowl of Chicken Pad Thai, it's available just about anywhere in Chiang Mai, or really any Thai city:

There's a large Chinese presence throughout Thailand, although it's diluted by being several generations removed from any large wave of immigration. Still, particularly in Bangkok and Northern China, it was normal to see houses and stores with Chinese decorations, most commonly these talismans:

If I have complaints about Thailand, one would be that I was stranded there, by myself, by the infamous airport protests, and the second would be that it's so convenient, fun, and inexpensive to visit, I find myself measuring trips within China against just going to visit Thailand. Really, it's generally cheaper to go to Bangkok than to Sichuan.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

So Congee

I have a problem with So Congee. So Congee is a quite nice restaurant with a quite nice atmosphere and quite nice food, for a pretty decent price. I went with a friend who afterwards half-jokingly claimed she wanted to eat there every day. While I also like the place, really two things hold me back from giving raves. First is that congee is just, well, congee. Very simple, I've never made it myself but I imagine you just add some water to a bowl of rice, then boil it for a long time. It's great when you want something basic, in the US I'd get it with a few vegetables or meat for maybe two fifty. In China a plain version costs two or three kuai, somewhere between a quarter and fifty cents. Generally if people have it they'll have it for breakfast, which I tend to skip.

But really my main problem with the restaurant is that, my God, it's so slow. I find myself waiting half an hour or more, for food that I think of as being so elementary. I can get crazy impatient and actually asked if I could get a long-wait-discount, last time I went. It didn't work, but I didn't expect it to. Anyway, as long as I'm prepared to wait (something I have a hard time with), the atmosphere at So Congee is comfortable, and it's a good place to relax. The furniture is nothing amazing, but it's attractively lit, it's none to loud, the tables aren't stacked right against each other, and there's usually a cool soundtrack playing in the background – last time I went, it was early Billy Holiday.

The restaurant is kind of split in half, there's also a sister restaurant So Hot Pot, confusingly enough it operates in the exact same space even though they make it out to be two different restaurants. Most of the customers seem to be there for the hot pot. I've never tried that, I'm not a huge hot pot fan, and while I'm sure their rendition is decent, the place seems a little restrained atmosphere for what's usually a meal eaten with friends and a few bottles of beer. There's also a menu of Shanghai foods, snacks, and desserts. I usually order a snack or vegetable alongside my congee, they're generally fine but nothing amazing.

The congee is given in a large bowl with a large serving spoon, there's a base price of eight kuai per person, although I could see getting an extra portion if people are hungry. Other ingredients are mixed in, there's a whole lot of different types of mushrooms and seafood to choose from, along with some other meats and vegetables. Prices are maybe fifteen to thirty kuai, depending what's added in, but it varies. These ingredients are always very high-quality. The base congee is bland, as is to be expected, but is about as nice as congee can get. This congee had needle mushrooms and eel added:

So really it's very good food, and for only sixty nine kuai I felt like I had a nice meal for two at a nice restaurant. So despite my misgivings about the concept of an upscale congee restaurant, I recommend giving this place a try.

The menu is entirely translated into English, and there's numerous pictures, additionally I imagine some of the waiters speak English. It's located a little North of Jing'an Temple, on 98 Yanping Road, near Xinzha Road. I don't think reservations should be necessary, but it might be a good idea during peak times – the phone number is (21)6267-1781.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shanghai in the Movies: Suzhou River

“Suzhou River” is a movie that I've brought up several times in my blog, although I haven't written specifically about it before. It's my favorite mainland Chinese movie made in the last sixty years. It makes Shanghai look dusty, poor, half-built, crowded, and seedy, and was a major motivation to come out to Shanghai in the first place. Or perhaps on a subconscious level, I was just attracted to a city where Zhou Xun might be swimming around in a mermaid outfit.

It presents an honest look at the city, with a number of people in the background that are obviously not actors:

And similarly, there's a lot of settings that obviously aren't sets.

The characters are all flirting with being petty criminals, and are solidy lower class, and the apartments look the part:

Zhou Xun is currently a top Chinese actress. This was her first big role in a movie, although she was already well-known for a part in a popular TV series. While I admit I don't really like any of the other movies I've seen of hers, I admire that she varies between doing popular Chinese movies, and Chinese art films.

She plays two roles, and she does an excellent job in each, although I'd call both characters under-written. Her principle character lives in a houseboat on the Suzhou River, which I find extremely improbable. There's currently a very small amount of families living in these boats, and I understand it was somewhat more common when the movie was made, but really it's just not the sort of place a young lady who doesn't haul freight for a living would live. It's still a very cool set.

All-in-all, while I don't think this movie tries to provide a thorough or entirely representative look at the city of Shanghai, it's as good a look at Shanghai as any other Shanghai movie I've seen. By concentrating on the lower end of the city, it's an interesting alternative to movies where Shanghai is depicted as some sci-fi futuristic Hong Kong, which it clearly is not.

In many ways, the movie reminds me of Hitchcock's “Vertigo,” but with an unusual first-person viewpoint for about half of the movie, and there's also an influence of Wong Kar Wai. While it's the best Mainland Chinese movie made since the Communists took Shanghai, it has its problems, and probably wouldn't crack a “top 100 list” if I was to include it against Hong Kong & Taiwanese movies. For what it's worth, I'd call “Farewell My Concubine” the #2 Mainland Chinese movie.

It's interesting, how the politics of this movie played out: For unspecified reasons that would seem to include being generally negative about China, being co-produced by a foreign (German) company, and not receiving filming permits, the film was banned from China's miniscule movie theater industry – although in practical terms, there was/is no real local audience for art movies, and Chinese government censorship is basically an endorsement in other countries.

Furthermore, the director Lou Ye wasn't allowed to create a film in China for two years. He came back with the absolute stinker “Purple Butterfly,” a WWII Shanghai espionage thriller starring Zhang Ziyi. He then created the somewhat sexually explicit, somewhat mediocre “Summer Palace,” about student life during the Tian'anmen Square incident. After having it screened at Cannes without government approval, he was banned from filming movies in the PRC for five years. While the cause would seem to be obvious, again the actual reason wasn't publicly specified, and Lou Ye, for his part, gamely claims the five year ban was because production levels weren't up to the Film Guild's quality standards.

And for what it's worth, this post has the distinction of being my 200th update.

Update 6/8/2009 - Lou Ye managed to secretly film a a movie in Nanjing, "Spring Fever." It was submitted to the May 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and won an award for best screenplay. I'll probably have a future update on the film, additionally I assume he'll sure receive some kind of official rebuke.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

State of the Blog Address

I've built up a small queue of stories and pictures, and I've decided to have regular updates on Wednesdays and Sundays mid-day (Shanghai time). I think I can stick to that for a ways. I might also have occasional small updates on other days, if I feel like it.

This blog is driven by the pictures I take, and I've largely re-converted back to film cameras. Unfortunately, I broke my film scanner by plugging it into a 220 volt source! Oh man! There's photo labs in Shanghai that scan film, but they're pretty sorry and a little expensive. So until I get a new scanner, that'll have an influence on what kind of updates I have, or sometimes just the quality of pictures I put up - particularly with my upcoming updates about SE Asia.

I welcome comments and suggestions about what type of updates to post, I'm interested to hear from anybody who follows suggestions made on this blog, and I'm dying to meet people who want to jam old-school Hawaiian music! Either post a reply, or send an email to jeff oaktowncrack com.

And while I'm at it, I noticed that a few old Shanghai movies will be screened at The Glamour Bar the next couple Sundays at 6:30 pm - "Street Angel" on the 15th, and "Crossroads" on the 22nd. They're both tops, especially Street Angel. It's 65 kuai, I believe the price includes a drink. The movies are also freely available for download off, I have an earlier post with the links.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Punjabi Indian Cuisine

Punjabi Indian Cuisine is an Indian restaurant located downtown. It's located near Shaanxi Nan Lu Station, from there walk a block to Xiangyang Lu, cross the street, turn left, and walk a half block. Punjabi Cuisine is located at 102 Xiangyang Lu, on the third floor. From the outside, the sign is really dirty and old, and in general the place looks like it might be kind of sketchy. The first time I saw it, I was ready to turn back!

On a tangent, I also thought it was funny that there's a clothing store a few doors over called “Ranma 1/2,” a Japanese cartoon I liked in college. There's no connection, except for the name:

Despite the scary sign and having to climb a couple not-impressive flights of stairs, the actual insides of the restaurant are quite nice. Clean, modern, comfortable, and with really corny paintings on the wall:

I've only had the lunch special, on the weekend, there's a meat version and also a vegetarian version that I've never tried. It costs fourty nine kuai, about $7.50, and it comes on a metal tray like an army canteen. Despite the utilitarian metal tray, the foods are colorful and pleasing to the eye. All of the foods are delicious, and reasonably authentic-tasting (I'm no expert, although I've been to India and my sister lived there), and the spices were only turned down somewhat. All in all, I'd call the food very good, but not outstanding. The portions were large, if not huge. It also includes a basket of pretty good naan, which I didn't take a picture of.

There's also an 88 kuai dinner buffet, but unless you haven't eaten in several days, or are visiting by yourself, I doubt it's a good value – most of the dishes cost somewhere around fourty kuai, it's probably a better bet just ordering what you want. The menu is very large, it contains both genuine Indian food, and foreigner Indian foods like Chicken Tikka Masala, and as would be expected there's a North Indian slant to it all. Unfortunately it doesn't offer Indian-Chinese foods like Lollipop Chicken, that would be awesome.

I've been several times, and it's always been a little sparsely populated, and every single other person in the restaurant that wasn't with me was Indian – I found that surprising, anyway. I understand it's more popular for weekend dinners, when there's Indian folk music performed. All in all I wouldn't call this an amazing restaurant, but when I get in the occasional mood for Indian food, this is my favorite place to go.