Tuesday, April 17, 2007

French Concession

At the end of February, after our lightning visit to Berkeley, Julia and I flew back to Shanghai and I prepared to move us to a new apartment. There were several reasons for this. For one thing, our 6-month lease was up. Our first apartment in Shanghai was in a busy and interesting neighborhood, with enormous variety and teeming with people, shops and food. It was a good place to learn survival skills and it was close to the metro line that Bill takes to work. However, the apartment itself was rather dark and dreary, and in warm weather it smelled like a sewer. Being on the 2nd floor had certain advantages – for instance, we could dash down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator – but our balconies collected dirt from the street as well as the air, and they were always filthy. In the early morning we caught all the street noise – trash collectors ringing their bells, people on the way to work talking in loud voices, traffic noise and general hubbub. In addition, we were far from Julia’s school and near none of her friends and few of mine.

So we moved. Easy, I thought. After all, we had only a few (!) suitcases full of clothes when we arrived, and we’d only accumulated some dishes and bedding. How hard could it be? Well, we had more than I realized, and Julia, in the throes of homesickness after spending a few days with her Berkeley buddies, was no help at all. Thanks to the lovely, young and STRONG Silvia Zhang, real estate consultant par excellence, who arranged for a tiny moving truck and who, herself, helped me schlep suitcases, boxes and shopping bags filled with stuff down to the truck and then from the truck to our new apartment, we arrived at Ambassy (sic) Court and settled into Tower 2, apartment 7B.

The French Concession, as it’s known to westerners but not to the Chinese, is a neighborhood of low-rise buildings, some with “Heritage Architecture” plaques signifying that they will most likely not be demolished and replaced by high-rises. Not that the high-rise is absent; we live in one of a cluster of 3 buildings that go up to floor 28, lacking, of course, the unlucky numbers 4, 14 and 24. Sun Yat Sen lived near here, as did Cai Yuan Pei and Mao Ze Dong, at various times in their lives. It is also a consulate neighborhood. The US consulate is across the street, the Iranian consulate around the corner, the French consul general’s residence on the next block, and the Italians, Japanese and more are in the vicinity. Several people have suggested that if the US and Iran could just get together at the corner of Huai Hai Lu and Wulumuqi Lu, steps from their respective buildings, maybe they could work things out. It’s an easy taxi ride to Shanghai Community International School, and even better, Julia doesn’t have to be downstairs to meet the bus until 7:35 or so. Best of all, when I walk around here I run into people I know, and we are only 2 blocks from Zapata’s, the site of the American Women’s Club’s weekly get-together: free margaritas Wednesdays from 5 pm on, and the appetizers aren’t bad, considering how far we are from Mexico. Now that Julia is comfortable enough to stay home alone and finish her homework, I can go off and get sloshed with the ladies and then stagger home in time to sober up before bed. This is the life.

Our current place has a fabulous gym and spa, an indoor pool that we’ve barely used and an outdoor pool that opens in mid-May. We no longer have 3 bedrooms, which means that guests have to sleep in the living room, since the plan to kick Julia out of her room upon arrival of visitors has not so far worked out. We keep the computer and DSL connection in our bedroom, which means that I wake up when Bill begins his early morning conference calls. This was only really a problem when Julia and I were sick, which was only for 2 or 3 weeks in March and April, during some of which time we had guests in the living room. We’re no longer around the corner from Wujiang Lu, our favorite food street, but there are baozi, onion pancakes and other treats available just a few blocks away. The double-decker 911 bus stops across the street from SCIS and lets us off across the street from our apartment building at a cost of 2 rmb per trip. All in all, a good move.


Shades of yesteryear: today was cold and rainy, and just as last year at this time, today I was ill-prepared for a day outdoors in the drear and damp. I spent most of the morning walking through the old lanes near where we used to live, listening to Wang Gang Feng, a photographer well-known to the expat community, explain why the Chinese people who live in the lane houses downtown want their buildings to be condemned. Not that it wasn't interesting. Our first apartment looked out at some of these houses, but I had never entered one of them or walked through the lanes and noticed the architecture. I took lots of pictures. I hope some of them are as good as the ones Marni gave us when she was here in January.

As soon as the walk was over, after taking advantage of the facilities at the Four Seasons Hotel, I bought a sweater. The good news is that it's supposed to warm up and dry up later in the week, and we should have a lovely weekend.

Spring has sprung

Not surprisingly, this being April and all, spring has arrived in Shanghai. We had a heat wave in March, bringing the first plum and magnolia blossoms and the beginning of the redbud buds. Then it got cold again, and how we suffered! But spring appears to be in full flower now. The palm trees have shed their burlap winter coats. Begonias, petunias and primroses have replaced the winter plantings of ornamental cabbage and chard, and many of the former pansy beds and boxes that kept us cheered up all winter are filled with newly-planted annuals such as poppies, ranunculus and stock. The stick-like plants in planters along the elevated highway, which surely bloomed during the summer (how soon I forget!), appear to be something like forsythia. Azaleas are in bloom, as are a variety of shrubs I don’t recognize. Spring breezes help blow away the air pollution, and westerners have started wearing sandals again. The Chinese believe that it’s not good to be cold, so many of them are still wearing turtleneck sweaters, wool jackets and boots, but nice weather is upon us and we are happy.

We were here last April for a week, but due to the rigors of jet lag, bad weather (cold and rainy) and Mao’s revenge, I don’t remember flowers except in Fuxing Park on our last day. They must have been here; on the other hand, we stayed way downtown, away from the parks and the flowers, so who knows?

Bill has gone back to California for his last trans-Pacific junket. He took with him 2 big suitcases filled with winter clothes and books we can’t bear to leave behind. He also has our last expat shopping list: Peet’s coffee, dark chocolate, ibuprofen and vitamin C. This is the time of year when families nearing the end of a two- or three-year contract start talking about the next assignment or about going home, and when teachers at school say, “I understand Julia won’t be with us next year.” It is now possible to look at the next two months on the calendar and realize that the calendar is reaching its end and that after a certain date there will be no more Chinese classes, coffee mornings, ladies’ lunches, architecture walks or lectures on Chinese calligraphy. This is when we have to buy what we want to buy, get rid of what we no longer need, solidify friendships and prepare to say goodbye.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


About a month ago, walking along the sidewalks of the French Concession, I saw the most beautiful scarab beetle. It was black with metallic gold markings and it too was strolling the sidewalks of the neighborhood. I hope it found a mate and survived to produce its own gorgeous offspring.

Buses in Shanghai are, naturally, bus-shaped: long, rectangular vehicles with rounded corners, rows of windows, and wheels. The local transport also have mirrors that hang down in front on either side of the windshield, rather like large drooping antennae. The other day I saw a bus being towed. With its front end suspended while its hind end remained on the ground, it looked like nothing so much as a tomato hornworm rearing its head.


October 31, 2006 - The season has changed, but aside from the tendency toward a subdued palette, the rules are the same: glitter and frills are in. Shoes (and sandals – it’s still warm most days), belts, purses and clothing are decorated with beads, jewels and sequins. Jeans, skirts, dresses and tops have ruffles, pleats, lace, sheer fabric and asymmetric hems. The white mannequins at Westmend sont très chic. In the hot-dog days of summer it seemed that few women wore high heels, and comfortable-looking flats and sandals were common, along with wedges and kitten heels. Now that high-heeled shoes and boots are more in evidence, I am less envious of those with dainty feet. My size 40 clodhoppers will do for now.

Shanghai sidewalks are filled with attractive young women in nice clothes, known to the general public, or at least to the programmers of Sonic Shanghai, as Shanghai xiaojie. You can recognize the Shanghai xiaojie by her trim figure, stylish hairdo, poise and well-groomed good looks. Sure, there are plenty of jeans, T-shirts (T-xu, in Chinese) and sneakers around, but those are not the women that draw the admiring looks. While underwear stores display imitation body parts in abundance, and Chinese women certainly wear form-fitting clothes and hip-hugging trousers, you seldom see the Chinese bulging out of their clothes. The fashion of tight-fitting maternity wear has yet to catch on in the community here; pregnant women, in contrast to the non-pregnant population, tend to wear loose frumpy dresses reminiscent of the things you made in home ec in high school. The only pregnant women I’ve seen wearing the sausage-casing look have been foreigners.

Of course, some of us draw stares just because we look out of place in this land of straight black hair and slim figures. I think I’ve finally figured out where the middle-aged women are and what they wear. Those who are retired hang out in the parks, practicing ballroom dancing and t’ai chi (taijiquan), or they’re taking care of the beloved grandchild while her parents work to pay for the apartment they bought on the 22nd floor of that high-rise near Zhongshan Park. Uncertain of a woman’s age? If her hair is short and she doesn’t look like an artist, she’s old, at least to the young. Down the street from us, on Nanjing Xi Lu, loose-fitting polyester-looking clothing, of the sort no Shanghai xiaojie would be caught dead in, can be had at a reasonable price from a store called Ice Queen. This season the ice queens have gotten hip: the mannequins sport flared pants instead of summer’s shapeless knee-length skirts. I swear I will never shop at Ice Queen, but I feel the need to bring Julia with me for protection when I enter the neighboring shops that cater to twenty-somethings.

I bought my first pair of Chinese women’s pants – size XL. They were about an inch too long; I guess extra-large Chinese women (equivalent to an American size 6?) are taller than I am. And here I was sure I was only a size L in China. These were cheap pants, however. As with many western brands designed for people over the age of 18, more expensive clothes tend to contain more fabric. I tried on a lovely skirt in a size Large in one of the fancy boutiques, but it was just a wee bit too big. Possibly too fashionable, as well, for an old fart like me.

There are other styles in evidence as well. There are men and women in suits, but many of them are westerners. Older, less shapely women sometimes wear shapeless padded jackets that hark back to the days of Mao. 80's rock star hairdos are popular among the young men, although possibly more common in Tokyo than in Shanghai. Teenage boys, for the most part, don't wear their hair really short; in fact, my Chinese textbook has a dialogue in which a boy tells his mom he wants to keep his hair long. She, of course, says that boys don’t have long hair. She’s wrong. Younger boys, and girls, however, are another story. Baggy jeans are in here, but they aren’t as baggy as in the States, generally not hanging so low as to be in danger of falling off.

In hot weather some men believe in a severe form of climate control that is not necessarily attractive. A picture is worth a thousand words – this has been demonstrated eloquently by Kevin Lee and Olivia Wu in her Shanghai Diary.

And then there are the people who wear their pajamas out on the streets. Apparently some Chinese citizens find this extremely annoying, on a par with traffic noise and the dearth of suitable mates for their grown children. Personally, I find smog and noise much less aesthetically pleasing than pjs in public. Of course, I haven’t mentioned the men in undershirts and shorts on those 37-degree days, but it’s not their fault that they’re not young and pretty.

The other BIG fashion in China is white skin. Pharmacies and beauty supply counters sell skin whiteners, some of which are likely to contain substances you wouldn’t want to take a chance on absorbing through your skin. On hot sunny days some women (and a few men) carry umbrellas to ward off the sun. In the summer women bicycle riders often wear these white cape-like batwings with this lace that covers up their arms – in the name of whiteness. Bill has offered (threatened?) to buy me one for the 7-mile ride from Berkeley to Richmond. For a more articulate discussion of the phenomenon, see Surrender, Dorothy.

And last of all, we have the fashion of Western men and Asian women. I’ve seen almost no couples of the opposite configuration – maybe one in Japan. The women are mostly young and mostly attractive. The men – well, the men are sometimes tall, but sometimes not. Let’s leave it at that.

Environmental Health in China

Here are a few things I’ve observed and expect to observe again:

  • Someone spraying a solvent-based wood finish on a piece of furniture while smoking a cigarette, no respiratory protection. At least he was working outside.

  • Workers using jackhammers without hearing protection.

  • The ubiquitous 4-story lashed bamboo scaffolding.

  • Window washers dangling by cables (I think they’re cables, not ropes) from the tops of many-story high-rises.

  • Smoking! Not a big surprise, and it’s not quite as bad as I expected, but still a very popular bad habit. I’ve observed approximately 4 Chinese women smoking; the practice is more popular by far with men. Bill says that noticeably fewer Japanese smoke now than in 1992 – some progress being made somewhere in Asia. An article in PLOS Medicine in July 2006 describes the problem of smuggling cigarettes into China with the complicity of British American Tobacco.

  • Motorcycle riders wearing no helmets, or wearing the kind the bikers wear in states with helmet laws, the ones that look like relics of WWI. Some motorcyclists wear the ones that look like equestrian helmets, black velvet with a beanie button on top. Sometimes they even fasten the strap. I once saw a Chinese couple wearing regulation motorcycle helmets – only once. Bicycle helmets are for foreigners.

In the news:

Residents’ love affair with cars continues (China Daily, 10/31/06)

Shanghai residents’ intentions to purchase cars are growing fast despite the soaring price of plates and increasing traffic jams. Not to mention the air pollution!

Fatal accidents blamed on mopeds increase (Shanghai Daily, 10/31/06)
Traffic police are warning moped riders to be more careful as the vehicles have been involved in a growing number of fatal traffic accidents over the past year.

Asia’s vital challenge: Wise use of fresh water (International Herald Tribune, 11/2/06)

. . . The number of people in China alone who do not have access to clean water is nearly as large as those in the same circumstances in all of Africa. . . The starkest example of this came in November 2005 when the toxic chemicals benzene, nitrobenzene and aniline spilled into China’s Songhua River and polluted the Harbin water supply.

Spill cuts water supplies (IHT/NY Times, 11/2/06)
Water supplies to 28,000 people in northern China have been cut after an overturned truck spilled 33 tons of toxic oil into a river, the official Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday.

Hedge funds saddle up for Mongolian mines (IHT/Bloomberg, 11/2/06)
. . . Rapid economic growth, driven by copper and gold mining, is attracting investors willing to tolerate corruption and unpredictable regulation. Fund managers are taking on greater risk in small emerging markets once considered exotic. . . International investment in Mongolia’s mining, tourism and telecommunications industries is fuelling an economy where more than 30% of the 2.5 million people remain nomads. . . Real estate prices should continue to increase by 15% to 25% a year because of a housing shortage, rising incomes and the migration of nomads into Ulan Bator. . .

High levels of lead found in schoolchildren (IHT, 11/6/06)
Forty-seven schoolchildren in eastern China have been found to have excessive lead in their blood, the latest such case to hit the country. Tests on the children in Qili, Fujian Province, by the Disease Prevention and Control Center determined the high lead levels, the official Xinhua news agency reported Saturday. It said one 7-year-old boy was hospitalized for lead poisoning, and that a company, Meiheng Smelting, was the suspected source of the lead.

Coffee Crisis (City Weekend www.cityweekend.com.cn, sometime in October 2006)
How clean is your coffee? According to the Shanghai Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision, 80 percent of Shanghai’s coffee does not meet standards because of excessive amounts of copper and bacteria. Thank goodness we drink Peet’s!

Every few weeks, it seems, there is a short paragraph describing the latest mine disaster in China. This does not include the chronic diseases contracted by miners as a result of exposures at work.
BEIJING (IHT/Reuters, 11/17/06): All 34 coal miners trapped underground on Sunday in north China after explosives caught fire have been confirmed dead, state media said Thursday, bringing the death toll from two recent accidents to 81. The miners suffocated after more than four tons of illegally stored explosives caught fire at the Nanshan Colliery in Shanxi Province, where a quarter of China’s coal is mined.

Next Tuesday I am invited to attend a presentation entitled “Functional Superfoods and Combating Environmental Pollutants,” 50 rmb per person, limited seating available. It sounds a bit crackpot, but the parents at the international school are the ones who buy produce at the organic store, feed their children (or direct the ayi to feed the children) brown rice instead of white, and sign up to pay to listen to someone tell us how we can overcome the effects of all the pollution in Shanghai’s air, food and water. “SCIS - Hong Qiao PAFA (parents’ association) is delighted to invite parents to attend a special nutrition seminar conducted by a distinguished visiting Speaker from Hong Kong, Denice Wehausen, a U.S.-Licensed Nutritionist currently living and working in Hong Kong. Come learn about the latest research on promoting health and preventing disease from:
• The Power of Superfoods
• Nutrients to Fight Shanghai’s environmental toxins”

Sounds fascinating. I’ll be there.

More later.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Oh, Them Golden Slippers

After 2-1/2 months of wearing terrycloth-and-cardboard hotel slippers in the house in order to keep the floors comparatively clean (and minimize the work the house elf has to do), I splurged and bought a pair of beautiful Chinese slippers. I’d like to buy one in every color, but at 420-450 RMB ($53-57 US), even though it's far less than the export cost, that would be very hard to justify. If you’re interested, take a peek here. I wear size extra-large.