Behind the Bund

I’ve been fortunate to have met some brilliant people during my almost-three-years in Shanghai, and build friendships which I’m certain will far outlast the duration of my work assignment. Most of my friends are, perhaps naturally, in a similar boat to me – expats who are living here for a defined period while completing an international work assignment; however, the two friends I want to introduce here were both born and raised in Shanghai. 

I met Miki and Lian through work, and while they now follow wildly different career paths (Lian works in corporate HR and Miki is a tattoo artist and entrepreneur), they share many traits, including a positive attitude, a creative spirit, and a deep passion for the city they grew up in. The latter was even more evident when, over brunch a few weeks ago, they disclosed to me with excitement their new business idea – to design and host city walks for foreigners who would like to explore Shanghai “off the tourist-track”, and get insights from a local perspective. They had completed their first itinerary – Behind the Bund – and wanted a guinea-pig: I accepted immediately!

But first… coffee

We met mid-morning at % Arabica, a chic Japanese coffee shop on Yuanmingyuan Road (apparently opening soon in UK). Here, while we sipped our sweet Spanish coffee, Miki better acquainted me with the story of Shanghai’s international settlements around the Bund area of the Huangpu river delta; how they were established and developed through the defining periods of the Opium wars in the mid-19th Century and through the second world war.

While we drank our coffee the cobbled street outside formed a proxy catwalk for waif-like Chinese girls with flawless skin, red lips and bare legs, surrounded by a posse who perfected their make-up and handed them new clothes to wear while a photographer (invariably dressed head-to-toe in black) snapped their every move. These girls are the stars of TaoBao – essentially clothes horses for online retailers who use a similar influencer-led business model to that seen on Instagram; as you can see below, they start young! Apparently Yunnmingyuan street is prime photo-back-drop real estate, and became so crowded at one point that the local government banned photo-shoots here, but have relaxed this particular rule more recently.

Waitanyuan

Caffeinated, we began our walk at No.1 Waitanyuan – the former HQ of the British Consulate (est. 1849) and now owned by the Peninsula Hotel – a beautiful and iconic European-style building which, painstakingly restored along with those surrounding it, gives a glimpse into what life might have been like in early 20th Century  Shanghai. 

Waitanyuan literally means “source of the Bund” and it was this area which British settlers chose to develop as their residential quarters after the conclusion of the First Opium War. As a Yīngguó rén (British person) I was genuinely interested in learning more about this period of history and I fully embraced my role of guinea-pig by asking lots of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions!

Over the course of the morning Miki and Lian ushered me around some of the most historically significant buildings of the former British concession, some of which I’ve captured in the photos below. While all were undoubtedly stunning, my favourite has to be the China Baptist Publication Building, designed by Hungarian-Slovak architect Lázló Hudec in his characteristic style; Art-Deco with a hint of Gothic.  Hudec had a significant influence on the architectural character of the Bund area and also in the former French Concession, where I lived during my first 2 years in Shanghai, and I love the serious yet elegant presence of his work (google the Park Hotel, Shanghai for another great example).

Miki, Lian and I continued our walk down less famous streets, but with no less magnificent buildings. As I mentioned in my last blog, one of my favourite things about Shanghai is that every time I turn my head I’m presented with another scene or moment that I want to capture – motley rows of mopeds and Mobikes spread neatly along the pavement; serpentine loops of black electric cable stretching overhead; wild foliage burgeoning indiscriminately from brickwork and gutters, a fragment of green against the earthy reds and browns.

And it wouldn’t be a walk through Shanghai without coming across a meticulously staged wedding photo shoot… albeit the first one I’ve seen featuring Chanel shopping bags!

It was a great to spend this time learning more about Shanghai from Miki and Lian, who are proud to show off their city – the facts and stories they had collated kept us busy until our stomachs told us to stop for lunch! If you find yourself in Shanghai with a few hours to spare and would like to explore the city with some lovely locals then check them out on Air Bnb Experiences.

And if you don’t plan to visit Shanghai anytime soon, then I recommend you to follow Miki on Instagram (mikijing0225) and experience city life through her eyes – she is a fabulous photographer.

Lian, me & Miki (L-R)… we are in fancy dress here, just to be clear!

-Em

Autumn in December

Having spent the latter two weeks of November in England – where the frigid arctic wind seeped into my bones while I scraped a stubborn layer of frost off the car windscreen – the autumnal weather that we’ve experienced in Shanghai today has been lovely.

Wandering down Yongkang Lu on my way to lunch, a clement breeze whipped golden-brown leaves from swaying tree branches and cradled them to the ground where they crunched underfoot. On the pavement a huddle of men thirty-or-so strong craned their necks jostled position to watch a mahjong game unfold on a beat-up plywood table. Fleecy bed-covers flapped and floated alongside well-worn bras and knickers on roadside washing lines, and everyone had opted for two-wheels rather than four.

My last visit to England was in May earlier this year; a fleeting catch-up with family and friends. This time my primary purpose was for work and it was the first time I’d set foot in the UK office for 18 months. It was lovely to meet with colleagues face-to-face after so long; everyone was keen to know whether I was still happy living in China, and also whether I was looking forward to moving back to the UK (my repatriation is on the horizon now, as I’ll complete my 3-year assignment in April next year). Honestly, I found it hard to give a neat answer. Shanghai isn’t a new adventure anymore, or a work assignment – it’s my home.

I love the rich juxtaposition of familiarity and foreignness, whereby I have a favorite coffee shop and preferred dumpling vendor (yes, really), but stare wide-eyed (in amusement, or curiosity, or horror) at various culture-specific and previously unseen scenarios on most days.

I love that everything around me is worthy of a photograph. Case in point: a few hours ago, while cutting through an alleyway off Nanchang Lu close to my apartment, I glanced past the coffee shop on the corner, noted the new nail place (“trouble girl”), and settled my gaze on the festive display outside Kym’s Flower shop – bright red poinsettia and colour-matched Christmas baubles. So far so normal, but look a little to the left, and you will find five fish fillets strung to a wooden pole, gutted, cleaned and drying with the aid of a rusty old fan propped up on a battered plastic cool-box. Every Shanghai street coaxes you to look closer, to be present, and pay attention (especially because these little glimpses of old-school China are becoming rarer, as the lane-house-lined streets are swept away to make room for the new and modern and shiny).

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I also love my friends in Shanghai – albeit the merry-go-round of expat assignments means that they won’t be here forever either; I was gutted when one friend moved back to Australia in September.

So am I looking forward to moving home? Well, not in the sense that the UK doesn’t really feel like home at this moment. The prospect of moving into a rental apartment in Warwickshire, learning to fit back into a routine that is now unfamiliar, and turning on the radio to relentless updates on Brexit doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. But still, there is a lot that I am looking forward to; the prospect of a new challenge at work… accepting birthday and wedding and Sunday dinner invitations… being in close proximity to Marks & Spencers food hall… fresh air on a crisp winters morning (yes, even if it does mean scraping ice off the car windscreen!), because let’s be honest, my autumn-in-December experience today was a bit of an anomaly; let’s take last Thursday as a comparative:

So in sum, I spent most of my week in the office explaining my feelings as “pretty mixed”. When Matt and I did our expat immersion training shortly before moving to China, we were advised that the culture shock experienced by people on return to their home country can far exceed that of the initial relocation, as you grow and develop over the three years in a completely different context and culture to friends, family and colleagues back home. I intend to write more about this as I prepare to go back.

It goes without saying, but I’ve been a bit crap at blogging of late. I have at least 8 half-written drafts which nag at me when I find myself binge-watching Mad Men after a long day/week at work. With only a few months left in China in which to tackle a bucket-list as long as the Huangpu River, my job, a plethora of seasonal social commitments (Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year) and a predilection for at least 8 hours sleep, it may be a stretch that I’ll finish all 8, but I’ll try for at least a couple more!

– Em

Shanghai friends

Zhujiajiao Water Town

Between Shanghai and neighbouring cities Suzhou and Hangzhou there are a network of ancient water towns built up around the rivers, lakes and canals which characterize this part of China (and earned it the nickname ‘Venice of the East’, after comparisons were drawn with the similarly watery European city).

Water towns are popular with both Chinese and Western tourists and also expats looking to escape the city for the day (although unless you arrive early doors, you will be lucky to escape the crowds).

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A few weeks ago I visited Zhūjiā Jiǎo 朱家角. This was my third water town excursion since moving to Shanghai, having visited Zhōuzhuāng 周庄水乡 – one of the oldest and most popular water towns – shortly after I arrived in 2016 (I blogged about this trip at the time) and then Qibao 七宝古镇 last year with a Shanghainese friend (Qibao is one of the only water towns that you can reach by metro so ideal if you don’t have access to a car – it’s North on Line 9).

A couple of pics from Qibao:

While the water towns vary in size (Zhouzuang at the larger end of the spectrum, Qibao at the smaller), they are otherwise incredibly similar; two-or-three story whitewashed and wooden-fronted houses line up alongside the waterside, squashed against each other like overcrowded teeth; ground-floor food vendors hawking steaming rice dumplings and glossy meats; sinewy strong men in cone-shaped bamboo hats guiding gondola-style boats through the murky green canals; souvenir shops selling beaded bracelets and pearls.

This uniformity lends to a ‘seen one, seen them all’ mentality, but I’d heard good things about Zhujiajiao from a friend who had visited recently, and with the prospect of a sunny day and nothing else scheduled in the diary, I decided that there are worse things than a little de-ja-vu. The rest of this blog is mainly pictures, as I got some good ones – enjoy!

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This wide, tree-lined canal leads you into the centre of Zhujiajiao.

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Zhujiajiao had a large expanse of water in the centre, which made it feel a lot more open than some of the water towns built solely on intricate little waterways.

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An aquatic taxi-rank. Gondola-style boats, strung with the traditional red lanterns, are the main mode of transportation.

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Homes and restaurants with waterside views

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Steamed pork dumplings.

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There is no point being in a hurry around here; you get nowhere fast!

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Zhujiajiao did a fine trade in braised pork products – knuckles, belly and some parts that were a little harder to identify. All cooked in a sweet/salty liquid until they achieve a melt-in-the-mouth consistency.

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Dried fruits and meats.

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A string of meat hung out to dry from a bamboo pole (I don’t remember seeing this in Venice!).

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A smaller stone bridge crossing a central canal.

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We couldn’t tell if this lady was required to pay ground rent for her grocery store.

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Lunch (not mine!)

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Fangsheng Bridge, built in 1571 is also known as ‘setting fish free bridge’ – for a few kuai you can buy a goldfish to release into the water.

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Famous Zhujiajiao biscuit shop.

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The famous biscuits – you need sharp elbows if you want to get to the front of the queue and buy some (which we did!). They were crumbly like digestive biscuits but much lighter in texture; I imagined they would be sweet but they had a slightly herbal taste. Not bad, but I didn’t have a second one…

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This was an excellent place to rest tired feet and bums.

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As you would imagine in a water town, the menu is fishy. In most of the restaurants you can select which fish you would like for lunch, from a large tank in the entrance.

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This post-box sits outside the old Post Office which dates back to the Qing Dynasty. Inside you can see letters written on bamboo and post cards of Old Shanghai. Well, apparently you can – we didn’t have any cold hard kuai on us to pay the entrance ticket (ahem, who uses cash anymore?!).

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Outdoor seating at one of the riverside restaurants.

There is a local saying that “to visit Zhujiajiao water town without seeing the bridges means that you have not really been to Zhujiajiao at all!” (regular blog readers will be familiar with this expression, which also cropped up in Huangshan 黄山 and Zhangjiajie 张家界). Given we only spent a couple of hours there, a good hour of which was spent drinking hot green tea in a little cafe overlooking the water, we didn’t see very many of those 36 bridges… so perhaps I have only seen two ancient water towns after all!

– Em

The Year of the Dog – and my Final Year in China!

Hello again! I’m back from my unplanned four-month-long break from blog writing, which happened to coincide with the transition into my third and final year in China (28th April marked the 2 year point). I’d love to say that my hiatus is the result of wonderfully exotic travels and cultural experiences – this is partly the case, as I’ve nipped to India, Thailand and UK in this time – but the real story is far less fun: work has been really, really busy. Rubbish excuse, I know.

The superstitious part of me (which I am not sure is real, though I shouldn’t tempt fate) also believes that I jinxed myself by writing a ‘January’ blog with the intention of following the same format each month – clearly a huge mistake! Anyway, “Three Years in Shanghai” suggests a commitment to charting three years in Shanghai, so this is me pulling my finger out and promising to do better hereon-in.

That said, here is a whirlwind recap of the last few months…

二月

FEBRUARY – Welcoming the Year of the Dog

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In February the Chinese calendar transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog – the 11th animal of the Chinese Zodiac. Some key facts:

  • Birth years: 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018
  • Personality traits: The dog’s most powerful characteristic is it’s loyalty. They are also typically honest, good at helping others and offering advice, decisive, determined, playful and fair-minded.
  • Most compatible with: Rabbit, Tiger, Horse
  • And least compatible with: Dragons

If you’re really really into this, the Chinese New Year website has an insane amount of detail (career advice based on your zodiac, anyone?)

Part-way through the Chinese NY holiday Matt and I flew to Goa, India to join my beautiful friend’s Hindu wedding ceremony, but in the days preceding our flight we found that we had Shanghai almost to ourselves (see pics below). The French Concession in CNY is eerily quiet, as most foreigners take the national holiday to travel around Asia, and most Chinese travel back to their hometowns to see family. The upshot is that you always get a seat on the metro, but at the same time 90% of your favourite restaurants are shuttered (so if you’ve not been organised and done a food shop then you end up eating peanut-butter on toast… granted, there are worse fates).

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The handful of other people who chose to stay in Shanghai – and the flocks of inbound tourists – obviously chose to hang out at Yuyuan Garden, which was a veritable people-mountain-people-sea. Wire sculptures bound with brightly painted silk had been positioned throughout Yuyuan, telling the story of an ancient Chinese fairytale. Red lanterns strung overhead added welcome splashes of colour to an otherwise gloomy grey sky.

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三月

March – A few Milestones

Milestone #1: Miki – When I moved to Shanghai and joined my new team at work, there were two people who I bonded with straight away; they made me feel welcome, helped me to settle into Shanghai life (i.e., setting up TaoBao, OFO and DiDi – that’s all you need, right?!), and over the past couple of years they have always, always been there when I needed anything whether inside or outside of the office. Sadly (for me), bright young millenials based in Shanghai rarely stay with a company for long as there are so many amazing career opportunities to explore here; in line with this trend both my friends have moved on to new ventures in the last 12 months. I was really sad to see Miki leave as she always brightened up my day, but at the same time I’m confident she will be a great success.

 

Milestone #2: Matt: As happens every March, Matt got a year older and we celebrated with great food. This time at LAGO – the new restaurant by two-star Michelin chef Julian Serrano, at the Bellagio Shanghai. The striking tunnel entrance opened up into a glamourous art-deco style restaurant, fitted out in glass and marble and mirrors – the restaurant itself had been designed in the ‘boot’ shape of Italy, and our table looked out over the Huangpu river and Lujiazui.

The menu was Italian tapas designed to be shared – always a good strategy in China – and the food was top notch, especially the vitello tonnato (the veal was coated in charcoal made from bamboo and burned tomato skin, and the tuna which was whipped into an air-light mousse with capers and lemon: incredible). Interestingly the other standout dish was the pizza, which was infused with truffle paste and topped with shaved fresh truffles. Yum.

四月

April – Many Cocktails, and a Splash of Culture

Looking back, I appear to have spent most of April with some kind of alcoholic beverage in hand (Dry Jan feels like a lifetime away!). The photo where I’m holding a soft rabbit was taken in a speakeasy in South Shaanxi called Speak Low, accessed through a corridor hidden behind a vending machine in an otherwise unassuming cafe. The cocktails are similarly presented in a ‘things are not all as they seem’ manner – mine came in a hipflask zipped into the belly of aforementioned rabbit! Gimmicky, yes. Expensive, uhhuh. Worth it, absolutely!

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Christian Boltanski – Storage Method

On a sober day, I went to see ‘Storage Method’, a Christian Boltanski exhibition held at the Power Station of Art (PSA)- China’s first state-run contemporary art museum renovated from an old electric plant in the Huangpu District. The exhibition had been recommended to me by Miki, and it didn’t disappoint. The vast industrial space was the perfect backdrop for Boltanski’s expressionist conceptual pieces – mainly photographs, projections, assemblages and installations – which explore disappearance, existence, and the human condition.

The central theme is brought to life as soon as you walk through the front entrance, through a multisensory combination of Boltanski’s heartbeat reverberating through the soundsystem, and a mountain of discarded used clothing evoking the absence of those who have worn them (‘Personnes’, 2010). It continued throughout, for example in ‘The Last Second’ (2014) – a red-LED counter which gives an accurate record of the number of seconds Boltanski has been living since his birth – it will stop at the moment of his death.

I really loved this exhibition; I loved the dark eery close atmosphere in the cool concrete corridors of the PSA; I loved the way that the other visitors seemed to add to, rather than detract from the works, even when they stood in the way taking selfies (often a bugbear with art exhibitions in China); and I loved that some of the pieces made me feel uneasy in the pit of my stomach because they so powerfully probe the subject matter –

“What place does the individual have within the group? In what way are we unique and in what way do we depend on the social conditions imposed on us? Are not our efforts to survive after death in vain? What role do chance and destiny play in a life path?”

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五月

May – The Start of the Shanghai Summer

May saw a return trip to the UK, a consequence of which was that the month disappeared in the blink of an eye! It was lovely to see family and friends (the last time I was on home soil was June 2017 – 11 months earlier), and as always it was a bittersweet feeling to return to Shanghai.

And that brings us to June! I couldn’t resist posting the photos below – blue skies are so rare in this city and we’ve been so lucky to have some really nice days recently. I’m fully aware that this is the calm before the storm, and that soon the heavens will open with relentless torrents of rain, followed by soaring heat and almost unbearable humidity. Wish me luck!

Em

Learning the ZhongGuo lingo

I thought it was about time we did a blog that covered one of the biggest challenges connected to living in China – the language – so I’ve done a self-interview where I ask the questions that my 18-month-ago self would like to ask my today self.

Are you good at languages?

No. I learnt German and French at school but found it tough. I struggle to learn something if I’m not interested in it, so lacked the discipline needed to study and practice tables of  vocab, tenses and genders. Grammatical rules leak out of my brain faster than they’re poured in and my pronunciation is shocking (my command of English language – my mother tongue – is based on the 80:20 rule, meaning that Em spends a good half hour proof-reading and editing each of my blogs before I publish them).

In sum, I have none of the attributes of a good language student. Expecting myself to pick up a highly complex and structured language was akin to dropping a range cooker into the shallow end of a swimming pool expecting it to complete a 50m front crawl.

What language do they speak in China?

It depends on who is asking. If you’re a child, i’d say Chinese. If you’re standing next to me in the toilets while at a pub quiz, I’d say Mandarin Chinese.

If I’m at a dinner party and want to out-smug you, I’d say the answer actually depends on whether you mean ‘speak’ in the literal sense, or whether you also mean ‘read’ and ‘write’.

Traditional & Simplified Chinese

Try changing the language settings on your phone to Chinese (don’t actually change it, it’s devilishly hard to undo). There will probably be two options: “Simplified Chinese” and “Traditional Chinese”. These relate to the written language. Chinese writing has evolved over thousands of years and the written characters are central to the culture (calligraphy is a widely practiced skill and visual art form). A vast number of characters (estimated over 100,000) developed over time, each with varying levels of complexity of meaning- this is what is referred to as Traditional Chinese.

In the mid 20th Century, to improve national levels of literacy and to make it easier to read/write, the government promoted a simplified character set covering a few thousand common words. Most of China now uses the simplified version, though in some pockets (such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) traditional characters still prevail. Some regions have their own unique characters (e.g. those we saw in Lijiang which resembled little stick men carrying out activities) but these aren’t widely used in modern china.

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Examples of the evolution of characters from those written in old bones (c1300 BCE) to modern simplified characters.  Image yoinked from www.chinafriendly.com.au

Mandarin Chinese

Each character has a spoken form, and “Mandarin” is the term used to describe the dialect that 70%+ of the population speak. It’s based on the northern Chinese dialect, and spread through China along trade routes emanating from the capital.

There are actually 7 major dialects in China each of which boasts a compilation of sub-dialects; many of these are barely distinguishable even for Chinese nationals, but some are practically different languages altogether. As an example, if you go to Hong Kong you’ll find many people don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese. Simply put, the same characters will sound different depending on your location in China and the time period.

Pinyin

The third element of the modern Chinese language is ‘pinyin’, which is standard Chinese but written in the Latin alphabet. This is useful both to teach pronunciation of the characters and to help you type the characters into your keyboard or phone. Before pinyin, if you wanted to learn how to say a character, you’d need to remember the pronunciation for each one; some characters contain clues to how they should be pronounced, but that’s not much help if you’ve got another language system coded into your brain.

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Pinyin gives you the latin alphabet word for each character. For the above, ‘pīng‘, ‘pāng‘ and ‘qiú‘ respectively. This tells your Latin-indoctrinated brain and mouth how to pronounce each Chinese character. Helpfully, if you type pingpangqiu into your phone while set to Chinese, it’ll create the characters for you (which mean ‘ping pong’ or ‘table tennis’). So whereas in the UK most people have to learn written English and spoken English, most people in China would learn written Chinese characters, spoken Mandarin Chinese and written pinyin.

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Some characters and the pinyin.

Do you need to know mandarin to live in China?

That depends on your definition of ‘need’. In a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai many people can speak English (most Chinese kids will learn English to a good standard at school) and many are totally fluent. It’s likely to be harder to get around Shanghai if you don’t speak English. Most signs, menus and labels have English versions, or are set up for foreign visitors (most menus have pictures of food for you to point at). So in answer to the question, you don’t need to.

However, it’s probably a good idea to do it for the following reasons;

It’s fun. I often feel like I’m in a massive code-breaking puzzle with little mini-games everywhere, each with varying degrees of difficulty and offering your brain little squirts of dopamine when you solve them successfully.  Take buying something from Taobao (China’s Amazon/e-Bay megahybrid) as an example. Imagine the normal consumerist buzz you get from buying something online, but you also need to look for treasure by navigating a dense jungle of sellers using a bewildering wall of complex symbols on a tablet (or phone), then overcome several side-quests; “Can you successfully decode what size and colour it is?”, “Can you find your address and enter it in the right place so the courier can read it?”.  Once you’ve beaten the ordering level, you then have the thrill of waiting to see if your chosen item actually turns up and is of reasonable quality.

People respect the effort. People will forgive even the most abysmal butchering of their language if you’re genuinely trying. ‘Knee how. Wo yow moy ee bay pee jeeyo’ (‘Hello, i’d like to buy a bottle of beer’ in ChinBrum). The culture is very relationship based so trying is a good way to show respect.

It improves your options and experience. Nice restaurants, hotels, western chain coffee shops, art galleries etc. are all likely to cater for English speakers. However, if you want to try a more unusual restaurant, a speciality coffee or get a Miley Cyrus tattoo; then you might find fewer English speakers. If you want to venture out of the city, set up text alerts on your phone, return an ill-advised purchase of some Hello-Kitty patterned trousers, or apologise sincerely to a police officer, then you’re much better off if you can speak some Mandarin.

You feel embarrassed less often. There’s nothing as humiliating as being stuck in the middle of a public place (like a supermarket) doing something that should be straightforward (like trying to buy toothpaste), when the person in front of you is asking you questions or giving instructions but you literally can’t understand or respond to a word they are saying. After some time you either have to give up, or wait until someone comes along who can speak English to tell you that they’re just trying to explain the price. Actually there ways it could be more humiliating than that. Like if you were buying ointment. And were naked.

How are you learning?

As part of the assignment we get some lessons included; I do around 90 mins of lessons per week, every week. There are loads of books and websites that help you learn, but I’ve found a couple of free language apps which are really helpful.

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Which one do you think it is?

Is it hard to learn?

Yes.

Why?

Tones. I said earlier that pinyin gives you a Latin version of each character. Well lots of characters have very similar letter-chains. The thing that tells you that word is a different word from the exact same letters in the exact same order is the tone you use to say it. There are four tones in Mandarin, which are best explained using the pinyin word ‘ma’. Depending on which tone you use to pronounce the ‘a’ in ma, it can mean four different things. ma

The little squiggles above the ‘a’ tells you how to pronounce the word. Trouble is, those little squiggles are hard to keep in your brain since you need to remember the word and the tone of each word. It also makes it really hard to understand whether or not someone is talking about their mother, some hemp or a horse. It might help if you knew words like ‘saddle’, ‘nosebag’, or ‘rope’. Then you’d definitely know they were talking about mothers.

The pronunciation is really quite important. Consider that I work in a place called ‘Hongqiao’ 虹桥 – which means ‘Rainbow Bridge’. Similar to this is ‘Hongchao’ 红潮 which means menstruation; so as someone who is atrocious at pronunciation, when I say even simple statements like ‘I work in Human Resources’, people find it laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Time & Effort. The typical teaching method in China is to learn through regular repetition and lots of independent study. You need to practice to commit so many different images, sounds and letters into your brain. This can be hard when you’re trying to work and travel and write blogs. My foreign colleagues who’ve done the best at learning the language have put in lots of extra time and get the benefit. I do ok, but still find that in between lessons the vast majority of learning just empties out. It’s been like trying to do an etch-a-sketch on a trampoline.

There aren’t really any shortcuts. The closest there is to a shortcut is to learn Pinyin (i.e., how to say the words). This means you don’t need to bother learning the characters. However, you don’t see pinyin written anywhere (apart from road signs), so your brain doesn’t get any help from your eyes when trying to remember words. The other limitation of only learning Pinyin is that you still can’t read anything, you can only do the speaking and listening bit, which is hard when people speak quickly and you can’t pick out if they just said 人事 rén shì (Human Resources/HR) or 人势 rén shì (Human penis). In fact both of those sound exactly the same; I forgot to mention that Chinese is a contextual language so the general theme of the discussion will influence the meaning of each word. I’ll let you think of your own hilarious examples of the the rén shì/rén shì dilemma.

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“You studied what at university?”

Everyone speaks English! Sometimes, if you’re standing naked in a supermarket trying to buy ointments, the most expedient way of communicating is in English. This is also true in the workplace (though nudity is against the dress code), as most people’s English is far superior to your Chinese. So if you need to summarise a meeting agenda, you could do this in 15 seconds in English, or 30 minutes in Chinese, after which you’ve probably accidentally called everyone’s mother a horse.

Do you need to learn the characters?

No, but as above it can help you remember the words. For example, the character below has four little lines on the bottom of it. These represent flames (like flames under a pot). Once you know to look out for that, you know that this character has something to do with fire, heat, cooking etc.

re
– means hot

The bit above the fire 执 means zhí – to hold in your hand. That is made up of two bits, on the left 扌 means ‘hand’, on the right 丸 means ‘small round object’. One technique is to make up little stories to help you understand the character. So to remember the word for ‘hot’, I always try and remember the scene in Home Alone, where Joe Pesci opens a door (with his hand) and Kevin McAllister has rigged the door with a blowtorch trap. As Joe walks through it, the blowtorch blasts fire onto the small round object that is Joe Pesci’s head. The sound ‘rè’ is like the horrified, angry, pained noise that Joe Pesci makes until he can dunk his flaming head in the snow.

joe pesci
rrrrrèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèè – hot. See?

Sometimes the character looks a bit like what it’s meant to represent.

huo
huŏ – fire. See it resembles a fire?

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shān – mountain. See, it looks like a mountain?

Sometimes words are made up of smaller words. Volcano is ‘huŏ shān‘ – which is literally the two characters above in succession. I like that, and if you think about it, ‘fire mountain’ makes a lot more logical sense than ‘volcano’.

Chinese conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a fire mountain”, “Why?”, “Because it’s a mountain and there’s fire that comes out of it”, “Okay, that makes sense”

English conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a volcano”, “Why?” “Do remember the Romans? So they had this god called Vulcan. He was the god of fire. There was this mountain near Rome called Etna, and the Romans believed it was the forge of Vulcan because occasionally fire would come out of it. They used to apply the word Vulcanus to it. Over time, and due to the cultural and linguistic influence of the Roman empire, this turned into a general term for volcano, burning mountain in latin languages” “Okay, that makes sense but my enthusiasm for learning and asking questions has been crushed at an early age”

There are lots of other examples of this:

  • 电 (‘diàn‘) means ‘electric‘.
  • Add 脑 (nǎo) which means ‘brain‘, and you get 电脑 (diànnǎo) – ‘computer‘.
  • Or add 影 (yǐng) which means ‘image‘, and you get 电影 (diànyǐng) – ‘movie‘.

This way, once you manage to crack some of the characters or syllables then you can build up other words, or at least have a good guess.

Since there isn’t much pinyin written down anywhere, I find that I recognise certain symbols around me which then makes them more familiar and easier to remember. If you’re a visual learner like I am, I’d recommend trying to learn at least some.

One hard thing though, there isn’t really much punctuation, sowhenyouseeasentencewrittendownitcanbedifficulttoworkoutwherewordsstartandend.

Can you write the characters?

To write the characters properly, you need to remember multiple strokes (lines), which order they go in, and which direction you write them. This explains why caligraphy is an art form. I can write the following:

yī = One;  二 èr = Two; 三 sān = Three; 十 shí = Ten; 人rén = person; 上 shàng = On/Up;  不bù = No.

The co-ordination in my hands and eyes dissipates half way through a W, so I don’t stand a chance with characters with multiple strokes. Whereas English dictionaries are organised A-Z, Chinese are organised by stroke count 1-64. Yes, some characters have 64 strokes.

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– or ‘how a dragon flies’ has 51 strokes.

This complex beast, 龘,  , which relates to the visual way a dragon flies only has 51. This explains why, in ancient times, prisoners who were offered one last wish before they were executed would simply say: ‘I never got to see a dragon. I wish someone could explain, in writing, how a dragon flies’. The sheer time it would take for the obligated jailer to complete his task would effectively grant the condemned a permanent reprieve. (NB I made this up)

 

What about all the grammar rules and sentence structures?

I recently started on my intermediate text books which includes some more complex grammar. Up until now, I’ve found the grammar much easier than English, at least in spoken form. The main thing is to remember is the vocab and tones.

I explained earlier how context is pretty important, allowing people to fill in gaps and understand meaning; this means you can be quite economical with your language. When my language teacher teaches me sentence structures, it often sounds like a Chinese person speaking slightly broken English – so I try and imagine a Chinese person speaking English and use that as a template. To give you an idea:

你在做什么 Translates literally as: “You doing what?”

我在找人事部门”I looking for Human Resources department”

你为什么赤身裸体 “You why be stark naked?”

我想买软膏 – “I want buy ointment”

这是超市. 我们不卖软膏. 你怎么来到这里?”This is supermarket. We no sell ointment. How you come here?”

我来到这里用马 “I come here using horse”

你可以骑马吗?”You can leave by horse?”

不能”No can”

为什么不能”Why no can?”

我的马在虹桥”My horse in Hongqiao”

 

– 迈特 màitè – meaning Matt

 

January in Shanghai

When I started this blog 22 months ago, my intention was to capture and share (hopefully interesting!) stories about our move from the UK to China, our new life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia. Reflecting back, I’ve focused much more on the latter! Our new base has provided a brilliant opportunity to more easily explore South East Asia and we’ve grasped this with both hands, visiting many cities in mainland China and also in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – I’ve enjoyed sifting through the hundreds of photos after each trip and recording my favourites here. In the beginning our followers were colleagues, friends and family but now we have readers from all around the world!

While we have some amazing trips in the pipeline for 2018 – including Goa, India for Chinese New Year and Japan later this year – I also want to capture more of the normal stuff – what it’s actually like to live as an expat in Shanghai. This is our last full calendar year here, so I’m aiming to write a monthly ‘non-holiday’ post (I smashed Dry January, so in comparison this goal will be a piece of cake… right?!). Without further ado, here are my January diary entries.

We moved offices: Lujiazui to New Bund

On my first working day in China back in April 2016 I caught the metro from Shanghai Library to East Nanjing Road, then changed to Line 2 to cross the Huangpu river to the Lujiazi Business District. I looked up at the Mirae Asset Tower – my new Monday-to-Friday home – gleaming in the April sunshine; it was a world away from where I had worked in Coventry in the UK!

Lujiazui is the central business district of Shanghai, home to iconic and shimmering skyscrapers including the Shanghai Tower (the world’s second tallest building). It’s a cool place to work, with huge malls, luxury hotels and restaurants catering to every kind of appetite and budget. However, it’s ‘business district + tourist hot-spot’ status in such a vibrant and fast-paced city meant that it was also incredibly crowded (Line 2 in rush hour was less than fun!)

The ‘powers that be’ in government seem to have acknowledged that Lujiazui has reached capacity and in response have begun construction of the “New Bund” – a burgeoning new financial district around 14km south downriver from Lujiazui. Keen for a bit more space and shiny new facilities, we moved into our new office in the New Bund World Trade Centre (next door to the Oriental Sports Centre) on 2nd January. At the moment the view from our workplace is a 360 degree panorama of a construction site so it’s not quite as glamorous as our previous home, but it’s definitely got potential – and more importantly, it’s cut a valuable 10 minutes off my commute! I’m looking forward to watching it grow and change over the next year or so.

Shared Bikes

Another change this month has been the mass culling of shared bikes from the streets of downtown Shanghai.

When Matt and I moved here in April 2016 we noticed the orange-and-silver Mobikes lined up in neat rows along most streets. These GPS-enabled bikes which you (a) unlock via a smartphone app, (b) use as long as you want, and then (c) leave anywhere, took off in a big way and over the course of 2017 the sector exploded. Multiple new brightly coloured competitors joined the fray at breakneck pace, most notably the canary yellow OFO (my bike of choice).

It’s easy to see why they are so popular; they cost next to nothing (just a small deposit plus a negligible fee-per-use) and Shanghai is as flat as a pancake so there is zero effort involved. Their popularity hasn’t been limited to Shanghai and it’s estimated that there are now 10 million shared bikes on the streets of Chinese cities, operated by more than 30 companies (between them, Mobike and Ofo take up more than 90 percent of the market).

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“Colourful chaos”; a bike-share centre in Hangzhou (from the Guardian article – see below)

The explosion of this highly convenient facility had it’s down side. Pedestrian walkways in certain areas became clogged with bikes making it difficult for pedestrians, especially near popular tourist spots or near metro stations, and by the back end of last year you could hardly walk down Wulumuqi Lu for the unsightly jumble of bikes cluttering the pavement. We even caught a few examples of some interesting attempts to ‘stack’ bikes.

 

Over the last month there has been a crackdown following new government regulations which aim to regulate the industry. The photo below is taken from outside our apartment building, where until recently we could easily pick up and drop off bikes. Many upmarket shopping areas or residential areas have banned shared bikes and cordoned off parking areas. It’s been interesting to witness this explosion and counter reaction in such a short space of time, and this January we’ve seen the tipping point when the highly social idea of shared bikes suddenly began to be perceived as anti-social.

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You might experience something similar in your home town – see this interesting article from the Guardian newspaper last year

Weather

I’m British, so i’m genetically obliged to talk about the the weather. Around October and November last year our colleagues started to predict that this winter would be a particularly harsh one – much colder than last year – and that it would impossible to get warm due to the damp air. What they didn’t predict was the snow! The first snow in Shanghai in around 5 years. It fell for 2 or 3 days and didn’t stick around for long, but that didn’t stop a social media frenzy and snowmen/snowrabbits popping up everywhere!

As temperatures drop, people turn up the coal-powered heating in their homes and workplaces causing pollution levels to rise. The naturally overcast winter weather traps the pollution beneath the cloud line, and so China’s major cities become shrouded in a blanket of smog (especially the heavily populated Eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing). The government are conscious of this and during times of particularly bad pollution the production in factories is suspended (I have read that that are also investing in clean energy sources, and there is evidence the air quality getting better year-on-year). Even so, on Saturday 20th Jan when the Air Quality Index (AQI) spiked at 216, I took the opportunity to stay indoors and have a duvet day!

Annual Party – A Fantasy World

I wrote in more depth about annual parties last year

Friday 26th January 2018 saw the most eagerly anticipated event on the company calendar: The Annual Party. The theme was ‘A Fantasy Journey’, with fancy-dress strongly encouraged – the result was spectacular!

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I opted for Alice, as it saved me having to buy a wig. I’m now quite confident that if the HR gig doesn’t work out, I would go down a treat at Disneyworld (and they have one in Shanghai, Bonus!).

The team performances were seriously impressive – from human shadow-puppets to sumo-wrestlers! There was even a rendition of the ‘pineapple pen’ song (google it).

 

My favourite restaurant this month: OHA Eatery

I want to try and visit a new place to eat each month. Ideally a brand new restaurant, but failing that, at least somewhere we’ve not eaten before. To say that the food & booze scene in Shanghai is competitive is an understatement. There is so much choice, with new places opening every week, that restaurants have to really bring their A-game; as a result we rarely have a bad meal out. Trends sweep into the city and one current trend is for ‘izakaya’ (informal Japanese pub-style restaurants). One such place – OHA Eatery – opened a short walk from our apartment so we went to check it out.

The space: Small and cosy, with one U-shaped bar-table down the middle. It felt more like someone’s dining room than a commercial restaurant, and the service was in line with this – warm and welcoming but not overly personal.

The food: The menu, printed on a small piece of creamy paper contained a curated selection of Guizhou-inspired dishes (often using ingredients from the Southwestern province). We ordered 5 dishes, and almost licked the plates clean they were so delicious (My favourite was the stuffed baby squid with calamansi lime and soy). Walking out we agreed that we would need to go back soon to try the other half of the menu – always the true test in Shanghai where places can peak early and then lose their edge. That said, I’m looking forward to returning here already – maybe this evening!

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See you in February

– Emma

 

A Impression of Wartime Shanghai

 

If you had to choose a single image to encapsulate Shanghai, there’s a high probability you’d choose ‘that’ skyline; the cluster of attention-seeking Lujiazui skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river. You would choose it because it contains some of the most distinctive and iconic buildings in the city – and possibly in the world; those affectionately known as the ‘bottle-opener’ (Shanghai World Financial Centre), the ‘ice-breaker’ (Jin Mao Tower), the ‘screwdriver’ (Shanghai Tower) and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (erm… that’s it’s real name).

 

 

 

beautiful shanghai skyline
tcmzone.com

There are a couple of points I’d like to note about ‘that’ skyline…

Firstly, many of the buildings in that infamous image are actually incredibly new. The Pearl Tower was completed in 1994 (the same year that my younger sister was born) and the two tallest – Shanghai Tower @2,073ft and SWFC @1,614ft – were both completed in the last 20 years. There will still be plenty  of people in Shanghai who will be able to say – ideally in a Lancashire accent – “When I were a lad, all that there were nowt but fields”. But seriously, Google ‘shanghai skyline 1990’ and compare it to the photo above –  it really is an shocking confirmation of Shanghai’s modernity.

Second point to note is that the picture above is taken from the Bund – a dignified row of European-style commercial waterfront buildings dating from the turn of the 20th Century – an emblem of an earlier era of prosperity for Shanghai when it was booming as a trade port.

The Bund is a tourist-magnet and I’d guess that it’s because, for a city of this size, there isn’t exactly an extensive array of historical sites of interest. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to occupy a history buff, but it’s largely ‘modern history’ set within the past 200 years. For example, the Old Town area around Yuyuan Gardens, the classical dwellings that make up places like Xintiandi, and the various buildings that housed early communist party luminaries. My point being, Shanghai today is decidedly modern, and you have to work a little bit to get your history fix.

This week however we didn’t have to, as an opportunity to attend an author’s evening fell into our laps…

At the event we met Betty Barr and her husband George Wang. They were there to tell us about a book which they have recently published – Ruth’s Record – which contains the full text of a diary which her mother, Ruth, kept between 1941 to 1945,  while she and her family were interned in ‘Lungwa’, the Japanese internment camp in Shanghai.

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Betty and George beginning their presentation

I had started to build a picture of 1940’s Shanghai during my recent city walk around the Hongkou district (i wrote about it here), which focused on the experience of Jewish immigrants during the Japanese occupation. Given this, it was particularly special to hear first-hand from Betty about life as a resident in pre-war Shanghai – for example how their lives revolved around the arrival and departures of great American cruise liners which brought letters, food, movies etc. for the local expat community. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped moving out to China if I wasn’t able to video-call my family, use translation apps and enjoy a relatively unbroken flow of imported Italian wine (!), which made Betty’s parents’ decision to live here all the more impressive. It was truly fascinating to hear about the transition from life as a normal resident in the Shanghai International Settlement to that of an ‘enemy alien’.

 

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Thanks to Henman Wealth, who organised the Author Talk event

Betty explained how her mother had written daily during their time at the camp and remarkably managed to keep her diary hidden from even her family; Betty only came to know about the diary upon her mother’s passing away in 1990.

The book is brought to life by photographs passed to Betty by a friend, and drawings by Deirdre Fee, an Irish friend of Ruth Barr’s who was also interned at Lungwa. Meanwhile, the event last week was brought to life by Bettys husband George Wang, who was brilliantly bright and funny!

Although the story is articulated during the Second World War – during which there was considerable damage done to China and Shanghai – their account was quite unique given that it wasn’t a violent wartime story, but one that described day to day experiences (such as how mealtimes were organised, how people kept busy, the daily work rotas etc.). It gave us an authentic and insightful window into a Shanghai that is both recent (literally in living memory) but also almost completely hidden behind the new shining city with its thousands upon thousands of glass-facade buildings and millions upon millions of residents.

It was lovely to hear some familiar references – they went to school near where we live in the Former French Concession – and they mentioned several local buildings that today are just one of many residential units.

Like true Shanghainese both Betty and George were game for a selfie with my friend Usha and I after the presentation, and they also signed a copy of my book (Matt pointed out the next day that it was funny that he wasn’t mentioned in the dedication given that he had paid for the book… oops!)

I’ve started reading the book and am enjoying it thoroughly already; thanks to Betty for sharing her mother’s story with us.

Emma