At 22:20 on Thursday 28th April 2016 – 12 months ago to the day – Matt and I arrived in Shanghai with six stuffed suitcases and a serious case of jet-lag. The keys to our apartment wouldn’t be ready until the following day so we checked into the Intercontinental, tourist-style.
When I made a big deal today in the office about having been in China for one whole year, my colleague Miki asked me how I felt. My reply – taking huge liberties with the truth – was “I feel like a local (!)”.
Local I certainly am not, but I do feel quite at home in China. I can order coffee “Kāfēi Měiguó jiā niúnǎi” and – more importantly – a glass of white wine “Bái pútáojiǔ”. I can scoot around on the metro. I have favourite places to eat and know where to buy cheese. I have some great friends. I can use Taobao and Alipay. I brazenly walk out into oncoming traffic, careful not to make eye-contact with the drivers of cars hurtling towards me. I no longer squeal when someone invades my personal space,,, Well, okay, I may still be working on the last one but I’ve improved a lot!
As for Matt, he has eaten more obscure foods in 12 months than most people eat in a life-time, can hold his own in Mandarin, and has mastered the ‘Chinese Group Photo Pose’ (those who grew up listening to the Spice Girls will also recognise this as the universal symbol of Girl Power). This is expertly demonstrated below at a meal we had last night to celebrate the birthday of one of his team members (happy birthday Patra!)
We’ve made it through 4 seasons; the sweltering summer (which is almost upon us again – it’s forecast to be 27 degrees on Sunday!), and the not-as-cold-as-expected-but-twice-as-polluted winter, where my face was disguised behind my attractive air-filter mask for about two months straight.
Since we moved out here I’ve not been back to the UK so it was great to have my parents come to stay earlier this month. We visited Beijing, Pingyao, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie over the course of 12 days – blogs and photos to come! All our holidays – with the exception of Christmas in Thailand – have been in mainland China and this year we plan to branch out into Asia a bit more. Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos are near the top of the list, so if anyone reading this has been and has any top tips or recommendations, please let me know!
I’ve tried to photo-document my travels around Shanghai and China as much as possible, for the blog and to share with family and friends back home (my ad-hoc snaps are usually accompanied by funny looks from locals who are evidently thinking “why on God’s earth is that crazy blonde lady taking a photo of my washing line?). I would estimate that I’ve taken around 718, 000, 435, 888 photos during my time here but to mark our 1-year Shanghai-versary I’ve picked my favourite:
To all our family and friends, we miss you lots. We hope you are enjoying the blog and look forward to seeing you soon!
Last weekend I joined my friend Miki for a guided city walk around Shanghai’s Hongkou district (虹口区). The event was organised by a local tour operator and promised to delve into the cultural history of the area, including it’s Jewish heritage and status as home to one of the world’s most notorious prisons…
When I arrived at the meeting spot outside Tilanqiao metro station the organiser approached me with a worried expression and asked if I spoke Chinese… After 11 months in Shanghai I’m now quite accustomed to being the only Western blonde in a sea of Asian brunettes; however, other people are not always accustomed to me! I explained that my translator was on her way… after taking a small detour four metro stops in the wrong direction (well, it was early morning! haha)
When Miki arrived we joined a smaller group of around ten and stood in a circle on the streetcorner to introduce ourselves. I learned that this bunch of 20-somethings were largely born & bred Shanghainese, who had never explored this part of their city before and wanted to learn more about the Jewish migration here in the early 20th Century. Having stereotyped the sort of people interested in taking city walks on a weekend (middle-aged tourists), I was a little surprised at the demographics of our little cohort, but when you consider that there isn’t so much of a heavy Friday night drinking culture in young Chinese compared to their Western peers, I guess there is no reason not to jump out of bed on a Saturday!
Hongkou is on the Puxi side of the Huangpu, river just North of the Bund. Our first was a few metres up the street from Tilanqiao metro station: Xihai Temple. The grand temple building was quite incongruous with it’s grimy neighbourhood surrounding, although if my wanderings around Shanghai in the last 12 months have taught me nothing else, its to expect the unexpected – you often find a beautiful architectural gems hidden in the most unlikely of places!
The rest of the street looked something like this:
A few meters down the road from Xiahai temple we came across another large building, although this one didn’t look quite so inviting…
Tilanqiao prison was opened in 1903 to house those convicted of crimes in Shanghai’s international settlement. It was once the largest prison in the world, and earned the nickname ‘Alcatraz of the Orient’ as in it’s 110 year history no-one has ever escaped.
The hustle and bustle of locals going about their daily business wasn’t quite enough to disguise the eerie silence which permeated from the prison grounds – the place looked devoid of life, although apparently it houses around 8500 prisoners at the moment. Our guide described some of the gory details, such as the three-story execution chamber designed for death by hanging, complete with a trapdoor which allowed the body to drop directly into the prison hospital’s morgue. Lovely.
The ‘Shanghai Ghetto’
In the early 20th Century around 23,000 Jews sought asylum in Shanghai. The first wave arrived from Russia having fled the 1917 Revolution, and many more came from Europe throughout the 1930’s and 40’s seeking a safe refuge from the Holocaust in one of the only destinations still open to them.
The new residents may have been safe from anti-semitic persecution, but they soon found themselves entangled in another conflict. Following the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 the Japanese Army took control of the city and between 1943 and 1945, around 18,000 Jews from all over Shanghai were forced to relocate to a 3/4 square mile of the Hongkou district- which was already home to 100,000 local Shanghainese. This area was formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, but informally known as the ‘Shanghai Ghetto’.
The Jewish residents of the Hongkou restricted area may not have been fenced in literally, but Japanese military patrols secured the area and enforced a strict curfew. Many refugees lived in group homes with as many as people sharing a single room. It was one of the poorest and overcrowded areas of the city; unsurprisingly, starvation and disease were rife.
The White Horse Inn & Art-Deco Architecture
Despite the less than ideal conditions, the Jewish refugees established a thriving community which included cafe’s, bakery’s, shops and theaters. In 1939 Rudolf Mossberg – who had moved to Shanghai with his family – bought a three-story building at the corner of Changyang Road and Lintong Road where he set up and ran a cafe which he called the White Horse Inn. Those who had been bakers and bartenders in a previous life found themselves re-employed in at Mossberg’s cafe, which quickly became the centre of social gatherings for the Jewish refugees.
As is the fate of many buildings in this fast-evolving city, the White Horse Inn was demolished in 2009 when Changyang road was widened, but was re-built in 2015 as part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, using some of the original features such as the doors, windows and staircase handrails. I love the rounded balconies on the second and third floor; so romantic!
Some of the original architecture in this area was incredible; Art deco style red-&-grey brick three story row houses with handsome arched windows. The metal rails sticking out horizontally from window frames are for hanging out washing to dry as there isn’t much room to do this inside the apartments.
Continuing the Art Deco theme was the Roy Roof Garden Restaurant on Huoshan Road (below), built in 1928 the plaque outside confessed it to be “the largest place to avoid summer heat in the Jewish isolated zone during the World War II”. Having experienced one sizzling, sweaty summer in Shanghai, I can vouch for the absolute necessity of somewhere to escape the heat.
I took lots of photos during our walk around Hongkou and really like how the black and white ones turned out. It was a chilly morning and the sky was quite bleak. I love the web of overhead wires in this next photo, separating the older houses from the modern towering apartment blocks.
Ayi Milk Tea
As out tour group wandered along Huoshan Road (and past more of those beautiful red and grey brick houses) we came across a group of people huddled around a hole-in-the-wall, and Miki explained that it was a famous milk tea; Did I want to try? she asked. Of course! I said.
Milk tea is a warm drink made from black tea and milk (usually evaporated or condensed milk, as opposed to fresh), and comes with various fillings; we went for the sticky rice one which was just on the right side of sweet, very creamy and so delicious! Filling too.
Warmed up from the milk tea we continued the tour, which took us down an alleyway off Changyang road to see what used to be the largest refugee camp in the Jewish isolated zone of Shanghai during WW2. The ghetto was officially liberated in September 1945, and by 1950 almost all of the Shangahi-based Jews had left China. The tiny apartments are still occupied, but today their residents are local Chinese.
The opportunity to explore first hand the last vestiges of Hongkou’s Jewish heritage was fascinating (especially for someone who walked away from history class aged 14 and now finds herself hopelessly and embarrassingly uninformed about some of the most significant historical milestones!).
It was even better to explore with Miki, my translator and the lovely person who introduced me to milk tea with sticky rice!
I began today with a determination to cram 48 hours of weekend into a scant 24 – an ambition forged by my spending Saturday in the office (not out of choice, I might add, but required by a quirky feature of the Chinese working calendar that requires you to fund national holidays by sacrificing weekends to work).
First on the agenda was my Mandarin lesson. This was scheduled for 90 minutes, but in a strange yet interesting twist ended up being split- one part vocab, one part impromptu coaching session whereby I coached my tutor through her crisis of career confidence (NB- even the brightest and most passionate Young Chinese seem to feel that they are on the scrap heap if they are 27, single and not yet a millionaire. Contending with parents of a generation who associate the success of their progeny with marriage, children and a dazzling career, ‘weight of the world’ is an understatement.
Anyway, coaching and study complete I left the apartment to join Matt for lunch who had been out for breakfast and coffee, his usual routine. He announced that he had found a ‘no-frills’ vegetarian cafe’ in South Shaanxi (which turned out to consist of one table and a tea urn); we took a brisk walk in that direction down HuaiHai Zhong Lu.
Our neighbourhood, the French concession, is a paradise for those who like to meander about taking intermittent pauses to point at objets d’intrigue; its rich in incongruous architecture, kooky fashion, questionable food vendors (‘Danger Food’ as we call it), there’s almost always something interesting to see. I could do it all day, every day, probably for the rest of my life – or until I got hungry.
Today we walked past a corner house, fairly typical for the area:
Some of the windows were boarded up, and at a first glance it wasn’t worth a second. Until turning the corner, we glanced into a metal-framed basement window, scruffy and short of a couple of plastic panes.
Inside, a leaning tower of canvases prompted a closer look…
As someone who strongly values tidiness (I put Marie Kondo on a pedestal alongside the chap who first thought to bake bread in a handy slice format), this presented a distressing, but nevertheless intriguing scene. Why would someone pile canvasses in this way, behind a window open to the elements? Why would they choose to keep something that is – literally – underneath loads of trash? And why on earth would someone name a California roll after an i-phone?
I often remind myself that the things that I find interesting most likely aren’t so interesting to anyone else, which limits me posting about things I see through other people’s windows. But I really loved this one!
Lunch at the vegetarian place was pretty good, and this afternoon I’ve packed for our next Chinese mainland adventure: Huangshan (yellow mountain), for which we catch the train on Thursday. I’m not sure I fully succeeded in squeezing two full days into my Sunday, but the bottle of red we’ve just polished off is certainly helping to blur the edges. A satisfying compromise.
A few weeks ago Matt and I celebrated the arrival of 2017 in a small cafe-bar in downtown Shanghai, with buy-one-get-one-free cocktails and pizza. We managed to eat without booking a table, and the streets were largely quiet at midnight.
It might have been a bit more lively on the Bund, but we found that December 31st is a bit of a non-event in China; most expats travel home – or elsewhere – for Christmas and the locals register the new year using a different calendar altogether…
Today, 28th January 2017, is the first day of Chinese New Year according to the lunisolar Chinese calendar; Xīn Nián Kuài Lè (新年快乐) – Happy New Year – everyone!
The Year of the Rooster
Each CNY is characterised by one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and today we transition from the Year of the Monkey (animal #9) to the Year of the Rooster (animal #10).
People born in the Year of the Rooster are honest, energetic, intelligent and confident folk. So far so good, but any existing roosters (born in 1993, 1981, 1969…) may want to take extra care not to walk under ladders or engage in other risky behaviour – the year of your sign is believed to be one of the most unlucky years of your life.
Party like it’s… 2017 (in China)
For most people CNY means a week off work and catching a bus/ train/ plane (delete as appropriate) out of the city to visit family. Depending on your age, marital status and level of career success, this annual gathering may be something you look forward to or something that fills you with dread; I could write a whole blog post on this (and probably will at some point!) but here I want to talk about another CNY tradition – the Annual Office Party and Banquet.
Imagine the Annual Party is a pie, and you cut it into thirds; one part is a corporate ‘Thank-You’ to employees for a year’s hard work (complete with awards, gifts and an after-party), one part is a New Years’ Eve celebration (complete with rooster-themed team videos), and the remaining part is a crazy cabaret-style talent show (complete with near professional level acts and dances performed by employees).
My experience started off like this:
Internal Comms Manager: Emma, would you like to be the MC (compère) for the Annual Party?
Me (internally): Oh my god! I’ve never even held a microphone before; there’ll be hundreds of people and lots of VIPs. What if I look ridiculous? What if I say something ridiculous? Will I have to speak Chinese? In public? What will I wear? Will I have to dance? What if I fall over? What if I forget my lines? What if I have to dance, then forget my lines, then fall over, then say something ridiculous in Chinese?
Me (externally): Erm, okay.
Fast forward a few weeks and, well, this happened…
Between four of us we hosted – in English and Chinese – a fantastical, elaborate evening of toasts, performances, prize draws and competitions. And given I’ve never done anything like this before, I have to say that it went pretty well!
‘Passionate Red vs. Mysterious Black’
It took me a while to wrap my head around our theme for the evening, but essentially ‘Passionate Red’ represents the lucky colour of Chinese New Year, and ‘Mysterious Black’ was a homage to Friday 13th (黑色星期五)- the night of our party. Colleagues were assigned to either the Red Team or the Black Team depending on their functional area and dressed accordingly. This led to some pretty special outfits…
We kicked the evening off with a traditional Chinese meal -a wide variety of cold dishes on the tables to start, then wave upon wave of hot foods (not that the MCs had much time to eat; there was too much ceremony that needed mastering… my dinner consisted of 2 prawns and a mushroom), and of course some festive toasts to the New Year (we did find a bit of time to do a toast. Priorities).
And then we moved on to bit that everyone had been waiting – and rehearsing madly – for… the team performances!
There were four rounds of performances, with each round pitting a Red team group against a Black team group. After each round, the audience voted which of the two they wanted to send to the Finals…
The red versus black theme was wholly open to interpretation, resulting in eight colourful, crazy performances thematically linked only by their inclusion of red, black, and some form of creatively choreographed dance routine, a kind of mass homage to the cult boy and girl bands of the 1990’s.
Rock bands went head-to-head with Victoria’s Secret-style angels and James Bond was pitted against Snow White. On the same stage, we saw our colleagues transformed into Peking Opera stars, Storm Troopers and what I think was the Angry Birds (although I can’t be sure!). Some highlights below…
Voting was by QR code and after each performance a Mexican wave of i-phones rippled across the room.
The final vote was for Best Performance, and the four semi-finalists waited with baited breath and wine-in-hand for the winner to be announced…
5, 4, 3, 2, 1… The Amazing Tron Dance! This was a seriously spectacular performance which involved a total blackout and a group of dancers who had flourescent LEDs weaved around their outfits. They danced to techno music and had other group members (dressed entirely in black) help them perform maneuvers that made it look like they were floating and flying and so on. I have no idea how they managed to rehearse this in the office (!)
Best dressed was well deserved
Although you would have thought the four good looking folks below would have given them a run for their money!
I had a brilliant time, it’s unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced before and the effort and energy that people put into their performances and outfits was beyond impressive. It also had a kind of collective positivity that you don’t always get at events back home – it was a really great way to signify the transition of one (work) year to the next (work) year. I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ll top this next year !
It’s been a long few weeks between this and my last post. Partly because I’ve been struggling with how to write about this subject, and partly because I’ve been too drunk, lazy and fat over the Christmas period to type coherent sentences.
What follows is a bit of a sort of loose mashed-up allegory of an aspect of life here. Hopefully it’s reasonably clear what i’m talking about…
This was the first Christmas in our 5 years together that Em and I have been in the same place, so we used our Asian foothold to enjoy a Thai Christmas. Emma writes far better travel blogs than I (and my below-par standard of my photography means I have no interesting, i.e., in-focus, photos to share) so i’ll let her cover the details, but as a seguay to what i want to talk about here just let me tell you about a couple of the highlights…
Instead of turkey dinner, we ate barbecued crab and green papaya salad. Instead of snow, we had beaches. Instead of Christmas trees, we had palm trees. Instead of a boxing day hangover nap, we had massages. Instead of reindeer, we had elephants. Instead of Santa, we had larger, fatter elephants with beards.
We saw loads of elephants actually. They were everywhere. Speaking of elephants, instead of ‘larger, unaddressed issues’…
When we first considered moving to China, one of the main concerns we had was – and bear with me – the well documented elephants in the rooms of large, densely populated Chinese Tier 1 cities. Only these elephants had tendency to occupy the air for extended periods. A bit like…
We’d heard via the popular media that airborne elephants can have a somewhat negative impact on quality of life and if you hang around them long enough they can impact on your longer term health.
The cause of this problem is fairly well documented. Elephants are normally found in places like jungles, plains or woods; but when people burn those natural resources to – for example -generate heat for their homes, or to power factories or cars then it disturbs the elephants causing them to rise in large quantities in the air. For many days in the year you can’t detect their presence, but they definitely are more noticeable during periods where there is more burning than usual (depths of winter and height of summer).
You will already know that as sociable creatures, elephants engage in herd behaviour. When there are enough being displaced or where there are particular weather conditions, large herds can migrate towards population centres. Sometimes the herds can be visible in the atmosphere for several days; though reprieve is available when it rains (because the airborne elephant is fearful of getting wet).
The days on which the herds aren’t a problem outnumber those really bad days by a sizable margin across the year, so on balance it’s a pesky issue but not one which makes us consider leaving our new adoptive home. The seasonality means that these beasts can make some of the months disproportionately worse than others, so you get a bit of concentrated disruption. When it’s bad, the effect can be considerable. I find it makes me really quite drowsy, while others report heavy coughing, phlegm and so on. Visually the airborne elephants turn into a kind of fog which has a yellow tinge as though it’s been shot through a retro Instagram filter.
A high volume of elephants may mean you need to change your behaviour on a particular day. So, if you plan on going out for a jog and encounter heavy, flatulent beasts floating about in the way, you will need to rethink your plans.
There are a few tried-and-tested strategies that a Shanghai resident can adopt when the elephants become problematic.
Firstly there are apps that provide a daily report on the concentration of elephants in your local environment. These are great as they give you a recommendation first thing in the morning as to whether or not you need to take precautions that day.
Secondly, everyone is by now aware that elephants are afraid of mice. However, mice are notoriously difficult to train, and may attract unwanted cats. It’s actually underappreciated that elephants are rather frightened of ninjas (the silent Japanese assassins). You’re therefore able to limit the impact of the problem by buying a mask and adopting the appearance of a ninja. Unlike those worn by the ancient cadre of silent killers from feudal Japan, modern ninja masks come in a variety of colours and styles. It turns out that elephants are equally terrified of the ‘Broken-Britain-Hoody’ ninja or the ‘face-condom’ ninja, as they are of ‘using Paddington Bear as a nosebag’ style ninja.
Thirdly, we use Air purifiers in our apartment which are made in Sweden (ironically the Swedes have no problem with atmospheric elephants, but are nevertheless experts in this area). The purifiers make a loud humming noise that must prove unpleasant to animals with large ears (I’ve not seen the data to back this up, but we’ve not had any rabbits or fruit bats in the apartment so it’s probably true). If any are not put off by the noise, then they are certainly caught by the filters as the air is passed through the purifier which which takes out all but the smallest of elephants.
These three strategies don’t address the root cause of the issue (stopping putting elephants in the atmosphere in the first place) but solving that issue is a global matter and one which I can’t really go into in this blog.
In summary then, the elephants are a problem (and it’s not good to have them in the air in the first place), but it’s not a deal-breaker for us living in Shanghai and there are a few means to manage it.
Finally, one day when the elephants were out in force, I decided to paint the scene from our window. You can’t see any elephants in the picture, I realise that, but they’d just left the picture, leaving the gaseous fog you can see in the painting in their wake.
The biggest challenge for this one (which I did using similar technique to the alleyway painting) was to keep perspective and to get the atmosphere and colours right. I chose a view that didn’t have anything particularly significant in it (no landmarks I mean, and no people) as the environmental effect was what I was looking to capture. In the background I needed to pick out some of the modern skyline in the haze, but contrast it a it with the higgledy-piggledy older structures that are closer to our apartment (and a feature of the french concession).
Right, done. My next blog will be more straightforward, I promise. Probably about cheese. Actual cheese. Not cheese as a euphemism for the long-term cultural and economic consequences of the one child policy, but the edible stuff you get when milk goes hard.
Two months before our move to Shanghai, Matt and I came on a pre-trip to discover a bit more about our prospective home. On a chilly February afternoon, jet-lagged and a little hung-over (having succumbed to the welcoming hospitality of some colleagues the night before), we took a whirlwind tour around a few of the common expat settlements.
As a general rule, expats with kids live on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river as that’s where the International schools are. Last time I checked we don’t have kids, so Matt and I chose to live downtown (the other side of the river).
I wanted to give a glimpse into the area we now call home – the Former French Concession in Xuhui – by sharing some photos of my favourite street: Wulumuqi Lu.
A few feet from our apartment block on the lukou (intersection) between Wulumuqi Lu and HuaiHai Zhong Lu (our street), locals gather in a small communal area. Come rain, shine or smog you will find them playing cards, dancing to music, chatting or just reading the daily paper.
The sense of community is tangible, perhaps unsurprising for a culture which still give more weight to the community than the individual. Often I will walk past here and see older people in wheelchairs, sometimes still in their pajamas, who have been brought out by their friends to socialise and participate.
I love this photo – dappled autumn sunlight through the trees, a cluster of bikes and mopeds, clothes hung out unashamedly to dry in the sun. It has a sense of stillness which belies the chaotic reality.
I mentioned in a previous blog the ubiquitous transformation of Shanghai streetscapes, with new bars, restaurants and coffee shops – especially coffee shops – opening on a daily basis. Wulumuqi Lu is no exception, actually it is a perfect example. In a couple of days I bet I will be able to order a artisanal single-origin organic drip-brewed cup of caffine at this place. Meanwhile, that guy will still be pedaling empty cardboard boxes on his rusty 3-wheeled push-bike.
Whatever you need – chances are these guys will have one. And it will cost you about a quid.
This photo (above) is typical of Wulumuqi Lu: guy sat in a shady alleyway selling fruits out of a crate next to Western-style butchers-come-coffee-shop. More scooters; more washing; a melting pot of faces.
Pretty much everywhere I go in Shanghai I find myself in prime people-watching territory. This is one of my favourite past-times wherever I am in the world, but there is something about the Chinese people – young and old- that I find transfixing.
The millennial generation are achingly fashion-savvy, carving their own identity with passion and determination, then documenting each decision on WeChat (a social media platform that is a cross between Facebook and Whatsapp). For the young appearance is paramount, but equally anything seems to go which is quite liberating!
I dare you not to fall in love with this place – seriously, I dare you.
The photo above is of ‘The Avocado Lady’, a grocery shop which is famous among laowai (foreigners) as the owner and shop assistants can speak English. The store was apparently the first vendor in Shanghai to sell avocados… and I guess also owned by a lady. Constantly buzzing with French, Germans, Americans and Brits – artisanal coffee in hand (theme emerging).
I’m not sure what this shop is actually called, but Matt and I refer to it as ‘the pancake lady’. I took this photo around midday so she will have been winding down (by night the same hole-in-the-wall is used by a guy who sells BBQ kebabs), but if you go in the morning you will find a queue at least 10-deep.
She cracks 2 or 3 eggs onto a circular hotplate, spreads them thin as paper over a ladle of batter and then scatters, herbs, chilli and some reddy-brown paste (better not to ask) on top. The end product looks like this (and tastes delicious!):
Like many areas of downtown Shanghai, Wulumuqi Road is a clash of ‘old’ and ‘new’; for now it strikes an intoxicating balance but you’d be naive to think this will last forever. The deep gravelly buzz of power-drills which accompany the constant and pervasive construction is impossible to ignore.
I’ve wandered off Wulumuqi Lu now, onto an adjacent street. The tree-lined pavements are like crack cocaine for the young and beautiful, looking for the perfect backdrop to their selfies (what did I tell you… people-watching gold!)
It’s not unusual to see couples don their wedding attire and come to these streets for a professional shoot… These two were happy for me to join their professional photographer for a quick snap! 🙂
But don’t be fooled into thinking the place is picture-perfect -you do have to side-step the odd pile of rubbish, and pinch your nose every now and again – but having got to know Shanghai a bit better over the last 6 months, I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else.
My recent painting of a Shanghai alleyway was a quick dip back into painting after a long absence. After this I wanted to go back to my normal style; and to do a portrait. We’d seen some great imagery in the markets we’d visited so I decided to take inspiration from there.
Below are some pics from the traditional markets we visited on holiday in Dali and Kunming – we’ve seen several markets on our travels and these are representative – crowded, characterful places, with sellers almost outnumbering buyers.
There’s often a defined central structure with tables covered in produce which is surrounded by a undefined hotch-potch of other vendors offering a miscellany of items for sale; cages of ‘behead to order’ chickens; potatoes loose in flatbread trucks. Nearby two grubby men fed large green machines with sunflower seeds, which were crushed to fill great flagons of oil.
There were whole tables dedicated to eggs; fresh eggs (duck and chicken), preserved eggs which are kind of black and jellified, tea eggs and soy eggs, which are brown – also eggs which were stored in some kind of ashy crust – which looked a bit like a scotch egg but you wouldn’t want to eat the outer layer!.
Some tables were piled high with meat (unclear which animal and which bit of it you’re looking at) and fish, usually uncovered with a cloud of flies taking a close look. We walked around one market specifically for pets and flowers and saw boxes of fish, turtles, tortoises, puppies, rabbits, snakes, spiders, stag beetles (and sometimes huge open buckets of their feed – smaller insects writhing about).
Walking around your senses are pleasantly assaulted with plenty of smells and sights and the gentle push of the other shoppers. The ground crunches underfoot as you tread on discarded seeds, vegetables, egg shells – thrown into the walkways by stall-owners or spat out by people tasting the goods.
The thing that amazes about these markets is the sheer abundance of food – almost everything is stacked up in much greater quantities than you’d see in a busy UK supermarket. It can’t last all that long in the heat, so either the supply is great (at the moment) or the demand is great and the stuff shifts. It may well be a bit of both in Yunnan as it’s the agricultural hub of China and I saw plenty of people walking around with large wicker baskets on their backs full of corn, spring onions and massive courgette/marrows.
We get markets in Shanghai too, but they’re often indoors (called ‘Wet Markets’), aren’t quite as chaotic and usually somewhat cleaner than their countryside counterparts. I’d love to be able to shop there, but my Chinese isn’t good enough yet so I’m not yet able to guarantee I wouldn’t end up with several kilos of pig shins, a live hamster or a duck penis.
Anyway, back to the painting. I reverted back to my usual style. It’s largely a portrait of a smoking man, but I also tried to capture some of the character of the market around him.
I was keen not to distract too much from the central figure so tried to make the composition drive the viewer back to his face; on the left the lines that bring you down towards the watermelons stop by the man’s face, and on the right side most of the diagonals take you to something ‘off canvas’ to the right, which presumably the guy is looking at while he smokes his cigarette. This takes you back to his face again.
The background has a huge amount going on, so it was a challenge for me to keep it interesting without it becoming a distraction – this was made harder by the fact that I painted the background before the central figure and so wanted to put some interest in it. Initially there were more people in the background, but I decided to take them out. I also dulled down the watermelons and dragonfruit in the centre as some of the bright colours dominated the veggies at the front a little too much. Another technique I tried – which i’ve not done before – was to blur the background using layers of washes (colours that you thin down with white spirit or oil and apply over another colour) – this worked quite well for the fabric netting in the top right.
For me the most fun bit was painting the guys face and I also enjoyed painting the surface of the trestle table behind him (meant to be blood soaked – I was going to put some pigs heads in but Em didn’t like the idea of raw meat being stored so close to fruit). The hardest parts were the sweetcorn and chillies; because of the slightly translucent, shiny coating, the light reacts differently on them so you get a kind of orange shadow, but I’m pleased with the end result.