One Person’s Trash

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:

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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.

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Inside, a leaning tower of canvases prompted a closer look…

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‘Nude, with dog’.
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‘Nude, without dog’; and what you might get if the Carphone Warehouse branched out into Sushi…
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From left to right: ‘Unidentified Chinese Man’; ‘Unidentified Chinese Woman’, ‘Unidentified Chinese Couple’; ‘Nude, without dog’.

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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.

– Emma

 

Chinese New Year 2017

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.

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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…

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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…

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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).

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Gam-bei!

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…

No pressure.

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This is an office party….

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…

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This is still an office party……

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 (!)

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Best dressed was well deserved

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Although you would have thought the four good looking folks below would have given them a run for their money!

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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 !

 

祝大家新春大吉 Happy Chinese New Year!

– Emma

Elephants

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…

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Disney’s Dumbo. An elephant that occupies the atmosphere.

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.

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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.

– Matt

A wander down Wulumuqi Lu

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Whatever you need – chances are these guys will have one. And it will cost you about a quid.

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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!

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I dare you not to fall in love with this place – seriously, I dare you.

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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).

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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.

pancakeShe 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.

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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! 🙂

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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.

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Emma

Market Day

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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– Matt

Six Months in Shanghai

As of the end of October, Matt and I are now 1/6 of the way into our Three years in Shanghai!

In the weeks leading up to the day that we left home trailing 6 suitcases,  we spent a lot of time wandering around Warwick saying ‘I wonder…’ and ‘what if…’ but were unable to answer most of our own questions. This uncertainty was part of the motivation for writing this blog, so that anyone else considering a move to Asia or abroad could get some insight into what it’s really like.

To date, we’ve written mostly about travel and food and some of the cultural traditions we’ve come across, but I thought that the 6 month milestone was a good opportunity to reflect and summarise my experiences. Here goes!

The ‘Highs’…

Travel- If you’ve been following the blog then you will have probably turned a lovely shade of green. Green with illness reading about what Matt has voluntarily digested, but also green with envy reading about our Yunnan and Guilin holidays. Our Shanghai base means that we can explore Asia without the gruelling and super-expensive long haul flights and jet-lag that would have been necessary if we’d departed from the UK. We are also seeing places that you wouldn’t fly long haul to see, but are incredible short trips.

City Life- When I graduated from university I watched pretty much everyone I knew migrate from cobble-paved Durham to gold-paved London. I lived in Liverpool for a couple of years so experienced a bit of city life. However, since I’d often prefer to stay in with a good book and glass of red wine rather than hitting the tiles, I did wonder if Shanghai would be wasted on me… But I needn’t have worried; there is something about this city which makes me feel like I’m welcome to participate in whatever is going on. I haven’t worked out an elegant way to express this yet, but I think it has something to do with the authenticity that lingers here; elements of the city without ego which somehow manage to survive alongside the Big Brand Malls, Celebrity Chef Restaurants and Expat Hangouts. Like how you see people queuing up to buy noodles cooked in the street by a guy in pyjamas, 50 metres away from a 5 story Prada superstore. Or seeing a guy in the bohemian French concession area walking down the street with a pair of guitars, then stop calmly to assault a lamppost with the instruments – without a flicker of surprise from passers by. It’s cool and diverse and I love it.

Food- The food. Where to start?! Eating is something that the Chinese take very seriously. Whereas small-talk in the UK revolves around the weather, in China people will open a conversation by asking what you ate for lunch. Unsurprisingly, this is one part of the culture that Matt and I have loved ‘like a fat kid love cake’ (50cent, 2003). Matt has written about some of the more unusual and funny things we have come across at mealtimes (BBQ pig uterus anyone?), but most of the time we tend to eat fairly non-bizarre and very delicious food.

In the first 3 months we developed a habit of dining out every evening; too-easily blamed on the fact that our kitchen supplies were still in a shipping container in the middle of the ocean. When you live in the heart of the former French Concession within walking distance of about 2000 restaurants spanning every cuisine you can imagine, why would you buy a chopping board?

The fierce competition in the Food&Booze industry means that restaurants appear, disappear and are replaced overnight (literally), so there is always somewhere new to try out – although I’m sure guidebook-publishers find this to be quite irritating.

Lunch breaks- Perhaps a less obvious ‘high’, but one that has completely transformed my work day for the better. From the hours of 12.00-13.00 you won’t find anyone at their desk as everyone – without exception – is out enjoying lunch. If you’re reading this in the UK, you’re probably thinking: “What! you mean there is an alternative to scoffing a sandwich while hunched over your laptop?!”. I know, I found this odd too, but I’m now a complete convert.

The ‘Lows’…

Getting sick- Given that I’m here to work, I probably shouldn’t be taking about how sick I’ve been, but I think it’s an important thing to talk about as it’s one of the things that’s taken me by surprise. On reflection it shouldn’t have been so surprising, as I catch the metro each day along with millions of people and their germs (most of which I have never built up immunity to); but it was. Speaking to other expats I realised that this is a completely normal side-effect of moving to Shanghai which made me feel better. And looking on the bright side, I probably have an impressive immune system now.

The pollution- Ahead of the recent G20 Summit held in nearby Hangzhou the government ordered 255 Shanghai-based industrial facilities to shut down for 2 weeks. Soon after, social media was flooded with photos of the sky and the hashtag #G20blue. Blue sky is big news here.

The surprise…

I love my commute! Yes, the Shanghai metro in rush hour is like a proverbial sardine tin. Yes, it’s sweaty, pushy, impossible to sit down and a breeding ground for the flu virus. Sometimes it actually does smell of sardines and tins. But for 45 minutes, twice a day, I can pop my earbuds in and zone out to a podcast and (most) discomfort fades into the background. Even better, the metro stop closest to work is in the basement of IFC mall so I get to wander past Hermes, Tiffany, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and MiuMiu on my way to the office: Heaven.

The thing I miss most…

I realise that a good daughter would write ‘my family’ under this category, but to be honest I see my parents more now than I ever did living in England, as we have switched our weekly phone calls for FaceTime.

What I actually miss – I can’t believe I’m admitting this – is Sainsbury’s (sorry mum). Before we moved to China, Matt and I would spend Sunday morning writing a menu and doing a food shop, able to tick everything off our shopping list under one roof. It doesn’t exactly work like that in China and while the supermarkets are very good, not being able to read the labels and the difficulty in finding that one ingredient you need (turmeric, Worcestershire sauce, jellied eels) can make it tricky.

The thing I don’t miss at all (that I thought I would)…

Easy. TV.

We do have a TV and are able to stream a limited list of English-Language channels (BBC1, ITV, ITVextra, HBO, the channel that shows back-to-back CSI), but they are not on-demand so the shows that we receive during the evening are 8 hours behind. No-one likes to settle down on Friday night with a glass of wine only to watch Bargain Hunt. The upshot is that Matt has almost finished his second painting, I’ve read 5 books and we actually talk to each other over dinner. That said, it is nice to to have a DVD shop round the corner so I haven’t had to give up on Grey’s Anatomy (yes, it is still going).

The things that have been pretty tough…

The language- I’ve purposefully not put this in ‘The Lows’ category, because the language is part of what makes China so unique to a Foreigner. The writing is beyond beautiful even in its simplified form and there is an intelligent simplicity to the sentence structure which makes me smile. But I would describe my relationship with the Mandarin as Love/Hate. Matt has found it a bit easier than me; my brain is so far refusing to combine individual words into practical phrases which means that my attempts at speaking Mandarin are met with mixed success (sometimes I get milk in my coffee, sometimes I don’t – although I swear I say the same thing!). 

For those unfamiliar with Mandarin (the standard form of Chinese), it’s a ‘tonal’ language which means that you can pronounce ‘ma’ in four different ways and it can mean four different things, ranging from mother to horse! This, combined with the absence of a roman alphabet, means that the methods you would use to translate French to English don’t exactly apply here – you can’t just look up a word in a phrase book.  Therefore it’s common to get a phrase 90% right but still have people look at you as though you just asked them if they ever hugged a horse’s entrance,  which you may have done as 10% is a lot in a tonal language. There are apps which are designed to scan and recognise Chinese characters, but some of the translations you get are nothing short of priceless – actually, this mis-translation is one of the more charming things about living in Shanghai, and if given a choice I don’t think I would change it.

Making friends- This links directly to the point above about language. The easy thing to do is to make friends with other native English speakers; however, the risk here is finding yourself in an expat bubble with a pre-determined set of friends. The harder thing to do is integrate with local people, which requires the other person to accommodate your inability to speak Chinese. Luckily I’ve found myself in a team with some amazing colleagues whom I now count as good friends, and who are an invaluable source of support for all the things that I don’t understand and can’t work out. I would say that this is one area of our new life that Matt and I are still working out.

The summer heat- Imagine opening the oven door to check on the Sunday Roast and being blasted with a wall of intense and humid heat. That’s kind of what it’s like walking out of your apartment every day during June through September. To say it was uncomfortable was an understatement; Matt has learned never to wear light blue shirts in July and August. Around five or six weeks ago it started to cool down (into the mid-20’s) and last weekend I packed my summer clothes away. Hello beautiful, wonderful, chilly November 🙂

This has turned into quite an epic piece of writing. I could easily go on but I’ll stop there! If you have any questions about life in Shanghai – for either Matt or myself – then leave a comment below; we love to hear from you!

– Emma

Still life in the fast lane

 

One of the most eagerly awaited packages in our sea freight was my box of painting stuff. If you don’t know me all that well, my primary non-alcoholic interest is painting – so the first thing I did when all our boxes arrive was crack open a bottle of wine. The second thing I did was set up my easel.

Because my paintings can take me a long time (months; years) , it’s important to carefully consider the subject matter. I’d just completed a landscape of Scotland which took a long long long time to finish, so didn’t fancy another marathon landscape. I have been keen to get back into portrait painting but hadn’t been overly inspired by any faces yet. Instead, I decided to try and capture an atypical element of the city. Typical Shanghai images are of the Bund or the skyline containing the Pearl tower. They’re pretty, but ubiquitous.

One of my little pleasures has been to wander off around the Puxi districts exploring some of the side streets. One of the most curious aspects I’ve found has been the contrast between adjacent neighbourhoods, some of which consist solely of giant skyscrapers of glass and steel and others which are small cramped residential warrens. Though these little residential ‘lanes’ aren’t exactly historic, they are more traditional Shanghai; and typically it is these areas that get flattened to make way for the modern malls and apartment blocks.

The lanes are fascinating. They seem to almost always feature clothes drying from suspended hangers, people washing in outdoor sinks or sat on tiny plastic chairs playing cards. They’re almost always strewn with something; litter, scooters, animals, stacks of cardboard or plastic. Occasionally people set up a few tables and chairs and sell food to passersby. When you take a stroll down one of these lanes, you often experience a number of unusual smells, sounds and sights.The last time I walked through one, the back of my throat hurt with all the chilli in the air from the cooking. I imagine it like a bee-hive; people will emerge from the tiny ‘lane houses’to undertake a bit of frenetic activity in the street, and poke their heads out of windows and doors to partake in animated conversations with their neighbours. Sometimes these dwellings consist of only 1 room; which is astounding given some of the wealth and prosperity you will see in adjacent neighbourhoods (or even adjacent streets!). Given the possibility that these areas will make way for more gentrified buildings, I thought it would be appropriate to make it my first painting.

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To get back into the swing of things, I chose to take a departure from my usual painstaking approach to constructing a painting. Normally with these lanes, you’re walking through or past them rather than taking time to soak it in so I wanted to try and represent the essence, not the detail. I also wanted to reflect some of the charming griminess that many of the lanes seem to have.  I didn’t think I could capture the human element at the same time, so I chose not to include any people in it. I’ve got plenty of time to do some character studies. The finished painting is below.

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It didn’t take a huge amount of time to do – around 4 hours i’d say in total. It’s painted with oil paint on canvas and I tried to use a limited colour palette; there are only 2 reds, 2 yellows, black, white, a tiny bit of blue and a brown called ‘Burnt Sienna’. Almost all of it I did with a palette knife (a type of blade used for mixing and spreading paint that you can get in various shapes). One of the characteristics of oil paints is that they don’t dry very quickly at all. This is very unhelpful if you ever drop a wet painting (the same physics that apply to buttered toast apply here too), but it is very helpful if you want to mix and blend paints while on the canvas. This can produce the kind of effect I achieved in the central pathway- where you have separate colours that are blend unevenly across a surface and give the impression of multiple shades of colours.

Palette knives are also great for creating texture. You can apply paint and then scratch it off in parts to reveal the white underneath, or to reveal the grainy texture of the canvas. This was useful when trying to differentiate between one surface and another, and was particularly helpful when creating the bricked areas. With a picture like this, where the composition relies heavily on perspective created by having straight lines disappearing into the central area, getting the lines right can be very important. Bricks are a challenge, because you need to deal with vertical and horizontal lines across 3 dimensions, as well as having to make them look bricky. I found that I could ‘cut’ the bricks into the picture by loading the knife up with paint and chopping in to create the desired impression. Much easier and much more effective, as the illusion of depth is maintained.

My other aim was to create some interest at the focal point (the end of the lane). I tried to do this by just contrasting some black and white to represent the extremes of light. There are hints of some ‘stuff’ towards the further recesses, but I put a bit of detail into the bike as one of the handful of elements you’d have time to notice if you only glanced up the lane.

My next picture is more in line with my usual style (painstakingly detailed) so it’ll be a few more weeks until i can post about it but I will do so once it’s done 🙂

– Matt

Dragon Boats & Installation Art

Last week we had Thursday and Friday off work for the Dragon Boat Festival; When I asked my colleagues what the traditional customs were for this holiday, I was surprised that no-one mentioned dragon boat racing! They mainly talked about family dinners, spending time with their children and eating zongzi’ – sticky rice dumplings filled with meat or beans and wrapped into a triangle shape with bamboo leaves, which are held in place with brightly coloured string. We’ve not tried these yet, but as Matt’s work has given us a large box of them, I’m sure he will write a food-blog when we do!

 

The Dragon Boat Festival occurs annually on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar and commemorates the life and death of Qu Yuan, a famous scholar and poet who lived in the Zhou dynasty (300BC) and drowned himself after falling out of favour with the Emperor. Legend says that the local villagers admired Qu Yuan, and raced out to the river in dragon boats to try to save him. When this failed, they threw lumps of rice in the river to stop the fish eating his body – nice! I should mention, no-one told us any of this… I had to research it online. This contradicted our experience of China so far, as we’ve grown used to almost everything having a meaning that people readily explain to us (peoples’ names, the shapes of buildings and so on) but this same principle wasn’t applied to the Dragon Boat Festival –

Matt and I didn’t see much evidence of festivities in the City, so we decided to commemorate Qu Yuan in our own way… by having brunch with new friends (thanks to Rita and Ada for providing us with great company and conversation!), and visiting the Olafur Eliasson exhibition ‘Nothingness is not nothing at all’ at Shanghai’s Long Museum on the West Bund.

This concrete structure was outside the museum entrance… not sure what it was?!

Eliasson’s work explores the constructs of time, space, colour and light using optical devices such as lenses, mirrors and glass spheres, with the intent to distort your visual perception and make you think twice about what you see. Matt described it as a cross between an art gallery and a science museum, which I agreed with, and the interactive element to the art made for a fun way to spend a couple of hours (it helped that the vast concrete gallery was air conditioned and provided an escape from the oppressive 30 degree humid smog outside!)

I took a few photos while we were there…

My favourite piece was ‘Happiness’ (still shot below); you walk down a pitch-black corridor, elbow through a gaggle of i-phones and D-SLRs, and look through a horizontal cut-away in the wall at eye level. The space beyond the opening is deep navy blue with fluorescent water on the lower surface, lit by ultraviolet light. From above, huge soap-bubbles float down and bounce on the liquid floor before settling or colliding with the other spheres; You can get a better idea from Eliasson’s website.

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Happiness, 2011
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Happiness, 2011

The below I have called: Matt yellow (2016) and Matt multiplied (2016)

 

This was another favourite:

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Bridge from the future, 2014

The final three are (from L to R) dark rooms containing:

  1.  a camera obscura depicting a scene from outside the museum;
  2. an interactive piece whereby a fine haze of water dissects the room (we watched one person after another pose for a picture in the drizzle; some were pro’s!)
  3. a bright spotlight behind a number of circles hung from the ceiling by wire, which created silhouettes on the opposite wall

 

If you’re interested, Olafur Eliasson recorded a TED talk in 2009 called ‘Playing with Space and Light’. It’s a little bit pretentious, although I can appreciate his central point which (I think) is that we should be more involved in the world around us as opposed to viewing it as a static picture. His art certainly provides an excellent backdrop for people watching: my all-time favourite hobby.

Happy Dragon Boat day!

 

Spoiler alert

I love watching films. They’re one of my favourite ways to spend a couple of hours. One of the main problems I have with long haul flights is that I don’t see them as a chance to sleep; I see them as a biannual opportunity to watch 6 films back to back.

As a result one of the elements of UK life I was more concerned about missing was satellite TV, the internet and regular DVD sales at closing down high street entertainment stores.

One major bonus about where we live in China is that nearby there are a couple of DVD and music shops. These are a little different to the DVD shops you get in the UK because, well, let’s just say the anti-piracy ads you get at the start of DVDs may not have translated all that well.

Sufficed to say I’ve not been found wanting for movies to pass the evening with.

Anyway, I bought a film the other day: 10 Cloverfield Lane. I’d seen a trailer for it wherein a girl looked to have been kept in a basement by a guy who claimed that he was keeping her in there for her protection as there’d been a terrible attack outside. The trailer set up an intriguing premise about whether this was true or not, and whether she was being kept prisoner.

I suggested we watch it but Emma, who doesn’t especially like any films or TV featuring captivity, asked what it was about. I read off the back of the DVD pack (spoiler alert):

“Following an argument with her fiancee Ben, Michelle leaves New Orleans and drives through rural Louisiana. Late at night, she turns on the radio only to hear that there were continuous blackouts in major cities. Distracted by a call from Ben, Michelle gets into an accident and is rendered unconscious. She wakes up in a concrete room chained to a wall, and is approached by a man named Howard, who explains that an unknown attack has taken place and that he brought her to his bunker after finding her on the side of the road. Michelle meets Emmett, another survivor who witnessed the attack and fled to Howard’s bunker. During dinner, an unconvinced Michelle steals Howard’s keys and tries to escape, but discovers Leslie, a woman suffering from severe skin lesions, begging to get into the bunker. When Leslie dies, Michelle realises Howard was right and stays.”

Emma: “Isn’t that the entire plot of them film?”

Me: “….. Yes, actually I think it is. Even the twist. Bollocks”

In creating the fake DVD case, they’d obviously just taken the plot description from some local equivalent of Wikipedia. I know it’s partly my own fault for not buying the genuine article, but I’ve not actually seen any genuine DVD shops yet! In any event, I thought that rather than watching a film that I no longer needed to bother watching, it might be fun to

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The local cinema attendance figures have been slowly on the wane since they started revealing the endings to films in their trailers.

imagine what the backs of some of the other films in that store might have said. Spoilers will follow.

  • “Bruce Willis is a ghost who used to be a child Psychologist. He keeps encountering a little boy who can see dead people. Occasionally he gets cold but no-one knows why and then are several strange happenings happen. Later, his wife tries to talk to him but she can’t, because he is dead.”
  • “Ellen Ripley is working on a spaceship. One day while exploring a planet, one of her friends gets attacked by an alien which plants an egg in his stomach. Later, the egg turns into a monster and bursts out of him. It chases and kills everyone on board, except Ripley, Ash, who is a robot so can’t die, and a cat. Ripley escapes onto a smaller ship but so does the alien. Fortunately she survives by ejecting it into space.”

My good friend Alex Hume suggested:

  • “It’s a film about a rag-tag bunch of criminals who attempt a heist on a boat. The plot is narrated by a limping Kevin Spacey, who is really leading villain Kaiser Soze, but he makes a story up to a policeman in his office using his belongings for inspiration, so you don’t find that out until the end.”

Please feel free to add some in the comments section (try not to blow the plots of recent movies!!)

Wet Wet Water Town

After spending the first couple of weeks in Shanghai getting ourselves up-and-running, last Saturday was our first opportunity to leave the city and explore ‘Zhouzhuang’ (周庄水乡); one of China’s ancient water towns.

We and two friends from work had been invited to visit Zhouzhuang by Emily, a Chinese colleague whose father had been born in the town. The weather was delightfully ironic for a watertown visit – relentless torrential downpour – but we gratefully accepted the blue plastic macs that Emily had brought for us and carried on 🙂

Entering the town through a wooden gateway, stone-cobbled streets weave you past small open-fronted shops which sell hand-made souvenirs made from traditional methods such as bamboo-weaving and silk-spinning. These ladies making small silk shoes were my favourite, and put a less commercial lens on ‘Made in China’

Canals and waterways divide the old buildings and are criss-crossed by stone bridges. Arriving at lunchtime, we dripped and sloshed our way into one of the restaurants and let Emily order for us. One of the traditional foods in this area is slow-cooked pork knuckle in a sweet sauce, which we all devoured. Apparently this is typically served as a wedding food in the area (there were at least a dozen stalls selling these, so you could often pick up the pungency of braising pork while walking through the town) Less popular were the river snails… but Matt and Austin gave it a good go; washed down with some local beers of course!

Zhouzhuang has about 1,000 households living in old dwellings that were built in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and the early Republic of China. Emily had kindly arranged a guide to show us around some of the old houses and explain the cultural significance of the architecture. Stepping over a wooden doorframe about 10 inches high told us that the house was owned by a rich person, or an important government figure (less rich or important people had lower doorframes). The rooms led one to another, with stone floors and wooden walls, and were furnished with beautifully carved angular hardwood furniture from the respective dynasties. In the ‘women’s room’ (there were separate spaces for men and women, with marble screens to divide them), some of the chairs had backs and others were backless; our guide explained that the backless chairs were for unmarried women, as the husband represented the backbone! Despite the throngs of tourists with brightly coloured macs and brollys, the houses were themselves tranquil and calm, with beautiful courtyards which backed onto the waterway system.

 

My favourite part of the day was the boat ride, again arranged in advance by Emily. We climbed aboard and were steered through the canals, under bridges and past beautiful old crumbling buildings.

 

Matt and I had the obligatory “we were here” photo in our attractive macs beside the twin Shide and Yong’an stone bridges (‘The Twin Bridges’), which were built between 1573 and 1619 in the Ming dynasty. Each bridge has one square and one round opening that look like ancient keys, so they are also known as the Key Bridges.

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Glossy blue tourist uniforms.

Then we headed back to the car. And the rain stopped!