Archive for May, 2011


The fragrances of Shanghai

During the short few weeks of spring – we have already moved onto summer with the temperature bouncing up to 35+ two weeks ago – we have had some very pleasant evenings which make exploration of the city on foot a much more enjoyable experience – 不太热,不太冷, bú tài rè,bú tài lěng – not too hot, not too cold.

On these walks one is entertained (or assaulted) by a miscellany of “fragrances”.

Let’s start with some of the more pleasing ones….

Magnolia blossoms – sweet, strong perfume, that intensifies as you walk closer to an area where many trees are clumped together.

Barbeque street food – this always awakens memories of a braai back at home, and really gets the taste buds muttering about bygone summer days gathered around the evening sacrifice.

The sweet donutty smell of fried breadsticks – 油条, yóutiáo – this is a real reminder of childhood delights of the infrequent treats of sugar-coated doughnuts.

As we walk along the street next  the river on the way to catch a taxi to the office in the morning, every so often, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, there’s one spot where for about 5 seconds you can smell the lovely salty tang of a fresh sea breeze (from 50 km away!) Oh, for those days of the sea air at Fishhoek and Llandudno.

The smell of rain on thirsty earth – reminds me of the Highveld storms, but in the two years that we have been here I’ve only been in one storm that was even vaguely in the same league.

Then there are the everyday smells – not particularly pleasant, but not totally nauseating. As they form an on-going part of our lives, and you can’t escape them, one just has to get used to living with them as a kind of “background” smell…gasoline & diesel exhaust fumes, pollution, wet markets, a sort of humid/“damp earth” aroma, wafting up from river or from the earth and after it has been raining for a few days.

Then there are the “woe are we”, “when can we stop holding our breath”, “get me outta here – quickly”, all-assaulting, weapons of mass destruction fragrance variety: fetid drains, rotting vegetables, leaky sewers and our personal favourite: stinky tofu!


Gate-crashing a wedding

Can you imagine how a young couple on their wedding day in northern Johannesburg would react if a group of Asian tourists arrived at their wedding reception and kept getting in the way of the photographs???

A few weeks ago we took our overseas visitors for a meal at Shanghai Uncle – a fairly upmarket Shanghainese restaurant – near to the Bund. We had spent the afternoon wandering through the Yu Yuan Gardens and market area and then made our way through some of the older city streets to give our guests an exposure to some of the less glitzy side of Shanghai. It was a reasonably warm day and we weren’t exactly “fresh” in appearance when we arrived at the restaurant. We had planned an early dinner so that we could catch one of the night-time boat cruises on the Huangpu River that divides east (Pudong) from west (Puxi). We were dressed for exploring the city, had our backpacks with some warmer clothes for the evening, cameras, etc. No one really dresses for dinner here unless it is a formal event or ceremony.

Once before, when my sister was here, we came to this restaurant and arrived at the tail-end of a wedding. That time they seated us upstairs, out of the way and we could watch the final proceedings of the reception from our balcony view.

This time, we arrived early, even before the bride and groom, and there were only a smattering of guests. The staff assured us that we would not be in the way and ushered us into a private dining room. All fine, except that we had to walk between all the dinner tables in the main dining room, past the gift table and wedding cake, and through the canopy in front of the main table to get to the private dining area. We placed our order and then had to make use of the “facilities”. By this stage the bride and groom and a few more guests had arrived. The only way to get to the toilets was to wind one’s way back through all the tables and go through the foyer, right between the photographer and the bridal couple – who were having photographs taken with every guest that arrived.

Embarrassment! So sorry, so sorry, please excuse us, we muttered as we dodged the guests and gifts and the cameras and the videos. In the bathroom we met up with various guests and attendants, all dressed in their finery. Then we had to do it all again on the way back. Everyone else seemed to take it in their stride and seemed totally unfazed that this group of non-Chinese interlopers were getting in the way of the proceedings. So we waited for the least intrusive moment, slipping through just as a new guest headed for congratulating the lucky couple, feinted left and right to minimise camera and video appearances, and zig-zagged through the tables to our hideaway.

We had to share the private dining room with the “guests with children” and the “working” guests, e.g. wedding planner, MC and DJ! We managed to “sneak out” of the restaurant (in plain sight) before any of the speeches and games and the more “formal” aspects of the proceedings!


Someone agrees with me about manners…

Audience hit wrong note with singer — Shanghai Daily | 上海日报 — English Window to China News.


Let it all hang out

I have taken another step towards becoming more assimilated into the local culture.

No, I still haven’t mastered the four tones of Mandarin.

And no, I don’t “hack” and spit onto sidewalks and out of taxi windows. [I really don’t know an English word that would be apt enough to describe the fullness of the sound and sense of gathering up one’s saliva with a certain amount of gusto and complete commitment to annihilating those “spit demons” once and for all – so “hack” will have to act as a polite, but utterly inefficient stand-in. “Clearing one’s throat” – another polite and completely misleading term… ]

And I’m afraid, I still can’t face the thought of eating chicken beaks and feet.


There are many different ways of hanging out your washing: here are some of them…

As you can see, if your apartment doesn’t have its own set of “washing-poles”, it is simply a matter of finding the nearest tree or electricity pole and you can rig up your own wash line. No one seems to mind having their own or anyone else’s underwear on display at street level; it’s just a way of life.

It really seems crazy (and not very eco-friendly) to use the tumble-dryer on a beautiful day of sunshine. The clothes horse works fine for most things that you can hang on a clothes-hanger, but sheets and duvet covers have always been a problem.

For two years I have had to resort to using a tumble-dryer (all-in-one washing machine/tumble-dryer was provided as part of our furnished rental) or our common-old-garden standing clothes horse to dry my washing.

Wanna be linen drier!

If it wasn’t for the fact that we live on the 12th floor, there is many a day that I would have had my beady eye on a few of the neighbourhood trees and poles!

This year, we requested our landlord to install a “washline-on-a-pulley” contraption on our balcony. I don’t even know the proper English term for it because in SA we had plenty of space outdoors and used a good, old-fashioned wash line connected to a post planted firmly in our back garden. After a few communication complications (somehow the landlord thought we wanted another tumble-dryer), we now have our very own “able-to-hang-your-sheets-out-to-dry-can-move-up-and-down-using-a-pulley” contraption firmly ensconced on our balcony.

We also have a new tumble-dryer which was purchased before the lost-in-translation problem came to light, which we had to put in our guest room because there is no space in the “service balcony”, so I really have a lot of options when it’s time to get that washing dry!


A splash of colour

This beautiful garden brightens up the sidewalk outside a local shopping mall.

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Cultural norm or just plain bad behaviour?

Some days I really struggle to be culturally sensitive and lose my resolve to stop people from “losing face”. There is a line between bad manners and cultural idiosyncrasies, but I don’t know where the line is and I don’t know if it is fine or not.

When some of the guys on our staff sit and have a private conversation during a project group meeting, talking loudly enough to be heard above the person currently speaking to the group – is that just plain rudeness, or is disinterest during a briefing session a cultural norm here in China?

When we, as the bosses, arrive in the office in the mornings and give a general greeting – is it a standard cultural behaviour to ignore your bosses when they arrive in the office, or do they just not notice us, or is greeting your boss just not important to enough to drag you away from your computer screen?

When people boarding the subway push their way through the passengers that are trying to disembark – is it general bad manners or is it just the Chinese way of life – push to get ahead no matter who is in your way in case someone stops you from achieving your goal and you don’t get another opportunity?

When driving along the road and you find you need to turn across oncoming traffic, and you just make a left turn exactly where you are, no matter how many cars have to wait behind you or how many vehicles in the oncoming traffic are put out while you finish your against-the-flow manoeuvre – is this driving method actually taught in Chinese driving schools, or is it acquired behaviour as you realise that no one is going to make way for you so you better make your own way, no matter who is inconvenienced?

When I was growing up, saying “Please” and “Thank you” became ingrained in my psyche – it appears that saying “thank you” in Chinese culture is a rare phenomenon. I really struggle with this one.

To the best of my knowledge the reasoning is something along the lines of:

  • You don’t say “thank you” to people who have a close relationship with you if they do something for you – it’s something that they should do and therefore there is no need to thank them.
  • You don’t say “thank you” to strangers that do something for you like holding open a door, or moving out of your way in the subway – they don’t need to do it and if they do, it’s their own decision, so no need to thank them.
  • The only time “thank you” is said is when something extraordinary and of life and death importance is done for you.

And from what I have read in the newspapers, this kind of event is happening less and less frequently as people are too scared to step in to help someone in a difficult situation in case they are blamed and sued for further injury. So society is becoming more and more fragmented as people are extremely loath to “get involved” in helping someone in trouble.

Some of this is changing and not everyone behaves in the ways described above, but there are some days when it is absolutely typical of life around us.

Surely something is wrong with this picture. I find it very sad.


Shanghai – Who is she?

Our recent overseas visitors wondered which view/area best defined “typical Shanghai”. We proceeded to show them some of the many “faces” of Shanghai in an attempt to prove that there is no single aspect of Shanghai that stands out as “typical” – she is a city of diversity and contrasts.

Shanghai used to be known as “Paris of the East” and also by the less-than-complimentary title of “Whore of the Orient”. How would one describe her today?

From the backstreets and alleyways with the hole-in-the-wall eateries, to the high-end boutiques on Nanjing Lu; from the skyscrapers of Pudong’s financial district, to the tree-lined streets of the once-was French Concession.

From the colonial elegance of the architecture along the Bund, to the crowds thronging through People’s Square on a holiday or weekend; from the tranquility and timeless setting of the Yuyuan Gardens (filled with loud noisy tourist groups!), to the sidewalk hawkers as they eke out a day-to-day existence selling anything from pirated DVD’s to hair accessories.

From the sights and smells of the wet market, to the public gardens scattered with bridal parties queuing up for photographs; from the chaotic traffic jams and blare of hooters, to the “chink-chink” sound of the shuffling of mahjong tiles in rooms across the city.

From the kaleidoscope of lights rippling across the Huangpu River as it divides east from west; to the bars and nightclubs and karaoke venures that swagger through the downtown city streets; from the elderly folks on their exercise equipment in the parks, to the delicious aroma of street food cooked and served on street corners and out of downstairs windows….

Shanghai is all of these….and so much more.

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May 2011
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