Shanghai—16 April 2009
It was a very tiring day of travel: San Francisco to Beijing, then Beijing to Shanghai. Security was even worse than usual. Because I bought my tickets at the last minute, I was targeted by airport security. I guess terrorists also buy their tickets at the last minute. They took everything out of my carry-on luggage and confiscated the cork screw I had bought in San Francisco. The last time it was my Swiss army knife, which I had had for twenty years and which had, among its many useful tools, a cork screw. I could I get a new cork screw pretty easily but the Swiss army knife was beyond my means these days. "Screw the bastards," I muttered under my breath.
"Sir?" one of them turned and asked.
"You do good work," I said. I didn't want to make things worse.
"Thanks!" he said.
In a way it was true. If I had a bomb, they would surely find it. It was just sad that we all had to go through this.
Then of course the taxi driver could not find the hotel. Nothing new in Shanghai. It's a huge city of mostly untrained taxi drivers.
After a few days of rest at the Zheng Hang Hotel in the Jingan district, I began looking for an apartment. I first looked at some new places northeast of People's Square. They were nice but depressing, and not just because of the price. They made me feel isolated. I could have been anywhere—New York, Boston, London ... They were corporate apartments without character—fine if you fit the lifestyle depicted in apartment advertising brochures. Then I looked at a place in the Huangpu district. It was an old Chinese apartment building like the ones I had looked up at from the street on previous trips—air-conditioning units protruding from every window—wondering what they were like inside. The price was low, and though the place wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell, I liked it. Moreover, Huangpu was my first choice of districts in Shanghai, being next to the river in the heart of Old Shanghai. There was a washing machine, and drying racks both inside and outside the windows. What more could I ask for? I signed a lease on the spot.
For a week I took care of the business of moving and setting up teaching contracts, as the writing business was failing badly. Publishers everywhere were hurting, not just since the "financial crisis" became public, not just since globalization became a buzzword and offshoring became the new business model, but ever since the internet slouched into every house with electricity, usurping the power of the TV over the human mind. The news was now an "aggregation of content" as presented by Google and a bunch of bloggers, most of them "citizen journalists" with a grudge and as little training as a Shanghai taxi driver.
But a week later I began to explore my neighborhood. I have always taken a discreet approach to exploring back alleys. People live there and; their homes are not props for National Geographic magazine. Unfortunately a lot of Westerns take the opposite approach. It is as if they are visiting the zoo. In short-sleeved shirts and visor caps, they go on the prowl with digital cameras fitted with10-inch lenses. With me it is a matter of comfort. Do I feel comfortable and relaxed walking through an alley of people I do not know, or do I feel like an intruder there? And how do they feel? It is really a matter of time. If you are living there, you begin to feel at ease. You begin to know people, they begin to know you. "Hello" changes to "Ni hau," "Good bye" changes to "Zaiwei."
Over the course of a week or so I discovered the richness of the alleys in back of my apartment on Fuxing Dong Lu—the canting,
or little restaurants, the vegetable stands, the buckets of live fish, the bakeries, the wine stores, the tea shops, the clothing stores, barber shops, the massage places ... I am amused to think that I first made a trip to Carrefour in Gubei to buy things that I could have gotten for half the price on Sipailou, Xueyuan, Fangbin ...
Finally I have what I need to live, am setup for writing, and have some teaching work; I have some stability after months of being on the run. But then the teaching work falls through. The headmaster, a stout, frizzy-haired little woman at the school I go to teach at, decides after one day that she does not like me. She says my voice is not loud enough and the students cannot hear me. But I think that is just an excuse. She has never come to class, she has never seen me teach. She wants, I think, a younger teacher, preferably female, and if you read the current ads for teachers, you might guess between the ages of 25 to 35. Blond would also be nice. She in fact has such a teacher at the school already—she took the morning hours that I turned down—and I think she wants to give her my hours.
It's okay with me. The school is a long way from Huangpu—at the end of Line 2—and I was thinking of quitting anyway. But I have run into a pattern. The schools now have a preconceived idea of the type of teacher they want. She is female, 25 to 35 years old, and blond. They don't list blond in the job requirements but they often list the first two descriptions. This leaves me out of most jobs. Moreover, there is a new factor at work since the last time I was in Shanghai. A lot of out-of-work, young, would-be English teachers have shown up. Most of them are not English teachers, of course, but they do speak English as their "mother tongue." Some of them have teaching experience and a foreign-language teaching certificate, but a lot do not. It's not a hard requirement. As one "senior academic teacher" at a prominent Shanghai university told me not long ago, "I could care less about the English language." They also love to party and have heard that Shanghai is the place to do it.
I have a girl friend in Shanghai, Yang Yang. But I haven't yet told her I'm back. I want to get set up first. But she discovers I'm here: My San Francisco phone shows I'm out of the area when she tries to send a message, so she tries my Shanghai phone. It shows I'm in the area. So much for privacy and being sneaky. She doesn't ask why I didn't let her know I was back but is ready to come over; she wants to see me. I too would like to see her but have been delaying calling her because there are things that need to be done. There is a conflict here but we work it out. She comes over a few days later.
In fact she comes over on Friday as I'm just finishing up On Just About Everything. I'm exhausted and need to put the last touches on it Saturday. She doesn't understand that. She's a masseuse, not a writer. She stays Friday night, telling me she is going to go out Saturday and look for a job near by but come back later. I tell her to call first. On Saturday when she gets up to go out looking for a job, she says again that she is going to come back later. Again I ask her to call first because I'm working. I think she understands what I'm saying but is ignoring it.
Late on Saturday night when I'm working there is a knock at the door. It is Yang Yang. She is expressionless, which is the way she looks when we are in conflict. She comes in without saying a word. I tell her I'm working but she goes into the bedroom and turns on the TV. I sit down at my work table and think about the situation. I decide I'm not going to make a fuss, I'm going to let her stay. In fact I would love to have her stay. I like her very much. I've told her that. But I don't feel happy with the situation, as I have two month's of investment in my current work. She deliberately ignored what I said to her about calling. I go in and tell her, "Next time I won't answer the door." She gets up, puts on her boots and jacket and starts to leave. I tell her, "You don't have to leave." But she is upset and leaves without saying a word. I feel very bad. She was just sitting watching TV like a kid. It felt good that she wanted to be with me. She doesn't understand writing and the need for privacy. I don't get much done the rest of the evening. Now I'm the one who feels bad.
Sunday I go out for a walk in search of Yuyuan Gardens. I see it on the map that it is nearby. I head east on Fuxing, then north on Changhua. The gardens are supposed to be in that direction. I come to a large park that has some gardens and some ponds but it is not quite what I expected. There is no English sign to confirm what it is and no pinyin. I walk though it, crossing a bridge over some ponds. There is a tea house, which Yuyuan Gardens is supposed to have. But there is nothing special about this tea house. The park is nice; and there are even some musicians playing on the other side where a crowd has gathered to listen. But it does not match the descriptions I've read. I've had a good walk, however, and I notice Shanghai Shi Liu Pu Cloth Market on the way back. It is huge. I put it on my list.
Back in my apartment I check the map for Yuyuan Gardens. The location is almost right but not exactly; it looks a little more to the west. But could there be two big parks or gardens like this so close by? And wouldn't I be able to spot Yuyuan from the street? I'm baffled.
I think about Yang Yang some more. She wants a husband or a tight relationship. I know that but I don't think I'm the guy. I work too much and have to wander around freely to get material. That makes for a poor husband or even steady boyfriend. Also, I haven't been in Shanghai that long and I want to get to know it; I don't want to find myself in a relationship jail at this point. I'm dedicated to my work, good or bad as it may be. She is dedicated these days, so it seems, to finding a husband or the closest thing to it. So I think we are probably on a collision course. She was once married and has a daughter but has been working as a masseuse for the last few years. Now she wants out of the business. She had told me six months ago, "If I find a good man, I will quit my job." I suggested that if she wanted to find a "good man" she might want to quit her job first.
I wouldn't mind being her "good man," but I am aware that good writing demands dedication. At the moment writing is my taitai
or wife. By being faithful I was occasionally getting some good results. But I thought that if she really wanted to stick with me, we could do some stuff together—I would make time for her—and we could each get a little of what we wanted. If she wanted to leave me for a husband, that was okay; I was just going to have to accept it.
I was just about finished writing
On Just About Everything and
wanted to start getting out. It was finally warming up a little in Shanghai
and the weather was good for walking.
On the following Saturday I decided to take the bus over to Maoming Lu, then walk up to Jinxian. From an earlier trip to Shanghai I knew the area around Maoming, and I had just read the review of a new restaurant on Jinxian called Pier 39. I had low expectations; it was a take-off on Pier 39 in San Francisco. But it was an excuse to get out. I was looking for neighborhood flavor and places to hangout, which I had not been finding in Shanghai. I had not heard from Yang Yang in a week.
I knew the Shanghai subway fairly well by now but I did not know the buses. They are more difficult if you are not proficient in Chinese. Nevertheless, I asked a driver if he went to Maoming Lu—"Qu zai Maoming Lu ma?"—and I distinctly hear him say "shide." It was the #24 and he told me where to get off. I was soon on Maoming heading up to Jinxian, then searching for Pier 39 and feeling sort of silly doing so.
The review I read was pretty inane. The hed read, "Pier 39—At Last a Restaurant With a Family Feeling" or something like that. I couldn't see how a copy of a restaurant in San Francisco would have a family feeling. Also, from a description of the menu, it looked like it was all foreign food at jacked-up prices. There is a taste for that in Shanghai where outside influence is part of its history. But when I go someplace I like to eat the local food. It is usually the best and the prices are reasonable. I would have to make an exception for that with San Francisco. There is no local cuisine there. It is all from somewhere else. But it has been brought there by immigrants who know who to cook it, not by locals with no cultural connection to the ingredients and no knowledge of how to combine them.
So what did I think of Pier 39? I didn't go in. First of all it was crowded, probably due to the silly review. Secondly, it did not look comfortable. The chairs were like stilts around small high tables. I don't like to be that elevated when I eat. So I took a walk down Jinxian toward Shanxi. I passed another unimpressive place along the way—Citizen Pub or Citzen Club, who cares? I was tempted to go in but didn't. A young woman near the window with light brown hair, laptop, and latte convinced me not to; wisdom guided my feat on down the street. Then I hit Shanxi and headed north. I was now in restraint mode. Even if I wanted to go into a place, I didn't. Midway up the block I passed a little place crowded with customers. It featured a kind of hard-crusted dumpling or jiaozi. I went to the end of the block, then walked back.
They had an unusual system of payment. You first bought blue-colored tokens at a register, which you then handed over the counter to the chef. I bought four tokens and got four dumplings, which dripped juice all over my hands when I bit into them, leaving them sticky until I got home. This was the local food, almost free and quite delicious. Then I retraced Jinxian on the other side back to Maoming, passing a French restaurant of the very-expensive type on the other side of the street. I had no desire to eat expensive French food in Shanghai; I had spent most of December in Paris, where I ate French food and drank French wine every day.
Foreign influence was nothing new to me. In San Francisco I love it. But there that is all there is and it is authentic. But here it gave me a funny feeling. I knew Shanghai had a history of foreign influence. I suppose without it, it wouldn't be Shanghai. But it gave me a creepy feeling walking by trendy little restaurants occupied mostly by "expats," even though I, admittedly, was one of 'em.
At Maoming I headed on up to Julu and took a left. I needed a drink and began to search for a good honest bar. On Julu I didn't spot anything that looked honest or dishonest but I did spot a restaurant on the other side of the street that looked like it was also a pub. Pubs are never totally dishonest. I crossed the street to the Old Farm House, which was open but without customers. It is nice that way sometimes. There was a bartender and a couple of other employees who looked like they were prepping for the evening. The bartender's name was Tian Ping or "Tina." I ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks. After she placed the drink in front of me, she came around the bar and sat down with me. We had been discussing Shanghai "hangouts." I had told her that I was used to the kinds of places in San Francisco and Paris—all over those cities—where you could sit in comfort and drink and eat and talk. There was such a place on every corner and usually some between, especially in Paris. This I have always felt makes for congenial living. But it did not seem to be the case in Shanghai, despite its reputation. Most of the Chinese places I had been to were fast, loud, and closed early; and the expat places were not exactly real in my mind.
Tian Ping said she understood what I was talking about but said there were such places in Shanghai. I got out my Shanghai map and she pointed out the location, not far away, of a Shanghai hangout, not an expat place, that she liked. It was in a house, she said, and any taxi driver would know it. I had my doubts about the latter, but I was happy to hear about the place. At that point, Tian Ping's husband Markus came in and we talked about cures for hangovers. He had been out drinking with business associates the day before and had what the french call the gueule de bois
Gueule de Bois
or wooden face. He was inclined to drink a coke; I suggested a light beer and aspirin. "That often is the trick—a little more of the same."
He told me that he preferred Beijing to Shanghai. "There people tell you what they think," he said. Here he said you have to guess. He is a graphics artists, and he was specifically referring to customers.
The Old Farm House is a big square room with the bar in the back. It serves German and Danish food, not exactly what I had come to Shanghai for. In one corner there is a drum set; along the wall there is a billiards table. The bar in the back is big and long. I liked Tian Ping and Markus but I didn't think I'd be hanging out in the Old Farm House. I would do that in places like Mendocino, California, where an "old farm house" really once was an old farm house.
On Sunday I took another walk in search of Yuyuan Garden but failed again to find it. The problem was really this. I failed to find the street on the map that runs up to it from Chonghua. With the amount of construction going on, it is easy to miss a street. I walked on up to the Bund, then up Fuzhou Lu with all the bookstores, stationers, calligraphy shops ... I bought a few books, including "My Antonia" by Willa Cather, which I had not read in years, and "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu. Would I be able to extract the wisdom of both of these books, as different as they are in appearance, and see them as flowing from the same source? I had only brought three books to Shanghai in my carry-on luggage and felt the need to expand my library. The bulk of my collection sat in the dark in San Francisco and Paris.
Walking back with the happy feeling of having new books in my bag, I looked at the many small and inexpensive restaurants in the back streets. Then I switched over to Henan, a major street, and encountered the Shanghai Westin on the east side. I know the Westin Saint Francis in San Francisco, now with Michael Minna's restaurant on the corner, and for a moment was curious to compare them. Foolish idea! There is no comparison. The Westin in San Francisco is old, which is part of its charm; the Shanghai Westin is one of those new architectural wonders of the city. However, the bar was closed on the second floor, and the only thing that was happening was a luxurious tourist brunch. I have somehow lost the desire for once-a-week affairs that burn the pocket and are supposed to convince you that your life during the week is worth it. Nothing makes up for a miserable day-to-day existence. I left feeling kind of depressed—yidian jusangde. I wasn't really finding what I had hoped to find in Shanghai. The day before it had been expat bars and restaurants; today it was tourist hotels.
However, on Monday I did make a lucky discovery: I found Yuyuan Garden. I virtually stumbled into it by accident as I was walking up Sipailuo, vaguely aware that the map showed Sipailou running by one side of the garden. I walked into Dragon Gate Mall, where Sipailou deadends, and began staring at all the stuff in the new shops. The mall has only been open for about a year. And suddenly there, inside the mall and at its east side, is the entrance to Yuyuan Garden. This makes it almost invisible from the outside, as its other sides are surrounded by high walls; and this of course solved the mystery. I didn't go inside. It costs 30 CNY; I waited to go with Yang Yang on Sunday
But this got me thinking. I
knew I was not finding it but I saw a comment about it on a website that
said it was "nothing special." It said that there were "many
parks in China" and this was just one of those many. It now clicked.
This person had found the little park down by Chonghua Lu, not Yuyuan
Garden, but took if for the garden, just like I had almost done. So much
for citizen journalism. Yuyuan Garden is about five acres of lovely trees,
shrubbery, ponds with fish, streams that interconnect them, teahouses
and other houses, and exotic rock formations. If it is not "special,"
nothing is. It is from the Ming dynasty and fully restored. If there were
not so many tourists walking in it, you would probably feel transported
500 years back in time. As it is, you feel like you may be missing a bargain
The next day I get a confusing text message from Yang Yang. She mentions that an "older woman" has introduced her to "an American man" ... but does not say what this means. I know where things are heading but it is still upsetting. This is the kind of thing that teenage girls do to get attention from their boyfriends. I ignore it for the moment and go on about my life.
On Thursday I decide to walk over to Dragon Gate Mall and see some of the shops. I am hoping to practice my Chinese as well. I have been spending a couple of hours a day on it but I need real practice with real people.
I am listening to a guy play a flute-like instrument with a reed, which makes it sound sort of like a saxophone, when the guy next to me asks if I'm a musician. "Used to be," I say.
"Want to see some pearls?" he asks.
"Not really," I say.
"It'll just take a minute," he says.
I'm an experienced non-shopper and I know what I'm doing: Talking with people and practicing my Chinese. He is one of the many "guides" in the Dragon Gate Mall. The guides come up to you and help you find what you want, or what they want you to want. They usually start with watches. I usually respond with "Wo bu xiang," literally "I don't want." Hearing the Chinese, they usually depart. Some work for a particular shop, bringing customers to "my shop," others work on a commission basis taking customers to whatever they want to see. This guy, I was told later on, was on commission.
We go upstairs to the Feng Hui Pearls Museum where a young woman takes over, telling me all about pearls. She even has an oyster in a tray of water and pries it open so that I can see all the pearls inside. I'm impressed. There are many. She lets me pick two to keep.
Now this is where my language lesson begins.
"Zenme shuo 'pearl'?" I ask.
"Zhen zhu," she says.
"Zenme shuo 'many pearls'" I ask.
"Hen duo zhen zhu," she says.
"Can you write that down for me?"
The guide stands near by listening. The salesgirl is Zhang Yi Zhi, aka "Bettie."
She shows me many necklaces in hope of finding one that I will buy. There are different sizes, different shapes, different colors.
I learn the words for round, yuan de; smooth, guanghau de; and pure, chun de. Later I learn the word for shiny, faliang de.
I grow to like that word. It rolls off the tongue.
Xiao Zhang, as I later call her, keeps lowering the price and probing me with questions to determine the type of necklace that I want to buy. But neither helps. I'm not a buyer. Later she tells me that the guide, who is standing near by, began telling her, in Chinese of course, that I am not a buyer. He is not happy. He in fact does not speak to me on the way out when I leave with two free pearls and Xiao Zhang's phone number.
But while I walk off with two free pearls, I leave my umbrella behind. So I have to come back the next day. Again we have a lively conversation but this time about tea, which the pearl museum also sells. Why the combination of pearls and tea? Who knows? Maybe it is diversification. If one doesn't sell, the other will. In fact, that was the case here. While I did not feel like buying an 800 CNY necklace for a girlfriend who was increasingly becoming a problem, I had no problem forking over 50 CNY for Iron Goddess tea and helping Xiao Zhang make a sale.
Later she told me, "You should have bargained. You paid to much." I felt I owed it to her.
The upshot of this second visit was good. I not only got my umbrella back. But Xiao Zhang agreed to come over on Mondays for a language exchange: Your Chinese for my English.
Maybe I should mention Xiao Zhang is a Fudan University graduate who has not been able to find a job in her profession yet. There are a lot of kids in China out there like that, working in small shops—xiaode shangdian—doing anything until they can find a job. Why the pearl museum for Xiao Zhang? "I thought it would allow me to use my English."
I then went in search of a pen, gangbi, and a hat, maozi. And I discussed art, hua, and artists, huajia, with another young lady in another shop. My vocabulary was growing. I didn't buy anything, of course, but she didn't seem to care.
On Saturday I went to the Shanghai Art Museum with Yang Yang. Know the museum? It is a unique structure. It is modeled on an ancient cooking vessel called a ding. It has a round top, with what looks like a handle, and a square base. In ancient Chinese philosophy, the square base represents the earth, the round top the sky. Thus the ground would have to extend beyond the sky, raising the question: What is over the far corners of the ground? Another kind of sky perhaps? Or pure nothingness, if such a thing exists? Shenme?
In fact the model for the design is on display in the bronze gallery of the museum.
But it was the calligraphy gallery that interested me, along with the painting gallery, which contains mostly landscapes. I have always loved Chinese landscape paintings. I always find the details interesting and they always bring me peace of mind, a precious commodity these days, especially if you have a moody girlfriend who would have you be something that you are not.
Having said that, it was not a bad day with Yang Yang. I think she enjoyed the show. She is in fact a smart girl with at times a big heart. In fact, she has so many good qualities that I don't quite understand the directions she has taken with her life. For instance, working as a masseuse in Shanghai has certainly not furthered her goal of finding a husband. Her moodiness does not help either. One day she can be feeling good, the next day she sounds hopeless as a drug addict. I wish I could help her but I feel limited. But if I wanted to make someone feel good, it would be her. She would respond with the love of a child in need. I think one of her problems is that she does not understand herself very well. When she was in her twenties she worked in a factory assembling electrical power equipment.
"I loved my job," she says, and really means it. That makes me feel sad. Assembly is a mindless job that slowly destroys people. But she liked it. It was a "good" job and she felt important. "I never thought about a man back then. I was happy." That too is sad. She is an attractive woman now, even at what she considers the old age of 34. I think she must have had a giant sexual repression if that was the case. It's possible. She was married for about six years but never made her husband sexually happy, she says. "I never gave him 'happy'." Nevertheless they produced a daughter who lives with her ex in the small town that she is from. At the age of 34, she misses her daughter and visits sometimes and sends her stuff. I have seen this pattern many times in San Francisco. It is not a happy one when the woman gives up her only child to her ex. The Chinese philosophy of "be strong" only seems to repress the heart ache. I think that was part of the problem of my ex-friend Windy in San Francisco, who was bottle-a-day alcoholic, depressed, and unable to stop crying at times.
You can see a range of calligraphy at the gallery: From three-thousand year old calligraphy on turtle shells and animal bones to paper calligraphy of the late Ming Dynasty. You can see various types of scripts: bone and bronze inscription, seal script, official script, regular script, running script, and cursive script. Running script and cursive are expressive, especially cursive. Of course there are many different types of scripts used in Western writing, but phonetic scripts are far less expressive than characters scripts. Character scripts are much closer to painting, and many Chinese calligraphers are also painters. In landscape paintings you often see calligraphy and painting combined.
I had a personal interest in this because in the my last piece, On Just About Everything, I had almost no photos and used what I called at the time "word art" to fill the space normally occupied by photos. The photos that I had shot for this piece had been either poorly exposed on an expensive Nikon camera that was failing, or had disappeared when I changed the batteries of a temporary replacement camera. The replacement was a 20-USD camera I bought at Walgreens in San Francisco. Someplace in the manual it tells you that this is going to happen but I didn't spot it soon enough. Thus I was stuck with almost no art work.
My solution was to fill in the space where photos would normally go with a kind of calligraphy art based on the Chinese words I was learning. These words were written in my story notebook, so it seemed like a natural thing to do. In various calligraphy styles available on my computer, I put in the Chinese, the English, and the French, the latter as a check that I also knew it. It seemed to work. It gave the eyes a break and supplied words and phrases that were related to the story. Was I beginning to think a little—yidian
—like a Chinese landscape painter? I think so. Shide.
This was all before I visited the calligraphy gallery in the Shanghai Museum. But you might imagine my delight when I felt a connection, both with the calligraphy and the landscape paintings at the museum.
It was a good day at the Shanghai Museum—Yang Yang seemed genuinely interested too. I thought maybe we had a little common interest here. The next day we visited Yuyuan Garden. That went okay too. But then she mentioned that she was advertising in the newspaper for a husband, zhangfu. She said she had turned her phone off the day before because of all the calls she was getting. I partly ignored this but then told her that she was pretty insensitive, mingande.
"Do I talk about other women when I am with you?" I asked.
I was perhaps willing to put
up with other men but I did not like the idea that she would make it the
subject of conversation. She ignored the question, which was her usual
way when she did not like a question. When she left Monday I did not feel
very happy with her. But I started the week doing a fun thing. I went
out every afternoon to local stores to visit and talk with people and
pick up more practical Chinese. I had seen how well this worked the week
before that I decided to do it every day. I simply wandered through Dragon
Gate Mall or elsewhere talking with whomever wanted to talk. I found that
it was not at all hard to get a dialog going. Unlike in the United States
and Europe, where profit and efficient operation are all important, in
China there are always lots of extra employees in stores. Maybe that will
change with "modernization" but I hope not. I have even walked
into stores where employees are sleeping. Imagine doing that at Walgreens
on Montgomery Street in San Francisco! Or the BHV in Paris. Out you would
go looking for another job that did not exist these days. Back in September,
on my last stay in Shanghai, I used to go into the market in Zhoupu with
my dictionary, and as many as five employees would help me shop. They
found it amusing and didn't have anything else to do. Ah, service by real
people, human contact! And not a bunch of machines with user IDs and passwords.
One day, as I headed toward Dragon Gate Mall, I ran into a place called Trader Zhou's. Maybe I shouldn't be, but I am rather fond of Trader Joe's. Whenever I have been down and out I have just headed for a Trader Joe's. It takes the edge off poverty. Drinkable wine for 2 USD, good wine for 3 USD. My hat is off to Trader Joe. And if you read their propaganda and believe it, they are the good guys: supporters of the environment, fair trade, living wages, your health ... One indication that this is not a complete lie is the attitude of the people working at Trader Joe's. There may be some exceptions, but on the whole they are a happy, helpful bunch. So much so it is sometimes hard to believe. Either the Trader has a mood-altering drug that each employees is required to take before beginning a shift, or the Trader has created the best work environment in the United States.
Naturally I was curious about Trader Zhou's. I went in. There were two female employees standing around doing nothing. I got a little conversation out of them but not a lot. They had two things in the store: Wine from Chile and wine from Argentina. I checked the prices. No bargain by Chinese standards, nor European nor United States. What's more, I don't like Chilean or Argentinean wine. They push the alcohol and there is too much tannin from aging in oak barrels. It's a heady wine favored by young drinkers who do not really know wine. And it almost always give you a headache the next day, even a small amount. What is ironical is that China produces some very fine wine now but none is on sale at Trader Zhou's. The real Trader, Trader Joe's, always features local stuff first; that is why you find a wonderful selection of California wine at Trader Joe's stores, along with some imports of course. So given pricing and selection, I could not rate Trader Zhou's highly. And the employees—the two women—were polite but not inspiring.
I then proceeded to the basement of the Dragon Gate Mall to look at antique pens, antique watches, and other old stuff. In one little shop the guy pulled out the rubber bladder of an old pen to show me that it was still intact. It seemed indelicate. And I don't think I would trust filling it with ink and putting it in my pocket; remember those days before the ballpoint pen when nearly every office worker's shirt pocket was stained with ink?
It is strange. Every "guide" first asks you if you want a watch, and if that fails, asks you if you want antiques. Since everyone has a designer watches these days and too much old stuff in the closet, it seems like a sure way to hear no, or bu xiang, or non, or nein. Why not start with something a person probably doesn't have but might want? A walking stick, for instance. There are beautiful ones at the mall, the best I have ever seen, and at good prices. Or a shirt made of half cotton and half silk, both comfortable and beautiful. Who really wants to know what time it is on vacation? And who wants to lug home stuff that has been deemed worthless by someone else and discarded by the same? How about a nice hat with a feather, something carefree that says I don't care, I'm on holiday, can't you see the note on the door? Away, away, from men and towns. But no, they push watches, reminders of time and that we are all going to die someday. How depressing, how jusang de.
On Tuesday I was back to Dragon Gate Mall and this time I made a discovery. I was approached by a lovely young woman—a guide, of course—who asked me if I were interested in art or painting, hua.
Very much so, I said, although I think initially I was mostly attracted to her. We climbed the stairs to "her" gallery. It was a bit remote and I realized that some of the shops, or shangdian, required guides or they would not have customers. At her gallery, which was pretty big, there was almost no one. My lesson began.
"What type of art do you like?" she asked while we slowly walked around the gallery.
"Um, well I'm not so sure. Zenme shuo 'artist'?" I asked.
"Huajia," she said, "if you mean a painter. Or yishuji if you just mean any kind of artist. Do you like this?" she asked, standing in front of a gray-and-black, partially abstract painting that may have been an attempt at modern landscape painting.
"No," I said. "I don't like it. Zenme shuo, 'No, I don't like this painting?'" I asked.
"Wo bu xihuan zhe fu hua," she said.
"Fu?" I asked. "That is the 'measure word' for hua?"
"Right," she said. "How about this one? What do you think of it?"
"Nice," I said. "I like the colors. Zenme shuo 'yellow', zenme shuo 'red' ...?"
It went on like this for sometime. I had my notebook out and was writing down everything.
I said mingtian many times. Mingtian, or tomorrow, huilai, I would be back. That was when I would have money, qian, with me. But I don't think she believed it.
I went over to another shop and did much the same thing. But there I think the girl didn't care one bit if I purchased anything or not. Another young woman in the shop came over and listened in and I think she too didn't care at all about selling anything. I looked around and saw no one in the shop who looked like a boss. In the other shop there was an older woman sitting at a desk. I suppose she was the boss. We looked at various paintings but all were now serving as rorschach tests for generating conversation. Suddenly I realized how rich the art world was as a means of learning language. You could talk forever while standing in front of a painting. Finally we are standing in front of a pretty ballerina dressed in white, bending forward with one foot pointed back.
"Do you know Yuan Yuan Tan?" I asked.
"No," she said.
"She's China's most famous ballerina and she's from Shanghai."
"Yes. I met her in San Francisco one time at an art opening for Guan Jezu. But I'm afraid I was a little drunk and she didn't stick around long. Zhenme shuo ...?"
Art, hua, it's a gold mine of conversation.
The next day I went over to the Museum of Contemporary Art, aka MOCA. I had seen plenty of traditional art at the Shanghai Museum of Art, and some pop art at the Dragon Gate Mall. Now I wanted to see cutting-edge new works by Shanghai artists. What I saw, however, was disappointing. It reminded of the work of people with, as Will Cather says, "advanced ideas and mediocre ability."
I am speaking of the "new media" show there. In a statement on the lobby wall, the museum goes to great length to describe the importance of "new media." It doesn't help. In the world of art, new is not necessarily better than old; it is not like product "life cycle" and planned obsolescence. Market art as much as you want, it is still the quality of the artistic mind that counts. There were also some collaborative works at the show. Unfortunately, collaboration in art and "team work" also count for nought; you cannot discount the mind of the individual artist. Where there is no light, nothing will be illuminated.
I did discover one nice thing at the museum: The bar-restaurant on the top floor overlooking the park below and providing a view of some of Shanghai's new architecture. One thing mars it, however: an attempt to be too artsy. Pastels and plastic only give the impression of flimsiness. I had a glass of the house white wine—Italian, for some reason—at 40 CNY. I would have been happy with my Chinese alley wine but the choice was not there. The glass came one-quarter full and I could not afford a second glass.
While I was there a group of European tourists came in; and one, without asking permission, sat down at the piano and began playing boogie-woogie. They were all large people, the women with big rumps, the men big-boned and carrying cameras like hunting rifles. Were they challenging America for the ugliness title? I think so. Fortunately I was on the way out.
Did I mention that the building itself is very nice? It is. Shanghai seems to excel at architecture. It's the only place I know where the new architectures is better than the old. If you don't believe this, go down to the Bund and stare hard at some of the old buildings there on the waterfront. They are not a pretty sight, most of them.
On Friday I continued to wander Haungpu, this time up to the Bund. It walked Jianzi to Fuzhou, then up Fuzhou to the Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore. I bought a larger dictionary, as my little Oxford dictionary did not always have the word I was looking for. I guess my vocabulary was growing. Then I cut back down to Fuzhou to Jianxi to the pseudo place of old buildings. I say pseudo because there was no true center to it, no fountain, no flowers, no statue ... What had inspired it I could not imagine. Almost any place in Europe is better looking than this one. Still this was a place in an important part of old Shanghai so I wanted to explore it a little. On the southeast corner was a restaurant I had noticed before. I went in.
I was the only customer but the bar was open. I ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks. There were two bartenders, one of them very friendly. I asked to see the menu. He brought it. It confirmed what I was seeing from the poster art for Pernod Ricard. The cuisine was French. The name was Hamilton House, taken from the name of the Art Deco building in which the restaurant was located. Maybe I had found something, maybe I hadn't. But there were other places in the area that interested me. There was the Metropole across the street and the House of Blues and Jazz down the street. I was curious to learn more and explore the area. At the moment at least there was no expat Gatsby sitting at the bar with a laptop. That was a relief.
I am not found of my cell phone. When I'm out I like to get away from the phone and "Be Here Now" per Baba Ram Das. But what can I do? It's how people communicate these days. And of its many features I'm the least fond of text messaging. I do not like poking four times on a tiny keyboard to produce the letter s. I often wait a long time to check text messages and reply. But I knew I had one from the morning. I decided at last to read it. The whiskey was taking effect and I was relaxed. I pressed Read on a message from Yang Yang. I had been meaning to call her all week and was planning to do so shortly. I had some plans for Saturday and was going to see if she wanted to come along. I had decided to include her in my activities when possible.
I got a shock. Her message read:
Now I know you never liked me. I hate you forever.
That was it. Completely out of the blue, with nothing I could think of inspiring it. It startled me badly. To me "I hate you forever" means "I never want to see you again. Good bye." Or "Get lost." This was a little too fast. It did not make sense. I knew she was looking for a husband but I did not think she would find one so fast, and if she did, I did not expect to get the boot like this. I had at least been a very good friend and a very tolerant one, considering her profession. I didn't expect this. But I could think of no other explanation. I assumed she had met someone else and this was her way of saying good bye. I didn't like it but I accepted it. It was the way things seem to be heading anyway. It was just sooner than I had anticipated. As it turned out, things were not quite over but they were close to it.
The friendly bartender came over and asked me where I was from.
"Here," I said, "zhe li. Wo zhu zai Shanghai."
"Zhe," he said with a smile, "has a falling tone, more like this...."
Despite the strange development with Yang Yang, I had had a good day. I had walked around the Bund and at last found a few places that interested me. I started the day looking for an art gallery called Studio Rouge at 17 Fuzhou. But a new shop had replaced it. The owner of the new shop told me where Studio Rouge had relocated but I no longer cared. I happened into a place called 12 Bund, upstairs and in the back of one of the river-front buildings. And of course I had my new dictionary. Maybe now I would start finding places I liked. But I would have to quit expecting the kinds of places I was used to. They were in Paris; they were in San Francisco. This was Shanghai. Then, to make myself feel better, I began repeating, "Zenme shuo 'I love you forever' ..."