Shanghai – Old Town – New Town


We started some days in Shanghai with a plan. A walk, a metro ride, a destination – but then sometimes things changed. Sometimes our Apple map app (Google maps banned in China) led us down blind alleys, conflicted with street signs… and Shanghai is still China, and not all of its 25 million people can speak English or help you out on any street corner and point you in the right (or left) direction.

There were some days when we wanted a quiet space and a bit of old China, and so it was when we went in search of Shanghai’s Old Town. Our search, which seemed simple to begin with, ended up leading us down cool tree-lined streets, which dissolved into sweltering, bustling intersections, but eventually, thankfully, led us down onto metro platforms, saw us wrestling with water vending machines, and ended up with us standing and swaying and sipping a strangely flavoured water (what was it?).

We switched metro lines to eventually arrive (the app said a 15-minute walk, thank goodness it was only 5 in the oppressive heat) at the Old Town.

The Old Town is rather a tourist trap. The best bits are the curved bridges over the tepid river filled with huge leafed water lilies with big pink flowers drooping in the heat, and the curved old rooftops, and the curved lanes lined with red pillars. We jostled our way down the curiosity shop-lined streets, buying only two cheap items, an old-fashioned fan, which I immediately put to good use and a small painted tile for my cool courtyard back home.

Hungry, we eyed the food on offer, not sure of the meat and heat combination. Eventually, we bought some chicken pieces on sticks and found a seat at a communal table. The chicken kebabs were good and spicy and the table was cool.

We left Old Town, which, although genuine, is also a kind of theme park, and made our way back to the modern chrome of the metro. The metro rail is incredibly and wonderfully efficient and absolutely spotless. Riding on it, as we did again later when we travelled that evening to meet a friend of a friend, we were even more impressed as we unintentionally encountered rush hour. The throngs of people are enormous, but everyone moves swiftly and in an orderly way. And so the mass of moving people never once (in our experience) bottlenecked or pushed and shoved. The trains pulled in and out every few minutes and people passed in and out of the automated doors. I hardly ever found a seat available, and it was crowded, but there was room for everyone and the air was comfortably cool. We alighted at East Nanjing Road, which is a hub of people and skyscrapers featuring large neon billboards. There was an exciting buzz in the air amongst all the many people gathered down there. Some used the little motorised trains to move the length of the long boulevard past the oblong glowing Apple Store, which is the entire length of one building, whilst above it, Florence and the Machine opened her gentle arms a mile wide, and serenely gazed down on us all. We found our way through the people to the Press Cafe and Bar, which is housed in one of Shanghai’s lovely old Art Deco buildings. It was a real newspaper press building in the 1920’s. (Established as the Chinese daily news called The Shun Pao in 1872.) Inside it is a double volume space under a white ornately plastered ceiling. There are walls of old black and white Chinese press photographs and L and I sat down and ordered cold beers. Benjack joined us and we talked happily for a number of hours and shared platters of tzatziki and fried calamari, chicken and mango salads and tasty pumpkin gnocchi. Ben has lived in China for over 20 years as an architect and the conversation was fascinating and insightful as he talked about the new rapidly emerging China.

Inside the Press Cafe and Bar

We parted late and down the road, towards the river, we could see that the lights of The Bund were on all around – illuminating the tops of buildings, and the Pearl TV Towers red and blue and purple lights blinked at us. We would visit it again another night. It was late and although the streets of the Bund were steamy and sultry we resisted its charms until another time.

A few days later we visited The Bund again and enjoyed the dramatic change as the lights came on and the buildings became ablaze with colour.

 

 

Chinese New Year celebrations

Well, after what seemed like weeks of preparations Chinese New Year has come and gone.
The street decorations have been going up from the end of Christmas, gradually filling the bare trees with illuminated hearts, butterflies and flowers.

New Year camelsBridges spanning the streets are decorated with huge flowers, Chinese writing and images of athletes, animals and, of course, dogs.
Parks are filled with huge bright brilliantly coloured satin covered sculptures which glow in the dark when they are switched on.

Up the road from where we live there are a couple of environmentally friendly sculptures outside the large CHINA TOBACCO factory and its corporate buildings.
The shops became crowded with red Chinese New Year decorations. Every shop featured its own red lantern on the street outside, and each lamppost was hung with 4 lanterns each.
The doors of nearly every shop and house featured red banners pasted on each side, on the lintel, as well as a red diamond shape stuck in the centre.
EverBright – our friendly bank presented us with a Chinese New Year pack, and under the guidance of Vicky, our source of all information, we stuck the banners provided around our own front door – and Vicky ensured that all the Chinese writing was the right way up. Good Luck! Good Luck!

Everything at New year is basically about Good Luck, abundance and prosperity. Who doesn’t need a little or a lot of some of that for 2018?

We bought a fish ornament (more good luck) with 3 bells attached from one of the New Year stalls. I was tempted to buy red lanterns and hangings and lots of ornamental dogs -in the end, we did buy little Kuala ( Happy –快乐 ) to add to our collection.

We awaited the eve of 15th February (New Year’s Eve) and headed out in the evening on a later bus to find ourselves a celebratory meal. It was immediately obvious to us that things were not as they usually are on the streets of Lanzhou. The streets were empty, the bus was empty and…. The restaurants were ALL shut!
New Year’s Eve is a family affair in China. Silly strangers us – what kind of restauranteur would be found in his restaurant on New Year’s Eve, when there was family to be with who had either travelled far to be with him, or perhaps he had gone far away himself to be with family elsewhere?
The previous days are spent cleaning in China and no cleaning or taking of medicine is done on New Year’s Day – lest you take some of the Old Year stuff into the New Year, or might be ill all year…
The street cleaners had been sweeping the streets even cleaner than usual and great packs of them had been seen dusting every railing along the main freeway.

So…hungry and alone L and I wandered through some lonely but beautifully lit streets….and then we saw them…groups of families gathering on the pavements, some carrying trays of cups and teapots and small oranges and alcohol and piles of yellow rice paper money.
They gathered in the dusk and made little fires right there on the pavement, setting the imitation money alight and splashing alcohol and tea and other things into the bright flowers of fires blossoming under the illuminated trees and streetlights!

Some research about the making of the fires explained about ancestors being honoured and symbolical offerings being made and it being some ancient Buddhist /Chinese practice….whatever…it made a beautiful impression on us and we strolled among the people as they solemnly went about their rituals. We kept to the shadows and took a few photos from a respectful distance.
We noticed that the street cleaners were still out and about as well, faithfully sweeping up the embers left behind from each departed group. In the morning no ashes were to be seen anywhere.


Hungry as we were we eventually spied a KFC and our rumbling tummies led us to its lemon lit front door. Inside we found some groups of teenagers (avoiding that traditional family gathered around a table somewhere, with rolling eyes and sighs – like teenagers everywhere?)
Our waiter spoke good Student English, the Chinese delivery guys carried big takeaway boxes on their backs and came and went in their cool biker leathers, coming and going on their motorbikes. Was there a Grandad somewhere who preferred a KFC burger this New Years Eve?
L and I sat in the window and devoured our burgers and chicken pieces. Like all Western food in China – the food was the same but different to KFC in South Africa (much spicier in Lanzhou)
We provided some entertainment for some families walking by – oh look in the window – some real Westerners eating some real Western food!
We smile and wave!

Replete, we found a bus – suddenly panicked that they might not run late this New Years Eve. The bus driver definitely drove faster through the empty Lanzhou streets – he wanted to get home (of course he did!)

At midnight we ascended the stairs of our empty building and stepped out onto our icy roof. We were not disappointed. For a few days already our sleep had been disturbed by the sound of crackers going off.
Now the skyline of Lanzhou was being lit up by some dazzling displays and sparkling shower shows of starry fireworks.
They popped and exploded and showered down between all the high-rise buildings all around us. They lit up the many bridges and were reflected in the dark waters of the night time Yellow River.
We watched it all for a long time. None of the photos really capture the magic and eventually we gave up – I was getting cold and thinking of all the scared dogs of Lanzhou – oh well – it would soon be over and it is going to be a glorious year for them – this 2018 – Year of the Dog!

Holidays and Homesickness

Lanzhou

Four weeks!

We are in the midst of four weeks of holiday!

LanzhouWe have been in China for just over one month – during which time we have met people, travelled around Lanzhou a little, participated in a concert, sorted out visas, residence permits, lost suitcases, found suitcases, done medical checks, wrestled with the Banking System of Lanzhou, organised bus tickets and food cards for the canteen and finally been successful in using WeChat for just about anything.

All of these procedures took time for us to organise.

We also spent days in the Foreign Teachers office, navigating our way through curriculum and learnt our very first (very few) words in Chinese – 早上好.

We settled into our spacious flat, sorted out our water cooler/heater, cooked on our hot plate, bought our wok and pot set, purchased some crockery and cutlery (no ‘normal’ knives yet). We bought some cushions (online from Tao Bao, of course) some featuring the Union Jack (of course) and others the Tree of Life ( to go with the random tree painted on our bedroom wall by a previous American teacher) and figured out all the Chinese instructions on all the various gadgets.

our flat
We learnt to live with the large section of van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ which is painted on our lounge wall – also by some random American teacher…

We mastered the canteen, gained some skill with chopsticks (including the correct and well-mannered way in which to eat with and abandon them – never leave them pointing upward like two incense sticks!)

eatingWe now recognise most of the dishes served, and we know which ones we like and which ones we dislike, but we still cannot eat a drumstick or a plate of prawns without using our fingers – a skill which the Chinese people do possess.

BHGWe can ride some of the bus routes confidently and find our way to Wumart (like South African Checkers), BHG (like South African Pick n Pay) and Vanguard (probably up there with South African Woollies).

Oreo

We know that there are really only about 4 types of cookies on the supermarket’s shelves that we like and enjoy and that yoghurt is mostly of the thin and drinkable variety, except for one brand, which our fridge is chock-a-block with. We also know that it is very, very difficult to find good cheddar cheese or any cheese for that matter (a particular hardship for me), and Marmite is nowhere to be found, which breaks Lex’s heart.

We know which bread to buy, but mostly we don’t bother, and that butter is imported and very expensive.

We know that face creams nearly all contain whitening agents because we also know that often West is seen as Best, and we know that we know that that is definitely not always true.
We have found out, to our extreme cost, that deodorant is also almost impossible to find, and when it is, it is very expensive.

All these things are true for Lanzhou, which is a small city in China. Small, that is, for China, as it still has roughly the same population as Cape Town.

Lex and I have no Chinese at all, and the vast majority of Chinese here have no English – but that does not stop any Chinese person from speaking to us rapidly and fluently as if we understood every word.
We also know that we constantly give people reason to stop and stare at us, and parents explain what we are to their little children. May we be the first non-Chinese people they have ever seen?

We have been told that people stand up for us in buses because we are Foreign and not because we are ‘old’. We do not understand why this might be so.
Anyway, there are also so many other things that we encounter all the time but still do not understand.

And now it is holidays, and all around us our Western friends have left, some to New Zealand, some to India and some back to South Africa.
For the most part, we are alone in the huge school building.
We knew it was going to happen and we were not sure how we would feel. And now it is upon us.

Our colleagues were not gone long before they began posting pictures of themselves back in their home country.

There was one of a young man, who posted a picture of himself, sitting astride a classic motorbike back home in Mumbai, with a piece of a wall and a distinctive Indian door in the photo behind him.

Others sent a picture of themselves (tall South Africans smiling into a sunny day) standing on a hot Karoo lawn with a large shady tree and a white homestead glowing behind them.

I pour over typed messages from our beloved children, far away in South Africa. I look at their dear faces, frozen in time in the few photos they send, interspersed as they are with the occasional video chat, done as best we can while the VPN rises and falls.

I try to make calls to my extraordinary elderly mother, often without success. Does she not hear the phone, or does it not ring? I try to hide my frustration listening to it ringing on and on, while I stand at the window, watching the snow fall.

The doors to the flats of our fellow teachers have been sealed with strips of white paper, on which something is written in Chinese script. What does it say? Gone away, gone away…

The passages of the school are all empty and silent.

Snowy pathways outside have been swept clean and there are no footsteps, apart from the little prints of a child’s that I saw one day, leaving the path and making little crisscrossing running footprints in the snow.
I know the little boy who made him. He is a grandchild of one of the cleaners.
I have spotted him often – sometimes wailing over his lunch because something was not to his liking, or trailing behind a cluster of chattering women as they sweep and mop, and once, at the concert, with his own yellow toy dog dangling from one hand by its red thread, wearing a jersey with the words ‘I’m happy’ stitched across the front.

I miss everybody.

But so far we actually do feel pretty good on this 4 week holiday.
Lex and I are each others’ best friend.
The days start slowly and we begin with our meditation time together. We do our yoga stretches.
We eat fruit and drink warm water.

seeds
My favourite snack is now a Chinese one – it looks like parrot food, but when you crack the husk the kernel is salty and almost roasted in flavour.
We pass the days reading and writing and later we download and watch BBC series.
We cannot travel because our passports are with Home Affairs right now. We’ll get them back in a couple of weeks.
We have Chinese to learn, blogs to write, novels to finish, websites to organise and books to read.
We have Lanzhou to explore, parks to stroll in, cappuccino Cafes to discover and temples to visit.
We have people to watch and be fascinated by. Loads of them.
For a few days right now everything can wait.
We are resting and, well, just being.
We have time and we are grateful.

Temple

In Concert

Foreign teachers

When we were asked to participate in the New Year Concert we were told that the Foreign Teachers contribution had already been choreographed. In fact, it had already been performed before, once, at a Sports meeting, I think.

L and I were shown the steps. It was a line dance, Western in theme. I supposed the Wild West idea was chosen because we are sort of Western.

We were to perform the dance against a backdrop of a dusty street in a Western Town.
L and I were willing, and we did our best to learn the steps, after a fashion…

Tao Bao is an online Chinese store ( from which, we have been told, you can by ANYTHING) and it was from Tao Bao that we received our costumes, one red Stetson, one red bandana and a black t-shirt each.

L and I did not sleep well the night before – I kept doing the steps over and over in my mind. I woke up that morning to the sound of L practising his steps in the kitchen. He didn’t look very well over breakfast.

We went to the auditorium at the requested time. We seemed to be early – Chinese time and Africa time have a few minutes in common – and all of us Foreign Teachers sat in the chairs that had been assigned to us.

Foreign teachers
As we entered we had to sign in at the door and as a reward (I felt anyway) we were each handed a small yellow cuddly dog with red stitching. L and I immediately named our two identical dogs Tao and Bao.

The stage was trimmed with huge clusters of colourful balloons. The Chinese teachers began to arrive, and some were in evening gowns fit for the Academy Awards. There was no red carpet, but there was plenty of red everywhere else.

The show began and all the Chinese staff had obviously been working very hard on their performance pieces. We had heard a little of the rehearsals taking place in various classrooms (they had been loud and vigorous – and sometimes a little off key)

The stage was backed by a very big screen and the show went on for over three hours. I had no idea that the staff of our small 300 pupil school extended to nearly 150! And everyone had participated in some way.

All items were in Chinese, except for the backing soundtrack of a couple of the dances, which was American pop or rap.
There were little dramas (skits) which we could get the gist of, but obviously, the humour was mostly lost on us.

There were classic pieces, a kind of Chinese opera and a very dramatic piece about China, that was very emotional, and even I found myself feeling quite stirred and a touch patriotic!
There were many awards given out, which were received by great big groups of people.
There were many speeches, and, sitting in the front row – a place where us Foreign Teachers often seem to end up – we appreciated the few sentences of English spoken in amongst the Chinese words.

We were item number 14 on the agenda, and we had not watched many of the performances before we realized that our piece was probably not quite up to the rather high standard set by the Chinese teachers.

Our turn did come eventually, and we got up and did it. L and I were in the back row and the bank of balloons thankfully hid our footwork from the front row of viewers. We were also positioned behind our more experienced (and talented) co-workers, who have quite a flair for dancing, as it turns out.
DanceI missed a good deal of the moves, and I glimpsed L going off at a bit of a tangent during the middle bit. We both recovered and ended more or less where we should, and when we sat down we breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The program continued for a good while after our set, and I think I enjoyed it more because I could relax.
During the concert, a character in one of the little dramas started throwing red envelopes, with gold writing on them into the auditorium. We got one and inside we found a one yuan note. Our first red envelope which is apparently the traditional way of gift giving – and the money inside is essential!
During another performance, very small goodies were also thrown into the audience. I caught one – it was a little piece of tofu – vacuum packed!

New Years dinnerAfter the performance, we all moved to the dining hall for lunch. Buffet style, the food was definitely of an American flavour and the hall was decorated with New Year decorations. Happy New Year! (Again)
The tables were decorated in the centre with fruit and carbonated drinks and cans of beer.

We took our platters and helped ourselves to the food which was, unfortunately, a little cold – the concert had gone on a bit – but we dished up French fries, fried chicken, fish nuggets and an assortment of salads and vegetables.

ToastingWhen we were done the toasting began, which involved groups of people moving from table to table saying: 新年好, or in English: Happy New Year! And raising tins of beer or paper cups of Coke or Fanta.
Groups of people circulated and eventually, I could say ‘Happy New Year!” in Chinese. I have now, of course, completely forgotten the words, which happens to me quite a lot. I find the particular tones used in the Chinese language so hard to remember, but I do keep on trying.

We left the dining hall with bananas and nectarines stuffed in our coat pockets for later – that was our last meal from the canteen. Everyone was leaving for their long four week Spring Festival/New Year break. Except us.

Tao and BaoIn our flat, we sat one dog on our bed (Tao) and one in the lounge (Bao, or Bow wow wow). They are to be our company for the next four weeks!

Later all teachers were summoned down to the Finance Office and we were given cash for the New Year (in China, I have realized, Good Luck and cash are inexplicably linked).

The Year of the Dog is on its way!

 

 

Year of the Dog