Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Monday arrived with me somewhat refreshed and my first experience of the breakfast that was very kindly brought to me each morning. It took a little getting used to eating a little box of salad with quite strong-flavoured dressing, a little bread pocket containing crab meat and rather a lot of shell and a sandwich ranging from ham and egg (albeit a little five-spice tasting) to something more fishy and mayonnaise-ey. The salad always came with a little plastic disposable fork that cleverly had to be unfolded and clicked into position and less cleverly usually managed to refold itself during eating. I didn’t always manage to face the breakfast but I was always thankful there was something to start the day before going out.
I had time to kill before a meeting with Barry and Hu He so I took a walk down Nanjing Road, which is well known for being an interesting shopping street. Not particularly for me, though, as it’s full of international designer outlets like Gucci and Burberry and not especially Chinese – there was a very impressive mall that had about 8 floors, but again full of expensive shops. I didn’t get hassled much as a tourist apart from a couple of guys who surreptitiously pulled out a piece of card with pictures of Rolex watches, most likely fakes. I tried to explain that my favourite kind of watch was one that simply told the time and I already had one, thank you, but they didn’t really get it, although they eventually sussed out that I was a dead loss as a customer.
Here’s a sign I saw outside of a bar. It’s funny how just swapping two words in a phrase leaves you in no doubt that you’re in the presence of ‘chinglish’. Absolutely logical but just not quite right. Mind you, I dread to think what any attempt at chinese on my part would look like to the Chinese.
I finally reached the Peoples’ Square, where I was headed for the Shanghai Museum – apparently an amazing collection of Chinese history akin to the British Museum. I was first asked by a young guy if I would pose for a photo with his family, particularly his mother. It seems the sight of a westerner can still cause excitement in this most cosmopolitan of cities, particularly for the Chinese Tourist. Then, as I reached the museum I was told by another young man that I was actually at the rear of the museum and that the queues were very long. As I was running out of time I decided to give the museum a miss for the day – this man and his two friends then insisted I come with them to a tea ceremony around the corner. It turned out the three of them were visiting Shanghai from Xi’an, a 2-hour flight away and wanted to se the sights, one of which was this very famous tea house. It was on the second floor in a very unpromising-looking underground shopping mall and initially we couldn’t get a table. Ten minutes later we returned to be led into a incense-scented room with traditional Chinese music playing on the sound system and sat round a large table on which were jars of strange-looking teas. My new friends explained that one could choose up to 12 teas from the menu, but that had to be tasted in order starting at number 1. They seemed to be rather expensive at around 50 RMB (around £5) each. So I settled for teas 1-3 and a fascinating experience it was. The young lady serving the teas/performing the ceremony explained and my hosts translated as the first cup of ginseng tea was brewed then thrown away in honour of the tradition whereby the Emperor could be sure it wasn’t poisoned. We then were told to take the tiny cup of tea we were handed and move it in a circle around a small bowl for luck. I immediately lost my grip on the cup and spilt this valuable liquid over the table – there goes my luck, I thought, but they laughed and I was poured a replacement. The first two teas were delicately refreshing and the last very fruity and each were greeted by my friends by gasps of amazement and satisfaction – we regularly toasted each other with a ‘gambay!’ and acknowledged the quality with a ‘hen hao’ (very good) – they were very amused when I attempted to top this with a ‘hen hen hao’. When it was time for me to go I resisted purchasing a gift pack of teas to take away, unlike my companions who were eyeing up some very elaborate and expensive boxes, and was taken to find a cab by WuYou, who insisted he did, and went to meet up with Barry and Hu He.
From tea to coffee. In Waga’s, Barry’s favourite coffee place, I was introduced to Tonia, here to be an intern on the project. She’s studying in Perth, Australia, majoring in costume design and is able to take advantage of the fact that her father lives in Shanghai in the iron and steel industry. Barry again outlined the project, peppered with more political anecdotes and jokes about the steel industry for the benefit of Tonia’s father. (This was in reference to the current arrest of an executive from Rio Tinto, an Australian iron ore mining company based in China). We then went for food in a Szechuan restaurant. I struggled initially with the tofu in spicy sauce but appreciated the freshness of it; speaking of freshness, Hu He rejected the fish dish as those in the tank were dead, having been in there all day and only a live fish will do. Makes sense, I suppose, if you have the option. I’d heard that the food in China bears very little similarity to the Chinese food in the west, but in my experience the tastes are recognizable as Chinese but fresher and certainly with no msg. The protocol is that the dishes are chosen by one person, who also pays, who in this case was Barry, and tipping is never done. I caught sight of the bill and thought I was seeing the price for one dish for one person, but no, it was the cost of everything – if you stick to Chinese food in China eating is extremely cheap (pianyi), it seems.