Friday, 27 July 2012


Me and Will: back to city life
China. I embarked from a plane with probably the most lax attitude to airline safety ever in terms of people wandering around, belts off, as we were landing and queuing to get out before we had even taxied off the runway. In Shanghai I was confronted with total, Western first-world-madness beginning with the high speed Maglev which rocketed us from the airport to the city at 140km/h and culminating in the glittering 24th floor city apartment which would become my home for the next week. The flat belongs to my dear friend Will who had 'jumped off' 8 months earlier and taken a placement in Shanghai from his employer, Tesco. Will and I have had a deep and long standing  relationship and it was interesting coming face to face with him after a hiatus in which both of us had undergone such a profound life change. There he was, relaxed and comfortable in his ex pat life and here was me with matted hair, a tan, BO and a head full of Shiva!

The iconic Pudong skyline
On our first weekend I was plummeted headfirst into the decadence of ex pat living, with a fabulous meal in the leafy French concession (pomegranate flowers, goats cheese, Yunnan bacon - yes I had to surrender my vegetarianism), washed down with a few glasses of white wine (my first in 6 months! Bliss!) On Sunday I managed to blow about a weeks worth of budget with an obligatory ex pat 'brunch on the Bund' - sipping champagne and eating off white linen tablecloths overlooking the Huangpu river and the Pudong skyline. This is a spectacular array of skyscrapers and incredible when you consider that, just 8 years ago, there was nothing there - a true testament to the breakneck speed of modern day Chinese industrialisation.  At first it was bewildering in the urban jungle and although I was grateful to be enjoying such hospitality after 6 months in the developing world, I missed my beloved India and the dark and silence of the mountains. The neon skies of Shanghai were ever luminescent and a dirty great cloud of pollution hung low in the smoggy air.

Chinese lessons with Sean
But I soon found my groove in the metropolis and whilst Will was at work, I relaxed in his flat, ate fruit, drank coffee, did yoga and wrote. In truth I enjoyed facing the challenge of a new city, its customs and languages. I was impressed with how quickly Will had mastered Mandarin (which sounded like comic gobbledy gook to me) meanwhile I instinctively answered questions in Hindi and had to stop myself from wobbling my head at - well - at everything! Strange how these things have become second nature to me. Still, I embraced the new and enjoyed a Chinese lesson with Will's tutor Sean, learning how to introduce myself, ask and answer a few basic questions and write my Chinese name, Su Fei, in characters - 苏菲. Apparently I am very good at writing in Chinese - I have always been able to render things well in 2D which I put down to my illustrious heritage of talented graphic designers (dad) and signwriters (my beloved Grandad George).

The smokey, subterranean JZ club
Corporate machine by day, Will (a Renaissance man of many talents) is a semi professional musician by night and I spent my first Monday in Shanghai in the basement of a smoky jazz club, rocking out to his Big Band over a few Chinese beers. Immersed in big beats and awesome improvs, I was put in mind of Kerouac and his heroes Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty endlessly in search of bop...."blow"! And it was here that my powers of manifestation became clear to me once more. I had suffered very badly from an injury in my right leg for much of my time in India and that and both of my knees (bent for too long in cross legged position and from climbing multiple Asian mountains) truly gave out on me when I was trekking in Nepal. My leg had not recovered since and my resultant limp had prompted Will to give me the nickname  'Hopalong Hippy'. What I really needed to do was to see a doctor, but at Shanghai prices this was impossible. In the jazz club I got introduced to a quack (yet another American) who was in SH on holiday and he agreed to see me in his hotel room the next day.

The sleepy canal town of Zhujiajiao
Not only did I get a free consultation with Eric but we enjoyed each others company and decided to spend the following day travelling around together, visiting the sleepy backwaters of Zhujiajiao, a canal town outside of the city. Having failed to meet up in time to make the tourist bus, we negotiated the metro and a long distance bus out of town. This was no mean feat given the unrelenting heat, the lack of English spoken by anyone we encountered and his basic (and my non existent) Mandarin. I was proud of the fact that I managed to identify the Chinese characters for Zhujiajiao on the front of a bus. 

Vegetarians, look away now!
Once we finally got there we spent a pleasant afternoon wandering down the alleys and along the canalside of this amazingly preserved 1,700 year old water town. As we strolled through the ancient streets, men lazily cast fishing rods into the water, children played and women wrapped bundles of sticky rice in leaves. There were huge bowls of live shrimps and other seafood laid out in front of every restaurant and stalls were selling pigs trotters and other unidentifiable meat. In fact there were so many of these stalls selling so much food that I wondered quite how many pigs trotters one entire town could consume in one day.

Ladies making up bundles of sticky rice, Zhujiajiao
But then again, food is a theme in China and one that I will return to many times. Wherever one goes you can find food  being sold or enjoyed and the act of eating (chifan - 吃饭) is an enormous social institution. Every day between about 11am and 1pm everything grinds to a halt as the Chinese get out their bowls, chopsticks and spoons and chow down on their zhongfan 中饭 (lunch). Given that they're all so skinny, I would like to know where it all goes! Hollow legs, I think. It is easy for us to make fun but I guess that for a nation scarred by famine as recently as the late 1920s then starvation is still a tangible memory, if not for this generation but for the grandparents of my Chinese contemporaries.

Smoking hot!
However, starvation was the last thing on my mind. In fact, if the "pray" chapter has now closed for a while, then China was certainly all about the "Eat". I gorged myself on everything from whole black carp fish to divine eggplant, Hunnan bacon with French beans and I think a Szechuan dish of shrimp that I ate whole (head included which was the best bit) cooked in red chillis, oil and with whole peppercorns. That dish was completely insane - my mouth was on fire afterwards and I was left reeling - not knowing if I had entirely enjoyed the experience or not. A bit of a metaphor for China I think. 

M50 art community
Another of my passions that I indulged in heavily in Shanghai was art. Many of you may know that in a former life I was a curator and led my own collective for a while before becoming disillusioned and taking a break. In China I re-immersed myself into art with a vengeance, spending hours roaming around MoCA and the Shanghai art museum. I studied east Asian art in Australia where I learned that, without our Western metanarratives of impressionism, cubism, post modernism etc. eastern art has evolved in a completely different way, making it difficult for us to apply our traditional critical eye. I have to admit that I wasn't enchanted by landscape scenes with large white borders for  calligraphy (which proves authenticity and in some cases takes precendence over the art itself). There were a couple of evocative details that I liked - a goldfish here, a cloud there, but on the whole it's not really my bag.

Amongst the graffiti at M50
However, contemporary art is and we spent a marvellous day wandering around M50, an art community comprising over 120 galleries and studios in a post industrial creative space in a former textile mill. We found an exhilarating art collective called Island 6 who produced such brilliant, poetic, cheeky and sexy art it made me wish to spirit myself away to London immediately and curate a show. Another memorable exhibition was the SH John Moores painting prize. SH is actually the sister city of Liverpool (my birthplace) and Liverpool famously shows the John Moores painting prize every year. We managed to see the twinned show in SH. It was very affecting and gave me an insight into the disillusionment of Chinese youth with increasing urbanisation, censorship, the colliding east and west cultures and the ensuing loss of their own traditions. Food for thought indeed. The show is travelling to the UK in the autumn so anyone interested in seeing the latest in Chinese art talent can catch it then.

Propaganda Poster Centre
An interesting afternoon was whiled away in the Shangahai Propaganda Poster Centre, an experience that necessitated a taxi ride to a nondescript suburban block, navigating around the back of several buildings and taking an elevator down into a gloomy basement. In this incongruous location I discovered an Aladdin's Cave of original twentieth century posters, paintings, Mao maquettes and 'dazibao' - hand daubed calligraphy posters that were mostly desultory attacks on political leaders. I spent hours sifting through original Maoist woodcuts (yes, I did procure one for my art collection) and beautiful communist style books. I had to stop myself from buying an original 'Shanghai lady' print - those glamorous and iconic cigarette adverts. I had already spent far too much money in SH!

KTV with Will and his colleagues
Being a melting pot of Western and ex pat culture, SH is decidedly NOT China, but I still managed some typically Chinese activities such a blaring down the mike during a Saturday night session at KTV (the ubiquitous Asian karaoke institution). The selection of English tunes was not very comprehensive or up to date come to that. I am still completely bemused by how popular The Carpenters are in fact, if I have to hear "Yesterday Once More" I might actually kill someone.

Line dancing en masse, Nanjing Rd
I spent a lot of time in public parks, which is very much a Chinese pursuit.  I really enjoyed this community aspect - just as in India, lives are lived out on the streets and people come together to smoke, play games, talk and just generally enjoy time together. This is something entirely lost to our generation, cloistered up in our nuclear homes with the drawbridge firmly up. Come nightfall, practically every area of green space is full of children playing, couples hanging out and old people exercising.

Stop staring at my boobs! 
The elderly people in China appear to have an insatiable desire to keep fit. I don't know if it is all the fags they have smoked and the ensuing need to reverse the ageing process or all the dumplings they have to burn off, but they are at it all the time - in all places - with one caveat - there must be as many of them doing it together as is humanly possible. Every night in the park across the street elderly men and women would assemble en masse to perform tai chi, tango, ballroom dancing or aerobics. And it wasn't just in our park - it happens everywhere. I even got in on the act myself, muscling in on a mass line dancing fest in the middle of Nanjing road one Saturday night. I don't think it went down too well...Neither did my imitations of the Chinese elderly walking (and even jogging) backwards (apparently it is good for your brain..) 

Getting back on the whiskey in SH 
Anyway, I'm sure that my playfulness was only fair given the amusement that I seemed to provide to the Chinese who were fascinated seemingly by my height - and my breasts! I have never endured such 'boob staring', not even in India. And by now I am definitely the most photographed person in Shanghai. I don't even want to think about how many times my mug is going to appear on Facebook. Actually, scratch that - FB is of course banned in China - whose infamously strict internet regulations meant that I was unable to access most sites for the duration of my time there (particularly American ones). So now that I have finally popped up from behind the 'Great Firewall of China' expect many more updates from my oriental adventures coming soon....

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