Sunday, July 22, 2007

Of summer in Shanghai

Day 2 (part 1)

We awake at 9.30am. That's very early for me, but I wanted to utilise my time here. By the time we left our room it was nearly 11. I wanted for us to have brunch at Paulaner bakery at the former French Concession. The concierge is a young chap called Leon. Fair of skin, slim built, brownish hair with somewhat worried looking eyes, he pulls out a map and informs us that it will take about 20 minutes to reach the Huai Hai Lu area. We don't have such luxury of time. Mummy, being a very important person, has a very important meeting at 1pm. So lunch will be at the hotel's Gui Hua Lo and so begins our love affair with Shangri-la's signature Chinese restaurant.

Gui Hua Lo

Now I am not usually one for Chinese food. It's alright but somehow, I get bored of it quickly so any Chinese restaurant that makes me hanker for their dishes has to be something rather special. And Gui Hua Lo is just that. A Chinese establishment serving Shanghainese, Cantonese and Sichuanese food, they serve a mean Curry Prawn dish that is really nice and spicy and comes with fried mantou that tastes just heavenly. Their xiao long bao is very good too, but i forgot that inside the dumpling contains hot soup, so i scalded my tongue a little. No matter. The excellent food more than made up for the little mishap on my part. Only snag is that the chicken isn't very nice. Somehow, in Shanghai, chicken doesn't taste as good as the skinny kampung chicken served here in Singapore. But this matter is a slight one---they have lots of tasty alternatives---duck, goose, beef and pork that are extremely succulent. Especially the goose meat, which is not common in Singapore. I also ordered a beef la mian, and my mum some stir-fried mixed vegetables. Mummy was so enamoured of the food and the restaurant, she would visit it a total of 3 times in 5 days.

The concierge was right, there would not be enough time to go to the former French Concession for lucn and come back in time for the meeting---by the time lunch was done, Mummy had to go to the Jin Mao tower. That left me and Dad all by ourselves to explore the city. So we stopped the cabby at the Times Square and we went our separate ways.

Times Square

It seems that almost every major city in the world has a place called Times Square. Shanghai has one, Bangkok has one, Tokyo has one, New York has one, London has one. Singapore doesn't have one...yet. The Shanghainese Times Square is very similar in lay-out to Paragon in Singapore. Luxury brands on the first and (a few) on the second floors, and then the high street brands on the 2nd floors upwards. I spied Mummy's Max Mara handbag on sale, wandered in and out of Coach, Bally, Ferragamo, before proceeding upstairs to check out accessories at Follie Follie, togs at Only Jack & Jones Vero Moda, Max and Co, Tough Jeansmith and some stores carrying the latest Korean fashions.

I can't seem to find an Aigner boutique, and the girl at the information counter tells me that it is unavailable there. Instead, I should make my way to "West Nanjing Road" (Nanjing Xi Lu), a place where the big name luxury brands call home. I ask the girls at Max and Co for directions to Xintiandi, and one of them helpfully draws a map, telling me i should exit from Zara and walk straight and turn left. At Zara, a very unhelpful security guard tells me that i should ask directions from the people on the street, so i exit Times Square and attempt to make my way to the much talked about Xintiandi.

A note about being in Shanghai: I had initially thought I would blend in nicely with the locals, as in Singapore, the most oft question I am posed is "are you local?" My friend assures me I look North Asian, so I simply assumed I would easily pass of as a Shanghainese. No such thing. At best, with my mouth shut, I look somewhat local (though the frequent stares I get somewhat negates this assumption on my part), but the moment I open my mouth, my very mangled Mandarin, stuttered hesitantly by yours truly earns me disapproving "oh she's Japanese" looks and we all know that China is NOT the place you want to get mistaken for as a Japanese. For obvious reasons. At last count, a taxi driver, an American photojournalist, some sales people and a group of Japanese tourist thought I was Japanese. (When i was in Japan some years back, the Japanese thought I was Japanese. Methinks this misperception comes about due to my skin tone and the shape of my eyes.)

This gets you no love in Shanghai, where one of my drivers tell me that the discrimination is such that Toyota has huge problems breaking into the Shanghainese market. Needless to say the people are hugely nationalistic, and a cabbie tells me that what the Japanese have done, the Chinese "leng zhai xing li". Ouch. To get around this, I tell him that while I stutter badly in Mandarin, I speak relatively fluent Cantonese, and that I know Chinese history. He happens to understand Cantonese, just doesnt' know how to speak it. But somehow the favour of God kicks in, and suddenly, I am counted as "zhong guo ren", and praised for being intelligent and perceptive, with good grasp of what is happening, just facing some difficulty expressing myself.

Well, whatever works.

Oh, and of course, there's always the old trick of allowing the cabbie to keep the change.

No surprises here, but the Chinese here speak Mandarin very quickly and I don't really understand what they are saying, so I stop a Caucasian lady and ask "Sorry but do you speak English?" She does (a bad encounter with a French security guard in Paris at age 4 has taught me that not all Westerners speak English, or admit to speaking English) and helpfully clarifies my queries on what is the former French Concession---Xintiandi is but part of the former French Concession and the whole area from Huai Hai Lu, Madang Lu etc all make up the former French Concession.

I finally made it to Xitiandi and found a delightful little bakery called Paul.

Paul at Xintiandi

The pastries all look really good, but alas, I am allergic to milk and I dont want to run the risk of having a complication develop here in China due to a tiny French pastry. I politely decline the manager's offers instead settle on a bottle of grape juice. He passes me a business card. I sip a little before stuffing the bottle into the Pudong Shangri-la paperbag, which i had brought around because it spells out the hotel's name in large Chinese print, which is useful for showing the taxi driver in case he/she doesn't understand my Chinese.

And then i make my way around the lovely tree-lined and cobbled stoned avenues.

A group of Japanese tourists that I bumped into repeatedly while navigating around Xintiandi who mistook me for a Japanese.

The Shanghai Tang store. There was also one at our hotel. In this store, there is a wall with lots of framed pictures of celebrities, both Asian and Western, in Shanghai Tang garb. I particularly remember a photograph of Naomi Campbell looking very pleased in her Shanghai Tang cheongsam.

Quaint little alleyways, all nicely landscaped.

Coffee Bean at Xintiandi. There were students studying in here as well---seems that no matter where Coffee Bean sets up shop, there will always be the inevitable student crowd studying in there.

Another shot of Xintiandi. Come to think of it, the decor and landscaping looks similar to that of Disneyworld. The sky in Shanghai seems perpetually foggy.

I stopped off at the Simply Life flagship store (the ground floor was closed off for renovations but the 2nd floor was still open) and picked up some delightful trinkets to give as gifts. I like their tasteful Asian aesthetic. Too often, goods that incorporate Chinese motifs tend to come across as tacky, exuding "made only to cater to tourist perceptions of how Chinoiserie should be" vibes, but I was pleasantly surprised by the subtly elegant way in which Chinese elements were incorporated into their items.

The Simply Life flagship store in Xintiandi.

Call me sentimental, but I find such things charming.

Upon leaving the store, I realised I had to use the ladies. Remembering the horror stories I heard about the toilets in Shanghai, upon reaching a juncture where I had to choose between two department stores, I walked to the decidedly more upmarket-looking one, hoping the toilets there would be cleaner. I asked the sales assistant where the toilets were and she pointed me over to a department store on the opposite side of the road, the one I had snubbed just a few moments ago. Uh oh, I thought to myself, but was somewhat reassured when I saw an Caucasian lady ushering her kids into the entrance. I know this whole paragraph makes me sound somewhat shallow, but I am a stickler for cleanliness and I absolutely cannot stand dirty toilets and the thought of having to enter some slimy, grimy, smelly cubicle irks me. And I figured that a Caucasian lady wouldn't dare bring her kids into a dangerous and run down shanghai store.

The department store with the dark looking facade turned out to be all nice and shiny inside, stocked with familiar brands such as French Connection, Hagen Diaz, Nine West, United Colours of Benetton, Sisley, Camper and such. They even had Hongkong's multi-label store I.T which carried brands such as Miu Miu, Cacharel, Eley Kishimoto, a standalone Vivenne Tam boutique and a Baby Jane by Cacharel boutique, all which are not available in Singapore.

And the toilet was very clean. Some girl was trying on clothes in front of the make up counter there. Slim and pretty, but a bit vampy in presentation, I wondered---model or escort, or both?

I left through the back back entrance of the department store and surprise surprise, stepped into a very beautiful plaza, with the same quaint cobbled streets, potted plants, restaurants and boutiques such as Boss by Hugo Boss (the salesman there was pretty nice) and Anthony Chao (got my cousin a hairband here).

The back entrance of the Xintiandi Mall.

But soon, shopping fatigue set in and yearning for something more substantial than just clothes, I paid 20RMB for entry into the Shikumen Museum which showcased how life was like for the Shanghainese in the 1920s. The lady at the ticket counter was rather rude (could it be she thought I was a Japanese?) but no matter. I happily walked around the museum, which is itself a restored Shikumen house, filled with 1920s Shanghainese furniture and other memorabilia. History appetite satiated, I leave the place and walk around summore.

The Shikumen Museum.


I wander about a bit more around Xintiandi. My shopping bags are heavy and my shoulder is starting to ache. I look around somemore, enjoying the cool of the evening and the beautiful glow the setting sun casts around my surroundings. I manage to find the much talked about resturants listed in the Shanghai Chic book---Va Bene, Ye Shanghai etc---, a posh looking club house (or is it a restuarant?), as well as the Annabel Lee boutique (not as nice as Simply Life and far more expensive).

And then i leave Xintiandi and head to the main road.

Before heading off back to the hotel, I stop by the Shanghai Museum shop which is well stocked with books, remakes of historical artefacts and prints of famous Chinese paintings. The tote bags are cute but, as much as I like the Shanghai Museum, I can't imagine anyone wanting to carry around bags with "Shanghai Museum" emblazoned on them.

And here, I find his book, with his name listed as one of the editors sitting right on top of the bookshelf. I ask the sales assistant to take it down for me, and I flip through the book, memories of him, his mannerisms and his voice coming to mind.

And as much as i don't want to admit it, i realised i missed him.

Photographs from:,,

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