Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Of summer in Shanghai

Day 4

I woke up feeling ill. Had breakfast at Shangri-la's Yi Cafe, but had no appetite. Ordered a plate of scrambled eggs breakfast set, and some watermelon juice, but felt really queasy, so i merely picked at my food. In the end, I barely ate any of it and went back to my room to retire.

My room was being cleaned by a kind lady called Isabelle. She pottered around while I lay on the bed feeling green and rather weak. Suspecting the malaise might be due to the tap water I might have accidentally drunk while showering or brushing my teeth, I asked her if the tap water was safe to drink. She said that if it was a small amount then there shouldn't be any problem. "xiao jie", she advised, "as the weather has been unusually hot these few days, please be careful with what you eat or drink. Don't mix hot food with cold drinks."

I thank her for her for her advice and continue to lie on bed. I feel better later on, Praise Jesus, and go downstairs to see if the concierge can recommend me something interesting to do.

Penny is the concierge on duty and she proves very helpful. I ask her to list out for me the site of the First Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chanel boutique, Lu Xun's residence, Sun Yat Sen's museum and Soong Ching Ling's museum. With that written down, I hope into a taxi and off we go. First stop, the site of the First Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (or Communist Party of China, as it is called here).

The taxi drops me off somewhere near the site. Not quite there. I wander around a bit, and not knowing how to read much Chinese, get a little lost. I recognise my surroundings as being around the Xintiandi area, but where exactly I'm supposed to be at, I have no idea. I approach the nearest guard, whip out the piece of paper on which Penny has written, in Mandarin, the names of my destinations, and ask for directions. The guard points and utters something I don't really understand. So I walk ahead, then ask another guard. This time, I'm pretty close and a signboard (in English, phew!) points the way. I buy a ticket and make my way into the memorial site/museum.

The exhibits begin with the Opium War. "Lin Zexu?" I ask the guard, remembering Lin Zexu's central role in the Opium War. "Mei you Lin Zexu", he mentions. He shows me how I should go about viewing the exhibits and I am thankful for his kind gesture. After viewing the exhibitions on the 2nd floor, it's time to head to the ground floor.

Downstairs lies an exhibit dedicated to Zhu De, or more accurately, as the guide Mr Song later tells me, Marshall Zhu De. I wander about and am followed by the security guard. He is then joined by a guide and they two make it their business to follow me around. Not that I mind much---they provide a helpful audio commentary to the exhibits, whose captions come without an English translation. The guide introduces himself to me as Mr Song and points out Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Zhu De's wife, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Chiang Kai-shek etc to me. An interesting thing about exhibits in China is that the people are listed from left to right, unlike the right-to-left method used in most places. Perhaps this is due to Chinese script originally being read from left to right---i'm not entirely sure.

We are joined by two Caucasian ladies that I met upstairs. One of them asks me what the exhibition is about. I tell her I don't know how to read much Chinese but the guide informs me that this is an exhibit dedicated to Marshall Zhu De. I ask if she is from Australia. She says yes. I tell her I recognise the accent and tell her I'm from Singapore. I buy a book from the bookshop, and then I'm off to see the Sun Yat-Sen museum.

Only that the taxi driver doesn't know where it is, and Penny hasn't written the address down, just the name of the place. Oh dear. Then I'll see the Soong Ching Ling Museum instead. I was more keen on the Sun Yat-Sen museum as I have seen the Soong Ching Ling one before, but no matter, I don't mind revisiting it.

Soong Ching Ling's museum is comparatively crowded (when I was at the CCP memorial site/museum, there was only me and the two Caucasian ladies). The compound is large, with a building serving as her museum displaying her letters and other historical documents related to her, a garage housing her two limosines (one a gift from the Chinese government, another a gift from Stalin), and her house. I read her letters and speeches and am impressed at how bilingual she is in Mandarin and in English. Perhaps trilingual even if she was fluent in the Shanghainese dialect. Bilingual (or more accurately, trilingual) people impress me. I have struggled for years to master Chinese and even my Cantonese, while good, is nowhere on par with my level of English. And somehow, having to switch from English to Chinese seems to intimidate me, and while I have lots to say, I usually end up expressing myself in a mix of English and Chinese, with quite a bit of stuttering in between.

But back to Soong Ching Ling. So she is very bilingual. Her handwriting is large and cursive. But more intriguing was this speech she wrote upon being conferred the Stalin Peace Prize. Now Stalin Peace Prize, to me, is itself an oxymoron. She writes, and I paraphrase, that it is an honour to be associated with the name of Stalin, itself a name associated with peace.

Oh dear. I think of the purges. Of Billy telling us that Stalin killed 20 million of his own people. And i think...how very wrong---Stalin and peace do not go hand in hand. Was she merely misguided? Had she no clue of what happened in the Soviet Union? Of gulags, persecution, terror and purges? By all accounts, Soong Ching Ling came across as being perceptive, compassionate, strong, noble and wise. How could this grave (imo) error have occurred? Perhaps she had no choice but to accept the Stalin Peace Prize. China and the Soviet Union were then allies in the spread of world communism and it would cause a great diplomatic rift (though there were already signs of trouble) between the two should she decline. Stalin's gift of a huge black Russian-made car to her was also proudly displayed in her garage, all nice and shiny. Maybe no one outside of the Soviet Union really knew about the purges, the way most Americans didn't know about Chiang Kai-shek's corruption. Maybe this was all a necessary part in the staging of a political show. As for now, these questions remain unanswered.

A guide kindly directs me to join the tour group in seeing Soong Ching Ling's house. There are scheduled times for tours, which is conducted in Chinese. I can understand most of what is being said, just can't really speak it. A young man---he looks like a college student---offers to take care of my belongings. I take my handbag but leave the plastic bag containing the newly bought book with him. He hands me a pair of plastic bags which serve as coverings for my shoes so that Soong Ching Ling's house does not get soiled by tourists' shoe prints. And then we proceed upstairs.

Soong Ching Ling's house is nicely decorated. It seems a bit bourgeoisie to me though, and has a style similar to many an English country house. All in all, very quaint and quite charming. The guide tells us that the carpets were a gift from Mao himself, and they are emblazoned with peach (or was it cherry) blossoms---Soong Ching Ling's favourite flowers. Everything here appears to be kept almost exactly as it was the day she died, which was in 1981. She was 88. Even the clock has been stopped to mark the exact time of her death.

I linger at the back of the tour group and spend most of my time reading the English captions on the various objects in the house. There are lots of pictures of Sun Yat-Sen around. The guide tells us that Mdm Soong missed her husband dearly and hence, had many of his pictures put up around the house. Near her bedroom is her maid's bedroom. This maid is described as having been a faithful servant of Mdm Soong, and to thank her for her loyalty, Mdm Soong is described as having showered her with gifts and creating a scrapbook filled with pictures of the two of them. It is all quite touching actually. At least to me, having been brought up by servants, and being one easily touched by stories of friendship. In a way, I have always harboured hopes for that special friendship that lasts forever. The one that sees you from childhood all the way till old age. That it has so far eluded me has been a little upsetting. But there's always hope for the future. Heh.

The tour ends and I had back to the museum proper. I scan through the letters she wrote later in life, when Chiang Kai-shek had established himeslf in Taiwan. I wonder how the Soong family managed to function what with one sister being a leader of mainland communist China, and the other being a leader in capitalist Taiwan, which claimed to be the legitimate China. Letters written appear to be terse and judging from the photographs on display, it seems that Soong Ching Ling mainly got along with one brother.

Time flies and I had promised my mum I'd meet her back at the hotel room at 3pm. It's times like this when I really wished I had checked beforehand if my handphone had autoroaming. I ask for directions to the Sun Yat-Sen museum and the Lu Xun musuem as Penny had earlier informed me of its proximity to the Soong Ching Ling museum. The guide, a guard and a tourist all three congregate around the guide's desk and helpfully write down the exact address for me on a piece of paper but warn me that there would not be enough time to visit both places. Museums here all close at 5pm. Thanking them for their help and with that in mind, I exit the compound hoping to catch a quick taxi ride to the Sun Yat-sen museum, browse around quickly, and make it back fashionably late. But it isn't quite so easy getting a cab. I ask a caucasian for help.

"Excuse me, do you speak English?"

He does, but from his accent, he seems Italian. I ask him if it is easy to get a taxi from here. He says no and recommends the subway. I rather take a cab. He waits a while with me before going his own way, warning me again that taxis rarely stop here. But I have help from God. A taxi does stop, and a very comfortable one at that, and it's back to the Pudong Shangri-la for me.

We get stuck in a jam, but at least the air-conditioning, unlike most taxis here, is working, and the seats are comfortable. I reach my room at 3.20pm. My parents are there and my dad has bought some bread, fruit and a speak-Chinese guide. Mum and me go shopping for a while at H&M at the Super Brand Mall---it's a rather nice place. Big and airy, with lots of changing rooms so you don't have to wait too long to try on stuff. We come back and, with Dad, seeing that it is too late to go to the Puxi area, head off for dinner at Canton, the Grand Hyatt's specialty restaurant.

Now in Singapore, romantic and Cantonese restuarant doesn't really go together. But here, class and elegance are the order of the day. The decor seems more suited to a French restaurant, and unlike many Chinese restaurants, this one does not come with loud incessant chatter from surrounding patrons. The chairs are plush, the floor fully carpeted and the lighting is a nice soft yellow. Seems like a nice place for a date. And I know i'm not the only one thinking that---two dating couples sit near (if it can be described as such as the tables are fairly spread out) us.

Canton at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai.

The atarax I took just before I left for dinner begins to kick in while we wait for the food, and I am feeling sleepy. To perk myself up, I order Chrysanthemum tea (no Camomile tea confusions here) and allow my tongue to get slightly burnt so that it might shock my system into alertness. It works temporarily but I begin to feel sleepy again. Manager Robin checks on us and his pleasant conversation does help distract me from my tired state.

I comment to my mum that Robin looks very similar to my friend Yingkit. You know, the guy you sometimes fetch who speaks very fluent cantonese? They even have the same mannerisms. Just that Robin doesn't speak much cantonese---he is Shanghainese, albeit the manager of an established Cantonese restaurant. We try to order in Cantonese cos at least mummy can speak that real fluently and I'm not too bad. But Robin speaks rather good English, so we, this time Dad included, all end up speaking in English anyway. He asks us if we stay at the Grand Hyatt. We tell him no, we stay at the Shangri-la. "Ah.. Stay at Shangri-la, eat at Grand Hyatt. Get to enjoy two of the best", Robin replies.

Turns out Robin has been to Singapore for a holiday. He has gone to Orchard Road (he mistakenly called it Orchard Street), Sentosa and even to neighbouring Johore Bahru. Furthermore, he'll be coming to Singapore for training at the Grand Hyatt. Robin has been the personal assistant to late Singaporee President Ong Teng Cheong ("tall, slim, thick specs?" Gosh, the more he talks, the more I am reminded of Yingkit), and if I am not mistaken, has served Lee Kuan Yew. This is his first time as a manager of a Chinese restaurant. Usually he is in charge of the Italian restaurant, or in other posts. Not that it is noticable anyway. Robin is extremely professional and works the floor like a veteran. He passes my parents his business card and gives us a box of chocolates. On the house, he tells us.

Perhaps I might meet him at Singapore's Grand Hyatt. I go there often anyway since I have their membership card. The box of chocolates looks exactly like the ones sold at Mezzanine at Singapore's Grand Hyatt. Down to the paper wrapping and square compartments. We appreciate his nice gesture, bid him farewell and leave for Cloud 9.

Turns out Cloud 9 is fully booked and we would either have to wait or come back another day. We decide on the latter and head downstairs to the bakery where I realise---to my horror---that I have left my handbag at the restaurant. (That is why atarax is only to be taken just before bedtime) I thank God that while there were a couple of times I realised that I was missing something, I always managed to find it later on. Upon arrival, the lady asks me if I left a white CK bag behind, I say yes. Everything is in tact and we head back to the Shangri-la.

At the lobby of the Jin Mao tower, we pass by hordes of tourists snapping away with their cameras, and two very tall and Manga-esque security guards decked out in Mao suits. Just outside, the Oriental Pearl TV tower lights up the sky looking one part disco ball, one part toy, one part science fiction building. The weather is warm but dry, and crossing the road is a little precarious as the drivers don't seem to stop for pedestrians crossing when the green man lights up. But praise Jesus, no traffic accidents occur and we're back all in one piece.

The Oriental Pearl TV tower lights up the Shanghai sky.

Photographs from:
www.hyatt.com, and my own camera.

No comments: