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Monday, May 25, 2015

Je concède rien

Today is Memorial Day, and for us it's the second-to-last three-day American holiday weekend before we depart Shànghăi 上海 in late July. I had hoped we could've taken advantage of this time to do some final traveling in China, but with my brother-in-law, one of my sisters-in-law and a friend of my wife's visiting from Taiwan, our options were limited. Still, we had plans for everyone to spend Sunday night in Tónglĭ 同里, one of the many "canal towns" located close to Shanghai. Pamela found that renting a car to accommodate everyone would've been too expensive, however. The other option would've been to have ridden the train to Sūzhōu 苏州, then taken a couple of taxis to Tongli, but for some reason my wife wasn't very keen on that idea (probably because it was mine). We could've gone in our car, but six people would've been a very tight fit, and as Pamela was involved in a minor fender bender on Saturday afternoon (not her fault as she was hit from behind by a taxi; the damage was minor and no one was hurt, fortunately), it just seemed too risky, even for the relatively short drive to Tongli. So, in the end, my wife and her visitors went to Tongli while my daughter and I stayed behind. Yesterday, other than going to a Chinese restaurant for lunch, the two of us stayed close to home (Amber played outside with friends, while I went for a bike ride). Today, my daughter went to school; I took advantage of the time to myself by exploring part of one of my favorite areas in Shanghai, the French Concession 法租界.

My explorations began by walking from the South Shaanxi Road metro station 陕西南路站, via Xiāngyáng South 襄阳南路, Fùxĭng Middle 复兴中路 and Fényáng Roads 汾阳路, to the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum 上海工艺美术博物馆. The collection is housed in a building dating back to 1905: it was originally the residence of the director of the chamber of industry in the French Concession, before being the Shanghai office of, first, the World Health Organization and, then, the Sino-Soviet Friendship Association. Since 1960, it's been the home of the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Research Institute:



Inside are examples of  traditional crafts such as embroidery, jade cutting, lacquer work and paper cutting. Highlights today included this woodcarving entitled Storm on May 30...:


...Sistine Madonna, a fine example of woolen embroidering that was inexplicably shunted off into a corner...:


...and this crown made of gold leaf, used in Chinese opera performances:


There were a number of artists in residence when I visited, such as these two women working on embroidery pieces:


Despite being presented as a museum, however, I couldn't help but feeling that I was in an ornate gift shop. Many of the exhibits had price tags on them, and an authorized foreign exchange counter was located on the first floor. All major credit cards were accepted, of course. As much as I would've liked to have made a purchase or two, most items were out of my budget. This piece below, for example, was priced at 18,000 RMB (about $2900):


Admission is only 8 RMB ($1.30), however, which is a bargain as it allows you to step inside and admire one of Shanghai's many beautiful early 20th-century homes:



The goals for the Chinese Dream 中国梦 are apparently surprisingly modest, judging by this banner. Still, China's dreamers have their work cut out for them:


The weather today was close to perfect:


From the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, it was a short walk down Tàiyuán Road 太原路 to the Taiyuan Villa 太原别墅. General George Marshall stayed there from 1946 to 1949 while he tried to broker an agreement between the Kuomintang 國民黨 and the Chinese Communist Party 中国共产党 . Máo Zédōng's 毛泽东 wife, Jiāng Qīng 江青, also lived here for a while, proving George Orwell's observation that in a supposedly classless society, some people are more equal than others. The complex now houses an exclusive hotel, but visitors are free to wander the grounds:




Next, I backtracked to Fenyang Road, which soon turned into Táojiāng Road 桃江路 , which in turn ends at the American consulate. I made a short detour to an Indian restaurant called Saffron, and treated myself to one of their lunch specials:




Suitably fortified, I ambled down Urumqi Road 乌鲁木齐路, in the process passing by the Consulate General of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is just down the street from the U.S. legation. As the U.S. is at last moving to normalize relations with Cuba (long overdue), I hope someday we'll do the same with Iran and North Korea (it's a dream of mine to one day work at the U.S. embassy in Pyongyang, should that day come before I retire) - recognition does not imply agreeing with a country's political system (did somebody say China?), but it's better to have channels of communication open rather than always resorting to military action. On this Memorial Day, I remember those who died in the uniform of their country by hoping others don't have to make the ultimate sacrifice in pointless actions overseas. By the way, this is not a photo of the Iranian consulate:


Fuxing West Road 复兴西路 is a pleasant tree-lined stretch of road, providing much-needed shade on those hot and humid Shanghai summer days. On the other hand, it must feel pretty gloomy when the sky is overcast or it's raining:


The Propaganda Poster Art Center 上海宣传画中心, at 868 Huàshān Road 华山路, is a place that I've wanted to visit ever since coming to Shanghai, and after almost two years here, I finally got around to seeing it this afternoon. It isn't the easiest of places to find, being located in the basement of an ordinary apartment building, but the collection of Maoist posters from the 1950's, '60's and '70's (only a handful of which are on display at any one time) is worth the effort to track down. Photography isn't allowed, but as Lenin once observed (and I'm paraphrasing here), you can't be a true revolutionary if you obey the signs to keep off the grass. This poster shows children playing with a U.S. imperialist paper tiger...literally:


Hailing the over-fulfillment of steel production by ten million tons. Way to go, Chicoms!:


The largest poster in the photo below celebrates the Great Leap Forward 大跃进,  an example of Maoist lunacy that resulted in the deaths by starvation of between 18 and 45 million people:


And, of course, there were posters related to the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命, when Mao's cult of personality reached its orgasmic zenith:


The center also has some examples of "four character" posters", which were once ubiquitous throughout China, but are now rare. In the poster below, the person with their name crossed out in red X's is the subject of what must've been a thoroughly unpleasant denunciation:


And because one can only take so much of lantern-jawed, muscular members of the proletariat demonstrating their undying devotion to Mao Zedong Thought 毛泽东思想, there are also examples of the commercial posters Shanghai was noted for in the days of the International Settlement:


Emerging back into the 21st century, I retreated to a cafe on Xīngguó Road 兴国路 to take a break and admire some of the postcards I'd purchased in the Propaganda Poster Art Center's gift shop. I'd hoped to buy a reproduction of a poster calling for the liberation of Taiwan (which I once saw for sale in an antique shop on the Duōlún Culture Street 多论文化名人街), but you can't always get what you want, as a noted street fighting man once pointed out:



The last leg of my journey today took me to Huáihăi Middle Road 淮海中路, where I walked by this residential complex dating from the 1920's, evoking images of New York's Flatiron Building:



My final destination was the former home of Sōng Qìnglíng 宋庆龄, whose mausoleum I'd checked out a few weeks previously. The wife of Sun Yat-sen 孙中山 lived here from 1948 to 1963 in a house built in the 1920's by a Greek shipping magnate. There is a small museum devoted to Madame Sun, featuring photos of her with various world leaders:


I was most fascinated by this copy of Red Star Over China, inscribed by Edgar Snow himself:


This snippet from a family photo album illustrates the remarkable story of the Soong sisters 宋氏三姐妹. Still, other than sleeping with a man revered for being the father of modern China, as well as for astutely siding with the winning side at the end of the Chinese civil war, it's hard to see just what Song Qingling did that made her "one of greatest women of the 20th century", according to the hagiography:


The adjoining residence, though, is impressive, starting with the two limos (the one on the left a gift from Stalin) in the garage:


The house is treated like a shrine, with visitors required to put plastic covers over their shoes. I was put into a tour group upon entering, but as the explanations quickly degenerated into pointless minutiae, I ended up wandering through the residence on my own:


No explanation was given as to why this typewriter was placed in the bathroom (I took this photo while standing in front of the toilet). Did Song Qingling type her correspondence to various world figures while answering the call of nature?:


While taking a photo of a gift from the Great Leader himself, Kim Il-Sung, I was gently admonished by a security guard that photography wasn't allowed. Which is all well and good, except that the same guard said nothing earlier to any of the Chinese visitors using their camera phones to snap pics of the sitting room and dining room. Are only foreigners prohibited from taking pictures? If so, shouldn't there have been signage to that effect in English? It's too bad Pamela wasn't with me - I really wanted to ask the guard if it was permitted for "Taiwan compatriots" 台胞 to record images:


The garden was somewhat of a disappointment, as it mostly consisted of lawn space and little else:


I often wonder what Chinese visitors to Shanghai make of the fact that the most interesting sights in the city are almost all related to the so-called period of "national humiliation" of the International Settlement, the French Concession and extraterritoriality. For all the justified grievances and perceived slights, the Western residents of that bygone age certainly left behind an impressive architectural legacy. I'd imagine that only a diehard patriot would deny that the French Concession, with its leafy streets and pleasant cafes and restaurants, is a much nicer place to live in than most modern-day Chinese urban centers. Kudos to Shanghai for preserving so much of its not-always-glorious heyday:


Guess they miscalculated how much footwear they would actually sell?:




 




 
 


 









 




 
 


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bond...Father/daughter bond...

Shànghăi Children's Palace 少年宫

This paragraph has been removed by the author, who, now having vented through the printed word as well as with a couple of cocktails to go with his dinner, feels much better. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blogpost currently in progress:

Yes, we have visitors in town: my brother-in-law, one of my sisters-in-law and a friend of my wife's. They're all nice people and I have no problem at all with playing host to guests from out of town (and country). As I wrote earlier, the four of them spent several days earlier this week in Huangshan 黄山, meaning it's been only Amber and me here. For the past few nights the two of us have gone out to eat dinner at various Western-type restaurants, like the Belgian place we went to yesterday...


...and our conversation topics have run the gamut from popular music and school to the games Amber likes to play online. It's been a great (though not inexpensive) opportunity to spend more one-on-one time with my daughter, and this afternoon has been no exception. With Pamela and the others having driven into central Shanghai 上海 (why?!), I thought it might be nice to take Amber to the Shanghai Children's Palace. Formerly known as Kadoorie's House, the building was once the home of Elly Kadoorie, one of the wealthiest men in prewar Shanghai. The mansion is now used as an activity center for kids, and there were a number of classes being held while we were there, including ballet and pottery-making. For me, it was a chance to see how of one of Shanghai's most influential Western residents lived. For my daughter, it wasn't so interesting. At one point, a woman approached us and asked Amber which class she was enrolled in. When my daughter replied that we were just having a look around, the woman seemed very surprised but didn't say anything more, and walked away.






It would've been nice to have seen the rooms presented as they would've been used when Kadoorie lived there; the house's current function as a workshop for children only hints at the former glories. In the China that emerged after 1949, however, the mansion would've been too bourgeois. Seeing the kids in their various classrooms this afternoon brought to mind parallels with Pyongyang's Mangyongdae Children's Palace, where talented tykes are nurtured to perform for the greatness of the state and its leaders. Shanghai's house of fun isn't quite as sinister, but it wasn't hard to imagine that at one time children were drilled on the correctness of Mao Zedong Thought, the successes of the revolution and of the necessity to serve the Party. It wasn't the 1920's mansion housing the Shanghai Children's Palace that felt anachronistic; it was the very idea of a "children's palace" in the first place that seemed out of place with the Shanghai that surrounds the building and its grounds today.


Amber found the simple pleasures of walking the streets of Shanghai with her father to be much more enjoyable, like stopping to look at Jìng'ān Temple 静安寺 from one side a pedestrian bridge...:



...and a landscaped garden area on the other side:


Lunch was had at a small hole-in-the-wall called Uncle Toast, which specialized in dànbǐng 蛋餅 (Taiwanese-style omelets) as well as sandwiches, noodles...and toast:



A pair of cats watches pedestrians go by on Fùmín Road 富民路:


I don't know if this building really dates from 1937, but we both thought it looked kind of cool:


Amber was much amused by the name of this small clothing shop on Wŭyuán Road 五原路:


She also liked the moniker of this establishment further down the same street:


The "Avocado lady" is a greengrocer on Urumqi Road 乌鲁木齐路. She carries a number of imported food items in addition to the usual fruits and veggies, and is popular with the area's resident expats. I don't know why so many were lined up outside as we walked by today, however:


Checking out some gourmet chocolates on Huáihăi Road 淮海路. Today was one of those days when I wished we lived in a neighborhood like those found in the French Concession 法租界, with its numerous cafes, restaurants and small shops. It's not even close to being indicative of modern-day Chinese lifestyles, but it would make living in a hectic metropolis like Shanghai much more bearable:


Back in our area this evening, we went to a place called Cosmo for dinner, where my daughter enjoyed a Shirley Temple while I downed a couple of Moscow Mules. I really needed them tonight:



Pamela and the relatives will be back later this evening, which is too bad, really. From going out to dinner and hurrying Amber to get ready for the school bus in the mornings, to taking her to the consulate's medical unit to have an ear infection treated and to discussing the finer points of Minecraft, these last few days have reminded me of just why being a father is probably the single greatest pleasure in life: