Friday, June 01, 2018

Nanjing Road East

If there's one thing the Chinese prize above all, it's family - perhaps let me rephrase, the enduring continuity of the family lineage with progeny to continue the next generation. Ye Olde Confucian way. Is it any wonder that the the symbolism of 100 children at play figures large on paintings, embroideries and other Chinese paraphernalia? The recent one-child policy might have quashed their enthusiasm a little but that doesn't stop them from trying.

So what happens if that singleton refuses to date?

A mercantile people for more than a millennia, the Chinese have always loved a good bargain with an endless need to barter for goods deep in their blood so what could they have possibly done with a single, marriageable child in their household? Why not bring out their precious goods to sell on the streets?

Or maybe a public park at the meeting place of Nanjing Road East and West?

I mean, the bashful kids obviously aren't going to sell themselves! Who better to peddle them off than the people who know them best ; their own parents?

Woman : I've got a boy.
Man : Good?
Woman : Yes. Educated and earning a good salary/
Man : I've got a girl.
Woman : How old is she?
Man : Marriageable I assure you.
Woman : Perfect.

Flesh market indeed!

Much to the horror of their children I'm sure. Though perhaps some of them are truly lovelorn and don't mind their parents giving them a helping hand in the dating milieu.

Forget about Tindr and other dating apps out there. Not since the olden days of Chinese matchmakers in Mulan would you have seen such as a sight as the People's Square Park in Shanghai with gossip gangs of elderly parents communing in the park with handheld laminated notices - or placed more discreetly on umbrellas - detailing pertinent information about their marriageable children from the usual date of birth to their more likeable personality traits.

No such eligible boys at the market - otherwise I would have packed him in the luggage. 

Walking about staring at all the notices, I'll admit to a certain ego boost when I got asked about my eligibility by a few portly matrons. Never let it be said that dressing up well benefits no one, certainly helped raise my points on the marriage mart here. Unsurprisingly few real candidates are present in the park. Very few pictures are posted on the advertisements which gives me a very peculiar idea about their looks, or lack of. Charming Calvin said they might be all be shy but I seriously wonder.

Selling points for the boys were their degrees, housing opportunities and career prospects while the girls had their age and personality on their side. Really old-fashioned China indeed and certainly not a place for the raging feminists.

Unsurprisingly the local Shanghai men are famously saleable, not only for their advantageous addresses but also their unwholesome reputation for being easily henpecked. But beware those girls over 30 as this reporter would tell you.

Oof. I'll admit those gruffly exacting parents pull no punches when they are giving their unvarnished opinions.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Suzhou Nocturne

If there is one specific place in China that I've always loved, it would be Suzhou. Is it any wonder that people throughout the ages have laid exultant accolades at her door with some referring to the city as a place close to paradise on earth?


Who could blame the poets for praising the city so zealously when it has been well regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world for centuries with its canals, bridges and classical gardens. Indeed the resplendent place where the goods of all provinces flow. Reason enough that I find myself heading over there again, bypassing other more notables cities such as Hangzhou and Nanjing, to this relatively smaller city. Relatively when it comes to China since even their purportedly smaller cities easily outstrip most other cities outside the region.

Even though it was mid week at quite an unseasonable hour, the colossal railway station in Suzhou still had quite a crowd and I shudder to think how it would be during the mass migration of the Spring Festival. Wouldn't surprise me that the unfortunate would get trampled in the ensuing chaos!

Such a huge sigh of relief once we left the spartan gray neo-Communist building in the outskirts of the city and headed towards the more historical centre. Not only are the streets beautifully clean and well maintained with the dreamy tree-lined canals beside them, even the bus stops are built as traditional dappled grey gazebos with curved tiled black roofs reminiscent of the ancient structures around them.

Finding our way through the rabbit warren maze of narrow lanes and canals took a while!

Just a vision from an old Chinese watercolour painting with delicate gazebos and pagodas interspersed with a filigree of tree-lined canals and backwaters.

Situated as we were in an old lodge right in the middle of the historical district, everything is only a short distance away. Just down the windy narrow lanes overhung with weeping willows and mimosa trees, we would find ourselves in the midst of bookstores, silk houses and souvenir stores selling everything from ceramics to snuff bottles.

Can't argue the fact that the mercantile Chinese, even despite the brief blip of red communism, have always prized materialism.

And did I mention they had restaurants and teahouses practically every few metres from posh dining palaces offering fine foods with entertainers singing Kunqu through the night to the messier stalls by the roadside serving braised chicken feet to dozens in the queues! No matter what they say, the Suzhounese do know how to enjoy life. So it should come as no surprise that bureaucrats and ministers have been known to retire here in the later stages of their lives for the past millennia.

Entertainment and food aside, let's not forget the artistic side of the fabled city.

Didn't take me long to find myself seated on a wooden stool with paintbrush in hand to colour in a traditional Suzhou woman's dress, all while Charming Calvin stood by with a steaming cup of Longjing green tea in hand. Ancient watercolours of Chinese ladies in Ming and Tang costume screenprinted onto silk pillows and table runners for us to paint on. Something Calvin obviously flat out refused to do so - leaving him to while away the time lazing about the store admiring the peerless scenery outside.

What better way to spend a lazy afternoon in Suzhou?

Monday, May 21, 2018

Miss Shanghai

Since this was our third time around in Shanghai with ample enough time to explore at leisure, I had the time to really stroll down the streets and alleyways and soak the atmosphere of this fabled city. Didn't take me long before I made my way down to the Old City of Shanghai, a place a tour guide once teased us about.

Guide : Yes, it's another temple in Shanghai. 
Paul : Good God. Not another temple. 
Guide : Not just any temple. 
Paul : Unless the monks are shirtless and sexy, I think I'll skip it. 
Guide : Trust me, you won't want to miss this temple. 

He was right back then.

Wouldn't surprise me if the traders dressed like this less than a century back. Heck, even I've worn the same. 

And I wouldn't argue with him this time either since I've returned repeatedly to Yuyuan Garden - and the City God Temple within - each time I'm there. Basically the more Chinese part of Shanghai city that wasn't carved away in the more fractious colonial times into international concessions so part of what was originally there remains.

Sort of. 

Monstrous tourist trap it may be with repetitive stores hawking all things Chinese from the traditional arts and crafts to the more kitschy Chairman Mao memorabilia - and on that particular holiday the old alleys were certainly bursting to the brim with haggling visitors - but it was a place that I still managed to enjoy.

Even more this time since I had little qualms over elbowing and shoving people out of my way.

Not that the lil miss Shanghais would even bother since they could be as brash and brusque as anyone else, even dressed in the most demure qipaos. Then again, the local proud Shanghainese would again decry any such association with those they would term country bumpkins.

There is a lack of finesse for sure. Even more obvious when it comes to the surly service received in the teahouses and restaurants around. Smiles are rare indeed, and personal recommendations even less so, something I found alarmingly common here. Just like some of our own reticent Malaysian Chinese back home, they tend to have a stark problem voicing out their own preferences.

It's like if they get the answer wrong I might order them executed on sight.

Paul : So what's the specialty in this restaurant? 
Waitress : Oh it's in the menu. 
Paul : Well I am new here so anything you would suggest? 
Waitress : There's a star at the side of the dish for the popular ones. 
Paul : There are so many so which one would you suggest? 

Usually an order that leaves them thunderstruck with their brain seemingly crashing as they try to process what I just said. Fortunately after a while I got the hang of their dour yet laconic demeanour - and quickly figured out what was good on my own. As usual though there would be those who whine over flavourful oily foods, I found the eating here as usual incomparable.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ye Shanghai

It came as quite a surprise to realize, during our efforts to procure a travel visa, that the last time we actually were in China had been almost a decade ago. Has it actually been that long?

However it did take a while before deciding on where to go next with our shortlist of requirements; wanted someplace not too far and easily navigable enough, somewhere not too cold nor too hot... etc. Since we had such fond memories of our last trip to Suzhou and Shanghai way, way back, a return was definitely in the cards to see how much had changed. After his long ago assignment there, Charming Calvin still had some small misgivings about whether the brash mainland Chinese had actually learned to cultivate some manners.

Me, I figured I could be quite as horribly rag-mannered as the rest of them. Perhaps the last time I might have been astonished by their unapologetic brusqueness but this time, I was a little more prepared. You shove me, this time I'll just shove you back, maybe with some peppery insults to boot. Not exactly the ringing endorsement our mild-mannered fellow needed which earned a censorious side eye from him.

Though much has certainly changed in the ever-growing metropolis of Shanghai from the awe-inspiring futuristic skyline to the way digital technology has taken over almost every aspect of their lives with newfangled apps for everything, that blundering brashness of the people with the severe lack of personal boundaries still remains. After an hour or two of being carelessly bumped around in teeming crowds ( Shanghai seriously gives a whole new meaning to crowds ) from the metro stations to the malls, it becomes almost a habit to do pretty much the same with little or no apology.

Perhaps it's with age and maturity that I look at it but I find their behaviour almost... charming though the more fastidious Calvin had far less complimentary words for it. While they do still speak in louder, harsher tones than we are used to, I did find them all extremely helpful. Just think of that grumpy old uncle in the neighbourhood with a heart of gold.

And I suspect most of the proud Shanghainese - no doubt gossiping in their singsong dialect - would vehemently insist that the rougher rabble in their midst were actually newly arrived country cousins.

Everything bright, brash and blinding in the city of Shanghai. 

Probably those were the unfortunate ones cramming together with us as we were all herded in boisterous groups down the main shopping thoroughfare Nanjing Road to the Bund. Only a handful could be clearly seen to be non local; the majority of the rambunctious horde seemed purely to be their very own Chinese countrymen coming to see the future of their prideful nation. After all, where else to get a better juxtaposition of the new and the old in the city with the more venerable grand old colonial ladies on one side of the Bund and the flashier, neon-coloured skyscrapers on the Pudong side; divided only by the Huangpu River.

And that's only if you can get above the mass of flashing camera bulbs as they all snap pictures simultaneously en masse.

Comes as no surprise that it's the Chinese who coined the phrase 人山人海! 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Market Girls

As we are rushing headlong towards our almost third market, it has been an amazingly fun ride. Not only because it was wonderful seeing so many artists and crafters creeping out of their hidey hole to come share their talents at the market, it was also all due to the other three of my market compatriots; Tenacious Tiny, Terrific Trish and Trusting Toni.

Wonderful ladies all though it's amazing we even came together in the first place.

Seriously though, all of us have pretty much nothing in common apart from the artsy crafting that basically brought us together - so that gives rise to the occasional difference of opinion since we all have intensely contrasting personalities and generally hail from dissimilar backgrounds. And yet since we are a fledgling non-profit group, there are no specific set tasks and roles for any of us so we generally cover for each other when the other is busy. With such overlapping duties and functions, you can bet it's not all hunky dory all the time.

For instance I'm always alright with a little bit of bending the rules here and there, as are Trish and Toni occasionally, but Tiny is an impossible stickler for her rules. Tiny Rules. Something I'm starting to believe is traditionally cross stitched in large capital-sized fonts on a wooden sampler framed in her living room.

Bet Tiny would so be the fierce black girl.

You know those dangerously tiny lil mean girls back in school that you just know will get their way no matter what? That's definitely her.

So yes, we do go on into the weekly dispute over the nitty gritty of running the market.

Number one on her exhaustive list of rules about the market would be the authenticity of the artisanal product - something which I'm fine with. Unfortunately that's followed closely by the fact that she wants the creator to be personally there since Tenacious Tiny has an undeniable grudge against intermediary vendors who bring in marketable items from the interior villages without crediting the makers individually.

Alright let's not argue over the impossible logistics of bringing every talented basket maker from their longhouse for a weekend leaving their family behind. Add that to the fact that if the sole basket maker opened a stall, she'd probably only have a meagre amount of items on sale since it takes quite a while to finish even one!

So those were my points. Took some convincing and several hundred messages to finally get Tiny to agree - while Trish looked on in growing amusement and Toni scampered off for fear of being dragged into the tiff. Right there you have a small illustration of how things work around here. Whatever personality type Tiny may be, I'm definitely the direct opposite which drives her quite insane at times. But I guess we do need conflicting points of views to make the market work as well as it does.