I hope this finds you well. We just got back from our long trip during China’s “National Days” holiday known as “huang jin zhou” or “golden week” in English. This holiday marks one of China’s annual migration events, the other being during Chinese New Year. Last week, almost half of China’s 1.36 billion people traveled to visit family and Chinese cultural sights throughout the country. The other half sheltered in place and enjoyed the relative emptiness in their megacities (fun fact: 10 million people is the minimum population for a megacity and Guangzhou-Foshan is in the top ten just after New York). Ex-pats in Guangzhou tend to leave the country entirely over the break, but we did a bit of both by heading to Shanghai and then Seoul.
589 million people traveling all at once is a recipe for disaster or at the very least a really long queue. We bypassed a lot of the crazy by heading out early on Saturday morning and flying. Apparently, the train stations were jam-packed, as evidenced by these pictures a friend of ours took of the “line” in the Guangzhou East Railway Station:
If looks could kill…
No end in sight
Fortunately, the airport was normal and we breezed through security. Unfortunately, we then sat on the tarmac for over an hour while mysterious “maintenance problems” were fixed. This has happened to me more than once in the USA, so I can’t really blame Golden Week for that. Thankfully China Eastern airlines gives passengers quite a bit of leg-room, so despite never, ever getting complimentarily upgraded to First Class, we were pretty comfortable.
We spent a wonderful four full days in Shanghai, staying with M, a good friend of ours from Amaury’s work. Most of the city was deserted with the exception of the major tourist attractions that of course we also wanted to see. Shanghai is famous for being another (Guangzhou being one also) trading post and historical Western entry point into China. Following the first Opium War (1839-42), Britain and then France, Germany, and the U.S. established concessions in the city, areas that they owned. This led to the city having many Western-style buildings and neighborhoods, the Bund along the waterfront and the French Concession being two famous areas.
Truthfully, I don’t know as much as I would like about this fascinating, uncomfortable, and often violent history. Shanghai certainly has a distinctly East meets West feel. It has developed into a center of international business and trade while being a highly cosmopolitan city. We could sense the presence of a large ex-pat community in the large number of brunch places, micro-breweries, and coffee shops. This is a city where a beautiful Buddhist temple is across the street from the largest Old Navy I’ve ever seen.
Views of Jing’An Temple
A symbol of cultural exchange?
We had a tiring but wonderful time exploring the city including braving the crowds at the Bund, wandering aimlessly around the tree-lined streets of the French Concession, and meeting up with friends. It was also a treat to spend time with C, a high school friend of mine who moved to China 7 years ago. He continues to say he’ll leave China soon… we’ll have to see if he’s still saying that another 7 years from now!We saw a lot during our time, so I’ll share three favorites of mine. First, after a long day walking/wading through crowds at tourist sights, we headed up to the 99th floor of the Hyatt for tasty drinks and an amazing view of the Shanghai skyline at a virtually empty bar. It was a reminder of the privilege we have in China, because despite Shanghai being more expensive than Guangzhou, our money still stretches far and we easily gain entry into luxurious settings. It’s a strange feeling to walk purposefully into a 5-star hotel, take the elevator up to the top, and then to be able to afford to stay up there. I remember being flat out denied entry to similar hotels in Spain years ago because 1) I wasn’t staying there, which was just as well because 2) I had no money.
Then again, I’m not so sure Chinese people can’t afford to go to this bar at the Hyatt, as many people were clearly staying at the hotel and many tourist attractions were more expensive. Instead, they seemed to flock en mass to the heart of tourism- going up the Shanghai Tower for the more expensive view from there or queuing for hours to go through the tourist tunnel under the river. While our instinct when we see a crowd is to run away, Chinese tourists seem to gravitate towards it. I suppose if there’s a crowd, there’s something to see. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all- the crowd around us at the Bund was as joyful as the one we encountered in Hanoi and people were clearly enjoying their vacations. It was just so surprising to us that places, where we thought everyone would want to go, were empty. So we enjoyed the quiet peace of our spectacular view and again reminded ourselves that no matter how long we live in China, much of it will ever remain a mystery to us.
The Bund with a few new friends
My second favorite thing was visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Museum with M and C. Hidden away in the basement of an apartment building, this museum is hard to find. While we were able to find it via clear Tripadvisor directions, it is likely not advertised on any Chinese websites or apps due to the politically sensitive nature of the museum. The collection of posters dating from 1930 to the 1990’s was a walk through China’s tumultuous history over the course of WWII, the Cold War, and the Cultural Revolution. Accompanying each poster was a short, objective description in English and French, very little Chinese included at all. While I doubt Chinese visitors are officially prohibited from going, it certainly wasn’t recommended to them, as again we arrived to a relatively empty space with only ex-pats.
Usually, I breeze through a museum, stopping to look intently at only a few things and otherwise taking in the general feel of an exhibit. This time, I stopped at every poster, they were so fascinating. We thought purchasing and displaying copies of Chinese propaganda in our apartment was unwise from both U.S. and Chinese perspectives. Instead, we bought a print and postcards from the early 1930’s of Chinese women beautifully dressed in traditional garb (qi pao) holding up products like gin, soda, and cigarettes. I love how these are so similar to European and American ads of the same period. So fascinating that many of those same Chinese artists then painted propaganda artwork in later decades.
Third favorite thing? Soup dumplings. I may have mentioned that these have made it to my list of favorite foods ever. After hunting on hungry stomachs for a while, we finally found a hole-in-the-mall soup dumpling shop in the basement of a Shanghai mega-mall. The previous evening we had a delicious, $100 meal at an upscale French restaurant. It was divine, but nothing compared to the mouth-watering bliss of devouring dumplings for $5 total the following day.
We got to sneak a peek into the kitchen too. Soup dumplings are so beautifully simple- just tasty pork filling encased in a flour+water dough and then steamed. They’re called soup dumplings because the dough contains the juices of the pork, so the filling ends up being like a hot soup. These were perfect bite-sized morsels. Apparently, it’s possible to find these in America, but I want to learn to make them just in case! Ah, soup dumplings, I could reminisce about you all day.
So Shanghai was beautiful, fun, educational, and delicious. It was very different from Guangzhou- more international, more expensive, somehow more new and shiny despite the older areas in the French Concession and historical sites. Also, drivers stopped for pedestrians instead of racing towards them. Yet we were still in China, which has become comfortably familiar in all its foreign-ness. Next time, I’ll turn to our Seoul trip where we witnessed Gangnam style up close, confirmed how little Korean we speak (none), attended a Korean wedding, sang Karaoke, and visited America in Fall.
I know, I know, the anticipation is killing you. But if I can wait (im)patiently for the season premiere of The Walking Dead (October 23 EST), you can handle waiting a week… or so for my enthralling next missive.