Shanghai, China (Part II)

Saturday, May 9, 2020

No comments

I've always maintained that my favourite travel destinations are the ones which are eye-opening, rather than being self-indulgent. Admittedly, I love trying out local cuisine and visiting theme parks, but I usually feel a lot more fulfilled whenever my trips aren't motivated solely by pleasure. As it turns out, Shanghai was a great balance of both worlds for me.

Prior to my visit, the closest exposure I've gotten to mainland Chinese people are the caricatures of Chinese tourists that "Singaporean-Chinese" enjoy distancing themselves from ("Oh, those people? Those are China-Chinese, not like me"), my primary school classmates who got a kick out of putting ants down my shirt (story for another day), or the history books that showed no mercy in painting Mao Zedong and the revolutions he led in a bloody light. Suffice to say, my impression of China hasn't been the best.

However, it seems like I haven't given China a chance to speak for itself, and I'm glad I did. Shanghai was warm and inviting, and its people didn't actually speak in extreme decibels. It's also an technology-forward city, way too much for me to keep up.

It's probably fitting talking about this now, because much of the world has its eyes on China for the current 2020 mess that we're all experiencing. Unfortunately, this has also led to some heartbreaking reports of victims bearing the brunt of prejudices, whether or not they're actually from China (not that hailing from China makes these acts forgivable). While I'm not taking sides, we probably shouldn't be too quick to generalize the behavior of some to the whole population, be it in pinpointing the causes of Covid-19 or anything in life, really.

There's bad eggs in every society, we have to acknowledge that. But it's also not enough simply to stop generalizing. A deeper level of work needs to go into understanding why these bad eggs act the way they do. Were they forced into the "choices" they made? Is the root cause some sort of systemic problem within society?

Of course, I'm no expert simply by hanging out a couple of days in China. Shanghai may not be representative of how China is as a whole either, but at least my trip was enough to correct some of my presumptions, so let's delve into some of my favourite places I visited and snacks I ate.

The Bund (Waitan, 外滩)

The Bund needs no introduction, it's the waterfront area in Shanghai that overlooks the city skyline featuring the Oriental Pearl Tower. Unfortunately on the day we paid it a visit, the view was rather cloudy - though that's not the reason I was pouting here. I believe I was unhappy that there weren't any food places around and I was hungry and tired.

Interestingly, the buildings on this side of the waterfront look very "Western", for lack of a better word (please pardon my highly ignorant description). It turns out there's a historical reason for this - the Bund used to house the banks and trading houses from the West, including the US, UK, France,  Italy and Belgium, just to name a few. and they have been maintained in this Beaux-Arts architecture fashion ever since. 

Insanely empty streets, I believe it was a weekend when we visited. 

East Nanjing Road (南京东路)

The unhappiness from the lack of food outlets near The Bund was soon forgotten the moment we stepped into East Nanjing Road, essentially a shopping district featuring a whole stretch of shopping malls, with a bunch of street snack stalls to boot.

My absolute favourite snack from the entirety of the Shanghai trip - Bingtanghulu, or 冰糖葫蘆! I've always wanted to try this, especially when mukbangers online are always tempting me with it. I never liked the original hawthorn berry one so I was excited to find that the strawberry version was really common in Shanghai. I believe I had at least three sticks of this throughout the trip. 

Not local cuisine by any means, but sometimes you got to give in to your cravings. 

There were so many shopping malls along East Nanjing Road, but we spent most of our time in the 'Shanghai First Foodhall', or the 上海市第一食品商店. While I've been lamenting that the streets of Shanghai were really quiet, the inside of this mall was the complete opposite. It was packed to the brim, with everyone jostling for the freshest produce, especially at the "wet market"-like area. We settled for a random restaurant that served Shanghainese food for dinner. 

This fish was amazing - perfectly fried without any of the re-used oil flavours, slathered with a generous helping of sticky, sweet and tangy tomato sauce. We rarely ever order whole fishes when we eat together because it's just not a viable option for two, but we finished this one in its entirety.  

1933 Old Millfun (1933 老场坊)

On our way to the 1933 Old Millfun, we grabbed some Chinese street crepes, or jian bing (煎饼) for a quick on-the-go breakfast. It was filling, warm and comforting. I especially loved the piece of crispy cracker in the middle, though I could definitely do without the mustard pickles. 

While I have no idea how this place got its English name, it's essentially the old Shanghai Municipal Council Slaughterhouse that was built in 1933, where cattle are brought to be killed. It now houses restaurants and shops, though most were closed when we visited. Like us, most people didn't appear to be there for the businesses, but instead to admire the slightly eerie construction, with its intertwining stairwells, bridges and alleyways. 

It was rather unsettling being in the space and imagining all the cattle that must have been packed and slaughtered in this four-storey building, though I acknowledge that I am still complicit in such acts, being an omnivore. A lot of thought went into the design of the slaughterhouse though, with its rough surfaces that prevents the cattle from slipping on blood, and the central atrium that lets in natural light and makes for better air circulation.

Tianzifang (田子坊)

Tianzifang is undoubtedly a spot for tourists, with its night market-like food stalls and small boutiques peddling trinkets and handcrafted art pieces. It's easy to get lost in this labyrinth, so let yourself go and just feast on the snacks. 

Meat skewers.

Second corn dog of the trip - this time in a Korean cheese-pull style. 

Dragon's breath candy - fun for the first five seconds, and a vehicle for empty calories thereafter. The "candies" are tasteless cereal balls that reminded me more of styrofoam than Froot Loops. 

A crazy variety of White Rabbit candy flavours - one of my favourite childhood sweets, so I got myself a packet of coffee, yogurt, corn, chocolate, mint and matcha ones that I am still struggling to finish till this day. The whole time we were in the store, we were intrigued by how the company even managed to make such a successful comeback from the 2008 China melamine milk scandal. I also just learnt that White Rabbit originated in Shanghai (another fun fact)! 

Xintiandi (新天地)

If one is short of time when touring Shanghai, I suggest giving Xintiandi a miss. It's another shopping and food area, but this time with a more upmarket feel to it in terms of the brand names featured, and there were significantly more sightings of foreigners here. The district does seem like an embodiment of what Shanghai is though - a fusion of Chinese culture with foreign - mainly Western - influences, all while being fixated on consumerism. 

When we chanced upon a White Rabbit and Godiva collaboration, and I knew we had to get it. 

The epitome of East-meets-West in a bite, so appropriately found in Xintiandi. This was amazing though - the White Rabbit portion of it tasted distinctly of the candy, rather than just a general condensed milk flavour, and I may have liked it better than the Godiva chocolate side. The edible glutinous rice paper that the White Rabbit sweet is known for was also included around the cone, which I found to be such a nice touch. 

China Art Museum/ China Art Palace (中华艺术宫)


Finally, we ended our final full day in Shanghai with a visit to the China Art Museum, which is now my favourite art museum in the world. I don't claim to have been to many, especially not the most famous ones, so my opinion should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, for what it's worth, I do make it a point to visit the art museums of the cities/ countries I travel to whenever I can - and found this to be an underrated gem.

The museum served as the former China pavilion of the World Expo ten years ago, and I'm so glad they "upcycled" the building to house art galleries, instead of letting it become another white elephant project, which China is no stranger to (cough, Olympic stadiums, cough). We were one of the few people in the huge museum, but I don't think I can accurately judge typical visitor numbers considering I described Shanghai Disneyland to be quiet as well.

Hello, strawberry marshmallow. 

Hello, another marshmallow - raspberry this time perhaps? 

The galleries were incredibly spacious, which wasn't something I was used to especially in land-strapped Singapore. 

A series of Chinese propaganda comics, purportedly incredibly famous in the country. There was also a multimedia exhibit of old propaganda cartoon footage, which I enjoyed watching for a good couple of minutes. 

The man, the myth, the legend? 

And with that marks the end of my Shanghai trip highlights. We spent the next morning lugging our heavy luggage (note that JX just returned from exchange) to a famous hotpot place called Laowang Hotpot, or 捞王锅物料理, that everyone who's been to Shanghai raves about. We were its first customers, had a taste of their robust, creamy pig's stomach soup, and rushed to the Pudong airport thereafter. Was it worth it? Yes, I think so.

But even more than that, I think the detour for hotpot accurately summarizes the dynamics of our relationship: me being upset that he didn't bring me to eat some food item, and JX hurriedly searching up the location, planning the route, and handling the bulk of the luggage to make sure my tummy is happy. Thank you! (Of course, I don't do this all the time okay, it's just that I was slightly crippled in Shanghai due to my Mandarin abilities - I'm definitely a lot more independent in Singapore heh.)

The view of The Bund from Pudong on our last night. 
Read More

Shanghai, China (Part I)

Friday, May 8, 2020

No comments

It feels a tad strange writing about past travels in the middle of a global health crisis, particularly one that has semi-halted air travel, but I've been meaning to write about my trip to Shanghai and finally have the time now to do so. Perhaps I'm being optimistic, but I do think that the aviation industry will still take flight post-pandemic, slowly but surely. Although personally, I may reconsider any non-essential travels due to sustainability reasons. It's been heartening, to say the least, to see Mother Nature thrive in ways never seen before, simply because we cut down on our harmful ways, though unfortunately not by choice. 

With that out of the way, I flew to Shanghai the day after New Year's Day this year, before news of the Covid-19 virus in China emerged (at least, not on mainstream platforms). It's likely that there were strains of the coronavirus when I was there, though of course, I don't want to feed into any conspiracy theories. I'm just grateful that we managed to come home well and healthy at the end of this. For what it's worth, this was my first time in China, and I had a very enjoyable time. 

I met JX in Shanghai directly, as he flew in from Vancouver post-exchange to meet me for a short trip. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to sync our flight arrival times to the hour. So, with a hungry stomach and an unfamiliar airport, I turned to my favourite golden arches to provide some much-needed sustenance. To my horror, I was greeted by an all-Mandarin menu. Granted, I was well-equipped with twelve years of formal Chinese education (and higher Chinese at that!), but it was still shocking that a Macky D's at an international airport didn't feature other languages. 

Got myself a McSpicy with my stuttering Mandarin! The set meal I initially wanted was out-of-stock, which only sought to increase my panic and nervousness having to order something else on the fly.  

Thankfully, JX emerged from the arrival gates about three hours later and I could rely on his more-proficient communication skills over the next couple of days (only in China, at least - I daresay my command of English is better heh). Our time in Shanghai was essentially a routine of eat-eat-eat-sleep-repeat, but I'll just share about some of the notable places we went and the little things that I would like to remember when I look back on this post. 

Shanghai Disneyland 

Theme parks are undoubtedly my weakness, and I'll make it a point to visit Disneyland whenever I travel to a country that has one. The current theme park shutdowns due to Covid-19 is heartbreaking, and I hope Donald Duck and friends are safe during this period of time. 

So incredibly pleased I was handed the Donald Duck ticket stub when we entered!

Shanghai Disneyland was unmistakably magical, even with the characters all spewing Mandarin. It was so much bigger than Hong Kong Disneyland and featured so many more kingdoms and rides. Somehow, it was hauntingly quiet for a theme park of its size - not sure if it was the timing of our visit, or other factors. I even managed to take a photograph in front of the castle with no one in frame at all.

The greatest downside of Shanghai Disneyland? This very meal: 

This pizza was stale, powdery, with unidentified meat chunks. I daresay that the frozen pizzas from NTUC would top this by far, not to mention cost only a fraction of the price. 

At least it makes for a good (subjective...?) picture featuring that iconic mouse's head. 

Thankfully, the other food items around the park more than made up for this dismal meal. 

Corn dogs! These had a distinctly Chinese flavour, probably because it was coated with pork floss. It's not your typical American/ Korean corn dogs, and I'm glad we bought three to share between the two of us.  

Chocolate ice cream with a chocolate shell! Nothing can go wrong with ice cream, especially not one shaped like everyone's favourite mouse.

We also watched a Frozen-themed live performance, mainly to rest our fatigued legs. It was rather amusing seeing all the Western actors lip syncing to the Mandarin dialogue and songs, but I give my hats off to them for being able to do that. I was also impressed that the soundtrack from Frozen 2 was included in this show, considering it was only released about a month ago at that point of time - though of course, I'm sure they had pre-release access. JX slept through the entire performance, not sure if it's due to jet-lag or utter boredom. 

 Woody and Little Bo-Peep were slightly scary in real life, with their hard plastic heads and malleable bodies. But I love Toy Story - it's one of the movies that can make me completely bawl - so I jumped at the chance to meet them. 

And a beautiful frosty sight of Shanghai Disneyland to close the night. 

Yu Garden (豫园)

Yu Garden houses a temple, a street with stalls that sell little trinkets, and lots of good food finds. It's honestly a tourist spot more than anything, though there didn't seem to be a lot of tourists (actually, that's the case throughout the whole Shanghai when I was there), and I would still recommend paying this place a visit mostly because of the food. Think Bugis Street, but a lot less crowded and more cultural. 

We stumbled upon this gem of a place that sold freshly made pan-fried pork buns, also known as Sheng Jian Bao or 生煎包. I don't remember the name of the place, nor can I find it on Google (maybe I should be using Baidu instead), but it's beside the super popular Xiao Long Bao place (that I'll get to in a bit). I've always been skeptical over Sheng Jian Baos whenever I saw them being sold in Hong Kong so this was my first time having it. Turns out, I love them, even more than I do Xiao Long Baos. 

I initially thought the skin was a tad thick, but I adored the texture of it - chewy, doughy, accompanied by the amazing deep char on one side of the bun that gives it a very welcome crispy crunch.

And the inside - flavourful pork mince with just the right amount of juices that burst right in your mouth! 

A couple of random stores were selling this yogurt drink that's apparently very popular, but I'm not the biggest fan of yogurt and bought a normal cup of bubbletea afterwards to cleanse my palate. 

Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant (南翔馒头店)

While this restaurant is located within the Yu Garden, its popularity warrants a separate section on its own. Lauded as one of the most authentic Chinese soup dumpling restaurants in China, tourists and locals alike flock there to have a taste of what the OG Xiao Long Bao tastes like. (Fun fact: XLBs originated in Shanghai! I never knew that prior to visiting, always just associated the dish to Din Tai Fung i.e. Taiwan.) 

Were these dumplings mind-blowingly good? Nope. But were they a lot of fun to eat? For sure! Also check out my twinning outfit with the dumpling baskets. 

To consume the king size Nanxiang crab roe steamed bun, we had to poke a hole with the provided straw to drink up some of the soup before digging into the dumpling as a whole.  

A total mess on my plate - the soup was pretty amazing though. 

Me attempting to slurp up the remnants of the king dumpling from my plate. "Can I have another?" says those pleading eyes. 

And the Xiao Long Baos. We all know it, we all love it. 

As a sidenote, we also fell into the tourist trap of getting a seat in the restaurant. Head to the takeaway kiosk at the side of the eatery instead, where everything on the menu is more than half priced compared to the restaurant. At least the view from the restaurant was pretty nice, and it was warm there - yes, this is me attempting to console myself. 

Shanghai Natural History Museum 

While this was a beautiful and well-curated museum, I was a tad disappointed because most of the fossils and displays were cast. It felt a lot more like walking in a Science Centre rather than a 'Night-in-the-Museum' environment. Knowing that the displays weren't real didn't provide the same awestruck energy that might come with knowing that I was admiring the fossils of an actual dinosaur that walked on this land some millions of years ago. Honestly, I love animals and nature, but not in this form and I'd much prefer visiting the zoo. 

That said, the architecture of the museum was stunning. If I ever came back again, though I doubt I ever will, it would be wise to view this museum as an art piece as opposed to one of natural history - everything is so artistically displayed. 

This was hilarious - I believe the rightmost lion has become a meme, I remember seeing a video featuring it and its derp face. 

Starbucks Reserve Roastery Shanghai 

As a previous gold card member at Starbucks (I could no longer upkeep that sort of lavish lifestyle anymore, especially once I realised I don't actually even like coffee), I had to pay the world's biggest Starbucks outlet a visit. It was everything I imagined it to be - a mammoth two-storey building that features the coffee house's signature warm wood panels and furniture, complete with three coffee bars and in-house roasting capabilities. It wasn't quite enough to induce me to purchase anything though, they were mostly just your typical Starbucks fare. 

Hello my famous twin-tailed mermaid, fancy seeing you so exposed. 

The bags of coffee beans reminded me of a Club Penguin game - Bean Counters! Not sure if anyone will get the reference, but shall just leave it here. 

Quite a charming sight to behold. 

Are we in a Starbucks or a speakeasy? 

And with that, the first half of my Shanghai trip seems like a slightly whitewashed experience, with Disneyland and Starbucks being some of the main highlights. While I don't necessarily consider that to be a bad thing, the next half of my China visit was a lot more "authentic" and "cultural", which I will get to in my next post. 

It was a real privilege being able to go on this trip just before my final semester in school started though, and I'm thankful for the break I had, more so especially in light of the current Covid-19 situation. So many people have had their travel plans thrown out of the window, and I can only hope everything gets better soon. 
Read More