Shanghai, China (Part II)

Saturday, May 9, 2020

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. 

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