Saturday, October 4, 2008

Anting Villa

The guard at the gates of the Anting Villa Hotel salutes me as I enter, like I'm a cadre.  It's an official gesture, except that his pinball eyes are googly and shoot around.  I wonder if he was a red guard during the cultural revolution.  It diffuses the importance of my entrance, which is fine by me, although awkward nevertheless.
What a change this French Concession spread is from my humble Hongkou digs at the Nanxinyuan Hotel.  It has an impressive lobby with winding staircase, but with that shiny communist flair that would, well, impress a cadre.  Aha.  I register, and the staff is particularly professional and welcoming, and they give me 2 tickets to their free breakfast.  I ask if I can use one this morning; I am told with a polite smile that both tickets are for tomorrow morning.

My room is on the fourth floor, definitely swankier (better be, it's twice as much) with a softer bed and o shoot! lots and lots and lots of cable channels.  They have all the 11 CCTV stations, and each station correlates with the channel (CCTV 9 is on Channel 9, unlike the hotel before, when it was on Channel 23).  But then there are stations from Sichuan and Hunan and lots of nearby provinces.  

I wonder if there's an American CNN.  I've kind of been on the lookout for a hotel that has American CNN (the satellite TV in my apartment, if I'd insist on its working, only pipes in Philippines CNN) to book for Nov.5, cuz I'm excited to see the Obama-McCain race off, and could swing getting out of class at 11:30am and staying up all night to watch the numbers come in.  I was thinking I'd have to go really upscale, over a thousand; would have to evaluate how much my personal valuation of the event is (I may be a failed economics student, but some principles are still applicable to daily life).

In the late 60's and up to the 90's I hit the jackpot.  Channel 66 is an international version of American CNN and is obsessed and constantly advertising the 'Decision '08'.  It says it's rebroadcasting the VP debates.  Great.  And then it's HBO with Chinese subtitles (Borne Ultimatums) and then BBC and then Voice of America and Taiwanese news and then Russian pop and Russian News, French Channel, an Arabic Channel and then the English version of Aljazeera, reporting on Sunni influence continuing to decline as Shiite gains.  This instantly becomes a cable den.  Sure I was gonna go check out People's Square, but still deciding on the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art or the Shanghai Art Museum, which is hosting the Shanghai Biennale that my friend Susette says I should go see.

Indecision causes more TV watching.  I can't get over all of the languages.  I'm already thinking I should come back to the Anting Villa for the Presidential Elections.  After an hour and a half of Unpassed Bailout Movement and constant clips of the Impalin and Biding debate, my stomach grumbles.  I just want to go to that corner table in Hongkou for yet another 7 yuan bowl of noodles.  But we ain't in Hongkou anymore.  It's the French Concession and all the possibilities of continental cuisine.  Remember Azul and the Peruvian Tapas?

The French Concession may be where all of the hip foreigners go, but I'm in a cadre hotel now, I'm turning Chinese.  I consult the Lonely Planet and see that there is a restaurant close by called Bai's family restaurant, that only has 5 tables so get there early, and you can get the local flavor and read English on the menus.  Hmmm.  My restaurant experiences are always challenged because I can't read Chinese and, just like last time when I was in Guangzhou 23 years ago, the waitresses think I'm fucking with them when I ask them to read the words. Great.  Bai's.

It's in a little alley with a very prominent sign, amenable to westerners, what being big solid wood with clear legible English lettering and a big fat arrow.  I should know by now, but I'm hungry and when one feels insecure about the surroundings, one becomes more susceptible to the English descriptions in a tour book.

I walk in.  It's dark.  Are you open?  Sit.  Lights are switched on.  A big honking menu is given to me with color photos and descriptions of food in English.  Fresh bamboo shoots with chive oil. Shanghai cucumbers and garlic.  Beef with brace vegetable. (It's a weed she tells me).  Jellyfish and chives.  Fish stews. Lots of festive tastes.  Kind of pricey from 30-80 yuan.  I should have known.  What kind of greens do you have?  I order the hollow-heart vegetable--ong tsai--just fried up with garlic, no MSG, not to salty.  I am officially an old lady.  I also get the jelly fish and cucumbers--they're both under 20 yuan.  I am officially a Chinese old lady.

The food comes.  It's great.  It's just what I want.  A piping plate of greens and the 2 cold dishes and a bowl of rice.  A Chinese family comes in--parents and a son and daughter.  They are Shanghainese.  They sit.  The children are like 8 and 10 and report that they are hungry.  The mother asks if they have noodles, and they immediately order.  (Why didn't I ask about noodles?  I'm such a foreigner.)  The children cannot sit still.  They roam around the restaurant, look at all of the pictures, commenting, touching.  The waitress comes out and shouts for the kids not to touch.  The parents just sit.  The kids continue to wander and stand by the kitchen, watching.  Hey, the waitress calls them, you are in the way.  The mother calls them to come sit.  But we're hungry!  It's unfamiliar for me to see this interaction:  the waitress barking at the children, the parents not really saying anything.

I get my bill.  It's 51.  Whoa.  33 for the greens.  Back in Songjiang, I had gotten a plate for 8.  I ain't in the suburbs anymore.  Or the corner table, for sure.

I make my way to the subway and take the familiar No. 1 line to People's Square.  It's packed, but it's quick, only 3 stops.  Of course everyone is going to People's Square.  I figure the Shanghai Museum is all relics and you need a half day to a day to see it properly.  So I head toward the Biennale.  On the way, I make a point of passing the Shanghai Grand Theater.
Not quite the Empress down the street that is the Urban Planning Museum, but a Rook indeed.
O look who will be here this season:  the Paris Philharmonic, the Israel Phil, the NY Phil, the Amsterdam and St. Petersburg Phils too.
It's a whole complex.  On the side is room for the little theaters.  Playing now is a comedy called Boyfriend No. 0520.  It's 120 yuan.  I guess it may be People's Square, but it ain't people's theater.  It's ticket status: 'Hot selling.' (The other degrees of status are are 'On Sale Soon' and 'Sold Out.')

I go to The Coffee Beanery to get a coffee--it's the right price at 17.  It starts out tasting a little weak, so I ask if they can put a little more coffee in.  The dude makes another espresso and pours it into my cup.  Righteous.  It's not a Starbucks after all.  I do go into the very packed Starbucks in People's Park.  Exactly exactly, down to the furniture and cool jazz.  Everyone is feeling very hip, and looking it too.

I come upon a huge line around the block.  It travels around one corner, and then the next. Wow what could this event be?  I turn yet another corner of line and finally get up to the gate.  I ask a Chinese girl what this line is for.  She looks at me at once arrogant and exhausted and looks past me.  It's probably like being at Disneyland and going to the front of the Space Mountain line and asking.  I look and look.  The signs say TransLocalMotion.  It's the Shanghai Biennale.  How cool that people would be lining around and around the block.

That makes the choice simple:  I saunter into the park and head for the Shanghai MOCA.

It's based on the Butterfly Dream of one of my favorite philosophers, the Daoist Zhuang Zi (Do I dream the butterfly, or does the butterfly dream me). After 2 hours in the supercool and momentously thought-provoking exhibit, I exit into the dusk.

On the street, there is an out of town vender selling the hugest, hairiest lychees ever.  I buy 5 for 5 yuan--I can't believe the size of them.

I head down to the Artist Factory on Taikang Rd. to the south...very hip enclave with modern photo galleries and hips snacks.  This whole dot-to-dot hip existence reminds me so much of how Los Angeles works, where there are places that you can find and connect together for an artsy modern 21st century life-- but then you have to piece them together.  They both have these sleek possibilities within the third-world mass.

I head back to the Anting Villa.  I decide when I enter the gate, that I will wave to the saluting dude.  It's a different guy, but he's still standing on his block. I wave and say 'Ni hao' and he doesn't salute, but greets me.

Can't wait to see the VP show and surf through the international channels.  I get a bit obsessed with my 5 lychees and want to photo them in all of their massive hairy beauty.  But all the photos are overexposed and they end up looking like mangy nads.  I take no less than 50 pictures, but cannot capture its beauty.
Cut open, it's just as usual, the fruit was mostly the thick of skin...not as fresh somehow, not as liquid, possibly denser.  Still enjoyable though.
I'm falling asleep an hour into the VP debate, when the show is interrupted to announce that Nancy Pelosi and the Congressmen are about to sign a multi-year contract to sell out the American people in hopes to avoid a world financial crisis.  I turn off the TV and sleep the cadre's sleep.  And I open my eyes to the morning balcony.
I feel blessed.
I wake early cuz the plan is to get to the free breakfast when it first opens at 7am, and then to use the second ticket at 9:45am and eat an, uh, early lunch.

Yes, I am the first one there.  There are 3 big round tables and 3 square tables.  I sit at one of the small tables, close to the buffet and with the widest angle to see the whole room.  

There are both eastern and western breakfast selections.  The jook that I eat every day in Commissary #2, and mini versions of the buns and baos.  There's also chow fun to order and mi-fun soup.  Sausages, bacon, hashed brown potatoes, eggs to order, yogurt, sliced watermelon and cantaloupe, 4 kinds of cereal, whole grain baguette and croissants and cakes, along with juices and the strongest darkest coffee a cig-smoking cadre could ever dream of.

My plan is to eat a western breakfast, and then come back to eat the lettuce and carrots and tomatoes and whole grain baguette that constitute a somewhat salad bar.

I spread the genuine butter on my well-toasted bread and enjoy a sausage with my two eggs and am surprised at how crisp the hashed browns are.  I get a big cup of coffee and feel my blood instantly course.

In walks a Chinese family--parents and a teenage son and daughter.  They immediately take one of the large round tables.  By their accents, you can tell they are from Beijing, with the rounded mouth and the heavy 'arrr' sound.  They immediately load up with piles of food.  The father has the milky moon face and entitled disposition of a ranking official, and the mother with her straight jet black dyed hair and all black sports attire walks in the higher air and instructs her family on everything.  She insists on walking back and forth, surveying the best for her family.  She brings them the second round of eats. The son has a Beijing mullet, which is similar to the Shanghai mullet, except it has a little more perm to it on top, and has a plate of freshly stir-fried fun and boiling bowl of mi-fun brought to him by his mother.  The daughter, portly and hunched continues to eat her heap of food.  The third time the mother gets up to prance over to the table, she secures a full bowl of hashed browns, and as she passes my table, gives me, solo at my small table, a once over and saves enough eye to dismiss me.  She puts the bowl of hashed browns in front of her daughter.

More folks come in to breakfast.  Two older Chinese couples of my parent's set sit in the table next to me.  A solo caucasian business man sits at a large table.  Two ladies come in, one stylish and dressed in a mini-number just a tad short for her age and the other in suburban white pants.  They each get fists full of food and then come over to my table and set their plates down. One sits and the other goes to get their bowls of mi-fun.  Wow.  I'm really western.  What about my space.  They start eating, talking to each other, as if I weren't there.  Not even an acknowledgment.  I go and get three more slices of watermelon, cuz I ain't done yet.  I slowly eat my watermelon, watching them finish their egg and then dig into their fun, and then slurping up their soup fun.  I ask my waiter for another cup of coffee, a half a cup cuz I've already had two of the industrial strength.  I'm holding my ground.  The ladies don't care.  I feel very uptight in my own mind.  But at the same time, I have no need to be friendly, reach out and converse.  Chinese on the spot.

The stylish mini looks for cream for her coffee and tears open a packet of powder.  I tell her there is milk by the cereal (it's actually cream) and she goes over to get it.  When she finishes pouring, I ask to have the pitcher and she pours some into my coffee.  Thank you.  She returns the pitcher as the waiter comes over with a small creamer full of cream.

The Cadre family leaves, leaving many slices of watermelon and cantaloupe on a plate, untold piles of bread, unfinished fun, glasses of juice.  All the hashed browns are gone.

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