Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chocolate, beer, massage? Shanghai can accomodate | Sept 13 2010

Last day in Shanghai, worked until 8pm to get things wrapped up before the return trip. Upon leaving the office, I noticed a bit of commotion in a small park next door. Went across the street to change and drop off my stuff. Popped back out to the park to see what the commotion was about. I don't know if this is a weekly organized event or a spontaneous flash mob, but there were about 20 couples waltzing in the park.

PHOTO: WALTZING IN A PARK

At this point, after 3 years of business trips to Shanghai, I have walked pretty much every street near the hotel and office. Having no dinnerer plans, I picked a street I hadn't explored in awhile and set off. To my delight, there is an amazing dark chocolate truffle store called Awfully Chocolate that's just steps from the hotel/office! They have a 3-piece minimum, which I was happy to accommodate!

For my last night in Shanghai, I wanted a nice relaxing evening, so I swung by the Paulaner brewpub in the French Concession. It's funny because, although I stop by a Paulaner brewpub maybe once a year, I always go out of my way to order something different from the menu, and every time the food arrives I'm dumbfounded when I realize I managed to pick the one thing I have picked every time before. Mediocre meatloaf and a half liter of dunkles bier with a side of deja vu all over again. Still, this accidental routine is a nice comforting way to end a whirlwind trip to Shanghai. And what can be more relaxing than capping it off with a late-night massage at the Oasis Club?

PHOTO:  MY PLANE STARING BACK AT ME

In the morning, I was running a little too late to comfortably take public transport to the airport, but I figured it was worth the risk. As a train and airplane enthusiast, what could possibly be more fun than to the magnetically levitate to the airport? Take #1 metro to People's Square. Transfer to #2 metro to Longyang Road. Transfer to Maglev to Pudong Airport. The train was quickly accelerating until it suddenly topped out at 301 km/h - it felt like the train could've gone faster, but was artificially constrained for safety reasons. Let’s crank it up, I wanna see how fast this baby can fly.

I had packed a little haphazardly and apparently three items in my carry-on should've been in my check-in: matches that have been in my bag for most of a decade, a nice lighter I bought at the knock-off market (it's completely empty and needs butane, how much harm can it do?), and my favorite screwdriver (am I gonna start dismantling the plane?). They assure me I will see my screwdriver again if I return in time. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

PHOTO: FETCH THE COMFY CHAIR

Due to an airplane equipment change (from 747-400 to 747), I discovered at check-in that my seat no longer exists. Luckily, there was one seat left, although it had no legroom, no window, no place to stow my carry-on, a fold-up tray table, and a magazine and headphone rack that was practically in my lap (my neighbors had to reach through me to get them). Not fun. But I still had one piece of Awfully Chocolate truffle to get me through the journey. My neighbor seemed to enjoy his ridiculously abundant (really) legroom as he stretched out and played Angry Birds and Plants vs Zombies on his iPad the entire 10-hour flight. You couldn't pay me enough to waste an hour playing those games. But I'd entertain a serious offer :)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Shanghai, what's your final best price? | Sept 12 2010

This was the first (and only for this trip) morning I didn't have to work, so I wanted to walk to a nice breakfast outside the hotel. As I was getting ready, the sudden downpour was disheartening, but it didn't - it couldn't - dissuade me. Yesterday I asked my friend if it's safe to get wet in the rain - or is there a dangerous acid rain problem. He told me an ancient Chinese proverb: if a woman gets wet in the rain, she will be fertile. I asked - what about men? He replied that, after it has been raining for an hour, the acid should be gone and you'll be safe. Just to be on the safe side, I donned my jacket and baseball cap.

I asked the hotel bellman for directions to a brunch place I had visited on my last trip in February. He twice tried to flag me a cab, both times I stopped to explain that I want directions to go on foot. He checked out what I was wearing, and then smiled understandingly "ahhh North Face, he will protect you." I love the Chinese instinct to personify everything. His directions were perfect, but in retrospect perhaps I was 'overprotected' - just the umbrella would've been fine.

After brunch, I asked the same bellman for advice on what to do. From his list: sightseeing bus, art museum, wax museum, Expo, shopping at the knock-off center, the last one piqued my interest. I had been there briefly and wanted to explore further. Changed into lighter clothes, course plotted, away I went.

I did end up buying two pairs of jeans: one high quality knockoff and one lower quality knockoff. Although a great "value" if you consider what I paid for allegedly Armani and Diesel brand jeans, if you consider that they won't last very long - and that I could've bought 1 pair of Gap jeans that would last several years for what I paid for these two, I'm not sure it will pay off. In the meantime, we'll see if anybody is impressed with my soon to be short-lived Armani-ish.

The only easy/painless negotiation was - while I was waiting for my jeans to be hemmed - I popped into a luggage stall to see what the options were. After recent issues getting Samsonite / American Tourister to honor their 10-year warranties, I figured how bad could a fake Samsonite be? Well, the difference is that the zippers on the fake luggage break in the store rather than after several years of use. When I stated I wanted a higher quality product, he said "oh you want Tumi" or "You'll like Samsonite." When everything is an inferior copy, the whole concept of brand=quality is silly. It might have a similar aesthetic design to a known brand, and have copious labels/tags, but that's where the similarity ends.

Although I was curious, I didn't even bother to ask the price, knowing that once you win the negotiation, you're expected to buy it. On my way out, unprovoked, he quoted 180 RMB (about $25) for either of two suitcases I liked. That's about 1/4 the US price, I guess. Will it last 1/4 as long? What's the risk when it breaks mid-trip? Still, the lack of negotiation was refreshing.

As I was leaving the knock-off mall and crossing the street, the man in front of me almost had his "leather" shoulder bag driven over when the shoulder strap broke off. He and his group just kept walking, completely unphased that one of their several new bags needed to be repaired or trashed.

Continued my walk to the Bund and this time I did make it all the way from my hotel to the Bund. Stopped for a beer at The Bund Brewery, then turned around to return. Passed by a group of 3 very friendly 20-something Chinese folks - 2 guys and a lady - who were very inquisitive about what I'm doing in China, how Americans feel about China, what sights I have seen, etc. Initially this caught me off guard as the only Chinese folks who stop me while walking are pairs of 2 young ladies who want to know "where are you going?" "where are you from?" "are you here alone?" These three seemed nice enough - although the ladies were friendly too - so I put myself on alert level yellow. They were on their way to buy tickets to an acrobatic show (two of them are visiting from Xi'an) and wondered if I wanted to join them. I didn't want to see the show, but I was curious about the process. We went into a small room in an unmarked building in a dark alley. We were seated at a table that seats 4 - it had cups kettles and jars of tea leaves on it. After they bought their tickets and I explained I would prefer to see it with my wife and coworkers, they asked if I would like to participate in a tea ceremony. They were going to do it, and besides, I had been wondering what I would do tonight. The tea menu came out and I selected a tea that was listed at 68 RMB (about $10) - seemed reasonable for an interesting experience - and medium-priced compared to my new friends. I was keeping an eye on safety - to make sure nothing is slipped into my tea etc. The tea ceremony itself was neat - there were many traditions explained and fancy flourishes. When the ceremony was over, the server explained that they are only serving tea - this is still a ticket agency mind you - while the expo is in session, and as it's ending soon, they are starting to sell some to take home. I didn't particularly want to take any home, but my friends encouraged me to do so "oh the box is free when you buy the tea!" they excitedly discovered. This was when my guard went up to alert level orange, but I didn't want to rock the boat too much. There was a fair amount of peer pressure from these three friendly folks to buy the tea, so I selected the smallest box of one style we had during the ceremony: "4 beauties" which is comprised of four flowers and it blossoms when hot water is added. Then the bill arrived: between 590-640 RMB per person, mine being the slightly lower side. This included the teas we sampled, the ceremony, a sitting fee, tea snacks (tea-crusted peanuts and pumpkin seeds), and the to-go tea. And no, they don't take credit cards. Again my new "friend" was more than eager to loan me the money until we hit an ATM. Once I had repaid him, I parted their company as quickly and safely as possible. This is one friendship I could not afford.

PHOTO CAPTION: There are so many scam artists on this pedestrian section of East Nanjing Road in Shanghai, I let subtly video roll for just seconds before I captured this one starting to work on me.

So I paid $85 for a small box of tea and a funny story. It's the most I have paid for anything in Shanghai - ever - unless you include business lunch for 3 at the Peninsula Hotel. I walked back to my hotel to complete the loop, a little bit lighter in the pocket and a little bit wiser. I guess it could've been worse. There are stories online of people getting bilked $150 - $500 for these tea ceremony scams.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Many patience in Shanghai | Sept 11 2010

Today I was working at a very upscale hotel. No, I'm not a prostitute if that's what you're wondering from these posts, although you're not too far off. When I was finished and walked toward the elevator to leave, I found the staff so overly helpful that it caught me a bit off guard. Then when I got down to the lobby, they almost attacked me with offers to assist my departure. I don't remember anybody offering to help me enter or find my way to my destination inside the hotel. The cynic in me found this overabundance of assistance upon my departure to be unwelcoming, although obviously it had the opposite intention. The collective power of the hotel will do whatever it takes to get me out of it.

This first Apple Store in China opened this month and I stopped by. It's strange, reminiscent of any US Apple Store circa 2008. No iPad. No iPhone 4. No new iPod touch. A local techie friend says it's because the Chinese government hasn't approved the WiFi module in these new devices yet. But while they perform thoroughly exemplary testing procedures, devices are flooding in from the US, Europe, and even Hong Kong, which doesn't have the same regulatory body. It seems the government would have much better control over the devices if they approved them for sale and controlled various settings, apps, etc. But the way it is now, they are coming through "grey market" channels completely unfiltered.

In the afternoon, I was riding around with my IT friend and we passed numerous "Uncles" directing the flow of traffic - they are out in full force for the World Expo 2010 Shanghai. I mentioned something about the Uncles - his mother's brothers - and my friend remarked that they are OUR mother's brothers. The collective people have a mother's brother who keeps an eye out for us. Very cute.

We had lunch at a fast-ish food joint with cuisine from Northwestern China. I had a beef soup with hand-pulled noodles, washed down with rice porridge; we shared lightly pan fried potato strips and boiled wontons on the side. When digging into the wontons, my friend wished me "many patience" as they are filled with boiling hot liquid - it's a sort of inside-out soup as the broth is inside of the noodle. Later we were chatting about the high price of food in the restaurants of the hotels where I have been working, and my friend remarked that their "knives are very sharp" -- sharp enough to cut your food and your wallet. I love these expressions, they paint the picture so vividly. Towards the end of the day, when we were discussing going to an antique market, he again warned me many patience, to which I replied that their knives are sharp!!

The day ended abruptly at this point because I decided to take a short nap before dinner, and woke up at 3am the next day. oops!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Shanghai | Yunnan gonna believe this | Sept 10 2010

It always surprises people - including myself - that I can troubleshoot technologies I don't even know better than people who have built their careers in that field. I troubleshoot better than you ** Maybe not quicker, but better. Get used to it. Case in point, my first night in Shanghai, I was awoken around 1:30am by what I can only describe as a single beep. By the time I woke up (this can be measured in milliseconds), it had stopped. Quickly I fell asleep again, only to be awoken by a very loud but short beep about an hour later. What the?? Did I hear that on my left or my right? Where did it come from? About another 45 mins later when it happened again, I moved the battery-operated alarm clock to the furthest part of the room. About a half hour later I moved the tv remote. Another half hour later I cursed and cranked up the A/C hoping to drown out the next beep. An hour later I tried to pretend I didn't hear it. The last thing I wanted to do was get dressed, turn on the lights, call, and wait for the graveyard shift engineering department to tear the room apart. In the morning, after I eventually had to do those things anyway in order to go to work, I called in an engineering request. In the evening when I returned home, there were no notes or any sign that anybody had been there. I changed to get ready to go to dinner, and stopped by the front desk to check on the status of my beep diagnostic inquiry. They told me to go back to my room and wait for an engineer. When you're hungry and tired, the last thing you want to do is wait for engineering. But the really last thing you want is to hear a beep at 1:30 in the morning. So I waited. Eventually engineering called - they had searched my room but didn't find the beep. Did they check the thermostat? "Not sure, but I can't have my engineer wait around an hour for a beep". Have you ever heard of this happening before? Could it be the tv? "Has it happened now while you were waiting in your room?" No but it only occurred between 1:30am and 5:30am. "I'm sorry sir, just call back if it happens again". Dammit!
Before bed, I searched under the bed, inside all the drawers, thinking somebody left behind a cell phone or battery-operated device. Nothing. Then I called in my wake-up call, and a few seconds after hanging up, heard something you would agree is a beep. It's not the ring the phone makes when you're getting your wake-up call. Apparently this phone also has a beeping device of some kind. Friends, I really wanted to know if this was the same beep, so I went to bed just as I did the night before. At around the same time, I got the same beep! Unplugging the phone and throwing it on the floor was not only satisfying, but also stopped any further beepage. In the morning, I swapped phones with one on the other end of the room because if I'm gonna school this hotel on how to track down beeps, I want to be able to tell them if it's the phone or the phone line. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion from beep central!

In this blog, I'm purposely not discussing my work - the business part of this business trip - but I do want to point out one thing. My entire company - all 50 of us - some more than others - have been working tirelessly for over a year to produce something in China that absolutely needs to succeed. In the end, it would have all fallen apart if I didn't drink a beer today. My buying a Carlsberg beer in a bar in Shanghai saved the whole project. I'm just sayin.

Today work wrapped up at 7pm on the lounge floor of a restaurant and lounge. If it sounds like all I do during my work and personal time is go to bars and restaurants, you're not too far off! My mouth was watering from the smells wafting from the kitchen and I couldn't wait to wrap up. It didn't take long to decide where to eat: one floor down at a Yunnan folk cuisine restaurant. It was a really spectacular experience, from the Yunnan vegetable spring rolls to the Miao Tribe prawns to the Yunnan pu-erh tea. Even the bathroom was a labrynth. A++

Tonight I decided to walk home from The Bund. I had a rough idea which direction the hotel was, and just started walking. I can tell you this recent phenomenon of bang ye is absolutely true. I passed no less than 6 older and somewhat bulbous Asian gentlemen with their shirts pulled up. And that's without looking around. 6 literally walked right past me.

Passed signage for a mall including 3rd floor Pearls City, 4th floor Porcelain Expo, and not to be outdone now or ever, 6th floor Future Store!! This I had to see! Took the escalator up to the 4th floor, walked up to the 5th, and asked around about the mysterious 6th floor. "6 floor closed" I was told. Apparently the future store is so exclusive you need either climbing gear or a time machine to get there. Stay tuned, I'll check on the continuing developments of this one.

Passed by Chamate, a sit-down tea restaurant invested in by my firm. Popped in to pick up some tea to bring home, but they no longer seem to sell their own brand of packaged tea. Decided to bring home a moon cake in honor of the mid-autumn festival that is coming up. There was a delay while they picked it up from their secret central kitchen located, apparently, 15 minutes away. Received a complementary palate cleanser (room temperature brown water) that the waiter confirmed is for drinking when I made a motion pretending to drink it and he nodded approvingly. As a follow-up to a blog post in 2008, some of my faithful readers will be able to sleep better tonight now that this has been solved once and for all.

Due to the hordes, the people watching, the Future Store detour, and the moon cake... after 2 hours I looked on a map saw I had covered only 10 blocks out of 30. Again with just a vague idea of where the hotel was, I boarded a metro train and was back at the hotel within minutes.

** somebody should contact Thinkgeek or CafePress and have a t-shirt made up

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shanghai days, Shanghai nights: Sept 9 2010

Yesterday on the plane, I sat next to a woman whose husband had just relocated to China, and she was checking it out herself. He is a commercial airplane pilot, hired by a new Chinese charter vacation airline. Apparently they are looking for experienced pilots from the US, Germany, and Jamaica (yes I believe that's what she said) to command planes and also demonstrate leadership to the young, inexperienced flight crews. she knew little about China (she was asking where to go to see the statues of those men) and I shared a few tourist-helpful tips I have collected.

Shanghai has become my home away from home. This is my second of three scheduled visits for this year, which is more than I have visited family, friends, in-laws -- any other person or place in 2010. Shanghai is like the kids of my childhood friends - growing and maturing between visits. You are so much taller and hotter (it is late summer after all) than last I visited. You drive like a maniac... and when did you start drinking wine???

Tonight I walked around an area recommended by a business partner. It was mostly shopping, a few cute little shops with girly trinkets (infinite permutations on Hello Kitty and Paul Frank kind of stuff). Eventually I realized I was feeling a bit sluggish. I have a cure for jetlag, so it couldn't be that - I must either be hungry or dehydrated. I quickly stopped in the first friendly restaurant I saw, not minding that it's a French bistro. There was a mix of people speaking French and English (no Chinese dialects that I noticed). Shortly after I sat down, a young lady sat at the next seat and started speaking Spanish with the staff. It turns out she arrived in Shanghai from Madrid 3 days ago to study high-level Chinese, length of stay indefinite.

A young waiter asked what I'm doing in the country, and after hearing that I work in IT, he perked up (from his already very perky self) and started asking me how to access Facebook from China. The Spanish linguist at the next table added that the waiter had openly made derogatory comments about the government and was longing for Chinese democracy -- I don't think he was referring to the Guns'N'Roses album. She continued that this is very rare and he is a special person. The waiter and I exchanged email addresses, and I promised to try to answer his many questions. I wonder if his curiosity and openness are consistent of this current generation of kids in China.

When I was well into my main course, the inquisitive waiter motioned to ask if he could take away my complimentary bread basket, and I obliged. Moments later, he returned with two mostly empty entree plates and proceeded to pile the leftover bread and the two partial plates of food together while hovering over my table. I was supremely curious to see what was happening. Finally I saw him take the combined plate out to the street and give it to an elderly woman. There should be more of that in this world. In the US, when you're told to finish your plate because there are starving people in China, here it actually makes sense to not finish your plate.

**BREAKING NEWS** See comment section for an update on this random act of kindness.

Back in Shanghai! Sept 8 2010

The flight was like a 12-hour mini vacation: slept, watched movies, read, slept some more, wined and dined. The highlight was supposed to be watching Iron Man 2, but of course I closed my eyes for a moment waiting for it to start, and missed most of it. But that made me all the more productive later catching up on some long-procrastinated reading and emailing.

A friend picked me up at the airport and we began the more-than-1-hour trek through rush-hour traffic from the airport to my hotel. I must've looked quite silly wearing a North Face autumn jacket - it is autumn after all and I did just come from San Francisco and then a flying meat locker - but in Shanghai it won't be necessary for a couple more months. At one point, when we were passed by a police car that was dodging between lanes at a high rate of speed, my friend exclaimed "he's going to find his grampa" - I love that expression, which basically translates to meeting your maker! Later when we passed more cops attending to a car accident, he referred to them as uncles - the Shanghainese nickname for cops translates surprisingly specifically to your "mother's brother".

Close to the hotel, we passed what looked like interesting streets with cafes and people and shops, and I made a mental note to return later. After checking in, I wandered around a bit, and this being my third time staying in this part of town, did manage to find that same neighborhood again. By 8pm it was still in the low 80's and about 50% humidity, but I rather enjoyed stumbling around and looking for nothing in particular. The nothing I ended up finding was a chocolate brownie and some miniature pig's ears (palmiers). Tomorrow I'll try for more authentic local treats, although who's to say the Chinese didn't invent brownies??