Friday, January 13, 2012

Jan 13 2012 - Yet a couple more days in Shanghai

Queue in front of the Pudong Apple Store.
Today must be the iPhone 4S release day
I had lunch near my office on two successive days at HoF, which stands for House of Flour, but it may as well be House of Cocoa. They started as a bakery making artisanal bread, evolving into a cute cafe that serves a lot of things made out of chocolate - shakes, hot cocoa, truffles, torts. I became friendly with the proprietor Brian Tan, who offered his thoughts on pairing drinks with desserts and even which locale of cocoa bean goes with which type of drink.

Fur Hat and Leather Coat convention in
front of the Oriental Pearl Tower ticket booth??
Many of you have heard me complain about Chinese vendors and their inability to think outside the box. Something that happened Wednesday is a perfect example of the Chinese methodology on troubleshooting. During the course of construction, an IT vendor ran ethernet cables to every desk and connected them into jacks. Another construction firm cut those wires in one office. After a week, the user complained to me and I relayed it to the IT vendor. After some investigation, they informed me that the two options were to either (A) rerun the cable at someone's expense (not theirs) or (B) extend the cable. If you extend an ethernet cable and try to pass a computer network through it, it will fail, intermittently and spectacularly. I told them option B is not an option and we'll need to talk to my office manager to have someone agree to pay for option A. Then they said they already gave the options to the office manager and she approved Option B, although it will fail a cable test (this is the vendor telling me they know it will fail the test, but they already suggested it and it was accepted). Are you with me so far? So I asked them to show me the office in question. Within seconds, I could see at least two other solutions: (C) put a small jack against the wall a little further from the desk but still in a good location (they said this isn't feasible), (D) put the jack under the floor in the wiring conduit and then run long network cables to the computer, phone, etc. In the end, this is what we did. The vendor was amazed at the creativity of the solution. How do you teach that kind of thinking to an entire society?

View of The Bund from my hotel room
in honor of my last night in town

Thursday was my one and only opportunity to go shopping and I almost blew it. Time slipped away from me and pretty soon I was arriving at the knock-off market at 7:45pm. I went to a couple of stalls and they pretty much kicked me out for lowballing. At about 7:55 I realized that everything was closing and kicked into high gear. I walked into a scarf store, asked "what do you have for 10 RMB", how many I needed, and walked out a few minutes later with two bags of pashminas. It was the fastest haggle ever. Success! I didn't get a few things I *wanted* but I got everything I *needed* if I want to be allowed back in the office next week.

Hopped on the Metro Line 7, the Bombardier train cars are connected in a way that there is no separation between one car and another, like a reticulated bus. When you're on a straight stretch of track, it seems as if you can see for miles from the back to the front of the train. On my way back on Line 2, I rode an Alstom train that was built the same way. I guess I just never noticed it before!

Shopping done, I treated myself to a new brewpub nearby in Pudong: The Brew at Kerry Hotel. Dugite Vanilla Stout is a masterfully-made milky stout, a little frothy on top like a milkshake. The White Ant is a White Hefeweizen with distinct lemon flavor, also a little airy and frothy. Not light, but airy.

Amazing Australian pint glasses at The Brew
I love being Pescetarian. I may miss out on dishes like the BLT mac n cheese and burgers and all of the pizzas (margherita is too boring) - but now options like salmon skewers with pita and yogurt will leap off the menu and into my lap. It's very exciting!

The beer glasses are custom blown by a glassmaker in Australia. If you ask nicely, they'll let them go for 176 RMB (almost $30). I definitely gave it a lot of consideration -- maybe next time! I've been to most of the brewpubs in Shanghai (Boxing Cat, Bund, two Paulaner's) and this is by far the best. Maybe Pudong is worthy of a second look!

At breakfast, I had my first pulled noodle soup. On Monday, I saw the chef kneading the dough. Tuesday he was pounding it into the table. Wednesday he was cutting in. Thursday he was making some sort of broth. Today I saw one bowl of the final product and jumped at my chance to have it, not wanting to know if it's meat or veggie broth. Of course it doesn't take a week to make pulled noodle soup, but for some reason I kept missing the final product. The anticipation was the best part :P

If you plan your trip properly, you can stop by the knock-off market one last time (it's actually on the way) to use up your loose RMB. I have it down to a science down where I can haggle prices down to the point where I have 6 RMB remaining, enough for a train to the airport maglev station and an ice cream when I get there.

There's a cute model railroad at the Shanghai international airport. I asked if it could move, the attendant explained succinctly "it's bad." Say no more. Their engineers probably tried to extend the cables.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jan 11 2012 - a couple more days in Shanghai

Happened to walk by this restaurant. My friend says it's better
translated as The Capital of Taste, which is a huge improvement.
They should've seeked guidance before making the signs.
Although our office building is the centerpiece of China's new financial district, it could've conceivably been planned better, in particular the elevator. To get to our floor, you have to first take an express elevator to the 30th floor. Then you get off, walk around the corner, and there's another bank of elevators that will take you to the upper floors. It seems ridiculous, but that's not what I'm here to write about today. The crazy thing is there's a guy whose job it is to stand at the corner between the two elevators, wait for people to arrive, usher them around the corner to the other elevator, and press the button while they are walking over. This is mind blowing to me. Every single time.

I wonder what the trade-off was during the architecting process - we could save 1 million RMB in elevator construction costs but we'll have to employ a full-time usher for the life of the building. Sold!

I had a chance to walk around the old neighborhood (French Concession) because I signed up for a yoga class there. Walking around for 30 minutes got me so nostalgic, remembering my first trip to China, friendless, unable to get a taxicab, stuck drudging through the unprecedented snow -- good times! Every visit to China should include an extended stay in the French Concession.

The yoga class was taught by my friend Adele. We did a work project together in 2010 but this was the first time I've seen her in action as a yogi. Adele teaches her classes bilingually in a way that the words flow from her with ease, instructing you in one language and relaxing you in the other. She says sometimes a student will ask if they can record audio of the class because the sound of her voice in English - although they don't understand a word of it - is soothing to them. Whenever Adele would give the instruction in Chinese first, I could see people setting up the pose and then reinforce it with the English instruction - this worked the best for me.

After class, I mentioned that I had never tried "hot yoga" before, it was a first. You should see her reaction! Adele says it wasn't hot yoga, but for some reason the company insists on keeping the studio at 45 degrees. I must've misheard her, or maybe she was joking, because I looked it up later and 45 degrees is CRAZY HOT. Like surface of the Sun hot. Hot yoga usually maxes out at 40 degrees.

Photo taken at 9am. I had to take a few photos before I
got one that showed the sun popping through the smog.
We shared tuna tartare on avocado and stories of travelling and food poisoning. We were out pretty late and the subway had closed, so I had to take a taxi from the old neighborhood to the new neighborhood. The taxi driver got pretty lost near the end, he kept circling the area. I had a paper the hotel gives you to show to taxi drivers, it says "TAXI driver can take you to us easily with the Address in Chinese". Well that turned out not to be the case. I kept pointing "over there" but he refused to believe me. In the end I had to hoof if about half a mile - I'm starting to know Shanghai better than local taxi drivers.

China isn't known for its air quality. Well, I guess it is, but not in a good way. The US, and particularly the city of Los Angeles, have worked tirelessly for decades in order to keep smog at bay. That's what it takes. If China started then, the US would be taking advice from Beijing. Instead, it's the other way around. The US Embassy in Beijing has kept a Twitter feed since 2008 with hourly reports on the air quality as measured at their doorstep (irony note: Twitter is blocked in China). On days when the US reports air quality as "Very Unhealthy" or "Hazardous", the Chinese gov't air quality report has often listed it as a "Blue Sky Day". This came to a head this week when the air quality literally went off the scale at 534 micrograms per cubic meter - there is no name for this level of pollution, so the feed just shows it as "Beyond Index". Beijing announced it as yet another Blue Sky Day. Apparently they were only reporting on particulates 10 microns and smaller, where the US was monitoring for particles smaller than 2.5 microns, which is the accepted standard. Held up to scrutiny, China blinked and they are adopting the 2.5 standard over the next two weeks. Hopefully next they'll be taking corrective measures to reduce pollution. One can hope!

Note: this has been covered equally well in Chinese government-run and foreign newspapers, so you have to at least give them credit for that.

Passed yet another skyscraper under construction, the sign on the lot said "The Respiratory Financial Centre" - it doesn't seem to be a medical center or even a biotech center - I think maybe they were going for something like "a breath of fresh air in the financial centre" or even "breathing new life into the financial centre".

For dinner I caught up with a guy we met on the scuba diving boat in Australia. He gave me the full tour of his office (Google). He couldn't talk much about the Google/China situation, but it's clearly on their minds. I guess I'm taking a page from Olga's book of making friends while traveling and then meeting them in their home countries. It definitely gives you more authentic flavor/texture when you walk the streets with a local. Although he's not originally from Shanghai, but from a coastal town in the Southeast corner of the country. Maybe that's why he liked the dinner at Lost Heaven restaurant - most of my Shanghai coworkers find it too "spicy", which I think means it has too many interesting spices. I've seen them eat "hot" foods like Hunan and Szechuan, but balk at Yunnan cuisine, which I don't find particularly piquant.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Jan 9 2012 - a couple days in Shanghai

Vegetarian breakfast at the Oriental Riverside Hotel
On the first (2 hour) leg from San Francisco to Vancouver, I sat next to management consultant slash venture capitalist. It seemed he was very talkative, but it could've just been because I had stayed up most of the night and all I wanted to do was sleep. I slept through the entire flight from pushing back to wheels down. It's a shame because my neighbor seemed to be an interesting guy: French, living in Walnut Creek CA, residing in Shanghai most of the time. Later we met in passing in Vancouver, on the second leg plane, and at Shanghai passport control. I mentioned that I got a few hours sleep on the last flight and he called me a machine - I like that description - a sleeping machine!

My office has moved to a new neighborhood, not just new to us, but new in existence. I found a great photo (below) of what the neighborhood looked like in 1990 and 2010. The Pudong area around the Huangpu river is being built as a world financial center with massive bridges, tunnels, and 6 subway lines that all popped up during these 20 years (mostly in the past 5). The one thing that hasn't popped up is culture - waking and sleeping in this part of town these past couple of days has me longing for a material other than steel and glass - measured in more than height and RMB - some scrap of authenticity. I'm determined to find it!

Pudong Shanghai in 1990
and the same shot in 2010

I blog a lot about food when I'm on business trips because eating is often all I have time to do outside of work projects. For the past week or two, I have been experimenting with Pescetarianism, and if I can do it in China, the land of chicken feet and duck tongue, I can do it anywhere. In fact, it comes as a huge relief. In the US, where I can identify most meats and avoid the ones I am squeamish about, I find myself not particularly enjoying the ones I DO eat. When I travel, I find myself ordering very carefully and biting with hesitation. So far, eating pescetarian is the easiest thing I have done.

On Monday, the office was going out for sushi lunch and I wasn't able to refuse. I sort of felt like I was pulled in with a tractor beam. By my count, this is my 6th trip to Shanghai and I've been able to avoid sushi every time. In fact, I think I've been able to avoid sushi is most countries, I just don't feel comfortable having sushi while travelling internationally. It was actually a nice restaurant, there were a wide variety of dishes being passed around: all manner of stir fries, hot pots, sushi rolls, udon noodles, and fried rice dishes. The only meat that came up was in a soup - I stealthily ate the cabbage and noodles around some beef and pork. It's 24 hours later and I report no adverse reactions to the sushi!

One odd thing I noticed as we were winding our way through the luxury mall on the way to sushi is that the number of customers per store averaged out to zero. Is the Chinese consumer ready to pay full price for LV bags? Who is this mall even created for? Do these companies want to sell goods - or is it more like a model home? I walked through this mall once in October 2010, so I would think it would've gained traction by now.

South Pole seaweed salad and vanilla tea
For dinner, my coworkers found me a nearby vegetarian restaurant to try. Across the street from the luxury mall, there's the more middle class Super Brand Mall (actual name) with its "New Age Veggie" restaurant. I spent a really long time belaboring all 62 pages of the menu. There were such interesting-sounding things, I'd love to find out how they recreate salmon sashimi (the photo looks amazing), stir-fried spicy veggie kidneys, veggie pork steak with tomato sauce, fried veggie cod fish, veggie shark's fin dumpling. I'm a little disappointed in how boring my choices sound: Mixed seaweed from South Pole, Wild matsutake mushrooms, Rooibos vanilla tea, and chocolate rice pudding. The guy at the next table had the cold marinated veggie abalone, he said it was pretty good, but it looked a little too rubbery for my taste.

It doesn't say so in the menu, but the South Pole seaweed seems to be Szechuan style - at least that's what I'm hoping - it's the only reasonable explanation for why my lips went completely numb while eating it. The seaweed look like black olives that can been cut open by a corkscrew. They taste like rubber that has been marinating in the ocean for awhile. But don't let this dissuade you, they are actually quite tasty!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Jan 2 2012 - Thoughts on a trip to Australia

On the ferry on the way to Manly Beach
A day after celebrating the New Year in Sydney and getting a pretty full night's sleep, we took the ferry to Manly Beach. It's so neat being able to call people in The States from the beach to wish them a happy 2012 and hear their countdown, already having done our own countdown a day earlier and knowing how it will turn out :) And if we wanted, we totally could've flown back to California to experience TWO new years!

Standing room only in the ferry
The ferry and the beach were a complete mob scene, but an extraordinarily well organized one. The line to get on the ferry was around the block, and we were about to give up almost immediately, but then it started moving quickly and most people went to the end instead of butting in. On the boat, we were able to get a seat in the outdoor bow section, gladly getting sprayed a few times in the heat of the summer.

Great crowd on New Years Day
The Sydney beach scene was pretty crazy. You are allowed to swim only between the yellow/red checkered flags that are a few meters apart. Outside of that, the incoming waves and outgoing riptide are too dangerous and the lifeguard, in this case the Manly Council Lifeguard Service, aren’t watching. Even within that protected area, swimming is a full-contact sport, jumping over or diving under the super powerful waves that come in constantly, and avoiding the body surfers and their boogie boards.

Maybe a short nap before swimming...
While carefully swimming (alternating between standing in shallow water and jumping above 2 meter high waves) between the red/yellow safety flags, up popped a Court Jester out of nowhere. He was wearing a red and yellow striped beanie cap, identically uniformed shirt, funny old-timey sunglasses, and his face was painted white with zinc sunblock. He asked if everyone was ok - I was stunned for a moment and wondered if it was a weird costume contest or a candid camera trick - but moments later regained my composure and let him know everything was ok. Keeping the waters baffled for all Australians.

Manly has a wonderful foot wash... but
for some reason the fountains have randomly
changing heights so you're sure to get soaked
Australians use the word heaps, well, heaps. "Save Heaps" some holiday sale signage displayed. "That was heaps of fun" and "I've had heaps of those" I've often heard. It's a curious word that is completely understandable, but I'd never before found myself in a situation where I needed to use it. It seems to be analogous to "a ton". Perhaps Australia's connection to both the U.S. and U.K. make "a ton" confusing as you don't know if you like something a metric ton or a conventional ton. I like Australia one metric heap.

Darling Harbour on our last day
Sunday night our friend John took us out to dinner and I tried two more Australian beers. Redback, started as a small batch Western Australian brewery in 1989, is an easy drinking beer similar to Anchor Steam. It's named after a poisonous black spider with a red stripe on its back that hangs out under outhouse seats, waiting to sting unsuspecting preoccupied patrons. It certainly tastes better than it sounds!

A closer view...
I also tried Carlton Black, mass-produced but entirely decent Dark Ale style beer. I would say it's the instant coffee of dark beers: available everywhere, dark and strong aroma, but it's not going to change your day. Ironically, due to recent mergers, both beers (along with about 95% of beers we saw this trip) are produced by SABMiller group. Since we're on the subject of Australian alcohol, we did try a good sampling of Australian wines (mostly Shiraz). We went in knowing a good bit about West Coast U.S. Appellations/varietals, but on a short visit we were unable to figure out how to map it to Australian wine-growing regions. Next trip, we'll certainly do more formal wine touring/tasting. If anybody has any Australian wine advice, please let me know, I'd love to get a head start on the research :)  I wonder if there's a shortage of natural cork in Australia -- 95% of wines we saw, including the really nice-nice ones, had screwtops. Maybe they save it for the exports!

Somebody's not happy about leaving Australia
John told us that voting in Australia is mandatory - not voting will get you fined. This dramatically changes the landscape of democracy as people with little interest or on the fence will probably vote moderate - and campaigns have to devote a considerable portion of their resources to the apathetic.

At the Sydney Int'l Airport observatory deck
Nobody asked, but I'll tell you anyway: we did have a Vegemite sandwich on the OceanQuest reef ship. Their kitchen was stocked with the infamous Australian vegetable extract, and we spread a thin layer on bread, which I think is all you need to officially call yourselves Australians. We even brought some back with us, so invite yourself on over, we'll just smile and give you a vegemite sandwich...

Olga has posted her thought on the trip as well