Monday, September 08, 2014

Getting in cars with strangers, or: "Come for the music, stay for the turtle"

While my trip last week to Shanghai and Hangzhou did not mark my first steps into Mainland China this year, it was my first legal foray into the mainland this year (see previous post about accidentally crossing the border into Zhuhai a few weeks ago). My dear friend and former fellow State Department intern at the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou last summer, Haley, is the winner of a Fulbright Scholarship and is currently undertaking intensive Mandarin language training in Harbin, China, right now. We had talked for a while about meeting somewhere in China while we were both here, and her fall break was the perfect opportunity—however, as her language program is located in far northern China (Harbin is known for its ice festival and beer, if that gives you a sense of how north we’re talking) and I have been basking in sub-tropical Hong Kong, we had to find a way to literally meet in the middle. [Sadly, that meant staying in a yurt and riding horses in inner Mongolia was off the table this time.] 

After careful consideration and purposeful deliberation [read: cracking jokes over Skype] we ultimately settled on Shanghai—neither one of us had spent time there, it’s a major global city and center of culture, and it’s also within striking distance of the smaller but culturally significant lower-tier cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. Also, tickets were cheapest—what’s not to love? We bought flights, booked a room for the first two nights, and figured we were set. Things went mostly smoothly until I boarded my flight from Hong Kong, emotionally prepared myself for takeoff, and then heard the announcement: “There are four flights to Shanghai in front of ours—we will be delayed until further notice.” I silently gave thanks that the flight time was just two hours and not fifteen—and after sitting for two hours on the tarmac and watching the grown man next to me cry very audibly at the live-action film “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” things went off without any further hitch. 

Haley and I reunited at the airport, and eagerly anticipated a week of putting our Mandarin to the test while fumbling around Shanghai, as well as the common phenomenon of being mistaken for twins. We resemble each other inasmuch as we are both fair with bangs, brownish hair, and have incredible senses of humor (aka we are quite self-amused) but that’s probably where the resemblance ends. [Yet, as predicted, I quickly lost track of the number of times we were asked if we were sisters.] As for the Mandarin—while there were certainly many moments where I has no idea what was being said (partially because Shanghai and Hangzhou have their own separate dialects in addition to Mandarin), after a month of constant Cantonese, hearing Mandarin around me felt like I had had the mufflers taken off my ears, or perhaps like I had emerged from an aquarium of ignorance. Either way, it was refreshing to feel like my years of Mandarin language study weren't entirely for naught. 
Shanghai's Jingan Temple
On our first night in Shanghai, we caught up with Wilson, my high school classmate who spent a year of high school living in China and since then has basically never left. The last time I had seen him was two years ago in Beijing, and it was great to hear about his current endeavors in China--launching a pie and taco business aptly named "Rager Pie" out of Beijing. We went with him and a few of his friends at a variety of nighttime venues, most memorably "Shelter," an actual underground bomb shelter that has been converted into a bar and music stage. They have done nothing to alter its appearance, and the atmosphere became even more authentic when a fuse blew and the electricity went out, killing the too-loud music and leaving only the emergency floodlights. We all thought it was an improvement, and enjoyed shooting the breeze (and occasionally letting out a blood-curdling scream) in the darkened tunnels.
In the tunnels of "Shelter"
Whatever we were looking for those first few days, we didn't find it as we wandered Shanghai's wide streets and monolithic public squares. Part of the problem is that Haley and I hadn't put any time into researching what exactly we should be doing in Shanghai, and our tactic of "just showing up" in various parts of the city had so far only gotten us hulking financial skyscrapers and dingy alleyways. So, we decided to apply the technique elsewhere, and booked high speed train tickets to Hangzhou, a second tier city known for its scenic West Lake and tea fields. We checked into our hostel that evening and then wandered around the area, encountering a handful of temples that had closed for the day, a bunch tables of elderly people playing card games, and no lake. Feeling depleted and defeated, we went for blind massage, and then on the suggestion of our masseuses went for dinner to Hangzhou's "Food Street," a street that becomes a pedestrian road full of open air tables and stalls where you can select your own meats, vegetables, seafoods, and insects to be cooked before your eyes. Although the chef at the roadside stand we chose to patronize was very chatty, Haley secretly condemned the fish with Hangzhou specialty sauce he had pushed on us: "I'm pretty sure that's just barbecue sauce."
Selfie at a closed temple in Hangzhou.... 
This man did not move an inch for the entire while we observed him

Hangzhou's "Food Street" by day

Hangzhou sunset

"Food Street" by night
Bug skewers for a late-night snack, anyone?
As we walked back toward our hostel, searching for something to cleanse our palettes of the Hangzhou BBQ sauce, I heard a sound that had recently become quite familiar--the mournful wail of an amplified erhu. As I've become somewhat of an erhu homing pigeon as of late, I insisted we discover the source of the sound, expecting it would be a souvenir shop blasting a traditional music soundtrack. Instead, we stumbled upon an ensemble of Chinese instrument players set up outside a restaurant patio, putting on an informal concert for the small group of bystanders who had stopped to listen. We stopped to listen to them, and they invited us to sit down and have some tea while enjoying the music. Turns out they were some of Hangzhou's top musicians. I explained to them that I am a violinist studying Chinese music and a new erhu student, and they enthusiastically told me that if I came back the following evening they would bring a violin for me to play. They also invited us for some outing the following morning (this was all happening in Mandarin, and Haley and I didn't really catch much besides "seeing our former teacher,"going up to the mountain," and "family reunion"). We didn't really know what was going on, but figured we would show up and try to get more details before committing. 

Our new pals jamming out

When we met them the next morning, they had already loaded up a car with instruments. There  was no time for deliberation: "Come on! Get in!" We had no idea where they were going, or even their names, but against all common sense, we got in. I don't know what it was--a mutual trust forged by shared musical interests? Two hours later, we were driving through a rural village well outside of the city and without paved roads, fairly certain we were going to die there, when we started following a seventy-year-old man on a motorized tricycle--back to his house. Turns out he was the musicians' former music teacher and a quite well-known performer in his day. They make a pilgrimage to visit him each year, and we just so happened to catch this one. The old teacher's house was full of photos and instruments from his performing days, art and artifacts from bygone dynasties, valuable rocks and minerals--truly a live-in museum. He and his wife served a heaping feast in honor of the visit, telling us that they had slaughtered a cow and a chicken especially for this meal, and that the cuisine was particular to their village ("You won't find this food anywhere else!") After the hours-long meal, the musicians pulled out their instruments and played with their old teacher and his grandson, and some of their wives sang along in the traditional, extremely nasal and high pitched, style. They encouraged Haley and I to sing along, but we resorted to smiling and nodding--yes, we had been daring up to that point, but we drew the line at singing high-pitched regional Chinese songs whose lyrics and melodies we didn't know. After more show and tell ("There are over 100 types of flowers in my garden, and I planted every single one!" the old teacher declared, showing us his scrapbook) we took a family photo and parted ways (although the musicians did say that if I liked it so much, I could stay in the village forever...) 

Out in the boonies of Qingshan, outside of Hangzhou

Traditional Chinese bed covered in other relics in the old teacher's home

"L'Chaim!" At least I think that's what they said...
Post-lunch music hour(s)
Checking out the old teacher's scrapbook of his flowers 
After all of the excitement of the day, we finally arrived back to the original Hangzhou restaurant where we met the musicians. Haley and I were eager to return to our hostel and reflect on the day's adventure--when the musicians told us they were treating us to dinner. They sat us back outside in front of the restaurant, and pulled out a large cardboard box containing an enormous tortoise. The purposefully-slaughtered cow and chicken (as well as snails) at lunch had already tested my culinary limits--and now a tortoise? They had taken the tortoise out of the box and put it out on the ground next to their token foreigners, and a small crowd was gathering to ogle all of the bizarre creatures how sitting outside the restaurant. 
"Are you going to cook this turtle?" I timidly enquired. 
"No, this turtle is too old to eat!" I guess it should have been obvious. "This turtle is 300 years old. Won't taste good."
Toi-tle gets a rare moment out of the box
The food was finally ready, but there was a final hurdle: "No dinner until you play violin." They handed me a violin and set up a microphone. So that was the time I put on an impromptu concert in a Hangzhou public square. The program was unconventional, in a word: Edelweiss, Ashokan Farewell, a virtuosic Kriesler piece, some solo Bach, "Meditation" from Thaïs, a Chinese piece I learned on erhu...after running through this bizarre selection, the musicians ruled that I had played enough for the meal. By this time we had spent over twelve hours with these people (whose names we still didn't know, I will remind you). Haley and I were fried after a day of nonstop Chinese music jam sessions ("This is what purgatory must be like," she moaned) and so excused ourselves at earliest opportunity. It was absolutely amazing and surreal day--and by that point we had just hit our limit for overwhelming and unbelievable adventures.
A thirteen-year-old girl we befriended in Hangzhou snapped this shot of me in the midst of my
impromptu pre-dinner violin spectacular
The rest of our time in Hangzhou and Shanghai was punctuated by other highlights: having a cup of tea in a teahouse in the middle of the famous Longjing tea fields, having a cup of tea in a beautiful patisserie in Shanghai's old French Concession, having a cup of something slightly stronger on top of a Shanghai skyscraper overlooking the city skyline (in case you haven't picked up on it, the theme is "beverages with a view.") [cue possibly too many photos of tea fields]

Haley is all 'tea-ed' up
Longjing tea fields

One huge highlight for me was visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, an unofficial, albeit government-sanctioned, hidden museum in the basement of an apartment building. It's a private collection of over 6000 propaganda posters from 1930s to the 1990s; it also includes original "large character posters" used to criticize intellectuals, landowners, and other accused opponents of the Cultural Revolution as well as "Shanghai Lady" advertisements from the first half of the twentieth century (advertisements for luxury products featuring elegant Chinese women painted in an art deco influenced style). It's the only exhibit of its kind in China (and the world, I believe)--the posters are particularly rare because, if I remember correctly, Deng Xiaoping banned the production of propaganda posters in the 90s. It was fascinating to see the artistic styles become less cartoonish and themes of the propaganda evolve over the years--the posters reflect political purges, regional relations, and the shifting focus of domestic policies. There were a handful that called for the Chinese people to "Support the struggle of black people against American imperialism" in the years leading up to the civil rights movement in the U.S., and others that encouraged the Chinese people to work hard with to surpass Britain within a decade. Pictures were not allowed in the exhibit, but I did pick up a lovely postcard of a scene from The Red Detachment of Women, an opera/musical show created by Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Qing. It was one of the eight "model plays" permitted to be performed during the Cultural Revolution, and bizarrely infuses Communist ideology with Western orchestral and dance elements. But it's gorgeous in it's own way, no?
Entrance to the elusive Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre

Scene from the Red Detachment of Women
The only downside of the trip was having to deal with terrible air and aggressive mosquitoes, which tore up my lungs and legs. I am currently combatting "secondhand smoker's lung" with herbal medicine while furiously applying very pungent Tiger Balm to my lower limbs--so I'm feeling a bit worse from the wear from the trip, and have the newfound ability to clear a subway car with my hacking cough. It's a huge shame, but I really don't think I can spend any more time in major Chinese cities  (Shanghai, Beijing, even Guangzhou) because of the intense pollution. (Hong Kong can have its polluted moments as well, but this summer it's been lovely, albeit hot and muggy.) I'm a bit worried about my next stop, Urumqi, which has historically been notorious for its bad air quality from burning coal--but I think they've worked to clean it up a bit? I guess can't really know until I'm there. I will say, it was such a relief to fly back into Hong Kong from Shanghai and descend onto the islands from a clear blue sky.
Shanghai skyline at night