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Haircut, Tongli Style

As if in direct contrast to my recent haircut in a swanky Chinese salon in Shanghai, Matt decided to go to a canal-side street barber while we were in Tongli. He was a very kindly fellow with a fancy comb-over, and he only charged 30 yuan ($5) for a wash, cut and blow-dry. First of all he took great care washing Matt’s head over an enamel basin using a small scrubbing brush and a cake of soap, then after blowing his 4mm long hair dry, cut and clippered it with great speed, care and precision.

Despite the worrying arrangement of piggy-backed powerpoints and cords going everywhere, no electrocutions occurred during clippering, and Matt walked away with hair exactly 2mm shorter than before, and a head smelling like carbolic. 

Tongli Water Town

We escaped Shanghai this weekend for Tongli – a beautiful water town just an hour and a half away. Everyone who visits Shanghai for more than a few days wants to see a water town and they are all equally charming as a day trip. But the real beauty of Tongli lies in the fact that it is just a little further from Shanghai than the others, so it attracts slightly fewer visitors, and after the day-trippers go home in the afternoon you can have the place to yourself.  


The ancient village of Tongli was built around a maze of small canals, and connected with the Grand Canal linking Hangzhou and Beijing. Everyday life centres around the canals now just as it did then, with clothes being washed, fish being caught and ducks being plucked and gutted by the water’s edge.


In the afternoon’s soft sunlight you can wander lazily along the many canals, drink some oolong tea then stop for a delicious dinner at any of the outdoor restaurants lining the canals. By the light of a red lantern you can appreciate the local specialty – Wansan pork. I am embarrassed to say I ate it three times in less than thirty-six hours. It’s a pork shank cooked slowly in a sweet aromatic soy braise until the meat is ready to fall off the bone, and it is best savoured whilst also enjoying an ice-cold tsingtao beer as the stars come out and the oars of the pleasure boats dip quietly in and out of the water.

Haircut, Shanghai Style

OK girls, imagine this nightmare scenario – you are plonked into a foreign city for a year with no hairdresser who speaks your language, and it’s now 3 months since your last haircut. Aaaagh! What to do? At the point of desperation you are relieved to discover that English-speaking hairdressers do exist in Shanghai, however you have to make an appointment to see them 28 months in advance, and they will charge you the equivalent of a years’ worth of Cherry Ripes to cut your hair. And a colour? About the same price as a plasma TV, or 10 years of Chinese lessons.

So it becomes obvious – you are going to have to find a Chinese hairdresser. This is totally terrifying. Firstly, the language barrier means that nuances of cut and colour will be lost in translation. No, I do not want to look like Lady Gaga. Or Roger Federer. And what if they put hair dye suitable for asian hair on mine? What if all my hair falls out? The ways in which the whole thing could go terribly, horribly wrong are many, and my Chinese Hairdressing Words are few.

I take the plunge. I do a reccy first, on my bike, to see what the salon looks like. It looks pretty good, all-white decor, Kerastase products. Then I go in to make an appointment. They want to know do I want a haircut now? This would normally be seen as a bad sign (no waiting list, no talent) but not in Shanghai where anything is possible anytime at the drop of a hat. But I need a cooling off period in case I chicken out, so I make the appointment for the next day and cycle off.

Yesterday was D-day. The first thing I notice as I take my seat in a plush white leather chair is the total absence of female staff – every single person working at the salon is male. I bet they’re all straight too, although I find that harder to tell here as perfectly red-blooded Chinese heterosexuals are likely to be wearing pink girls’ sunglasses and Hello Kitty t-shirts. 

Then, the consultation with the senior stylist…..he speaks no English at all, but has chosen Benson (as in Hedges) for his English name. I unfold my helpful list of Chinese Hairdressing Phrases, pulled out of a tourist magazine 6 months ago and kept for just such a situation. I scan through it for “Please give me a modern bob, cover up all my grey with natural looking highlights, and while you’re at it make me look 20 years younger’

Oh…there’s nothing on the phrase list that even remotely helps. It’s got really useful ones like: ‘Please make me look like a rockstar’ and ‘Can you shave it all off?’ Even ‘Don’t make me look like that dog of yours’. I’m a dead man. I revert to miming, and indicate a kind of shape like a bob. ‘Bo-bo?’ asks Benson. ‘Bo-bo’ I reply.

Now for the colour. Trickier, because the colour book seems to consist entirely of shades of black. I whip out my ipod and show Benson a photo of my hair when I was in Paris two years ago. On reflection, the background of the Eiffel tower is what makes the colour look good. It’ll have to do. We get the only English-speaking staff member to translate. I ask him:’Is it a permanent colour?’
‘No’ he says, ‘Not permanent. Forever!’ Reassuring.

So the fun begins. I have no less than eight men doing my hair, including one whose job is just to wash it, and another who just combs after washing. Sadly, Benson rejects his combing and the comb is passed to someone with more experience. For five long hours I am sat, wrapped in a cape, while weird stuff happens to me and my head. It begins with 2 large black plastic ear covers, so I look like Goofy, and a white neck wrap around bandage thingy to keep hair dye off my skin. Along the way my head is pummelled, wrapped in plastic, and covered with 58 separate foil envelopes.I have mini panic attacks every 10 minutes or so when some new chemical is applied to my already overloaded head. The supposedly relaxing scalp massage is an opportunity for the overly-strong hair-washing guy to practice squashing skulls with his bare hands. Can a scalp massage give you a headache?

At last the torture is over. The wraps are off and the drying begins. During the finale I meet a new staff member whose job is just to dispense styling product to Benson, and another who holds up sections of hair while Benson dries underneath it, so he doesn’t have to struggle to use one of those annoying clips. Benson seems extremely pleased with his results. And you know what? I do too. It’s one of my Best Haircuts Ever. And its definitely my Best Haircut in a Foreign Language (I recall that distressing time in Thailand I came out looking like Macauley Caulkin in Home Alone).

On the way home Daughter Number One says ‘I don’t like your haircut. You look 25!’ Since when was that supposed to be an insult? What do you think?


Shanghai Longhua Temple

Another of Shanghai’s peaceful temples is the Buddhist Longhua Temple in the southwest part of the city. When I visited it yesterday the temple was surprisingly busy – the Chinese are not an overly religious lot – but a friendly local explained that between 9am and 1pm on this particular date was a very auspicious time on the lunar calendar. Pray for wealth on this day and your prayers are apparently more likely to be answered.

Some devotees were having a special ceremony in the temple courtyard. At the monks’ feet were three small net-covered boxes filled to bursting with flapping sparrows trying desperately to escape. As the chanting intensified I got more worried that these sparrows were going to die of sheer anxious exhaustion and overcrowding before the end of the prayers. Worries unfounded. At the conclusion of the ceremony the devotees stepped forward and released the sparrows, who flew to the adjacent garden for a quiet rest before the next ceremony. 

Until the Crickets Sing, it is not Summer

That’s an ancient Chinese proverb. Suddenly everyone in Shanghai has gone cricket mad. Warmer weather brings the start of the cricket season, and  in a city where space is at a premium, small and compact crickets make space-saving pets. Don’t go thinking crickets are just for kids though – cricket culture is deeply engrained here, and cricket fighting is a popular activity amongst adult men.

Cricket enthusiasts begin to come to the Bird and Insect market (Xizang Lu- across the road from the Dongtai Lu antiques market) in early April, looking for that elusive champion fighter. They spend hours poring over the individually boxed crickets, looking for……well, I’m not sure exactly. What do you look for in a top-notch fighting cricket? Strong legs? Short wings? An aggressive sneer? 

 A likely contender?
Your spending only begins with the cricket itself. After that you’ll need a cricket home (woven bamboo, terracotta, carved mahogony inlaid with bone) and some cricket maintenance tools. There are various little feathery things on a stick devoted to cleaning your cricket, other little things for cleaning its house, and still other things for it to lie on and eat. Then there are the cricket teasers, things that you poke the cricket with to goad it into a fight.

Once you’ve got all your cricket gear, you can get together with other cricket fiends, talk about your crickets and have some cricket fighting tournaments. The best fights are filmed for posterity, so when cricket season ends in October, you can relive the highlights on DVD. 


 Bamboo cricket homes with crickets inside – 10 yuan each.

Hidden Pearl

Have you been to Shanghai? Then you know the Oriental Pearl Tower, that sparkling pink and concrete sputnik that sits on the Pudong side of the river in Lujiazui. It is fairly heavily pink on a sunny day, and you could easily imagine it as the dream rocket of someone like, say, Cosmonaut Barbie.

But today Shanghai is struggling to be warm and the whole city is shrouded in a quiet grey mist. The Bund is almost deserted, and over the river, the silhouette of the Pearl Tower is just visible. I think it looks hauntingly lovely.

Mr Sugarcane

Wandering along Fangbang Lu on the weekend, through the middle of the old city, I had my usual bowl of Langzhou noodles and spicy roast chicken for lunch after working up a big appetite at the Ghost Market and battling the ever larger crowds at Yu Gardens. Honestly, my weekends are not all exactly the same. 

I do usually need something light and fresh after all that delicious food, and luckily the sugar-cane juice seller has his cart parked just near the restaurant. He has a hand-cranked sugarcane press, and each stalk yields about half a cup. The juice is not as sweet as you would expect and has a pleasant light grassy flavour. 

Mr Sugarcane himself is extremely shy, and it has taken some weeks and many glasses of sugarcane juice for him to be coaxed into a photo. His overly friendly off-sider, on the other hand, is a lot more outgoing and is actively looking for a wife. Any takers?

Peasant DaVincis at RockBund Art

Ever wanted to build your own submarine from scrap metal? Many months ago I read about a young Chinese man by the name of Tao Xiangli who built one from his tiny home in an alleyway in Beijing. Originally from the country province of Anhui , he toiled long and hard at his invention while working nights in a karaoke bar to earn money. Apparently the submarine really works, as seen here tested in a canal.

A Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang has likened peasant inventors like Tao Xiangli to Leonardo Da Vinci, with his fantastical inventions. After years searching the Chinese countryside for similar stories, he has opened an exhibition featuring many of these inventions and the stories of their inventors at the new Rockbund Art Museum, as a way of exploring individual creativity and freedom from constraint. This is the best exhibition I have been to for years. 

There is an entire floor dedicated to the home-made robots of Wu Yulu. Wu didn’t finish school and was regarded as a slacker, until he started gaining recognition and making money from his tin-pot robots. Now the whole family helps out with their production. There are dog robots, mouse robots, a painting robot and a jumping robot. The highlight is a life-size rickshaw pulling robot, head welded out of a can, who mechanically clunks along saying ‘Wu my father, let me take you to market!’

On the next floor you enter a tall atrium space hung with many home-made flying machines. One looks just like a chicken coop with a wooden rotor. (I believe it had never left the ground until it was flown to Shanghai for the exhibition). Another is made from aerodynamic and lightweight iron (??!). Tao Xiangli’s submarine looks spectacular suspended amongst them from the ceiling, like a miniature tin Hindenberg. 

Is it art? The answer is yes, although it doesn’t really matter. Did it make me think about life and its meaning?  As I walked back through the ground floor I passed a montage of tangled and twisted wreckage from the final, fatal flight of peasant inventor Tan Chengnian in his flimsy home-made plane. Really, this is an exhibition about dreams and the drive to realise them, no matter how outlandish, unlikely or ultimately dangerous those dreams are. 

Shanghai Street Food #5 Cōng Yóu Bǐng 蔥油餅

Cōng Yóu Bǐng 蔥油餅 are a fantastic snack at any time of day. In Shanghai, they’re a breakfast favourite. These crispy layered pancakes are made from unleavened dough and speckled through with green onions and sometimes little cubes of salt pork, then pan fried and served hot. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, with warm flaky dough in the middle, a little like a paratha, a lot like the best hot, salty snack you can taste for under 30 cents.

This is Number 5 in a series of posts about Shanghai’s delicious street food. You can read about the others here:

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Lovely Lychees!

Take a look at these beauties!  The weather is slowly warming up, and with it all sorts of fantastic tropical fruits are making a comeback in the fruit stores. Like the mangosteens I wrote about a few weeks ago, these lychees taste amazing. 

Now that I live in a place where it’s pretty difficult and extraordinarily expensive to get anything out of season (and rightly so) I have come to really appreciate the seasonality of the fruits and vegetables I’m eating. And they taste so much better too!  So in my local fruit store, after the relative fruit austerity of the Shanghai winter (pomelo, apples, oranges, kumquats, winter strawberries) there is now an abundance of choice – pineapples, rambutans, durian, lychees, summer strawberries, watermelon, honeydew melon, papaya, mangosteen, bananas, mulberries. And these are just the ones I know the names of.

The lychees are at their peak right now. Each one is the size of a fat apricot, and they’re sold like this, still on the stalk, tied in a bunch.  The bunch above weighs about 2.5 kg. The tough, knobbled skin yields that delicious juicy, fresh, perfumed lychee flesh.  Heaven!