Life is tough for those who travel by wheelchair in Shanghai, having to fight for their share of the road along with cars, trucks, motorbikes, and bicycles. I was appalled by this when I first witnessed it, but like everything I initially found shocking or strange, I’ve become mutely accepting. That’s just how it is in China, people say.
Then a few weeks ago I saw a near collision between a frail elderly man travelling by wheelchair in the bicycle lane, pushed along by his grand-daughter, and one of those ubiquitous blue Chinese trucks. It snapped me back into a world where those in wheelchairs can safely and easily use the footpath to get around and I thought – why is it like this?
Why indeed. Despite the presence of some advocacy groups, and attempts to make the city more disability-friendly before Shanghai Expo last year, equal access for those with disabilities is a long way off. A few months ago it was reported by the Shanghai government that Shanghai has only five wheelchair friendly taxis for an estimated 60,000 wheelchair users. It’s no surprise then, that if you’re in a wheelchair and need to get from A to B, you’ll have to go on your own two wheels, alongside all the regular traffic.
But what’s wrong with the sidewalks I hear you say? Why don’t they just push the wheelchair along the sidewalk out of harm’s way? Sidewalks in China are appalling. Absolutely appalling. They’re uneven and full of holes, interrupted by giant trees, and very crowded. More than that, sidewalks are just one more public space free for everyone to use as they see fit. Apartment too small when visitors arrive? No problem, bring your table and chairs outside and eat dinner on the footpath. Want to set up a business but can’t afford the rent? Just use the sidewalk, even if that business involves dangerous equipment or deep-frying. Traffic congestion? Don’t bother with the road for pete’s sake, jump the kerb and use the sidewalk as an extra lane. Honk your horn a lot. Nudge pedestrians with your front wheel if necessary.
So it’s not that easy. I admire the bravery and patience of those in wheelchairs here, and I only hope the situation eventually improves. In my mind I can imagine all 60,00 wheelchair users forming a road convoy and successfully bringing Shanghai’s traffic to its knees. Power to the wheelies!
- Start with buckwheat and wheat flour in a ratio of 4:1
- 400g buckwheat flour
- 100g wheat flour
- Add 200-250ml of cool water a little at a time, mixing first with your fingertips, then incorporating the water into a firm dough
- (If you don’t an have an exquisite enormous red and black lacquer soba bowl like this one, don’t worry, a regular bowl is A-OK)
- Now knead your little heart out, because a lot of kneading is required to get the dough to ‘the consistency of a baby’s ear’
- Press the dough into a disc and place on a floured table
- Roll into an oval, and then into a large square sheet 2mm thick, dusting with flour as you roll
- Dust the dough sheet again when finished
- Fold the sheet of dough in half, again, and again, making a rectangle eight layers thick
- place the rectangle on a large cutting board, with a second, smaller board on top (the soba chef has a special board with a right-angled lip, but any small wooden board will do)
- Line up the board along the long edge of your folded dough rectangle, and steady it with the fingertips of one hand
- Take your wafer-thin, super sharp soba-kiri knife (failing that, any thin, long, sharp-bladed knife will do)
- Shift the top board sideways by 2mm and slice through the eight layers of dough, making eight long straight soba noodles
- Continue, using a slight rocking motion with your knife to shift the board another 2mm before every cut
- Separate the noodles into bunches and place on a tray
- Bring a stockpot of unslated water to the boil
- Have a large bowl of cold water, and another large bowl of iced water at the ready
- Cook the soba in batches for 60-90 seconds
- Scoop the noodles from the boiling water using a strainer scoop, and plunge into cold water, ‘washing’ the noodles vigorously (this removes starch from the surface so they have the required slippery texture)
- Scoop out of the cold water and plunge into iced water, washing again
- Drain, and serve on a bamboo mat or plate
- Serve with a small bowl of dashi and soy, with finely sliced scallions, and grated fresh wasabi
- Plunge your noodles into the sauce mixed with condiments of your choice, and slurp noisily into your mouth!
Free plastic surgery?? Most days I read the Shanghai Daily, a regular and predictable mix of stories about food safety scandals, official corruption, and adverse weather somewhere in China. And then, just when I think I’m getting some kind of insubstantial grip on the Shanghai news, they throw in a headline like this one and I discover I am on another planet after all. Planet China, where weird things happen everyday.
Here are a crop of stories reported on one day this week.
Following complaints, authorities have offered him a 48,000 yuan discount on the usual 50,000 yuan price of a tomb in a nearby cemetery if he will agree to move the ashes.
Now, as I see it the issue here is not whether it’s a good idea to house the remains of deceased relatives right outside your home, it’s whether the hefty discounts the authorities offered him will inspire a spate of copycat DIY tombs all over Shanghai.
“The company’s reputation took a drubbing over the last week after a media fire storm over its lackadaisical – or criminally feckless, as some might say – handling of the severe pollution leak over a decade..”
Excited to see ‘lackadaisical’ and ‘feckless’ used in the same line.
“Only Show Six Teeth When You Smile”
|(photo courtesy Shanghai Daily)|
This was the instruction given to attendants who will shortly be working on the new Shanghai-Beijing high speed rail link. As the four hundred lucky young women – chosen from a field of over 3,000 candidates – listened attentively, they were also told to “place a chopstick between the jaws to help attain the perfect smile”.
“The hardest part is the manners training” said one trainee, who spends two hours each day on basic manners. I wonder how long it takes to learn advanced manners?
And next time you take the high-speed train to Beijing, please don’t ask the attendant any questions, or her chopstick will fall out.
(I’m having happy memories of the day I ate these in one of Shanghai’s back lanes. They were very good, and by the time I’d finished my second the gathered crowd (only about twenty people) knew that: a) I was Australian, b) I lived in Shanghai and c) I really, really liked Shanghai street food. This last, in particular, seemed to be a connection they could really grasp.)
Lest you think I’m being nostalgic, let me set you straight – these old lanes house some of the most decrepit, dangerous and unhygenic dwellings in the city. Tiny, dark, dank, dripping alleyways separate houses by the width of two people standing shoulder to shoulder, illegal wiring sprouts from every post like wild black ivy, crawling over every wall and through every window. Homes rarely have indoor plumbing, and residents shuffle back and forth to the public facilities to empty their chamber pots. Illegal house extensions encroach in every possible direction from the original dwelling – upwards, backwards, sideways, cantilevered out over the laneway, crammed into the spaces between houses, and thrusting upwards through the roof.
Yesterday I had the rare opportuity to visit and photograph a neighbourhood where demolition is imminent – not months or even weeks away, but days away. I expected to find empty rooms, piles of discarded rubbish, and mounds of cardboard boxes. Instead, what I saw was life being lived one hundred percent to the fullest, right up to the very last minute. An outdoor wet market was in full swing, everyone buying their daily supplies of fruit, vegetables, fish and chicken, and an enormous indoor wet market was also thriving. Washing had been hung out to dry after three days of heavy rain, and in short, there was very little sign of anyone going anywhere. But in the quieter corners, there was a heavy sense of finality. The residents I spoke to said they planned to stay until forced to go, despite this, they seemed stoically resigned to moving out, and moving on.
Today I want to show you the lanes themselves, and tomorrow, the wet markets and their vendors.
- 20 large dried bamboo leaves
- 400g fatty pork, cubed
- 1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup dark soy sauce (dark soy is for colour, and unsalted – do not substitute normal or light soy)
- 1/4 cup shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2 spring onions, sliced
- 250g uncooked sticky rice
- In a bowl mix together 1/4 cup dark soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, ginger and spring onions
- Add pork pieces and allow to marinade for up to 24 hours, minimum 2 hours
- Add remaining 1/4 cup dark soy sauce to sticky rice and mix well until grains are well coated
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil, immerse bamboo leaves and boil for three minutes until leaves become soft. Drain.
- Take a bamboo leaf and hold it with the spine facing up
- Fold the leaf as shown, approximately one third of the way along its length
- Fold again, this time lengthways as shown, open out the base of the folds to form a cup
- Fill with 1-2 spoonfuls of coated sticky rice, a piece of marinated pork, then another 1-2 spoonfuls of rice
- Holding the filled portion in the cup of your hand, fold the long part of the leaf over the top
- Tuck in both sides of the parcel, then pinch the overhanging leaf together and fold sideways as shown
- Holding parcel firmly, wrap tightly with string and knot to fasten
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add zongzi so they are fully submerged
- Simmer for two hours (water will darken due to dark soy sauce), then drain
- While still hot snip string wth scissors and unwrap
- (can be frozen, uncooked, for up to one month)
Shanghai’s best location for learning to cook Chinese food:
Chinese Cooking Workshop
2 Dongping Lu, near Hengshan Lu
You all know very well that I love China and I love the Chinese people, every 1.34 billion of them. Living in China is not always non-stop fun though, and sometimes, like when you get hit by a car or someone hisses unpleasantly at your sheer audacious foreign-ness, it can be hard. As in, trying, difficult and disheartening. There are days you just feel like crawling back under the sheets and pretending you’re somewhere else, but as an eternal optimist I try and see the bright side of every bad situation and not take it too personally. That’s the Good Fiona speaking. Chin up, eat some noodles, and be done with it.
There are other days, though, when I take it very personally. Days when China throws every obstacle it can in my path and I trip on every single one of them. Days when, if one more person calls out ‘Waiguoren!’ (‘Foreigner!’ ‘Not Chinese!) when I’m walking down the street, I’m gonna scream. I mean, could I be anything else other than ‘Not Chinese’? Do I look even a tiny little bit Chinese? I didn’t think so. I grit my teeth and swear heavily under my breath. But you know there are, I’ve discovered, advantages to belonging to the tribe of waiguoren living in China – there are things I can do without any apparent offence to anyone that give me enormous personal satisfaction, when I can feel that, just for a second or two, I gave China as good as I got.
So when, for the tenth time, someone hoiks up a huge plegm golley and spits it on the footpath in front of my feet, and for the twentieth time some crazed taxi driver tries to run me down on a pedestrian crossing, and for the fiftieth time someone robs me blind just because, well, I’m foreign, and therefore fair game for being ripped off, I can remember these seven perverse pleasures I can indulge in occasionally to get my own back. That’s Bad Fiona talking. I’ll let you decide whose advice you’re going to follow today.
In China, you can gossip about someone’s outfit on the subway without lowering your voice. Actually, now that I can understand Chinese, I realise that Chinese people do this to us all the time. If only we knew:
“But the rest of her outfit looks real cheap. And she’s so fat!!”
You can barge right through signs saying ‘No Entry’, ignore the ‘No Photographs’ sign and snap away happily, and put your bicycle right where it says “No Parking’ because you know, you can’t read Chinese. At least, nobody thinks you can read Chinese, and they’re not willing to pull you up on it.
When insurance companies, banks and investment start-ups call trying to sell you something, you can pretend you don’t understand a single thing they say, apologise, and hang up. These guys totally give me the pips because they always call at dinner, or when I am outside and I run back in to answer the phone. Unfortunately China is just as afflicted with cold-calling as the rest of the world, although for once, the call centre isn’t in Bangalore. Don’t try and politely answer their questions, just keep repeating ‘ting bu dong! ting bu dong! ting bu dong!’ (I’m listening! But not understanding!) until they get it. Revenge of the waiguoren!!
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is exempt from a reduced price by bargaining in China. In China you can bargain on everything. Don’t be shy!
“Can you make it a bit cheaper?”
“I know the market price is 2 yuan a jin. But these look like poor quality cucumbers. They may even have that E Coli! I’ll give you 1 yuan 80 a jin.”
Bargain hard. Bargain shamelessly, but always bargain. As my Chinese friend Clare says “They think you’re stupid if you don’t bargain.” OK.