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San Fu

I’m a week into san fu – the hottest 40 days of the year, and it’s killing me. Shanghai is baking under an enormous outdoor oven that hits me like a physical force every time I walk outside. Today, typical of san fu weather, the top temperature was 38 degrees (that would be 100.4 F), with a sweaty minimum of 30 degrees. I think the humidity is close to 98%, and I practically got heatstroke from cycling to Taikang Lu for a coffee. I had to sit in the air-conditioning for twenty minutes before I felt well enough to drink it.

Either way the days are stinking hot and the nights offer little relief, and are full of mosquitoes. Everyone has an air of quiet exhaustion. The only sign of increased energy is in the thousands of cicadas, who have started up a deafening drum that builds to a noisy crescendo every ten minutes during daylight hours. After dark, the crickets take over.

I see that the ice lady has made her seasonal return to the wet market – in winter Shanghai’s natural refrigeration means she is not busy, and she finds other ways to make money. Now that san fu is here she carts enormous blocks of ice on the back of her utility bicycle early in the day for the fish sellers to use to keep their goods cooled. She heaves one off the tray-back with a heavy iron hook, then drags it to the stall where it is kept in one piece. In summer, you want to buy your meat and fish before 10am, when the ice is well melted and the chance of food poisoning goes up.

Tomorrow will be the same, and the day after that. Thirty-three days to go.

I’m a Kommune-ist!

Kommune is my favourite friendly courtyard cafe in the middle of the Taikang Lu art and cafe precinct. It’s saved me with good coffee and banana bread many times, and the owner has an ironic sense of humour I appreciate – he’s Australian, after all.

They have a simple menu of good cafe classics, which you can tick off with a red wax pencil and hand to the waiter if you’re feeling uncommunicative. Their breakfasts are excellent, hearty and filling, and their coffee is made with skill. Strong, too. There are nice retro touches too – water is served in enamelled tin cups, smoothies come in heavy glass jars with a straw, and in winter their soup of the day is served in a decorated Chinese thermos, with a crusty bread stick tied to the side.

Inside they play old Chinese movies all day, and have a great collection of Revolution-era posters and figurines. I love their fish tank full of Communist heroes. The Chairman has a bad case of algae on his head though – someone needs to take him out and give him a good scrub with a hard bristle brush. 

Gubei Carrefour, 8:32 am

Welcome to the behemoth of supermarkets, Carrefour Gubei, apparently one of the busiest supermarkets in the world. And it just happens to be my local.
As much as I’d like to think I can survive entirely on the contents of the wet market and my local fruit lady‘s shop, the reality is that there are things just too difficult to find anywhere else – like good chocolate, baking powder, and a decent steak. But going to Carrefour (Jia-la-fu as it’s known to locals) is like a trip to the dentist – you don’t want to go, you know it’s going to hurt like hell and cost a bomb, but you do it anyway and afterwards you feel mostly numb, but strangely virtuous. At least on the way home from Carrefour, unlike a trip to the dentist, you can eat the hazelnut choc-chip cookies you just bought without any guilt.

Why is it so taxing? For a start, it’s huge. Two floors, fifty-six check-outs, and the washing detergent section alone is bigger than most supermarkets. You can buy a motorbike, a live eel, a dried pig’s head or a four-piece outdoor setting under one roof. It’s also massively popular for its low prices and enormous choice. You know what the shops are like on Christmas Eve before early closing? It’s like that every day at Carrefour. It’s a battle of imperial proportions just to get the trolley through the crowds without going insane or injuring anyone. 

And the crowds like to see what the foreigner is buying – they find it interesting enough to occasionally take articles out of my trolley to look at themore closely. Given the stress, I try and go there no more often than every two months, so my trolley looks like I’m the in-house caterer for a family of twelve – Lurpak spreadable butter x 8, parmesan cheese 1kg, tinned tomatoes x 12, rice 10kg, four whole chickens, and 19 boxes of breakfast cereal. 

It’s a love-hate relationship, really – but at least the products are interesting. Here’s a selection of goods you can’t buy in Woolworths.

Various rice snacks, none good.

Confusing choice of chili and black bean sauces, at least that’s what I think they are. Usually I choose by the ‘label attractiveness’ method, totally flawed. 

Straight chili – tread carefully here.

The fresh seafood section – fish, prawns, eels, turtles and bullfrogs, alive or dead. The live ones make for great entertainment at the check-out if you’re not holding the plastic bag properly.

The dried seafood section – seaweed, jellyfish, shark, skate, shrimp, whole fish. Very smelly.

Cantonese-style roast meat stand – the trays at the front hold snouts, ears and trotters, from left to right. 

Tea choices – oolong, pu’er, longjin, jasmine, rose, chrysanthemum. 

Tea additives – dried ginseng

A small part of the tofu stall – about 83 different tofu products. Near everyone I know is relieved you can’t buy this in Woolworths, especially the chou doufu – stinky tofu.

There’s also a noodle stand, a dumpling stall, a full-sized bakery, a whole aisle devoted to tissues, and an Official Expo Souvenirs shop within a shop. It’s overwhelming. Thank god I won’t run out of butter for the next eight weeks.

Treasures from Dongtai Lu

I always find treasures at the antiques and curios market at Dongtai Lu, although it involves a lot of ferretting in dusty boxes, and very hard bargaining. This time it was a basket full of old silk embroidery thread bobbins. On some of the reels, the paper brand was just visible – Flying Wheel thread. After all these years the colour of the silks was as vivid as ever – reds, purples, golds, pinks. 
Now I can add ‘Wooden Chinese Bobbins’ to my growing collection of things picked up in dusty corners  of dusty antique shops. Add them to – a pair of wicker suitcases with really gorgeous paper lining (unlikely to ever get through the rigors of Australian Customs), a set of three long wooden sticks for bashing washing against rocks when doing laundry by the side of a stream (I know those will be useful), a couple of carved wooden molds for making mooncakes, and scores of black and white photographs of Chinese families I’ve never met. Possibly it’s an illness. I should just order the shipping container now.

The Perfect Shanghai Sunday

Today it feels great to be back in Shanghai. The sun is shining hard and hot, and the sky is bright blue, with small white clouds scudding across it. Summer is in full swing. I just want to get on my bike and get out there. 

The Sunday morning streets are not busy and I head direct to Baker and Spice on Anfu Lu for coffee and toasted pane coi sante (Italian-style fruit bread). Anfu Lu is looking beautiful – the plane trees are now leafy and dense, and their tops meet together in the middle of the street, creating a long green archway. The coffee is good, I think it’s almost the best in Shanghai. Actually, reflecting on all the bad coffee I’ve drunk in the last year, it is the best. 
I head back along Anfu Lu to Changle Lu. There are certain streets in the French Concession that are lovely for cycling, and if you pick the right route you can cycle all the way to the Old City without ever going along a main road. From Changle Lu I head south along Xiangyang Lu until I hit the start of Nanchang Lu. I never tire of riding along here….all the familiar shops and faces…..the fruit man, the egg man, the vegetable lady, the bike repairer, the watch repairer. Today, for once there are no wedding cars being decorated. It must be an inauspicious day for Chinese marriage

The sun has climbed higher but Nanchang Lu is shaded along its length, and almost at the end I pass the entrance to Fuxing Park. As usual, the park is busy, busy, busy and several people toting long ornamental swords are going off to practice…..whatever it is you do with long swords. Bikes aren’t allowed in the park though, so today I don’t go in but keep riding. Nanchang Lu crosses over an 8-lane road now, and I am heading towards the old city.  

I pass by Xintiandi, where the crowds are already lining up at The Site Of The First National Congress Of The Communist Party Of The People’s Republic Of China. I wonder why every official name here has to be so wordy – why can’t they call it something short and snappy like ‘Big Brother World’ or ‘Commumania’?? 

Anyway…..past Xintiandi the houses are older and more interesting as I get into the old city proper. Now the cycling gets interesting too as every intersection becomes an opportunity to go through a red light. Just as I’m coasting along I have near-collisions with a 3 year-old boy, a 5 year-old boy, and a motorbike in rapid succession. The boys are racing across the narrow road to join their big brother who is doing a very public crap onto a piece of folded up newspaper on the footpath.

I keep going – I’m heading along Fangbang Lu now and I see old faces every few metres – Mr Pork Bun, and the fellows at the Langzhou hand-pulled noodle restaurant. Then I spy the big stone gate of Shanghai Old Street, and beyond it, Yu Yuan. I don’t really need to visit the gardens again today but I go through the bazaar for no other reason than the visceral pleasure of being elbowed by eighty Chinese people at once, some of them children. That was perhaps a mistake….but I opt for more elbowing nearby, in the air-conditioned mayhem of the Commodities Market

Now I feel like I’m back in the city….crowds, craziness and fifty cent hair extensions. Everything a girl needs, and all for less than a dollar. Best quality, of course…..

It’s past midday now and I’m absolutely starved. Leaving the Yu Gardens area and riding back along Fangbang Lu I can’t help but stop at two favourite places – the Bird and Insect Market, and across the road, the Dongtai Lu Antiques and Curios Market. The sound of the crickets is deafening before I even step into the Insect market – cricket season is here, and I see three men poring over a book of cricket varieties the same way I pore over shoe catalogues. 

It’s the same at the antiques market – small clusters of men analyzing some jade piece. One of the stallholders who knows me by sight asks me to interpret the strange foreign writing on a large Oscar the Grouch style tin trash can she has just acquired. ‘Lawsons 1944 32 gal’ says the inscription. Not satisfied, they get me to poke my head deep into the trash can to read what is on the base – ‘Reeves pat 1566-8734’. I use my mobile phone dictionary to show them the Chinese characters for ‘patent’. They appear happy. I wonder how on earth a 66 year old American trash can ended up in Shanghai. A mystery. 

Now I’m really starving, and very hot. Actualy past starving, so I cheat and have late afternoon ice-cream at Haagen-Dazs for lunch as I cycle back past Xintiandi towards home.

A perfect Shanghai Sunday has to end with great food. It’s often Chinese food but tonight, after a short rest at home I head back out on my bike for dinner at hoF on Sinan Lu. I’ve been holding off writing about hoF because it’s a real treasure – a tiny chocolate-box sized restaurant serving wine and desserts, with chocolate being the main focus. Enough said. A glass of red, a serve of their signature dessert, Chocolate Sinan Lu – heaven. A perfect end to a perfect Shanghai day. 

Xing Ping Open Air Dentist

I don’t love my dentist, but at least I get to grip the sides of the chair in private, without any old passerby having a sticky-beak at what my cavities are like. Not so in Xing Ping, a small market town near Guilin, where having a tooth pulled is fair game for anyone to watch by the open door of the street-side dentist shop near the marketplace. Lots of people did stop and watch actually, as a really gruesome extraction was taking place, most with a chicken hanging upside down in one hand and a watermelon in the other. Even in faraway Shanghai the dentists often operate in shop windows, air-conditioning being a small concession to the comfort of the patient, but no concession to their modesty.

Xing Ping sits by the Li River and is busy because being market day means everyone is in town to sell, buy, and see. It’s full of oddities though – footpath silversmiths, rat meat, corn-flavoured iceblocks. A barefoot dentist operating streetside is just one more thing to gawp at. At least some things are universal though – as soon as the drill started up, everyone scattered, chickens, watermelons and all.  

Before-and-After Chicken

I’m not sure that it would be described on a menu as Before-and-After Chicken*, but that’s what we ate at the Aishanmen village Eco Farm Restaurant, outside Yangshuo. We ordered according to our usual protocol when faced with a menu without pictures or English. I’ll call it point and shoot. Pick a random line of Chinese text close to the top of the menu (because that’s where all the best dishes are), and sit back, relax, and see what appears. Hopefully not duck tongues or entrails.
In this case, I need to set the scene. The Eco Farm Restaurant should be called the Working Farm with a Few Tables and Chairs, because it’s less of a restaurant, and more of a farm serving occasional food. You sit outside amongst the pigs and chickens, under a passionfruit vine, and the waitress is the daughter of the old guy who runs the place. 
Having pointed at the menu, what happened next was that the old guy walked out of his shed with a large butterfly net, and tried to catch one of the chickens under our feet. I guess it’ll be some sort of chicken dish then. He ran around, and around, and around but no chicken went into that net. Every time he ran at them they scattered in every direction. The rooster looked on in haughty amusement, knowing full well he was too tough to be eaten. His daughter, watching the circus, gave the old man enough time to avoid losing face, walked up to the first chicken, grabbed it by the wing, and walked to the back of the farmhouse. The old man shook his head and followed, carrying a small sharp hatchet.
Twenty minutes later we had a steaming plateful of chicken fried with local wine and peppers, and we ate every morsel.
*Actually why not? I’ve eaten Yellow Lamp Nausea Chicken and Chicken Cooked in Diesel Oil before, both were delicious. 

Great Outfit for West Street

I love the things that Chinese female tourists wear. No slaves to practicality, their outfits are gloriously, and occasionally horrifically impractical. I already showed you what a typical touring outfit for The Great Wall looks like, and Yangshuo is also crawling with vivid holiday creations like this one. So let’s see, I’m off to a small riverside town in the middle of nowhere -I’ll start with my almost zhende adidas shorts (note, four stripes, not three) floppy Victorian style hat with a flower, umbrella to keep the sun off, and my black bondage shoes. Perfect.

On the same day as seeing this ensemble, I visited the water caves outside town. After ricocheting around inside a tin-can minibus on a rocky dirt road for 30 minutes, covered now with a thin film of brown dust, I entered the caves in a boat through an opening no higher than a metre, so I spent the first five minutes bent double looking at the leak in the bottom of the boat. Then I clambered out, trekked through cave after cave in near darkness, swam in a mud pool, cleaned off in a hot spring, then took the whole journey in reverse. 

And the outfit worn by a lovely young Chinese woman sharing this with me? A black lace dress, a hat exactly like the one pictured above, a red patent vinyl almost zhende Chanel handbag, and sky high tan bondage sandals. Next to her, I felt totally underdressed for a cave visit. I’ll try harder next time.

Barbecued River Fish, Yulong River

I once passed a fruitful couple of hours with a friend counting down our top ten food experiences from 10 to 1, describing them in vivid detail as we went. My Number One involved freshly caught river fish, and a cold winter’s day with less than $5 in my pocket. The fish had been hauled up from the ice-green waters of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, onto the back of a rickety wooden boat tied to a bridge, filleted, fried in olive oil atop a 44 gallon drum converted to a griddle, and slapped between a half loaf of crusty bread. It was the best meal ever, for the taste, the view, and value for money; and a worthy Number One.

Well, it’s now nineteen years since that Turkish fish meal, and I’m sorry Number One, you’re now officially Number Two, and Ten just fell off the end of the list to make way for the Best Fish Ever. There are remarkable similarities – freshly caught river fish, this time fried in a makeshift kitchen by the riverside, and paddled across to a floating mid-river restaurant by bamboo raft. It’s a hot summer’s day, rather than midwinter, and prices have gone up since 1991, so I now have the equivalent  of $10 tied tightly in a plastic bag perched under my hat as I swim across to the restaurant from where my bicycle is parked by the river’s edge. Most customers arrive by raft, rather than by swimming, and so there is a lot of interest in the strange foreign woman who wants to freestyle her way to lunch.
The fish is the only dish offered. Recently alive, it has been fried until the skin crisps, then once cold, skewered and painted with a marinade made (I think) from ground peanuts, sesame seeds, chilli, coriander seed, cumin and oil. The fish is now cooked a second time on the floating raft restaurant by being barbecued over a charcoal brazier. The marinade melts into the skin with the heat of the coals and some kind of magical alchemy takes place between the oils of the fish, the nutty marinade and the smoke from the charcoal. The flavour is at once robust and complex, harmonising with the firm flesh of the fish. 
I ply the waitress for the recipe, but my Chinese is too poor, and in my heart I know I can’t reproduce this at home, that this will only be a Number One meal when the other elements are all there too – the magnificent Yulong River  all around, bamboo rafts floating past and the odd water buffalo wallowing lazily in the shallows…and the karst peaks rising up silhouetted against the sky.