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Chance Encounters, Shanghai

This is a warmhearted story of architecture, history, love and a chance encounter in a Shanghai stairwell.

I really hadn’t expected to be invited into Yang Mei Ying and her husband Ong Zen’s apartment at first meeting, but here I was already sitting stiffly on their sofa alongside my friend E, being fed sweet winter cumquats.

“Eat! Eat!” Yang Mei Ying urged.

There were small piles of pill packets all over the apartment, along with sheets of discount vouchers clipped from newspapers and bowls of fruit resting on the dresser and next to the television. The universal signature of the elderly – pills and fruit. 

“I’m not feeling so well today” Yang Mei Ying told us. “Some stiffness in my neck. I’m getting old!”

She was 79 years old and wore a hand-knitted vest in brightest orange over a red turtleneck and trousers. Her body was slight under her heavy woollens and she moved slowly. Her husband Ong Zen, 83, was still in his pyjamas, although it was hard to tell if they were sleeping pyjamas or Shanghai-style lounging pyjamas. They looked like sleeping pyjamas – faded striped flannel, worn with a fishing vest over the top, the kind with many pockets. 

My dear friend E had first met the couple two weeks before. E’s longstanding interest in Shanghai’s old buildings, combined with a refreshing boldness common to Americans, means she often wandered down one of Shanghai’s thousand lane ways, found an interesting old building and walked into the foyer. And sometimes, it must be said, up the stairs. And occasionally (it must also be said) into people’s homes, but only if asked. Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen had invited her into their home after finding her exploring the stairwell of their building with her camera.

These old houses are masterpieces of architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, mansions of Shanghai’s wealthy elite. In the 1950s many were relinquished unwillingly by their owners, requisitioned by the Chinese government for mass housing. Their architectural magnificence was carved up into tiny one room apartments – single bedrooms became homes of entire families, with bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one space. Grand dining rooms suffered the addition of a privy and had their fireplaces used for cooking.

In most of these houses the original features and details have largely been lost – perhaps one or two doorways, an occasional old banister, a carved lintel, faint whispers of a grand past. Now the multiple apartments are concreted into the inside of the building, like barnacles inside a bottle, and renovated over and again, each renovation losing more and more of the original sense of the house. You have to look hard to re-imagine how they might once have looked.

When E found the house Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen were living in she realised immediately it was that rare gem – a 1923 mansion house completely untouched since its original 1950s carve-up. Everything inside – from the ornate front doors to the inlaid mosaic tile floor, the moulded plaster ceilings, the carved wooden banisters, and the decorative wood paneling rising from the floor to head height – was completely original. It took her breath away.

The upstairs hallway floors are all original parquetry. Downstairs the carved wall panels have suffered the addition of nailed-on letterboxes.
The magnificent interior stairwell.

Not that E had apparently been the first to discover the house:

“People come here all the time. They pretend to be friendly but they just want to buy the whole building!” Yang Mei Ying said. “I don’t let them inside!”
E is incapable of pretence and thanks to her openness and big smile the couple had, in fact, led her right through their doorway. The photo portrait she took of them that day, and brought back later framed, had pride of place on top of the television. E thought I might like to meet them, so here I was, hearing their history for the first time.
They moved into the apartment after their marriage in the early 1950s. Yang Mei Ying waved to a photo of the two of them, high on a wall near the ceiling. Ong Zen was in military uniform.

“He was a soldier, yes.” Yang Mei Ying  looked over at her husband, smiling. Ong Zen was almost completely deaf so he smiled beatifically during the conversation no matter what was said, his hands resting in his lap.

Ah. The Beijing Lu Military Base was nearby, and perhaps explained why the young couple were assigned an apartment in such a grand old house, and on the top floor at that. I wondered if it made their lives easier during the troubled years, and I had to assume it had. But no one really escaped trouble in those times.

“I remember that photo,” Yang Mei Ying went on. “I didn’t have a chance to dress up for it! I was just wearing my outdoor clothes! The photographer needed someone to write for him and Ong Zen had beautiful handwriting, so he said we could have a portrait in exchange. No time to prepare!” She shook her head. “But he did have such beautiful handwriting” she said, and looked fondly over at Ong Zen.

Now they had been married more than sixty years, with two daughters and two grandchildren. They seemed so caring towards one another, and the daughters still took turn about every night after work to cook for their parents and spend the night sleeping in the apartment to keep watch over them, despite having their own families to worry about.
Yang Mei Ying’s and Ong Zen’s own bedroom had been renovated by adding a floor that divided the room into two levels. The high ceilings in these old houses meant it was possible to create a low-ceilinged upstairs and downstairs inside one room, the upstairs level usually accessed by a ladder. Their daughters – thankfully not tall – had spent their lives in twin beds directly above their parents’ double bed, and still slept there every alternating night. 

The kitchen, shared with three other apartments, was reclaimed from one of the original bathrooms, complete with original bath.

Yang Mei Ying told us their daughters had bought them a modern apartment, with an inside bathroom, a proper kitchen, and air-conditioning. Everything needed to make their lives easier, and safer. Most of the apartments in the house were now abandoned and in terrible disrepair, and the few that were inhabited seemed to have dubious occupants.
“So what makes you stay here?” I asked her, suspecting the answer would be proximity to her children and friends.

Yang Mei Ying didn’t pause for a second. “I stay for the floors” she said, sliding her slippered foot across the time-polished parquetry. “For the beautiful, beautiful floors.”

(A big, gigantic thanks to E, firstly for taking me along to meet Ong Zen and Yang Mei Ying, and also for lending me the use of her camera when I discovered I had left my battery in the battery charger at home….)

Ten Must-Try Foods in Xiamen 十大不容错过的厦门美食

Mangoes, mangosteens, melons, star fruit, star fish, abalone, mussels, oysters, whelks, cockles and lobster – Xiamen is a subtropical island in the South China Sea and its foods reflect all the bounty and diversity of the sea and the warm, languid climate.

In order to retain the natural flavour of foods the cuisine of Fujian Province places emphasis on cooking methods like braising and steaming. Soups, soupy stews and soupy noodles feature heavily and are considered an ideal way to highlight the inherent flavour of ingredients. In Xiamen, the local saying  不汤不行 bù tāng bù xíng means “It is unacceptable for a meal not to have soup” but translates literally as “No soup, no go.”

I ate very well in Xiamen, a place that once again highlights the vast regional differences in Chinese cuisine. Here are ten foods from Xiamen, far from an exhaustive list, and places where you can try them.

1. Seafood Satay Noodle Soup 沙茶面 Shacha Mian  
Arguably Xiamen’s most famous dish, sha cha main is a base of rich, creamy, nutty curry satay soup with the addition of wheat noodles and seafood and meats of the diner’s choice. 
Sha cha mian restaurants display trays of squid, shrimp, oysters, cockles, and baby octopus alongside cooked pork intestines and fat pork which you add as you wish, the final price of your soup reflecting the number of ingredients you add. The result is a heady and fragrant meal with whispers of laksa, which it most closely resembles.
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
About 12 yuan ($2) per bowl
2. Gold Wraps Silver 金包银 Jin Bao Yin
These street snacks have a wonderful name, a reference to the treasure within and without. They are common on Gulang Yu island, where a steamer full of the plump little buns can be found on every corner. 
The outer wrapper is made from sticky rice and arrowroot flour, soft, warm and pleasantly chewy. The inside is a rich, dark mixture of finely shredded mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pickles, sometimes with a little meat added.
Try at: Gulang Yu street stalls
4 yuan (65cents) each
3. Tu Sun Dong 土笋冻 Sea Worm Jelly
How can I describe this in a way that sounds anything other than off-putting?
A popular cold dish with pride of place at every banquet dinner in Xiamen, tu sun dong is made using a short marine mud worm – the ‘bamboo shoot of the earth’ (tu sun 土笋 , actually the sipunculid worm, 星虫). After being washed clean of any residual mud the worms are set in a light vinegar aspic.
Yet for the adventurous eater this little dish is a masterpiece of textures and distinctive and novel flavours – the cold vinegar aspic is cool and smooth on the tongue, and as you bite in there is a rush of briny saltiness then the pleasant chewiness of the worms themselves. The accompanying sauces – horseradish, satay, and chill, with cold shreds of lightly pickled radish, add more layers of flavour as you eat.
Try at: Lujiang Harbourview Restaurant
7th Floor, 54 Lujiang Dao, corner Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
The restaurant is on the waterfront overlooking Gulang Yu, and has incredible views. Thank you to one of my readers for the great recommendation!



4. Popiah 薄饼 Baobing
These Fujian-style fresh spring rolls have different filling variations according to where they originate. In Xiamen they are made with a very fine wheat pancake spread with a sweet red sauce and fine sprinkles of dried seaweed, then filled with a cooked mixture of carrot, radish, pork and sometimes seafood. 
Try at: Hao Qingxiang Restaurant – A clean and inexpensive eatery selling local Xiamen foods from a picture menu
200 Hubin Nan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Popiah 4 yuan each
5. Oyster Omelette 蚝仔煎 Haozi Jian
Green shallots are mixed with tiny brown haozi (oysters) and fried until they brown before being surrounded by a halo of golden omelette. The tangy red sauce is optional. 
I must admit I ate this famed Xiamen street food with some trepidation because it broke one of my tried and tested Street Food Survival Rules – to never eat seafood on the street, especially when the weather is warm. But hey, I figured I was working in a hospital all week anyway, so if I ran into trouble help wasn’t far away.
As it turns out, the oyster omelette did me no harm. Was it fabulous enough I would risk it a second time? Probably not.
Try at: 189 Longtou Lu, Gulang Yu. Be prepared to join a long, hungry queue!
6. Zongzi 粽子
No ordinary zongzi, Xiamen’s sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf rises up from the plate like the snout of a sea beast, its severed head resting in a puddle of what are by now a familiar trio of chili sauce, horseradish and satay sauce.
The zongzi in Xiamen are large and filled with a tasty combination of fat pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, shrimp and small pieces of other seafoods. Each one is an entire meal in itself.
Try at: 1980 Shao Rou Zong Restaurant (see also – 1. Shacha Mian)
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
5 yuan (80 cents) each
7. Peanut Soup 花生汤 Huasheng Tang
Peanuts are commonly used in Xiamen’s cuisine, and locals love to eat bowls of warm, sweet peanut soup. The peanuts are soaked and boiled before being cooked into a thick sweetened soup. Rather bland on its own, the soup is often served with crunchy youtiao fried bread sticks, fried dumplings or steamed pork buns.
Try at: Huang Zehe Peanut Soup Restaurant, Xiamen’s most famous. They also serve local snacks.
22 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
3 yuan (50 cents) bowl
8. Zhan Sanfeng’s Milk Tea 张三疯奶茶
The island of Gulangyu is famous for its beautiful old buildings, its pianos, and apparently also a portly cat called Zhang SanFeng. He has his own milk tea shop there, and his story is explained on the wall outside (transposed verbatim):
“Zhang SanFeng is a cat lives on Gulang Yu, Xiamen. He lives leisurely andcarefree. He acted crazily in his chilhood while he is now thinking deeper. He has many romantic stories. Sometimes he elopes with the dog of next door in Gulangyu a few days. If there is no interval of sea around this island, they’ve already travelled around the world.”
His motto: Be yourself. Enjoy life. Sweet home.
A trip to Xiamen wouldn’t be complete without trying the wares at Zhang Sanfeng’s milk tea shop. The milk tea (hot or cold) isn’t bad – it’s milky, it’s tea, and it has added sultanas and flaked almonds – either delicious or alarming, depending on your viewpoint. There is also milk tea flavoured nougat, and jars of Zhang Sanfeng’s favourite snack – dried shrimp with peanuts. 
Try at: Zhang Sanfeng Milk Tea Shop
Gulangyu - main square
or 35 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
9. Mango Ice
The warm, humid sub-tropical climate of Xiamen means icy desserts are hugely popular in flavours of green tea, red bean and purple taro. Xiamen’s mangoes, as big as footballs, are available almost all year round and are one of the most popular flavours for juices and ices.
This delectable dessert is a mango parfait with layers of diced mango in syrup, mango jelly, shaved frozen mango (like a sorbet, made on the spot from chunks of frozen mango flesh) served up topped with sweet biscuity crumbs.
Try at: Ice Leisure
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Mango Parfait 18 yuan ($3)
10. Fresh Seafood 海鲜 Haixian
Fresh seafood is Xiamen’s trademark, and it’s difficult to go twenty four hours without having a shrimp, scallop, or piece if fish pop up in your meal.
Small seafood restaurants and stalls abound, with some seafood available live in tanks (and therefore fresh), and some on ice (and alarmingly, some not on ice). You choose your seafood – shrimp, langoustine, lobster, ten kinds of crab, fish, shellfish – pay by weight, then have it cooked to order.
The seafood is plentiful and the choice on offer utterly staggering, but a word of caution from the head nurse at Xiamen No 1 Hospital:
I asked if she was preparing for the usual winter surge in patient numbers, the same as hospitals everywhere.
“Hah! No!” she said. “Winter is my heaven! Summer is my hell!”
“But why?” I asked. “Everywhere else in the world winter viruses and illnesses outnumber summer’s two to one…”
“Well,” she replied, “Firstly there’s the tourists – they mostly come in the summer, and they all do stupid things outdoors and injure themselves. Secondly, there’s the typhoons – we have many, many of those through summer. And lastly….well, lastly there’s the seafood.”
“The seafood?” I said.
“The seafood” she confirmed. “All those street seafood vendors, no refrigeration, the hot, humid weather. Food poisoning is rife.”
So there you go. If you visit Xiamen in the summer, check the weather report, don’t do anything stupid, and steer clear of the seafood on the streets.

All of China, Food by Food:

24 Hours in Xiamen

“Dear Doctor Teacher Fiona, 

If you have time , Please come to Xiamen China to help me. I want to set a triage system in my hospital. I apply a project, invite specialist like you to help us. The deadline of this project is NOVEMBER 10.”
So began my unusual invitation to Xiamen, from a doctor I had once taught in Shanghai. 
Now he was Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Xiamen Number One Hospital, and was attempting something no-one else in China had ever done before. He wanted to establish triage, a system of sorting the sickest patients from the rest so they get medical help sooner, in his chaotic emergency room where 800 sick children arrived every day and were cared for by just five doctors.  
For China it was nothing short of a radical idea, and he needed outside support. Of course I would come, I told him. 
Xiamen is an island city I had long wished to visit – I heard it was beautifully tropical and lush, with warm weather, wonderful seafood and clean beaches, and old colonial architecture from its days as a treaty port. Like Hong Kong, Xiamen (then called Amoy) was ceded to the British in 1842 following the disastrous Opium Wars.
If you have just 24 hours to pack in the best Xiamen has to offer, here’s some suggestions. I spaced out my sightseeing over a week between helping out in the Emergency Room, giving lectures, writing reports and…er…visiting restaurants. 
There was lots of eating – of course! – and I’ll be covering Xiamen’s top foods in the next post. 

Morning: Gulang Yu Island 鼓浪屿
Gulang Yu is the essence of Xiamen, a small jewel of an island off a bigger island. Rimmed with gold sandy beaches and crowded with the stately mansions and consulates of Xiamen’s colonial past, it’s just a few minutes by ferry from western Xiamen.
The island has no cars, and its winding small streets are perfect for strolling. Just head in any direction form the ferry and see what you find amongst the palms and fig trees.
The five main attractions – the Sunlight Rock (from where they say you can see Taiwan on a clear day), beachside Shuzuang Garden and the Piano Museum, Bright Moon Park, and the Organ Museum all require ticket entry. Several of China’s most famous pianists have come from Gulang Yu and the island is also known to locals as ‘Piano Island’. This might explain why all the tourist signposts are in the shape of a grand piano!
Sunlight Rock – a heady climb to the island’s highest point, from where you have spectacular 360-degree views
Bright Moon Park, with a massive stone statue of hero Zheng Chenggong
I think Gulang Yu’s best attractions are actually its old houses. Consulates of foreign governments, churches, schools and an old hospital, they speak of a wealthy and decadent past on the island. Many are now abandoned and are overgrown with vines and tree roots, but are being gradually restored and preserved by the government. 
Before you head back to Xiamen from Gulang Yu grab some lunch in one of the island’s many, many seafood restaurants. Most famous are the oyster omelettes (hail jian 海蛎煎)at 189 Longtou Lu.
Gulangyu Island: Details
The island is reached by a ten-minute ferry from the main pier near the western end of Zhongshan Lu.
Ferries run every ten minutes from early until midnight.
You can buy boat-only tickets (8 yuan) or a combination ticket that includes ferry, and entry to all five major sites for 108 yuan.
You can purchase tickets to individual attractions on the island itself, but you will save about 35 yuan by buying the combination ticket.
Allow at least three hours to see Gulangyu, although if you plan to climb Sunlight Rock and have a swim, make it 4-5 hours. Swimming is permitted off the main beaches, and the water is very clean.

Afternoon: Fan Tian Temple 梵天寺
After a good lunch, head north off Xiamen island itself to the stunning Fan Tian Temple. It’s a good ninety minute drive from downtown, but the temple is beautiful and well worth visiting, situated high on a hill in the middle of a nature reserve full of walking tracks.  
The original temple site is over 1500 years old, but the temple itself has been rebuilt several times.
If you walk up and over the hill behind the temple you will find yourself walking back downhill through a beautiful sculpture-filled park to the tiny but wonderful East Mountain Ancient Temple (Dong Shan Gu Miao 东山古庙), more than 600 years old and creaking with age. It’s roof is crowded with glazed ceramic wonders – dragons, fish, warriors on horseback, gods riding tigers and more. 
‘Heavenly official bestows good fortune’
Fantian Temple: Details
Lunshan Lu, Tong’an District, north of Xiamen Island
Admission free, open seven days

Night: Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street 中山路
Night time is the best time to meander along neon-lit Zhongshan Lu, a pedestrian-only street in downtown Xiamen. The street has a great laid back vibe and starts in the east, running westwards towards the waterfront. 
It’s lined with shops selling local delicacies like pineapple cake, dried shrimp, pastries and sweets, and the middle of the street has been given over to outdoor cafes selling tropical fruit juices and desserts, a perfect antidote to the warm weather (even in November!).
There is a terrific street food market running along Ding’an Lu, between Zhongshan Lu and Zhenhai Lu. Find a stall you like the look of, choose from the heaving tables filled with seafood and have it cooked to order. 
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street: Details
Open 24 hours
Most shops close at 9pm, restaurants open later.

Next post: Ten Must-Try Foods in Xiamen