We travel to China four times a year, and it’s always fun to watch the changing skyline. It has changed dramatically from our first visit in 2006, and I was curious to see what it looked like 20+ years ago. A friend recently sent me a photo, and I was blown away…Here’s a shot of Shanghai in 1987. Wow! The skyline today is really beginning to rival Hong Kong. And from what I hear, that’s exactly what the government intends to achieve.
Shanghai is the world’s fastest growing city – growing at a rate of 10% a year. The current population is 23.5 – nearly double what it was in 1987.
This is the newest tower going up – Shanghai Tower. It will be China’s tallest building and the world’s second tallest skyscraper, at 2,073 ft high. It is scheduled to finish by the end of 2014.It goes up into the clouds… One of our favorite Shanghainese restaurants overlooks the Bund – Shanghai Min (in Mandarin it’s Xiao Nan Guo). After indulging in amazing hong shao rou (red-cooked pork) our tradition is to take an evening stroll and check out the ever-changing river skyline. The ghosts/buildings of Shanghai’s past, still line the Puxi side of the Huangpu River. These stately historical Bund buildings once housed numerous banks and trading houses from the around the world.Today they are home to high end restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques and museums. It’s fun to see the old and new in close juxtaposition. Shanghai continues to be one of the most dynamic, interesting cities in the world.
When I realized we’d be in China for my 40th birthday, I knew it was the perfect chance to try a restaurant I’d been reading about for the last couple of years – Dragon Well Manor. Set amongst the rolling green tea fields of Hangzhou, Dragon Well Manor is one of the first farm-to-table, organic restaurants in China. Locally sourced – with the exception of occasional seafood dishes – the food served is traditional Hangzhou cuisine. So is it the best restaurant in China?
Many seem to think so. Fiona Dunlop (author of the amazing Sichuan cookbook “Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking“) wrote an article for the New Yorker about Dragon Well Manor that describes Hangzhou cuisine: “Our flavors are as varied as the Sichuanese, but they tend to be light and bright, without that heavy spiciness. We emphasize seasonal produce, and the essential tastes of our raw ingredients.” Hangzhou cuisine isn’t big on spices – which suits this fresh presentation.
A friend who speaks Mandarin made the reservations (which is a good thing because no one speaks English). The restaurant doesn’t advertise and is relatively unknown, except for locals in the know, and foodies who make pilgrimages here. The grounds surrounding the restaurant are beautifully manicured Chinese gardens. The restaurant is made up of a series of individual pavilions which customers reserve for the day. This isn’t a candle lit “dinner with your honey” sort of joint – this is Chinese style – you need to bring several well-heeled friends to split the bill with. The restaurant encourages you to show up in the afternoon and enjoy the gardens over a pot of tea and the sunset.
We had business to attend to, so we were unable to linger for the afternoon, but one could imagine Mandarins of old composing poetry in this elegant, classical Chinese environment.Our first course was freshly pressed soy milk served with savory and sweet condiments. I really enjoyed the pickled vegetable toppings. The condiments were similar to what is served with breakfast congee.
This was followed by a series of cold dishes, including pickled cucumber. However it was the next dish that got our attention – duck soup flavored with cicada. You heard right – bugs! Now I’m not one to let a bug disturb me – this is China after all…Cicadas are used to bring out the flavor of the duck in a light but rich broth. The duck was tender and the broth was delicate and delicious. The presentation of the dishes was flawless. And on and on the dishes rolled out. The Dongpo pork was another favorite – and a traditional Hangzhou delicacy. Named after revered Song Dynasty poet, artist and calligrapher Su Dongpo, this dish is slowly cooked pork belly braised in wine. It is one of those melt-in-your-mouth dishes you dream about.Other dishes included fresh and delicately cooked vegetables, river shrimp and bamboo. Diners can request to see the restaurant’s famous contract book – you’re able to read where the owner procured your meal locally.The dinner was served over the course of several hours and by the time we finished it was dark.So the question remains – is it the best restaurant in China? I wish was food expert enough to say, but it was truly one of the most lovely dining experiences I’ve had in Asia. And it was the perfect way to turn 40.
“Light Room is a tribute to the last of our generation who, in treacherous and grotesque times, haven’t been carried away with digital age. To those of us who have stayed true to traditional film cameras.
To those of us who spend all their waking hours planning their next shoots and their last pennies on developing roll upon roll of film. To those of us whose cameras are a natural extension of our arms, constantly wrestling with the reality surrounding them.
Their upbringing and life experiences have produced a generation full of emotions and sensitivities.
We are boastful, we are tender, aggressive; some of us are mild, calm; some of us are even rebellious. All of these traits are reflected in our work through different approaches.
In a broadened world, our voices hardly echo, and our youth is consumed. We doubt our self-awareness and express this subtly through our lenses. Everyday, we face the dilemma of being simultaneously isolated from, and addicted to, life.” (from EDGENeocha.com)
I’m really interested in this group of young photographers. As China continues to change at lightening speed, these artists represent the voice of a new generation. It’s cool to see where they point their cameras. It’s also great they’re working with film. Enjoy!
I’m getting ready to go on a buying trip, and one of the things I most look forward to is eating Chinese food. There are too many wonderful dishes to choose from, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few personal favorites.
Scallion Pancakes are a Shanghai tradition. We find them on the street behind our hotel in the French Concession. Served up piping hot in the morning, these savory pancakes pack a flavor punch. Made from flour, onions and oil, they are flaky and fall apart like croissants. Chinese legend has it that Marco Polo missed them so much, he had a chef recreate them in Italy. Improvising Napolese chefs took the recipe a step further and created pizza. At the very least, you get the idea Scallion Pancakes are something worth missing…
Shanghai is also the home of Xiao Long Bao – steamed soup dumplings stuffed with pork, crab, and vegetables. There’s a lot of competition for “the best” Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai. Having stood in long sweaty lines pursuing such leads, only to end up with a rubbery, non-soupy dumplings, I cut the chase and go straight to Din Tai Fung for my dumpling fix.
Din Tai Fung originated in Taipei where it was awarded one Michelin star. (Din Tai Fung can be also found Stateside in Bellevue, WA and Arcadia, CA.) Din Tai Fung in Shanghai has now upped the ante by serving pork dumplings with truffles. Oh man, I’m drooling just thinking about them. http://www.dintaifung.com.cn
Nothing takes the chill out of a cold winter night faster than a bubbling Chinese Hot Pot. Hot pot originated over 1000 years ago, and spread all over China during the Qing Dynasty. The ingredients used, vary by region. Most hot pot restaurants in China offer both mild and spicy broths as well as thinly sliced meats, seafood, vegetables and tofu. There’s a place we found in Hangzhou that has tons of sauces to add to your pot, which was a lot of fun. I’m a big fan of chilis, sesame paste and garlic.
Mapo Tofu is another one of those dishes that make my mouth water. It is a Sichuan dish made with tofu in a spicy chili and bean curd sauce with minced pork and garlic. It is topped with mouth tingling Sichuan chili peppercorns.
Ma stands for “mazi” (Pinyin: mázi Traditional Chinese 麻子) which means a person disfigured by pockmarks. Po (Chinese 婆) translates as “old woman”. Hence, Ma Po is an old woman whose face was pockmarked. It is sometimes translated as “Pockmarked-Face Lady’s Tofu”. Legend says that the pock-marked old woman (má pó) was a widow who lived in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Due to her condition, her home was placed on the outskirts of the city. By coincidence, it was near a road where traders often passed and they stopped and ate Ma Po’s tofu. (Wikipedia)
I thought I’d end this post with something sweet. You can’t visit Hong Kong without eating Egg Custard Tarts. Custard tarts were introduced in Hong Kong in the 1940s by tea houses. One theory suggests Hong Kong egg tarts are an adaptation of English custard tarts. Another theory suggests that egg tarts evolved from the very similar Portuguese egg tart pastries, known as pastel de nata, traveling to Hong Kong via the Portuguese colony of Macau (Wikipedia). Regardless, they’re present street side in Hong Kong, as well as a staple of Dim Sum dining. Yum!
Whenever I’m in Shanghai, I stock up on the latest Chinese movies. I just watched two powerful documentaries I’d like to recommend.
“Up the Yangtze” was shot in 2007 and tells the story of people whose lives are affected by the building of the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province. The story follows a young girl whose home is literally being swallowed by the rising waters. She goes to work on a tourist cruise ship and has to learn the ropes of the tourist industry. Old and new worlds collide – the girl’s parents are poor farmers and the tourists on the boat are rich Americans. To work in the tourist industry means learning English, and learning how to service Western culture. It is a bittersweet portrait of modern China.
“Last Train Home” tells the personal story of migrant factory workers in Southern China. This beautifully shot film documents what is the largest migration of humans in the history of the world – 200 million workers make their way home for a month during the annual Chinese New Year holiday. The Zhangs have been working in factories for 16 years, sending money home to the grandmother who is raising their two children. They have been saving money to send their children to school and hopefully a more prosperous life. These plans are frustrated by a bitter 16 year old daughter (who is resentful of her absent parents) and whose plans to join the factory workforce, throws the family into turmoil. It is a poignant study in how the rush for money and success in new China is destroying traditional family values.
Both films are excellent studies of the difficulties facing modern Chinese citizens. The emphasis on success is very high, but it often comes at a price – the destruction of a nuclear family life. I highly recommend both films for their insights on the rapidly changing Chinese cultural and emotional landscape.
This is one of these spots in China where you’re surrounded by tour groups with matching hats. Being fair haired, I had the good fortune of getting my picture taken with a number of these folks.
The cave was named for the reeds growing outside the cave from which locals made flutes. Despite the general tourist chaos, the caves are quite beautiful and I particularly like the reflection in this picture. Or maybe it just reminds me of the place I felt like a movie star for a day. Nah…
Spin Ceramics’ design studio in the Shanghai suburb of Wujing Town
It’s fair to say that Chinese contemporary design lags somewhat behind other creative industries. Bar a few pioneering designers who’ve started their own small companies, there’s still little interest outside elite circles, in buying good design on a mass scale.
Spin ceramics is a small but impressive company that is bridging the gap between luxury and democratic, commercial and domestic design. What started in 2004 as a brainwave by the interior designer, Gary Wang, has quickly spun into the closest thing contemporary Chinese design has to a household name.
Whilst in Shanghai we swung out of the city to Wujing Town to visit Spin’s nucleus – the studio where the six graduate designers work on the company’s prototypes.
Like all good ideas, it started small and sensible – so sensible in fact it seemed laughably obvious: to turn existing expertise into good design. The china industry that gave China its name had fallen into decline, stuck in a rut producing gaudy, antique knock-offs for the tat market despite having such an esteemed heritage. Wang, with a small factory in the Jingdezhen province (the original heart of China’s china production), kick-started ceramics for a contemporary market, stripping away the gaud and putting function and simplicity back in the kiln.
Wang looked to the many universities in Shanghai, Beijing and Jingdezhen that still taught ceramics to find his small team of designers and encouraged them to experiment, with form, technique and glaze – all the while keeping simplicity and function to the fore.
Just four years later and Spin has three showrooms, one each in Shanghai, Beijing and Melbourne and Spin tableware is now found across the length and breadth of China, in hotels, restaurants and, maybe more impressively, homes.
Spin might still be a small company, but it is pioneering in its mission to update a traditional Chinese craft heritage and make it relevant and affordable for the masses.
My husband and I took a much needed break from our hectic buying trip to visit Tiantong Temple, 20 kilometers outside of Ningbo. Located in the beautiful Taibai mountain region, the temple has been in existence since 300AD. Built and rebuilt over the centuries, the temple is one of the biggest in China.
Today about 120 monks (no nuns) live at Tiantong Temple. It has 720 rooms – down from an original 900 rooms – and is the birthplace of Chan/Zen Buddhism – a form of Buddhism which emphasizes sitting meditation. A 26 year old Japanese monk named Dogen Zenji famously studied here and went on to found the Japanese Soto Zen branch of Buddhism. For this reason Tiantong Temple is a famous pilgrimage site for followers of Japanese Zen and plays an important role in cultural exchanges between China and Japan.
We took our time walking around the peaceful temple grounds which are surrounded by green hills and towering bamboo trees. We savored a delicious vegetarian lunch overlooking a large pond before diving back into the chaos of Shanghai.