Strolling along the pedestrian section of Nanjing Street at night, The Family and I came across public nostalgia for Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. The 1920s and 30s were a gilded age. In this new gilded age of Shanghai, it seems that nostalgia for that century old era is rife. The photo shoot in the video was street theatre, very deliberate, drawing an appreciative audience. I was happy to do my bit of ambush photography.
The famous travel writer, Douglas Adams, wrote “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?” in the second volume of his definitive book, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After a day spent munching on little snacks I was on the How stage of development. The Family had progressed to Where.
There is a huge food store on the Nanjing Road pedestrian shopping street which we’ve wandered in and out of. Some of the counters there are extremely popular, and I’ve tried out biscuits and cakes from their many bakery counters. But some of the things on display raise questions that Douglas Adams never dreamed of, for example “What is it?” Or “What? Is that something you eat?” The dark things in the photo above looked like cocoons. I’ve eaten silkworm before, and found it quite nice, with a mild nutty taste. Is that what this is? I had no idea. It was clearly expensive, though. Not something to be trifled with if you didn’t know exactly what to do with it.
I was full enough that I wouldn’t have minded trying to order a glass of freshly pressed orange juice from the truck parked off Nanjing Road. I say trying, because it is always a little difficult to order if there is no menu. However, this being Nanjing Road, I was pretty certain that someone there would be able to translate my English. There was also a menu, so I could have pointed if necessary. The truck was doing roaring business, and I looked longingly at it.
We had planned out our dinners and lunches very rigorously in Guangzhou, but had forgotten to plan for our single dinner in Shanghai. The best idea that I could come up with was to walk around the maze of streets just north of Renmin Park and choose a place by looking at it. This could be interesting: the featured photo shows a place which was enormously popular. But this queue was too long for us. We walked through lanes filled with restaurants which looked bright and inviting while The Family spooled through her decision tree. The result was quite interesting and nice.
By the time we ventured out of our hotel in Shanghai it was almost 5 in the afternoon. We were tired from the lack of sleep. I could feel a migraine about to come on. Tourism would have to be light and we would need to retire early. From our hotel off East Nanjing Road it was about a kilometer to the Bund. We could do that.
East Nanjing road is fun in a very commercial kind of way. There are big stores lining the street, and a large number of well-dressed young people hanging around, especially around the apple store. In search of something local, we wandered into a bustling food shop. It was full of food we didn’t quite recognize. The Family picked up a packet of a local sweet. As we were paying for it we noticed that next to the cashier there was a container of hot water with skewers of boiled meat. Now that was local! There was also a counter of local ice creams doing brisk business.
We continued to the Bund. This was really full of life: local and tourists. The sun was going down behind us, so the skyscrapers of Pudong (East of Pu) were in bright sunlight. The golden hour had brought out an incredible number of photographers, so the edge of the Bund was crowded with tripods. Behind that phalanx other people walked, played or sat. I watched a couple of children playing as their grandmother looked on happily (photo on top). We walked on to see the everyday life of a Chinese city unfolding before us: so very much like ordinary life in India. We watched Pudong come alight as the sun set behind us. When the sky had turned a deep blue and Pudong was bright with lights we came down from the Bund.
David Sassoon’s is a famous name in Mumbai. This 19th century trader has left his mark on the urban geography of Mumbai. At the junction of the East Nanjing Road and the Bund is the house he built for himself. This grand structure is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. As we wandered past we saw this brace of photographers intent on capturing a piece of this history. They’d brought along a ladder: equipment that no photographer should be without. They saw me taking their photo, and had a laugh: a good way to connect with photographers with whom you do not share a language.
Dinner? The Family was wary. So we went into a mall which had two restaurants per floor for 6 floors. Two floors up we saw a restaurant called something like the Local Taste of Shanghai. Curious, we walked in. It was full of local couples. Very reassuring, we thought. We got the English menu, and decided to start with a beer and three things which looked innocuous: an abalone pancake, steamed dumplings, and a pumpkin pie. The pancake was like an Indian stuffed puri, the sesame covered pumpkin pies had a bean-paste filling, and the dumplings were like the Chinese dumplings we were used to. The Family decided that China was good. We were still hungry, so we ordered a plate of mushrooms, a plate of fried green beans and a bowl of rice (mifan). Our waitress helped by making a face when we ordered things that she thought wouldn’t go well with the rice. This was nice dinner to start our trip with, and it cost us only around INR 500 per head, with beer. It’ll be fun if we continue to eat like this.
After dinner we strolled down the road, people-watching again. This part of the town is full of lovely 19th and early 20th-century architecture covered with the glitter of the newly commercial 21st-century China. The combination can be somewhat startling (as in the photo above), but lively, and much fun. My migraine had receded after dinner, but both of were drooping. We returned to our hotel and turned in early. We had complicated plans for the next day.