Day Trip to Suzhou

March 15, 2010

One of my day trips from Shanghai found me in Suzhou (sometimes known as Soochow), about an hour and a half away, along the exotically named Yangtze Riverine Expressway. Suzhou is often called “The Venice of the East”, a reference to the ubiquitous canals crisscrossing the city; it even has a leaning tower (which by all rights should make it the Pisa of the East, but that’s another story for another day). Marco Polo is quoted waxing poetic about Suzhou (although it was “Suju” to him): “It is a great and noble city; it has 6000 bridges, all of stone, and so lofty that a galley, or even two galleys at once, could pass underneath one of them.”  I stopped counting at a couple of dozen, but I have no reason to doubt Marco Polo’s account; there are graceful arched stone bridges at every turn.

Since the tenth century, Suzhou has been the center of the Chinese silk industry, a position it jealously guards even today. There is a fine silk museum displaying antique and modern renditions of traditional designs. Countless silk factories, embroidery workshops, and tapestry makers offer tours to visitors, in hopes of separating them from copious quantities of their yuan. I am no connoisseur, but to my untrained eye the workmanship is unparalleled, and the prices reflect this. A small embroidered picture could easily set you back a simlar amount to what its creator makes in a month.

The fine thing about Suzhou, though, is the complete lack of boutique-y pretentiousness about the place. Sure, there are some touristy areas, but for the most part, the city is unashamedly charming, lovely almost by accident. The colors of the city are the colors of working people and nature: the sky reflected in the water of the canals, the flowers that break forth in cracks of old concrete, the drying clothes hanging from every window, the whitewashed walls and black tile roofs. Just a marvelous place to while away a few hours…or a few years.

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A Few Random Shanghai Notes

March 15, 2010

There is a saying  in China that Chinese will eat anything that swims except a submarine, anything with four legs except a desk, and anything that flies other than an airplane. These delicacies adorned a table top  in the waiting room of the day one lunch stop:

I opted for something a bit more mainstream, steamed fish with vegetables.

You’d almost think that you were driving in 1950s Detroit, the way Fords, Buicks and Chevrolets dominate the Shanghai automotive scene.

A big Buick I have never seen before

A Buick Firstland minivan

A quite attractive midsize Chevy

Sure, the taxis are largely made by VW, an updated 80s Passat, locally produced and known as the Santana:

And then there is the usual complement of Volvos, Beemers and Lexi, but by and large, the “it” car for the Shanghai glitterati is (get this!) the Buick Regal (yep, the same one that is a mainstay of US rental fleets), usually a black four-door.

GM displayed a moment of rare insight (or, if you prefer, a rare moment of insight) in locking up the China auto market even before most Chinese realized they wanted a car. It was a prescient move, as last year China edged out the US as the number one car market in the world. The car companies haven’t done such a good job on selling the Chinese on the notion of the romance of an open car, though. In the better part of a week in Shanghai, I have seen only one convertible, an Aston Martin; sadly, it was just a picture on a billboard, but at least it shows that convertibles are (apparently) on sale. It’s just that nobody wants them. Another quick note about cars in China: based on my admittedly limited observation, I would hazard a guess that brakes must last the life of the car in China, although horns likely must be replaced about every six months.

Regular readers may remember a Mysterious Orientations column a few posts back, in which I described my upcoming Shanghai lodging, as depicted on their website. Their catchphrase: “It’s just too good to be true!” Well, yes and no. The room was perfectly okay, perhaps even a bit better than okay. The breakfast was in the acceptable range as well, although this time it erred slightly toward the lower midrange, with indifferent breads (although real butter), none too special meats, and a variety of casserole-style dishes with Asian overtones. Oh, and coffee that in no way resembled the beverage I have come to know and love, except perhaps in color. What made it all work was the wacky early morning soundtrack: sixties and seventies hits like Smile a Little Smile For Me Rosemarie, Brandy, It’s So Nice to Be With You, Winchester Cathedral, One Tin Soldier, Wasted Days and Wasted Nights, and Rhinestone Cowboy (I’m missing some, I’m sure, but you get the idea). Most of these were tunes I was none too crazy about the first time around, but as I listened to them again I began to notice subtle differences from how I remembered them–a bit of difference in the phrasing here, a slightly different voicing of the instrumentation there. Now, as I have pointed out before, my memory is flawed at best, but I am pretty good with songs. I began to pay closer attention, and sure enough, these were not the originals, but rather some Chinese wedding band doing credible cover versions. As I was the only non-Asian in the place at the time, and one of few on hand who was even alive when these songs first topped the charts, there was nobody with whom to share my insight and amusement, sad to say. Still, it went a long way toward making me look forward to my morning grazefest.


Shanghai by Night

March 13, 2010


Lost: One Heart

March 13, 2010

I lost my heart in China; if someone finds it, please send it back to me. The young lady’s name is Yuyu, and I knew I was in trouble the first time I laid eyes on her. With her silken black hair, porcelain complexion, and liquid almond eyes, she was just adorable in every way imaginable. The first time I met her, she greeted me with the warmest of smiles, as if she recognized me from some previous life. She reached out both arms to envelop me in a gentle embrace, laying her head contentedly on my shoulder. From that point forward, we were inseparable; she wouldn’t let go of me once in the entire time we were together. Although we shared not a word of common language, it became quite evident through her gestures that she was enamored of my freshly trimmed beard; she rubbed it endlessly and made faces at me, laughing delightedly all the while. Much too soon it was time to go, and I had to bid my newfound sweetheart goodbye, likely forever. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco; mine was shanghaied in Shanghai.

PS, Yuyu’s mom was a cutie as well!


Beautiful Assassin

March 9, 2010

Michael C. White’s Beautiful Assassin showed up in my package of books from BookPage for April, and I glanced at the blurb only briefly before sidelining it with regard to BookPage’s Whodunit column (www.bookpage.com). After all, “a novel of love, loyalty, and intrigue set during World War II, in which a decorated Russian sniper finds herself caught between two suspicious allies”, didn’t seem to fit the brief of a mystery/suspense column. That said, I had every intention of reading it on my own time, and indeed it has been occupying most of my free moments for the past several days.

The story begins in 1996, or rather in a way it ends there, when reporter Elizabeth Meade pays a visit to one Irina Andreeva Bishop in a remote area of Colorado. Meade represents herself as a distant relative of Bishop’s deceased husband, but that is simply a ruse to get in the door. For as nearly as Meade can figure, Bishop is in fact Tat’yana Levchenko, a first-rate World War II sniper decorated for her bravery and marksmanship, and a key player in one of the greatest spy stories of the Roosevelt era, and a woman who dropped off the radar without a trace some fifty years before. Bishop’s claim of no knowledge regarding Levchenko quickly crumbles in the face of Meade’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and she grudgingly agrees to tell her story, but in her own way, and with certain conditions (i.e., from the beginning, no tape recorder allowed).

From then on, the narrative is related in the first person by Tat’yana Levchenko, the chronicle of her phoenix-like rise from the battle-scarred trenches of Sevastopol to the heady arena of wartime Washington, DC, where she was a friend and confidant of no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt. To the American public, Tat’yana was a heroine, the Beautiful Assassin, the fiercely attractive face of struggle against the tyranny of Nazism; on a more private level, she was a political pawn, used to spread disinformation and to gather compromising intelligence that the Soviets hoped to use in postwar negotiations, sealing their position as a world power to be reckoned with.

Beautiful Assassin is a work of fiction, to be sure, but it draws from real life situations and characters: the siege of Sevastopol is factual, the Russian spy network did indeed infiltrate the highest circles of Washington’s elite, and the speculation about the nature Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with her constant companion Lorena Hickok continues even today. Painstakingly researched, relentlessly paced, Beautiful Assassin is a book you will not put down easily, and one that will resonate well past the closing pages.


Shanghaied

March 9, 2010

A while back I wrote a Mysterious Orientations column about air travel in sensible countries, which engendered a fair bit of readership and some commentary as well. Due to visa renewal requirements, I am embarking today on a short trip out of Japan, this time to somewhere I have never been, Shanghai, China. I will be gone until the weekend, and will add posts to Mysterious Orientations en route if possible, but if not, I’m sure I will have plenty of column fodder upon my return.

This is one of those (in)famous Japanese short holidays, in which intrepid Tokyo-ites go huge distances in a short time, take several guided tours punctuated by arranged “shopping opportunities”, and arrive home wearier than when they left. Still, when you consider the price and the amenities, it is a heck of a deal: roundtrip airfare from Tokyo to Shanghai on China Airlines; four days of food, hotel, tours, and so on; transfers back and forth to the airport; and some other little stuff mentioned in the brochure. All for about $300 US.

There are some caveats: you cannot pick your flights, so you may have to go to the airport at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, or arrive home in the wee hours. Luckily, neither of those scenarios presented itself this time around. Also, you don’t get to pick your hotel and restaurants, which can be an issue, especially at that price point. So a few minutes ago, just for grins and interest, I logged on to the website of the hotel where I’ll be staying, the Vivasha Resort Hotel, and checked it out. You can see it at http://www.vivasha.com. On their opening page, a collage of Shanghai images, is their slogan: “It’s just too good to be true.” Indeed, upon having a look through the site, it appears to be a perfectly fine location from which to explore the city, not to mention a good deal more luxurious than either my apartment in Tokyo or the business hotels that I typically frequent when traveling. It will be interesting to see if it really is too good to be true.

In Hong Kong last year, the hotel (Kowloon’s Panda Hotel) more than lived up to its billing. It was fairly central, there was a shuttle from the front door of the hotel to the Star Ferry Terminal, and there was a French bakery with freshly-squeezed orange juice just across the street. That was another one of my cheapie visa runs, a week away from the Land of the Rising Yen, including hotel, air, and transfers for $350-odd. Only one tour, but that was fine with me. I can handle relatively few “shopping opportunities” without getting a bit cranky. One of my tour mates that time around was an Indian gentleman, by all appearances a wealthy one at that. We entered into the amethyst emporium “shop op”, and he proceeded to amass a small fortune’s worth of the semi-precious gems. When the shop assistant tallied up the total, it came to some large number with a seven at the front (70,000 or 700,000 Hong Kong dollars). She smiled winningly (and perhaps a bit flirtatiously) at her customer, and said demurely “How very fortunate; seven is a very lucky number in China.” No doubt as a result of years of honing his bargaining skills, he replied briskly “Indeed? In India, six is considered a very lucky number.” I didn’t stick around to see the resolution (I was too busy laughing), but he did indeed leave the building with a big grin and an even bigger bag o’ swag, so presumably the two came to some sort of accommodation.


My Dinner at Mizuno-san’s

March 8, 2010

This past Friday evening marked the second “My Dinner With Mizuno-san” occasion, fortified with food and spirits from Asia, Europe and the Americas, and featuring an international group of jovial attendees. Well, let me tweak that description just a hair: had I not been present, the “international” modifier would have to be omitted, although I am sure the occasion would have been no less jovial. The get-together takes place periodically at the shop of a genial Ikebukuro antique dealer, Mizuno-san, usually in the wake of one of his mega-auctions when the store is comparatively empty of treasures from the Orient and abroad. That’s Mizuno-san, upper right:

The cast of characters reads like a Who’s Who in Tokyo: one member is a renowned research physician; another is a bronze sculptor who has done major public installations all over Japan; yet another is a high-end kaiseki restaurateur; a fourth is known far and wide as a butterfly expert and collector (and I’m just scratching the surface here…). What all have in common is an admiration for art and antiques that brought them to Mizuno-san’s door in the first place, and the appreciation of stimulating conversation and camaraderie with others of like mind.

I am a bit of a latecomer to the gathering, having attended my first one around Christmastime. At first, I thought I would feel a bit like a fish out of water in a roomful of professionals speaking in a foreign (to me) tongue, but in fact, between their often comical attempts at English (resurrected from long-ago high school classes) and my equally hilarious forays into Japanese (fortified with hand gestures and silly facial expressions, not to mention liberal doses of medicinal alcohol), we were somehow able to communicate—after a fashion. Enough so that I was invited back for an encore, at least. Also, it must be said that I had a translator in tow; Saki-chan came to my rescue in those moments where gesticulation and grimace failed. She also did a fair bit of the photography; the better pictures here are undoubtedly hers.

For this outing, we were tasked with creating a sumi-e scroll to be put on display in Mizuno-san’s shop. He provided the paper; all of us were on our own with regards to design. I drew pictures of myself, my friend Saki, and my well-loved and now departed dog, Astro, along with the Japanese kanji and kana characters for our names. Let’s just say it was not the most inspired scroll on display, and certainly not the most Asian-inflected:

The guest of honor this time around was the above-referenced sculptor, Akio Kato. You can find examples of his work all over the internet; here’s one example, “The Day When the Fish Returned to the Brook” in Ube City :

Kato-san is an affable gentleman of eighty-two, although I would say he looks younger than that by a fair bit. He is old enough to remember the bombing of Japan firsthand, and he related stories about hiding out in a gutted building as explosions went off all around him. There was no sense of drama or exaggeration; he was simply recounting one day in his life. As is the case with many artists, he seems the most animated when he is creating, irrespective of the medium, so Mizuno-san set him up with sumi ink and drawing paper, and he proceeded to crank out renderings of whatever caught his (or our) fancy. I wanted a dog, and he came up with this:

Note the anatomic correctness of the dog, after I mentioned to Kato-san that my dog was a male. 

He went on to do an octopus for fellow attendee Tako-san (tako is Japanese for octopus), a bull, a rabbit, and a pair of carp.

Oh, and one last one; you might recognize this guy…