I finally made it to China this week, on a family holiday to visit my sister and brother-in-law in Shanghai with my brother, his wife and kids, and my mother. Here’s how six days typically pass in one of the world’s most exciting places when there are young children about.
8am: Wake up, raring to go and explore. 10am: Squabble about where to go. 11am: Drum your fingers while the laggards eat breakfast. 12pm. Froth as great activity related to dressing for sub-zero temperatures, results in zero forward momentum. 12.50pm: Finally get everyone out of the door. 12.51pm: Go back in because the baby has pooped. 1.30pm: Eat lunch, squabble. 2pm: Go home so that six exhausted adults can catch a quick nap. 5pm: Squabble about dinner. 8pm: Fall asleep (except for the kids).
Still, I did some nice things. On our first evening we went to the hot and happening M on the Bund restaurant, on the Huang Pu riverfront. I wondered if residents always went out in pink sequined bikinis, pink masks, pink feather boas, pink wigs and pink bunny ears and tails, until I was told that this was the joint’s tenth anniversary (dress code: something pink) and The Party of the Year.
The next day I went back to the restaurant’s Glamour Bar (barely recognisable sans burlesque dancers in nipple patches), to watch a documentary film about Jin Xing, who is one of China’s foremost dancers and who, before her sex change, used to be a Colonel-rank he in the People’s Liberation Army. Jin Xing was there, sharp, funny and beautiful, and talked about how she, her three adopted kids and her German husband deal with her alternative sexuality in a country which didn’t officially believe in alternative sexuality until quite recently. This was not how I imagined China at all.
I went to the Grand Hyatt hotel coffee shop, on the 54th floor of the bamboo stem-like Jin Mao Tower, for a bird’s-eye view of vaguely dystopian ranges of buildings fading into scarves of mist or smog. Shanghai is fabulous. It’s filled with sharp design, art galleries, parks, and beautiful neighbourhoods. The streets are spotless—and, importantly, peppered with cheap massage places—and the people are beautiful and dressed to kill (except for a few who still wander around in their nightclothes from the time when that was how you showed off the fact that you could afford nightclothes).
And I ate gloriously: Yunnan style, Hunan style, Szechuan style, Taiwanese style. Lily buds with celery or squash; ‘Jew’s ears’ mushrooms and fungi of every kind; the famous xiaolongbao (“little dragon pouches”—pork dumplings with soup inside); tofu topped with salmon roe; lotus stem; fish head…I could eat here all day, every day.
It’s odd that the streets of this notoriously insular 5,000-year-old civilisation are lined with Starbucks and Nike outlets, so I went to a Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk on the Chinese economy by MIT professor Yasheng Huang. A business journo handed me his card. “I’m a freelancer from Delhi and I don’t have a card,” I told him. “Oh yeah, he does some work for us—great work,” he replied, which made me wonder about his reporting.
My sister later told me that Huang had said some fascinating things about how China’s GDP figures mask the stagnation in household income growth. I spent the entire lecture wondering why the business journo drew a line down the middle of each of his notebook pages. My takeaway was: 1. Beijing-born Yasheng Huang doesn’t like Shanghai much. 2. Of approximately seven thousand journalists present, only one was wearing a red jacket. 3. Two glasses of wine are better than one. 3. I could totally live in Shanghai.