It wasn’t really underwater. It was on a basement floor, below sea level, but not underwater. Unless everything underwater is always florescent, in which case I’m mistaken. Rachel’s idea of trying something “a little different” was certainly that – on Wednesday night, over in the New World Centre in Pudong (on the dark side of the river, where we seldom visit), we ventured into a strange world of crazy golf, Chinese style. We declined the offer of having our own personal scorer, and stumbled through the course with our florescent golf balls and clubs. A strange experience…. Rachel has these ideas…
The previous night’s strange experience wasn’t of Rachel’s doing. An attempt to try out a couple of bars on the Bund before heading to the Red Door restaurant sounds innocuous enough, but after being refused entry at the Red Door for our lack of burlesque outfits to walking out of another restaurant for being insulted by the waiter over my choice of beer (amongst over things), it was another strange night.
A few more such nights await before we leave…
Rachel, me and Bron in the Lighthouse bar
Absinthe cocktails in the Long Bar, Waldorf Astoria
View of Pudong skyline from the Lighthouse bar
Although the boat looks superimposed, it was definitely there…
Back home in the UK, one particular event always indicates the start of summer, and never mind fiddling with the clocks or the wearing of shorts. Whether early in a March heatwave or late in May’s eventual surrender to warmth, our goodbye to winter is always indicated by the first barbecue of the year. So this year, as the UK currently clings to winter in an inversely proportional way to how Bron and I are clinging on to life out in China, our first barbecue carried an inevitable Chinese feel.
Our ‘Tree-top Villa’ in the mountainous Moganshan region was just that – one of about 30 villas bordering a narrow valley, positioned high up overlooking the trees. Each with its own barbecue, hot tub and personal (ish) host. Lillian, our host, performed an admirable job, succumbing to the many demands of Isaac, Chong, Bron and I without complaint as we attempted to relax amongst the trees.
‘Naked Retreats’ (please note: not ‘nudist’ retreats) offers its guests the opportunity to spend a few days away from Shanghai’s relentless pressure to ‘Do Something’ by choosing instead to do absolutely nothing, which is pretty much what we did. Shunning the available activities such as bike riding, hiking, archery and incongruously, Land Rover driving, we chose to spend our time popping in and out of the hot tub, ambling around and of course, having our first barbecue of the year.
Three hours from Shanghai, the Naked Retreat resort is a staggeringly effective use of a landscape, making use of nature to provide its guests with a unique, eco-friendly experience. March has given us a few fantastic weekends, and this one no different (despite losing at majiang to a very sleepy Isaac).
I am curious, though, as to how such a relaxing, effortless weekend can leave us all feeling so tired…
Our villa – Owl Number 1
Contemplating the hot tub…
Our villa (the one on the right)
Underneath one of the villas
We hope the supporting struts went very, very deep…
Here in Shanghai, the burgeoning music scene features bands of all ages, nationalities and styles. I’d like to think our temporary, but all-too-brief additional gave the lucky few present on Friday night something very exclusive.
Moganshangrila: a band name picked from Bronwen’s suggestion of using the location where Felix and I first met (Moganshan) mixed with the paradise lost of Shangri-la. Kind of fitting.
From November’s first musical meeting between me and Felix through to playing live for the first (and probably) last time on Friday 22nd March 2013, the last few months have been incredibly proficient from a song-writing perspective. Felix and I somehow managed to compose 12 songs from an equal number of rehearsals, and again somehow managed to play live with the full, five-member band despite having only rehearsed that way on three previous occasions. We have fairly different musical influences (we probably have more in common with what we both dislike than what we like), but when it comes to writing songs, Felix and I have an almost intuitive connection. Each time we meet for a rehearsal, a new song appears.
So on Friday night, Moganshangrila played live for the first and probably last time. Over in the OV Gallery in the Art District of Shanghai (co-incidentally, but not deliberately, on Moganshan Road), we played to a mixture of local friends, work colleagues and language teachers. A fantastic night, nerve-wracking but utterly rewarding. Shanghai has given so much to me and Bron over the last year; it continues to do so right up to the end.
So the band then:
On bass: Michi
Michi: A teacher colleague of Felix’s, proving to be an effervescent and enthusiastic bass player, joining the band at very late notice but picking up the songs incredibly quickly. Also very forgiving, since I decided to experiment a little with one of the songs whilst live on stage but forgot I had a bass player playing along with me.
On keyboard: Chong looking cool
Chong: A local friend we met whilst on a trip to Wuxi last year, currently learning the piano but joining the band under a little duress after repeated requests from me (we desperately needed a keyboard player). So brave to play live despite being relatively new to the piano, and very new to my Novation box of electronic tricks. Chong’s effortlessly calm, serene stage presence increased the cool factor of the band by a factor of 10.
On drums: James
James: A student from Singapore temporarily living in Shanghai who responded to Felix’s online advertisements for a drummer. And what a drummer – incredibly talented, intuitive and energetic. Thanks also to James for dramatically lowering the average age of the band (not quite by a factor of 10 but not far off).
On vocals: Felix giving it all…
Felix: In some cases, able to listen to a song for the first time and then add a melody to it on the second listen. An inspired lyricist, with biting, abstract wit. In some cases managing the rare feat of writing lyrics perfect for singing along whilst also carrying a hidden agenda/depth/message (study the lyrics at your peril if you’ve ever been drunk in Felix’s presence).
Me: A very happy guitar player, delighted to have some of my songs (a couple written when 16) finally given a leading melody and lyrics, and played to a larger audience than at a barbecue when in student days.
Thankyou so much for our supporting cast members too, particularly Bronwen for allowing us to rehearse on her birthday.
After our 12 song set, the audience demanded an encore, so we played “The Pool” once more due to its relevance to many of the audience members (unknowing/unwilling victims to Felix’s lyrical dissection of the pool party evening). And for a second encore: a song called “First Last”, so fitting as the first and last song of definitely our first and probably our last ever live appearance.
Here are a couple of video links to the performance:
Here, for posterity (mainly mine) is the set list:
All The Tunes
All The Tunes
And finally: thankyou to all our friends and colleagues who came along and supported us for the evening!
In Shanghai, people from all over the world congregate to explore, experience and be entertained by China. But Shanghai isn’t really China. It’s like somebody living in London for a year and then claiming they’ve fully experienced life in the United Kingdom. Shanghai is a cosmopolitan city, easing foreigners into life in China with its mix of local and Western brands, restaurants and shops*.
Shengtian, hidden away in the depths of Sichuan province, is about as far removed from Shanghai as Huyton is from London. On Friday March 15th, we flew into Yibin City airport with Anny for a weekend of visiting both the natural and man-made beauty of the surrounding area, and also to explore Anny’s home town of Shengtian.
A couple of the random people we met that asked to have their photo taken with us
I think it would be fair to say the area was not overly familiar with foreign visitors, particularly in Shengtian. Bronwen and I (well, Bronwen in particular) now feature in many more photographs than originally intended. Some none-so-subtly taken by people walking past, some taken by people asking for us to pose with them. All very friendly though – and again, so far removed from life in Shanghai.
The Chinese Way (as Anny puts it) is to make guests feel like royalty and attempt to prevent them spending any money whatsoever. This is the generosity imbued in the personality of most Chinese people we’ve met; to ensure guests have the best possible time without allowing any such nonsense as sharing the bill, paying an entrance fee or buying a round of drinks. We stayed at Anny’s sister’s house in Yibin, along with her husband and son (now with the English name of “Tom”). Hospitable and accommodating, they vacated their bed for us, fed us and watered us.
On Friday evening we met up with a few of Anny’s school friends who took us to a hot pot restaurant followed by the ubiquitous KTV (karaoke) bar. Initially bemused at how small the beer glasses were in the restaurant, it didn’t take long to realise I was going to be unable to sip the beer quietly, instead having to down each glassful in a salutation with somebody else around the table. A great bunch of people, and very touching to see a relaxed and temporarily carefree Anny catch-up with her old friends…
In keeping with the focus on family and friends, Anny had kept in touch with one of her old teachers, whose son volunteered to help drive us around for the weekend. We had an early-ish start on Saturday for a trip to the “Bamboo Sea of Southern Sichuan”, an area of outstanding natural beauty elevated between 600m and 1000m above sea level. Being somewhat scared of heights, Anny did well to make it to the top of the pagoda and to later walk around the sheer cliff edges by Xianyu Cave.
With Anny’s extended family
A perplexing amount of relatives were in attendance for a feast on Saturday night at Anny’s grandmother’s house. As is normal, a huge variety of dishes on offer, most of which I think would go down incredibly well in the UK. Again, as is normal, we ate far too much, drank far too much (never again will I attempt to match a Chinese person at rice wine drinking, despite my worry about committing some kind of cultural or social faux-pas by refusing) and slept too little.
Feeling a little groggy on Sunday morning but awoken by an excellent batch of mixed dumplings (I can’t do this justice – dumplings here are not like anything I’ve had in the UK; they even work towards curing hangovers), we set off again to see Anny’s home town. This time Shengtian was far busier, with seemingly most of the residents out and about in the warmth. A beaming Anny took us to a local tea house (equivalent of 10p for a “bottomless” cup of tea) and to a rice wine shop for us to buy a very Chinese souvenir to take home with us.
Anny’s teacher cooked us lunch (8 dishes served up in the amount of time Bronwen and I would probably need just to make rice) before returning to her sister’s house and the reluctant return to Shanghai. With suitcases and carry-on bags almost entirely full of local food.
Another of my favourite weekends in China (I have several now)**; we were made to feel welcome by all and great to see China in a more authentic way than is really possible in Shanghai.
*And it’s just that that makes Shanghai such a great city to live in – as long as Westerners don’t kid themselves they’re fully immersed in Chinese culture just by nature of being here.
**I need to cut down on my use of brackets (parentheses).***
***Not funny, I know.
Lunch for 40p in Yibin City
A couple of the random people we met that asked to have their photo taken with us
Dinner with Anny’s old school friends
A young lad rushes to have his photo taken with us (no, seriously)
A few glorious views, but a shame about the misty air
Anny with her old teacher’s son
Great views from the top of the pagoda
Anny a little nervous close to the edge, high up
Why chop a tree down to build your extension…
…when the tree can just stay in your extension.
Prim and proper for lunch
Anny clinging to the wall…
Locks to secure relationships (so we’re told)
The lady with the nice hat washes her hands
Walking home through one of Sichuan’s many bamboo forests
An incredibly strong lady
The biggest house spiders we’ve ever seen
With Anny’s extended family
At Anny’s old junior school
The back streets of Shentian
Anny’s attempts to demonstrate her basketball prowess…
…were only partially successful
Anny’s old senior school
At the tea shop in Shentian
Anny and Bron tasting the rice wine (I couldn’t face it again)
(A little late with this blog entry – been a busy few weeks)
Another of the things I’m going to miss in China: The incredibly friendly way in which a friend’s family can welcome you into their home as if you were a lifelong family friend, despite having met you for the first time 10 minutes ago.
In a typically Chinese way, Bron and I went from a Friday morning expecting to be spending a weekend in Shanghai to Friday afternoon being invited by Linda to join her on a trip to her hometown of Shaoxing, a city in Zhejiang province, just under 3 hours away from Shanghai. And so we did, joined by Linda’s husband and daughter along with Anny’s family.
Linda’s parents, sister and son welcomed us into their home in a wonderfully warm way, with a feast laid out before us upon our arrival. I think I’ve mentioned this previously, but it’s worth repeating: whereas I think Indian food in the UK is very similar to that found in India (although inevitably Anglicised to some extent), Chinese food in the UK bears very little resemblance to that I’ve experienced out here. If you look hard enough, you may find Sweet & Sour Pork on a menu somewhere, but why would you?
Shaoxing and its surrounding towns and villages are in equal measures picturesque, quaint and rooted in history. As the birthplace of Lu Xun, one of China’s greatest and most revered writers of the 20th century, the city is replete with many artifacts and attractions devoted to his life.
Away from the culture, we stayed in probably the cheapest hotel I’ve ever stayed in (equivalent of £14 per night), but all was fine. We discovered later Anny’s room had an extra feature: a shower in the middle of the room with floor to ceiling glass walls.
Another excellent weekend away, with a few insights into local life away from the Western influences of Shanghai. Thanks so much to Linda for the invitation, for your husband for driving us there and back, and for your extended family for making us feel incredible welcome.
Before leaving for Shaoxing, again in another impromptu sort of way, Isaac, Flo and Marcel joined Bron and I on Friday night for a few Shanghai classics (Sailors for Fish and Chips, Handle Bar for draught beer and Closless for cocktails). A great way to end the working week, cheering us up somewhat given the news we’ll be returning to the UK soon.
Bron gets approached by a complete stranger telling her how beautiful she is…
Rachel is right though; Shanghai has this weird way of making you feel comfortable and then all of a sudden reminding you you’re in foreign place with no right to feel that way. We’ve had a couple of friends come and go, with a couple (Marcel and Hannah) about to leave. Fortunately, Marcel’s heading to London so we’ll no doubt catch up over that side of the world. We know people that have been here for 11 years and we’ve met people that have stayed here for 3 months and gone. It’s hard work, getting comfortable in Shanghai. And you’re never sure when that reminder is going to come.
Rachel – we’re British and so don’t do sentimental (especially when not in airport lounges). But we’ll miss you too, without a doubt. No idea how we ended up coming all the way to China and becoming great friends with an American though.