I had a gig for five years—just ended last summer—as the international programs dean at an East Coast law school. It meant I got to spend five weeks every summer in Rome or Paris. Not too hard to take. But it also meant I was flying 13 hours in coach to and from China several times a year. That was a little harder to take, but as a result I have a lot of experience in China.
So let me start with a summary of the things I like in China:
- – Dumplings
- – Shanghai
- – Dumplings in Shanghai
- – High-speed trains
That just about covers it. Oh, and the students were great. For American teachers/professors, let me lay this revelation on you. There’s a place where students Do What You Tell Them. That place is called China. I’ve never seen students who, as a group, are harder working or less questioning of their instructor’s demands. They actually come to class having read the assignments and they complete homework. Seriously. All the time.
But back to dumplings and Shanghai. First, dumplings. It may come as a shock, but in China, “Chinese food” is called “food.” And this includes amazing noodles and… mmmmmm… dumplings. Many of you have had Chinese dumplings at some Yankeefied dim sum restaurant, but in China there are actual dumpling restaurants. (These are defined as “restaurants that serve nothing but dumplings.”) I know this seems too good to be true, but I’m serious. I’ve been in several of them and therein eaten Mountains of Many Delicious Dumplings. It doesn’t get any better than that. (Although in Italy they have a thing called a cannoleria which sells nothing but—get ready for it—cannoli. I know this sounds like the sighting of Big Foot or a yeti, but I swear to God, it exists.)
It turns out through a fortuitous conjunction of ch’i, karma and dumb luck, the Very Best Dumplings in China can be had in my most favorite Chinese place, that quaint little burg of 24 million, Shanghai.
Why do I love Shanghai? I just do. It’s unique among Chinese cities, if you exclude Hong Kong, which is only belatedly and begrudgingly a “Chinese city” anyway. Part of the reason is that the hand of the Communist Party rests quite lightly on Shanghai. In Beijing, you can’t go 100 feet without seeing a clutch of guys in some kind of uniform doing Something Official with Stern Looks on Their Faces and surrounded by a few dozen red Chinese flags. You’d have to work fairly hard to find either in most parts of Shanghai. It’s just not much of a thing there.
Shanghai also has some of the most beautifully preserved Art Deco and Beaux-Arts architecture and interiors outside of Paris. The city went from full-blown Jazz Age Art Deco Coolness to Japanese Occupation to Chinese Communist Takeover in a more or less seamless continuum. Once the Communists took over, no one had the resources or inclination to tear down the great old buildings and replace them with big grey Socialist Realism-style heaps. Once China got all modern and rich starting in the 1980s, all the big Chinese companies and returning Western corporations found it de rigeur to have a lavishly restored genuine Beaux-Arts or Art Deco building of their very own. And some of these buildings are truly spectacular.
It turns out that Shanghai was considered a trendy and exotic destination back as far as the 1890s and then for a few more glorious years after World War II. Doris Day even had a minor hit about Shanghai which from our vantage point has the double whammy of mild cultural insensitivity and virulent earworm-ishness. The genesis of this Euro-American sense of hipness stems from the distinctly unhip foreign domination of the major cities of coastal China beginning in 1842. By World War I, there were over 40 of these “concessions.” I mean even the Belgians had one for crying out loud. Ever wonder why the inevitable beer you get at a Chinese restaurant in the USA is Tsingtao? It’s because one of the three German concessions was, you guessed it, the port city of Tsingtao (now Qingdao, because the old spelling was too easy to pronounce).
The center of Shanghai contains three very cool areas. The Anglo-American International Settlement includes a famous boulevard, The Bund, which runs along the Huangpu River. The riverfront buildings are mostly in Beaux Arts style and are occupied by Many Big Corporations and Banks who can afford to keep them immaculately well-preserved, inside and out. The French Concession area is what it sounds like—a little slice of Paris in China, with some great restaurants, architecture, and nightlife. It’s also The Trendy Place for expats to live.
My regular hotel in Shanghai was in the International Settlement, just off the Nanjing Road near People’s Park. It’s a lovingly restored Art Deco gem called The Yangtze. I loved sitting in the mezzanine bar overlooking the sweeping curved staircase from the lobby. I don’t drink alcohol, so I’d while away my free time drinking tea and reading murder mysteries. I always got a creepy sensation the back-lit bar was missing that ghost bartender from “The Shining,” but I felt very much in touch with my Lost Generation hero-authors there. I almost expected Gertrude Stein to stomp in and insult me.
But most important in terms of dumplings—and you knew I’d get back to them—is the Old City area. Old City is a misnomer, since it’s the one part of Shanghai the Japanese more or less leveled during World War II, so the “Old” part of Old City is ersatz “Old.” But it’s well done ersatz and the Chinese faithfully reproduced the narrow switchback streets with overhanging buildings and the little lake and teahouse in the center. (Warning: there is now a Starbuck’s across from this old teahouse. Sigh.) This is where you find real Shanghai dumplings, which by general consensus are the best dumplings on the planet. Perhaps in the universe, but I’m withholding judgment on that.
Here’s how it works. You walk into the dumpling joint, many of which are on the second floor of buildings for whatever reason, and order… dumplings. You might, although this is not guaranteed, be able to get something to drink, but the only chewables you’re going to get are dumplings. You go to a dumpling place for the sole purpose of eating dumplings. There will be many varieties—and you should try ALL OF THEM. There are steamed and pan fried. There are chewy and soft. There are pork-filled, veggie-filled, shrimp-filled, and chicken-filled. There are many varieties filled with substances one cannot (and should not) identify. Eat them all.
You may remain in the dumpling shop as long as you’re eating dumplings. They’ll keep bringing you dumplings until you ask them to stop. This occurs in one of two ways: using your Google Translate speaking mode, which “speaks” in a version of Mandarin incomprehensible to Shanghailanders, or stuffing yourself until you roll around like a Weeble and the waiter takes pity and stops schlepping dumplings. I mostly prefer the second option. Once you stop eating dumplings, you’re meant to vacate the premises—if you still can—since lingering after the meal is considered very poor manners.
A last thing that endears me to Shanghai is its quirks of geography and climatology. Due to its location in the Yangtze delta on the coast, it enjoys regular onshore breezes almost daily. This has the incomparable benefit of cleaning out the air pollution which makes day-to-day living in most other big Chinese cities periodically A Living Hell. (Beijing, I’m looking at you.) Not that the air is pristine, just not chunky and chewy like it is in Chongqing or Tianjin a lot of the time.
So I love Shanghai, unapologetically and unconditionally. I’ve left my law school gig to live a more bucolic life back in the Commonwealth of Virginia and there are only a few things I miss. Shanghai is near the top of that list. And summers in Rome. Where they have a cannoleria.
What are your favorite foreign or exotic places? Any that you find yourself going back to again and again, in body or in thought? Please share in comments.