Weekend in Shanghai (updated)

This weekend included a 30-hour but still too brief visit to Shanghai. Shanghai is of course a massive city, and an increasingly vertical one, and probably reminds me more of New York than most cities I visit.

This photo captures both the old and new of the city. In the background is the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower. In the front, we see a high-rise building on side, and one of the tenement buildings that line many streets, with five or more stories of clothes (and the occasional cooked duck) hanging to dry.

It was taken while walking east from a downtown neighborhood towards The Bund, the riverfront in an older part of the city One can look across the river and see the new Pudong district that is most visually associated with Shanghai and features it’s tallest, newest buildings.

Visibility was relatively poor on both days, and I did not cross to the other side of the river to see the view of the Bund.

Food was a major part of day (as it has been throughout my stay in China), and Saturday featured both a snack of “soup buns” at small hole-in-the-wall shop where the upper level was barely tall enough to stand in, and an extraordinary Japanese-fusion meal at which my friends and I over-indulged for a couple of hours. After that, we headed to a local jazz club called the Cotton Club (I wonder where they got that name from?), where we heard what I would describe as a “typical jazz-club combo” that wouldn’t be very memorable except of course that it was at a jazz club in China.

The night concluded with brief stops at a few of the dance clubs. One featured two sections, an upstairs with a mixed-crowd of foreigners and locals, and a downstairs that was almost exclusively local. The latter definitely had better music (deep synth trance and beats). Of course, one of the main attractions of the nightlife (which continues well beyond the hour when almost every city in the U.S. closes down) is the people watching. Without dwelling upon it too much in this article, Shanghai did afford great opportunities for people watching, starting with our walk along the extremely crowded Nanjing Road and concluding as we departed the last club well into the morning.

I did have an opportunity to explore more on my own Sunday. I began in some of the quieter neighborhoods near where I was staying, and experienced a more local view of the city.
A walk through Zhongshan Park was in some was a more aural experience than visual. The park was already relatively crowded, with numerous groups practicing traditional Chinese exercises, dance lessons, and band practicing for the upcoming New Years celebrations:

The “music” of the park would change every few meter, as one moved from the metallic percussion of the band to a group dancing to disco from the 1970s. A few feet later, the disco and 1950s pop is overtaken by slower more meditative traditional Chinese music that serves as the background for exercises. Finally, a small portable player of low quality provides something akin to circuit bending.

Regular readers of this site know that I am fond of urban side streets and alleys, so I spent a few minutes in the narrower side streets of the neigbhorhood:

This alley reminded me of a photo I took not far from home in San Francisco last summer.

Along Ding Xi Road, I met the proprietor of a small boutique clothing store and her cat. Look for them to be featured in the next “Weekend Cat Blogging.”

After lunch together with friends again (one really cannot dine alone here), I headed back downtown via the Metro. I pride myself on being able to get around a city when I have a good subway system, a map and a general sense of direction. I was able make my way back to the Bund and Nanjing Road to see them during the daytime. I think the one word description of this area would be “crowded.” And I mean crowded on a level one rarely would see even in New York, and with far more dangerous street crossings. Plus, unlike my earlier walks, people expect foreigners in this district and are constantly on the look for sales opportunities. It is relatively easy to simply ignore them, but the crowds and constant interaction did become a little draining at times. It’s something to consider, I am a “city person” and I don’t mind crowds, but I do need breaks.

At Peoples Square, I did brave one last round of crowds to arrive at the Shanghai Art Museum. Even though it was only a block from one of the busiest open spaces and transit hubs in the city, the courtyard was a remarkable oasis of calm. After taking a moment to relax, I went inside to see the current exhibition, a retrospective of Wu Guanzhong. His work, which includes both oil painting and ink painting, and often focuses on Chinese scenes and themes. Many of paintings are of clearly of landscapes, animals and architecture of China, with an impressionist quality but also more minimal. However, many of later works were more abstract, although with Chinese themes. This was especially true of his ink paintings, some of which were quite large in size and reminded me of the “Autumn Rhythm” series of Jackson Pollock. One of the abstract in paintings called Entanglement relates back to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, which I had the opportunity to visit before heading into Shanghai and will be the subject of the next article…

Spotted Cat in the news

While I was back in New York thanksgiving weekend, the Sunday Times ran an article on New Orleans in the travel section. Not only that, they featured the Spotted Cat, both in the article and as the cover photo for the section:

Readers may remember that I also featured the Spotted Cat in my article on NOLA night life. It has unfortunately been getting bad press lately, but not because of the music or the club itself, which remains one of the best venus in New Oreleans. Rather, the Marigny neighborhood has seen a spike in crime over the past few months, including some nasty murders – the most disturbing one involved a former Spotted Cat employee. It appears to be part of an overall increase in crime in New Orleans since people returned after Katrina.

With such negative perceptions, it's important to highlight the positive in New Orleans and it's institutions. In addition to my articles, others are doing their best to provide some good press for the Spotted Cat.

NOLA Night Life

In addition to the late-night events at the conference, I made of exploring other aspects of New Orleans’ famed night-time culture.

While the French Quarter at night is a rather unique experience, there’s only so much one can take of endless streams of loud, drunk tourists. One of the concerns after Katrina is that this would become the only story in New Orleans. There are, however, good opportunities to hear local music at small venues outside the tourist district.

One neighborhood that stood out was the Fauborg Marigny district. This is small triangle area to the east of the French Quarter, a lot funkier, with a feel more like a trendy “up-and-coming” neighborhood in New York or San Francisco. It seems to be the main hangout for the local crowd as well as local musicians outside the standard tourist circuit. I kind of “adopted” this neighborhood for many of my evenings – in particular, I found myself at a club called The Spotted Cat several times. It’s a cozy place, with interesting artwork and decor, and what is often described as some of the “best local live jazz in New Orleans.”

It’s a rather small operation, cash only – and it looks like their website “thespottedcat.com” is offline and (like more of New Orleans’ real estate) apparently in the hands of speculators. But it seems like a safe bet to just drop in a see who is playing. I heard quite a variety of music, a local character known as “Chaz Washboard” who played, not surprisingly, a washboard, but one augmented with a couple of resonant metal cans and a hotel bell. As someone interested in homemade and alternative instruments, this was a little bonus. The following night I heard an ad-hoc group playing jazz standards, but featuring a remarkable pedal-guitarist named “Dave” who could make his instrument sound like a “strummed piano.” The next band that night was a set of local jazz musicians doing an extended bebop jam – musica gratia musicae. One regular group, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, plays old swing and popular jazz every Friday. I went with a couple of friends from the conference at the place was packed, spilling out into the sidewalk (where drinks are of course legal). This club was also a great place for socializing, and made friends with a few recent arrivals to the city.

I did finally get a chance to visit the Circle Bar last night. This is also a funky little place for local music, in this case more rock than jazz, and in a lot of ways felt more like a New York club than something unique to New Orleans. But from a local perspective, one can see how this fits into the scene. It’s located away from the tourist areas at the edge the Arts/Warehouse district, not too far from the freeway. It’s even “cozier” than the Spotted Cat, with the main room being a “parlor” of sorts, with it’s notable feature the overhead “k&b” clock – I believe this was a hold-over from a previous club at the same location (?).

I was keen to try the special of the night, Good Riddance Rummy (Baccardi and Coke), but opted for a nice safe Guiness as I was driving that night. The band playing was a local group called the Bipolaroids – straight ahead driving rock, with a bit of 60s British influence in chords and rhythm (e.g., triplets a la Penny Lane, flat seven chords, etc.) The keyboard player had a Minimoog along with a standard keyboard, but I could barely hear any of it with the band being as loud as they were.

So in summary, one should go see the French Quarter at night at least once, but then explore elsehwere in the city for something more real. Spotted Cat gets my strong recommendation for jazz! Circle Bar is cool as well for a funky, alternative night with local musicians.