I’ve decided to get into the habit of posting a regular entry on my previous week, and Sunday is a good day for doing this. Over the years this website of mine has evolved and it will continue to evolve, but it was originally meant as a way of journaling my activities in China, and I still see that as the fundamental purpose of my journaling to this day.
So, having said that, here’s a rundown of the past week or so in my life:
First, the big theme of the previous two weeks has been surviving the coldest, dreariest, and most polluted winter I’ve experienced since I started living in Shanghai ten years ago. The week before last week, we had a big snowfall in southern China, and Kunshan and Shanghai were both blanketed in snow for a couple days before it melted away. Since then, the weather has consistently dipped below the freezing point.
Over the past week we saw some of the most egregious smog levels I’ve yet seen in these parts, which was just pure depressing. I’ve heard that Beijing is dealing with its own smog problems and that the city air this winter has been cleaner than ever. Well, now it’s time to turn the government’s attention on smog problems elsewhere in China. I wouldn’t say that we are in the red zone—in fact many other Chinese cities have far greater pollution problems than we do here in Shanghai and environs. Nevertheless, given the importance of this city and region and its enormous population, it’s high time that the government at all levels take a serious look at what’s causing our pollution levels. The peak almost always occurs around this time of year, owing to a combination of ramped up production levels for factories to meet their quotas prior to the New Year holiday, and the need for more energy to get households through the cold winters. Efficiencies could be introduced at all levels and in all areas to mitigate the energy output and bring down pollution levels. Houses and apartments in this region are very poorly designed for cold weather, and virtually all of the apartments I’ve lived in over the years turn into iceboxes in the winter, even with space heaters blasting away (which is an awfully wasteful and ineffective way of heating buildings). Better designed buildings, better heating systems, and more insulation and methods for keeping in warm air and keeping out the cold would help a great deal. But apparently we are too far south for Beijing to consider giving us these things any time soon.
Ok, the whinging is over. Now for some of the positive things in my life here in the Shanghai-Kunshan nexus. First, the snowfall was grand and I took copious photos of the winter wonderland that appeared temporarily before it melted away.
Second, I was invited to take part in an upcoming BBC documentary focusing on the global silver-based economy and its influence on China in late imperial and modern times. On Monday, I met the film crew near the Park Hotel where we filmed a scene of me introducing this historic neighborhood and giving some insights into the character and personality of Shanghai in the 1920s-30s era. We then headed over to Moore Memorial Church on Tibet Road (Xizang Lu) where we filmed a bit about the Christian missionary influence in the city. The wind was heavy that day and the air was sub-zero. I’d neglected to wear gloves, which ended up giving me windburns on my hands that are still healing. Also I had to doff my hat for long sections of filming—we spent several hours exposed in the early evening air. In sum, I froze my ass off, but it was worth it. Anything for the BBC, one of my favorite broadcasters of all time! And the crew was fabulously professional and courteous throughout the session.
After the film session, I took the subway over to the Pudong side and ran over to the Jinmao Tower in Pudong just in time for a Board Meeting of the Shanghai American School. That’s been a fantastic experience and I really enjoy working with the other Board members and the school leaders, even if the meetings last well into the night!
The following day, I was back in Kunshan for my regular work week. My week in Kunshan normally consists of a daily routine involving a day’s work at DKU filled with meetings and admin work, followed by an evening at home cooking for myself, watching a Netflix show or two, and prepping for the next workday.
This mundane routine was thankfully disrupted by the visit of my old Beijing pal Moy, who livened up my Thursday evening by dragging me out for a night on the town (break my arm will you?)
We made the usual rounds, starting at Eagle Bar, where we saw Marvin and the band perform a fantastic rendition of the old Zep classic, Stairway to Heaven. Marvin set up an acoustic guitar on stage and used that for the intro part, which is the more folksy bit (one of many Zep ripoffs from 1960s folk music culture), and then switched to an electric guitar hooked into a synthesizer through a wireless remote for the climactic section of the song. He started by singing the folkish vocals (“there’s a lady who’s sure…”) and then let Ama take over for the finale (“and as we wind on down the road”). It worked sensationally well. Then they launched into a fine rendition of the Stones classic Paint it Black. Their session, a couple of beers, and a couple rounds of pool lifted my spirits for sure.
After that we headed over to Mix Club to catch some of the usual zaniness and onstage antics of an odd cast of Chinese and foreign performers. Mix is a typical nightclub in China which stages a lot of snazzy, glitzy performances and offers live DJ music and table service for a clientele of nouveau riche Chinese (is there any other sort?). James Farrer and I have written extensively about this culture in our book Shanghai Nightscapes. We have also written about it in a chapter for a new book called Polarized Cities.
Heading back home to Shanghai on Friday, I arrived in time for an early evening meeting of the planning committee for the Royal Asiatic Society, an old society of scholars in China that started in the late 1800s, disbanded after 1949, and reformed in 2006. I’ve given many talks for RAS and am more than happy to now play a role in planning out the annual activities of this wonderful organization, which brings a dose of civic culture to the international crowd in Shanghai.
Arriving home later that evening, I spent some good old quality time with my daughters while my wife was away on a business trip. On Saturday, we had lunch at the new Taco Bell in a gentrified part of Maoming Road near Nanjing Road, not far from where we live. In America, a trip to Taco Bell would be nothing to write home about, but here in Shanghai it is still quite a novelty, and the restaurant is done up in a much more upscale way. After that, we went out shopping for some camera gear and picked up a wide angle lens for our iPhones, which has produced a great deal of fun in the past day or so. I then took Hannah to her piano lesson at the Music Conservatory—another weekly ritual. Her piano teacher and I were very impressed that Hannah has been writing her own songs lately—and they sound pretty cool! Guess she takes after her old man, who likes to noodle around at night on the keyboards.
This weekend, a blast of cold air carried away most of the smog and left blue skies and breathable air. The past two days have been perfect for city walks, and as I’ve written so many times in my journal, Shanghai is a splendid walking city. This morning I took Sarah to see her dentist, and afterwards we headed over to an apartment building overlooking the old French Park (Fuxing Park) in the former French Concession, where two lady friends of my wife produced an online show about food. They are collaborating on some episodes, and today’s involves my daughters making “Eight Treasure Rice” or babaofan, a special dish for Chinese New Year. After dropping Sarah off, I ambled through the old French Park and took some photos of old folks exercising and enjoying the sun.
I have to admit that winters in these here parts tend to depress me, especially after spending years in Sydney where at this time of year we’d be basking in the hot sun on a beach or enjoying fine wine at an outdoor cafe. But days like these lift my spirits and give me hope that spring is not far away.