Heat and Noise: Shelling in the Year of the Ox

thanks to a href=There’s a saying in Mandarin that truly encapsulates Chinese New Year: Heat and Noise (熱鬧 – rè nao).  A Mandarin speaker will translate this as liveliness or excitement, but the literal translation is more fun and more elucidating to me.  My introduction to Chinese New Year was via Reading Rainbow and Sesame Street so many years ago, with all the fireworks and celebration, but as seems to be the theme of our experience here, whoa, this is out of control.   For our first CNY we hosted our first visitors and ended up suffering a special brand of PTSD.

You see that photo?  How there are fireworks blowing up really close to buildings, below the roofline, FUCKING EVERYWHERE?  That was Sunday night, CNY eve.  We received our guests, Girlie’s two brothers, on early Sunday, a bit over one full day after we got the keycards to our new apartment.  The Brothers of Girlie are great guys and were stopping off on their way to Kunming and other parts Southern China for vacation–one coming from Portland, the other currently schoolin’ it up in Beijing (and fluent in Mandarin).

First order of business with them was taking in a spread of food at a noodle shop near Girlie’s work (a tower visible in the above picture).  While I’m no expert at identifying regional Chinese food, this restaurant struck me as a typical Shanghainese food, with a few extra-regional dishes:  A sizzling wok of ‘fatty ends of pig’ ( intestine) with hunanese chili peppers; handmade ‘farmer’s noodles’ (freshly made wide rice noodles) with chicken; and bok choy in oyster sauce and Duck with green peppers in a spicy brown sauce, served with fun little pancakes that were essentially rice flour tortillas, complete with char marks (think chinese fajitas.  Really).  Our meal was punctuated by much Tsingtao Pingdo (cold cheap beer), and periodic winces when nearby fireworks went off.  At one point, the waitstaff went outside, lined up military style, had their uniforms inspected, went over the special and then sang a song.  Surreal, to be sure, but having someone around speaking Mandarin made life a lot easier, and redoubled my desire to learn it as fast as I can.

The barrage began during lunch, and didn’t let up.  The only way I can describe it is Theme Park Guerrilla War Zone: mixed with the huge mortars sparkling across the skyline, which sounded like constant shelling, there were the strings of traditional fireworks going off every 30 seconds that sound awfully close to automatic weapons fire.

loud, bright, and sound a lot like gun-fire
loud, bright, and sound a lot like gun-fire

When we returned to the flat we spent the next few hours dashing from one side of the flat to the other (balcony facing out of the complex vs bedroom windows looking out on our complex’s courtyard) watching the fireworks shows.  Shiny sparkling shrapnel from the Mortars going off in our courtyard occasionally hit our windows.  It was kind of like getting pelted with happy.  Hot, burning sulfuric happy.

We tried to make palatable cocktails from the 8rmb yellow wine (Huangjiu) that J bought from our local stand and witnessed the barrage.  Even ten stories up the decibel level was on par with an Arena Rock show, though perhaps from the back row.  I was consistently caught off-guard when a small lull ended with another barrage of colorful explosions.  As J put it, “don’t they get bored?”  No, they don’t.  It’s two weeks later and we’re still hearing and seeing fireworks go off every night.  They are even our morning alarms–7am isn’t too early for some ‘gunfire.’

Toward midnight, the two brothers of Girlie and I ventured out for a walk.  We headed up into Xuhui (aka ‘the French Concession) and were amazed at the amount of chaff and shrapnel on the ground.  In our area, there are pedestrian overpasses for crossing major streets, and they were covered with several inches of exploded munitions and hundreds of spent mortar boxes.

Munitions Waste on the streets of Shanghai
Munitions Waste on the streets of Shanghai

We camped out at a reasonably nameless bar and had a few pitchers while the street outside continued to light up every ten seconds.  The sound of the fireworks in the bar was almost enough to drown out the horrible Chinese State TV’s New Years extravaganza, but the girls behind the bar kept turning it up.  We tried to leave a few times but either by our own fear of injury our the barmaids’ urging, we waited for the celebratory apocalypse of phosphorus outside to calm down.  After a few hours, though, it was time to risk it.  On our dash out a side door, J still got hit in the face with a flying piece of paper from one of the more terrestrial fireworks.  Don’t worry, he’s fine.

The next day J and Girlie hit up our local dumpling shop, where we learned how large their menu actually was–as opposed to our normal procurement method of point at the steamer and eat what they give you— we headed to the Bird/flower/insect market on Xizang Lu.  I’m not going to say much about this beyond:

  • Old men love their Crickets
  • I can’t go back there or I’ll come out with 20 puppies, 14 cats and a couple hundred turtles and birds.
  • I was so stricken by the place I started feeling sad for the houseplants.

We extricated ourselves from the market and headed to Yu Yuen gardens, which is surrounded by a huge trinkets market.  J bought some street stand deep-fried stinky tofu, which isn’t at all bad, especially doused in hot sauce.  In my career I’ve done a lot of very mean things to tofu, and I don’t think stinky tofu ranks very high on that list.  It does, however, produce a smell that, if concentrated, could be legitimately added to a list of banned neuro-toxins.

Here, in the areas around the Gardens, I experienced the cultural side of Re Nao.  There were 12 people for every square foot, expats, tourists and Chinese celebrating the new year.  There’s a small pond surrounded by old pagoda-style buildings (housing, amongst other things, the Xiao lung Bao stand that always ends up on TV shows) in front of the gardens, that hosted a Disney-style new years menagerie of Large cartoon Ox, lucky symbols and little houses.

All the Oxen in Shanghai look suspiciously like this.

There were innumerable people crossing a bridge across the pond to photograph the craziness.  This is another bit of Re Nao–‘hey look at what everyone else is looking at!’  It was assinine in scale–police were yelling at people to keep moving, the bridge was ‘one way only’, and it took us long enough to push through the crowd that the gardens closed their ticket office.

A bit sick of being elbowed from all directions, we made our way through a park up to the Bund, sampling street food along the way: red chicken from a Muslim street vendor using a bicycle-mounted charcoal apparatus, that were all gristle, some meatier lamb kabobs by the Huangpu and fried flatbread, which made Girlie about as happy as I’ve seen her while chewing since our last stop at Meat Cheese Bread before leaving.

The Bund at night, looking North
The Bund at night, looking North

The Bund is the tourist center of Shanghai.  The 1920s to 1930s architecture on display is epic; the buildings that previously held the imperialist seats of power now house various Chines government institutions.  The most attractive building now houses the Shanghai Gold Exchange, although the world famous Peace Hotel (the green spire in the picture here) is under renovation now.  Also, the collection of restaurants on this street makes me want to land a high paying job with an expense account and many dumb reasons to entertain clients and friends. Girlie was here on business last year for her birthday and highly recommends 3 on the Bund, if you come to town.  Okay, I wanted the high paying job and expense account before I visited the Bund, but I can use all the encouragement I can get.

Perhaps what is especially interesting about the Bund is what is directly across the river: Hot and Noisy Crazy Psycho Blade Runner land, also known as Pudong.

Pudong at Night
Pudong at Night

Everything about Pudong is new, and was essentially farmland fewer than 20 years ago.  Apparetly Pudong has a GDP roughly equal to Uruguay, and chances are if I score some kind of awesome job, I’ll be figuring out how to commute there, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  There’s a tunnel under the Huangpu that’s full of all sorts of psychedelic lights, but after discovering all the swank bars were closed for CNY, we were tuckered out and headed back to the pad.

Day three was full of a different kind of heat and noise; we took advantage of J’s Mandarin to buy some household appliances.  Afterward, Girlie bought some shoes and we discovered a Muslim restaurant featuring food from Xinjiang province.  There were a few awesome things about this restaurant, before we get to the food:

  • It was a Muslim restaurant with beer.
  • The music wasn’t terrible.
  • There was a citrus juicer out front that had scary spikes all over it.
  • The beer is actually the best Chinese-made Beer I’ve had: Sinkiang Black Beer.

J asked the very accommodating waitress about the signature dishes.  She was great, and didn’t do the standard move of suggesting the five most expensive things on the menu.  We got this amazing platter of fried chicken, minced mutton in cumin and coriander, naan bread, goat yogurt with tomatoes cucumbers and cilantro, a noodle dish with duck ham (that’s right DUCK HAM), and these crazy fried eggplant balls rolled in sesame. Peep the spread:

Xinjiangese Food from the Muslim restaurant
Xinjiangese Food from the Muslim restaurant

The noodle dish and the chicken were my favorites, though Girlie will forever gravitate back here simply for the naan and the yogurt.  This place was on the second floor of a mall that most people would just walk by.  Malls here are grand affairs, but down every side road, there’s a 3 or 4 or 5 story mall that was the grandiose place 10 years ago that still stands, sucking businesses off the street and giving them a solid place and indoor plumbing to do their thing.  Shanghai isn’t on the street anymore, at least around here, but the local culture is hiding at the top of an escalator, or down that street that doesn’t seem wide enough for industrial traffic.  It’s going to take years of walking the beat to find all the fun parts of our corner of Shanghai, but so far, so good.

That, my friends, was our Chinese New Year.  As I type, there are still red mortars and fireworks going off.  This country sure knows how to wake the spirits.

Next Up: We went to Hong Kong a while ago, or how to shop for furniture.