Asia 2005 : Shanghai

Samuel Johnson once dryly remarked "when two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather." The same seem to be true for the Chinese and food. "Chi wufan le ma" - "have you eaten yet?" is used as a substitute for 'how are you'.

Without a doubt the Chinese take their eating seriously. The evening after I flew into Shanghai I went out for a meal with my friend Ye's ex-schoolmates. The eat early in China - so it was only about 6pm when we headed to the restaurant at the front of which was an enormous tank full of goldfish.

The Chinese word for restaurant - fandian - is the same as the word for hotel: and I was beginning to see why. This was like no restaurant I had seen before! The bulk of the restaurant was divided up into private rooms, each which had a room number. Each room, Ye explained to me, contains a large circular table around which the party would sit. The Chinese way of eating out is always to invite a large group of friends who share a colossal number of cold and hot dishes placed in the centre of the table.

Once the guests had arrived (and started gabbling away in Shanghainese), we began on the cold dishes, many of which would have been a meal in themselves. The central portion of the table rotates, so you have to be eagle-eyed and grab cleanly with your chopsticks as the choice bits of food go past. Owing to my limited chopstick skills a number of items ended up on the tablecloth or my lap rather than on my plate or in my mouth.

As soon as a scrap of space presented itself on the table, hot dishes appeared to fill the void: dumplings, beans, chicken, duck, spinach, all in very vivid colours: as well as taste and smell, Chinese cuisine considers the appearance of the food very important.

Despite the nice food, I feeling rather ill, not helped by the shockingly bad air pollution in Shanghai, and was struggling to get all the food down, but was helping it down with lots of Chinese tea. No-one else by contrast appeared to need to consume any liquid at all, stretching out a glass of wine for several hours by adding the odd ice cube into it.

I did have the chance to practice "Ni taitai hao ma" - "how is your wife", my favourite Chinese phrase, on one of Ye's friends. The bloke in question looked acutely embarrassed; his girlfriend was sitting next to him.

The Chinese are big on the concept of guanxi - friends, and friends of friends giving you favours... and I must admit Ye's family contacts proved very useful. His uncle got us into the Jade Buddha temple for free and gave me lots of lifts.

Generally whilst in Shanghai I just let the colours overwhelm me and snapped away with my camera...

The Bund

Perhaps one of the most photogenic waterfronts in the world.

Shanghai Museum

A couple of my favourite objects from the museum.

Nanjing Road

One of the main streets, leading from People's Square to the Bund: a riot of colour.

Yuyuan Gardens

A classic Chinese garden with pointy-roofed pagodas

Trip to Zhouzhuang

There's a struggle being played out on the Yangtze delta around Shanghai - every tin-pot town with a few canals, like Zhouzhuang and Suzhou, has staked its claim as the 'Venice of the East'. - That's Shanghai magazine

I rather liked Zhouzhuang, with its pretty bridges and canals, and 'locals' in pointy hats. Afterwards we stopped off at a famous teapot factory. I kid ye not.

Final thought

Ye's grandfather is 98!

He was born during the Qing dynasty, and he still eats like a horse :)

Next: Sichuan >>