One of my most constant activities in Shanghai, outside of spending a lot of time in the gym poorly training myself for middling performances in random half marathons, is my book club. This is no ordinary book club. Besides getting me to read at least one book a month – an astounding feat for this tired Foreign Service single mom – it is also a dinner club. As we meet at 6 PM on the third or last Thursday a month, dinner is part of the equation. So not only do they get me to read, but they also get me to cook. For those who know me, the latter is the much more impressive achievement.
Our book for this September is Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmitz, an award winning journalist based in Shanghai. The book is about the lives of several people and families along Changle Lu, the beautifully named Street of Eternal Happiness, where the author lives in Shanghai. This post is not about the book, but rather my own walk down the street just yesterday.
A few weeks ago my four year old daughter and I had to travel to the Consulate Office Building (COB), the main compound of the US Consulate in Shanghai, so we could have our vaccinations updated. Although I work for the Consulate, I do not work in the COB; the visa section is located on the eighth floor of the Westgate Mall. My daughter and I took a shuttle from our residence, where many Consulate families live, to the COB to have our appointments with the Consulate clinic. Along the way, the shuttle bus turned on to Changle Lu, and I realized how very close the road is in relation to where I live and I resolved one day soon for C and I to take a walk along the 2 mile slice of Shanghai life–to bring the book club book literally to life.
We started off at No. 274 Urumuqi Road, just a block and a half south of where Changle Lu intersects. This is the location of the Avocado Lady, a Shanghai institution. What appears to be a small double-wide mom and pop grocery operation is the shopping destination for expats in search of fresh produce with a smile along with some rather hard to find exports from home. The Avocado Lady has been recognized for promoting Mexican avocados and used to sport a plaque from the Mexican Consulate in front of the store. Two weeks ago when C and I passed by the plaque was there, but yesterday the owners informed me that it had fallen. This did not deter the customers; on a Saturday afternoon the shop was hopping.
A half a block and across the street up from the Avocado Lady one can find the wall that surrounds the demolished lot that was once Maggie Lane. I have passed by this wall many times as I walked back from the COB to my residence. I liked the posters. There used to be one with a cat on it, I think also one with a carp. I never thought of the significance of the posters until I read the book. These posters sporting optimistic slogans about achieving civilization, progress and happiness while realizing the dreams of a nation, cover an ugly wall around an empty lot where once stood Shikumen homes built in the 1930s. Although the at times vicious demolition began in late 2004, the area has still yet to be developed. Progress. At a standstill.
We headed on to Changle Lu and it did not take long until we fund another of the addresses: CK’s boutique restaurant 2nd Floor Your Sandwich, now called 2nd Floor Natural Flavor Cafe Bistro & Exhibition. Not knowing what was on the menu at at 2nd Floor or the energy level of C, I opted to lunch at home before we headed out. I wish we had waited to lunch at 2nd Floor. The wrought iron spiral staircase is tricky for a 4 year old and the stroller was just a no go (I left it parked behind the blackboard sign in the nook in front of the stairs). Yet upstairs the cafe is a comfy, crowded well-lit room with lots of windows. The ceiling of half the cafe is windows, like a greenhouse. The walls are covered in artwork and different sized shelves with knick-knacks, old cameras, books, and plants. It is chic and eclectic, and the menu, with pancakes and burgers, pumpkin soup and buffalo mozzarella with arugula salad, looked inviting. They were doing a brisk business for Saturday lunch. I would have loved to sit down for tea and dessert but C was having none of it. She was complaining loudly about having to climb the stairs and wanting to continue the walk, so I gave up and we left. I will go back some day.
Further down the road, on one side of the street large, imposing grey walls or brick and iron fences with thick brush blocked the views of former French Concession mansions, on the other side small mom and pop shops with apartments on the upper level, there between the homes an alleyway opens up with a sign indicating just inside, just follow the signs, one will find the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall. As I was here to check out Changle Lu and all it had to offer, this invitation was too much to pass up. I pushed the stroller down a broad alley with narrow passages on either side leading to both front and back doors of small apartments. Up above clothing hung out to dry from make-shift clothing lines. At the end of the alley, signs instructed us to go over a gate, heading first to the right and then to the left down a very narrow passageway about as wide as two strollers. Again to the left, it opened to a courtyard and there you find the museum and shop of hand painted blue and white cotton cloth. The shop beautifully displayed the cloth in clothing, framed pictures, fabric toys, table cloths and more, on dark wood shelves and walls. I bought a small Nankeen blue cloth elephant to go with my cloth elephant collection (one from Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia). Just outside the shop C caught sight of what appeared to be a mongoose running through the courtyard. I imagine it is more likely a pet ferret that got away. Nonetheless it added to our adventure down Changle Lu.
We came to a small toy store. This is what C had been waiting for — she had seen the shop from the windows of our shuttle bus on the way to the COB weeks before. Her eagle eyes had spotted the My Little Ponies in the window as our bus sped by at 25 miles per hour. And finally here we were in front of the little place. Inside there was no place to move – both the proprietors, a husband and wife, sat in chairs watching a television placed on top of a pile of stock. There was no place for the stroller inside, there was barely room for C and I to stand. C did not care, as I am sure most children would not, because she was within touching distance of all the merchandise. Most of the toys were no longer even in their boxes, but that too only seemed to add to the appeal. To pick out her new toy for the day, C had to stand outside and make her choice through the front window display. As we stood outside with our new purchase, C drew a small crowd as she chattered away happily in a mix of Chinese and English about all the other toys that she also wished we were buying.
It seemed strange that we would draw any attention as I had noticed quite a few foreigners on the road throughout our walk. Even as we loitered in the cramped toy store, a very pregnant young foreign woman popped in to buy a 300 RMB China mobile phone card. (Of course the toy shop would also be in the business of selling phone cards.) I had begun to feel the foreigner to Chinese ratio was higher here on Changle Lu than it was on my own block, the very swank Nanjing Xi Lu. Perhaps that is not surprising because the luxury brand name stores around my home are more likely to draw wealthy Chinese than hip but frugal foreigners. I felt more at home on Changle Lu, more at ease than I do on Nanjing Xi Lu, where I walk to work each day passing stores like Christian Louboutin, Ferragamo, Bvlgari, and Louis Vuitton. The walk though was eye-opening in other ways. I thought about how small our world, the one C and I occupy, is in Shanghai. Most days I walk only the 3 1/2 blocks to work and return and C stays in an even smaller radius, to the playground, pool, Kids’ Club, preschool, and supermarket, all within our complex. We go out frequently enough to museums and other sights around town, but it is rare we walk off the beaten path, just to walk. We did so more when we first arrived, but I became caught up in work and my bucket list, and C with her swimming, dance, birthday parties and school (again all within the complex) and we wander less and less. The Shanghai we know is quite different from that others know – and were we to come back ten years from now, even if the city miraculously remained the same as it is now, it would be a different place to us.
We passed the corner of the Street of Eternal Happiness and Rich Man’s Road, where the restaurant Chicken & Egg was doing a roaring business of mostly foreigners in their outdoor seating. On we went, passing slick office buildings, upscale and downscale clothing and shoe stores, Chinese fried food stalls alongside trendy foreign food establishments from Thai to Mexican to Italian. We came to a bookstore, and I had to go in. Imagine my surprise to find a wonderful traditional English language book seller with a small cafe. There were sections around the store; you could determine the travel book section, the foreign language learning section, the Children’s book section despite the lack of signage, but there were also just stacks of books on tables, on shelves of different heights, and in piles making a pathway just wide enough to carefully maneuver a stroller, but just. It is the kind of place where those who love books could get lost for hours and leave carrying a heavy bag of unexpected finds. I felt I had not been in such a store for ages and ages, and it is probably true. If it were not for my book club getting me to read, I would be hard pressed to get through a book a month. This from someone who devoured 100 books in more than one summer. Also, these days most of my books are purchased on Amazon and within minutes transferred to my Kindle. It is just not the same. We parked the stroller and C immersed herself amongst the shelves. She delighted in the kids’ section though did have to run downstairs to complain to management, in Chinese, that the area with the toys trapped under a glass floor was “difficult” for children. She actually pulled an amused manager upstairs to point this folly out.
We continued on. Another block brought an unexpected sight. The stores on the one side of the street seemed on the seedy side, with sex shops and risque lingerie stores, whose window displays reminiscent of Amsterdam’s red light district, on an upper level and small cafes and restaurants and other shops on lower levels, just a few steps down. That one small section reminded me of a street in Amsterdam, U street in Washington DC and a part of Orchard Road, Singapore all at the same time. we passed a small Mexican deli closed for the nuptials of the owner. I not only loved the sign the owner posted but also that the small shop, like so many small business owners, would close for such a celebration because they do not rely on an army of employees. No doubt it is a tough job running your own small business, but there was just something so joyous and infectious in the simple sign.
We ended our walk at the small flower shop at the corner of Changle Lu and Chengdu Nan Lu, featured in the book. I was encouraged to see two women sitting out front in deck chairs fanning themselves in the heat and gossiping, though neither it turned out was Ms. Zhao the owner. The shop, like so many others, was also too small for the stroller so C waited outside while Ms. Zhao’s eldest son made me a bouquet of roses that C had picked out. While C fended of pinches and coos from curious older Chinese, the elder son told me his mother was back in her hometown, but would return the following day. Shandong? I asked, because I had read the book and knew the location of her hometown. He did not seem surprised in the slightest that I asked about his mother or knew her travel was likely to Shandong. I suddenly felt shy and intrusive – almost as if I were talking to a celebrity. I had after all read about him and his mother’s shop in a book. I thanked him for the nice arrangement of the flowers, paid, and then we turned around and headed back home, about a dozen blocks away. Well worth the stroll on a summer Saturday afternoon in Shanghai.