After five months of living in provincial China, my friend and I went to Shanghai for a weekend. It was my friend’s birthday and we set out to celebrate just the way we would if we were cashed up and home: ‘nice food’, ‘nice bars’.1
Shanghai is not short on these things- though provincial China is. Shanghai is full of many things—street food vendors, operatic karaoke in city parks, dance classes in public squares, noodle bars, tea houses- but it is known in China for its ‘nice’ things.
We found ourselves on Yongkang Lu, in the French Concession.2
Most of the city’s ‘nice’ bars and restaurants are tucked underground, inside of surprising buildings, between obscure shop fronts, but here the bars and restaurants pour onto the narrow road and they have out door seating. There’s a Melbourne style café, an Irish pub, a British pub, a Cuban barrio, a French pastry shop, a Japanese sushi bar and an American Diner.3 We felt spoiled for choice—Ningbo has a few KFCs and a Pizza Hut.
In the barrio we heard Spanish and French. In the diner we heard, clear, loud American. In the café, Australian. My British friend chose the English pub.
We made friends, after several rounds of Scottish craft beers. James and Heath. They worked for the British Trade Commission. While Heath was in the loo, we told James that we were studying Mandarin and Chinese history. “Why? Why would you want to live here? I can’t wait to go home, this is a dismal place—the weather, the people, the city.” When Heath got back he agreed and extended his hands to sweep the room—“everyone here is here to make money. I speak no Mandarin and never plan on it. When I leave I’ll go home with enough money to buy a house. I avoid Chinese Shanghai as much as possible”.
I looked down into my cider. The head was gone and a thin oil slick of mouth residue was floating on its surface.
1 After getting back to Sydney the first ‘nice’ bar that I went to was Uncle Ming’s.
2 China’s last dynasty fell when Britain arrived and said that the Chinese had to buy their opium so that British trade ships could arrive full and leave full. The British manufactured a need to sell to, so created opium addiction. The British set up a settlement. Then the French negotiated a settlement because they helped the British fight the Chinese. The French concession was apparently Mao’s favourite place to hang out—art deco, tennis courts, grand theatres, cobblestone streets, and intimate tree lined streets.
3 Today the French Concession is home to all of Shanghai’s foreign embassies. They are unmarked and hidden behind high, secure, walls.