RENDER

feminist food + culture zine

China Diary Day 6: Shanghai Underground

TravelDanielle Knott

Thursday was a sleep in late, stay out late kind of day. I woke up early for breakfast, then headed back to bed for a midmorning nap before tackling the city. My first meeting of the day was with Andy Best, an author, teacher, and blogger based in Shanghai. Andy played guitar and developed a lot of the music for Little Punk's "Hey Guy, You Are Big Time Alright" EP, and helped me connect with Pei when I was in Beijing. He has been writing and blogging about Shanghai's music and DIY (do it yourself) scene for years, which is why I was so interested in speaking with him. Having had such little luck making connections with self-identified "feminists" in China, Andy was a huge resource in terms of learning about Shanghai's subcultures. 

The two of us met at a coffee shop in the Changning district, which is home to some of Shanghai's more interesting architecture. Notable English author, J.G. Ballard (Crash, Empire of the Sun) lived in a house in this area. We walked around the neighborhood, which Andy and his girlfriend happened to live in, talking about the history of Shanghai and the flux of people that have occupied its different districts. Eventually we made our way to a hip little coffee shop to talk about how he ended up in China, how the city's music scene evolved, and how to manage a successful blog. While the country as a whole continues to enforce sexist laws and practices, according to Andy, the music scene has been very welcoming and embracing of female musicians. (Later I would experience this first hand). Bands performing in Shanghai's underground circuit are sometimes fronted by women, but also include female guitarists, bassists, and drummers. In contrast to its mainstream culture, China's DIY subculture doesn't discriminate based on looks or marital status or parental status!

After spending the afternoon with Andy, I headed back to the hotel and met up with the rest of the group for dinner. We were meeting Enactus students from University of Shanghai for Science and Technology for dinner to learn about their ventures and exchange ideas. Unfortunately, none of us had any recommendations for dinner, which led to us wandering around Nanjing Road looking for a place to eat. The difficulty was finding a restaurant within walking distance that could fit all fifteen of us-- did I mention we didn't have reservations? But like some Chinese miracle, we were able to get a private room in a fourth floor hotpot restaurant.

This place ruled. (see below)

Our eyes were a bit bigger than our stomachs. 

Our eyes were a bit bigger than our stomachs. 

Several dining aspects differentiated this hotpot restaurant from the other one I ate at a few days prior. First, everyone at the table chose their own type of broth, instead of having one communal hotpot situated in the middle. I preferred the individual hotpot method because it allowed each person to control the level of their meal's heat. As someone who always likes things on the spicy side, I chose a Szechuan broth and made sure to grab a lot of chili oil from the sauce bar. As for ingredients, the staple mushrooms, greens, and meats made an extravagant appearance. Some of us ordered more unusual fare, like miniature crabs, shrimp puree, and these doughy-fried sticks that resembled churros. They were all so thoughtfully plated that it seemed a shame to eat! But eat we did. The plates of food came out so fast that they had to shelve the fresh ingredients in a little cupboard until we made more room on the table! Since no one consulted each other before ordering, we ended up with enough left over food to feed another fifteen hungry students. I felt bad wasting any of it (or maybe it was just so good) that I stuffed myself full. 

Some of the USST students discussed their favorite music, others gave us pitches of their business ventures. Because Enactus encourages social entrepreneurship, their ventures all implemented sustainable practices, such as rooftop gardens and innovative agricultural tools. I felt humbled to be discussing their ideas with them because many of the students are developing important businesses that have the potential to create some serious change in China and beyond. In order for the USST students to make it home in time (the Shanghai subway stops running at around 11pm), we helped box up the remaining food, thanked them, and bid our goodbyes. 

The night didn't end there. A friend of mine from our group invited me to accompany her on a late night meeting at one of the coolest bars I have ever been to-- The Boulevard. During the Prohibition Era in the USA, bars required secret pass codes to enter so as to keep moonshine operations undercover and out of trouble. They were called "speakeasies." Although there's no need to hide your public consumption of liquor in contemporary society, the mystique of the speakeasy remains attractive to modern bar-goers, which has led to the opening of secret bars all over the world.

To find this Shanghai speakeasy, we took a cab to a nondescript office building, ascended 7 flights of stairs, and found nothing but an unassuming bookshelf, table and rotary phone. Next to the phone there were business cards with The Boulevard's name on them, so we lifted the phone and listened. There was a message saying that we had to inspect the bookshelf if we were thirsty, so we went to work pulling books from the shelves. In fact, all we had to do was give it a little push and we were inside! The bar was dimly lit and sharply decorated. The food and drink menu featured classic cocktails reminiscent of the roaring twenties. Quickly we found Amanda and Brooke, ordered up some food for them, and began to discuss our respective ventures and goals.

Tomorrow's agenda: souvenir shopping, lunch on The Bund, and a heavy dose of math-rock.