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Tea and jazz at The Peace Hotel

8 Nov

Another special thing we did when my mom was in town was treat her to afternoon tea at The Peace Hotel.  When Li and I celebrated my birthday, we had slipped inside the lobby and happened to notice that every Sunday they have a special jazz tea with musicians who had played in Shanghai prior to the Communists taking over.  All of the musicians are in their 70s and 80s now so it seemed like a limited opportunity.


We booked a table and my mom’s final Sunday in town we dressed up and headed out for lovely afternoon tea.


It was a set menu – the only choice to make was what type of tea to enjoy.  There were all of the English classics – tea sandwiches, sweet cakes, milky tea and of course – scones!  The scones were my favorite – they came to the table warm with clotted cream and lovely jam.

My favorite - the scones!

My favorite – the scones!

The jazz took us all a bit by surprise.  I think we were expecting jazz more from the 50s and 60s – but instead it was more Big Band music.  They played When the Saints Go Marching In and other classics from the 20s and 30s – more Depression Era Jazz.  Mom commented that it would have been the music that her father grew up with.  Thinking about it after the fact though – that made a lot of sense.  When jazz was evolving, these gentlemen were not playing music in China.  They had other things to worry about.


The musicians - still going strong.  They played for nearly an hour without a break.

The musicians – still going strong. They played for nearly an hour without a break.

Given the age of the musicians, I don’t know how long this afternoon tea will last, but it was globalization at it’s best – English tea and American jazz in Shanghai, China.

Where have you had your most interesting mix of cultures?  How does music influence that?  I remember when I first moved to Shanghai my students assumed that I knew every song in English – because it was in English and I was a native speaker.  Have you ever had that happen?


Guest post – I’m ready to move to China* – part 2

14 Jan

*except for that whole “speaking Mandarin” thing

I am pleased to announce that I’m starting the year off with something new on the blog.  My good friend and cousin, Matt came to visit me mid-October and before he left I gave him the idea of doing a guest post.  This is the second segment of the three.  To read segment one with his observations, click here.

Apparently the Chinese Internet Censors are asleep at the switch, because I’m back in the blogosphere! You didn’t think I’d spend over a week in China and only have seven recordable observations, did you? Much thanks to my hostess for allowing me continue my rambling, incoherent jumble of thoughts that I insist is a narrative!

Without further ado, here are some more of my Chinese observations:

  • G and I got foot massages together. I don’t get massages often (or, um, really ever) but I gather that the concept of Chinese massage is sort of a test of endurance. I spent my time straddling the line between relaxation and bearable pain. She taught me “ching e dian” (轻一点lighter) and “jong e dian” (重一点harder). I said “harder” once, held on as long as I could, and then asked for “softer.” Upon leaving, I felt like I had survived, rather than relaxed.  That said, I would definitely go back again (and did, near the end of my visit).
  • Massage sidebar: both of our masseuses agreed that my size 15 feet were the largest they’d ever seen.  My feet barely fit in the pre-massage hot water bucket.  I do like to leave an impression on people!
  • The Shanghai subway system is very easy to learn. Having English signs is a boon, of course, but what really helps are the large arrows on the floor showing where to go to reach your desired train line. I also marvel at the temporary blockades they put up to better control the flow of foot traffic during rush hour. One complaint: you need to know which exit gate to go through, because there’s no second chance. More than once I left through the wrong set of gates, and ended up being forced to go back to street-level from an exit across the street from where I wanted to be.
  • Whether you’re in the shops around Yu Yuan Gardens, or Tiantong Rd., or just off Xizang Rd near Zizhong Rd, or the famed Night Market in Hangzhou, one observation holds true: you’re gonna see a lot of stalls selling the same stuff.  There’ll be differences in types of merchandise from location to location, but within any particular center you’ll find three or four shops selling the same items.  I guess if you’ve got time and can haggle respectably, that means there are deals to be had. If you’re me, it means making a purchase at one shop, then finding a vendor four stalls down offering you the same item for 20 RMB less as a starting offer.  Hmph.
Many stalls around Yu Yuan

Many stalls around Yu Yuan

  • During our first afternoon in Hangzhou, Greta and I ambled down to the West Lake waterfront. Coincidentally we arrived near the water’s edge roughly a minute before a water fountain show was to begin! Some people had arrived early to get available seating for the “Music Fountain,” but we were able to walk up to the first row of “standing room.” The actual show was impressive: a line of rotatable water spouts (plus a circle of spouts to each side) that “danced” in tune with the music being played over loudspeakers. There were three or four songs in total, and the whole spectacle lasted about 15 minutes.
The fountain at work

The fountain at work

I repeatedly came back to two thoughts: what kind of effort went into programming all of those nozzles to perform such elaborate routines, and how much mechanical upkeep is necessary to keep the show running in top condition year round? (Remember, I AM an engineer!) That second thought came from watching one poor spigot without enough water pressure flailing helplessly at the lake’s surface between its functioning brothers.

Hazy view of the fountain

Hazy view of the fountain

  • One of my better accomplishments in China was during our second night in Hangzhou. After parting ways, I wandered back down to the Night Market and successfully pantomimed my way into ordering a delicious grilled squid from one of the many sidewalk food vendors.  The key moments were pointing at the squid, holding up one finger, and mumbling “yi ge.” Baby steps, people!
  • The smaller the diameter of tapioca ball in your milk tea, the longer it takes to finish that tea.
Lingyin Temple

Lingyin Temple

  • The Lingyin temple compound is quite impressive, but it probably spoiled me. Later in the week I visited the Longhua Temple, and found it to be interesting, but underwhelming by comparison. If I was better versed in Buddhism, perhaps I would be able to pick up on the nuances of each temple (and each chamber within the temple). Alas, at this time I can only appreciate them from an artistic (and sometimes architectural) perspective.
Rear of Lingyin Temple

Rear of Lingyin Temple

  • When we got back from Hangzhou, we showed Li our videos of the “Music Fountain.” We wanted to know if he recognized the song being used. Li did not recognize it; he surmised it was some generic composition that Americans tourists would think “sounded Chinese.” He’s probably right.
  • English translations on Chinese restaurant menus can be head-scratchingly hilarious. G and I ate at Yun Se Restaurant in Shanghai, where she spent a lot of time comparing the accuracy of the Chinese names to their English equivalents. Mind you, the food she DID order was delicious, but here are some other options (as seen on the menu): Pepper beer, Basin of hypodermal, Burn the pig feet, Hairtail, The non general perch, and of course, Donald Duck. Bon appetit!

We’ve reached the end of another guest segment. Make sure you stay tuned next week for the final segment. Thank you again for allowing me to write! And thanks to you, the viewer, for boosting both the page views and my own ego. Until next time!

Any engineers out there who want to comment on the pressure in the fountain?  What types of details do you pay attention to when traveling?  Share your thoughts!

A new year’s ritual – the company new year’s party

11 Jan

The annual dinner or Nian Hui (年会) happens at almost all Chinese companies this time of year.  They run the gamut – the more traditional being elaborate seated Chinese dinners with masters of ceremonies dressed in formal attire to smaller events at a department level.

All of the annual dinners I have attended to date have involved friendly competition, performances and lucky draw raffle prizes to make sure everyone leaves the event in a good mood.  They all also will involve the new Chinese zodiac animal that is coming into season.  Next year is the year of the horse, so horses featured in the 2014 festivities.

Now that I have switched companies I have had the opportunity to see another style of annual dinner.  We celebrated last week and really had a great time.

Similar to my first year in China, I was asked to participate in one of the show elements – a song choice with back up dancers.  It was the Alison Gold song – “Chinese Food.”  The song was ridiculed in the US press because it is not politically correct, but my colleagues were the ones who suggested it – and given the applause we got, enjoyed by all.

My costume for the Chinese Food performance.  I found out later that this is a traditional garment for unmarried girls in North East China.  It was also very hot with the fur collar!

My costume for the Chinese Food performance. I found out later that this is a traditional garment for unmarried girls in North East China. It was also very hot with the fur collar!

Unlike my previous annual dinner experiences though – this wasn’t a sit down dinner – it was a buffet and then followed by the show – which meant that people paid more close  attention to the performance because they weren’t eating simultaneously.  In addition – this event focused on the management team much more than at my previous company – to the point that a lot of the jokes were at the management teams’ expense.  Luckily I got a little bit of a heads up beforehand!

The event was a spectacular – the theme was “Asian style.”  From our Chinese Food performance, to wishing the team happy new year, to a troop of three belly dancers (normally mild-mannered employees), to a “princess choosing her prince” spectacular involving cross dressing and of course a sweet love song – there were jokes and applause for all.  We also selected over twenty people for gift certificates and other prizes.

The final event though, was the re-enactment by the management team of a scene in one of the hottest soap operas running on Chinese TV.  It was a Qing dynasty event – the scene where one concubine accuses the other of having a baby with the doctor instead of the emperor.  A paternity test is demanded and it is found that the first concubine fixed the results.

None of the management team was aware of what the challenge would be prior to that evening and we were broken into two teams – each to reenact the same scene, then the audience would vote.  To make matters more complicated, I don’t read Chinese well and two of the others didn’t read Chinese at all, so it was an English/Chinese mix, but that added to the humor.  My team decided to switch things up – our emperor was a woman – and the favored concubine was the chief legal counsel (a man).  I never would have guessed their hidden talent at acting – it was hilarious.   We were given period dress to wear as well which helped with the humor.

I’m happy to say that my team prevailed with our twist.  I laughed so hard that my sides hurt.

After the festivities were over, about twenty of us headed across the complex to a karaoke bar and sang into the wee hours of the morning.  It was the perfect capstone to a wonderful evening.  We rocked out to Chinese and English hits and celebrated a birthday with cake.

I won’t forget this annual dinner for a long time.  This is one ritual I will stand behind.

Are companies in the US still doing holiday parties?  I know that with the economic downturn many of these events were stopped – but I think that coming together with colleagues outside of the normal leads to another level of trust which results in superior teams.  When was your favorite holiday party?

Athens – Day 1 anticipation

10 Oct

We woke up early on our first full day in Greece because of the five hour time difference from Shanghai.  After eating a quick breakfast at the hotel (where we experienced our first Greek yogurt and honey) we headed out with the goal of seeing as many major sites as we could before we flew out that evening for Crete.

The hotel had been chosen because it was within walking distance of the Acropolis so we headed first to the Acropolis Museum at the base of the hill.  The museum is built over the remains of a long lost town and there are clear tiles at different points overlooking the archeological site which you can see beneath your feet.  A sign by the  door said that hopefully in the near future tourists will be able to walk those same ancient streets with the ruins.

Walking "above" the ancient streets

Walking “above” the ancient streets

As a museum, it is a streamlined building with spectacular views.  Some of the important statues from the Acropolis have been relocated to the museum to protect them from the elements.  There was also an informational video playing that gave us a sense of what had been – the buildings and temples before the wars and conquistadors that ruined them.  It was a good introduction to the general area.


Posing with the reconstruction of the frieze on the top of the Parthenon

Posing with the reconstruction of the frieze on the top of the Parthenon


The back of the pillars gracing the smaller temple.  I love the braids.

The back of the pillars gracing the smaller temple. I love the braids.

From the outdoor café of the museum - with the Parthenon as back drop

From the outdoor café of the museum – with the Parthenon as back drop

After the museum we then purchased our tickets and started the long climb up to the top of the Acropolis.

Theater of Dionysis

Theater of Dionysis

The sun was beating down, but we took the time to enjoy each site.  There were theaters and temples and about halfway up, the most beautiful music coming from around the bend.

Heading up - what these stones have seen!

Heading up – what these stones have seen!

A postcard perfect view

A postcard perfect view

We slowly approached and then realized that a musical group was doing a dress rehearsal in the recreated theater ahead.  The acoustics were stellar, even though the group was over a hundred feet below the amplification was perfect.  We must have spent 20 minutes there – listening, enjoying, absorbing.  It was magical.

The top of the theater, musicians were far, far below

After rousing ourselves, we then approached the Acropolis itself.  It’s huge – meant to inspire awe and the entrance itself is stunning.  We took many shots trying to capture the beauty that was there.

Climbing up

Climbing up

The pillars are so big - truly not on human scale

The pillars are so big – truly not on human scale

And then finally, we were there.

IMG_20130927_135434 IMG_20130927_185431 IMGP4663


Our trip to Greece was starting really well.  We had only been there slightly over twelve hours and already seen so much.  After taking a break in the shade we moved out to continue exploring.

Sometimes trips really hit it out of the park – this one started with a bang.  Have you had a trip like that before?

A Benefit Concert – Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra’s 40th anniversary in China

6 Jun

At the beginning of June I was invited to a concert given by the Philadelphia Orchestra in Shanghai.

It was a benefit concert for a children’s charity in Ya’an and it commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra’s first visit to China in 1973.  They had been one of the first ever western orchestras to play in China and were part of Richard Nixon’s opening up policy.


There was a cocktail reception prior to the concert where the current head of the Orchestra spoke about the partnership over the last forty years and how music can bridge barriers without words.  Then one of the violinists who had actually played in the historic concert spoke.  He made a joke that the first concert people didn’t applaud very loudly, but now people feel comfortable making more noise.

In 1973 the cultural revolution was still going on.  I imagine that even the thought of applauding for a western music group would have been terrifying for many of the people in attendance.  What changes have occurred over these last 40 years!

After the reception we went into the concert hall.  I hadn’t been to this theater previously, but it was modern and comfortable with great sight lines and decent acoustics.  They held it in the Oriental Art Center in Pudong which is easily accessible off line 2 at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum stop.  Previously I had thought that this theater was too far away, but after going I realize it’s actually very convenient.

Waiting before the concert

Waiting before the concert

The concert itself was a nice distraction from the whirl that my life has been lately.  A local children’s music group played two traditional pieces and then the orchestra came out and did three works, my favorite being the Brahms after the interval.  I haven’t heard classical music live for quite a while and thoroughly enjoyed my evening.

Enjoying the evening with others at the cocktail hour

Enjoying the evening with others at the cocktail hour

Have you ever felt part of a historic event? I wasn’t around in 1973 but for those readers who were, what changes have you seen since then – and what more do you hope to see change?

It’s the holiday season

13 Dec

This year for some reason the Christmas decorations and music seem to be even more prevalent than in years past.  I’ve bopped to Jingle Bell Rock in the elevator going to see a client and heard Feliz Navidad while having lunch with a co-worker.

My local supermarket - do you believe it?

My local supermarket – do you believe it?

Lights and Santa Claus statues and all kinds of strange wrapped presents are on the street and I just got an email from Time Out Shanghai emphasizing the different Christmas markets this year – and markets is plural.  Starbucks has the Christmas drinks and even peppermint hot chocolate!

I showed this photo to a friend and she said that it looked like Kmart!

I showed this photo to a friend and she said that it looked like Kmart!

Visiting here, someone who doesn’t know about the culture of China would probably think that they actually celebrate Christmas here.

That is actually not true.

I hypothesize that if I stopped 10 people on the street and asked them what they think Christmas is and what it means I would get many different answers, but the probability of them being correct would be pretty low.  It is kind of like weddings in China – people do a lot of things that look like western weddings but don’t know what those things actually represent or the stories behind them.  I can get very cynical about this.

But, since I am going home for Christmas this year – instead I am enjoying the music and lights and decorations.  I am considering them my own personal holiday prep getting me ready for the real deal back in the States.  It’s the holiday season!

Happy Holiday!

The link above is to the song Happy Holiday by Andy Williams.  My first Christmas in China my roommate really loved this song and we probably listened to it 100s of times over the month of December.  It now has become a great memory and a true sign for me of Christmas.

Have you celebrated Christmas in a place where it is not traditionally celebrated?  What type of interesting traditions did you observe?

Elton John in Shanghai

4 Dec
The tour materials

The tour materials

The Friday after Thanksgiving Elton John and his entourage swarmed into Shanghai.  He is a legend – and since I had the opportunity I decided to go to his concert.  I put it into the same category as to when I got to see Tony Bennett at Ravinia a few years ago in Chicago.  One of my coworkers knows a “professional ticket reseller” and managed to get us seats on the floor for a reasonable price.

Mercedes Benz Arena (the same place that I rocked to Maroon 5 in September) was rocking, but there were still empty seats which was a little strange.  I think part of it may be that Elton John’s career spans the opening up and development of China, so the majority of his music catalogue are pretty much unknown here.

While at the show I did a little research (smart phones are incredible).  Sir Elton John is 65 – whereas the average 65 year old Chinese citizen has gone through the cultural revolution and the Great Leap Forward which don’t seem to be things that you mention in the same breath as Elton John.  His flamboyance with that age group is not necessarily a positive difference.

Elton John concert 1

Elton John Concert - 2

That said there were lots of foreigners out in force and folks seemed to (for the most part) enjoy the show.  It was a more sedate concert, so we didn’t need to stand for the entire three hours.  Elton John is a great performer – he performed for nearly 2.5 hours straight without a break and we got to hear lots of his greatest hits.

Remember how I said most people enjoyed themselves?  This teenage kid was there with his dad.  He fell asleep about an hour in.

Remember how I said most people enjoyed themselves? This teenage kid was there with his dad. He fell asleep about an hour in.

This woman had her computer out and worked for nearly an hour and then left.  I don't think she was a fan.

This woman had her computer out and worked for nearly an hour and then left. I don’t think she was a fan.

My favorite part of the concert though wasn’t Elton, it was the opening act.  He had two cello players (2 Cellos) who did some amazing things.  They covered Michael Jackson, U2 and a couple of other hits, using only two cellos.  It was a great start to the evening.

My favorite act of the night.  They were great!

My favorite act of the night. They were great! (but blurry in this photo)

Elton himself, despite the energy level, he didn’t sound as good as in my head and on my iPod.  I could tell that his voice can’t hit the high notes that I love to listen to in Rocket Man (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year) and the acoustics in the stadium just didn’t do his voice justice.  The guitars and bass overpowered him and I left with a headache, which was unfortunate.  I still had a really good time, but I wouldn’t pay to see him again.

My coworkers at the show

My coworkers at the show

It was a nice start though to the holiday season – getting out and dancing in the aisle and running for the last subway train will make it a night I won’t soon forget.  The singing – well, that came in second for once.

Have you heard someone live that just didn’t hit you the way they record?  I never want to see John Mayer live because I’ve seen his videos and when he sings – to me – it’s just not attractive.  Is there anyone else on your list?

Cloud Gate – a night of modern dance

25 Nov

There is a proverb – “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Since I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the arts in Shanghai, it seems like there are more opportunities of events for me to see.   Last week I was able to go to a modern dance performance by Cloud Gate II, the modern dance arm of the famous Taiwanese dance troupe, Cloud Gate.

Prior to being invited, I had never heard of the group, but after agreeing to go and doing a little research I discovered that they were one of the premier dance groups in Asia.  The theater was also in an area where I had never been before, in the middle of a residential district north of Jingan Temple.  I went in not knowing what to expect and was really impressed by the precision and emotion in the dance performance.

There were four pieces presented – none of which I 100% understood which was hindered by the fact that there was no English at all – in the introduction or the program.  It also highlighted that I really know very little “dance vocabulary” in mandarin.  My friend (who speaks less mandarin than I) was dependent on me to translate the descriptions.  I’d say I’m not ready yet to do simultaneous translation on the purpose of dance pieces.

The music and dance connected in an intriguing way.  I found myself making up back stories, using my limited knowledge from the introduction of the pieces.  In my head I had one story about people going to work and falling in love on their commute, but not making it public.  I had another one about the cultural revolution and people being hungry and walking in lock-step and breaking out from expectations.

Since I really had very little idea what the pieces were supposed to represent I was freed from any preconceived notions.  The dancers were excellent – the athleticism and inspiration they portrayed didn’t require translation.

It was an interesting evening – I met several new friends and tried something new.  Hopefully I’ll have more chance to do that in Shanghai in the future.

Have you ever gone to a performance where you didn’t know what you would be seeing?  Do you like modern dance?

Broadway in Shanghai

4 Nov

One of the benefits of watching more Chinese television (instead of my Philippine satellite TV) is that the ads are more relevant for daily life.  About a month ago I saw an ad for “The Ultimate Broadway Experience” in Shanghai and after contacting one of my friends, decided to buy tickets.

I love Broadway and musical theater and it is one of the things I miss from the States.  When I was in grade school my parents took me to see Phantom of the Opera with friends of the family and I remember how grown up, sophisticated I felt listening to the music, absorbing myself in the story.  One year in Chicago, I purchased an entire season (6 or 7 shows) pass to the Broadway in Chicago series, which if you went during the middle of the week was incredibly affordable.  When I went to New York last year I made sure to fit in a show (Memphis) and I enjoy Glee’s musical theater episodes more than the others.

So, Broadway was coming to Shanghai – what to expect?

Last year I was invited to a Mozart concert by a friend – we paid 200 RMB each for tickets (about $30 USD) and found that it was more like a Suzuki recital for beginning violin students than any type of concert I would ever pay for.  Would this be a similar experience or would it be more of the Maroon 5 concert – a great release from the pressure of Shanghai life?

The event took place at the Shanghai cultural center – the same place that I went to see Shrek earlier this year.  This time I remembered to take a couple of photos of the beautiful glass mural that decorates the entrance hall.  I don’t have any photos of the performance itself being a well disciplined theater goer who knows that photography is not permitted.

View from above of the mural

View from the ground level before heading into our seats

I enjoyed the show – the performers obviously had performed on Broadway before and their voices let me relax into a whirl of musical theater.  We had purchased tickets at the middle price point and wound up sitting in the second row, looking directly at the actors – we were so close that we could see the tattoo on the ankle of one of the leading ladies.

Format-wise the show was a medley – they had taken well known Broadway hits from the last twenty to thirty years and combined them.  There were four principal singers and then a back-up cast of maybe 10 which was then supplemented by I’m guessing a group from one of the Chinese universities with a focus on the performing arts.  That group of folks was maybe another 20 people.  For a final, adorable addition they also had a children’s choir sing two numbers including the intro to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which is one of my all time favorites.

The only element that didn’t quite work was that the theater was probably less than half full.  I did go to the Sunday evening performance so there had been a matinee earlier in the day, but it felt strange to have so many empty seats.  My friend (who has been in China nearly as long as me) and I talked about the fact that we thought this audience was very well behaved compared to other events we had attended, but the empty theater made us feel a little sad.  That said – 5 years ago I don’t think the event would be here at all, so progress has been made.

Leaving we had a final smile.  There was a line of people waiting in line for autographs after the show.  That made me feel more hopeful that the call of musical theater will continue to sound in China.

Autograph seekers (from above)

What’s the last performance you attended?  Was it a new one or an old favorite?  What culture do you wish was easily available where you live?

Exploring – Seoul’s downtown

14 Oct

Our last evening in Seoul we finally had some free time.  I linked up with two others and we decided that we did not want to go shopping which was the chosen past time of the majority of the group.  I’m tall in China, I’m tall in Korea – clothes don’t fit – so it wasn’t an option.

Instead we took a wonderful wander through the main shopping district, sampling street food, poking into galleries, hopping on the subway, watching live music performances, snapping photos and getting advice from extremely friendly tourism volunteers.  We looked for a place to serve a special kind of noodle and then capped it off by listening to a duo singing Coldplay songs on a street corner.

I am trying the new gallery feature with WordPress with the collage above.  If you’d like to see the photos more closely click on one and you’ll go to another page where you can see the photos larger and my captions of each shot.  Please let me know if you prefer this or my previous format.

It was a wonderful, relaxed afternoon/evening in a welcoming atmosphere.  I enjoyed Seoul a lot and would go back if given the opportunity.  It’s a direct flight and is closer than Beijing!

Have you had a wander through a neighborhood lately?  What do you enjoy when you explore a new place?

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