May 13, 2007

Shanghai Stories - Food, Shopping, and the Life of the Waking Giant..

Shanghai is incredible, magnificent, majestic, and sad. It is a complex mix of old meeting new, as hyper-modern architecture and technology compete for space amidst the rubble and squalor of a city doubled over with growing pains. Never have I seen such a massive dichotomy as here in Communist China. The people struggle to come to grips with the increased presence and pressure from Western Society, while still retaining the grace, dignity, and priniciples of their Chinese heritage, which spans for millennias. China is THE emerging SuperPower, and as this Waking Giant stands and takes the Earth by the horns, every person on the planet will be affected in some way. This is a collection of thoughts and photos from my Shanghai adventures this past week - Enjoy!

I bid farewell to my Team mates early Sunday evening after the race. Scott and I were headed back into the city by taxi while the Team was going directly to the airport to "get the hell out of China". I had decided to stay in Shanghai for an additional three days to re-connect with this country, and this city especially, strengthen some industry connections, EAT, and generally just take a small break from my normal routine of returning to Barcelona and emailing my ass off. I figured I could just as easily email from China, but as it turned out, my hotel room wasn't equipped well and the internet was spotty at best. Literally, wires were hanging out of the wall where the jack should have been, so connecting was tricky.

The Chinese people and the culture are so radically different from anywhere else MotoGP travels to, and after living in Europe for the last year and a half, I desperately needed to hear the tongue, smell everything, and throw myself as deeply into the Life as I could. Shanghai is important to me for a variety of reasons, and she will always hold a very special place in my heart. I first came to Shanghai in 2005, and I spent a week absorbing as much as I could while also managing to catch the inaugural MotoGP race here. That was my first real contact with the Circus. As much as the race had affected me, the quiet nobility surrounding the people was what really struck me, and as I walked the city day after day, I came to find a deep respect for the plight of the Chinese. They are on the verge of joining the 21st century, but they are acutely tied to the past in a way that makes change difficult and sometimes can cause more harm than good. The government appears to be working hard to bring the people into the future, by adopting some of the Western values and ethics, but there are too many instances of insensitivity for me to believe it is a whole-hearted attempt to help the people. As some of you know, the Olympics are coming to Beijing soon, but the way so many people were displaced as a result of the Olympic construction leaves me cold. China is a faceless monolith, large, waiting. When I think of happier images, I picture roadside vendors selling fresh cooked food, smiling girls, and the tranquil green that can only come from a bamboo forest.

At the heart of China, everything is business. The people have a knack for commerce, and they are SO hungry to grow and make their family's lives better. Everywhere you go in the city, you are assaulted by the presence of small stores and shops, and as a foreigner, you are constantly subject to queries to come and buy fakes watches and handbags. The replica market is a huge industry here, but the large, open-air market which was once the epicenter for the "Fakes" is gone, replaced by something else in it's stead. Gone, also, is the street known as Tongren Lu, which had a row of bars and nightclubs I remembered from '05. It was on that street when I first met the crew from Sete Gibernau's Movistar team the night after the race, at the infamous Buddha Bar. I wanted to see and do it all again, so I had planned a special celebration for racenight by reserving a table at 18 on the Bund's fine dining restaurant, Sens & Bund. It is a killer place overlooking the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Huangpu River, and it specializes in exquisite cuisine by world reknowned chefs, Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. I ate here on Sunday night in '05, and again in '07, joined by my new friends, Scott and Kay Yu. It didn't have quite the same impact as before, but I was far more tired this time around from working all week. The food and presentation were top-notch, and it was a pure guilty pleasure to be there. Not to mention that due to the currency conversion rates in place, I was enjoying a stellar meal at prices that would make your eyes bug. Great food, and with a nice Riesling it was absolutely perfect.

Thank you, Shanghai, for welcoming me back!

While at the restaurant, I got a call from Frances saying that she and several of her clients were one floor up at the Bar Rouge , a very classy lounge on the top floor of the building that features a terrace for overlooking the city lights. Naturally, following dinner we proceeded up and into the night. Through the course of the night I ran into several GP personnel trickling in and out, and then we were joined by one of the owners of the building, an extremely dignified man named Steven. He was about six feet tall, and he sat, leaning back with his legs crossed, one hand on his knee, a glass of wine at his side and a thin cigarette in his hand. It was an image of regality. The night went long, and then we all went back to the hotel to get some rest.

The next morning I woke late and arranged to meet with Scott and Kay for some local grinds near the hotel. Only here for a couple days, they'd already sussed out a great place to eat. The entire staff was from the "back-country", and in this case that meant the far-North-Eastern corner of China, near the Northern Korea border. Their costumes were colorful, like the food, and the restaurant always seemed to be packed (yes, I ate there more than once). Spicy tendons, anyone?

And how about that "Magic Pork", which had the most amazing texture and body. I've never had anything quite like it.

Why, yes Kay, that is Flaming Dragon Fish, hahaha. The fish itself was probably sea bass, or some other light, white fish, and the crispy squares were sweet, similar to the magic pork. I'll stick with the pork in the future - it was truly incredible.

As our meal wound down, the girls jumped over and let loose with a local song that was loud, brash, and finished with something akin to an American Indian war cry. It was eerily similar in sound and effect. All the while they were twirling and spinning their small blankets and doing a little dance.

After lunch, Scott had to go back to work, so Kay and I decided to go exploring through the city for a bit. We set off to People's Square at the top of Nanjing Road, near the Shanghai Museum. The streets were full of people still visiting Shanghai from the outlying towns. Crowded is an understatement.

I managed to get a small Boba Tea drink, which tasted very strange to me after not having one for so long living in BCN. The composition was more like there was whipped cream mixed into the milk tea, but it was still good. You had to be very conscious to keep hydrated while walking through the city, because the ever-present pollution and heat could quickly sap your strength and energy. On our way towards HuaiHai road, we passed an old, blind man playing on a bridge. I gave him some money and we proceeded on our way, navigating more by luck and sheer wanderlust. It was great.

I hit up a street vendor for some freshly made Dan Tarts, and Kay and I sat in some grass next to a bright orange Hong Kong based store called "it" (there's a larger version of the store called "IT"). I checked out some fashion by 5CM, but unfortunately didn't see anything that really grabbed me. I preferred to just stay on the streets and see as much as I could. Besides, I'm a pretty bad shopper, always looking but never really doing it. I've only made a few significant purchases in my lifetime, and even concerning motorcycles, I'd rather buy something then build it up and modify it completely into my own creation. Stock is not for me.

On our walkabout, we talked about a lot of things, watched the people, and admired how "commercial" the area was. I did not feel like I was in a communist country at all, but then, this was THE shopping area in the city, targeted directly at foreigners with money to spend. I stopped into a strange Italian place because the decorations were so extravagant, and ran into the perfect example of China's economy. They use, and re-use EVERYTHING. The Chinese are notorious for taking something apart, replicating it, and selling it for cheaper than anywhere else. They recycle on a grand scale, people collecting used bricks from construction sites and chipping off the old cement so that they can be sold again. If you look carefully, you'll see more than a few instances of old parts being adapted to this artsy wall facade.

Yup, a Honda-cloned 50cc cylinder, and an old auto master cylinder.

The day wound down with the setting sun, and we returned to the hotel so that I could check and write emails back and forth with the factory. Bologna was six hours behind Shanghai, so it worked out pretty well that I could get away and see the town a bit and still get some work done. Scott had a great idea to watch Spiderman 3 at the IMAX theatre, so we purchased tickets in advance.

After I got some work done, we all went for a long walk through the back streets, trying to find a mysterious Korean restaurant that Scott had found online. 3 streets over, one up, and 45 minutes later, we found it. The food was, regrettably, not Korean. But the beer was good. Just for the record, I do not endorse or condone anyone going to see Spiderman 3. It was literally the WORST MOVIE EVER.


I finished my night back at the hotel, emailing some final files about the race and then passing out fully clothed. After a week in Asia, my body finally said, Enough, and I slept like a rock. Used to be, I could last for more than a week on extremely low sleep, relying on my enthusiasm for the races to keep my game tight, but as I get older, I find I need much more sleep now. Still, I like to think that because there was no race going on at this time, my body automatically knew it was "down-time".

On Tuesday the four of us gathered in the Xintiandi area, the "trendiest, NEW, upscale pedestrian area". There was a good number of bars and restaurants, not to mention shops and stalls to keep us occupied. There was a mall, as well, and I saw a gorgeous "We the People" special edition BMX, black with bright orange mag wheels, sitting in the Y-3 store that had me drooling. How I wish I'd gotten a picture of that! Anyway, Frances took us to a super Dim-Sum place, and the dumplings were among the best I've ever had.

They use a different technique of steaming/boiling them in a soup, so that the skins are plump and full of juice. You have to be delicate picking them up, then place them in a spoon, before eating them. Out of this world!

Next stop after lunch was the Antiques Market area, the Dongtai Road Bazaar. This area is made up of a couple large buildings with shop after shop selling all manner of things from expensive hair brushes, to ceramic kitchen knives.

We were tailed by a guy who tried dragging us to a couple small "fake" shops, and when we'd leave them, he'd lead us to another one. After the third stop, we told him to take a hike. I missed out on buying a couple more Chinese Airforce (replica, of course) helmets. I used to ride my chopper with a black one I got in '05.

The place was full of tourists of one kind and another, and Starbucks had moved in. You know you gotta leave a place when you find Starbucks.

For 5 Yuan, or about 50 cents in Euros, you could write down a wish on red paper and throw it up into this gold tree. I passed, because I firmly believe you make your own luck and good fortune through hard work and positive energy. A little luck goes a long way, too. (I'd rather be lucky than smart)

I finally bought something! I picked up this strange little "Tiger" hat, because this year I'm trying to get a collection of strange head-wear going. Rawrr!

HONDA would not be happy. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - or so they say, hahaha. This guy was rocking his ADNOH in loafers, which was perfectly normal here. The bikers, or lack thereof, were particularly noticeable on every street intersection, where bicycles and two stroke or electric scooters clogged the curbside lanes. In the city, there were traffic wardens on every corner, insuring that there was no jay-walking going on. I attribute this to the communist idea that everyone can have a job, and the traffic workers "must have failed their tests in school".

Later that night, I caught up with the biggest Rebel in China, and he rode an electric scooter through the city with no helmet. That guy has the stones! That was illegal, immoral, and I salute you, sir!

We had dinner at a pure Shanghainese place, and the food was once again, off the scale. The flavor and variety was great, the company even better!

Yes, there's a giant fish head in there. And it was GOOOOD!

The whole time we're all bombing through the city in search of adventure and mystique, I was constantly amazed by the sheer rudeness by many of the people, especially because they would be working in the "service" industry, like taxi-drivers, hotel staff, waiters, shop workers, things like that. On one level, it is rudeness, but on the other hand, it's simply a case of culture clash and ignorance. These are clever people, ingenius and innovative. They find ways to make things work, and while the solutions aren't always ethical, they are making things happen. We could all learn a lesson here. It was common to see nicer cars come out at night, like a convertible red Mercedes, and right next to it, actually, a whole fleet of Volkswagon Santana's would surround it, highlighting how special it was in China. You end up turning a blind eye to a lot of what you see, and that's why it's important to take photos and ruminate a lot later. There is always so much to learn, but we frequently just move on to the next subject. In my case, I am often headed to the next race, so these "journals" are a good way for me to reflect. My time in Shanghai was winding down, and I tried to cram as much as I could into this time away. It IS truly special to be here, and the good food and new friends only cemented the time in my life as one of my all-time best trips. I wish I could have spent more time there, but truthfully, many of my thoughts were back in Europe and on the upcoming race in LeMans. I desperately want to fight for good results, deserving results. The racing dominates my thoughts.

I know how lucky I am to be here, that this life is a gift. How many people can say, oh yeah, I just had Chinese eggplant, and in two days, I'll probably be eating French. It's strange to be so completely inside the racing, and so disconnected from reality at the same time. I lose myself occasionally, and it takes doing mundane tasks to bring me back to real. I enjoy cooking spaghetti for myself in my apartment, catching up with my roomate, Carla, and doing laundry. There needs to be a balance. I look at the Chinese working so hard, and the gap between have and have-nots is unbelievable. Going out to a nice club is a luxury here, and drink prices are astronomical by the average person's standards.

After dinner we went to MUSE , and the manager, Thomas, totally hooked us up with monster drink comps and fresh fruit. I really felt VIP in there, and the music was great, although a little loud. A little loud? Yeah, either I'm getting older, or maybe the bikes at work are starting to take their toll on me. I often stuff my ears full of paper at loud clubs, but then I've been doing that since high school. One crazy Hawaiian right here!

Here's a horrible sound clip I recorded, and it's almost impossible to hear my voice. If you can bear with it and decipher what I'm saying, you might enjoy it. Sorry, I was drinking at the time. And, gasp, we even smoked Cuban cigars. In China!

My last day in China was filled with more long walks, some more shopping/bargaining, and a last-gasp attempt to hold onto to everything I was experiencing. The day wound down too quickly, but the good news was that my great friend Eden, riding buddy from California, and now living in Shengzhen (Southern China) was flying all the way up to have dinner with me. This was BIG, and I can't thank him enough. Eden, thank you for everything - you've been a great friend all these years and I hope we can continue long into the future.

Eden took our little group, which I feel was a great little Chinese family of strangers in a strange place, to a quality Hot Pot place, where we had our own private room to celebrate in. We traded pants, showed off, and marvelled at how little we're really changed in two years - and the night had just begun.

Prawns 4 Life, Yo!

And the grand finale? Yellow Watermelon. It was crisp and sweet, and the perfect compliment to all the great food we had just eaten.

Like most nights, we all went out, this time to a rustic bar called Bourbon Street. It was a little crusty, but as soon as the staff slammed down two bottles of Johnny Walker Black, I knew we were in for a hell of a night. Eden happened to know the band, and before you knew it, he was up onstage and belting out some righteous Guns-n-Roses. Yee-Haa, get it!

Scott and Kay tried to keep it together.

But Scott just needed to do the "Y-M-C-A"

Like always, I wish the night had been able to go on forever. Spending time with Eden, Frances, Scott and Kay, and then some was an absolute blast, and I'm still feeling it now. To re-connect with old friends, make new friends, and bask in this city has been the highlight of 2007 for me. Sometimes I think that my Team mates might get jealous of the experiences I'm lucky enough to catch, but I believe you must reach out and grab what you can from life. I can no longer live my life in a box, I can't even fathom moving back to California and leading a normal life. I have no idea where the future is taking me, but I'm riding it for all it's worth and I will continue for as long as I can. The taxi ride to the airport was somber and quiet, the rickety old car held together by screw-drivers and tape. I was lucky to make it, haha.

Ate some curry at the airport, and then kissed Shanghai goodbye. It was an unforgettable trip, and I want to thank everyone involved. I really wouldn't be here without any of you.

The Lufthansa plane was almost new, the windows to the world so clear. I crossed over the Russian expanse and headed back to Europe to get things going for LeMans. Let's get to it, people!

I wish I could write more about how I feel about China and the incredible change the country is undergoing. The last 50 years have turned a simple farming land into a confused and complicated kaleidoscope of sounds and colors. To be able to witness it at this time is something I will keep with me, and tell me children about. There are no borders in the world today, only different taxes to pay. We're getting ever closer to a Global Union, and it parallels some thoughts on MotoGP and how all of us, from different countries and backgrounds, have come together with a true love of the RACE. It is a powerful and moving Force. I will catch you all later, I'm off to dinner with Hiro at our favorite Japanese restaurant in BCN, Shuunka.



check out my blog about shanghai lifestyle

>I lose myself occasionally, and it takes doing mundane tasks to bring me back to real.

i know what you mean. I work music all day long, and i obliged myself to do "normal" tasks every now and then to keep my feet well planted...

BTW, I don't think i can take ONE MORE food picture, looks to good :)

merci for the wonderful blog entry and insights. Definitively worth it !

peace, jean-marc

what a interesting and fantastic write up as I told you before it is written with such passion, wish we were there

once again... phenominal post.

As much as I love the GP info tidbits you post up, (love reading between the lines) these kinds of wandering traveler writeups are amazing.

Keep it up man...

c ya in laguna. ;)

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