A week back in the Magic City

At the start of 2019, Shanghai was very high on my list of places to visit. It was a goal of mine to start traveling more to North Asia (e.g., China, Japan, etc.), as I’ve primarily traveled around Southeast Asia since I have lived in Singapore. I believed Shanghai to be a far-off destination, somewhere it would take effort and planning to visit. Ah, a simpler time. Little did I know that I’d visit the city three times in 2019 (here you can find recaps of my first and second visits).

This time, however, the purpose of my trip was work. I was there a regional team meeting, which convened from Monday until Thursday. There’s not much I can write about that particular portion of the week, but I can certainly regale you with extraordinary tales of the weekend that preceded it. The cast of characters this time around? Zé and me, of course, along with Mariam and Vlad (friends and also our new neighbors in Singapore, who also goes by Vlariam, in the style of Brangelina), plus João and Camila, business school friends of Zé’s that I have become close with as well.

The weekend kicked off with a solo overnight flight to Shanghai, which landed at 6AM (overnight flights…only the strong survive). Vlariam also flew overnight and landed a bit earlier than me, and Zé, who missed his connection in Kuala Lumpur because of a delayed flight, would meet us there at 9AM (#ConsultantLife).

Even though I flew Singapore Airlines (the best airline in the world ever always) and had a good sleep, I was still dead tired when I landed. So I kicked off my shoes after checking in at the Ritz Carlton in Jing’an, and took a short nap before my back-to-back day started at 9:30AM. I headed down for a quick breakfast, and was greeted by a lovely letter from the staff and a bunch of roses wishing Zé and I a wonderful weekend. Five-star service, baby. That’s what I’m talking about.

I was excited to finish work and check out Jing’an, one of Shanghai’s central and most commercial districts. Jing’An is named after Jing’An Temple, an ancient Chinese Buddhist temple. Jing’an is well-known for being expat-heavy, owing in large part to the large number of  international businesses and restaurants there, along with the sheer volume of hip cafes and wine bars. Luckily we got to explore this cool area, plus a few others, while in Shanghai that weekend.

After work on Friday, the #ShangGang headed to Funkadeli for a drink, a popular street bar with inside and outdoor seating and a mostly international clientele. There, we met João and Camila for the first time, and toasted to our weekend together. From there we headed to Mr & Mrs Bund for dinner, a classy yet relaxed French restaurant on the Bund (the waterfront area in central Shanghai). We enjoyed a nice—and long—dinner there, finishing up at about 1AM after starting at 10PM. There is a bar upstairs that we visited last time we were in Shanghai, called Bar Rouge, so we popped up for a drink. It was much different than last time, though: filled with a super trashy crowd, so we left soon after arriving, as we were all tired anyway. While the view from the bar is good, the crowd seems pretty hit or miss here.

Saturday morning was marked by a quick breakfast of fruit and coffee from the coffee shop outside our hotel, and then a taxi into the city for a day of exploring. Our first stop: the Marriage Market. The Shanghai Marriage Market is a marriage market held at People’s Park in Shanghai, China. (Anxious) parents of unmarried adults flock to the park every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. to trade information on their children. A few facts about the Marriage Market I found interesting, pulled from various sources across the Great Internet in my research for this post:

  • The market sprung up in Shanghai in 2004 as parents noticed that they were all conveniently gathered anyway at People’s Square for dancing and martial arts sessions on the weekends.
  • The postings are straightforward: age, height, zodiac, weight, job, accomplishments, where their kid was born. Birthplace is rather important, as it determines where someone can get health benefits and property rights (rarely do you see a photo, hobbies, personalities traits, and quirks).
  • Generally speaking, the age of those unmarried children in the Shanghai Marriage Market averages 26 to 35.

What do I think of all this? Well, what I think about this market is quite irrelevant, as I am not Chinese nor have I ever experienced growing up in a traditional Chinese family. Parental melding in marriage matters is an integral part of Chinese culture, and is a practice that dates back to imperial times where weddings were arranged principally on a monetary basis. Marriage in China extends far beyond romantic compatibility—it also serves to codify or heighten the social status of a family. It’s not something I’m even vaguely familiar with, and thus, it’s something I don’t feel well equipped to comment on.  In fact, the marriage market is 100% borne out of insecurity and, given how low the conversation rates are at the Marriage Market, it seems more like a place where parents can congregate to soothe their anxieties, together. I was struck by the sense of community I felt, looking around at the parents hunched together, comparing notes, statistics, results. No matter what you think about this set-up scenario, there is a beautiful part to it.

Next up for us was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (this is what it’s called, I’m not just getting fancy and randomly going for British English here. I haven’t converted to the dark side, yet). Opened in 2012, it is home to over six thousand propaganda posters and Shanghai calendar pages, many of which are the only existing copies in the world. This has Atlas Obscura written all over it (and of course, when I googled ‘Shanghai Atlas Obscura,’ there were reviews of both the Poster Centre and the Marriage Market. Kudos!).

The posters are display come from the Maoist era of Communist China, particularly from the Cultural Revolution (the sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976). The posters showed ideological messages and shifts in focus as the world changed, and as alliances were formed with different leaders like Stalin. There was even one section focusing on the ‘ways of the West,’ e.g., how America is evil. It was interesting to see how Western leaders were portrayed, and a bit scary to see how it’s all come to life a bit too much, given our current state of affairs at home…

We were getting hungry after our day of exploring, and headed to eat around 3PM. We went to Bull & Claw, a European pub/seafood place (according to the Internet…what a combo?). We got some starters, followed by lobster rolls, and somehow started engaging in some heated discussion about the role of affirmative action initiatives, female representation in global corporations, and other light topics that are good for casual lunch banter. (Everyone is for it, of course, but how to implement these initiatives was what was up for debate). I was relieved to have an easy out about 30 minutes into this debate, as I had to head to the venue where we’d be having dinner during our event one night that week to check it out. I slipped out mostly unnoticed, as the conversation raged on, and spent about an hour without the gang. The right hour, I think. I had to go and meet with the event and logistics management teams, to ensure things were in place for our event that week. I timed myself perfectly, because when I was done with my work bit, the group had cooled down a bit and were ready for massages (*perfectly,* I tell you). We headed to Dragonfly for some rather intense massages: the kind where you don’t sleep, but rather feel afterwards like your muscles and bones have just gone to war with each other. In the end, though, I felt loose, which I suppose is a good outcome….? To recover from the ear zone, we all headed next door to Funkadeli for a drink afterwards, and then headed home to primp for dinner.

For dinner, we went to Blackbird 2.0, a chic little cocktail bar and cafe on the ground-floor of a glass box in Columbia Circle (a historical compound that used to house, among other things, the Columbia Country Club, a popular hangout for Americans in the 1920s. U-S-A! U-S-A!). There, we met up with a few friends of João and Camila’s, a very international crowd containing Mexican, Iranian, Brazilian, and several other nationalities. Could’ve passed for a United Nations outing. There were about 12 of us at dinner that night, though from the number of plates on the table you’d think we were at least 30. A United Nations outing of very hungry delegates.

The group was in major vacillation mode following dinner, and we didn’t manage to get a consensus with so many options on the table, and ended up at a gay dance bar that was fun but VERY intense. We only lasted about 30 minutes there, before deciding to call it a night. One could say dinner was the main event that evening.

Sunday was a simple day, starting off at a very unique and cultural dim sum experience—and by that, I mean we ended up at Din Tai Fung because we were lazy and it was located directly outside of our hotel. Also because Vlariam had to head to the airport in the early afternoon and we didn’t want to waste time finding a place to eat.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with João and Zé (I really need to get myself some new friends that don’t require me to insert special symbols every time I write their names), walking around, stopping for coffee, and doing some shopping on Nanjing Road (the main shopping street in Shanghai). By shopping I mean going into Zara Home and choosing 500 things I liked and then getting overwhelmed by choice and walking out empty handed. A lovely little Sunday.

From there, Zé and I headed back to the hotel, and he relaxed while I headed to a meeting with some colleagues to prep for the week. Zé sadly had to head off around 9PM, but not before joining me for a nice dim sum (what else?) dinner in the Portman Ritz Carlton, the hotel I’d be staying in for the week. There was so much to be done that week, and the meeting with my colleagues really got me into a work headspace, so while seeing Zé go back home was sad, it was time to get down to business. Work mode, on.

Some photos from our trip to Shanghai:

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