Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Drawer #1.3: Predatory Goldfish, on Wheels

…which, actually, with a little research, turns out to be a Predatory Carp.  

Which, according to my Chinese Motifs book, is distinguished by 1. its scales 2. “its wide mouth & two pairs of barbels attached to its upper lip” 3. its long dorsal fin. Homophone Alert: carp is (li 鲤) which, depending on its tone, can mean profit (li 利) or it can mean power (li力)…but a “carp among lotuses (lian lian you yu 莲莲有鱼)"  plays the lian 莲 of lotus against the lian 连 of again (”again and again,”  lian lian 连连 ) and the yu of fishes against the yu 余 of surplus to wish you again & again may you have an excess of wealth... or carp. 

But calling this drawer CARP wouldn’t really make you want to open it, would it…and open it you should because it’s really about Again & Again, Abundance of Delight. 

Like the pondful of fake lotuses you discover behind the Jade Buddha Temple … 

 and the troves of tassels at the Notions Market…

and the Mid-Lake Teahouse mid-Yu Garden, familiar to you on arriving in Shanghai  from the novel you are reading by Qiu Xiaolong in which policeman/poet Chief Inspector Chen has a clandestine meeting in the 1990's with his informer, Old Hunter. To reach the Teahouse, they, like you, have traversed a demon-defying ”nine-turn” (a.k.a. zigzag) bridge (see drawer 5.3) “full of tourists at every turn: People pointing at the lotus flowers swaying in the breeze, throwing bread crumbs to the golden carp swimming among the blossoms.”  And photographing each other & themselves like mad.

Not to mention the rare delight inside the cabinet of being released from the tyranny of the grid (only 4 other drawers are missing a divider: 1.5, 2.3, 3.2 & 3.5…) so that the goldfish toy, sold by the tiniest, most ancient, slip of a woman from her shop that is merely a cupboard attached to the outside wall of her lane house, can skitter about as the drawer slides open… 

A Swedish friend, just six months into her Shanghai life, asks, “Have you found that your aesthetic changed after you came to China?” How else to explain the hot fuchsia Crocs in my closet, linens on my bed the color of orange marshmallow peanut candies, window curtains covered in sequin daisies...

For other related drawers, see Drawer 5.3 & Drawer 8.3 & Drawer 8.2 to hear the  monks chanting at the Temple...
Drawer 1.3: From top: 1. Chinese Knot Tassels whose color combinations never fail to send me; 2. Carp pull toy with small carp swallowed inside; chinese brocade in water or seaweed pattern; 3. Sample of tea from the Huixinting Tea House, Yu Garden, Shanghai. Photo credits: Full drawer: Bruno David; all others: Christina Shmigel

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Drawer 6.1: Shells

According to To Have & to Hold, Philipp Blom’s wonderful (pun not intended) book on collecting, wunderkammers first appeared in the 16th ct. with the Age of Exploration.  Never before seen marvels were arriving in Europe with every returning ship - in 1633, John Trandescant , collector extraordinaire, acquired an unknown fruit: the banana! - & collecting those arriving wunders became a preoccupation for those of means.  The “custom of the time” was that cabinet of curiosities should include both naturalia & artificialia;  Nearly always, among the naturalia, there were shells, easily transported by sailors from far-flung locations.

When I started in on my own Cabinet, I had no idea that shells were de rigueur so there must be something about them that just begs harboring. There are Nautili (sp?) in Drawer 3.2 (from HWI’mT & my honeymoon) and there’s coral from Hainan Island/South China Sea in Drawer 3.7

But the shells in Drawer 6.1 come to the cabinet not by benefit of sea or sailor but from the waste heaps of the captains of industry. 

On a bicycle tour, on my way to Xitang, the Water Town that hosted Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3, I started to notice massive piles of…

oh! perforated clam shells!…filling the front yard of every structure on both sides of the road. It took me not a short while (duh) to realize their reason for being: buttons! The town’s entire industry is shell buttons… shell buttons: who had ever really thought about how shell buttons come into being. For sure, not me. And now, how glorious! Shell button holes!

Turns out that the scrapped & perforated shells are also players in one of China’s many Copy-Cat-Economy stories: the industry started when one clever soul saw the opportunity in all the discard clam shells from the town’s food trade. He made a lot of money. So all his neighbors, one by one, began to follow suit.  Soon there was so much stock that competition drove the price straight down. Now, no one is making much money as there’s just the tiniest profit margin per button. Which still doesn’t make 'em cheap at Shanghai’s notions market...where I’m always coveting them…

Not sure how much of a market there is for shell water bowls for crickets ...

Drawer 6.1:  From top: 1., 3. & 4. Perforated shells from  Shell Button Factory Yard, Xitang, China  2. Tin container with Traditional Chinese Medicines found in the Cabinet at time of purchase
Photo credits: Full drawer: Bruno David; all others, Christina Shmigel.

For related drawers, see Drawer 3.2: Double Happiness, Drawer 3.7: Coral by Sand & by Design  & Drawer 8.1: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

White Monkey: The View from the Other Side

One of the very first words you learn to recognize, as a non-chinese speaker in China, is the word laowai. The two characters read as old/老 & outside/外; together, 老外, they mean "foreigner." You hear the word ...well, just ALL THE TIME. Walk into a shop & it will sound out like a public service announcement for the attention of all those in the room who might not have noticed that yes, indeedy, you are not Chinese. Politely, you'd be addressed as a waiguoren 外国人 , an "outside-country person", so laowai's maybe a little rude, a little slangy, maybe kin to a Southerner calling NYer me a Yankee.

Sometimes I hear it while I'm on my bike: stopped at a light, the rider on the back of the motorcycle next to me informs the rider in the front: "laowai." It's my favorite [obnoxious] trick to turn to that keen observer of phenomena, and ask, excitedly, in Chinese, "Really? Where?! Where?!" This almost always produces a look of total consternated embarrassment on the faces of my fellow travelers. Very satisfying.

It's the Foreigner's Cabinet of Chinese Curiosities because I'm definitely an outside person looking in, making up sense for things foreign to me. Here, from the New York Times, a  slightly cynical, very funny/cringe-inducing video of the view from the other side. In low moments, in his former position, HWI'mT would bitterly decry that all he'd been hired to do was to be the "white monkey" at various functions & now, who's to argue...


We've started house hunting in the suburbs of Kunshan, a small city (only by Chinese standards: 7 million pop) an hour or so from Shanghai and exactly smack dab inside the housing bubble described in the video. Now we can swing into negotiations with the secret bargaining weapon: we can be the loss leader! The manager of one "Canadian style" (?!?) compound has already told me that he'd be so happy to have us, a better quality of tenant, professors & artists, culture people, in his compound. Extra discount if we swan about in our Royal Mountie hats?