By Michael Karlo Lim
“WO yéyé shì Shànghai rén.” I’d mention that my grandfather was from Shanghai to every Chinese local who’d question my inability to speak fluent Mandarin against my rather Oriental features. I’d say I got through that year in Beijing by the charm of a foreigner’s naiveté and, mostly, by that genealogical connection.
I’ve been as far down the mainland as Shenzhen but never to my grandfather’s city. Now that I think of it, I never even really got to know him apart from the few occasions a year that we experience his cooking on visits to his adopted hometown down South of Cebu. These visits, with us growing further up, became fewer and far in between. My last memory of him was of the family’s take on his town-famous Hong Shao Rou or Hong Ba as we spent a night writing his name on various effigy materials for his funeral. A visit was with the hope that I’d get a glimpse of his previous life and somehow have a better understanding of how he lived his in the Philippines.
I finally set foot in Shanghai what with Air Asia now flying direct from Cebu. That inaugural flight for that route on this airline got us into Pudong International Airport around 6 a.m.. As the Shanghai summer season had our booked hotel on full occupancy, early check-in was not possible, and we literally had to hit the ground running.
Our somewhat regimented Chinese tour guide, “Emma,” immediately whisked us to the Oriental Pearl Tower after a quick airport outlet breakfast. The tower has 15 observatory levels, a revolving restaurant, exhibition facilities, a small shopping center and the 20-room Space Hotel. We fell into what seemed endless holiday crowd lines and found ourselves 263 meters up on an observation platform with a 1.5-inch glass floor holding us up against the pull of gravity.
That adrenalin rush had us ready to tuck into some Chinese and the wait times up and down pushed us timely into lunch. Upon inquiry, Emma shared that the traditional restaurant she booked was called Nowengwishneym. Our Shanghai Eight had a private room to ourselves, and the lauriat-style service had dishes progressively piling up on the lazy Susan to overcapacity.
I harked back to memories of my grandfather’s cooking and confirmed over that meal that Shanghainese cuisine is fundamentally sweet and with the all-too-familiar but more nuanced soy flavors. There was glazed shrimp, red-braised pork hock, roast duck, peas with fermented bean paste, asparagus spears in soy, boiled chicken, soy chicken wings, soy-braised white fungus, pork and pearl potatoes with sweet potato pancakes, spicy sheep-blood noodles and several other delicious unidentifiables all washed down with oolong tea and Harbin beer.
All in the party near-food comatose, a leisurely walk around the historical Yu Gardens was welcome for digestion. The “Garden of Happiness” is an expansive Chinese-style garden located beside the City God Temple, northeast of the Old City. It has sections of meticulously landscaped sceneries separated by undulating “dragon walls” with end finials of dragon’s heads. Pavilions and other hierarchical structures were systematically placed throughout and made accessible by decorative footpaths and bridges snaking through moon gates.
Two hours later, we were ready for refreshments and were led around the block to the Qitai Tea Culture Exhibition Hall. Tea Master “Susan” ceremoniously walked us through preparations of different varieties of tea, each with a round of samplers. Of the many, we took home Oolong Honey Tea – a semi-fermented tea valued for circulatory and metabolic support, Blooming Tea – an arrangement of green tea and jasmine that “blooms’ in the pot and is credited with “beautifying properties, and Pu’er – a fragrant and robust drink that supports weight loss and improves digestion.
The day’s early start and packed itinerary had us primed to crash, and we did beautifully so at the Radisson Exhibition Center Shanghai. I’m not one to sleep without supper and was dead set on having some Hai Di Lao. The lone English-speaking front desk officer recommended against the distance to the nearest one at that late time of the night. We settled for an outdoor setup of what looked like a mom n’ pop around the block, managing to place orders with my pidgin Mandarin and a lot of body language.
We had cured beef smothered in fresh cilantro, what seemed a family-sized serving of some bony but flavorful fish in yellow curried soup, roast duck leg quarter, The PussyKat’s Chinese resto de rigueur of chicken feet, this one with pickled peppers, and fried rice, all washed down by some Chinese-brand, canned sweet tea. Shanghai-style spring rolls (“Lumpiang Shanghai” LOL) are actually CNY seasonal, but there are many more delights here that are nothing like what we are familiar with as Chinese food back home.
We were off to another early start with The Mouse’s House a good two hours away from our hotel. The Southern showpiece of mainland China gets one of its own through a good dousing of Old Walt’s fairy dust in Shanghai Disney Resort. “Shanghai Disneyland is authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.” ( — Disney CEO Bob Iger) The latest addition to the global franchise is three times bigger than Hongkong Disneyland and boasts of the largest and tallest castle, the Enchanted Storybook Castle, among the related theme parks.
I totally forgot how hot China can get in summer. We skipped the rides and took to taking tons of photos in between taking refuge from the heat in the many, as we’d like to rationalize, unavoidable merchandise shops. As it is at all Disney food outlets, lunch at Mickey & Pals Market Café was magical with their highly- detailed themed offerings. Outside, Duffy’s Splashing Pre-Parade cooled us off with spray guns and sprinklers as we waited for Mickey’s Storybook Express parade. Mickey himself led the latter onboard a locomotive followed by a procession of whimsical floats featuring characters and themes from various Disney movies. The fireworks show was several hours too far away, and there was only so much air-conditioned themed merchandise shopping we could do.
The Bund was not to be missed, and we headed back to the city center in the afternoon to check out this vital part of the city. But first, we were let loose on Nanjing Street for more shopping. Summer may not be prime for theme park visits, but it is for the citywide end-of-season sales. After two hours of scoring items that aren’t stocked in the PI across several brand names, we were ready for the “living museum” and the pride of Shanghai.
The Bund or “embankment” is a mile-long stretch of waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River with a collective of fifty-two historical colonial buildings. Of note are the Peace Hotel, the original Shanghai headquarters of HSBC, and the Customs House with the clock and bell similar to that of the Big Ben. A viewing deck overlooks the river and, across, the modern skyscrapers in the Pudong District defining the Shanghai skyline
We were looking forward to dinner on what seemed an already very long day.
The Shunxing Sichuan Cuisine traditional restaurant’s facade was already quite the visual treat. The thoroughly traditional décor inside hinted at the authenticity of the meal, and it did not disappoint. Yet another private dining room seated us comfortably as the food was literally piled on the table.
Sichuan cuisine is known for the use of the Sichuan peppercorn – a spice with a secondary heat and kick. There was spiced ground pork with chilies served with fried paos, spicy shrimp with garlic, crab soup, roast duck, chicken in spring onions, spicy braised beef, spicy tofu ribbons, cilantro salad, turnip slaw, white fungus and cucumber salad in vinaigrette, spicy bamboo shoot stir-fry, corn salad, clams in gel aspic, steamed fish and so much more that had to be set aside on the side buffet as inasmuch as these can also no longer be accommodated by my word count.
Even in what seems to be a mad scramble to take everything up and higher, Shanghai still retains much of its old world charm. Among the skyscrapers and obvious capitalism, tradition and culture remain strong and ever-present. There was another full day on our itinerary was cut as we had to avoid the storm heading our way. While the whirlwind sweep wasn’t enough to paint a clear picture of my grandfather’s past, I’ve come back from it definitely wanting to return to see more and also stuttering through my default Chinese phrase with a little more conviction.
Discover the old, the new and everything else in between, “Have A Magical Day,” or delight in the delicious as Air Asia now flies direct from Cebu to Shanghai. Book your flight, discover new destinations and expand your passion for travel. With Air Asia, “Now Everyone Can Fly!”