Saturday, April 28, 2007

You Might Have It Too

According to the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the most common reason for travel—among tourists who contract cholera—is a visit with the relatives. Although spared this ailment, I am not immune to that desire to claim kinship.

I don’t mean that Cliff and I were estranged; we just haven’t spent as much time together as we might’ve liked. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987, the year I left. Since then, we’ve managed a series of approximately annual reunions, but rarely for more than a day or two. Through phone calls and emails, we’ve kept up a relaxed sort of connection, in which I can recognize the names of his good and loyal friends, and piece together a rough chronology of his meandering career.

He worked in an art gallery that favored Dali and Miro, turned his eye to fashion at Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, then eventually became the men’s buyer at Maxfield. Along the way, he freelanced as a stylist, costume designer, interior decorater, landscaper. (I also recall that he appeared as an extra in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, an action movie starring Michael Douglas that bears little relation with the novel of the same name mentioned in my first post).

He must have met Sandy while working for Maxfield, at fashion week in Milan or Paris.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Preface to the Introductions

The American designers I mentioned in the previous post are Sandy Dalal and Cliff Fong. I had never met Sandy before, which is not at all surprising, considering the lack of convergence in our histories.

By the age of twenty-one, Sandy had earned the Perry Ellis Award for Best New Menswear Designer and been named to People Magazine's "Most Beautiful" list.

At a similar age, I was working for the Copper River Fishermen’s Co-op in Cordova, Alaska. I’m sure there were some beautiful people there, but it was hard to tell under all that fish slime and raingear.

Cliff and I, by coincidence, are brothers. Nine years separate our birthdays, which means that in the month he entered kindergarten, I left our upstate New York home for boarding school in Ohio. After our parents divorced, Cliff moved with our mother to Utah, increasing the geographical distance between us.

What’s my point? I’m not sure at this moment in the story, but perhaps this: Although the facts of our births are similar, the accidents of our upbringings are not.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Beginning of a Long Story

At the end of January, I fell asleep in the biggest city on the continent and awoke in the biggest city on the subcontinent. The miracle of the red-eye, as performed by Air India. The true populations of both Shanghai and Mumbai are hard to count, but it's not the figures that impress, or the rankings. Either place contains more than enough individuals to overwhelm all sense of proportion.

Although I know nothing about fashion, I went to Mumbai to watch two American designers prepare their collection for Paris. (More on that in posts to come.)

I also walked around a bit, sometimes with a destination in mind, sometimes without. The crowds in Mumbai seemed very different from those in Shanghai: more dense, more vivid, more intractable.

On a Sunday afternoon, the causeway to the Haji Ali shrine seethed with a relentless parade of humanity: babies with Kohl-rimmed eyes, frail men leaning on their middle-aged sons, black-veiled women, and women in bright scarves—saffron or pomegranate or lime—each new color turning your head like a greeting.

Built in 1431, the white-domed mosque occupies the rocky islet where Haji Ali distributed his worldly wealth to the poor. Or where he drowned on his way to Mecca. Or possibly where his casket washed ashore after drifting all the way from what is now Pakistan. I don't know the real story, but I do know that the causeway is submerged at high tide, and at the hour I visited, it was dry.

One group of maimed men had linked themselves together in a sort of collapsed circle. They chanted, faces pressed to the stone, stumps in the air, waving in unison like some ruined troupe of synchronized swimmers, bereft even of water.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Before You Go

I used to think that the best way to visit any city was to approach your stay like a relocation. That by trying to make yourself at home, you would open yourself to a wider range of experiences than the typical hotels-and-hotspots tour.

But a contrary strategy works just as well. If you want to rediscover the place you call home, treat it like a tourist destination.

After two years in Shanghai, our family of four is packing again, this time for Vermont. With the weeks counting down until our summer departure, we’ve begun asking ourselves what we haven’t seen or tasted yet. And what we want to do one more time, before the inevitable downturn in our personal boom-and-bust economy.

Here are two of the definitive responses, one at each end of the cultural and culinary spectrum. Strangely enough, you have to carry your own plates at both of them.

First, the splurge. Thanks to a convergence of business travelers and pleasure seekers, many of Shanghai’s five-star properties offer extravagant Sunday brunches. Three hours of more-or-less wholesome dissipation at the Westin Bund Center can include caviar, foie gras, lobster, and a river of Champagne (Piper Heidsieck, if you’re so inclined). There are serving stations on two floors surrounding a grandiose atrium, a genuinely diverting stage show, and, as you meander between the mushroom risotto and the roast duck, you’ll overhear conversations in German, Italian, and Finnish, among others. A pleasantly hallucinatory experience for about $70 per adult, half that for children; reservations essential.

You’ll leave satisfied, but not necessarily fulfilled, because fulfillment requires awareness. Brunch at the Westin is a transitory cocoon. Fine and silken, but also soporific.

On another Sunday, we’ll wake and breakfast at home. A debate will begin over the relative merits of Shanghai’s two principal varieties of soup dumplings. The English name is misleading. These delicacies are not served in soup; rather, they contain soup: a little burst of hot and fragrant broth, along with a mouthful of ground pork or minced crab, encased in a wheat-flour wrapper.

Maybe we’ll make the short drive to Nanxiang Town, original home of the steamed xiao long bao, where several blocks of dumpling restaurants flank the entrance to Guyi Garden, a classic Ming Dynasty maze of ponds, rocks, and bridges.

But more likely we’ll opt for the pan-fried shengjian mantou at Yang’s, on Wujiang Road. Until last week, this side street near the Nanjing Road West Metro Station hosted an untidy throng of pushcart vendors, hawking everything from barbecued oysters to bootlegged movies. These freelance capitalists have been displaced, however, in the name of public order, municipal cleanliness, and copyright protection.

Because Yang’s occupies two legal (and nearly identical) storefronts, our meal will be unaffected by the crackdown. And for that we’ll be thankful. The miraculous price—about 50 cents for a plate of four—doesn’t begin to explain their appeal. These dumplings are simultaneously crisp, succulent, tender, and savory.

The long lines might have something to do with our anticipation. All that sizzling and steaming, along with the white-aproned task force churning out fresh dumplings with astonishing precision. Then there’s the cheerful throng inside, on three levels linked by a narrow staircase, and the eager hunt for a few stools at one of the communal tables.

In a world of perfect fulfillment, our dumplings are just cool enough to taste by the time we find our seats. After that, it’s all a matter of technique. Our preferred method involves a judicious lift with the chopsticks, a prudent nip in the wrapper, then a pensive slurp—all before taking that first bite. You can spot the amateurs by the soup stains on their shirts.