Our Journey to Shanghai and Zhuhai and back

Robert and Donald, Old Shanghai rooftop - imageSHANGHAI
The allure of Shanghai “shanghaied” me many years ago. What kind of city and culture it must be – old with a unique blend of Chinese, French, English and other Asian cultures – yet today, ultra-modern. So, instead of just imaging, we decided to visit and shop for antique furniture in this area.

After the 13-hour flight (and 7 in-flight movies) from Los Angeles, we arrived at the very high-tech, sleek, efficient and gleaming Pudong International Airport. Immediately, upon stepping outside the airport building, we felt the warm and moist air – just like the air one feels upon arriving in New Orleans. The one-hour drive from the airport to Shanghai proper offered vistas of low delta land. Water was always somewhere in view and very green except for the obviously rapid encroachment of business and multi-family residential development.

We chose not to ride the new magnetic levitating train (the world’s fastest train) from the international airport to a transportation hub; as we were weary and wanted to let someone take us directly to where we going. Adventure would come later.

In Shanghai proper, most everything we saw was new, 15 years old new. Our hotel was in the middle of the central city, adjacent to People’s Square and walking distance to the Bund, the old city area, the French Concession area, and major shopping districts. We arrived in the early eveningShanghai skyline - image hours so the lights of Shanghai were aglow. My first impressions were “New York City meets Las Vegas” and “Modern architecture gone wild.” Some of the skyscrapers were quite impressive in style, design and shape, but many were “why did they do that?” Shanghai Modern Building - imageOne building located in the new Pudong area, across the river from the old area, had a façade featuring a 25+-story plasma TV screen. Imagine watching TV from the French Quarter on a building situated in Algiers-in color and in fine detail. (If you don’t know New Orleans geography, consider watching a clear TV screen that is over a half mile away.) Move over Times Square. Currently, the world’s tallest building is under construction is Shanghai. The GDP for the city has been growing about 20% annually. Compare that with a US annual GDP growth of about 3%.

Historically, humankind settled in this river delta area about 4,000 BC. By the late 1700’s, the population of the area was approximately 50,000. Around 1910, it had grown to about 1 million. Today, the Shanghai area boasts a population of over 14 million.

The Shanghainese people we encountered were polite and accommodating, but not really friendly or embracing. We did not take this personally as it seems Shanghainese don’t really seem to notice or care about the other people next to them, a kind of indifference. Robert Surprised in Shanghai  - imagePerhaps this is a by-product of living in a city of 14+ million. To our surprise, we did seem to attract visual attention; perhaps it is Robert 6’3” height. This surprised us, as Shanghai is a city with many expatriates.

It seemed to us that the median age was about 25. Perhaps the older population stayed back on the farm and sent their children to the big cities. Many of the teenagers looked and acted just like the youth in America-listening to MP3 players, talking on cell phones, wearing their favorite band’s t-shirt, and some sporting red or purple spiked hair. We went into a trendy, youthful bar and the words to the techno music playing were (in English) “freedom is for everyone!” What would Mao think?

Naively, I thought the streets of Shanghai would be filled with bicycles. Duh, it’s 2007. I bet Seattle has more bicycle riders per capita. The streets were filled with cars, busses and walkers. I must say, despite the crowded streets and highways, the drivers seemed very patient. If a pedestrian, another car, or one of the bike riders pulled in front of a car or cut them off, the car driver just maneuvered around them. No distress and no cursing. The same was true for pedestrians if the car pulled out in front of them. They just walked around the car or taxi or waited for it to pass.

Did I mention that most of our taxi drivers wore white gloves? I haven’t learned the reason why, but it was nice. Reminds me of talk of the days, in the 1950’s, when ladies wore gloves to go shopping at D.H. Holmes department store on Canal Street. My family went to the T.G.&Y. in our small town and my mom did not wear gloves.

Very interesting to us were the sight-impaired paths. We first noticed them in Beijing and saw them also in Shanghai. These are paths in the middle of sidewalks, street crossing and parks that people who are blind can follow. They are quite elaborate paths, perhaps 12” to 18” wide and highly structured. The paths are of stone differently textured than the surrounding walkways and streets. They also had slightly raised embedded squares, which informed the person to stop, turn, of a bus stop, a street crossing, path into a store, and many other signals. While I am impressed with the level of social dedication, I never saw any sight-impaired person using them.

Smoking is still very popular among men, women, old and young and in most private and public places, including restaurants. It is our understanding that there are more and more laws and limitations on smoking in public places now.

After about a 45 minute taxi ride, our firstRobert and Royal - image furniture vendor, Royal (the English name he has taken), greeted us at an intersection in his part of the metropolis and then drove us in his van to his furniture warehouse. His warehouse offered us rows and rows of stacked furniture to choose from. Discovering Antiques - imageNot being air conditioned, the place was hot, humid, dimly lit and dusty; ah, warehouse shopping in Shanghai. Hand-selecting our furniture is very important to us and we think to our customers. This process allows us to inspect each piece by seeing and touching, looking inside drawers, testing finishes, accessing the craftsmanship and to ask questions from the suppliers. We have rejected many pieces because they didn’t meet our standards.

We felt comfortable with Royal’s knowledge of the furniture and the furniture business. Royal’s true passion is designing furniture with a new interpretation of Chinese style. We learned that he personally collects furniture, from around China, and restores and/or repairs the piece as needed in his warehouse. Over the centuries, much of the antique stock of furniture, in China, has been damaged due to neglect and the conditions in which they have been housed. We hand-selected about 45 pieces of furniture from his collection.

In Shanghai’s old city area, each Sunday morning offers an indoor flea market – five floors of hundreds of vendors selling antiques, vintage items, new items, jewelry, personal effects and junk. Most vendors have a temporary 6’ * 6’ area, but some do have larger stalls and some even have permanent shops. Many of the vendors offer exactly the same items as the twenty other vendors surrounding them. I guess the concept of finding your market niche hasn’t been accepted yet. Shanghai street vendors - image
Royal offered to accompany us while shopping there for home interior and gift items. He interpreted, negotiated and led us away from unscrupulous vendors. Our two Chinese word vocabulary of xiexie (thank you) and ni hao (how are you) only gets one so far.

Shanghai Lady Vendor - imageWhen shopping without an interpreter we just use basic “calculator” language. The Chinese share our number system, so this language is easy. However, the art of negotiating can be mind-boggling for Westerners. Very few businesses, from street vendors to modern shops, mark a price on their items; so one has to ask for the price. Being a Westerner, I question that the initial price offer to me is higher than would be offered to a local.

This is how I understand the art of Chinese price negotiating:

Vendor’s initial sales price = $100, “a very special cheap price just for you.”
You say “no, thanks-too high.”
They ask you to offer your best price and you offer 1/4th = $25.
The vendor looks exasperated, says “No! No!” and gestures as though his or her throat is being cut.
You say, “ok, never mind” and walk away to the next vendor.
The vendor follows you and says, “OK, OK” and offers his newest best price, $25 * 2 = $50.
You say “no thanks” again and continue to walk away.
The vendor follows you and again asks for your final offer. You offer $50/2 = $25.
He says “OK” and we thank each other for this wonderful sale.

While both people know that items are generally worth only ¼ their original asking price, it seems we must go through this process. It seems it is important to negotiate a price and build a relationship and this is all tied into the Chinese concept of Saving Face. While I think I understand that the general concept of Saving Face is that no one is to be made to look embarrassed or flawed, I know I do not understand all of it’s intricacies.

I feel as though I am insulting the vendor with my first counter price and the process takes way to long and has to be repeated for each and every item. As we are buying dozens and dozens of items for the shop, this process becomes very time consuming. We did have a business card written in Chinese stating that we were shop owners and asking for their wholesale price. This did seem to help in the process.

Shanghai scroll family - imageOne of our most interesting buying experiences happened late one evening as we were walking the in the old section of the city, strolling after dinner. Most of the shops had closed in this area and a few tourists were strolling as we were. A Chinese man came up to us and said in broken English “Antiques? Antiques?” He seemed sincere, eager and non-threatening. Well, weren’t we in Shanghai to buy antiques, so we both instinctively said yes. So he motioned to us to follow. We followed him down the street and then through a darkened alleyway between shops. It was at this point I said to myself “what in the world were we thinking, the headlines will read “Two Americans Robbed and Slaughtered in Shanghai.”

We proceeded a little further through this darkened winding alley, of what seemed like homes and storage, until we reached his home. Inside his humble one room home were two women. He introduced us in gestures to them, and we quickly understood that the younger was his wife and the older was his mother-in-law. They began to unwrap vintage hand-painted scrolls for us to review and to buy. They showed us many lovely scrolls. To deal with the language barrier they phoned an English-speaking friend on their cell phone. Via cell-phone she interpreted our questions and his answers and helped to negotiate prices. Ultimately, we did purchase a very lovely vintage hand-painted scroll from them. They offered us refreshments and we tried to have conversation as best as we all could. They graciously agreed to allow us to take photos of them. In the end, we met a very nice family and discovered a lovely vintage scroll; I told myself as we walked back through the winding, darkened alley - back to the lights and safety of the street.

Our first evening in Shanghai was delightful.Shanghai street dance - image We went walking in a beautiful park adjacent to our hotel and there we came upon many different groups of people singing, playing music and dancing. From what we could tell, they were singing and dancing to folk songs. One very energetic group noticed us and asked us to join in their dancing. Being bashful and not knowing the dance steps, we said ‘thank you, no” in English and Chinese. They understood.

We did get adventurous and decided to take the subway to the other side of the city to see the Shanghai Acrobatic Circus. To our delight, the system is inexpensive, very modern, and easy to navigate and understand. The subway tracks are behind glass walls so you can’t fall onto the tracks. Glass doors automatically open when the train arrives. The signs in the subway car are in Chinese and English and the automated voice attendant was easy to understand and also in Chinese and English. We arrived at the circus station within minutes, exited and easily found the circus building.

The performance seemed to be attended mostly by tourists, both Chinese and other nationals. The show had all the perfunctory tumbling, jumping through hoops, plates balancing on sticks, juggling vases, aerial acrobatics, clowning around and a lover’s scene. I thought the six motorcycles racing around in a small-enclosed circular metal cage was the most thrilling. These young guys and gals were great, but not to the Cirque du Soleil highly polished standards.

Old Shanghai rooftops - imageThe old city section of Shanghai seemed very contrived and re-modeled. It seems only inhabited by tourists shops, restaurants and cafes. We wondered if people actually still lived in this area. And yes, there were even McDonald’sShanghai New and Old Buildings - image and Starbucks in this old city area. We did discover a beautiful terraced garden area overlooking the old city and the new city. This was a government-sponsored area. The roof top garden was an oasis and offered great views.

Most of Shanghai’s older central city buildings have been destroyed to yield space for the modern high rises. We saw very few neighborhoods and buildings that were over 50 years old.

Shanghai Yu Garden Building - imageWe also visited the Yu Gardens in the old city area. This is a glorious area and relaxing to walk around in. It’s a 16th century home and surrounding gardensShanghai Yu Garden Building - image of a provincial governor. The 30 buildings, great furniture collection, art, numerous ponds, waterfalls, streams, plants, trees and connecting man-made stone walls are great examples of that period’s way of life and architecture. We knew we were in China when we were there. I highly recommend a visit there to any one.

Our educational experience was at the Shanghai Museum, walking distance from our hotel. There we saw an invaluable collection of furniture from the Ming and the Ching Dynasties.Shanghai Museum Furniture Exhibit - image The museum arranged the furniture and other room elements into rooms. This helped us appreciate the furniture in its original room context. Also, helpful were the exhibit’s written descriptions explaining the why and the how. We were delighted to see that the majority of pieces of furniture in the museum exhibit are of the same style, fashion, construction and wood that we offer for sale at Silk Road Collection.

Food in Shanghai is good and generally inexpensive. To our surprise, most of the menus were in Chinese and English and/or had photographs of the dishes. Many of our meals were shared with our vendors so we requested that they order for the table. Donald eating Chinese food - imageMost of what we saw and ate was soup and noodle based-with seafood, meats and vegetables concocted in every imaginable way. While I thought all the food was good, I did not find it to be scrumptious as per my Western taste buds. On our last night, in Shanghai, we did decide to eat at a high-end restaurant. We ordered a nine-course meal and it was very delicious. The restaurant’s entertainment was a jazz trio in which at least two of the musicians were from the USA.

Many menus did offer dishes with pieces of the chicken and the pig that I don’t normally have the occasion to eat. I had no idea what many of the listed seafood were. I don’t think I ate chicken’s feet, beef stomach, pig’s tail or fish eyes, but maybe I did?? At one occasion, our vendor asked if we liked lamb and we said yes. To our amazement, the dish arrived with a foot–long leg of lamb for each of us. I thought I looked like Fred Flintstone eating a dinosaur drumstick. They did bring us disposable plastic gloves with which to eat our lamb leg. This is an idea that I wish would catch on at our local bar-b-que restaurant.

We did learn that food dishes are communal. Everyone at the table uses his or her personal chop sticks to get the food from the main serving dishes to your personal rice bowl. In the rice bowl, you mix the food with the rice and then bring to your mouth. If you are eating one of the soup-based dishes, you first ladle from the main serving bowl or pot into your personal soup bowl. With so many soup and noodle dishes, there is a lot of slurping going on.

We also learned that the polite Chinese way of using a toothpick is to fully cover the activity with your free hand.

In the old section of Shanghai, we took time off from shopping to visit a traditional teahouse. We selected jasmine tea. It was made with the actual jasmine flower blossom and a “tail” of woven green tea leaves. The blossom and tea tail are allowed to steep in a glass of boiling water. In a few minutes, the waiter came to the table and poured some of the brewed tea into a small glass pot. From the glass pot, one is to pour a sip full of tea into your personal teacup. By this step, the tea has cooled enough to drink. Rare Ebony Table - imageThe tea was delightful. Of course we ordered sweets with our tea, but I didn’t much care for it-no chocolate. We did learn that the tea tables, in this traditional teahouse, were almost exactly like a square table, which we have for sale in the shop. Perhaps our table’s history comes from a teahouse.

We were early at the airport for our flight between Shanghai and Zhuhai, so we decided to get a foot massage. Foot massages are very popular in Shanghai. These shops are located in the most modest neighborhoods, the best hotels and at the airport. For $12 each, we got a 45-minute herbal foot soaking and massage, a very vigorous neck and shoulder massage and a freshly squeezed orange drink. Both Robert and I fell asleep during the foot-soaking portion. I don’t know what our young masseuses thought about that.

Zhuhai is a small city, by Chinese standards, as its population is about 1 million. It lies on the southern China coast, adjacent to Macau and a 45 minute fast-ferry ride to Hong Kong. The city’s coastline is a beachfront, so its major industry is recreation and tourism for the Chinese nationals – not many international visitors. It is very hot and humid there in the summer and it rained each day we were there. Again, we felt like we were back in New Orleans.

The second major industry of Zhuhai is Chinese furniture – antiques and reproductions. In Zhuhai there are perhaps a dozen Chinese antique furniture malls. These are shopping centers solely selling Chinese furniture. Zhuhai Vendors - Mr & Mrs Ye - imageEach shopping center has dozens and dozens of small vendor shop stalls. Some of the shop/stalls are 2-3 stories but very narrow, perhaps 15-20’ across. It appeared to us that many of the shop owners lived in, above, or behind their stalls with their children.

Zhuhai Vendors Mary & Bill with Robert - imageOur vendors, Mary and Bill (the English names they gave themselves) were most delightful, generous and accommodating. Mary and Bill shared with us that they do live in their shop with their 5 year-old daughter. Each day they met us at our hotel and drove us around to find furniture and accessories. While they have their own antique furniture shop, their supply is limited. We were able to find pieces from them that we liked, but the majority of the furniture we selected came from other vendors. Bill is a former English teacher and Mary studied accounting, so their English was great. They are focused now on building their furniture business.

We did speak candidly about our two countries, our similarities and our different approaches to life, politics, food and furniture. They had heard about New Orleans and our struggles due to news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. While it is difficult for most Chinese citizens to visit the USA, we hope they are able to visit us. The travel restrictions are not from the China side, but instead from the USA side – concerns about illegal immigration.

We did not visit every possible furniture store; Bill made recommendations based on what we asked for. This proved a good method because “schlepping” digital camera, measuring tape, calculator, inventory numbering cards, spreadsheet, clipboard, bottled water, etc., from store to store, in the heat and the rain, proved to be quite tiring. After our three days there, we had hand-select about 60 pieces of furniture and many small items.

Now that the items have been selected, price negotiated, photographed by us and Mary, registered on both of our spreadsheets and given an inventory number; it is now up to Mary and Bill to pay the vendor, customize packing of each piece, arrange for a container, oversee the loading and then coordinate with Chinese customs and the shipping companies. We expect to receive the container of Zhuhai furniture in early August.

We purposely decided to slow down from our buying frenzy by taking the train from Zhuhai back to Shanghai. This would also offer us the opportunity to see some of the Chinese countryside, instead of huge cities, and mingle with locals. So we booked spaces on the Guangzhou to Shanghai train. This 21-hour train ride leaves Guangzhou at 5 pm and arrives in Shanghai at around 2 pm the next day. This means we would have to sleep on the train. As this train did not have private sleeping compartment cars, we booked in one of the general sleeping compartment cars. There were many cars with only seats, and perhaps standing room only spaces. When looking in the cars in front of us, we saw many people just sitting on the floor in the aisles.

We didn’t know exactly what our booking would provide us, but we wanted the adventure. Our booking got us each a bed in a dormitory on wheels. We shared fully open compartments with about 50 other travelers. We were lucky in that we both got a bottom bunk in the same compartment. Above each of our beds was a second level bed and a 3rd level bed, accessed by a shared metal ladder. The bed was narrower than twin size mattress with sheets, pillow and cover. Between the bunks in our open compartment were a shelf, a window and a place for a boiling/heated water container.

This water was used for makingTrain attendant serving food - image soup via the pre-made, dry soup buckets that almost everybody on the train carried with them. We didn’t know—we had sandwiches, chips, fresh fruit, water & colas from the hotel, and yes chocolate. On-train dining did include a rolling cart serving what looked like porridge, we declined. We didn’t find a dining car on the train.

We were happy to experience that smoking in the actual compartment was not allowed, but people went to the front of the car and smoked. So some smoke smell, but not overwhelming.

Being the only Westerners, in our train car, did bring about some looks but no conversation or greetings. Again, they seemed indifferent to us and to other Chinese strangers. Friends and family talked to each other, but not to people they didn’t already know. I made eye contact with most people I encountered, smiled and offered a greeting, but received minimal response.

Being a 21-hour train ride, I decided that I must conquer the eastern style toilet—a hole in the ground or in this case, a hole in the train’s floor. I succeeded.

The trip seemed to go by very quickly. We updated our purchase spreadsheets, Robert wrote about his observations of the trip, we read, we slept 8+ hours and we watched the scenery wiz by. The scenery was mostly green pastures, rice fields and small villages. Beautiful in their own right, but no extraordinary majestic vistas. Most villages along this route seemed modest, but fairly new and modern.

The first visit to Shanghai Yu Gardens Dragon Wall - imagean exotic area usually means that a 2nd trip is necessary. We feel we only got a glimpse of Shanghai, her people, the culture and this region of China. We also know there is much more to discover and learn about Chinese antique furniture; from the craftsmanship to its correct intended use. So we have to return.

We are planning to offer our customers and friends the opportunity to travel with us on a buying / sightseeing journey to China. At this time, our vision is to visit Beijing, Xian and the Shanghai region in the spring of 2008. We would be delighted if you joined us.

Donald & Robert
June 2007

Our Customers Reply:

Robert and Donald, I love your website. You have lots of goodies and I’ll be in soon, tape measure in hand. - CP, Metairie LA

Hi guys,
Wonderful article! I am going to Shanghai this November, for the first time. I will then go on to Beijing for a week. Your newsletter has made me just that much more excited about the trip.
You had some wonderful things this summer. I need to stop in and take a look around.
Best regards,
- DS, New Orleans LA

Hi guys,
Glad that you two had a nice trip to Shanghai and Zhuhai! I'm jealous that you can shoot pictures in the Yu Garden without too many people in the shots. I lived there for 8 years and toured the garden many times, but it was always crowded. Will drop by to see your new collection soon.
- WP, Baton Rouge LA

Congratulations on your successful trip to China. What an amazing country. Looks like you two are doing well. We wish you much joy and success. - L&B, Ashville NC