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Yang's Fry Dumpling

My friend, Karen, knows what I’m talking about (she’s an expert on fine cuisine in Shanghai — and other worldly locales — and her mom lives in the city). The fried dumplings — sheng jian baos — at the famed Yang’s Fry Dumpling are delicious. I’m in Shanghai one last day — a pit stop before going to Harbin — and had to devour a batch before leaving.

I’ve had sheng jian baos in the U.S. but they just don’t compare. I’ll be dreaming of sheng jian baos in my sleep when I get back. And the best thing — besides the soupy goodness — is that one dumpling = 1 yuan! Best deal in China.

Yang's Fry Dumpling

Yang's Fry Dumpling

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Sex culture museum

I have to say that one of the highlights of Shanghai was the Sex Culture Museum. Lonely Planet, which has been hit and miss throughout the trip, got this recommendation right at least. The museum is at the end of the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, housed in a dingy basement along with a sad aquarium next door. It was 60 RMB for a one-way ride in the tunnel and admission to the aquarium and sex museum. I would have paid 60 RMB just to check out the sex museum.

The Shanghai Art Museum and the provincial museum were fine. But I can only take so many Ming vases, traditional Chinese calligraphy and bronze bowls. What I want are naughty porcelain figurines from the 19th century.

China sex culture museum

And also, many, many carvings — wood, stone, jade — of animals in coitus.

Two turtles:

China sex culture museum

Two gorillas:

China sex culture museum

Bambi’s mom and dad:

China sex culture museum

My friend from Shanghai said that the museum caused quite the stir when it opened. I’m pretty sure people have gotten over it because I saw quite a few children running around the museum, looking at all the phallic art and sculptures, even playing around one of the bigger penis sculptures. It’s never too early for sex education, even for five year olds.

Perhaps the most sobering museum piece was the castration blade used on eunuchs. I’m not sure how authentic it is because it looks like a knife the curator bought at the local hardware store.

Castration "tool" for eunuchs

I got out of there pretty quickly after that and got a stiff drink across the street.

Snake

That’s snake, a dish I sampled a couple days ago. I would say it tastes like … snake. No, seriously, I would compare it to some small fish because of how it was cooked (baked in some soy sauce, kind of like unagi, methinks) and all the bones, large and small. It wasn’t terrible, although I only had one. One was enough.

It’s by far the “weirdest” food I’ve eaten since arriving in China. I had fried pigeon — which came with its head and beak — in Guangzhou. I also had donkey meat. But I don’t really classify the two as weird food (OK, donkey might be a little).

But honestly I haven’t eaten much strange food since I’ve been in China. It’s not that hard to eat like I do back in the States. My diet has been pretty straight forward — chicken, beef, veggies, noodles. Perhaps the only food I’ve eaten more of that I don’t back home is mutton.

I mention all this because one of the stories that flooded very Western medium during the Olympics was all the “weird’ food that Chinese people eat. The funky foods on a stick — scorpions, sea horses, other weird shit — at the night markets. The exotic meats — dog, donkey, frog, turtle, other mammals.

Every TV station sent their reporter, every newspaper sent the columnist to the local market or out-of-the-way restaurant to sample the craziest food they could find. A couple guys even tried penis. Seriously.

NBC wasn’t immune to the weird food draw. The Today Show sent their anchors to the Beijing night market to try scorpions on a stick. So did every affiliate. Even my editors — bless their hearts — wanted me to try some “weird food” after watching the video of the two reporters chowing down on penis. Uh, no thanks guys. I’m not that adventurous. Plus, you’ll have to pay me A LOT more if I’m going try, even nibble, on boiled animal penis. I leave that to Anthony Bourdain and that tubby, bald guy who tries anything and everything.

The fact is that there wasn’t anything new to write about the subject. Unless it was an article lambasting the very idea of weird food — which most Chinese don’t eat anyway — and the media that gobbles it up (some in the media did write that story). So I avoided the story idea and avoided it and avoided it until — magically — the Olympics were over. So my editors were left without their “weird food” story (reporter 1, editors 0).

Perhaps the story I should have written about was the invasion of  fast food chains in China. KFC seems to be one of the most popular. There’s one in every neighborhood, on every other block. That’s including Mickey D’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Domino’s, Pizza Hut. The United States’ biggest exports seem to be calories and expanding waistlines. Just look at all the corpulent children here.

But if my editors still want a weird food story, perhaps I’ll head to the local Pizza Hut in Shanghai, where I found this monstrosity. I give you the Seafood Pizza, one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in my two months in China:

Seafood pizza

East Nanging Road

That’s East Nanjing Road, one of the shopping thoroughfares in Shanghai. It’s a street that knocks your senses upside down. The lights, the superstores, the over-sized malls, the aggressive touts, the hawkers, the pimps, the prostitutes, the scammers. They’re all there.

I arrived in Shanghai on Friday afternoon. I spent the evening walking East Nanjing Road, where I was approached by at least five guys selling Rolex watches, a handful of women selling fancy hand bags, several more guys offering me bar girls and massages (one guy cut to the chase and asked, “sexxx?”), what seemed like a mom and daughter team trying to get me to help them out with a transaction and another girl who wanted to practice her English with me. Yeah, right.

Apparently, I do dress and look like a tourist. Maybe it’s the camera I’m holding all the time. Or could it be the plaid shorts or the Wilco t-shirt? Probably all of the above.

And I got the infamous phone call once I returned to the hotel around 11:00 p.m. Could it be the front desk ready to come fix the crappy internet connection? Nope. “Massageee?” the girl asked on the other line.

Welcome to Shanghai.

My maternal grandmother is a remarkable woman with a remarkable life story. She was born in Shanghai in 1916 — five years before the Chinese Communist Party was even formed. She’s survived backbreaking labor as a peasant, the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II and the CCP takeover in 1949.

Still keen and quick-witted, she easily recalls stories and events that happened nearly a century ago. I’ll share an amusing one she told me recently.

One day, when she was around 9 or 10, my grandmother and several of her cousins went to the local beach. It was where all the locals went to wade in the water and escape the oppressive heat of Shanghai. 

They were playing on the beach when they noticed a white family, two parents and three of their children, nearby. Perhaps they had come from the French Concession area to enjoy a lazy day by the Huangpu River. Those days, seeing white people was still a rarity for most Chinese people, especially for those from the countryside (the country had been gradually — then forcibly — opened up to the West in the past several decades) Whenever a white person — gwailo — would appear in a village in those days, my grandma says, kids would rush over to sate their curiosity and gawk. 

My grandmother and her cousins noticed the parents pulling food out of their backpack. Intrigued, the kids crept closer. They watched the pair take out slices of something starchy, white and flat. They crept closer. They saw the family pull out a jar filled with grape-colored syrup. They crept closer. Then, the family pulled out something brown and creamy. The kids inched even closer, until they were nearly on top of the family. They had no idea what the family was making — they had never seen white bread, nor jam, nor peanut butter.

But it looked delicious. And they wanted some.

They knelt by the family, no more than two feet away, and stared at the family eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My grandmother and her cousins were hoping that the family would share and give them a morsel — just a little bit — of their food.

But the family ignored them. They finished their lunch, packed up and left, without ever acknowledging the handful of children who were ogling their food and licking their lips during the entire meal. 

My grandma laughs about it now. Peanut butter and jelly! That’s all it was — but for those kids it was exotic and enchanting. Today, she could have as much peanut butter and jelly as she wants — she did recently when she had an extended stay at the hospital, where they fed her PB&J’s every day, she grumbles — but she dislikes the taste and texture.

She lets out another laugh after finishing her story, shaking her head at the naivete and foolishness of that day like it happened yesterday.