Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An evening in the 30s


Last night we decided to go out on a limb and try another new place. You hear about different restaurants from expats and visitors and you file them away for future reference but like all things this way, they get forgotten. For whatever reason this one popped back up and a bit of research brought it forward as a legitimate candidate.

The Face Bar as it is known, is located in the French Concession along Mingmao Lu. With locations in Shanghai, Jakarta, Bangkok and Beijing it promised to be interesting. This was a particularly nice part of the Concession as evidenced by big plane trees that completely spanned the street from sidewalk to sidewalk. Crossing Huahai Lu both sides of the street were lined with very fancy custom tailors and dressmakers interspersed among trendy boutiques.

The driver deposited us at the gate to the Rujin Hotel where the guard gave us some friendly directions and we were on our way.

To the left, the path and trees around a small lake were lined with yellow tube lighting. Finding another guard he urged us on, trumping our assessment that we were on the service road. Finally the main building came into view and what a masterpiece it was.

Wo Yin Lou the No.1 building and Huan Lou the No.2 building in were built in the 1920’s and are excellent representatives of the stone architecture of the era. The builder was a British businessman who operated a dog-racing course in the 1920’s. Following the war, it was converted into the Kuomintang’s (Nationalist Party) Headquarters. At the end of the civil war, the building was taken over by the East China Bureau of the Communist Party. The first Mayor of Shanghai Mr. Chen Yi used these buildings as his office.














We found some people from work and sat down to share a drink. Wicker chairs and tables, greenery spreading out in all directions, bats circling in the treetops, the setting sun and a complete lack of traffic noise made it easy to slide back in time to an early summer evening long ago sitting among the expats and enjoying the conversation European tongues, an ambience that ended forever when the Japanese came marching down Nanjing Lu with fixed bayonets.

It was getting dark so we decided to try one of the three restaurants in the complex. Thai was our first choice but “sir, seating is complete for the evening” and so we allowed ourselves to be shuffled off to Hazara, the Indian restaurant.

Located in what must have been one of the old service buildings, it was narrow and short in height and decorated in a manner that evoked a Munhall tent set up to support a tiger hunt. It simply continued the good vibe begun out on the terrace.

The food was easily the best of that genre I have ever eaten. Spicy Chicken Tikka, Kasmiri rice with raisins, saffron and cashews, garlic nan and Beef Curry. Absolutely outstanding. We sat at our table for a long time after the food was gone soaking up the smells and sights and having a laugh at the expense of the two guys across the aisle – one clearly a body builder who had gone a bit to seed – who were talking tech and sharing a meal. Every 5 or 10 minutes, the body builder would say to his friend “let’s take a break” and they would stop eating and talking, pick up their Blackberries and start texting like mad. Five minutes later, it was back to food and conversation.

Pulling ourselves reluctantly out of our chairs we made our way down the narrow stairs and out to the terrace. It was sprinkling a bit so we decided to walk out a different way and catch a cab. Rounding by the main entrance, a burgundy robed doorman asked us if we needed a cab and producing an umbrella proceeded to accompany us out the street under its protection. It wasn’t raining all that hard so it was a bit awkward but we obliged him and he crossed the street with us to wait. We thanked him graciously and told him we wanted to walk a bit receiving the same dumbfounded look we get whenever we make that statement but he understood and let us go and returned to his post.

We walked back in the direction we’d driven earlier, this time getting a closer look at the clothing stores along the lane. Store after store specializing in nothing more than those beautiful sleeveless, high-necked Chinese dresses that grace women the world over. Unlike the limited supply you find in the US, these came in a complete spectrum of patterns and colors. It was an amazing display of style and grace.

We turned the corner onto Huahai Lu and its assault of neon and stores and noticed a subway station at the base of a building. Unable to resist the call of the Subway Lorelei, down we went.

The stations on the #3 line are apparently not the same vintage as those on #2 because this one was hot, dark and dingy. The train came in about 5 minutes and much to our surprise it was absolutely mobbed. The surprise came from the fact that it was now 9:30 at night and this horde far surpassed any I had encountered at the traditional rush hour.

Cramming ourselves in we found a strong cold breeze emanating from the air-conditioning, almost suggesting that the front windows of the train were open. It was quite a relief, especially considering all the bodies occupying their own personal 2 square feet of space.

This trip called for a transfer and so three stops down the way we were off the train and heading up and down the escalators to the other lines. Many people ran past us, a fact that would become relevant in a few minutes.
Going down to the platform, someone appeared to be speaking from a megaphone (Megaphone Lady?) but no one was in sight. At the bottom of the escalator, a megaphone was lying on the metal plate between the rubber rails of the up and down sides. I joked that here they had managed to train the megaphone itself, the Megaphone Person having been made redundant but as we closed in, it became apparent it was not a jest – the megaphone was talking without human intervention.

A little stunned at that sight I slowly stepped of the stair and took a long look at it. Perhaps Megaphone technology has advance to where you can tape a message and just put in on infinite loop? I feel like such a Caveman sometimes.

A young man in what appeared to be the official Megaphone Person uniform was standing over by the loading spots. A Chinese family was staring at him in disbelief as the patriarch yelled at him. He looked sheepish. Matt was off looking at the digital clock to see when the next train was coming – 9 minutes – so I stood on the platform and waited. The young man spoke up in the softest and asked, “Where are you going sir?” I replied, “Ya’an Road.” He considered this for a few seconds and repeated my answer, “Ya’an Road?” I said yes. He said, “Train is finished.” I considered this for a few seconds and asked “No more trains?” and he repeated himself. He mumbled something about trains finishing at 10 PM which I found amusing as it was now 9:40.

So upstairs it was, out on the street and into a cab for the rest of the journey home.

All in all a wonderful evening with a minor adventure at the end. Who can ask for more than that?

No comments: