Sunday, August 24, 2008

Moon Cake is the Fruit Cake of the Inscrutible East

It's the last few weeks leading up to Fall Festival, and there are Moon Cakes for sale just about everywhere along with little trays of samples.. Even in Starbucks where I had a bite of a chocolate version today. The title of this Blog refers to a little survey I did today, asking all kinds of people if they liked Moon Cake. I could have predicted the results, since the stuff is pretty hard to like being the consistency of school paste but with far less flavor. Every person answered the same way, “No!" which got me thinking about our universal holiday gift, the fruit cake and how it's widely given as a token of holiday cheer and yet destined to end up in the bottom of the trash can. It’s funny, you ask the younger guys and they screw up their faces and say no, as though the answer is completely obvious, no one likes moon cake.

Today was pretty much a hot, steamy death march around town to pick up the orders at the pearl market and to take in a few remaining sights. We began the trek with a stop at Longhua Temple, my favorite in Shanghai. It was a long and illustrious past and it’s very popular with the local people judging from the crowd of worshipers.

On the way back to the subway station I passed a small store that had one of those 25 bucking animal rides out in front on the sidewalk. A little girl, perhaps seven years old was riding away, seeming to really get into it judging from the fact that she had her face plastered to a video screen in the animal’s head. I remember as a kid being terribly excited to ride one of those beasts, a quarter well spent. But now they’ve been improved upon, and the kick is no longer in the bucking, it’s in the cartoons playing while you ride.

We caught the 3 Line and decided to take a break at Starbucks for a cold drink and a caffeine hit, being completely drained by the heat and the countless miles we’d covered the day before. Espresso Brownie and an iced Americano and we were back on the train.

After taking the long haul across town to the pearl market, I ended up spending my time visiting with the pearl girls, talking about my travel schedule and how many days they work and just general stuff. They are wonderful young women with magic fingers that can ties a pearl necklace in second.

Finishing up and saying our goodbyes, we went back out into the street. We took a short spin through a shopping arcade that held store after store that sold only minerals and crystals, admiring some amethyst geodes that must have weighed a ton judging from the size. I stopped to admire a carving of running wild horses executed in a mammoth tusk in a shop window. The proprietress came out and invited me inside for a closer look. I asked about the price, because it was extremely beautiful and I didn’t quite get the quote because my numbers are only good to 100. She brushed off the sign that stated it was illegal to remove mammoth tusk carvings from China without the appropriate permit. A stop by McDonalds for burgers was highlighted by a young Chinese couple who invited us to sit with them, all the tables being full. While eating a young girl came over and asked if she could have our trash. Granted her wish, she took the carton, ripped off what appeared to be a UPC and handed it to her mother. While doing this, her younger brother was going through the trash bins to collect more. Her mother had dozens in her hand and was standing off to the side comparing the numbers on the scraps to a big list on the wall. Some sort of contest I guess.

From there we decided to drop into the bird and insect market for a quick spin through. One needs to avail oneself of these parts of the Old City because modernization is slowing taking them away. It is now apparently cricket season here in China because the place was crammed with men squatting on the floor checking small tins, each containing a single cricket. They sat there with little blades of grass with a tiny seed tuft on the end, teasing the cricket into attacking. I for one didn't know that crickets had an attack mode until we stopped by one stand to watch a cricket "fight" which consists of two bugs in a small arena. The crickets approach and stare at each other until one runs away and thus the battle ends, not much of a fight.

Dinner tonight was planned for a place named Malone’s, an expat sports bar with good sandwiches. On this evening it was loaded with single western men and the occasional escort popping in and out to find their evening's date. About 7 the closing ceremony came on the bank of television and the bartender cranked up the sound. We ordered another round and decided to partake of the moment.

Locals walking down the street stopped and stood in the doorway watching over my shoulder. These two weeks have been a big deal for China and it's no different tonight. Westerners sat and chain-smoked, the sound was deafening.The show was greatly improved by not having Bob Costas blithering on in the background and by a complete lack of commercials - without the ads it was probably shortened by an hour. What a stroke of luck to pick this place tonight and to gets table across from the bank of televisions. The show was great and I won’t spoil it aside from saying that watching Jimmy Page sing “Whole Lotta Love” was pretty weird. Another one of those moments that takes you back to the first time you heard the song and now, in retrospect you realize you never could have dreamed about hearing it in this context. I remember sitting at Peter Beahan’s house drinking 7&7 while his parents were out of town with this cranking on their “record player.” One of the waitresses asked who was playing the music and I told her that Jimmy had been one of my favorites back in secondary school, more than 100 years ago. She thought that was very funny.

A Korean boy band came on and the waitresses started jumping up and down. We asked about this and ours told us that he was very popular and handsome, I asked if he was more handsome than I was and she laughed and said no, I was far better looking. The show was going on when we noticed an old man sitting outside on the patio, proudly watching the TV over my shoulder. He was small guy with a full head of white hair and the look of someone who had seen much during his long life in this country's history - the Cultural Revolution, many 5 Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward - in short a lot of struggle, bleakness and privation leading up to this dawning age of prosperity.Matt called the waitress over and asked her to bring him a beer, anonymously. She asked what to do if he didn't want it, and Matt said "fine", but please go ask. A few moments later she came by and thanked us and brought him a cold one.I turned around to have a look and received a gold medal of a grin. I raised my glass to him and said "gang bei" he raised his and offered the same. He stayed for a while and then disappeared leaving us with a feeling of having once again crossed the wide gap between our cultures.

The show over, we left feeling pretty self-congratulatory until we saw the old fellow sitting off to the side - he ran the cigarette concession and smiled and waved as we walked by.

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