Shanghai Pathways Blog

Understand ​China​ ​From the Local ​Perspect​ive


February 2012

China’s Capitalist Revolution

Older Chinese are the ones who went through all of the changes in China during the past 30 years. Sometimes I wonder if they could believe that things can really change in such fast pace. One minute everyone wanted to join the army, work in the factory and proud of becoming a farmer, the next minute the same group of people want money, open business, buy LV and drive BMWs.

China’s Capitalist Revolution is an interesting movie on Deng Xiaoping’s reforms during the 80s. It tells the a gripping tale of the path that China took to opening up its economy, with plenty of anecdotes (e.g. the novelty of synthetic t-shirts), how people made a lot of money, but also how the changes created social unrest through corruption, inflation and unemployment…

From Chairman Mao’s little red book to Apple’s IPhone 4s in just 30 years and all these changes made China as one of  the most exciting countries in earth.

About this movie:

When Chairman Mao died in 1976, he left China in chaos and poverty. He was succeeded by Deng Xiaoping, who overturned Maoism and taught the Chinese to love capitalism, creating special investment zones for the West. But Deng’s crash course in capitalism went wrong when inflation grew and workers lost jobs. By 1989, China faced disaster. Now, 20 years after the tragic events in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, this programme reveals an interpretation of the motives of the demonstrators that may well overturn the conventional view in the West.  The demonstrators did not begin by demanding democracy. Corruption, inflation and the hardship caused by economic reforms drove students and workers to confront the government and the army. Students went on hunger strike, and troops killed more than 2,000. Deng Xiaoping gave the order to fire, but his ideas prevailed. This film argues that Deng’s capitalist revolution created today’s China.

The Opposite of Fate

Amy Tan is one of my favorite writer and I am so exited that she is coming to Shanghai for the 2012 Shanghai Literary Festival. The BEST thing is that I am going for the LITERARY LUNCH: Amy Tan in Conversation.

Her book of The Bonesetter’s Daughter was the very first English book which I read. It was almost 6 years ago and I clearly remember that when my friend Ashok gave it to me,  I was actually wondering how could I ever finish reading a book filled with so much English words. But later I carried the book with me and finished it during my holiday to the west part of China. After that, I realized it wasn’t that difficult to read English books and I really enjoy understand things from a different (western) perspective.

Amy Tan’s books are always filled with fascinating tales of mother and daughter relations, the ancient Chinese history and culture. As an ABC, she had no way to understand her mother’s hobbies and culture which seemed so different than Americans. Sometimes her story reminds me about the current life style change between the young generation who is born in the 80s and the older generation who is born before the 60s. 

In The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan shares her insight into her own life and how she escaped the curses of her past to make a future of her own. She takes us on a journey from her childhood of tragedy and comedy to the present day and her arrival as one of the world’s best-loved novelists. Whether recalling arguments with her mother in suburban California or introducing us to the ghosts that inhabit her computer, it offers vivid portraits of choices, attitudes, charms, and luck in action-a refreshing antidote to the world-weariness and uncertainties we all face today.

Artisan Soy Sauce

Following is a really wonderful trip review from our client regarding her experience in visiting the Heritage Soy-sauce Factory

Shanghai is blessed with the only surviving hand-crafted soy sauce factory in the area, possibly one of the few left in the world. The Handmade Heritage Soy Sauce Factory which makes Guan Jiang Yuan soy sauce was started by the Qian Wan Long family over 130 years ago. Because it has been making soy sauce the same way for so many years it was awarded China’s “Historical Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2008 which gives it certain protections and aid so that it can continue to operate and remain open.

You see, making soy sauce by hand as they do it in this factory is a long and slow process. As seems to be the case everywhere, soy sauce has fallen victim to mass production. A commercial company like Kikkoman can make a bottle of soy sauce in about 20 days. This place: about 2 years. It’s like the difference between a fine aged cheddar and Velveeta. They have to use a lot of “stuff” (chemicals) in Velveeta to try to get it to imitate cheddar, in a short period of time.

So what makes this company’s soy sauce so different? It’s the fact that it is allowed to age and ferment naturally, rather than doing it at lightening speed by chemical hydrolysis. Interestingly while we were tasting and comparing the handmade and commercially made soy sauces, I was smelling the artisan sauce and I suddenly caught a whiff of something that reminded me of cheese–that kind of yeasty smell.

The main ingredients, soybeans and wheat, are stored in this room. The very high threshold of the door is supposed to keep out rats

First soybeans are cleaned in the pot on the left, then soaked for 12 to 24 hours depending on the time of year.

Then they are steamed in this big contraption

The soybeans are spread out on this table and mixed with wheat, rice and what our guide called the “fungus”. I’m guessing it may actually be a yeast of some sort–perhaps yeast doesn’t translate easily from the Chinese. They use a bamboo scoop for mixing that you will see in a later picture.

The soybeans are spread onto countless bamboo trays to allow the fungus to grow for about 5 days. This is a critical step as the fungus can be killed very quickly if the temperature goes too high in the rooms. The soy master often sleeps here to be sure the temperature is maintained appropriately.

Salt water is then added to the bean and fungus mixture and the whole thing is put into these large clay pots with bamboo covers. Just like oak casks contribute to wine’s flavor, so too do the clay plots contribute to the flavor of the soy sauce.

The soy beans are left in the pots for at least year and stirred every 10 days. It’s at this point that the magic starts to happen. It’s because the pots are exposed to the 4 seasons and the changing weather and temperature that “interesting stuff” happens. Even the sun and the dew contribute to the taste of the soy sauce.

After a year or so, the mash looks quite a lot like something at the bottom of a pit toilet but smells just like soy sauce.

The mash is brought inside and squeezed out using this contraption. The run-off is collected and mixed with more salt water.

The leftover mash is used in two ways; to make another soy type product that I was unfamiliar with and to feed the pigs. There have been times in China’s history during periods of famine, when the leftover mash was used to feed people.

Back into the clay pots the liquid goes for another year for the sun and weather to work their magic. The soy master uses his 30 years of experience to decide when the sauce is perfect.

So the Kikkoman folks? They make up for all that natural sunlight and seasons and dew with msg and artificial colors and other, unpronounceable things. The Soy Factory only uses soybeans for the taste and wheat for the color and sweetness, and nature for all those undefinable flavors.

The soy master, in the middle, will tell you that his soy sauce has more anti aging properties than wine and that the longer it is fermented, the healthier and better tasting it is.

Perhaps there’s something to his claim, because Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and guru of all food trends has just been to visit the factory as research for a book on the health benefits of fermented foods.

But there are a billion people in China and this little factory with it’s 400 clay pots can’t produce enough soy sauce for all of them even if they were willing to pay the 40rmb (6.30 USD) price per bottle for the 2 year old cheap stuff or the 200rmb ($32 USD) price for the 3 year old Rolls Royce of soy sauce. The factory workers are thrilled that they now have government support for their factory because they are so proud of the work they are doing and they think it is important to preserve the traditions they are keeping. They are hoping to extend their manufacturing base to other provences to recruit younger people who can keep the traditions alive as all the current workers are getting older.

However, they worry that because soy sauce making by it’s nature is a very slow and meditative process, that it will be boring and unappealing to young people. But, while it seems like a simple process, the soy master would tell you the subtleties of conditions like weather and temperature, make it anything but easy and knowing when a batch of soy sauce is ready to be bottled is the same as knowing when a wine will be in full bloom.

These are antique implements once used in the factory: the bamboo scoopers on the left, to mix the soybeans and fungus, and a ladle that measured out exactly 250ml for customers who were buying the soy sauce

This was the barrel the soy sauce was originally sold from. Now days it’s sold sealed in glass.

This is a priceless Chinese relic, the only one left in China: It is the imperial permit or license to open the soy sauce factory from 130 years ago, necessary because of the large quantities of salt required for production.

All the rest of these licenses were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, along with all things considered “imperial”, but this one was saved quite by accident. It is made of a very good wood, probably ginko, and a carpenter saw it and wanted it for its wood. So he took it down and hid it in his shop and no one ever found it, thus saving it from destruction.

So, yes this soy sauce is great. There’s just one catch. You can’t buy it. Or maybe you can, once a year at one grocery store in Shanghai, if you happen to know which one and happen to see the line snaking out the door. Otherwise you’re out of luck. They actually bottled some just for us, so we were able to buy some. And only one restaurant, other than their own uses it in their cooking. It just seems a shame that if this is supposed to be such a superior product, it’s actually not available. We were all ready to volunteer some marketing advice to these people!

We were told that as part of our tour, we would get to sample some foods to use with their soy sauce. I guess the Chinese idea of sample and the Western idea of sample are two different things:

We were brought to their restaurant which is in the old factory building

Turnips in soy sauce


soy sauce beef

White cut chicken–mostly bones and skin

A shanghai-ese specialty dish, Pudong version with vegetables

tofu skin with vegetable and meat

Sticky rice ball soup–the balls were filled with meat or a sweet bean paste. The insides were fine, but the exterior was a sticky mess. Quite unpleasant.

Eight treasures

Steamed 3 flavor food, a local specialty. Includes quail eggs, pork, dumplings and pig skin. Nobody was too thrilled about the pig skin, but this dish was one of the most delicious of the bunch

ham, bamboo and pork soup: the fancy tower was toppled with chopsticks and stirred to make the soup

Hairy crab. Thankfully we were told we didn’t have to bother with the crabs on top.

We just got to eat these yummy pasta-like bits underneath

duck soy sauce lion head. This very much reminded me of Thanksgiving stuffing, only better.

Green vegetables like only the Chinese know how to make them

Shanghai red beef–the dish I learned to make in my cooking class

fried dumplings

And to finish off the meal, a big old bowl full of pig skin. Amazingly, it was still this full when we left the table. Hmm…

Reblogged from DECRYPTKNIT: Knitter on the loose in Shanghai:

Nanjing Massacre

I decided to do a short overview sheet for an up-coming trip to Nanjing Massacre Museum on 14th Feb, and yes, somehow 38 people picked the most unusual event for the Valentine’s Day. 

The Nanking Massacre or Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, was a mass murder, genocide and war rape that occurred during the six-week period following the Japanese capture of the city of Nanjing (Nanking), the former capital of the Republic of China, on December 13, 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War.


  • Aug 1937, Japanese army invaded Shanghai, Nov 12 Shanghai was captured
  • Nov 22 – The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone is organized by a 15 foreigners to shelter Chinese refugees, area of 3.86 km², with 25 refugee camps  
  • Dec 1, capital relocation–Chiang Kai-shek left Nanjing on Dec 7
  • Dec 5, prince Asaka appointed as commander and issued an order to “kill all captives”
  • Dec 9, Japanese army arrived outside of Nanjing urging the surrender within 24 hours
  • Dec 10, no response was received from the Chinese by the deadline
  • Dec 12, general Tang Shengzhi retreated, 100.000 untrained soldiers defending Nanjing
  • Dec 13, Nanking fell to the Japanese by nightfall, six-week period of Nanjing Massacre, Japanese troops engaged in rape, murder, theft, arson, and other war crimes
  • Dec 14, The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone lodges the first protest letter against Japanese atrocities with the Japanese Embassy
  • Dec 18, General Iwane Matsui knew the rape, murder, and looting in the city
  • Jan 1938, the Japanese army forced all refugees in the Safety Zone to return home
  • Feb 18, 1938, the Nanking Safety Zone International Committee was forcibly renamed “Nanking International Rescue Committee”, and Safety Zone effectively ceased to function.
  • Feb 19, 1938 – The last of the 69 protest letters against Japanese is sent by the Safety Zone Committee to the Japanese Embassy
  • Late March 1938, the end of the massacre
  • May 1938, the last refugee camps were closed
  • Mar 10, 1947, Hirohito and Matsui was prosecuted, prince Asaka got immunity

DEATH: Nanjing Massacre total death of 300,000 Chinese.

RAPE: 20,000–80,000 women were raped, including infants and the elderly.

Sara Imas – a Jewish woman’s amazing life in Shanghai

When I met Sara Imas, I was immediately amused by her high engery level and felt that she has so much passion about life and people in Shanghai.  The more I gets to know her, the more suprises I got. 

Sara’s father Leiwi Imas was the President of Shanghai’s Jewish Club. In 1939, at the age of 43,  to escape Adolf Hitler’s holocaust, Leiwi arrived in Shanghai among the more than 30,000 other displaced Jews that floated into the city between 1937 and 1939. With no money in pocket, he sold his only gold watch and opened a small bakery on the city’s French concession.  By the 1940s  he owned a dozen businesses, including two bakeries, three wine shops, a carpet shop and a truck-rental firm.  In Shanghai, he married to a Polish woman and had Sara as her only daughter.

Leiwi Imas chose to stay in China when most other Jewish refugees left after World War II.  At an old age, the businessman, customs officer and ex-president of the Jewish Club in Shanghai died peacefully in a downtown villa in 1962.

His daughter, Sara Imas, grew up among her Chinese peers without a Chinese passport, speaking only Mandarin with a local accent. After living through upheavals in Chinese history, including the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), and failing to find love despite three failed marriages to local men, in each of these three marriages, she had one child. With 2 teenage sons and one younger daughter, she migrated to Israel in 1991 at the age of 41 and made a living selling spring rolls.

Once there, the Jewish woman, who lacks a college degree, demonstrated an amazing ability to provide for herself and family:

She learned to speak fluent English and Hebrew, found a job in an Israeli court, sent her three children to Israeli colleges, returned to Shanghai 10 years later as the chief representative of a diamond firm to the Greater China area, and married a local government official. All of her 3 children also become very successful in life and business.

To learn more about Shanghai’s Jewish history, click here.

Chinese “Mating Ritual”: Explore Shanghai’s Marriage Market

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According to a study from the University of Kent, in ten years China will have approximately 24 million unmarried Chinese men who cannot find wives. That’s more than the current female populations of Taiwan and South Korea combined, to give it some context.

However, in the big cities like Shanghai, there seems to be much more single woman than single man. They can be described as 3S lady – Single, Seventies, Stuck, or the SAS lady – Single, attractive, successful. 

You might wondering why these nice woman become the leftovers? It has something to do with the ABCD rule in Chinese culture, and this  is the secret behind everything:

A type means the best in the market, and it then follows with B, C, D types.

So the ABCD rule goes like that:

A man looking for B woman

B man looking for C woman

C man looking for D woman

Then you have A woman and D man, they are pretty hard to match, right?

Every Saturday and Sunday, at the Shanghai marriage market, parents, with or without their children’s consent, arrange meetings, dates and potential matches for their kids. Some children, often too busy working to devote time to meeting a soul mate, accept their parents’ help. But its not easy even for a parent, and many also employ matchmakers. 

Matchmakers broker meetings for numerous clients usually charging RMB 10-20 per pairing. “I’ve been a matchmaker for three years,” says Mr Zheng “There’s no large payment up front. If you get married, I expect a nice gift and maybe an invitation to attend the wedding. I already represent two American men. Interested?” Even then, matching people long term, especially with the famously strong-willed Shanghainese women, can be difficult. “I’ve been here a long time,” muses Mr Fu, a local matchmaker. “Girls in Shanghai are strong these days. Although they don’t have as much trouble finding a man, there are still lots of unmarried girls’ names on my lists.”

The history of the market started in 1996, by a small group of olderly people(less than 20 people) trying to help their kids, later on it was reported by the local media. Now by 2012, it is the largest one in China, with more than 1000 people attending in a day. 

Does it really work? A friend told me a true story.

A 29 years old lady does not have boy friend,  and since she is approching the Expiration Date, 30 in Chinese standard, her father worries a lot.

So on a Saturday, he went all the way to the marriage market, it took him 2 hours by bus because they live far from the city area. By the time he arrived there, the market almost finished. He rushed – almost run into the center, but accidentally he knocked a woman down.

Feeling sorry and embarrassed, he  apologize to her and naturely they had a chat. It turns out she had a son who is also 29 years old. So they agreed to let them meet.

Guess what? After 3 months, their son and daughter are happily married. More amazingly, one works as an accountant, another is a banker. I bet they enjoy counting money together.

Black Sesame Tang Yuan

The first month of the Chinese calendar is called yuan month, and in ancient times people called night xiao, therefore, the day is called Yuanxiao Festival in China. As the fifteenth day, it is also the last day of Chinese New Year.

Same as most people in China, today I rushed home after work and had Tang Yuan with family for dinner. Traditionally, Tang Yuan is served specially today, the pronunciation is similar to the word Tuan Yuan, which has the meaning of reunion and happiness. It comes many regional variations and many flavors ranging from bean paste filled to pork meat filled. My all time favorite are the ones with black sesame filings.

You need to eat Tang Yuan when it is warm – or better when it is HOT. The right way to eat it is picking up one soft and juicy tang yuan using a spoon. Take a tiny bit on the doughy skin. You can watch the sesame fillings rush out as the steam escapes from the inside at the same time. Use the tip your tongue carefully test out the fillings to make sure it won’t burn you alive. Once you are ready, go ahead and take a BIG bite or swallow the whole thing. Let the creamy juicy sesame fillings explode in your mouth as you chow down the chewy dough. Don’t stop here, reach out for the next one before I take it from you….

And yes, I had 10 of these for dinner today and felt really full…

Historically, a number of different names were used to refer to tangyuan. During the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty, the name was officially settled as yuanxiao (derived from the Yuanxiao Festival), which is used in northern China. This name literally means “first evening”, being the first full moon after Chinese New Year.

In southern China, however, they are called tangyuan or tangtuan. Legend has it that during Yuan Shikai’s rule from 1912 to 1916, he disliked the name yuanxiao (元宵) because it sounded identical to “remove Yuan” (袁消), and so he gave orders to changed the name to tangyuan. This new moniker literally means “round balls in soup”.

When I was young, it was really fun make the Tang Yuan – to make the balls, take enough dough and roll into a ball, press it down with your palm, put a ball of sesame paste into the centre, gather the sides and pinch away access dough. Roll it to a ball. It is like making a toy and eat it later, so I always have to promise my mother that I won’t be naughty and play with the food.

The best place in Shanghai to taste Tang Yuan or buy the take aways is in Wang Jia Sha at West Nanjing Road, they are famous for it but keep in mind that the line is really long.

Venice of the East: Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Town

Qingpu is one of my favorite areas of Shanghai. Around ten years ago, it was known as the countryside area where farmers and fishermen lived, but according to local history, it is actually the origin of ancient Shanghai civilization.

Qingpu Memory

When I was a kid, a visit to Qingpu’s water town meant a fantastic weekend getaway; a perfect chance to forget the demands of school and concrete city buildings. Thoughts of the yummy local food and the beautiful village would excite me the whole night before the trip. I’d get myself ready and plead my mom to leave home as early as possible. After a long, half-day journey, we would arrive at the most famous water town, Zhujiajiao in the Qingpu area, to enjoy a lovely holiday.

Zhujiajiao Water Town 

These days, the road to Zhujiaojiao is really convenient – a 90-minute trip by car. People can escape from their busy, modern Shanghai life and step into traditional water town life.  You can take a boat tour along the beautiful rivers in Zhujiajiao and find yourself lost in ease. This water town was formed during the Song and Yuan Dynasty and was officially set up as a town during Emperor Wanli’s reign of the Ming Dynasty.

Other names for Zhujiajiao include “Pearl Streets Pavilion” and “The Pearl Stream.” The town occupies an area of 47 sq km and is crisscrossed by rivers and canals with nine long streets running lengthwise along the rivers. There are thousands of buildings of Ming and Qing Dynasty as well as thirty six ancient stone bridges. Among these bridges is a large ancient stone bridge called “Fangsheng Bridge” or “Setting Free Bridge” where you can purchase fish to release for good luck.

There are numerous long streets and lanes in Zhujiajiao. Among these, Great North Street boasts “a mile-long road with a thousand shops.” Kezhi Garden is representative of the architecture of the rich families from the area south of the Yangtze River. The ancient streets paved with stone slabs, deep and quiet alleyways, arched stone bridges, and quaint boats express the beauty of life on the water in the ancient town of Zhujiajiao.

Zhujiajiao’s Local Food

The traditional native foods include rose-flavored fermented bean curd, fried gluten, dark-rice zongzi dumplings, meat wrapped in leaves, roast soybeans, and pork meat zongzi. In autumn, people can have taste of the fresh water crabs from Dianshan Lake.

Zhujiajiao People

The development of Zhujiajiao has brought prosperity to its townspeople. The economy has become more developed, offering various job opportunities to them. More and more local families have started their own small street front businesses, selling such things as zongzi dumplings, pearls and various crafts. The main streets are slightly touristy, but most streets are still home to local residents, mainly elderly people and young kids. Doors are often left ajar, and little distinction is made between the house and the alleyway as people go about their day. Most people prefer to keep their old life style and continue to maintain their traditional lives in Zhujiajiao.

Qingpu Museum

Not far from Zhujiajiao, the Qingpu Museum offers a place for people to understand the culture and history of this area. The museum has a collection of approximately ten thousand pieces. The architecture, composed of five interlocking oval cylinders and constructed with modern architectural materials, looks like a flying butterfly. Inside the museum, visitors can easily learn the history of Qingpu and Shanghai. The Origin of Ancient Shanghai Civilization is the exhibition in the south wing of the museum. Starting with Shanghai’s origin, the exhibit shows the long history of Shanghai with beautiful archaeological finds from the Qingpu of Majiabang Culture, Sonze Culture, Liangzhu Culture, and the Maqiao Culture. Charms of Shanghai’s Water Culture is the topic for the display in the east wing. It covers the changes of water systems and construction related to Qingpu history. The models of Qinglong Town Port demonstrate the prosperous life and trade during the Song dynasty. Sections of Bridge Culture and Water Life vividly present the custom and folk culture of the local people.


The ancient district of Zhujiajiao occupies approximately 3 sq km, and exploring it thoroughly will take you at least half a day – even more if you reserve some time for some of the numerous teahouses, coffeehouses, bars and restaurants. The best time to visit is on weekdays.

Years of Red Dust

I am a little bit obsessed with the stories in Shanghai, so during the quiet winter days, I just can’t help but read like a starved person for days. 

Qiu xiao long’s name was first mentioned from a friend’s email. He seems to be a really creative writer who is talented in telling mysterious murder stories which always happened in Shanghai and he is proud of mix famous Chinese poems into those exciting stories. Naturely I tagged his book as one of the most wanted in my reading list.

Surprisingly, Years of Red Dust fall into my hand as one of my Chinese New Years gifts.  Once I opened the pages, it connects me deeply and reminds me of my childhood time in the backsteets of the southern city. The warmth of the narrow busy lanes, the endless gossips on the other side of the thin walls and the smells of every day life, gosh, I missed it.

The name of this book inspired me to start a walking tour program in Shanghai – Years of Heavenly Light. It is a kind of lost memory for which was part of our life, sometimes dark, sometimes merry.  Next week, I will go back to that strange sad little place and try to capture the stories before every one forgets. 

The stories in Years of Red Dust trace the changes in modern China over fifty years—from the early days of the Communist revolution in 1949 to the modernization movement of the late nineties—all from the perspective of one small street in Shanghai, Red Dust Lane. From the early optimism at the end of the Chinese Civil War, through the brutality and upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, to the death of Mao, the pro-democracy movement and the riots in Tiananmen Square—history, on both an epic and personal scale, unfolds through the bulletins posted and the lives lived in this one lane, this one corner of Shanghai.

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