The cab driver let us off on the crowded pavement. With only Chinese characters on street signs, were we at the right place? We approached a row-house, situated in a narrow alleyway, painted red and black. It was wooden, three stories high, with creaky heavily worn stairs leading up to the second floor.
Jim had insisted we make use of his apartment “I barely use it” he said, “I am always travelling somewhere or back in Denver.”
We let ourselves in using a key hidden under a glass bottle. A neighbour, Mrs. Lee, came knocking on the door a few mintues later. Dressed in pink and green cotton pyjamas, she was silver haired and missing many teeth. Absolutely no English vocabulary, like most of the people in Shanghai. Our diminutive new friend babbled good-naturedly. “You are Jim’s friend?”, “Jim de peng-you?”, and “Jim mei-guo”, “Jim gone to America”. She smiled again and quickly left, returning to deveining shrimp and chopping greens in a makeshift food prep area outside her unit on the first floor.
Unlike Beijing with its wide carefully planned streets, this quarter of Shanghai felt like a Parisian neighbourhood. At one time this tiny area had belonged to France. You can still buy baguettes and croissants and sit in quaint cafes with Edith Piaf music playing. I noticed lavender growing artfully in black urns. Local Shanghainese women here seemed to wear their scarves adroitly like their gallic counterparts.
The amazing thing about this city of 28 million people, or any large city for that matter, is how comfortable and connected one can feel when staying in a neighbourhood where locals live, work, and drink tea and coffee. Toronto is much the same. I remember living in Forest Hill Village on Spadina, and felt the same sense of being part of a community as I did on this busy Chinese street.
My husband, brother and I deposited our bags on the second floor, and sauntered down to the fruit shop which was still open though it was past 10 p.m. We wanted to get some bottles of water. The fruit were fresh and irresistible. Strawberries in season, grown locally, though it was March. We bought 2 boxes. Longan and dragon fruit we couldn’t pass up. The shop owner and her two children were very friendly and all smiles. Over the course of the six days we would become a fixture in the neighbourhood, easily recognizable due to my husband’s height and Swiss German heritage. My brother and I being of Chinese descent blended in to the local tapestry. The day we left we were waiting for our taxi on the street corner, with our luggage, and our fruit store family waved at us fondly as if to say “Zai jian. Sorry you are leaving.”
“Wong’s Dumpling House is a must,” Jim had told us. And of course we were hungry. We’d only had a small box lunch on the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai. Steamed dumplings and noodle soup were all the menu contained, so we simply pointed to what we wanted. “No tourists in sight” I noted, happily.
The waiter promptly arrived with three plates of steaming, perfectly formed pork dumplings that had been made by two men whose expert craftsmanshp was visible to patrons watching in anticipation through a glass partition. This was simplicity at its best. Oily red chili pepper sauce in tiny pots, and black soya sauce in a bottle on the chipped formica table, were deployed to enhance the flavor of these mouth watering delicacies. Juicy, and filled with tasty liquid. Ahhhhh! So comforting. So simple.
This is why we travelled half way across the world! This is why it was all worth it. To sit in a dumpling house anonymously along with real Shanghai people, on a chilly winter evening, having a late night encounter with savoury little pieces of stuffed dough, heat rising from the delicate wonders and the sound of honking horns and a vast sea of strangers with unfamiliar customs outside our door.