Author Archives: Marcia

Meteorological spring arrives in Shanghai

The Shanghai Meteorological Bureau Meteorological announced that Shanghai’s meteorological spring began on March 24. On average, meteorological springtime in Shanghai begins on March 25. So even though winter has seemed long, meteorological spring is right on schedule.

Meteorological spring begins when the average temperature reaches 10 C (50 F) for five consecutive days after Lichun – the beginning of spring in the traditional Chinese calendar. The first day of meteorological spring is the first day of the 5-day sequence.

The traditional East Asian calendars divide a year into 24 solar terms. Lichun (literally “start of spring”) is the 1st solar term. Lichun begins when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 315° and ends when it reaches the longitude of 330°. Lichun more often refers to the day when the sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 315°. In the Gregorian calendar, Lichun usually falls around February 4.

Qingming Festival

On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 15 days after the spring equinox, China observed the Qingming Festival, known in the West as Clear Bright Festival or Tomb Sweeping Festival.

The festival traces its origin back at least 2,500 years into the mists of antiquity. It is the time when farmers began spring plowing and young couples start courting. During Qingming people danced, sang, flew kites, and wore willow branches in their hair or placed willow branches around doorways to ward off evil spirits thought to wander on Qingming.

The Qingming Festival is also a time for people to remember and honor their ancestors at grave sites. Chinese people generally don’t visit graves, but for some, doing so on Qingming is an obligation. Young and old pray before the ancestors, sweep the tombs, and offer food, tea, wine, chopsticks, joss sticks and joss paper (paper-made sacrificial items).

Traditionally joss paper represents money and items for daily use. People burned the joss money to provide for ancestors in the world of the dead. This year joss paper representing IPhones and IPads was also popular. Across China tons of joss paper is burned, releasing prodigious amounts of smoke into the atmosphere. In a “green” gesture, some urbanites are beginning to edge away from the old custom. Green practices reported this year include offering fresh flowers or planting trees or shrubs in ancestors’ honor.

In another bow to modernity, when urban Chinese are too busy making money to personally fulfill their obligation, some people engage companies to pay respects to the deceased on behalf of their family. The basic package includes placing fruits, joss sticks and joss paper at the grave. For an additional charge, agents give a kowtow, make a memorial speech and cry. The owner of one such company said that business was booming.

Shanghai Daily quotes a 30-old woman. After visiting her grandparents’ tomb in the suburbs her family will visit the countryside. “This is the season for outings and picnics in cheerier places. Sorrow is no longer the tone for Qingming,” she says. “After all, it also symbolizes spring and hope.”

A Shanghai Daily report estimated that during the 3-day holiday, more than 5.8 million people swept tombs across the city. By 7am on Qingming Festival day highways leading to the city’s major cemeteries in the suburbs were already jammed. According to tradition doors to the netherworld close at 12noon, so relatives like to visit their ancestors’ tombs in the morning.

Qingming is not one of mainland China’s major festivals. This year, in order to provide a 3-day Qingming Holiday spanning Monday, April 2, through Wednesday, April 4, the central government mandated that the preceding Saturday and Sunday would be regular work days, so business as usual at school or the office. Retail businesses rarely close, except for the most important holidays – Chinese New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year’s Day.

In Taiwan and in the Chinese jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Macau, Qingming has long been a statutory public holiday. In 2008 the Chinese government reinstated Qingming as a nation-wide public holiday in the mainland. Watch for a future post on the positive relationship between traditional Chinese festivals and the maintenance of social order.

Shanghai’s humid, subtropical climate

Shanghai is located on the East China Sea midway between Beijing and Hong Kong. It sits on alluvial delta land near the mouth of the Yangzi River. Like huge river deltas around the world, the Yangzi Delta is a watery place. The many rivers, canals, streams and lakes make for abundant water but also for a climate that is quite humid year around.

According to Wikipedia Shanghai has a “humid subtropical climate”. There are four distinct seasons. Winters are long (November-March), chilly and damp. Cold northwesterly winds from Siberia make daytime temperatures, which rarely drop below freezing, feel much colder. Nighttime temperatures occasionally drop below freezing. But most years there are no more than one or two light snowfalls.

Summers (June-August) are hot and humid. While June is known as “the rainy season”, Shanghai is subject to freak thunderstorms, tropical storms, and typhoons which can dump prodigious amounts of rain in short periods. About 70% of the annual rainfall occurs between May and September.

The most pleasant seasons are spring, although changeable and often rainy (approximately April-May), and autumn, which is generally sunny and dry (approximately September-October).

Everyone’s talking about the weather!

Shanghai residents, Chinese and foreigners alike, are all complaining about the long stretch of chilly, drizzly, overcast days. A March 3 story in Shanghai Daily titled, “Longest stretch of gray days in 32 years … and more to come”, finally inspired me tell about Shanghai’s weather.

Citing data gathered by Shanghai Meteorological Bureau, the article reports that the prolonged period of overcast weather from February 5 through March 2, is the longest in the past 32 years. In the second half of February the sun shone for less than five hours. It was forty years ago that the sun shone for such a short time during the same period. Temperatures have been as stable as the overcast. High and low temperatures have hovered within a range of only a few degrees – highs between 8C and 11C (46F and 52F) and lows between 2C and 4C (36F and 39F).

Health professionals say levels of depression have increased during the gloomy weather. In recent weeks the Shanghai Mental Health Consultation Center has received twice as many calls as usual. In order to keep spirits high during gloomy weather, some experts advised locals to wear more colorful clothes while going out.

The Chinese lunar calendar divides the year into 24 “solar terms” of approximately 15 days each. The 15-day period called “waking of the insects” began March 3. The period corresponds to the time of year when “weather is getting warmer”. Finally, March 12 dawned clear and by March 14 the afternoon air felt comparatively balmy.

To learn more about the Chinese lunar calendar and solar terms, copy and paste this website into your browser:

Christmas in Shanghai

In China, Christmas Day is a regular business day and for most Chinese a non-event. Since December 25, 2011, fell on a Sunday, we were not working. On Christmas Eve we each had a two-hour Chinese lesson during the day, and then joined an American family in their home for Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas Day we cooked thin strips of mutton and various vegetables in a charcoal-fired hot pot at a Chinese restaurant.

Shanghai has long been one of China’s most international cities, so Christmas seems more prominent than in other parts of China. (Last year in Kunming, only the most upscale malls and tourist spots decorated for Christmas.) Upwardly mobile Shanghai residents and businesses selectively adopt outward aspects of Western culture to project a worldly, with-it impression.

Decorating for the Christmas season is an example of this practice. Places of business – restaurants, malls, supermarkets and even our local gym – are decorated with Christmas trees covered with blue lights, poinsettias, and Santa Claus. English-language Christmas carols and popular Christmas songs play in supermarkets and restaurants.

For a few weeks before Christmas, gaudy decorations were widely available for purchase. On the Friday before Christmas as Marcia walked past the 3-story daycare/preschool/kindergarten adjacent to our apartment complex, the recorded strains of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” drifted out of an open window. Rounding the corner, she heard children’s voices singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.

Urbane Shanghai residents, many of whom studied and lived in the West, associate the Western Christmas season with festivity, generosity and family togetherness. It marks the start of China’s major holiday season that culminates in the seven-day Spring Festival and Lunar New Year’s Day (known in the West as Chinese New Year’s). The whole period blends together into a season of celebration and gift-giving.

During the week before Christmas, red and gold Spring Festival decorations appeared for sale alongside the Christmas decorations. Will the Christmas decorations in people’s homes come down when the Spring Festival decorations go up? Or will both types live side-by-side, as they have in our rented flat? The front door has a Chinese New Year decoration on the outside and a Christmas wreath on the inside. Both decorations are displayed year-round.

Opening our bank accouts on Thanksgiving Day

China has its own holidays and American Thanksgiving Day is not one of them. For us Thanksgiving Day was just another Thursday workday. We walked about 15 minutes to the nearest branch of China Merchants Bank, which reportedly has good English language on-line banking.

It took only a few minutes and a copy of our passports for each of us to open an account and obtain a UnionPay debit card. Even though the bank was not in an area where many foreigners live, the bank teller spoke pretty good English. Our cards work for withdrawing cash at any of the bank’s ATMs and for purchasing merchandise in China and nearby countries like Korea, Japan and Thailand.

We celebrated our achievement with a Thanksgiving feast of roast duck and yams. Marcia bought the duck from a tiny neighborhood specialty shop. During business hours the owner always has a row of freshly roasted birds hanging on display.

Marcia bought the yams from the yam man. Traditionally Chinese kitchens don’t have ovens, so entrepreneurs build portable roasters out of an old oil drum. The drum is fitted to roast yams and corn-on-the-cob over a charcoal. The roaster and a bin to hold a stock of unroasted items are mounted on a push cart that rolls along on a couple of old bicycle wheels. The yam man or woman wheels the shop around the neighborhood and always has a stock of yams that have just come “out of the oven”.

The Chinese xiaoqu

The xiaoqu is a form of residential development common in China. Since the 1980s most urban residential development has followed the xiaoqu concept and today most urban Chinese live in one.

Older xiaoqu are comprised of large groups of 6-story walk-ups. Wrecking balls are now rapidly knocking these down to make way for new high-rise xiaoqu like the one in which we live.

Each modern xiaoqu is a group of multi-story buildings of between 1,500 and 4,000 households. Each complex, either older or new, is enclosed within a compound with one or more guarded gates that give an illusion of control. Our xiaoqu occupies most of a city block and has three guarded gates. The guards are often sleeping, reading, or talking or texting on their mobile phones. Pedestrians can walk in and out at will. But any delivery person or resident wishing to drive into the xiaoqu must convince a guard to open a gate.

Two sides of our xiaoqu are enclosed by the outside walls of its high-rise towers. The ground floor outer walls are occupied by businesses of all sorts. One side faces a busy six-lane street and sports a grocery store, a tea shop, an upscale hair salon and a spa. The other faces a one-lane neighborhood street and has all sorts of small shops – hairdresser/barber, laundry/drycleaner, foot massage, pet grooming, convenience store, real estate office and sellsers of children’s clothing, window glass and mirrors, signs, etc.

Inside our xiaoqu enclosure is a small children’s playground, exercise equipment for adults, a water feature with a fountain that doesn’t work, and a health club. The health club has an Olympic size swimming pool, weight training and aerobic workout room, dance studio and yoga studio. Although it is inside the xiaoqu, membership is open to the general public. We have both joined.

Just outside one of the gates is a three-story daycare/preschool/kindergarten built at the same time as the xiaoqu. From our living room we can see its large rooftop playground. Like the health club, it is used by the general public.

In the basement of each building there is space for parking two-wheelers: bicycles, electric bikes, motor scooters and motorcycles. There is also underground car parking, but because there is does not enough space to accommodate 2012 levels of car ownership, parked cars spill out onto every ground level space. We suspect that now that the xiaoqu has filled its parking spaces, residents buying cars need to look elsewhere. Watch for a future posting about auto ownership in Shanghai.

According to online information, the Chinese central government is using the xiaoqu policy to produce good quality citizens by promoting social cohesion, neighborliness, a sense of belonging, a feeling of security and a harmonious society. Recently xialqu management placed posters in the lobby of our building showing step-by-step how to clean and disinfect heat pump air filters to improve indoor air quality and efficiency of operation. We checked ours, found them clogged, cleaned them as advised, and noticed a marked improvement in efficiency.

During the weekend following appearance of the posters, a team of residents conducted day-long demonstrations of the process for people who wanted to do-it-yourself. People who wanted to pay someone else to do the job could make an appointment for service.

China also carries out public policy initiatives through its xiaoqu. When China mobilized in response to the SARS epidemic, small groups of people in each xiaoqu provided health and sanitation advice to residents. The Chinese government is concerned about the country’s ability to satisfy its growing energy needs. Besides being a gesture of neighborliness, heat pump cleaning education and service may be part of the city of Shanghai’s mobilization to reduce energy consumption.

Perhaps to Chinese people familiar with life in a traditional lane house or extended family courtyard house feel a similar and comforting sense of enclosure within their xiaoqu.

Our Shanghai flat

Our flat is on the 30th floor of a 36-story building. Our building is one of 10 towers that make up an residential complex built in 2002. The complex’s Chinese name means “Shanghai Bright Star City”, but they translate it expansively as “Shanghai The Future”. In Chinese this sort of residential complex is called a xiaoqu – pronounced like the first syllables of ‘shower’ and ‘chew food’. For more about the Chinese xiaoqu see the next blog post.

In our tower there are four flats on each floor served by two slow, but dependable elevators. Our flat has a living room/dining room, a bedroom with king size bed, a study room, a kitchen, and a bathroom with a washing machine. The living room/dining room, bedroom and study room each has its own heat pump unit for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer (more about Shanghai’s climate in a future post).

The kitchen is outfitted with a three-burner gas range without oven, a microwave, a water filter for making drinking water, and a large (by Chinese standards) refrigerator/freezer. Sliding glass doors open off the living room onto a covered balcony where, like all our neighbors, we hang our laundry to dry. All together we have about 100 square meters of living space (1100 sq.ft.).

There is a low-rise, historically preserved Christian church immediately to the south of our building (more about the True Heart Church in a future post). As a result, our south-facing flat has a permanently unobstructed view and sun all day long. We can see slivers of the Huangpu River and a couple of bridges.

Our Chinese landlord

The owner of our flat (“You can call me Christina”) has worked for General Motors for most of the 10 years since her graduation from university and speaks a little English. Her husband is the General Manager of Land Rover’s service operations in China. Just after her marriage in 2002, she had purchased the 30th floor apartment in the then-new complex. (It is common for thrifty parents to dip into their substantial savings to help their child purchase a first home.) Her flat had been on the market for two months, and she had already nixed three prospective renters as unsuitable.

Christina agreed to provide a desk for Tom and a foam pad for the king size bed, which like many Chinese beds was hard as a rock. Immediately after concluding the lease agreement, Christina drove us in her luxurious new Buick way out in the suburbs to the largest Ikea we had ever seen. But apart from its scale, it was exactly like the Ikea in Oakland – same layout, same products, same Swedish meatballs.

Christina was obviously an Ikea veteran. She steered us at top speed through the store to the required items, picked up the merchandise, paid using her Ikea member discount card, and arranged for delivery the following weekend. She whisked us back into central Shanghai at 9:30pm. We were gaga from jet lag, but finished with a major task of getting settled.

Following many upwardly mobile Chinese, Christina and her husband recently purchased a new flat in a suburban high-rise complex. Christina is outfitting their new house with all new things, no doubt also purchased at Ikea, so she is glad to leave behind all her furniture, dishes and kitchenware. She even loaned us her huge collection of pirated DVDs. Since we arrived in Shanghai with only clothes, books, and a few personal items, this made getting settled much easier. We moved in only one week after arriving in Shanghai.

Unlike Christina, we prefer living in the middle of the big city close to the narrow streets with open-front shops and ordinary Chinese people going about their business. We’ll have a great opportunity while still living in a modern flat.

Leasing a Shanghai flat

Happy to make it to Shanghai, we deposited our bags in our hotel room, revived ourselves with bowls of delicious wonton soup (called huntun in standard Mandarin) in a room full of slurping locals, then set out to look for rentals in neighborhoods we had already identified. We recruited a couple of English-speaking brokers but also talked in Chinese with local agents who have tiny offices near residential complexes.

Late Tuesday afternoon, we visited the seventh of the flats, this time with a local agent who had previously shown us a room in an older building that was so dingy we were scared to go inside. Our expectations were low because the quoted price was the cheapest of all the places we had seen, but we figured we’d at least get a free Chinese lesson. And the location was good, just south of the Puxi old town, near the French Concession area and only a few subway stops from Tom’s work across the river in the Pudong district.

To our surprise, we were ushered into a very nice 30th-floor flat in a relatively new complex of high-rise buildings. The owner, a fashionable 30-something Chinese woman, was there to “look us over”. She seemed to like us, and we decided on the spot that her flat would be our new home. That evening we initiated the lease process.

The next evening, we completed the lease agreement and handed over a stack of 100 yuan ($15) notes for three months’ rent and a deposit. We were impressed with the efficiency of the nascent Shanghai legal system. The rental agreements and process are standardized, and the agent insisted we bring a Chinese-speaking colleague to ensure we understood the agreements we were signing.