Pam’s Pictorama Toy Travel Post: With apologies to Pictorama readers for the lack of a Saturday post yesterday while I made my way back from China, today’s post while it does cover toys, is a bit of a rambling travelogue. Fair warning to those who are looking for shorter fare.
Travel has been an increasingly frequent part of my work life and promises to be more so in the new gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center. A mere two months into the job and I find myself in the Shanghai Podung airport with a company laptop and a tummy full of mediocre pizza drafting this post. This after a fast and furious four plus days in Shanghai with Wynton Marsalis and the 15 member Jazz at Lincoln Center band and assorted other colleagues who keep things running on the road. Everyone has been unfailingly lovely to me since my arrival at JALC, more than ever while in China this week, but there’s no two ways around the learning curve of being about 11 weeks into a new and in many ways very different job. I was smacked with that reality repeatedly on this trip, and frankly I missed Kim and the kitties.
So when I realized that I had a rare afternoon off between rehearsal and evening concert on Wednesday, instead of sensibly finding a tailor and having a new winter coat made like my colleagues, I decided to take off in search of a store that sells antique toys in another part of town. Before leaving NY I had (of course) Googled antique toy store Shanghai and an article from a few years ago appeared. (I did something similar last fall when visiting Lyon for the Met, as told in my earlier post found here called Pepper Felix and Mickey Souris.) Out of the three described, one shop appeared to be my style. I mapped it online and while it wasn’t around the corner, it didn’t really appear to be substantially further than anywhere else I had gone in this sprawling city, although albeit in a different direction and distance can be tricky on Google maps in a foreign city. Although it seemed difficult, somehow seeing antique toys seemed like the shot in the arm I needed to bring me around to myself so off I went.
Meanwhile, please know that for me at least Shanghai rapidly dissolved into never-ending challenges of transportation, communication and culture. The Shanghai cab is where these elements combined into a triple threat. Whether it is a disinclination to deal with tourists and our self-evident communication issues, or if perhaps they are equally abusive to their own folks I am unsure, but since it didn’t take me long to figure out that the many cabs with their green lights happily lit could be (should be) picking me up. Meanwhile, if one had a Chinese-speaking companion with a phone app who could call a car you might find that your destination was too short to be desirable and they would also refuse you. It was frustrating to say the least.
After such a phone rejection, a colleague from Asia suggested an assertive approach which I adopted – essentially chasing cabs down and hopping in. Now here I do feel I need to apologize because I may have done real damage to the reputation of Americans in Asia single-handedly on this trip putting this into action. Ugly American to the extreme.
Before I continue with my story please allow me to supply two other key elements of my visit to Shanghai, everyday it was well into the 90’s and so sultry I could barely stand to wash my hair knowing that despite blow drying it would remain a damp frizz for the remainder of the day. (Natives repeatedly remarked on how the weather really wasn’t bad for this time of the year – a warning to self for scheduling future travel.) Next, please understand that traffic in this city can compete with some of the worst traffic I have ever seen – on a par with Los Angeles and London, and even topping midtown NYC during the worst of the Trump protesting and closures. Because of this the population, which is considerable as this is after all China, has turned to a fascinating array of two wheeled vehicles, pedaled and motored. (There is a subway, but no one seemed to encourage tourists to take it. Hmmm.)
On the streets, the variation on the Vespa and moped were topped in numbers only by the bright yellow free bicycles which are merely picked up, used and left as needed. (While I love this idea, I did wonder what happens if you ride somewhere and come out to find the bike taken by another needy citizen and no one else has left one?) And in this age of cell phones it was not at all unusual to find someone riding one of the above, on the sidewalk, while looking at their phone. Some even did all of this AND had headphones on – so they couldn’t be bothered by the screeching of pedestrians or fellow riders I assume. This means that, in addition to essentially running into the street in an attempt to force my way into a cab, I had to avoid being mowed down by a two-wheeled vehicle at the same time.
As I am a resourceful, and admittedly somewhat competitive, New York woman traveling on business which required my presence in numerous parts of this sprawling city, I developed the following method. After scoping out a location carefully for a) reasonable egress for me into the street b) no obvious impediments for legally picking me up (such as a yellow curb or metal fencing and c) in the best of all worlds no bike lane which could mean the end of me or the cyclist as I dashed into traffic. The last one was the hardest and not an option I could always hold out for. I would also try to find a street that was very busy, but not verging on highway-ness.
Once an acceptable location was selected I would watch for a lit cab. I would stand, in fine NY style, just below the curb in the street and try to make eye contact with the oncoming cabs with their jolly green lights as I would at home. When this failed, as it virtually always seemed to, I would begin to eye cabs I could just take on. Obviously the easiest prey were those cabs where someone was getting out, but I was almost never that lucky. Instead I would find one forced to slow or stop by traffic and jump in before the driver knew what to do. Sure enough, getting rid of me was more work than most were willing to commit. I would produce a slip of paper with the address printed out in Chinese characters. This was usually met with some form of muttering and/or cursing but generally they got down to business after that.
The day in question was the first I was applying this methodology. After spending a good twenty minutes trying to get a cab the regular way I literally took off running after one at a light and threw myself in. Success! That morning I had asked the concierge to translate the address of the toy store onto one of the hotel’s cards in case the opportunity arose. I now handed the card to the cab driver and off we went.
My destination turned out to be a somewhat anonymous looking block with an assortment of generic looking stores. The description of the store lead me to believe that it wasn’t going to be all that obvious so I wasn’t surprised. I paid the man and hopped out into the hot, humid day. It was broiling, and my straw hat and sunglasses provided scant coverage, as did the sunscreen I had applied earlier. I walked an alleyway to a mews with some private homes. A woman was picking up a pile of trash by her house, a man in an undershirt looked at me inquiringly. Then this pretty little kitty came out to welcome me. He didn’t come all the way over for pets, but we enjoyed a few words and I felt like he was a good sign.
I left the mews and followed the street down aways. The store was said to be across from a popular coffee house according to the article and I saw a coffee shop ahead, about a block away. I headed over, but no toy store and the numbers were wrong. At this point I remembered that the map had indicated that the design and fashion school was located here. I was on what was evidently the urban campus for this school, scattered among design buildings and studios. Then I also remembered that there had been an indication of a building K in the address. I traced the numbers and typed where is building K into my iphone and asked google to translate for a guard. He enjoyed my ingenuity, but just waved in a general direction, useless.
This time I crossed the street and went down and along an old building with a number of early advertising signs on the side; this seemed promising. I entered a covered entry and found myself in a cool dark café, decorated with antique toys! It was lovely, and cool and dark. I quietly took these photos and was shown to a table. At this point I had neither time nor desire for food but I ordered a (warm) beer and happily drank it down. I typed into Google translator – are the toys for sale? Even though I knew the answer, no. I drank and paid for my beer and wandered back out. Frustrated and knowing that with the time it would take to both get a cab and get back to my hotel in traffic I would have to head back shortly.
As I left the building I got a bit more daring. This had been the coffee shop mentioned in the article I was quite sure, not the newer one across the street which I had spied originally. So the toy store was either gone, or I was just missing it. Then I walked into a dark, fairly modern looking building and yes! To my right there was a doorway into a massive space. I had found the toy store at last!
An elderly man sat, drinking tea and talking to some comrades in the middle of the store. He got up to see what I was about. I gestured around me and fluttered my hand on my heart – I am in love with your store! He smiled broadly and gestured to me to have at it and chattered at me. We were sorry not to be able to converse – I can tell he had stories he was itching to tell!
As is the case with such places, much of what he was selling I either owned, was too large to contemplate acquiring or was not necessarily of interest to me, but most of all it felt wonderful to be among all these wonderful old toys! I found a case which contained a wind-up mouse band like mine, and its cousin the Dog Patch wind up band. This was my mother’s favorite toy growing up and I have long been in the market for one for her. This one was actually a fair price, but more than I had in cash at that moment and the idea of either obtaining more cash or trying to negotiate a sale otherwise was beyond me. (Most Chinese establishments are prohibited from taking either American credit cards and it is hard, if not actually illegal, for regular citizens to change American dollars into Chinese RMB.) Therefore, I settled instead on this nice Steiff penguin puppet which caught my eye early on. A pleasant negotiation which took place on dueling cell phones took place. There was a break in the middle so he could show me a giant music machine in action!
The puppet was lovingly photographed by him as a record of the sale and then wrapped up for me. I felt good about having found my way and the nice café, the cat and the store had restored me in some essentially way. Now, I girded myself for my trip back to my hotel.
I went back to the place where the cab had left me earlier. It was by a Holiday Inn, but not one where cabs seemed to congregate or stop. I employed my earlier technique and found myself in a cab a mere few minutes later. However, this cabby was not pleased. He was even less pleased when I handed him the hotel card and asked me to take him there. Now, in all fairness, it may have been confusion about what I was asking him to do, or maybe he really didn’t want to go there. All I can say is he and I more less started a shouting match in our own languages. Clearly he wanted me out of the cab and so I left.
I found the doorman to the hotel and he spoke English. I explained I had been in a cab and he wouldn’t take me when I showed the address. Meanwhile, much to my surprise the cabby was there. A three-way conversation ensued and the cabby and I returned to the car, however I never understood the source of his displeasure.
Off we went, cabby continued to curse and shout. Soon we were in a rush hour traffic jam to end all traffic jams. We drove and drove and I began to worry about making it back to the hotel in time. Then I began to worry about whether or not I was going to the right Marriott hotel (there are several in the this sprawling city) – and then, more or less on cue, it began to rain in a deluge. You-can’t-see-out-the-window rain of biblical proportions. The cabby’s cursing and yelling is now like something out of a cartoon just as the area is finally starting to look familiar. He can’t find the street though and there’s no way I am getting out and walking in this rain! I gesture around the block as if I know what I am talking about. Finally, at long last, my hotel. I paid him with exact change and ran from the car while he yelled at the doorman who wanted him to take another fare!
And that, Pictorama readers, was my toy adventure in Shanghai!