Some of these things are not like the others: a bit of compare and contrast

Living in Shanghai can feel a bit “other worldly” at times and that really hit home about a week and a half ago when we got our weekly mail packet from Corning. Our good friend Kelly, who collects our mail, doesn’t just send us mail in a plain gray envelope, but beautifully decorates it every week with flowers and cartoons.

That week’s envelope was a huge tree with orange, yellow and brown leaves and pumpkins hanging off it’s branches. It hit me like a ton of bricks–it’s Fall in the US! And then this morning I saw pictures on Facebook of snow on the Gerth’s back deck—snow!

It is so not Fall here you wouldn’t believe it.

I saw these flower boxes being dug up and replanted about 2 weeks ago.

This is the first week the weather has been below 70 during the day. In fact the trip I’ll be telling you about was the first time I’ve had the need to wear a coat and felt cold. But it was nice again the next day. The sky and air have had a very spring-like feel to it, rather than a fall-like feel.

Nary an orange, yellow or brown leaf in sight

It’s all a matter of perspective though. My Chinese teacher and the woman from England in my class think it’s really cold already. It will get cold and rainy here eventually but for the moment, I rather like being able to walk outside without a coat, a couple days before Halloween–and not being bombarded by tacky Halloween stuff everywhere I look.

Anyway, on Tuesday I went to the countryside about an hour south of Shanghai to a French restaurant. Kind of odd, right? So there’s a good story behind this restaurant.

A very rich businessman from Hong Kong liked to vacation in Shanghai and he and his driver were driving around the country side looking for a place where he might build a vacation home. In the distance in the middle of a rice field he spotted a big beautiful tree and he said, “That’s it, that’s where I want to build my house.”

So he scoured China for antiquities with which to build his home, he hired gardeners to plant the gardens, and he hired a French chef to cook for him as well as someone to raise geese because he loves fois gras.

He spent 5 years building his estate. This home now has a full staff to manage the gardens, as well as the vegetable gardens for the restaurant, a full time chef and staff for the restaurant, plus all the other people that are required to keep a large place like this running.

All for one week a year.

Yes, he only comes one time a year during Chinese New Year.

Because when you’re uber rich, apparently you can do that sort of thing.

The restaurant only opens up the rest of the year if you make an appointment–maybe the chef cooks for the employees the rest of the time?

The village surrounding the estate

More village

An apartment block with rice fields in the distance

Pretty little house

Gotta have a canal!

The long road through town--made of concrete!

This is a memorial stone one of the villagers had placed on the property before Mr. Hong Kong bought it. Chinese villagers typically do not have cemeteries (they just use their own back yards), but they will put up a memorial stone like this at some place in the village to remember their loved ones

Chinese car port

These were the first field hands we saw. Note the smiles and waves. If this was a novel, this picture would be the foreshadowing.

Aren't these the prettiest, most perfect chickens you have ever seen?

That's because they have such a beautiful chicken coop

The stone carving is one of the antique pieces that Mr. Hong Kong owns

The view from the tea house. There were many bonsai trees throughout the grounds, tended by a special bonsai gardener

The tea house, built from antiques

geese, of dinners to come

A pagoda

Remember in an earlier post I talked about white rocks being a status symbol? This place was positively lousy with them.

Another antiquity (I'm not talking about Anneliese)

When you're really rich and you have a lot of lawn you can buy the big objets d'art.

This is the court yard of the guest house. The square pool in the center was placed there according to the principles of feng shui because water in such a position draws in money

This was the biggest bedroom in the guest house, so we think this was Mr. Honk Kong's bedroom. All the rooms were equipped with flat screen tv's.

This was our guide who was hired away from the famous Shangri La restaurant (Ok, I'd never heard of it before Tuesday, myself). A driver brings her to work everyday. For some reason she was Ms. Frowny McGrumpypants on Tuesday and zipped us around the estate at breakneck speed. We think she was cold. Or had just broken up with her boyfriend.

Elsewhere on the grounds, gardeners were busy planting about 6 of these very heavy cherry trees. (We were first drawn there by all the grunting!) We were all quite curious as to why they were being planted nearly on top of the ground, with dirt mounded up around them, but we never got an answer to our question.

If you don't plant a tree in a hole, somebody's got to hold it up until you anchor it with some dirt.

These are two of the antique carved doors you see going in to the restaurant

Detail of a door. It is totally intact with all of its heads and leaves. Many of these doors were either destroyed or cemented over during the cultural revolution because their carvings told myths and stories that were considered ideologically unacceptable

The restaurant

Our table, all ready for us

The painting of sunflowers over the table

The first course: cold fois gras with apples and salad

The second course: Duck leg with vegetables and mashed potatoes

The third course: Tiramasu

Cooking demo: pan searing fois gras. Definitely the way to eat it.

I’m afraid the dinner didn’t really meet expectations. Everyone I spoke to agreed. It was all very edible, but certainly if you’ve ever been to France or even a good French restaurant any where else (the one in Kyoto wasn’t the most fabulous place ever, but it was still pretty good and better than this one) you’d say this was pretty mediocre. For instance the tiramisu resembled custard, not tiramisu, the potatoes were cold and the sauces were all very strong, not at all subtle like a good French sauce.

This is Wendy Knott's double. She's one of my Woolyminded book group and knitting friends. Every time Swedish comes out of her mouth I do a double take!

Unusual chandelier in the dining room

Just missed a big wave and a toothless grin from this lady

This is her chicken coop. A little different from Mr. Hong Kong's, huh?

And her ducks (right? not geese?). They repeatedly paced back and forth across an 8 foot path. Don't know if that is typical duck behavior, but it was kind of mesmerizing to watch.

One of the local gardens. That's a pretty impressive cabbage patch!

Back on the farm. Piles of green waste were being carted away all over the farm.

These were the greenhouses for the organic farm that supply the vegetables for the restaurant

Inside the greenhouses--they were huge!

Swallowed by killer cucumbers

Purple asparagus land

These ladies sealed the deal. Every employee we came across seemed ecstatically happy (except for Ms. Grumpypants). Either Mr. Hong Kong treats his employees incredibly well, or he's putting something in the water. Somebody get Ms. Grumpypants a drink.

A huge harvest of radishes. There were also equal piles of purple potatoes and carrots and other vegetables we could buy as well as the ones we were allowed to pick in the green houses, all for 4rmb/jin or 65cents per pound

Radish on steroids! I bought some and sliced them and braised them in chicken stock. They were yummy.

This is one of those 1500 varieties of bamboo. I bought some, but we haven't eaten it yet. I'll let you know what it's like when we do.

One of our group playing around with the employees' hats

Using the trees as a coat rack

More happy employees lugging away green stuff. They do it by hand so they don't ruin the bricks

The man on the right is the head gardener. He grew up in the village. The other man was working in the cement ditch in the background and found the big hairy crab you can see in the wheelbarrow. He was planning on having it for dinner

This is one of the Mr. Hong Kong's rice fields, a new venture of his. I'm hoping to attend the rice harvest in a couple of weeks

Rice, up close and personal. It has to get more golden colored before it is harvested

Mr. Hong Kong is also trying his hand at cotton

Some of the cotton they've harvested. There were three piles. About enough for one sock, I would think

We came across these old buildings as we were walking back towards the village. If you look closely you can see a foam banana hanging off the right side of the roof. It made me wonder, "huh, why would a foam banana be hanging all the way up there?" Think about it.

This was the house the previous building and foam banana belonged to. Impressively large.

Another large house in the village. We were told that existing houses are covered with the tiles you see here--kind of like Chinese aluminum siding--really improves the look of the house

Last stop was a tour of this exceedingly happy man's house, which at 80 years, is the oldest house in the village.

Normally the man and all his children and their families would live in the house, but everyone has moved to the Shanghai to live because they can make so much more money there. However this man works on the farm for Mr. Hong Kong and he loves it so much he doesn’t want to move. So, his family comes to visit him every Sunday. That includes his wife who lives in Shanghai with his son and takes care of the grandchild.

I think Mr. Hong Kong needs to write a book. “Making Your Employees Rapturously Happy, for Dummies”

His son's room when he comes to visit. Perhaps the mound on the bed was the man's way of cleaning up quickly--"If I pile all this stuff on the bed and cover it with a sheet, nobody will notice it, right?" Or else it was dead bodies.

Furniture he and his wife got when they were married (sorry so blurry)

This was his mother's

The kitchen. I'm thinking I'd probably renovate the kitchen if I bought this house. Wood fired stoves aren't quite my thing.

Back entrance into the kitchen

His back garden. He gave all of us oranges from his tree.

The back of the house. You can see how huge this place is. Clearly they were well-to-do.

It was another interesting trip and a study in contrasts between those who have so much and those who don’t. What I found interesting about Mr. Hong Kong’s guest house and restaurant, though, is that for all his purported wealth, it was really quite modest. The bathrooms were small, the rooms were minimally furnished and frankly it didn’t seem all that pleasant. When I imagine what a similar person’s guest house might be elsewhere in the world I think of marble tubs and gold faucets and velvet curtains. This man had spent his money on some antiques, and then hobbies like organic gardening and rice farming and French food, that required people’s help, but not on exorbitant, flashy, showy, sparkly bobbles. So yes, in one respect this place that is only used once a year seems excessive, but when I see all the people he’s employed who seem so happy and contented (unless they were all in on a conspiracy to fool the foreigners), I can’t really fault him his excess.

Elevator flowers

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About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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3 Responses to Some of these things are not like the others: a bit of compare and contrast

  1. Honored to have made the blog 🙂
    Absoutely loved the picture of grumpy guide…made for a belly laugh…gotta love those!!! Also I loved the chickens, they are beautiful creatures, especially THOSE.

    • Actually, I’d love to post a picture of your envelopes if you wouldn’t mind!? I was surprised I’d gotten the picture of the guide looking so grumpy actually. I don’t usually wear my glasses to take pictures and am just shooting blind, so I have no idea what I have taken until I see them on the computer. I’d just put my camera up real quick to get a picture of her to document who she was and got lucky.

  2. Debbie barner says:

    So enjoyed my trip( vicariously) with you. I loved the picture of the sunflowers, I also thought the chickens were beautiful, and they reminded me of the chickens in Kauai.
    I have to say I tried my hand at growing cotton this year and my harvest was not nearly as productive. I can’t even make a part of a sock. it was interesting to see it grow.
    I find it interesting to see how different people’s perspective is. nice blog!

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