Fiona Reilly is not your average Shanghai expat. In search of a life-less-ordinary, Fiona and family upped sticks from Brisbane and moved to China two years ago and haven't looked back since—it's been a roller coaster of discovery, with travel and food at the forefront of the agenda. Full of wit, a sense of adventure and very big appetite her blog, VPN or proxy in China) takes in the food, the people and the fascinating culture that make up daily life in Shanghai, in all its colorful glory.>>>China Travel: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China?
Fiona: I left Australia and moved to Shanghai in 2009 with my husband and two children, motivated entirely by a sense of adventure. Although we had traveled a great deal and at every opportunity, both before and after our children were born, we had never lived overseas as a family, and China seemed a more interesting destination than pretty much anywhere else on the globe. My husband had been coming to and from China for over a year for work, and told enticingly of Shanghai's energy and vibrancy, and after a while I could no longer resist the pull—I wanted to be part of that excitement.
One of our motivations was the reverse of settling down... to live a riskier life for a while and see what happened. Rewind two years, and back home, our life was comfortable and enjoyable... I was working as an ER specialist in an inner city hospital, Matt was running his own public art business, we had lovely friends, and our children were at a great local school. Most normal people would be very happy with that, but in all honesty it was just a bit too comfortable, a little too pedestrian, and it could quite easily have continued uninterrupted for many years. So clearly, it was time to shake things up a bit.
China Travel: Did you have a blog back home or was it something you started here?
Fiona: I had never written a blog before, but when I came to China I decided I wanted to try and document the incredible and colorful life around me, and I wanted to concentrate on people and food, always so inextricably intertwined in my life. Along the way I rekindled an old passion—photography, and learned to really enjoy writing, and as I wrote I began to understand a little of this intriguing place in which I found myself.
The blog was purely for myself to begin with, and I never really expected anyone to read it, but along the way it has grown into a small window into China for people who, like me, have an interest in Shanghai's food, people, and life on the street.
China Travel: Your blog has a definite food focus—were you as much of a foodie back home and what were your preconceptions of Chinese food?
Fiona: I think I have always been a foodie—I was constantly in trouble as a kid for wanting to order the weirdest thing on the menu, or for cooking something without a recipe, almost always a failure! My only knowledge of Chinese food prior to living in China was via the "Australian Women's Weekly Easy Chinese Cookbook," circa 1982. As a thirteen-year-old I worked through that book from cover to cover, making every single dish, and although back in suburban Australia I thought they were very exotic, I'm sure they wouldn't be recognizable as Chinese food to any actual, real Chinese person.
When I arrived in Shanghai I knew so little about Chinese food, and my initial attempts at Chinese cooking were disastrous, but I became obsessed with learning about it. It has to be the most interesting, historically rich and diverse living cuisine in the world.
China Travel: Imagine it’s your Last Supper—where are you, who is there with you and what are you eating?
Fiona: As well as my nearest and dearest, I would also invite Chairman Mao for a touch of culture, and an Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (1100-400 BC) who, by all accounts, were great food-lovers. While we Europeans were still grubbing around with potatoes and millet three thousand years ago, those Zhou dynasty cooks were writing intricate rules for Imperial cuisine—the Imperial kitchen at that time apparently had 22 departments and 2,300 staff. According to the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, “When the emperor gives a banquet, there must be six cereals and six animals for food, the six clears for drink, 120 delicacies, eight dainties, and 120 urns of sauce.”
So what will we eat? As many of those 120 delicacies as possible before sunrise. I'll let the Emperor's cooks surprise me.
China Travel: Have you had the chance to travel very much in China? Tell us about your best experience so far.
Fiona: We have spent every spare minute seeing as much of China as possible, and traveling by train is by far our favorite way to get around. There's still something very wonderful about long-distance train travel, watching the landscape gradually change as you pass through it, and falling asleep to the rhythmic sound of the wheels on the tracks. I don't recommend hard seat travel though, unless you're a heavy smoker who can sleep sitting up with all the lights on.
I've just returned from the a trip to Yunnan, to trek Guizhou province, the most incredible spectacle of color and celebration I've ever seen. Yunnan has breathtaking natural beauty, but Guizhou is like an untapped treasure within southern China—it has a reputation of being poor, wet, and hilly, and it is all those things, but if there was ever a total contrast to the urban sprawl of Shanghai, Guizhou is it. Tall, emerald hills rise up from meandering riverbeds, cut through with limestone caves and spectacular cliffs. The rivers are lined with small villages, many from the ethnic Miao minority, who love to dance, love to drink mijiu, and love music. The festival, a chance for young Miao women to choose a suitor, was an eye-popping burst of color, silver, ornamentation and exuberance, and coupled with the open hospitality of the Miao people, was an unforgettable experience.
[pullquote]After two hours of driving, we recognized our own house as we drove past it and realized we hadn't even left downtown Shanghai[/pullquote]China Travel: And your worst?
Fiona: On our first weekend in Shanghai, a well-meaning Chinese friend put us on a bus for a day trip to Suzhou at a cost of 1200 yuan each. We were so green, and we didn't want to offend her, but it was hell and re-inforced my loathing of large group travel. After two hours of driving, we recognized our own house as we drove past it and realized we hadn't even left downtown Shanghai. A trip to a silk factory shop was followed by the worst Chinese food I've ever eaten, cooked without care or interest (I mean, I've The Humble Administrators Garden. Hell. Tour bus hell.
China Travel: What are your top 5 recommendations for a first time visitor to Shanghai to get a real feel for the city?
1. All visitors to Shanghai should experience a visit to the Xiao Nan Guo Tang He YuanChinese Bath House (3337 Hongmei Lu, near Yan'an Lu ) for a unique taste of what the locals really get up to in their time off. This is no seedy, darkened den of iniquity either—this is a family night out of foot massages, playing mahjong, and eating dumplings, whilst wearing a Hawaiian mumu. It's not what I imagined a bath house to be, it's much more surreal than that—we take all our visitors there and they leave with their heads spinning, in a good way.
2. I don't know if I should tell you about this, but if you want a really authentic local Shanghai restaurant you'll never forget your meal at Yong Xing. Tucked down an old lane off Fuxing Lu, they only have fifteen seats set up in what looks like someone's living room, and come hairy crab season (autumn) this place is more difficult to get into than The French Laundry. You won't regret it.
3. Spend a night listening to jazz at the the Bund. This is where you go for a night of smoky jazz or soulful blues, sitting at the long wooden bar under the art deco lights, watching the eclectic crowd mix and mingle, and imagining what Shanghai was like in the 1930s. On Sunday nights, jazz musicians from all over Shanghai gather here for an all-out jam session.
4. Get a real feel for Shanghai by eating some Shanghai Yu Gardens are good places for first-time visitors to start, and make sure you find time to sample Shanghai's famous soup-filled dumplings, xiǎolóngbāo.
5. See Shanghai by bicycle. The tree-lined streets of the French Concession and the tiny alleyways of the Old City offer cyclists a side of the city you can't see from a taxi window. Nothing beats the all-out joy of speeding down the plane tree-shaded streets, and through the old lanes, coupled with the slightly visceral fear of riding amongst all that traffic. But once you get used to it, you won't want to travel any other way.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you’d known about China before arriving?
Fiona: I wish I had known that everything, absolutely everything, is negotiable. Vegetables, gym memberships, items with bona fide price tags, everything. I could have saved myself a HUGE amount of money.
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Fiona: I miss the endless blue sky. I really miss being able to joke with people in their own language, because my joking Chinese is at a very, very basic level.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Fiona: I would miss the freedom from expectations I have here. Nothing is impossible, every day seems filled with potential. I often feel like I'm living in a world without rules in Shanghai, and I enjoy that very, very much.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Fiona: LOOKALOOKAWATCHBAGDVDIPHONE!! Is that one word or six?
A big thank you to Fiona for featuring in this week's China Blogger Spotlight--if you'd like to read more about Fiona and her adventures in Shanghai and beyond (she's recently added some more great posts from her trip to Guizhou), then drop by to visit her and her Life on Nanchang Lu.China Blogger Spotlight is a regular column highlighting great China blogs that we think you should know about. If you know of a blog that's got good things to share with other China travelers, be it your own or an RSS essential, let us know by emailing: email@example.com