The next weekend we asked a real estate agent to show us some houses and apartments that weren’t in the shadow of a giant electrical tower.
Little Leo drove Ming, the kids and me to a compound about twenty minutes down the road from One Long Dong Avenue where we were to meet her. We sat idling in the Buick minivan at the entrance gate for a few minutes, and then a taxi pulled up just on time, and out came an attractive young woman. Little Leo opened the sliding electric door.
“Hi, my name is Cindy. It’s very nice to meet you.” she said in quite reasonable English.
She climbed in and we were off.
So much had changed since my first visit to China in the early 90s when it was so difficult for Westerners to find their way on the mainland. English was everywhere now, and just like their compatriots from Hong Kong had done before them, more and more mainland Chinese had taken English names. Even the compound had an English name: Palm Springs.
As we drove through the neighborhood I saw neither palm trees nor springs. It reminded me more of Boca Raton than Palm Springs. In Boca the gated complexes with cookie-cutter houses often had foreign names, like Vista Del Mar, Les Chateaux Elysées, or Maison Derriere. (Okay, I got that one from the Simpsons.) That way old people from Long Island could feel like they were retiring in style. Maybe that was okay in cheesy culture-free Florida, but this was China, which had five thousand years of rich history to draw upon.
“Palm Springs?” I muttered sarcastically to Ming as we entered the house.
“Try to forget about the name and think about the house,” Ming said.
There she went again, being rational while I was trying to approach things from an entirely emotional perspective. Women.
As we got out of the van, Ike, my 4-year-old son, got diverted by a green plastic see-saw in the shape of a fish in the neighbor’s yard.
“I want to live here,” he said.
I bet Cindy wished all her customers were this easy to close on.
“Ike! We haven’t even gone inside yet,” Mayla, my 6-year old daughter, said.
“But I don’t want to go inside. I want to play here,” Ike went on.
“Ike, we have to go inside,” Ming said. “We have to make sure we like it.”
“Why?” Ike asked.
“So your dad doesn’t make us move again.”
“Why?” Mayla asked.
“Because we don’t want to keep moving,” Ming said.
“Why?” Ike said.
“How about we play a game,” I said. “Let’s see which kid can be quiet the longest. Ready? Go!”
For the next 10 seconds, the kids were totally silent.
The owner greeted us at the front door. He was a Chinese guy in his mid-thirties. In case that isn’t enough to draw a picture of him, let me add this detail: he had black hair. Does that help?
The home was done up with an elegant American southwest motif. The bedrooms were spacious. The bathrooms were modern. The living room and dining room were stylish.
While Cindy was out of earshot Ming said to me, “This house is really nice.”
I couldn’t disagree. The place wasn’t bad at all. But in the interest of being a sarcastic pain in the ass I said, “Yes, I’ve always wanted to live in Santa Fe.”
Ming laughed. Whether she was laughing at me or with me is a matter of judgment.
I really did want to know why they had chosen the southwestern American motif. I’d seen this Chinese habit of imitation before on a smaller scale: designer jeans, knock-off golf clubs, and my favorite: fake antibiotics. But this was a whole neighborhood! It struck me as absurd. If I were to move to New Mexico, would I want to live in a Chinese pagoda?
In the basement, the owner stopped at an amazingly elaborate contraption with a maze of dials, switches, electronic displays, and several pipes coming out of it.
“Cool!” Ike said, “A spaceship!”
“Spaceships don’t have so many parts,” I said.
“This is the whole house water filter,” the Chinese guy with black hair said, pointing to the left half of the unit. “It’s for the heavy metals in the water.”
“And this,” he went on, now aiming at the right side of the unit, “will make the water softer.”
“So you can drink this water directly now?” I asked.
“Oh no, better to drink the bottled water. But this is good for laundry.”
Great, I thought, wondering what could be in the water to make it unsuitable for washing clothes.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Mayla announced.
“Oh, of course,” the homeowner said, pointing her to a door down the hall.
For the first time in my life I wanted to tell her not to wash her hands when she was done.
We thanked the Chinese guy with black hair and drove on to another compound down the road.
“This is the Hollywood celebrities’ villa,” Cindy said as we entered the complex.
“Hmm?” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“This compound is Golden Oscar. It is the Oscar villa.”
I still had no idea what she was talking about.
“The prize of the famous movies,” she said.
I stared at her like a dog watching TV.
“Are we going to the movies?” Ike asked hopefully.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Who’s Oscar?” Mayla said.
“Oscar the Grouch?” asked Ike. I wasn’t aware that he was watching Sesame Street.
“So this housing complex has been named after the American movie award, the Oscar?” Ming said.
“Yes, Golden Oscar, just like in Hollywood,” Cindy said.
“Oh, right, of course!” I now understood enough to continue with my sarcasm. “Do they sell maps to the stars’ houses?”
Ming laughed and Cindy politely giggled along with her, then said, “Yes, of course, a map,” and handed me a generic map of Shanghai with her company’s logo on it.
As we drove through Golden Oscar, I kept an eager eye out for some references to Hollywood. Perhaps some busts of famous actors, a little imitation memorabilia, or maybe a small version of the Hollywood sign leaning up against a mound of dirt. But there were none that I could see. No Walk of Fame, no movie stars, no Oscar statuettes, nothing. How could they invoke Hollywood and have none of these things? There weren’t even any losers pretending to be producers. You call this Hollywood? No way.
We looked at a few houses. They were decent but unremarkable. I was having trouble getting past the Chinese marketing strategy of using just the name of a famous place, and having no follow-through. Golden Oscar was like a theme park but the theme was only in the brochure. I decided to explore the topic a bit with Cindy.
“Is Golden Oscar supposed to be like Beverly Hills?”
“Oh, Beverly Hills. You want to go to Beverly Hills? We go there next,” Cindy said excitedly.
I was sorry I asked.
We saw a few more houses in Golden Oscar, and then made our way to Beverly Hills.
As I might have guessed, Beverly Hills was neither hilly nor “Beverly-ish.” While there was nothing particularly wrong with these houses, there was nothing special about them either. They were all right next to one another, and could have passed for any non-descript development in America.
Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that if these houses were truly on the scale of the real Beverly Hills, they would be way out of our league. These were among the nicest places to live in Shanghai – perhaps even in China – but they didn’t begin to mirror what real wealth could buy in America.
This is perhaps what I found annoying. I was looking for a comfortable house with an Asian style, something that would embody the best characteristics of my new environment. Instead, I was finding silly imitations of the world I left behind. In fact, the whole notion of a “Beverly Hills” in Shanghai seemed so phony that it made me feel as if I were on a bus tour through a Hollywood back lot. Unfortunately no one yelled “cut!”
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Chinese real estate industry was onto something. I wondered if I could rent my house back home for more money if I called it the Heavenly Palace. I could then name the backyard fence the Great Wall of China. It was worth a shot. Maybe a Chinese family would be interested.
The Beverly Hills house was short a bedroom, so we moved on.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur of compounds with more aspirational names. Green Hills was neither green nor hilly and had a funny smell to it. A better name would have been Sulfur Plains. Vizcaya was a Spanish-themed compound that did actually hint of the original in Miami, but didn’t include the elaborate gardens. In fact, the houses there didn’t have backyards at all. Since I was foolish enough to ship our patio furniture from New York, that just wouldn’t do. Buckingham Villa had potential until I learned that half of the houses in the complex were uninhabited, apparently due to mold. And besides, it was too far from the school. Pasadena didn’t seem at all Californian to me. Seasons Villa was interesting in that it used to be called Four Seasons Villa. But when the famous hotel chain complained, they changed the English name to Seasons Villa, although they continued calling it Four Seasons Villa in Chinese. If they had called it “Trademark Infringement Villa,” I would seriously have considered moving there.
The problem I had with these places was that they were pretending to be something they weren’t. They were trying to bask in the glory of some distant greatness but barely made an attempt to capture the style. Worse still, there wasn’t a single iota of Chinese-ness in any of these places. The developers were overlooking the most obvious selling point: traditional Chinese architecture is cool. China has an admiration for western-style living that borders on obsession. Worse still, they seem to be rejecting their own culture and traditions. I found it a little unsettling.
Imagine the opposite: Would we tear down pre-war buildings on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to build something called the Great Wall Tower and Gardens? Would Parisians abandon French architecture in favor of traditional Chinese lane houses with names like Ville Tiananmen? What’s wrong with China’s sense of self that is causing it to discard its past?
Cindy was doing her best to help. There just didn’t seem to be anything available that was a good fit. I wondered if we’d been clear about what exactly it was that we were looking for.
“Cindy, don’t any of these places have a Chinese style to them?” I asked.
“Oh, you don’t want to live like Chinese. You would not be comfortable.”
Ming then said something to Cindy in Chinese that I didn’t quite catch. So much for all those years studying Mandarin.
“Ahh, there is one. I will take you to the Dong Jiao State Guest House.”
“Dong Jiao” – now that is clearly Chinese. It means “Eastern Suburbs”. And “State Guest House” sounds diplomatic. I had a good feeling about this one. And “Dong” would remain in my address. That could only be a good thing.
As we drove past the guard gate, we were surrounded by elaborate Chinese-style grounds. It was an enormous buffer zone of well cared for gardens. Elegant bridges with an oriental motif crisscrossed a network of meandering streams. A few pagodas dotted the landscape. For the first time all day, I felt like I was in Asia. Now this is what I had in mind.
“This property used to be for guests of state when they were on official business in Shanghai,” Cindy said.
“Really?” I perked up.
“Yes, in fact, the son of Jiang Zhemin, China’s former president, used to stay at this property when he visited Shanghai. This area has the best air in the whole city, so this is why he liked to stay here.”
This place was getting better and better! Finally I would get to see traditional Chinese architecture. And if it was good enough for Chinese dignitaries, how could it not be good enough for me?
We drove toward the far end of the gardens. I imagined the oriental houses with upturned roofs that would be just around the corner. My Blackberry beeped and I turned my attention to it for a few seconds. When I looked up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. We had gone past the Chinese gardens and were now surrounded by houses. Each had a driveway and garage. Several had porches. A few had basketball hoops in the front. All had post-mounted mailboxes. Where were we? Ohio? Wisconsin? North Carolina? It was impossible to know.
As we pulled up to a house, I noticed the words “U.S. Mail” on the mailbox. What was going on? Had we slipped through a portal of time and space while I was checking a text message? Or was I suffering from a rare form of homesickness that made my brain transform my surroundings into the familiar?
I got out of the car to take a closer look at the mailbox. It was plastic. And not only did it say “U.S. Mail” but it also said “Approved by the Postmaster General.” What a colossal let down! In addition to there being no Chinese feel to this neighborhood, now my mail would be delayed, delivered to neighbors, or lost altogether!
“Do you think the Postmaster General knows about this?” I asked Ming.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you a brush and you can paint over it,” she said, again being rational.
Inside the house, it was even worse. Cheap-looking American furniture. Think Rent-a-Center. 90s era all-white run-of-the-mill GE washer, dryer, refrigerator and an electric range. Was this really where China’s president’s son used to stay? In an American style house with crappy furnishings, cheap appliances and a USPS mailbox? I would have been ecstatic if I were the victim of the Chinese knockoff of Candid Camera, and I half expected a Chinese version of Allen Funt to spring up and point out the hidden cameras.
Had Jiang Zhemin’s son been through the same frustrating ordeal and settled for this? Maybe this seemed exotic and different to him. Was this the best there was out there?
“I’m tired of looking at houses. This is boring,” Mayla said.
“I want to see the movie now,” Ike said.
“Don’t worry, this is the last house,” Ming said. “Then Daddy and I will let you choose the best one.”
At least this place had the cleanest air in Shanghai. That was worth a lot to me. My children’s health was the top priority. Maybe that’s what it all came down to – even Jiang Zhemin’s son was just looking for some fresh air. Was it that simple? Or maybe he didn’t know zip+4 was bullshit. It was a shame we couldn’t get him on the phone.
“Can we get the one with the spaceship?” Ike asked.
“No, Ike,” I said, “the spaceship house is too far from the school.”
Ike had stumped me again.
I was ready for a drink.