Sunday, September 28, 2008

Taxi Hell in Shanghai

When traveling, you know you're signing up for at least one Stupid Tourist Moment. And this has obviously and abundantly happened to me, still new to my new life in China. You know--you get overcharged for a purchase. (Check!) Or served a mystery soup you didn't order. (Yup, check!) Or taken for a ride. Literally, the latter happened to me today. As cheeky as I'm being right now, it took me two hours to stop shaking...

So imagine me, loaded down with my daughter's (heavy) guitar from her lesson and our groceries, son on one side, daughter on the other. As I shuffle down the busy avenue toward the subway station, bashing people in the side with the guitar case, I thought to myself: I don't think I can get on the subway and then walk half an hour home with all this stuff. So: taxi.

Mistake! MISTAKE!!! The driver literally took us for a looooong, circuitous route. Granted, I recognize that my Mandarin is woefully inadequate. However--none of the other taxi drivers I've met in China have had a problem with my directions. At last, we arrive at the entrance of our housing complex. I told the driver what I was going to pay--not what was on the meter, thank you.


Can you believe this?!

I was freaking out. Thankfully, I knew enough Mandarin to threaten the driver that I was going to report him. Important words, memorize them NOW if you are coming to China: Wo yao da dianhua ni de gongsi! (I'm sure the grammar is wrong, but it got the point across.)

So Stupid Taxi Driver backed down, unlocked the doors, stopped at a main thoroughfare, told me he didn't want my money. The thing is: I want to pay what's fair; nothing more, nothing less. I threw money at him, unlocked our doors, snapped at my kids: OUT! NOW! And then I ripped off the receipt so that I had his driver's license number.

Learning #1: In Shanghai, take the turqoise cabs. Do NOT take the navy blue or red ones. Do NOT. Are you listening to me? Do NOT.

Oh, sheesh, I'm still shaking from the experience. (Bu hao!!) So I will now immerse myself in Happy Thoughts of the beginning of the weekend. Our good friends, Stacey and Rich, cooked dinner to celebrate my hubby's birthday. My job was to bring cake. (Note: bring, not bake. They know my cooking.) So I researched the best dessert shop--the House of Flour--and brought a rocking chocolate cake. The best I've tasted!

Yesterday was our Family Adventure Day--our weekly date to explore a new part of the city. I picked up Tess Johnson's book with 6 different walks in Shanghai for my hubby's birthday and encourage you to look at this website for more info about the book.

We took the Yuyuan Lu walk and meandered through lovely, historic neighborhoods (or lilongs) built in the 1920s and 30s.

What surprised us most were all the gorgeous, western style homes tucked down narrow, winding alleys where laundry flew like multi-colored banners from windows. Turn a corner, and there are Tudor and Georgian and Italianate villas...

Can you spot the laundry hanging out in front of this mansion? The original owners would be having a fit, I'm sure. The best surprise for me, personally, was coming to a deadend in a lilong to discover the new overseas studies center for Pepperdine University!

That thrilled me because over at readergirlz, we've been reading Paula Yoo's Good Enough about the pressures of getting into college. Overseas campuses like this are one of the wonderful opportunities that are afforded at college. And I hope all my teen readers take this to heart: if you have a chance to study abroad, go for it. Just look at this piece of paradise Pepperdine has created for the 40 students who are studying in Shanghai. Imagine yourself there. I'm thinking about approaching the center director to offer to do a one-night seminar on creative writing just so I get a chance to go inside...
I loved peering into courtyards within these lilongs--and at the beautiful gardens some of the residents created for themselves. A spot of quiet in the middle of a big, bustling city.

That's necessary because one step outside of these narrow lanes, and it's back to modern Shanghai where there are no rules in traffic. (Or apparently in taxi driving! See! I haven't recovered yet! My kids are I were kidnapped! Ack!)

Back to happy thoughts... Walk finished, we embarked to the boondocks of Shanghai: the Minhang District. Last week, I was panic-shopping for my husband's birthday (note: shopping isn't my favorite activity and he's hard to shop for; and I was writing instead)...when I happened on a beautiful furniture boutique: Ancient and Modern Furniture Design. The designer is from Taiwan, and has residences in Shanghai, Taipei, and New York. He's been featured in the Wall Street Journal and won the Elle Decor design award in 2007.
Anyhow, I was chatting with the storekeeper (See, Stupid Taxi Driver! I can converse somewhat!), getting the scoop on Chinese joinery and padded bras (if you must ask, you are clearly not a girl. We women have the truly fantastic ability to bounce all over the conversational plane and still make sense to each other).

Anyway, she invited me to a private party for the designer's major collectors in Shanghai, complete with traditional music and delicious eats. Best of all, the party has being held in the designer's showroom, created to look like an old Suzhou garden home...

It felt like I had stepped inside my second novel, GIRL OVERBOARD, because Syrah lived in a Chinese garden...just like this...

Syrah's personal art pavilion was somewhat like this one that the designer built for himself...

And there was even the bed that Syrah slept in... Just imagine silk curtains swathing the bed, and you've got Syrah's digs...

And then the truly remarkable part of the weekend was meeting up with our friends, David and Jen Risher, who are traveling around the world this year with their two girls. Around the world, folks! From Dubai to Shanghai, Vietnam to Sydney. This after living in Barcelona for four years. Ever since working with the two at Microsoft and then watching David's meteoric soar at Amazon as a much-beloved senior VP, I always find the Rishers super inspirational, especially their philanthropy. They and their kids spent two weeks in Xi'an, not looking at the terracotta warriors, but teaching English to children at a local elementary school in the country.

And that, folks, is namaste. For every unscrupulous person you encounter, there are fourfold who are all heart.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Toto, We're Not in Kansas Anymore...

All has been quiet on the Justina front because I have reentered the looong, dark cave that is called Novel Revision. At home for most of the week, I've been journaling away on my fantasy series, filling an entire notebook in five days with plot ideas and setting thoughts and character motivations. The one and only good thing about having my husband away on a business trip (to Australia this time) is that I can work guilt-free until midnight and then wake at 4:00 a.m. to write!

I realized it was time to engage in society when I knocked over a water glass absolutely freaked out. Thankfully, it wasn't because of the sheer amount of work I have to do on this revision, which is rather frightening. But no, the broken water glassis the result of the writer-scaringly loud cracking of fireworks.

A new neighbor moved in across the street, but before a single box could be carried over the threshold, firecrackers were lit. Proof: do you see the smoke? Would you like to see the remains of my cup?

From what I gather about this Chinese tradition, new homes and new marriages are celebrated with firecrackers, which are meant to scare away evil spirits. We bring over a plate of freshly baked cookies to new neighbors and shower rose petals on happy newlyweds in the U.S.; the Chinese use firecrackers. I love that.

Anyway, the men who set off the firecrackers stared at me as though I were a crazy woman when I ran out of my house with my camera. But come on, I had to take a picture of the remains. This is just one more example that underscores what I've learned over these last 5 weeks: Toto, we're not in Kansas (or Seattle) anymore...

Just consider this.

1. The line separating Dinner from Pet is a very slim one. In fact, an almost indistinguishable one. In fact, one that is so insubstantial that I worry that mistakes are frequently made.

Test: which is FOOD? Which is NOT?
2. Popping out for an errand or a lunch or an interview is an all-day adventure. Any trip in Shanghai basically entails a one-hour drive each way. Honestly. So if you're able to do two errands in a day, you are superwoman.

Sitting in traffic is actually a godsend. I have decided to use my commute time as my Mandarin practice time. So that means two hours of practice a day if I venture out. And it means getting to see new areas in town like Zhibei where I finally got to meet one of the women who eased my transition to China.

Meet Emily, wonderful blogger, fellow geocacher, and all-around-girl-in-the-know (even if her passport called her a "trailing spouse" when she had a very nice career in Shanghai, thank you very much). Anyhow, Emily is the one who told me about fantastic podcast with Mandarin lessons and insights into Chinese culture. Hailing from a small town in South Dakota with just 800 residents, she's come a loooong way from home. Thank goodness for me. While still in Seattle, I became a devotee of Emily's blog on her life in Shanghai. So I contacted her with a ton of questions. She answered them ALL.
I really respect Emily for leaving the known and creating a home in a place that is wholly different from South Dakota.
3. There are sensational restaurants in Shanghai with amazing design that rivals anything in the world. Like the one my son and I discovered on our recent Adventure Day when he had a day off school. Bull Noodle, a brand new Taiwanese noodle shop in the French Concession that offers just 5 dishes on the menu, all noodles, including my favorite ultra spicy beef ones that my mom used to make. All of them are 18 RMB (which is under $3 a serving!). And then there are the shopping enclaves in the French Concession like Ferguson Lane or here in Le Passage Fuxing (#299 Fuxing Xi Lu)where you really could be in Paris. Yet just out the door of all these swanky places is China in all its bamboo scaffolding glory.

Now, this is something you don't see walking down Main Street, USA.

3. You can have anything you want made and customized here in China. Even an Olympics mascot costume for your child's Halloween costume. Here is the amazing tailor, Wong Tai Tai (Mrs. Wong), with the hat that she made to complete my daughter's costume. She even makes house calls. Now, when have you ever seen that in the U.S.?

5. And then, of course, there are the bathrooms with their squat toilets. And the fact that you must be your own mobile sanitary station since many bathrooms are not equipped in the dispensing deparment, either for toilet paper or soap. But what makes me realize I'm really not in the U.S.? The signs.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Shanghai | turnSTYLE: Xiaojing Huang, Design Diva

turn·stile –noun1. a structure of four horizontally revolving arms pivoted atop a post and set in a gateway or opening in a fence to allow the controlled passage of people.

turn·STYLE - noun1. Justina's snapshot profiles of cool people in Shanghai who are creating and defining China style.

After this most current food scandal in China--melamine in milk!--I am despairing over humanity and integrity. Honestly. What kind of people would poison milk for babies? Children are every country's treasure. So to be so premeditated in contaminating the milk has got to be the lowest of the low. I think the Chinese expression for evil people is right: those milk producers are hei xin, or dark hearts.

That's why I have to hang my hope for humanity in general and for China in particular on good people like hip and forward-thinking product designer, Xiaojing Huang, executive manager for Y-Townwhose mission is to create products that are useful and beautiful. We met last week over crepes and chocolate decadence (and egads! melamined milk in our coffees!) to talk over the current state of design in China. Of course, we also talked shop about creativity--what drives us both to create and how that need isn't tied to profit margins.

Two other designers work with Xiaojing at Y-Town. The name of their company comes from waitan (the Bund) in Mandarin. (The Bund is the strand of stately buildings that line the Huangpu River in Shanghai.) What a perfect metaphor for this product design team, which mixes the east and west in its eclectic design mentality--much like the Bund with its collection of Chinese and Western architecture.
According to Xiaojing, "Design in China is still beginning. The young generation is tearing things apart." That's how Xiaojing gets many of her ideas: tearing apart the old. Like trolling old watch stores, buying the designs she likes, and then dismantling them. Destroying them to create something different, something that is uniquely hers.
I think that philosophy of tearing apart and making new is most evident in Y-Town's recycling project. Worried about the waste the world is producing, Xiaojing and team created a new design imperative for themselves: to experiment with old, discarded local materials such as these computer chips and motherboards
and to reconfigure them into something wholly different. Modern. Beautiful. And useful:

What was destined for the dump is now funky jewelry. This exercise of reusing materials forces the team to look at everything with a completely open and playful attitude. As a writer, this recycling mentality appeals to me--perhaps because I like the idea of recycling ideas that I've labored over...and can't use because of plotting or pacing or whatever. A number of my writer-buddies and I create "dumping ground" files for passages and chapters we love but have had to cut from our novels.

Anyway, if Y-Town is able to turn outdated posters for art exhibits into must-have purses, then I can't wait to see what they can do with these raw materials:

(Note: I showed this picture to my kids and told them all about Xiaojing. They peered at this picture and came up with a dozen product ideas. What if we all did this with the things that we unthinkingly toss into the garbage?)

Y-Town's playful utilitarianism is at its best in their design for Absolut Vodka: a tote container that doubles as a lantern (care of a battery insert)!

Here's the demolition room with their collected fodder that spurs ideas. I will bet anything that one day soon, we'll see the products that come out of this room in our own homes.

To ideas and people with good hearts who just want to make our world a more beautiful place.

Friday, September 19, 2008

readergirlz around the world!

Other than writing and procrastinating (I mean, researching) in Shanghai, I also happen to be one of the co-founders of readergirlz, the leading online book community for teens! Along with my divas divine--Lorie Ann Grover, Dia Calhoun, and Mitali Perkins (all fellow award-winning YA authors)--we've spent the last 18 months or so creating fun literacy programs to promote more teen reading!
Here's what we've cooked up next:

More than a dozen authors to converge on rgz forum to chat with ravenous teen readers

Sept. 18, 2008 (Seattle, Wash.) – In celebration of Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Teen Reed Week™, readergirlz (rgz) is excited to present Night Bites, a series of online live chats with an epic lineup of published authors. The chats will take place at the rgz forum, Oct. 13-17, 2008.

Playing off of YALSA’s theme of “Books with Bite,” Night Bites will feature five themed chats designed to appeal to an array of literary tastes. Sure to suck in even the most reluctant teen readers, the complete Night Bites schedule is as follows:

Monday, Oct. 13: Multicultural Bites with authors Coe Booth (TYRELL), An Na (THE FOLD), and rgz diva Mitali Perkins (SECRET KEEPER)

Tuesday, Oct. 14: Verse Bites with rgz diva Lorie Ann Grover (ON POINTE), Stephanie Hemphill (YOUR OWN SYLVIA), and Lisa Ann Sandell (SONG OF THE SPARROW)

Wednesday, Oct. 15: Contemporary Bites with Ally Carter (CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO SPY), rgz diva Justina Chen Headley (NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL), and Maureen Johnson (SUITE SCARLETT)

Thursday, Oct. 16: Fantasy Bites with Holly Black and Ted Naifeh (THE GOOD NEIGHBORS), rgz diva Dia Calhoun (AVIELLE OF RHIA), and Tamora Pierce (MELTING STONES)

Friday, Oct. 17: Gothic Bites with Holly Cupala (A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT), Christopher Golden (SOULLESS), Annette Curtis Klause (BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE), and Mari Mancusi (BOYS THAT BITE).

It all happens at the rgz forum ( beginning at 6 p.m. Pacific Time (9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 9 a.m. Justina in China Time!), Oct. 13-17.

Watch the Night Bites video at
Click on: or watch it here (with a huge shout out to Holly Cupala for her brilliant cinematographic skills):

About readergirlz
readergirlz is the foremost online book community for teen girls, led by five critically acclaimed YA authors—Dia Calhoun (Avielle of Rhia), Lorie Ann Grover (On Pointe), Justina Chen Headley (Girl Overboard), and Mitali Perkins (First Daughter: White House Rules). readergirlz is the recipient of a 2007 James Patterson PageTurner Award.

To promote teen literacy and leadership in girls, readergirlz features a different YA novel and corresponding community service project every month. For more information about readergirlz, please visit and, or contact

For more than 50 years, YALSA has been the world leader in selecting books, films and audiobooks for teens. For more information about YALSA or for lists of recommended reading, viewing and listening, go to

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Inspirations Abound

These last couple of mornings, I've been getting up around 4:00 a.m., my mind already working over the revision for my next novel. This way I can sneak in two hours of work before the family wakes (or rather, I wake them). I received the most amazing notes on the first draft of a YA fantasy series I've been writing--fifteen pages of insight and questions, challenges and suggestions. Ever since reading the critique, I've being going to bed lost and waking with new directions.

To be honest, all of this brainstorming made me too tired to make it to the famous Shanghai Biennale contemporary art festival this last weekend. I wish I had; I heard it was awesome.
Not to worry. I've been having my own Biennale celebration...
After writing and thinking all day Tuesday and most of Wednesday, I hit Red Town in the afternoon to interview Xiaojing Huang, a very talented product designer with the hip design group, Y-Town. (More on XJ and Y-Town soon.) Without even knowing it, she gave me a ton of new ideas for my novel. (Hopefully, you'll read them in two years if my series sells!)
Anyway, Red Town is yet another artists' enclave in Shanghai. Once a steel mill, it was rehabbed two years ago into a fantastic showcase for sculptures,
both indoors and out. This was one of my favorites, a fu lion like the two protecting our home in Seattle. Its paw lies atop a roll of newspaper, protecting the words. Or at least, that's how I'm interpreting this piece of art.
Here's another sculpture that could have sprung directly out of this week's early morning brainstorming. Fantastical, isn't it? Don't you wonder what story the artist was telling?
A few years ago, I collected antique abacuses (abaci?) as a gift for my husband who is a finance whiz. Just look at this enormous one:
Of course, where do I find myself in the midst of all this wonderful art? Lured into the tiny bookshop inside the sculpture center, that's where. I could have spent hours perusing the gorgeous coffee table books on art and design. Words--they are my eye candy.
Luckily, instead of eating words, I had crepes. (Waah--they were a little dry. Note to self: next time, try the panini sandwiches.)
So today, I got up before 4:00 a.m., knowing that I had to give up all my writing time during the school day since I had another research interview booked. This time, my research took me to Taikang Lu. From the busy street filled with tiny shops with a bewildering array of mismatched products (flyswatters to socks) and dives of unknown smells, you'd never know that just down the intersecting narrow lanes, you'd find this:Pedestrian alleys filled with boutiques and cafes and galleries. I arrived early before the shops opened. Imagine this place hopping with the older generation, chatting, strolling, eating, selling vegetables. I'm not sure where they disappeared to at ten, but I missed them.
I made my way to my destination: Shokay, the world's only store that sells goods made out of surprisingly soft...yak down. Sarah Kong, the publicist for Shokay, and I spent half of our hour together laughing. About yaks. I nearly capsized the cup of crysanthemum tea she prepared for me. The details she was able to provide me about harvesting yak down has already helped me immensely. (More on Sarah and Shokay soon!)
After my interview, I met up with Maile Roundtree, a fabulous jeweler from Seattle, who had blown into town on business. Her designs, such as this:are sold throughout Nordstrom and eclectic boutiques. Oprah, the oracle of all that is good, herself has worn Maile's designs on her show. As beautiful as Maile's work is, her grand masterpiece is her daughter. Let's just say Baby Roundtree was a rockstar today. I swear, every single Chinese grandmother within a two-kilometer radius of us emerged mystically from their homes at first coo. And that doesn't count all the young, hip waitresses, edging each other out for the chance to hold the baby.
Maile invited me to source gemstones with her tomorrow... Oh, how perfect is that for my book where one of the characters is a jeweler...but I can't. My son has a day off of school, and I am planning an Adventure Day for him. Somehow, I don't think looking at gemstones is his idea of an adventure. Ohhhhh...why can't I clone myself?
I think that's going to be my problem in Shanghai this year: wishing I could be in two places at once. I want to be at my computer, working on my novels. But I also need to be out in the world, experiencing Shanghai, which feeds my work.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Shanghai | turnSTYLE: Francine Martin, Shanghai Savant

turn·stile –noun
1. a structure of four horizontally revolving arms pivoted atop a post and set in a gateway or opening in a fence to allow the controlled passage of people.

turn·STYLE - noun
1. Justina's snapshot profiles of cool people in Shanghai who are creating and defining China style.

Let's just face it. There are some people who are cooler than we can ever dream to be. Those who ooze style and hipness, regardless of age, regardles of what's "in," regardless of what magazines deem beautiful and au currant. Even more impressive are those hipsters who can be chic even while wearing Naots. (Which are kissing cousins of Birkenstocks, yes?)

See, chic?

Meet Francine Martin, woman of many talents beyond being effortlessly cool: editor, model, professional expat, and Shanghai's most savvy savant who knows the ins and outs of what's hot and hopping in our city shops. After making her home in Asia for the last 25 years, she's sharing her vast insider info

with discriminating shoppers via her East of the Sun treasure-finding excursions.

I had to meet the woman herself after reading about Francine in a recent round-up of the Shanghai shopping scene in The New Yorker. As Patty Marx wrote in her article:

"The tailor whipped up a snappy little dress to Mai’s specifications and delivered
it to my hotel three days later. I wore it to an appointment with Francine
Martin, an American who leads shopping tours of Shanghai, to sites recondite and
renowned ( “Thirty-three dollars?”she said. “Very
nice, but one should never pay more than twenty dollars for a simple custom-made
dress.” (Stall 237 also makes men’s shirts of Egyptian cotton for $15, but Martin probably knows where they can be had for $10.)"

If Chris Buckley (Shanghai turnSTYLE, volume 1, September 12) is right, and we're all collectors of something or another in Shanghai, then Francine's the kind of person I want to collect in my life: she's smart and creative and curious. Full of life. And adventurous. Way adventurous. She's the woman I'd beeline to at a cocktail party simply because of the way she carries herself. In an instant, I'd know: this is a woman who has a story to tell!

Am I right or am I right?

Francine doesn't just live in Shanghai. She lives in the Old Town of Shanghai, calling home one of the historic lilongs. After meeting me at the entrance of her lilong, Francine took me on a quick walking tour of its alleys, pointing out the art deco and traditional features of the buildings. (Families used to have their names carved above their doors.) She simply could not help but share the beauty of her neighborhood.

We took two steps--not even enough time for me to grab my notebook and pen!--before she introduced me to the lifeblood of her neighborhood: the communal sinks (many people don't have running water),

the neighborhood dumpling guy,
the rice vendor outside her door.

And then, welcome to my idea of nirvana: Francine's well-curated abode.

All the details in her home captured her traveling and treasure-spotting spirit--from her collection of delicate teapots to the outdoor courtyard. Where, incidentally, she had set the most charming spread of pastries and tea. I was so touched. And felt so taken care of, which I think must be one of the key reasons why Francine excels at what she does. She makes you feel cherished and assured that you are getting the best of the best.

And that's why (I have to admit) I read her ming pian (business card) and shook my head: "Francine, you aren't a personal shopper. This is just wrong." I can be so rude, can't I? But I felt like I had been catching up with a longtime girlfriend, and we girlfriends are nothing if not honest with each other.

Her eyes gleamed--thankfully in agreement. "I put together creative outings, that's really what I do. I get a vicarious pleasure from giving people an experience or showing them an item they had no idea existed in the world."

Whether you're a knitting aficianado on the lookout for the finest cashmere yarn or an eco-traveler who yearns for a foldable bicycle, Francine is the one to call. (Those people have, in fact, called on Francine.) She's got the research chops from years of being an editor (that's called fact-checking for people not in publishing!). And she's got the connections from living here for decades. And best of all, she's got the negotiating chops. I was so relieved when she eyed my purse, and after I told her what I paid for it, she nodded approvingly: "I'd say you did very well."

What would I say to that? I'd say that I would entrust my own mom and mother-in-law and my best girlfriends with Francine. I would give them time with Francine as a gift. And that is high praise.

Francine Martin
East of the Sun