Monday, September 27, 2004

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For all the subway and light-rail riding I've done in Shanghai, I've seen very few people reading books for fun. Oh sure, lots of people pick up the free æ.¶ä»£æ.¥ ("Metro Times" is the official English title) that gets passed out at public transport stops every morning. But books, I only see those every few days. Which makes me wonder why so many people I meet nod knowingly, or complete the name when I'm slow to pronounce it, when I mention that I'm reading Haruki Murakami's latest book.

There are two things that I'm having a very difficult time finding in Shanghai. The first is a computer; specifically, Saint Song's Cappuccino TX3 book-sized mini-PC. If I was in the States, I would surf over to Froogle or call up the nearest Fry's Electronics, and probably be able to order a single unit. Here, things work a little differently. The biggest computer markets are actually more like computer malls: a big building full of litttle computer stalls; each floor has a different theme: usually the bottom floor is composed of stores selling pre-built systems and notebooks, another floor sells custom-built systems, and the whole place is littered with desks selling random parts and accessories. The whole thing looks impressive because of the range of items set out before your eyes, but when you start to look deeper into each store you notice that they basically fall into five or six categories, and that the stock at each store is pretty much exactly the same. The only thing they seem to compete on is how many bored-looking young men and women are standing behind the counters, or crowded around monitors playing some sort of two-player Street Fighter II knock-off. Very few people are actually buying systems, and those that do come intending to spend money usually know very little about the computers they are buying. They end up sitting at a table, being guided towards one computer or another by a twenty-something guy who ends up writing them a receipt and sending them home with a computer that they don't really understand, bought for "educational purposes", but will probably end up using for solitaire, online games and QQ, China's most popular instant-messenger client.

It's all pretty depressing, but the worst part is that nobody seems to have anything smaller than a Shuttle, which is what I have back in Michigan. The best I've been able to do is contact the staff of Saint Song in Taiwan, who have suggested that I order directly from them.

The other thing I can't find in Shanghai is a mug—a plain-colored, flat-bottomed mug. Actually, what I want it a set of these mugs. Right now I'm using a combination of a glass beer-stein and a set of cute children's cups, but I would really like to get a nice set of ceramic mugs. But it's impossible. The biggest obstacle to my finding the mugs is the Chinese aesthetic sense: too much decoration. Every mug that is in the right shape and material has a cute teddy bear, or some gaudy pattern, or a jungle scene painted on or engraved into the side. Even Ikea failed me: they had plain, single-colored mugs, but with rounded bottoms. So far, the best candidates have been these guys on the street who sell ceramic dishes from the back of their bicycles. I'm not holding my breath.

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