It’s been around six months since Fiona Reilly, author of beloved Shanghai travel blog Life on Nanchang Lu, left Shanghai with a heavy heart to return to Australia. We recently caught up with her for a retrospective on her unforgettable experience living in Shanghai: going from ER specialist to Shanghai blogger, winning multiple blogging and photography accolades, and raising a family in an alien culture.
How does it feel to be back in Australia?
Honestly, I’m devastated to have left Shanghai behind. Australia is a beautiful country, with wonderful people, but somehow over the last ten or twenty years Australia’s drive and optimism has waned and there’s a sense of inertia and complacency. I feel it much more acutely after being in Shanghai, where there is a palpable sense of optimism and possibility.
Let’s wind the clocks back to 2009 when you quit your job as an ER specialist in Australia to embark on your Shanghai adventure. What prompted you to move not only you, but your whole family to Shanghai to start a new life and career as a Shanghai food blogger? That seems like quite a transition.
My husband Matt was commissioned to design public art works for Shanghai World Expo and we came to Shanghai for an adventure together with our two girls. I told my boss at the hospital I’d be back in six months, we were away for nearly four years. Now he doesn’t believe anything I say!
I never intended to become a food blogger – but within a very short time my blog developed a definite food and travel focus and took on a life of its own. Blogging isn’t a money-making enterprise for me – I do it because I love it – but I just happened to start blogging at a time when editors started to see value in someone who was utterly passionate about a niche topic and who could write and photograph. For me blogging became the doorway into a second career in freelance writing and photography. Even though I’ve gone back part-time to my day job, as a pediatric ER specialist, I haven’t stopped blogging because my blog continues to connect me with China and to people all over the world who share a similar passion for China and Chinese food.
Tell us a bit about the process of starting up your blog and tracking down foods? What do you think made yours so successful and beloved – winning the Travelavenue Favorite Travel blog 3 years in a row (2010, 2011, 2012), and being a Bloggies 2013 finalist for Best Asian Webblog. Not to mention the fact that you were an International Food Photographer of the Year 2012/2013 finalist/prize winner.
I’m still amazed and grateful that other people read and enjoy my blog. For many of my readers, it’s an unlocking of the mysteries of China, one food or one destination at a time, but for others – those of Chinese heritage living overseas – it’s a nostalgic reminder of the food they grew up with and their ‘home’.
Tracking down food was always the easy part – I spent days just roving the streets with my camera and a hearty appetite, looking for something I hadn’t eaten before. Then I’d photograph it and take the photo evidence to a Chinese friend equally obsessed with food, and he would tell me the name of the food, the history, and the best place to find it. Once I could speak Chinese everything became easier – I could speak to the vendors themselves and find information in Chinese on the web.
Reflect a little bit on your time in Shanghai. What do you miss most about Shanghai? Least?
On my trips back to Shanghai (six so far, since I left in January) I wind down the taxi windows and breathe in that marvelous Shanghai concoction of humid heat, frying food, diesel fumes and building-site epoxy resin. Love it. I miss Shanghai’s relentless forward momentum, its positivity and optimism. I least miss the poker-playing fried chicken guy on Fuxing Lu. He’s just a bout of food poisoning waiting to happen.
Best memory of Shanghai? Worst?
My best memories all involve food – noodles on street corners on hot summer nights, cold beer and shao kao, slurping scalding xiaolongbao while snow falls outside.
There isn’t really a ‘worst’ memory – although our first landlady was a sixty-year old dragon, and treated us like imbeciles. I called her once to say the gas oven was so hot that its lowest setting was melting the knobs on the front of the oven. She arrived and spent an hour complaining loudly about me to all our neighbours (the mortification) then another half hour explaining in baby talk how I should use an oven (the added embarrassment). Then she turned the oven on, lit a match, and both of her eyebrows and half of her permed hair was instantly singed off (the vindication! Yes!).
Biggest challenges you faced raising a family in Shanghai? Biggest rewards?
Schooling was by far our biggest challenge. As self-funded expats we simply couldn’t afford the big international schools and were forced to seek out alternatives. The girls spent their last year in Shanghai at the International Division of Shanghai High School, where classes were 50/50 English and Chinese, and everyone was aiming for a college education in the USA. It say it was intense would be a massive understatement, but the girls surprisingly thrived in that environment.
Matt and I are only beginning to see the rewards of our children spending part of their childhood in China since we left. The girls are very close, despite a three-year difference in their ages (spending six months driving around China in a campervan and having to sleep in the same bed together probably also helped). They’re resourceful and resilient, and they see diversity and difference as normal. They’re extraordinarily self-reliant. They still love travel but have asked not to spend every school holiday in China.
You’ve obviously had a lot of experience with Shanghai’s food scene over the years. How did Shanghai’s culinary scene change from when you arrived until now? How do you see it evolving in the future? More locavore, more brand-name juggernauts, maybe craft/heritage foods way down the road…….?
Shanghai’s food scene is evolving at the speed of light. When I arrived western food supplies were relatively limited – the Avocado Lady hadn’t yet thought of selling avocadoes, Amelia was yet to make her first jam, and specialty western food stores like bakeries, patisseries and butcheries were rare.
Fast forward five years and food safety issues have led a drive for more healthful, locally grown foods, chefs are celebrating high quality locally-sourced ingredients, and the number of Chinese fine dining restaurants has exploded, as have the number of restaurants serving high quality Chinese regional cuisines.
I have a particular interest in traditionally made artisanal Chinese foods, but this sector of the food market still struggles to find a voice. The TV series Bite of China looked to be a turning point in recognising the value of traditional foods and methods, but that has yet to translate into a sustainable living wage for most of these small producers. But the early signs are there, and are encouraging.
And as a street food lover I hope that Shanghai’s rapid pace of development won’t drive out the street vendors who give Shanghai’s street life its unique flavour.
What are the biggest misconceptions people who’ve never been to Shanghai have about it, maybe from watching or reading the news?
People expect Shanghai to be terrifying, and in particular they have three big fears: the language, the food, and the adversarial way in which Chinese people conduct even the smallest commercial transaction. They come to Shanghai prepared to do battle on all three fronts, but at least on the first two their fears prove to be unfounded.
Any knowledge or tools you picked up in Shanghai that’ve helped you back in Australia or in life in general?
I was never that zen person waiting at traffic lights or in a queue looking relaxed and chilled. I was utterly impatient and wound up, a typical Type A ER doctor for whom everything had to happen stat! Shanghai released me from that and has brought me enormous patience, a great gift.
Your favorite Shanghai food(s)? Favorite restaurant in Shanghai?
I have three – okay four – sticky, sweet, fatty slow cooked pork belly hong shao rou, red dates stuffed with sticky rice and drizzled with osmanthus blossom syrup, xiaolongbao soup dumplings, and silken tofu cooked with fresh hairy crab meat and roe
And as for restaurants – I again have three or four I always return to, while constantly on the lookout for new eats. They aren’t the newest, or the fanciest, but they have this in common – passion for great produce, consistency, and great service: 328 Jianguo for consistently good Shanghainese food, Greenology (大蔬無界) for innovative vegetarian food and Madison – Austin Hu has a deserved reputation for excellence and his food is informed by a deep love of Chinese ingredients while remaining utterly new American in style. Plus The Humble Room Soup Dumpling Eatery on Nanchang Lu nr Xiangyang Lu – you don’t go there for the service or the décor, but they have good, tasty, cheap xiaolongbao.
Do you have any advice you’d like to impart on aspiring food bloggers in Shanghai?
I feel very unqualified to give advice, but I do think it helps to write about what you love because only that will bring you the greatest rewards and satisfaction.
Fiona still regularly posts on Life on Nanchang Lu, so be sure to check it out, and follow her on Twitter at @nanchanglu. Also, check out her award-winning photography here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].