June 2008

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While the construction was taking place, I started digging into the history of so-called Old Shanghai. Shanghai went through a pretty fascinating hundred years, from the Opium War in 1840 up until end of WWII in 1945. As the resulting of a weakening Qing Dynasty, China lost a series of wars and was forced to open up Shanghai to western countries as an important international port of call. The French and British, among other European countries, set up concession zones in Shanghai and ran these areas according to their own rules.

The interesting thing about the French Concession was that the French population (no more than 2000 at the peak) was outnumbered by the Russians (who fled from the new communist Russia), British, Americans, and even the Germans. There were also a significant number of successful middle-class Chinese professionals who lived in the area. Nevertheless, the French ran their own municipal counsel and named all the streets after French generals, martyred soldiers, and other famous personalities.

By the 1930’s, Shanghai and the French Concession were at the height of their glamour and also decadence. I found this old Fortune Magazine article published in 1935 that described a day in the life of a “Taipan” (typically refers to a westerner who is a boss or an employee of a foreign trading company). It bears striking similarities to the expat life in Shanghai today (minus the dozen or so of the servants the typical old-day taipan kept) ;-)

For Quintet, I wanted to bring in names and places of that wild time in Old Shanghai; there was plenty of glitz and romance, but to be sure, there was also lots of shady business taking place, not to mention sorrow of the lost and deprived. Old Shanghai was like opium (ok, also like a beautiful woman) – you know it’s perilous to your health, yet you can’t get away from it…

The modern-day Shanghai is every bit as exciting as the old one to the rest of the world. You see the optimism and entrepreneur spirits in the eyes of every hopeful newcomer. I hope this time around, the good times are here to stay for a long time to come…

Ever since coming back from my guilty Vietnam trip, things have not been going well.  The landlord hasn’t signed the sublease agreement and I was back to working on the contracts.  Kelley was not happy about the changes in the terms I promised (or we assumed).  And coming up with a name for the B&B has been like pulling teeth.  I realize that part of the reason for the difficulty was that I haven’t found its personality yet — and I’m a bit worried that I myself do not match the 5-star high-style decor that Don seems to be shaping towards.  This is back the question of identity, and there’s really no escape in it.  I’ll have to figure that out for myself eventually.

During the course of 2 weeks, I’ve written up 6 note pages of various names, concocted by yours truly and sympathetic friends.  Special thanks for Cathy, who called me enthusiastically and contributed “Nightingale” at the end of a long work day.  The first thing I looked into was ChangLe Rd’s old French Concession name:  Rue Bourgeat.  Way too hard to pronounce.  I don’t speak French so can’t even pronounce it properly, as I imagine most customers won’t either.  Ok, the Chinese translation is 蒲石路… what? pushy?  Nah..  How about the beautiful Wutong 梧桐 plane trees that line the street?  Both names sound bad (“no pain” and “plain tree”?).  Hsun suggested that I look into fabric/touch or smell, since I’m into those things myself.  She came up with Velvet Lane, but I shot it down since Velvet Lounge is around the corner.  I tried out flower names but somehow the names were either too abused (rose, orchid, peony, mudan) or too much of a tongue twister (michelis alba 白玉蘭 huh??, osmanthus, cereus 曇花).  How about just plain Lane House 808?  “It’s been done already…” Don said.  Don liked “Trellis” since he’s planning to put one up on the rooftop but I thought it was too random and not a major feature of the house.  Also thought along the line of jewel box and gems, but got similar issues as with the flowers.  Then there’s the “oasis” cluster:  Tranquility, Haven, Retreat, Hammock…sleepy…  I thought about using “Opium Lane,” but was afraid that my rich, baby boomer couples would be too intimidated and skip my B&B altogether.  Tried easy-to-pronounce Chinese words that have deep and far-reaching meaning, like “Hui” 匯 and “Ju” 聚, which both mean “convergence”.  The Summit across the street is called 匯賢居, which means the gathering or convergence of the respected.  Darn, what a perfect name!   I dare not dabble too much into Chinese names too much for I often jumble up my Chinese idioms 成語.  Alice, being the English teacher she is, came up with “Au Contraire” (you said you want to be an alternative 5-star hotel right?) and “Diamondita” (Jewel and jewel box?).

The closest runner-up was “TBD”.  To be determined.  To be developed.  To be destroyed ;-p If reflects my indecisiveness toward the nature of this B&B.  Credit goes to Monica.  We somehow came up with the idea from her commenting about a Oakley knock-off “Oyay”.  How about “Oright”, “Oshit”, and “Omygod”?  That’s a hotel chain right there, lol.  I slept on “TBD” for one night until today, when amidst thunder and downpour, Hsun, Monique, and me sat around after dinner and came up with “Quintet”.  “How about 5xxx?”  “5 Senses?”  “Quartet?”  “How do you call quartet with 5 people?”  “Quintet.”  Voila~ Hsun and I also agreed that our favorite instrument is the cello.  Here’s what I wrote to Don just now:  “I think I came up with the name of the hotel — Quintet B&B.  It speaks to Shanghai being a place of variety, collaboration, and harmony (or dissonance if put together poorly).  It’s also classy and intimate which fit our little house and alludes to the five rooms we have.  But no need to be so literal about Quintet’s musical definition.
I’ll wait a few days and see if Quintet sticks!

As the proprietor of this future B&B, I felt that it’s important for me to partake in the selection of certain key materials that will go into the house. So when Don invited to go shop at Yishan Rd (think Home Depot but many times bigger and less organized) for toilets and tiles, I was elated. I was like a kid on field trip, touching everything and asking all kinds of questions. But pretty soon, I realized that I simply do not have the trained eye that’s required for the job. Our first task was to pick out a toilet that would fit our deco-style house and bathroom. Don stressed on the simple lines and curves that I must look for when picking out our candidates. Everytime I thought I found something, I was instantly shot down by Don: “No, that’s too modern. We’re looking for modernist.” “That’s too round.” “The proportion is off.” “That’s too…” Ten shops into our search, I became very sullen and quiet. My eyes also became blurred with white visions of toilets flashing in front of me. At the end of a four-hour rummage, we (or Don) settled on only two choices. Don wanted me to be the final judge but honestly, they looked pretty much the same to me!!