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Symmetry Breakfast's Michael Zee Says Farewell to Shanghai

Last orders and parting reflections from one of Shanghai's most soothing Insta accounts
Jul 22, 2021 | 17:30 Thu
Photos: Brandon McGhee

Editor's Note: Many of you may know Michael from being one of the 700,000+ who follow his Instagram account Symmetry Breakfast, which is... well, exactly that.  In addition to his popular food writing and photography, he also publishes books, gives talks, and creatively consults on things.   After five years in Shanghai, he's moving on to Italy, but not without first sharing a few of his unique exeriences in Shanghai and China, and some parting insight on said experiences. Read on for Micahel discussing navagating the COVID-19 pandemic in China, his favorite memories, and, of course, good places to eat. 

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Michael Zee:

What was interesting, is that I came with a project. It was with Symmetry Breakfast. You guys wrote about it once. I went from being the “Breakfast Guy” where people followed me for these photos, to becoming the “China Guy” where people followed me for the exploration of China through a different perspective.

I’ve had strong experiences in China, which, for example, Joe Public Tourist would never do.  A lot of times, my trips were to… factories!

I'd say. “I’m going for a weekend to a porcelain factory, to see how porcelain is made," and that is not something your average foreigner would book, because unless they are strongly interested in that or for work, why would they go to that?

So, going to those sorts of experiences, has been, for me, a point of difference of my time in China. And I think a lot of people have seen that when they look at my Instagram. They see how much I care for it because of the personal connection I have here.

I’m not just a foreigner with a phone.

The First Year in Shanghai

The things I remember from my first year… I went to the Sex Museum of course. First time I went to Yu Garden, which back then… was just crowded and unpleasant. I was still new. I didn’t know how to use Dianping. I was still using BonApp back then. What happened to that? They fell by the wayside didn’t they? Mandarin City Pool of course was a favorite for our first summer.

And then we started exploring China, going to places like nearby Fujian province. 

Tulou houses from Michael's trip to Fujian

How Has China Changed… and Changed You?

I think in some ways it’s a matter of scale, not change. The numbers of things have just gotten bigger. More coffee shops, more metro stations, more clubs, more bars, more people, more choice, there’s more of everything. But in terms of newness…. hmm.

In the last 18 months, I see a lot more that the “average middle” has expanded. There are always shit things, and really nice things, but I feel like the average middle has gotten bigger.

Some restaurants, some pop-ups, you think, “Mmm, you shouldn’t have done that. Novelty at the expense of quality." 

I feel like the things geared towards foreigners have lost their edge a bit. It’s started to feel a bit dated, a bit pastiche, a bit clumsy, a bit… extra-large just for the sake of it. What I’ve come to appreciate living here as a British person, is that there is a lot of stereotyped Americanization, because there is a huge American community here. I never celebrated Thanksgiving until I moved to China, which sounds really fucking crazy [laughs]. And so, I find myself in the middle, I see the Americanization on one side, the "Progress of China" on the other, and I am not part of either, in the sense I can observe both remotely. You get this American culture where it’s like, “oh, this is really great. How do we make it better? Let’s make it better. Cover it in more cheese”.

"Maybe the best food, is the food that lubricates good conversation. It’s good food, but it allows you to focus on the conversation and create a shared experience"

It’s not like only China has changed me. It’s also the exposure to other non-Chinese cultures that I wasn’t exposed to in Europe. I have met so many Russians here. Unbelievable amount of Russians! I’ve learned so much about Russian culture from being here in China, more than anywhere else.

What’s really interesting about my Shanghai experience, is that it’s not just a soley Chinese experience. There is a diversity here within the expat community that isn’t just the white American housewife. I was expecting the Chinese stuff; I was seeking that. What I really discovered was a much more diverse, global experience in Shanghai.

And China in general? Other people have talked about it before. The big cities are still the center of everything. But, lately, it's the push to the smaller, more exciting Tier 2 and upcoming cities that represents that coolness. It’s not just about Chengdu where you go for a fun weekend and good food. Now you can go to Shenzhen, you can go to Chongqing, to Wuhan.  We went to Wuhan two months ago and it was a PHENOMENAL.

 Everything is leveling up. 

The Xiamen Coast as seen from Michael's Ferry

Fooooood

For those that don’t know, a lot of people know me for my Instagram, Symmetry Breakfast. I have more than 700k followers there.  Here's a few notable posts.

This first one is when I came back to China before the lockdown. I made Wuhan Reganmian at home.

And this breakfast, which I did not make, is still dear to my heart. It's from a place near my home called Yi Gui He.

As for places I will miss. Uhhhmm. I don’t wanna to say Old Jesse. But I do love Old Jesse. Definitely Old Jesse. It’s just iconically good. I love Dong Tai Xiang, it’s a Shanghainese chain and they're usually 24 hours. I always get the Cong You Ban Mian.  And they do Huantuan with Majiang.  Majiang mian is amazing. Real classic breakfast staples done really well. Solid, solid, solid.

There is also this place called Lao Di Fang Mian Guang. It has an enormous queue outside every day. I remember the first time I had it, I was like, “why are these people waiting for this, it’s so mediocre”. But what I came to appreciate as someone who is constantly eating food, constantly analyzing food, constantly comparing, is that the best experiences are often the ones that are not... ehhh... mind-blowing all the time. It gets to the point where it’s like how many times can you have your mind blow by food?

"Sometimes a piece of fucking toast is the best thing"

Or a just a cup of delicious tea, doesn’t need to be some fancy HeyTea with a thousand calories. Maybe the best food, is the food that lubricates good conversation. It’s good food, but it allows you to focus on the conversation and create a shared experience. Like instead of talking about the food, your actually talking and connecting with someone else.  Food that helps that to happen.

Sometimes my recommendations might seem unexciting but not every place needs noodle dancing.

China.  Did it help your career?

Mmmmm... Overall, I would say …yes. But… This is now in retrospect of me leaving. The real shame of the situation is, only in the last three months did I start to get work based on, “Oh, Michael’s in China.”  “Oh, Michael’s on the ground in China.” It takes time for people to understand your level of expertise. When I moved to China, in 2017 in the first year, I was still getting invites to London by PR agencies because they didn’t know I had left. And I think that now, this is something that’s gonna happen in reverse. Agencies in Europe might be like, “Oh, we’ve got this project in Beijing, we’d like for you to participate.”

And, of course, I’ll have to respond with, “Well, I’m not there anymore.” [Laughs.] 

But it took me a long time to be in a position where I felt like I knew what I was doing. Only in the last few months did I realize I actually am a credible source of information on China, I’m not all buzzwords and I’m not just 'The Breakfast Guy'. That was a kind of thing inside your head that stops you from stepping forward for work when you think “I’m not ready, oh, I need to learn more”. But when I just started learning on the job, doing it made me more knowledable. And if you’re in China, then you have this incredible privilege that billions of others don’t have. You’re literally on the ground in this country, and the knowledge you acquire, the experiences you have, the stories you can tell make you vastly more knowledgeable about China than all the other people who speculate from afar.

The Pandemic

We were in Australia at the time in January when things started. I told my husband that we should go back because China has a strong central government and people follow the rules. Give it by March, and things will be fine.

And it was. For me, living through this crisis was fine. Probably for all foreigners here.

For those of us with connections to other countries, families and friends overseas, or whatever, they all sort of experience a delayed reaction compared to us. It hit here first.  Then a few months went by and crops up in Italy, and I feel like a lot of people were looking at China as a roadmap for what would happen.

They were expecting things to go back to normal as they did here in China. And they obviously didn't understand the criteria and the matrix that’s used to govern China. When things didn’t go back to normal in other countries, they got angry.

I have a huge following on social channels, and I would get really aggressive messages sometimes from people overseas. If I was having too much fun, they’d say I was rubbing it in, and say all sorts of horrible things, that I didn’t understand what they were going through.

And I didn’t obviously.

There are certain missing elements of course. Sometimes in our travels these past 12 months, some hotels wouldn’t accept foreigners. But it wasn’t a big deal, we just find another place to stay and it was fine. It was around this time we had this trip to see the Karst Mountains, which were just gorgeous. But bittersweat because it was such a contrast to what we were able to do, compared to others around the world. 

A trip to the Karst Mountains in Guanxi.

This was the catch 22 I always thought was interesting, which was revealed in 2020. In China a country with “less political freedoms”, you have more freedom.  Now, people, more or less have the freedom to live their lives again. Whereas in the West, people who have all these political freedoms can’t go outside, can’t see their family, because that freedom they fought for is a barrier to being free.

That was always the duality I tried to explain to others “your own hard-won freedoms is what’s stopping you from going out and having a free life. Like, "yes in your country you don’t need to wear a mask, you’re free to expose yourself, and expose others to COVID, but in the end this is what’s closing down your businesses and keeping you at home.”

Let’s Just Go Our Own Way and Hire a Car

One of my most amazing experiences was my 34th birthday at Chendao Hu [Thousand Island Lake]. I was going there to meet Kaluga Queen [Caviar people]. They had only found out it was my birthday the day before.

They said, "meet this guy at this lamppost at 12, okay?"

And I said, "okay."

I met this guy I and suddenly they said, "we go this way."

We got on a speed boat for twenty minutes and we were on a floating pontoon in the middle of the lake. They said, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY," and then they just started opening up loads of champagne and caviar.

I said, "when are we going to film?"

And they said, "No, no it's your bitdhday, no no, today we just celebrate."

I said, “oh, okay fine, I guess I’ll come back?”

They explained that it's the middle of August and there isnt much to film anyway because they don’t harvest the fish until October or November 'cause its too hot in the summer. If they come to the surface they would die, so I'd have to come back anyway.

And this experience is exemplary of something I will always miss about China: “Oh, why didn’t anyone tell me”. I went back a few months later and did filming, but that was such a pleasant surprise.

Some of my most powerful memories in China have always been these special trips. One with Jing Gao, the girl who owned Fly By Jing. We went out to Sichuan for a four-hour drive outside of Chengdu to pick Sichuan peppercorns and gongjiao peppers. A trip with my friend Alex who has a beautiful house at the foot of the Jade Dragon Mountain. I think a lot of these unique experiences are treasures for me. I got so many messages, “how did you book this trip, what tour agency did you use”, but that’s not where it’s at, these very prescribed trips.

From China to Italy

I’m moving to Italy. Am I excited? Well, what’s so nice about living here, is… well, China is like a secret. That’s what so mysterious about China, they love to learn about the secret, because so many people cant access it, or probably will never be able to come here. I feel like Italy has already been explored and discovered. So many TV shows, and cookbooks. One thing I am going to miss is being in the position of discovering something new for an audience that has no idea about China.

For me that audience is partly responsible for that drive that I have about wanting to find out more. But ya know if I get off the plane in Italy and I find something and say “oh wow, this is so amazing” of course I anticipate the response being, “yeah, that was like so… five years ago”.

For me China is the undiscovered country. It’s still a wild west, from a Western Perspective, and expats here should remind themselves about this from time to time.

TELL EVERYONE

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