The Children and the Faceless

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Lanyuan Park is located next to the Changzhou Women and Children Activity Center. If you were to walk away from downtown, go over a bridge, you would pass this building. The street name changes from Nandajie to others several times, but it is the same road. This is a building maintained by the municipal government, and it works as an educational resource center. There, families have access to discounted educational programs that cover everything from English lessons to art and more. So, it is fitting to find statues of children in the adjoining park.

One is a group of kids craved from white stone. It depicts two boys and two girls holding on to each other in what looks like a conga line. Their expressions are mostly of mischief. One boy, at the end, is falling down, but he has his hands on the belt line of a girl’s trousers, suggesting he is about to accidentally pull her pants down. The other statue is worked into fountain. A boy and a girls are laying down and watching the water splash into the pool below. IMG_20160731_204742

Again, because there is a family oriented governmental building nearby, this makes sense. There is an odd juxtaposition, though, in Lanyuan. It is strange, surreal, and oddly beautiful. A series of concrete planters showcases bamboo thatches. There is a bronze-looking metal sculpture of two people sitting on a bench. They have no faces and the are huddled together, wrapped in a single blanket. Are they refugees? Old people? It’s hard to tell when the front of their heads are smooth and featureless.

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If I was had to guess, I would have to go with the elderly. That’s just a snap judgement based on my experiences in Changzhou’s public parks. Often, you will see the elderly sleeping and exercising in most public parks. Lanyuan is no different. Even during hot and humid days, you can see somebody’s grandfather swinging and flailing is arms while walking in circles.  I once saw a guy doing the “raise the roof” gesture with his upturned palms in the air. It’s not just the weird excercise. My favorite was an old guy who used to wear a white tanktop and a red sweatband around his head. In one hand, he held a portable radio. At the top of his lungs, he belted out Chinese opera. No matter where you went in Lanyuan, you could hear him. IMG_20160731_212751

Reliable Salad Stuff

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There is an infinitely beautiful thing about salad. For me, it’s the one type of food that you can actually eat everyday, and everyday it could be completely different. While you will usually have a green leaf vegetable base, you can put literally almost anything into a salad and that leads to nearly limitless variety. So, one day you can have chunks of tuna and chicken mixed together. Another day, if you feel completely in a vegan mood, you can have cashew nuts, edamame, and an a slew of veggies topped with dairy-free vinaigrette. If you want to be a red meat carnivore, you can throw in steak chunks, and when mixed with lettuce, tomato, and onion, it’s like eating the innards of a sandwich without bread.

Salad is also a simple western food that is sometimes hard to locate in a smaller Chinese city like Changzhou. Yes, Starbucks and places like Paris Baguette sell ready-made ones for when you are on the go. Sure, places like Monkey King will offer higher end, more gourmet, and more expensive ones. These are often fixed-menu things, and they do not offer the infinite variety that could be. There is a huge sense of freedom that comes with a real salad bar. And, honestly, Changzhou really hasn’t had an honest to God salad bar that, quite frankly, Americans take for granted when back home.

Well, that changed recently. Salad Stuff opened in Xinbei, recently. It’s currently my favorite place to eat in all of Changzhou, and I have lunch there all the time. It gives you the “build your own” experience where can pick stuff on random whims. Want chickpeas? Sure! Radish slices? Sure! Bassa fish? Sure! Salad Stuff allows a diner these endless options in a rather unique way.

The ingredients are behind a glass counter. You actually don’t touch anything. In front of that glass, you see a series of poker chips. Each of them has the ingredient’s name written in both Chinese and in English. So, there is a chip for broccoli, a chip for tofu, a chip for carrots, and so on. Once you have your handful of chips, you hand them to a cashier. Each has an internal RFID computer chip, and the cashier runs them over a counter. Your order is placed, and somebody assembles your salad and then brings it to you.

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There are other comforts here, too. The manager and a lot of the staff have some capacity with English. That makes a lot of since, since this type of food is not traditionally Chinese. Sure, it does speak to the Chinese culinary love of vegetables, but salad is still a western concept that will draw lots of expats. So, in the many times I have eaten here, the customer service provided has been quite excellent.

The location is pretty good, too. Salad Stuff is in the middle of Xinbei’s media tower complex on Taihu Road. It’s next to Zoo Coffee and down the street from Istanbul Restaurant. This puts the place in walking distance from Wanda Plaza and it’s BRT bus stop.

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Cruising Cuihong Road

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I could literally feel heat waves radiating off the streets. Once the breeze shifted, it felt like I was slowly punching through pockets of hot air. Ahead of me, a truck sprayed the hot road down with water, and that just made the air above the concrete humid and slightly hard to breath. You could easily say today was a hot day in a string of hot days, but then again, it’s also July. Changzhou and this part of China sometimes gets uncomfortably hot. I can only take some comfort that parts of the Middle Kingdom are much worse this time of year. However, it has put a bit of damper on my ebike travels as of late. I don’t handle the heat very well; it sucks the energy out of me and just makes me want to sleep all day.

I was not even halfway towards the former Qishuyan district before I just turned around and started heading home. On the way, I did take one detour. I still felt like wandering, and a side street promised a lot of shade. This ended up being Cuihong Road. This small street connects Cuizhu Park with Feilong Road in Tianning. Cuizhu is basically a small green space between Zijing and Hongmei.

One could easily argue that there isn’t much to see on this road. It cuts between two older residential neighborhoods. Many of the shops here look like many of the other shops throughout Changzhou. I even encountered a statue of a woman tucked into a small parking lot. A rope had been attached to her hand, and basically, she was being used in a vast network of clotheslines for drying laundry.

Looking around, I was reminded something I have always told people. I think the local Chinese can handle blazing heat a lot better than many westerners. Here, on this small, seemingly lazy road, shirtless old men sat around smoking cigarettes. A couple of workers with pick axes were tearing up the street, and woman busily organized and categorized fruit in her shop. Another woman and her small son walked by, hand in hand. The mom made sure her sun stayed under her shady parasol.

Me? I was sweating profusely and wearing a wet shirt that already had some white salt stains. So, I just took it as further proof that I really dislike hot summers. I promptly went home to my air conditioning and computer — where instead of writing, I looked up UFO conspiracy theories on YouTube.

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Istanbul Restaurant is Slightly Vegan Friendly

Changzhou isn’t the most accommodating place for vegans or vegetarians. Some dishes may look like it contains only vegetables, but quite often pork stock may be used while the dish is being stewed or stir fried. Quite often, people with special dietary needs are often stuck with either Kaffa in Wujin or Indian Kitchen in Xinbei. So, when a restaurant changes its menu to include something friendly to vegans, it should be commended.

Such is the case with Istanbul Restaurant in Xinbei. Yes, the place is more well known for donor kebab dishes and other Turkish specialties. Upon my last visit, I noticed that some of the menu pages have been pulled out and replaced. Three of the new items are indeed vegan friendly — as in not only is meat not involved, but diary has been excluded as well.

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This includes a warm white bean appetizer. The legumes are served in a thin and light tomato sauce with bits of garlic. Another side dish includes cold green beans with onions in a lemon based sauce. Plus, there is now an entree of saute mushrooms with green peppers and rice. This, like the white beans, comes in a tomato based sauce.

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There are still salads available from the older menu. Also, the red lentil soup hasn’t gone anywhere. Of course, there is vegetarian pide (Turkish pizza) for those who can eat dairy and gluten. If there were one thing to be constructively critical about,  its that some of these menu items tend to be a little pricey compared to portions of what is actually being served. And while it might not be the most awesome vegan food around, it is still a new option in a city where the pickings are slim at best. After all, Changzhou is not Shanghai, and western options are more limited, comparatively speaking.

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Istanbul Restaurant is conveniently located on Taihu Road 太湖路 and in walking distance from the Wanda Plaza BRT stop. If you pass Zoo Coffee, you have walked too far.

Knocked Off, Knocked Down History

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The fast pace of economic development in China does come with a real cost. It’s not all that hard to find evidence of this online in prominent newspapers like The Guardian. Alarmingly, it’s been reported that the last twenty years of economic expansion has lead to more cultural destruction than that of the Cultural Revolution.  In many ways, this can be seen directly in Changzhou. Simply put, there does not seem to be as much to see here than in an much larger cities like Shanghai and Nanjing. And some of the things that “look” historic have actually recently been built and have nothing to do with antiquity. The Yancheng historical development around the Wujin Museum and the Spring and Autumn Amusement Park fits as a prime example.

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In Changzhou, simply put, a person doesn’t have to go that far to see whole swaths of demolition prepping the way to some new construction project.  For example, you can find a statue of Chairman Mao in a shattered landscape. There is one place, however, that seemed rather telling. Along Laodong Road 劳动路 in Tianning, there is a demolished compound. A textile factory used to be there. But, as I wandered around the rubble, I found a stone historical preservation marker. To use a cliche, it stuck out like a sore thumb in a wasteland. It’s like a strange irony. What the marker denotes as historic has been rendered into rubble. The buildings remaining looked drab, gray, and dreary.

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Once I got off my bike and started walking around, history was hard to locate or find. And, I wasn’t in the mood to literally “dig it up.”  A lot of the remaining buildings looked structurally unsound. I peered into some of the derelict factory spaces, but I had enough sense to not actually enter them. Accidents can and do happen to people who are silly enough to go into construction or demolition zones. With that in mind, I left.

However, later, over a cup of coffee, I searched for the place on Baidu Maps. I even entered the marker’s keywords 大成三厂旧址, and according to my smartphone app, the place doesn’t exist. So, that leaves me with this question: will a replica of the original historical site will thrown up, or will the historical marker also be removed, making way for another shopping center or high rise residential complex?

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Fushou Temple

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Qingming Mountain, over in the northeastern arm of Wujin, seems to be a spiritual destination in Changzhou. Dalin and Bailong temples are located there, and both are equally large as Buddhist and Taoist religious destinations. Both cost about 10 RMB to get in. But Qingming seems home to other places. A cemetery covers a lot of the hill. There is also a perpetually closed martyr’s graveyard, and then there is also Fushou Temple.

Every time I have visited Dalin or Bailong, the doors were usually closed and locked. Recently, I returned to Qingming Mountain to visit Dalin — as part of ongoing research into who and what louhans are in Buddhism. This time, Fushou’s doors were open, and there was a red and yellow banner over the entrance. Cars were parked there. I parked my bike and I walked in.

Unlike Dalin and Bailong, nobody was at the door to collect an entrance fee. I have seen this in temples around Changzhou when they are attempting to focus more as a place of worship and less as a tourist destination. As I walked around the temple grounds, one other thing just reinforced this. I passed by the main hall and heard chanting and a drum. I stopped to peer in. However, whenever I hear religious activity in progress, I tend to leave it alone. So, I didn’t enter that hall. Half an hour later, as I was leaving, I noticed the door to that big altar hall had been closed.

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One of the most intriguing things, however, was not that shut entrance. Fushou Temple is the home to three large golden statues. There is also a room of what looked to be white-jade sculptures — one of which is a reclining Buddha. In this building, I climbed a set of stairs to the second level and found an empty space. Still, I was able to get a good shot of the three gold statues from behind.

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The empty space reminded me of something else about Fushou. A lot of it seems to be renovation in progress. This isn’t like what you see at neighboring Dalin Temple, where new additions like an underground parking lot is being added. This looked like Fushou’s main facilities are getting an upgrade. After all, there was a cement mixer laying out in the open, as well as large stacks of concrete tiles. This puts the temple, like so many other places around Changzhou, on my “to watch list.” With a lot of facilities under renovation, this place could look completely different in one year. My guess, though, is that the three statues will remain.

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Texan Only in Name

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Houston Theme Bar has got to be one of the weirdest restaurants in Changzhou. It’s located on the third floor of the gigantic Global Harbour Mall in Xinbei. The last and only time I went there, it was also one of the most useless places, too. The whole place strikes one as a Chinese attempt at a western style bar and restaurant. However, the only thing actually Texan about it is its name. Oh, and the host that seats you is wearing a cowboy hat.

However, the weirdness really does start at the door. Under the name, “Houston Theme Bar,” you see the host’s reception desk. This desk prominently features the Union Jack flag of the United Kingdom. Once the host leads you into the restaurant, you see even more of the British flag. The Union Jack has been upholstered onto many of the chairs. Oddly enough, you also see the Italian flag on some of the other chairs. Now, how do two European countries exactly fit a “Houston Theme?”

All of this weirdness could be forgiven if the food was actually good. I wouldn’t know, however, because I didn’t eat anything. Once I sat, I was handed a menu that had both pictures and English text. That seemed promising, but it went promptly downhill from there. First, I ordered a hamburger, and I was told they were out. Then, I ordered Vietnamese spring rolls, and I told they were out of that, too. Lastly, I tried to order a fish sandwich, and they waiter confessed they were also out of that. To employ a baseball metaphor: three strikes and you’re out. I grabbed my backpack, stood, and left. Not having what your menu claims to have — it’s usually the sign of a very badly managed business.

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A Statue of Street Cleaners

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There is one municipal employee in Changzhou that is perhaps the easiest to find — street cleaners. If you think about it, it is probably one of the most thankless jobs in the city. Even in humidity and high heat, these people are out picking up cigarette butts and other errant bits of trash on roads and sidewalks.

There is a statue dedicated to these workers. It’s located at a cheng guan — municipal code enforcers — headquarters in Wujin. There is another statue of the cheng guan nearby. Like that one, the street cleaners are depicted in a strange sort of buttery yellow. The chinese on the statue reads as 奉献, which loosely translates as devotion.

Chinese Dishes at Willow Street

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“I like this place,” a Chinese friend said, “because the food is good, and it’s relatively cheap.”

She was speaking of Willow Street 样柳巷,· a Chinese restaurant not far from downtown’s Injoy shopping mall and the BRT station that serves it. She had taken me out to belatedly celebrate my birthday once I had returned to from USA. Since she knew I was genuinely curious about trying new foods, she also chose Willow Street because the it serves food local to southern Jiangsu province. As a result, the dishes turned out to be not that spicy. Also, if an expat wants to eat here, they should either be able to read Chinese or take a Chinese friend with them. The menu is all text and no pictures.

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One dish, my friend said, was native to Changzhou. This consisted of thin strips of tofu in a slightly thick clear broth. Bread-like dumplings filled the soup out, but a lot of the contrasting flavor came from strips of congealed duck blood. As I have also liked to point out, blood in Chinese cuisine often has the consistency of tofu, but with a stronger flavor. Duck blood tends to be strongest, most metallic tasting of all of them. However, it was not over powering in this soup. As I said, it provided contrast. That said, for a tofu soup, it certainly makes it not very vegetarian friendly.

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“I don’t know how to translate this other than chicken on a pole,” my friend said.

And when it was served, it was exactly that. Chicken on a stainless steel pole. Perhaps the oddest thing about this was how it was served. Once cooked, the wait staff brought it to our table to look at. I wondered how we were supposed to eat it, because it was literally a small chicken — with head and neck intact — impaled on metal pole. A bowel of smoking dried ice in water was there purely for dramatic effect. Before I asked how we were supposed to eat it, it was taken away and the chicken was chopped up. The head and neck were absent once this was actually served. Despite how weird it looked, the chicken itself was well cooked, juicy, and quite delicious. I reminded me of roast or rotisserie chicken I have eaten in back in America.

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We were also served a pork dish. It seemed rather simple. The exterior was slightly charred for a crispy texture, and the meat itself reminded me a little of pork belly. Stripes of meat and fat came with each thick slice. However, it lacked the saltiness that sometimes come with pork belly. So, that made me think it just looked like that cut without it actually being this. The coolest thing, however, was the presentation here. The meat sizzled on a tin foil cooking surface. The flame itself, however, was inside of white stone container with black Chinese calligraphy.

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Two of the other dishes consisted of a very simply pumpkin dish. Sometimes, pumpkin is a lot like sweet potato. You don’t have to do much to it make it yummy. It’s just delicious in its most simple form.

The other dish used cassava, which is interesting since that is a plant that grows more in tropical and sub-tropical climates. The last I had ever heard of cassava used as food was when I lived in Bermuda a very long time ago. At Willow Street, cassava flour had been used to make gelatinous cubes that had been served with ground pork. Actually, this reminded me a lot of mapo doufu —  just substitute cassava cubes for tofu.

On the whole, Willow street struck me as a very good Chinese restaurant where good flavor and taste didn’t come with a high price tag. It was a great place to spend some time with a dear Chinese friend.

Allegedly Metro

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Oh, and you can do all your shopping at Metro! They have a lot of western items!

— An enthusiastic, but misinformed Xinbei expat to a Wujin newbie.

As I have pointed out before, nothing can be more infuriating than living in Wujin and being told that Xinbei is the center of Changzhou. Most of the time, this advice is well meaning, but it doesn’t keep it from being factually wrong. This is so much the case with Metro. When you live in Wujin — especially College Town — Metro is just a far off wonderland that just isn’t practical. Why? Given rain and traffic, it can take up to an hour to get there on the B1 — one way.

Then, there are the rumors that Wujin will eventually get its own Metro. These whispers have been going on for years now, and when I lived down in the College Town, I depressingly chalked up to wishful thinking more than anything else. However, there has been real progress, as of late, towards Wujin expats finally getting something they really want. Now, there is a real location for the new Metro.

The B1 BRT bus route passes it. Its in a new and unfinished shopping development called CoCo City. This is about one stop after / before Wujin’s Injoy mall, depending on whether you are going north or south. The last time I rode by on my eBike, the location was empty and undeveloped. All you could see was the blue and yellow METRO store marquee. I snapped a picture of it and sent it to a friend with lots of Changzhou experience. Even she didn’t know about it.

Later, a separate friend of mine passed it more recently. She currently lives in College Town and was headed north on other business. She, too, was tired of having to take the bus for an hour just to get something simple like bagged salad mix. She told me that she asked around and couldn’t find an answer to when it a grand opening was planned. She even tasked a Chinese friend to call Xinbei’s Metro for further information. Even they didn’t know anything.

So, as of this writing, Wujin is still getting a Metro. You can actually visit and see where it will be, but there seems to be no hard evidence as to when a grand opening will actually come to pass. For a Wujin expat, this is both tantalizing and extremely frustrating. It’s like dangling something nice in front of somebody, but still keeping agonizingly out of easy reach.