An Elegy for a Building

Memory, with the hand of a giantess
You lead life like a horse by the reins,
You will tell me about those who lived
In this body before it was mine.

–Nikolay Gumilyov

Downtown Changzhou has one less building now. Currently, subway construction has long been underway where Wenhuagong / Culture Square used to be. The demolished place was a huge, unsightly yellow building that housed a few shops, a Pujing Hotel, a Spa Massage Place, Global Kids International English, and a few other things. There was a massive food court behind the building. All of it is gone now. While it is always poignant to lose a place you had a personal connection to, stuff like this is normal when a city is growing. So, this is not criticism, per se. It’s just an opportunity to remember the past. Plus, instead of explicating the poetic lines from Gumilyov and extrapolating it onto Changzhou, I thought it just be best to let those four lines and a few pictures do all the talking right now. All of these images are mine, with the exception of three screen captures I took from videos that went viral on Wechat.

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The Taste for Ass

“I love the taste of ass,” my student said. She was short, mousy, and wearing glasses with wide lenses that seemed to cover a quarter of her face. “For me, ass is hard to find in Changzhou. So, I am always looking for ass because I want to eat ass all the time.” Her smile was wide, warm, and sincere. She was also wearing a modest blue fuzzy sweater. What she was saying and how she looked was a total non sequitur to me.

This was during a recent presentation in one of my university classes. The water I was drinking almost came out of my nose. It’s not the first time a student has said this, and it will not be the last time I desperately try to remain composed and not descend into fits of hysterical laughter.

“Um,” I said, “in the future, you may want to refer to that type of meat as donkey. Some native English speakers might misunderstand what exactly you are trying to say to them — especially if they are weird, perverted men.” My student was standing in front of the class, and her PowerPoint showcased a picture of rectangular sandwich stuffed with a very dark red chopped meat.

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In Chinese cuisine, it’s called 驴肉火烧 or Lǘ ròu huǒshāo in Pinyin. I have heard Chinese people call it donkey burger, in English. Thank God I have not heard ass burger, yet. It is further evidence that the Chinese actually created the concept of a “sandwich” a very, very long time ago. Long before the British or the Germans. Recently, I spent a day looking all over Changzhou for donkey flesh. My reason for doing so was simple.  If i am going to spend my EFL teaching career always telling Chinese students to say “donkey” and not “ass” in reference to eating something, I should at least try the actual sandwich.

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Turns out, donkey sandwiches are not as easy to find in Changzhou as I originally thought. I entered 驴肉火烧 into Baidu Maps. I went to four of the red dots that popped up, and only one seemed to actually exist. It was in Xinbei on Jinling Road — just up the road from Kingsport and Hohai University’s east gate. It looked a little dumpy, and most of the menu consisted of soups, hot pot, and more where donkey meat was the central ingredient. There was even a picture of the beloved Shrek character Donkey on the wall. I am not kidding.

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My guess is the poster is an unlicensed use of Donkey’s image. Dreamworks was probably not asked permission.

So, lets get down to the nitty gritty. How was the sandwich? Eating locally in China is sometimes embracing that you might, in fact, try things that sounds weird to you. I have a few lines I will not cross, but I am willing to try not to be a western snob. Meat is meat, and I don’t think people who eat cows, chickens, lamb, turkeys, pigs, and fish have to moral clarity scream at Chinese people who eat donkeys or Belgians who eat horse. Some Indian Hindus think Americans are barbaric for eating steak and ground beef that’s formed into hamburger patties. Cows are a sacred animal to them. Either way, if you are eating meat, something had to die before it was served to you. And this is coming from a former vegetarian. I know the arguments of both worlds.

Okay, enough about the politics of eating. What was the sandwich like? Honestly, it tasted a lot like corned beef. I had the same experience when I tried camel a few years ago. The texture of the meat itself is very lean, and it tastes like it has been through a curing process. That makes sense if you consider that a donkey is a very muscular animal, and lean, muscular meat tends to be tough and hard to eat when not prepared right. Something has to be chemically done to it just soften it up. And, but the way, corned beef is also cured — as is pastrami. All pastrami is a corned beef that’s been rolled in black pepper. And donkey can taste like pastrami that has not been rolled in black pepper.

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The texture, taste, and deep red color is a lot like corned beef.

Also, as any sandwich lover can tell you, meat is one thing and bread is another. You could have most delicious filling in the word, but if the bread is bad, the sandwich will still be a dismal failure. The donkey burger 驴肉火烧 uses a bread unlike other Chinese sandwiches. It’s very crispy and flaky. It has the crunch of non-sweetened pastry dough. So, would I eat this again?

Yes, and I already have. Please forgive the double entendres I am about to employ. As jokes go, these are easily picked, low-hanging fruit that are hard to pass by. I cannot stop myself.  Do I like eating ass? Yes. Have I hit the streets looking for ass? Yes.  Do I like getting my hands around more ass? Yes. Do I wish I had more ass in my life? Yes.

Beautifully Grotesque

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It’s not everyday that you look at a work of traditional Chinese art and become reminded of Millia Jovovich and sub-par horror movies, but that did happen to me, and it did happen in Changzhou. How is this possible? I was looking at the above sculpture. Specifically, I was looking at the pits, nooks and crannies in the dog’s torso, and I had a vague feeling I saw something similar once. It had something to do with tendons and ligaments stretched over bare, exposed bone. And then it hit me all at once: Resident Evil. The above sculpture was reminding me of the zombie canines featured in that movie adaptation of a video game.

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Actually, a lot of Tu Yidao’s work made my mind lurch towards the grotesque.

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Tu Yidao 屠一道, a native to Changzhou, was born in 1913, and he went on to attract fame across China for a very particular form of Chinese art: root carving.

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The tradition of carving roots extends back thousands of years to the Warring States period. In art, form is often an extension of the medium. Some of resulting sculptures take on a slightly grotesque appearance because the wood being used is oddly shaped in its natural state. It takes a skilled eye to actually look at a stump and network of roots and see a peacock. It takes even more skill to then fashion that tree root into something resembling an actual peacock or any other type of bird.

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Or a horse.

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The Changzhou municipal government began funding a small museum in Tu Yidao’s honor in the 1980’s, according to the Chinese language Baidu version of Wikipedia. So, this place has been around for a long time. I have been there a few times since I moved here in 2014. Sometimes I have gone there, and the doors were locked. Other times, it has been open. It sometimes felt like a gamble on whether the place remained open to the public or not.

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It’s relatively tiny, and it’s in a northern corner of Hongmei Park — not to far from the RT Mart near the downtown train station. It costs five RMB to get in, and each time I visited, the worker behind the front desk had to turn the lights on. Each time I have visited, though, I have always left thinking about more than just zombie movies and reanimated canines. Chinese culture is more inventive than what some foreigners give it credit for.

Where Domino’s Pizza Is Not

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Sometimes, Baidu and other map apps are not to be trusted in China. They will say something exists when it actually doesn’t. Consider the above screenshot. It’s giving a Changzhou location for 达美乐比萨,or, as it is better known in English, Domino’s Pizza. According to the picture, it can be found in the relatively new and empty Rise Sun Manhattan Plaza in Xinbei. The above is what I like to term as a “map ghost.” If you actually go there, you will not find the American pizza chain. Nothing is there.

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Sure, the marquee says “pizza” and has the 达美乐 characters, but the place is absolutely empty and devoid of life with a bare concrete floor. So, maybe Domino’s is still in Changzhou, and maybe it’s a a different location? Map apps are quite often wrong right? I say this because two friends of mine were very hopeful, and they heard rumors of a Changzhou Domino’s from Chinese people. However, if you go by Domino’s actual Chinese website, the chances are bleak. Their store locator only lists locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Not to point out the obvious, but if their website does not acknowledge a presence in Changzhou, than Domino’s Pizza is more than likely not in Changzhou.

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Qingyunshan and Qingming

If the myriad of things lacked life they would vanish.

–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Understanding Taoism sometimes can be quite a challenge. Allow me to reference Winston Churchill: it’s like a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma. True, Churchill was originally talking about understanding Russian politics, but that doesn’t stop people from using that quote to talk about things that seem utterly opaque.  Yet, I tried to understand Lao Tzu’s (Laozi in Pinyin. The book I referenced used the Cantonese spellings for author and title) words over the Qingming holiday.

The cold weather had gone away, and I finally got back to wandering around Changzhou on my ebike. Since it was a holiday to honor the dead, I thought I would go out hunting for cemeteries. Only, I didn’t go into any of them. That might be culturally offensive, and I just wanted to look at them from afar. In the process, I saw people lots of people burning Joss Paper, hell money, and so much more. Burnt offerings is a way to honor the dead in China. So, setting “hell money” aflame is like an inter-dimensional wire transfer for somebody who has yet to be reincarnated. At one cemetery, I saw one family build a fake house and then torch it.  But, that wasn’t the thing it that made me think of the Tao Te Ching quote. It was this place.

 

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This is Qingyunshan Temple 青云山道观. It’s in Wujin, but not really in the Hutang area most foriegners know. Actually, its in Niutang, which is west of Hutang, and it’s at the end of a bumpy and cracked concrete road. I didn’t find this place by accident. Besides cemeteries, I spent my Qingming holiday looking for a Taoist place of worship. Changzhou doesn’t have many of them. I found this as a result of entering vague Chinese keywords into Baidu Maps and navigating towards a red dot on my mobile phone. Qingyunshan basically looks like this …

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Forlorn. Seemingly abandoned. There was almost a haunted vibe here. I pressed my phone up to one window to get a shot inside.

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According to Baidu, this Qingyunshan Temple is 500 years old. It made me think a little about Lao Tzu’s words. “If the myriad of things lacked life they would vanish.” This place looks like it lacks life. Yet, it hasn’t vanished. The Cultural Revolution and the contemporary boom in real estate and infrastructure construction has made plenty of places vanish. So, maybe it’s not truly dead?

Yet, even on Qingming, when some people actively seek out such places to religiously honor their ancestors, it was relatively silent, solemn. It would be a mistake to think that this place was totally abandoned, though. The few candles somebody lit appeared sort of fresh. So, somebody other than me had been here recently.

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Where Aussies Might Find Tim Tams

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Closed near Wujin Wanda.

What is one way to potentially piss off an Australian? Claim to be a Aussie specialty shop and do not sell Tim Tams. That actually happened in Wujin. Axmall was this little nook store next to the Wanda Realm hotel. Only, they didn’t have Tim Tams the last time I went there. Sure, they had some bottles of Australian wine and some health products, but the shelves seemed remarkably empty. Not long after that, the store shut down for good. Word is, Axmall will be moving to Xinbei.

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YUM!

So, what is a Tim Tam? It’s two biscuits sandwiched together with a creamy center. Those biscuits are then dipped in chocolate. There are a variety of different flavors from doubled coated (double dipped), dark chocolate, white chocolate, and more. Amazingly enough, you don’t have to go to an Australian shop to find them.

However, they were not at Metro last time I looked, and they are not on the import shelves of the major foreign grocery stores like Walmart or Tesco. I have only seen them in two different imported good shops and both are chains.

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All three Zhoumo stores look like this, pretty much.

Zhoumo 周茉 has consistently had them. The smallest one of these is downtown and right off of Beidajie and near the now mostly empty Parksons. The Xinbei store is on Taihu Road and can be easily walked to from Wanda Plaza. The Wujin shop is on Wuyi Road and is across the street from the Coco City shopping mall. Only, that one only had white chocolate Tim Tams the last time I was there. And ugh, to quote an Australian friend and all around Tim Tam enthusiast, “White chocolate is not real chocolate and does not deserve to be in the same category as chocolate.” For the sake of a general readership, expletives were edited out of that quote. Anyhow, that’s just our two humble opinions on the matter. The variety of flavors available seems to fluctuate, but Zhoumo usually tends to restock and reorder Tim Tims regularly, so it could just be the luck of when you go and what they have.

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The smaller Way To Delicious stores that don’t carry Tim Tams tend to look like this.

The other store to carry these yummy biscuits is Way To Delicious 味和氏. I have seen some of those stores either keep that English name, but the trend seems to be a switch to “Waycious.” While I have seen Tim Tams at all of Changzhou’s Zhoumo supermarkets, the same cannot be said for Way To Delicious. It seems that if the store is large, you will likely find Tim Tams. If the store is very small, they will likely not be stocked. Personally, I have seen them at three specific locations. The stores on Hanjiang Road and Taihu Road in Xinbei both had them. The Wujin location in the South Town area near Jagerwirt also had them.

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Way To Delicious in Wujin, near Jagerwirt, RT Mart, and The Grand Metropolis Mall. The development is called South Town in English.

Of course, you don’t have to be Australian to enjoy Tim Tams. Last I checked, my home state of New Jersey was nowhere near the Down Under. All you need to love these things is a sweet tooth. As part of “research” for this post, I also shared some with a Chinese friend, and she said, “Wow, these are quite good” after her first bite.

As is always the case when writing about shopping, I can only attest that the products were on the shelf when I looked. I can’t guarantee that they will always be there. 

Way To Delicious rebranded as "Waycious" on Taihu Road in Xinbei.
Way To Delicious rebranded as “Waycious” on Taihu Road in Xinbei.