Between Nothing and Something

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Searching for history in Changzhou can lead to amazing finds like a tiny museum dedicated dragons and another dedicated to cigarettes, and sometimes it’s downright quixotic. Searching for the Dacheng #3 Factory historical site was one of those quixotic searches. I first noticed this place from across the canal. I saw a historical marker and some traditional-looking roof lines, and curiosity ensnared me. I actually spent a month or two looking how to get to this place. Finding it actually meant riding my bike down random narrow alleys.

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This is basically a poor neighborhood, so the sight of a tall white dude on an ebike garnered weird looks. “Why is he here?” I have grown immune to it. In fact, I just smile, wave, and say 你好!That usually generates enough good will that people smile back. That especially helps when I had to get off my bike and do some searching on foot. A genuine smile, I have learned, can go miles while you do not have adequate Chinese skills. I still have no doubt some of the locals are still thinking, “What the hell is this weirdo doing in this obscure part of Changzhou?”

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If you have roamed around Changzhou long enough, you will find that people will actively seek out every bit of space possible to garden and grow vegetables. It doesn’t matter how tiny the plot. Eventually, I found the historical site that had alluded me for a month or two.

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Yeah, it was a little bit overgrown. The historical marker was still intact.

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So, I mentioned the word “quixotic” earlier. So, what is was useless and silly about this search? What was the windmill I was tilting at? Remember the sign says “protected” for “historical and cultural value at the provincial level.” Yeah, right. This is what the place looks like behind the wall.

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Believe me, stuff like this is so normal in Changzhou. It’s the one of the many signs of a city rapidly changing. Like or not, Changzhou is undergoing a rapid transformation and metamorphosis. Right now, that means a lot of rubble, everywhere. But sometimes, idle wanderings lead to things you don’t expect.

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Apparently, in the back alleys next to a canal, I found a grave site. The two huge stone boxes are caskets. Lots of people were buried in them. The signage did not say if they were local, or if these things were simply moved here because there was open space and it was convenient. Honestly, in China, you can never tell, especially if you are a foreigner trying to figure out a local culture that is not in your native language. From the signage, I eventually that two important people were among the interred.  They were 白埈 Bái jùn and 样淑 Yàng shū. I was told these two guys were important in Changzhou. Funny, thing, Baidu searches go nowhere. I can’t find anything on who they are. So, these stone caskets will linger in my mind until I can understand the story behind them. In short, the search to understand China continues. I always will.

 

Amee Toast 凹蜜土司 at Xinbei Wanda

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I am always on the look out for Chinese food that is unintentionally friendly towards western eaters. I like to call it “unintentional fusion.” The people creating the food are not actively going, “Hey, likes mix western food with Chinese.” No, its Chinese food that just happens to be similar to some types of North American or European cuisine. I recently ran into something intriguing on the Xinbei Wanda pedestrian street. It’s a place called Amee Toast 凹蜜土司 Āo mì tǔsī. It’s brand new, as it just opened.

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The name loosely translates as “concave honey toast.” It’s a thick slab of toasted bread that has been hollowed out and filled with meat and vegetables. I showed a picture of one to a friend who is also a professional chef, and she said, “Oh, it’s a coffin sandwich.” She’s lived in Taiwan, and a coffin sandwich is a Taiwanese specialty. Only, those involve a creamy soup on the inside. What’s over at Wanda is more of a Mainland China version of that type of sandwich.

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So, how was it? I tried two of Amee’s offerings, a bacon sandwich and a black pepper chicken one. Both were served with sliced and cooked mushrooms.  When I say bacon, Brits, Canadians, and Americans should not get their hopes up. It’s Chinese bacon. That’s well and fine. A condiment in the sandwich tasted a little like the sweet chilli dipping sauce you might find served with appetizers at a Thai restaurant. The black pepper chicken was okay. As a whole, the sandwiches here raged from 18 to 28 RMB. Now, would I go back? Yes, there are a few others I want to try, but this is your basic mall food, and it really is hard to compete with the shwarma-like roujiamo food shack nearby, which is my favorite place to eat at Wanda. This place also treats toast as a sweet desert — some with burnt cheese, and others with blueberry jam and other fruits.

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There is something else I found that seemed interesting. This, like the Mr. Potato next to it, looks like a chain. Yet, after searching, even with the Chinese name, I turned up next to nothing. All I could find was an article about an Amee Toast in Wuxi, which claims to be the first of it’s kind in China. I have seen one in Wuxi; it was in the Chong’an area downtown. So, if Changzhou has one now, this could be the beginning of a new snack food chain.

Art and Cigarettes

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During my first year in Changzhou, I used to collect empty packs of cigarettes. It was a silly hobby that came as an extension of a highly self destructive habit. However, the culture around tobacco and smoking in China is extremely different. In the west, packs of cigarettes are simple and focused on branding and logos.In China, some packs of cigarettes can havd gold and silver embossed packaging — not to mention holograms of things like pandas and cats. The weird thing is that I was beginning to treat collecting empty cigarette packs the way I used to collect comic books and trading cards: Ooh, look! It has a shiny foil stamp!

This is a marked difference from other countries. Thailand, for example, has graphic pictures of diseased lungs on their cigarette packaging. Of course, in America, it’s gotten to the point where smoking has gotten so taboo, I once got yelled at for smoking in Central Park, New York City. That’s right. I was outside, far from people, and was ashing into an empty water bottle while sitting on a bench. In short, I was trying to hide and not litter. Somebody still felt the need to go out of their way to shout at me and inform me that I was slowly killing myself. Like I didn’t know that already. Like most smokers do not know that already.

Of course, smoking doesn’t have the same social stigma in China. At weddings, gift packs of smokes await guests on restaurant tables. It’s seen as a sign of respect for one guy to give a cigarette to another — especially while conducting a business meeting lunch that also requires drinking baijiu. As mentioned earlier, there is the strange ornate artistry of some on the packs themselves. While I eventually threw my collection out, apparently this is not an uncommon hobby in China. In fact, Changzhou has a small museum dedicated just to tobacco packaging and related paraphernalia.

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The Ge Xiaoxing Sino-Foreign Cigarette Packs and Appliance musuem has AA rating from the from the China National Tourism Administration. Sure, this is the second to lowest rating, but it still means that it receives government support and funding. AA just means it’s not as important as something classified as AAAAA. It’s a very tiny place, and inside you can see old and rare packs of cigarettes wall mounted as if they are priceless art.

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There are other things too, while I found the old packs interesting to look at, I found the older advertisement wall hangings even more intriguing to look at as art. In a sense, it gives a sense of how old popular culture in China differs, slightly, from the west. Yet, part of me wondered how different these are from the Guinness For Strength! pub ads you used to see in the UK decades ago.

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Besides these and the packs themselves, there are also tins, vintage ashtrays, snuff bottles, old pipes, and more behind protective glass.

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As mentioned earlier, this place is tiny.  It’s also near the smaller pagoda in Hongmei, but it’s not actually in the park itself. It’s easy to spend roughly 15 minutes to half an hour in here and see everything. In a way, it’s best to pair visiting this place with visiting the park itself and the other small museums there, like the Tu Yidao Stump Carving Museum.

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Chinese address at the bottom of the screenshot.

In many respects, this place celebrates a form of folk art. In that way, it’s not that different than the Hidden Dragon Museum over in the former Qishuyan district to the east of Changzhou. It’s the same concept. A man spends his life passionately collecting something, and that collection becomes a public exhibit documenting a certain aspect of culture. That makes me wonder about something else — something more related to habitual failing attempts to quit smoking altogether. In 100 years, will there be museums dedicated to vaping and antique vaporizers? Time will tell.

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Three Italian-Friendly Chinese Noodle Dishes

Marco Polo, famous for being the first real European cultural ambassador to travel to China centuries ago, did not bring noodles back to Italy for the first time after traveling through the Middle Kingdom. This is not to dispute the Chinese claim that they created noodles first. They did. It’s just that the creation of pasta in Italy predates Polo completely. Still, the legend persists. However, I got to wondering, recently, if there are some Chinese dishes that Italians, Chinese, and Italian Americans could equally enjoy. By this, I mean some unintentional fusion.To figure that out, I figured that two ingredients needed to be central: noodles and tomatoes. While there plenty of possibilities throughout Changzhou, here are the three dishes I found recently that I enjoyed.

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Over in Laimeng, in the downtown area, I found something called 牛肉烩饺 Niúròu huì jiǎo. This was at a Lanzhou place not that far from the clock tower and Starbucks. It’s basically a dumpling soup with a tomato base and clear vermicelli noodles. Since this is considered halal Chinese food, the dumplings are filled with spiced beef and not pork. The tomato flavor of the soup is something people who like Italian cuisine might enjoy, but the other thing are the dumplings themselves. The common misconception about Italian food is that raviolis have to be filled with cheese. Quite often they are not. Beef stuffed raviolis are quite common, for example. In America, a similar misconception is that Polish perogies are always stuffed with mashed potatoes; they are not. The great thing is that whether it’s a perogie, a ravioli, or a chinese dumpling, the concept is the same. It’s just the fillings differ.

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This is 慢烤番茄牛肉面 Màn kǎo fānqié niúròu miàn at Hefu Noodle. The base broth is made from roasted tomatoes, and to quote Emril Lagasse, you could pair it with a tire, and it would even make rubber taste delicious. What the famous American TV cook meant, basically, was that anything could possibly go with a specific ingredient. The base broth here is basically the star, and everything else is a supporting player. But then again, that’s a fundamental truth when it comes to soups. Bad broth equals a bad soup overall, and there is no exception to that.

While I have loved absolutely loved Hefu Noodle in the past, they recently changed their menu. Most of what I have tried is gone, and now I have to relearn their menu all over. The roasted tomato soup above seems to have survived the shake up, but the meat seemed a little less lean and more like fatty-but-boneless ribs, recently.

Hefu is a chain of restaurants, and Changzhou has three of these places that I know of: One on the fourth floor of Xinbei Wanda, one in the basement of the downtown Injoy Plaza, and one in the basement of the New World Mall, also downtown.

 

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And then, there is the good old reliable, Lanzhou shaved beef noodles, aka 刀削面 Dāoxiāomiàn. Like the above mentioned dumpling soup, this is considered a type of Chinese Halal food. Lanzhou beef noodle joints are honestly all over Changzhou and China in general. However, not all shaved noodles are the same. Again, it comes down to the broth and how rich the flavor actually is. There is one thing I have noticed about daoxiaomian: the deeper red it looks, the better it probably tastes. If it has a lighter color, it will probably taste watered down. The tomato flavor is less pronounced.

Lanzhou shaved beef noodles were actually the first dish to remind me once of the minestrone my mother used to make. It’s also important to openly state that these are not Italian foods. They are totally Chinese. But, if you have a taste for Italian food, then you might be sympathetic to these dishes, too.

 

Where Xuejia Honors Su Dongpo

Dare to pray benevolence, less thanks to mercy. Chen see one side to go to Nanjing since, waiting for the purpose of the DPRK. Do not take the day.

— Definitely Not Su Dongpo

Su Dongpo 苏东坡, often considered one of the greatest poets of the Chinese language, did not write the above quote. It would be beyond absurd to suggest that a noted writer and artist of the Song Dynasty could foretell of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka North Korea. No, this is something that became garbled into English once I copy and pasted the Chinese characters of his article 乞常州居住表 Qǐ chángzhōu jūzhù biǎo into Google Translate. Since it was beyond incomprehensible and impossible to Google in English, I showed this short text to a Chinese colleague and asked him for a general summary. Even he, a university professor and native Chinese speaker, had a hard time reading it. Ancient versions of Chinese doesn’t use compound characters the way the modern language does. A lot of Su’s pictograph choices are simply not used anymore. Put it this way: Su Dongpo’s Chinese is very antiquated, much the same way Geofrey Chaucer’s Middle English is impossible to fully comprehend by a modern speaker.

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Su’s text, whose title could be loosely translated as “Request to Live in Changzhou,” captured my curiosity recently because of a monument in Xinbei. Specifically, it’s in town of Xuejia 薛家镇. This is a town out west of the greater Wanda area most expats know and associate with the name “Xinbei.” It is a stone wall shaped to look like an old bamboo scroll with vertical lines of text meant to be read from up to down and from right to left.

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The wall itself seems to be part of a greater cultural plaza dedicated to the memory of this great writer and artist. But there seems to be another thing, and this seems common to Changzhou, sometimes.

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The place doesn’t seem hardly used at all for it’s originally stated purpose, and some if it actually seems empty. Curious, I texted a friend that actually lives in Xuejia and asked her about it. She also give me the gist of the article, but she also noted that it seems to be a weird thing to have, here. Xuejia didn’t even exist when Su Dongpo was alive. She noted that the history of the town, much like that of Xinbei in general, is relatively short when compared to the rest of the city.

So, what was the article actually about? From what friends have told me, it was actually more of a written request sent to the emperor. He was asking for permission to live in Changzhou. I was told that this original request went ignored, and Su had to resort to writing a second request to live in this city. At times in his life, Su was an exiled imperial official — like most Chinese poets of antiquity were — and spent the most of his life traveling. Of course, he did end up living here. He eventually died here, too. So, it would make sense that even relatively new places in the city would erect some sort of cultural recognition that Changzhou people, to this day still, still consider him one of their own, even if he wasn’t born here.

Here is the original text …

 乞 常 州 居 住 表

臣 軾 言 。 臣 聞 聖 人 之 行 法 也 , 如 雷 霆 之 震 草 木 , 威 怒 雖 甚 , 而 歸 於 欲 其 生 ; 人 主 之 罪 人 也 , 如 父 母 之 譴 子 孫 , 鞭 撻 雖 嚴 , 而 不 忍 致 之 死 。 臣 漂 流 棄 物 , 枯 槁 餘 生 〔 一 〕 。 泣 血 書 詞 , 呼 天 請 命 。 願 回 日 月 之 照 , 一 明 葵 藿 之 心 。 此 言 朝 聞 , 夕 死 無 憾 。 臣 軾 誠 惶 誠 恐 , 頓 首 頓 首 。 臣 昔 者 嘗 對 便 殿 , 親 聞 德 音 。 似 蒙 聖 知 , 不 在 人 後 。 而 狂 狷 妄 發 , 上 負 恩 私 。 既 有 司 皆 以 為 可 誅 , 雖 明 主 不 得 而 獨 赦 。 一 從 吏 議 , 坐 廢 五 年 。 積 憂 薰 心 , 驚 齒 髮 之 先 變 ; 抱 恨 刻 骨 , 傷 皮 肉 之 僅 存 。 近 者 蒙 恩 量 移 汝 州 , 伏 讀 訓 詞 , 有 「 人 材 實 難 , 弗 忍 終 棄 」 之 語 。 豈 獨 知 免 於 縲 絏 , 亦 將 有 望 於 桑 榆 。 但 未 死 亡 , 終 見 天 日 。 豈 敢 復 以 遲 暮 為 歎 , 更 生 僥 覬 之 心 。 但 以 祿 廩 久 空 , 衣 食 不 繼 。 累 重 道 遠 , 不 免 舟 行 。 自 離 黃 州 , 風 濤 驚 恐 , 舉 家 重 病 , 一 子 喪 亡 。 今 雖 已 至 泗 州 , 而 資 用 罄 竭 , 去 汝 尚 遠 , 難 於 陸 行 。 無 屋 可 居 , 無 田 可 食 , 二 十 餘 口 , 不 知 所 歸 , 飢 寒 之 憂 , 近 在 朝 夕 。 與 其 強 顏 忍 恥 , 干 求 於 眾 人 ; 不 若 歸 命 投 誠 , 控 告 於 君 父 。 臣 有 薄 田 在 常 州 宜 興 縣 , 粗 給 饘 粥 , 欲 望 聖 慈 , 許 於 常 州 居 住 。 又 恐 罪 戾 至 重 , 未 可 聽 從 便 安 , 輒 敘 微 勞 , 庶 蒙 恩 貸 。 臣 先 任 徐 州 日 , 以 河 水 浸 城 , 幾 至 淪 陷 。 臣 日 夜 守 捍 , 偶 獲 安 全 , 曾 蒙 朝 廷 降 敕 獎 諭 。 又 嘗 選 用 沂 州 百 姓 程 棐 , 令 購 捕 凶 黨 , 致 獲 謀 反 妖 賊 李 鐸 、 郭 進 等 一 十 七 人 , 亦 蒙 聖 恩 保 明 放 罪 。 皆 臣 子 之 常 分 , 無 涓 埃 之 可 言 。 冒 昧 自 陳 , 出 於 窮 迫 。 庶 幾 因 緣 僥 倖 , 功 過 相 除 。 稍 出 羈 囚 , 得 從 所 便 。 重 念 臣 受 性 剛 褊 〔 二 〕 , 賦 命 奇 窮 。 既 獲 罪 於 天 , 天 無 助 於 下 。 怨 仇 交 積 , 罪 惡 橫 生 。 群 言 或 起 於 愛 憎 , 孤 忠 遂 陷 於 疑 似 。 中 雖 無 愧 , 不 敢 自 明 。 向 非 人 主 獨 賜 保 全 , 則 臣 之 微 生 豈 有 今 日 。 伏 惟 皇 帝 陛 下 , 聖 神 天 縱 , 文 武 生 知 。 得 天 下 之 英 才 , 已 全 三 樂 ; 躋 斯 民 於 仁 壽 , 不 棄 一 夫 。 勃 然 中 興 , 可 謂 盡 善 。 而 臣 抱 百 年 之 永 嘆 , 悼 一 飽 之 無 時 。 貧 病 交 攻 , 死 生 莫 保 。 雖 鳧 鴈 飛 集 , 何 足 計 於 江 湖 〔 三 〕 ; 而 犬 馬 蓋 帷 , 猶 有 求 於 君 父 〔 四 〕 。 敢 祈 仁 聖 , 少 賜 矜 憐 。 臣 見 一 面 前 去 , 至 南 京 以 來 , 聽 候 朝 旨 。 干 冒 天 威 , 臣 無 任 。

Five Good Pizza Places in Changzhou

One of the things I feared most, when leaving New Jersey for China, was going through pizza withdrawal. Yes, I was actually dumb enough to ponder, “I wonder if I can actually find pizza in China.” Stupid, I know, and my fears were completely unfounded. There is very good pizza to be had in Changzhou. Some places are not new to the old timers who have spent a few years here. But, those new to Changzhou may not yet be in the know. Especially with English teachers coming and going on one year contracts, there will always be somebody relatively new to this city. So, here is a rundown of five places to get good pizza in Changzhou. This is not a “best of” list nor should the order be construed as a ranking. Consider this as just five recommendations of places from a pizza snob.

Monkey King

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This is a place that is partly owned by an Italian. And trust me, he is a very, very damned good chef. He creates the menu, concocts the dishes, and runs the kitchen. The pizza here would satisfy a guy from New Jersey. The crust is thin and crispy. If I had to complain about something, it would be that sometimes the crust can be a little over cooked. However, everything else is near perfection. Monkey King has two locations. One in Wujin near Yancheng, and the other in Xinbei, near Candle’s Steakhouse.

Istanbul Restaurant

Istanbul's delicious, but slightly oblong pizza.
Istanbul’s delicious, but slightly oblong pizza.

I know. It’s a Turkish place. However, Turkish cuisine has pide, which is basically Turkey’s version of pizza. It features a thin crust that is formed into a different shape, and it’s sliced into strips, but it’s the same concept as a pizza. Istanbul’s pie with doner kebab meat is highly recommended. But they have the other more standard toppings that a person might find in other shops. Istanbul Restaurant can be found in Xinbei on Taihu Road, near the media tower.

OK Koala

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I know. It’s an Australian themed bar. But the love of pizza is truly international. Koala recently hired a new chef, and the menu is currently being expanded and rewritten. Their pizza tends to go heavy on the tomato sauce, which is something many Chinese-owned pizza parlors just do not do at all. The other thing is that they sell pizza by slice. They are one of the only places I know that does that. So, you are not obligated to eat a whole pie. Sure, foreign owned hotels do by the slice, but it’s part of a buffet you are paying a lot of RMB for. You can’t just pop in for a slice and a craft beer. At Koala, you can. So, it’s highly convenient — especially if you are there one night, drinking, and want to munch on something yummy and cheaply priced. Ok Koala is in Xinbei is located near the BRT stop one shopping center north of Wanda Plaza.

The Tree Pizza

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This is a cozy little place downtown, right off of Beidajie. Tree serves a very thin crust. It is such a small nook of a place that it is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. Besides the excellent pizza, the place has a very pleasant and unique ambiance. For me, it’s almost like eating at a tiny neighborhood parlor back in Asbury Park, Neptune, or Long Branch. When compared to other places, the prices here are very, very affordable. It’s high quality at a low price.

CF Cafe

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CF Cafe is actually a high end bakery serving lots of delicious deserts. They do, however, offer varied range of lunch and dinner items including salads and sandwiches. Thin crust pizza is also on their menu. When compared to Tree or OK Koala, their pizza tends to be a bit pricey. Also, they do not serve regular toppings like pepperoni, but they do have a good five veggie pie that is perhaps one of the more vegetarian friendly options in town that’s more than just a plain cheese pizza. Like Istanbul Restaurant, CF Cafe is on Taihu Road in Xinbei. It’s across the street from Zoo Coffee and the media tower complex.