Timeless and from Changzhou

Does this sound familiar? Somebody gets sick from a highly contagious disease, and the patient is told to go into isolation for their greater good of their community. Everybody around the infected person is told to quarantine, because they too might be infected. Only, the patient’s newlywed husband refuses to follow the advice of doctors. He demands that he must stay to tend her and nurse her back to health. She does recover, but because newlywed refused to follow the doctor’s instructions, he contracts the illness from his betrothed and dies.

This sounds like a COVID-19 tragedy — especially if you are American where the disease is still out of control. But, it is not. Actually, it’s a Chinese story, and it has nothing to do with COVID-19. It is a plot of a play written originally in English by a Changzhou native, Hong Shen, more than a hundred years ago. It was originally performed at Ohio State University. In 2013, the university revived the play with a multicultural casting. The disease in question was the plague. The story goes like follows.

This play, “The Wedded Husband,” was about much more than just dealing with an epidemic. It was also about the conflicts of traditional Chinese values confronting a modernizing world. It tells the tale of an arranged marriage. The perspective husband is a bumbling idiot, as he is both childish and a simpleton.

Here, you see him more engaged with sexy fan dancers than the adults in the room.

And his future wife? She wants none of that noise.

These screen captures come YouTube, by the way.

She knows she has been promised her father’s close friend. Even though she loves somebody else, she’s willing to accept her duty and do as her father commands. It’s a basic case of Chinese filial piety.

Yet, she faints during the wedding ceremony. She’s whisked away, and the diagnosis is not a broken heart, it’s the plague that’s hit China. Throughout the script, plague has always been in “The City” and not the small town where they are at. I know this is wild extrapolation, but I never saw a Changzhou-Shanghai conflict if I actually hadn’t before. Changzhou, and every thing else that isn’t Shanghai, are just mere provinces. They are The City. We who don’t live there are the The Wilderness. It’s not a big part of a this play, but is a part of living in China and near Shanghai is to be constantly told that you are always inferior to Shanghai. Anyhow moving on.

The play ends with a reversal. The widow now has a chance at a wedding she wanted from the get go: to a man she actually loved. Only, now, she refuses that as well, citing Chinese tradition and a sense of duty to a man she never liked. She now feels the need to honor a guy who nursed her back to health and gave his own life doing so.

The psychological entanglements here are epic. Hong Shen, as a modernizing dramatist wanting to pull the Chinese stage away from traditional opera, once professed a desire to become his native country’s Henrik Ibsen. Besides possibly “Pyr Gynt,” most of this Norwegian’s plays were gritty and real and tackled issues facing everyday people. A play like “The Wedded Husband” definitely shows that influence — gritty and real — goes a long way in doing exactly that.

There is a very tiny memorial hall dedicated Hong’s family. It’s in an alley next to Hongmei Park. It’s in this hall that I learned of “The Wedded Husband” and the Changzhou native that sought to revolutionize Chinese drama.

COVID-19 is a generational issue. It has affected so many lives across the world that one blogger could never totally assess its impact. It’s an issue that historians for generations to come will be examining. Living through it has been hell. A lot of expats have experienced this pain both in China and then in our native countries. Finding this play gave me some comfort that outbreaks have happened before, and people do find a way through them. And, most importantly, dealing with the corona virus is not new. Fighting disease is a story as old as being human.

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A Farewell to an F-Word

“This has all happened before, and it will happen again.”

The above quote comes from Battlestar Galactica, which is one of the greatest sci-fi TV shows of all time. Humans build robots. Robots rebel and almost kill off all of humanity. Humanity recovers and builds more robots. Like shampoo, rinse and repeat. History can be cyclical, and patterns do repeat themselves in different contexts from eon to epoch. Just give it time, and a certain type of event will repeat itself. I was thinking about this recently in a much more silly and mundane context.

I took the above photo recently. It’s of a YMD supermarket’s grand openning near Hohai University’s north gate. Specifically, the grocery store is on the second floor, and you have to take an escalator to get in. The ground floor is a fresh market where vendors sell meat and vegetables.

As of this writing, I am less than one month away from my seven-year anniversary of moving from America to Changzhou. The last five have been in Xinbei when I took my current job at Hohai. In all of those years, there has been something weird about this exact retail location. Supermarkets have opened here to much fanfare, and then they go out of business inevitably. They get gutted and remodeled and they reopen. I don’t know why, exactly. Part of me would like to wager that having a grocery store selling meat and vege above a fresh market that sells the same is a bit of a redundancy. By my calculation, I think this is the third or fourth time a supermarket has had a grand opening here while I have been around.

There is also another reason why this YMD caught my attention. It’s an end of an era to an extent. This part of Xinbei used to be home to one of the most infamous bits of Chinglish in Changzhou history.

The English name of the previous supermarket is common misspelling of a frequently used swear word — one euphemistically referred to as “The F-Word.” Chinglish happens in many ways, and this instance is by using the Pinyin for 福客多 fu ke duo and turning that into Fuked Mart. It’s purely accidental — just like when I learned to never use the word shabby while teaching because it sounds like a nasty Chinese vulgarity. Well, now Fuked is gone forever. YMD — which has no scandalous misinterpretations that I can think of — has taken its place. But, seriously, when it comes to this real estate location and supermarkets, Battlestar Gallactica’s logic still applies. This has happened before, and it will happen again. I get the feeling that YMD’s future at this location is Fuked.

A Spaetzle Smackdown

Sitting in Jagerwirt a couple of years ago, I once ate a bowl of spaetzle and burst out into tears. Those who know me personally also know that my first few years in Changzhou were highly moody ones. Essentially, I hadn’t really fully gotten over the death of my mother years before, and that had ripple effects to other parts of my life in highly negative ways. I basically was still in bottle-up your feelings mode. So, what was it about German noodles that sent me off on a crying fit? Trust me, this is going to sound really dumb.

My mother was the greatest cook on the planet, and I’ll fight anybody who disagrees! In my family’s travels across the world, my mom learned how to cook many things from Filipino chicken adobe to various European cuisines and the Italian-America fare my grandmother taught her since childhood. Everyday was a day that my family got spoiled at the dinner table, and if there was anything my mom loved to do, it was spoil her family with good food.

However, there was one dish of hers that I never liked, and for many decades I always refused to order it in German restaurants: spaetzle. The thought was simple: if my mother couldn’t master it, than it was the dish’s fault and not hers. When you are trying to overcome profound grief, it’s best to confront your ghosts, even when those specters are merely represented by a bowl of cheese and noodles. Suffice to say, Jagerwirt’s spaetzle was easily better than my mom’s. I burst into tears because admitting that somebody could cook something better than her felt like an obscene personal heresy. Yes, I said this was really dumb reasoning, but then again, grief can really warp your thinking even on the most mundane things.

All these years later, I can now definitively say that I am in a calmer space where I can eat German cheesy noodles without having a full-tilt emotional breakdown. I know this because I recently dined on this dish twice over the past month. I thought it might be interesting to do a comparative study. Let’s first start with Zapfler over at Canal 5 in Zhonglou.

Zapfler’s spaetzle is solid in its simplicity. You basically have cheese melted over noodles in a very creamy sauce. Changzhou really has nothing by way of American-style mac n’ cheese, but the taste with this is one is one of the closest one will come. For that reason alone, I would definitely go back to Zapfler for this. Next up, let’s give Jagerwirt in Wujin consideration.

Jagerwirt’s version is not as basic as Zapfler’s. This has chives and fried onions as a garnish. Also included are little bits of bacon — which adds a slightly more oily element Zapfler’s lacks. Still, also very good.

So, if this were a noodle fight, who would be victorious? Well, if this were a UFC bout or a boxing match, it would definitely go the distance and to the judges’ scorecard. Both are very good, and this call goes down to basically my personal preference. I would absolutely have both again in the future, but I have to nod my head to Jagerwirt. I liked the contrast crunchy onions bring to what is essentially a very cheesy and gooey dish. Plus, bacon is a universal condiment that makes most anything taste better.

Still, don’t trust me on this. Try both and come to your own conclusion. And, Mom — wherever you are — I’m sorry to say this, really; both are better than yours.

Jagerwirt
Zapfler