Revisiting Yun Nantian

This was a legal notice posted to the door of a Yun Nantian Memorial Hall back in 2015. I know this because I took this picture back then. Essentially, it was informing the people squatting the place to move out, they had not right to be there in the first place, and this cultural site had been damaged in anyway, extremely hefty fines were going to be doled out. The document also essentially said, “Give up the key you have to the door.” It is not my place to weigh in what or what did not happen regarding this notice. To be honest, I don’t really know the whole story. I just remember that, many years ago, I had taken this picture once I first started to think about doing a blog about Changzhou. However, let’s put the issue of this legal notice to the side, for a moment. Let’s get back to some basics. Who was Yun Nantian?

He was a poet, artist, and calligrapher at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty and lived from 1633 to 1690. He was from Wujin, and he was and still is buried there. His tomb is in an empty field next to the Science and Education Town that’s next to the six-campus cluster of College City.

Yun Nantian, also known as Yun Shouping, is now mostly remembered for painting flowers, insects, and other nature-related subject matter.

Not only was Yun considered a master of his generation and time period, but his work is still displayed internationally. In short, he’s still an important part of the long haul of Chinese art history.

So, now, at least, let us get back to that legal notice on the door his memorial hall back in 2015. Wandering around on my ebike in September of 2021, I accidentally found myself back in that corner of Wujin, and the weird notice about squatters was gone. To my surprise, the door was open and the place was open to the public.

So, I just had to go through the door. The curiosity itch just had to be scratched. I mean, years ago, access to this place was denied.

Turns out, the Yun Nantian Memorial Hall is one small building within a walled compound.

Inside said building, you can find a cast-metal sculpture of the artist.

There is some art on the walls, displayed for a visitor to see.

And then you have framed work just sitting in a corner — with layers of dust on it, seemingly forgotten with no available wall space for hanging.

And it should be remembered that all of this is still in a forgotten and obscure alley in Wujin. It’s not tourist friendly. I can only imagine the weird conversations with a taxi or Didi driver one would have to come out to this place. “Um, you want to go where?” and “Do you want me to wait for you as it only takes half an hour to see this place and there is nothing else around of note?”

I don’t know the answers to that. I just know that, for years, this was a Changzhou place of mystery for me. I never did learn about what happened to the squatters that elicited the 2015 ultimatum posted on a locked entrance door. Now that I actually got in and had a look around, the place is still a mystery. I mean this in terms of the neglect and afterthought of a historical Chinese that’s still exhibited internationally. Nothing has been answered. In a way, I’m kind of okay with that; Sometimes, the idea of a mystery is more interesting than having an answer. It gives you more things to think about.

Requiem for a Rat Place

Picture the following scenario. You’re eating at a local Chinese restaurant and a woman starts suddenly screaming. Shortly thereafter, another woman starts screaming. There is an immediate shuffling of chairs as nearly everybody in the eatery bolts to their feet while yelling. You also jump up, but more out of curiosity. Has the nearby table of drunken, extremely boisterous, beer drinking Chinese men smoking cigarettes erupted into fisticuffs? No, because besides the few initial screams, nobody is really talking. There is, however, a big, fat rat scurrying across the floor. Normally, this would elicit a storm of complaints leveled at the owner and management once the rodent runs out the open front door and hushed silence descends. You know, outrage at the apparent lack of cleanliness that has led to a marauding rat. Does that happen in this case? No, it doesn’t. Everybody sits down and resumes eating.

This begs the question why? The above written scenario isn’t a hypothetical. It’s actually a personal experience I have had, but I decided to rewrite it in the second person point of view. You know, the whole put the reader in your shoes literary device. So, now the question is Why didn’t I flee the restaurant or complain? The answer is much more simple than one might think. I sat for likely the same reason everybody else did: I liked the food that much, and I wasn’t going to let one measly rat ruin my dining experience.

The place in question was 司令的锅 siling de guo, which translates as “Commander’s Pot.” I have since learned that this is possibly a local chain in Changzhou, but this particular rat incident happened at a Jinling Road location in Tianning that’s very close to the bridge over the canal to Wujin and it’s Wanda Plaza. Up until now, me and my most frequent dining partner have never referred to it by its actual name. To us, it’s simply just The Rat Place. The rodent incident was one of the first times we visited, and we have returned several times since then.

This is well and nice, but it still doesn’t answer the earlier why question. Commader’s Pot specializes in soups — very, very meaty soups. They are actually deceptive in their simplicity.

The above is just simple beef and cabbage. The beef itself has a more brisket-like texture, and all of it is still attached to the bone, which adds a sort of heartiness to the soup’s broth. Also, the stock is not at all spicy; this is local Changzhou food, after all. A little bit salty would be more apropos. The bones, chunks of fat, and more, however, led me to find it easier to use my hands rather than chopsticks to delicately gnaw and otherwise separate what I wanted to eat from what I didn’t or couldn’t.

The same could be said for the pork variety. The meat, in both soups, is tender enough to be easily pulled apart. The proliferation of bones is also something to be considered. Every time I have eaten at this place, I’ve left with a doggy bag of bones and fat scraps, but they were never for my later consumption. My most frequent dining partner has two canines, and those two mutts love the place as well. They get regularly rationed take-out bones for days. And they also absolutely love it when fat scraps have been mixed into their everyday dry food.

A doggy bag for actual dogs.

While staff and other diners have suggested the pork and cabbage is the signature dish of the place — what it is locally known for in the neighborhood — I actually preferred the beef. I’m not saying that lightly because I really like the pork, too. Speaking of staff and other diners, every time I have eaten here, I have gotten some sort of laowai gawk. All that means, essentially, is that I have gotten a strong suspicion that this place has gotten next to no expat traffic. To be fair, its location was in a place that is not necessarily a population center for the foreign community. The same could be said for the other locations once you look at a map.

No locations downtown. No locations in Wujin. The Xinbei location is actually out by the north train station and near the end of Line 1 of the subway. The other seems to be in a bit of Jiangyin north of Dinosaur Park. As I said, not exactly convenient to where most of the foreign community actually lives. There is little chance of accidental, curious foot traffic.

And this makes me cycle back to the rat — the little rodent that caused chaos one of the first times I ever ate at Siling de Guo, aka Commander’s pot. That Jinling Road location is now gone. I realized, once the place closed, that the rat was not the reason why it shut down.

The area around it has been slowly vacated because demolition and redevelopment is imminent. In short, my Rat Place was surrounded by a lot of delipidated property.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how clean an owner keeps his kitchen. If the other property around him is infested, there will be a de facto rodent problem. It should be noted that I only saw one rat there. Never cockroaches, flies, or other insects. Impending eviction is one reason to shut down a restaurant location and reopen elsewhere. It’s also a convenient one when, despite best efforts, rats still can find away to scamper through your dining room and cause a ruckus of screaming patrons. Perhaps this a good reason why myself and other patrons have been so forgiving?

I write Requiem for Rat Place because it’s exactly that — a requiem. The place whose food had charmed me to the point of forgiving a rat is gone. It’s dead. The above map location is where it used to be. It has since reopened up the street a little on Jinling. In fact, it’s new location is practically at the intersection of Jinling and Zhongwu Da Dao and less than half a kilometer from the old one. But, this new address has not been updated on Baidu Maps. It’s not an easy Wechat Location Sharing pin at this precise moment.

Still, the move has been an upgrade. The place is so clean the white tile floor gleams. The dining area has been enlarged. It’s in a better, easier to find location. This is all great. I wish the place and all profit greater foot traffic will bring it. Yet, part of me will always miss the hole in the wall it used to be.