All posts by richristow

Wujin’s Lakeside Spire

IMG_20180704_145700

Late July and early August tend to be Changzhou’s hottest times of the year. Sometimes, it can get so bad, some may not want to venture out of their homes at all and will opt to hang out in front of an air conditioner on full blast. On the other hand, some locals and some expats from hot climate countries may actually like this time of year and may want to get out and about — and to that, I say to each their own. If one does want to get out, Gehu / West Tai Lake may be a possible destination. While not much has changed in this part of Wujin over the years, there is something interesting to consider.

IMG_20180704_145739

The lakefront around Gehu / West Tai has been undergoing a slow drip-drip pace of development. However, the first time I ever came out here a few years ago, access to the above tower was blocked off. It seemed like a project still under construction.

IMG_20180704_145811

Now, it’s open to the public. A visitor can pay up to 20 RMB to go to up to two different floors. The above photo depicts the uppermost cafe. The floor directly beneath is more of a viewing platform with telescopes. Here, one can get a good look not only at the lake itself, but the surrounding development.

IMG_20180704_145833

As has been noted elsewhere on this blog, Gehu / West Tai is still not the tourist destination and resort the city likely has in its long term plans. Still, there are a few things to see out here, and this tower is one of them. The best way to get to the lakefront involves taking the B15 BRT bus in Wujin, near the Yancheng zoo and amusement park area.

A Love for Liangpi

nomeatwhop
Image courtesy of this blog. https://wifemothereventplanner.com/2013/03/07/big-mac-without-the-mac/

 

“Can I have a Whopper with Cheese, only hold the meat patty.” I crossed my arms. “I would also like …”

“Excuse me.” The Morgantown, West Virginia, Burger King cashier shot me a look that actively mingled confusion with disgust. “What did you just order?”

“Whopper with cheese, minus the meat.”

“So, um, you don’t want a burger without the actual burger?”

“Exactly.”

“You just want condiments and cheese in a bun?”

“Yep.” I nodded slightly. “And fries. I want French fries, too – with a Diet Coke.”

“Um, okay.” She tapped the order into her register.

I saw her mouth the word weirdo under her breath while slightly shaking her head. I really didn’t care. This whole scenario played out multiple times during the 1990’s and my years as a university student in Appalachia. This wasn’t the first time I ordered a tomato, pickle, onion, and cheese sandwich from a fast food joint. It wasn’t the last, either.

You see, I used to be a vegetarian. The reasons are best saved for another time, but in retrospect, they were more out of punk rock vanity than concerns over my health.  I was a very bad vegetarian who consistently made poor dietary choices. Instead of evaluating the nutritional content of my food, I just ate a lot of eggs, steamed vegetables, cheese, and faux meat. Not Dogs? Yup, always in a bun and usually smothered in coleslaw. Fake ham? Absolutely! Especially if I wrapped it around a breaded cheese stick and dipped it into a barbecue sauce. Most of my diet consisted of easily microwaved GMO soy-based foods like Morning Star Farms. In short, I ate a lot of junk food.

One day, I woke up and realized that the counter cultural idealism of my twenties didn’t make for healthy living. Actually, I realized I was a clueless idiot. So, I stopped being a vegetarian who used to call strawberry ice cream dinner, and I eased myself back into sensible, balanced meat consumption. Fish without bones first, followed by poultry, pork, and beef. Now, many people can argue that I have many dreadful habits – rampant neurosis, heavy drinking, saying I am going to go to the gym while never going, and incessant chain smoking, for example.  Correcting all of that is an ongoing work in progress. It is work. It is in progress. I promise.  And, while I am no longer a vegetarian and never will be one again, I still have the upmost respect for people who have made that choice and know how to do it the right way. I also still enjoy eating proper vegetarian and vegan foods from time to time.

I know the challenges that come with it, especially when you are travelling and cannot cook for yourself. I also know that maintaining that lifestyle choice in China is not particularly easy. Being a vegan here is even worse. Sometimes, even a vegetable-only dish has been cooked in or is swimming in pork fat. Noodle soups are even more deceptive. Do you know what was used to make the base broth? Can you be absolutely sure when you are starving, in a Chinese city you don’t recognize due to travel, and walk into a restaurant? Can you ask a restaurant owner if something has an animal by-product in it without coming off like a complete jerk who is using his phone as a translator? Sometimes, that is easier said than done.

I thought about this while between classes at Hohai University, recently. There are plenty of small restaurants between that school’s west gate and Xinbei Wanda Plaza. Like all eateries, some of them survive and some do not last six months. Needless to say, I eat dinner in this area a lot because it’s right next to where I work. It was in one of these places where I stared at a plate of noodles and realized I was eating something totally vegan without realizing it. It was a dish called 凉皮 liángpí.

Yes, the two quail eggs are not exactly vegan friendly, but they can be picked out, and most basic liangpi dishes do not have them.
Yes, the two quail eggs are not exactly vegan friendly, but they can be picked out, and most basic liangpi dishes do not have them.

 

The Chinese for that literally translates as “cold skin.” Yeah, I know. It sounds rather disgusting – as if you are eating something that has been flayed off of a person or animal. Only, it isn’t that. In my experience, the character 皮usually refers to a sheet of something very thin in texture. For example, 豆腐皮 dòufu pí literally translates as “tofu skin” and is a common add-on ingredient in hotpot places and other restaurants that allow you to customize.

So, what exactly is liangpi? It’s a cold and wide rice noodle served in vinegar. Sometimes, chili oil can be added to spice things up. Typically, shredded cucumber, spongy tofu, and crunchy peanuts are involved. Since it is served cold, it’s usually best ate during hot weather. This dish originally comes from Shaanxi, but it is now so popular and widespread, it can be found nearly anywhere in small restaurants or as street food. It’s also relatively cheap. So, for vegans and vegetarians alike, this is a potentially a quick and easy lunch choice.

However, since liangpi has spread all over Changzhou, there are multiple variations and a lot of them have meat added. Some of the these options can include…

IMG_20180610_214442

Lean beef.

IMG_20180612_215739

Shredded chicken.

IMG_20180612_220211

Ground pork.

Really, cold rice noodles are an extremely versatile dish — from it’s vegan friendly base to just about anything the shop in question likes to add to fill out their menu board. This is why I am not really providing a map location. This dish really is that widespread throughout the city. However, there was one place where, between my Hohai classes, I had a blast from the past.

IMG_20180612_220838

This is 农少爷 nóng shàoyé. It focuses more on the Xian variety of liangpi. It recently opened, and I see a lot of university students crammed in here during dinner and lunch rushes. Their “Chinese hamburger” sandwich 肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó is excellent. However, while exploring their menu over multiple days, I ran into this.

IMG_20180612_220143

It is 蔬菜夹馍 shūcài jiā mó — a bun stuffed with vegetables.Biting into this made me think of 20 years ago, during a different time and a different life. A time where I walked into Burger Kings and asked for a hamburger-without-actual-hamburgers. I was young with a huge vinyl record collection of punk rock and death metal albums with titles like Save for Your Doomed Future. If I could talk to that kid, I would tell him that his future — while having some devastating rock bottom moments — isn’t all that bad.

A Return to the Church that Wasn’t

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

–Cecil Palmer, Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale is a current podcast obsession of mine. It delivers fictitious radio news broadcasts from a small, dusty, and utterly insane American desert town. It’s a place where all conspiracy theories are true, and the fabric of reality unravels all the time. The laws of physics and objective reality just don’t work in Night Vale. For example, the above quote is actually a variation on this well known maxim:

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck … it’s probably a duck.

That’s just pure logic. Only, Welcome to Night Vale gleeful turns stuff like that upside down. Just because something looks and sounds like a duck, Cecil is suggesting, doesn’t mean it really is a duck. You could be hallucinating. Your brain could be confused. You might be possessed by a ghost, and it’s distorting everything you see.  So, you might not be seeing the creature’s true nature — it could actually be, for example, not a duck but a psychotic octopus with a penchant for expensive silk neckties and large top hats. I made the well dressed octopus up myself, but it’s a fairly good example of the mind-bending silliness Welcome to Night Vale offers on a regular basis.

Image courtesy of Cincinati Magazine http://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/artsmindsblog/speak-easy-cecil-baldwin/
Image courtesy of Cincinati Magazine http://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/artsmindsblog/speak-easy-cecil-baldwin/

 

What does this have to do with Changzhou? Sometimes, I have recalled the above Cecil Palmer quote while wandering around the city. When you are a foreigner living in China, not everything is exactly what it seems. So, again, If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions. There is a perfect example of this at Gehu Lake in Wujin.

IMG_20180516_214418

This looks like a Christian church, right? Well, it actually isn’t if you go by what a Christian church actually is. I first found this place back in 2014 or 2015, I think. That was a long time before this blog existed. I wrote a lengthy essay about it for T-Guide, which was the precursor of the SupCZ Wechat channel and print magazine. So, if it’s not a church, then what exactly is it? It’s was built as a wedding hall. So, it’s a venue that can be rented. A potential visitor will not find regular Catholic masses or Protestant services here,  because it’s not a place of worship. There aren’t resident clergy here to privide spiritual advice or direction. To riff on Cecil Palmer: If it looks like a church, quacks like a church … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

Well, that was several years ago. I recently returned to Gehu / West Tai Lake (two names for the same body of water). It wanted to see if anything had changed since I left Wujin for Xinbei. The answer is …

IMG_20180516_214444

No, not really. In 2018, the half built construction site next to the “Not a Church” looks exactly the same as it did in 2015. This was supposed to a themed plaza dedicated to the wedding industry. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it seems the funding dried up. But then again, what exactly do I know?  Not a lot. there really isn’t a lot of information about this place online. I did find this part a little funny.

IMG_20180516_214535

Notice the English part of the sign. I had been walking around this thing trying to peer into its windows for like fifteen minutes. I did the same back in 2015. The only difference, all these years later, is the sign and a bored security guard sitting by an open door to the building. I said, Ni Hao to the guard. He didn’t care. I noticed the “keep out” sign only while l was leaving.

Dabei Temple Was Not Sad

Sometimes names can be misleading, and this can be especially true when translation is involved. Other personal outside influencing factors don’t help either. Recently, I have been learning how to play the card game Magic The Gathering.  It’s fantasy based, and it is a million times more complicated than poker or canasta. Magic involves specialty character cards, and many of the them work and interact differently. It makes for a game of nearly infinite and hard-to-predict strategies. Since this a basically a fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons type game, many of these cards can have weird names. The following examples are made up by myself, but they speak to the oddity that sometimes is Magic The Gathering:  Codex of Dubious Confusion, Library of Lesser but Real Horrors, and Spire of Ominous Despair. All of this, recently, had an effect on how I explored Changzhou.

Copyright Magic The Gathering.
Copyright Magic The Gathering.

While looking at Baidu Maps recently, I noticed something called  大悲禅寺 dàbēi chán sì. That literary translates as “big sad temple.” Since I was looking at this with my head in the Magic The Gathering fantasy world, I started to laugh. Binge listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast didn’t help. It’s a fictitious community radio broadcast filled with sinister dog parks filled with hooded figures and reports of supernatural happenings – yet, it has the humdrum, low-key delivery of America’s National Public Radio. In short, I projected my own personal culture onto Dabei Temple instead of thinking of a possible Chinese context.  I thought if I went there, I might see a large statue dedicated to profuse weeping.

So, I set out on my ebike. This Buddhist place of worship is in northwestern Xinbei. It’s near the both Changzhou’s airport and the city border with Yangzhong. In short, this is not a place easily accessible by public buses. It is also a real place of religious worship and not something aimed at tourists. Eventually, I reached my destination by traveling down a dirt road.

IMG_20180510_104009

Dabei Temple quickly revealed itself.

IMG_20180510_104042

As it turns out, Dabei Temple is neither “big” nor “sad.” It just happens to be an average countryside Buddhist temple in a very remote part of Xinbei.

IMG_20180510_215531

It has the standard courtyard set up and grounds layout of small temples. This means a main hall with a few other nooks of worship and community space.

IMG_20180510_104145

You have the usual sort of Buddha statue set up once you enter the main hall.

IMG_20180510_104114

Behind that, there is a sculpture wall dedicated to Guanyin, a figure of divine compassion. This is also a pretty common thing in the layout of temple main halls in this area — Buddha upfront, Guanyin in rear.

Despite the fact that I have seen a lot of temples like this, I left this place feeling grateful. I got to see a part of Changzhou and Xinbei I have never been to before, but it reminded me something I had already known. It reminded me of a fundamental truth. I had just temporarily forgotten it due to my new obsession with Magic The Gathering and the great many professional distractions and obligations I have had over the last month. It’s this: you can’t make assumptions on things when translation is involved. Not only are you bringing your personal biases into a travel experience, but you are letting your native culture effect how you see a foriegn country. That is not a good thing.

The 50’s Purpose

IMG_20180401_185338

Sometimes, public bus routes are like riddles. They usually exist for a reason. Some are quite easy to understand, and others are not. Bus #50 actually was actually quite easy to figure out once I got off at its Zhonglou District terminus.

IMG_20180401_185420

This municipal bus depot also acts as an intercity coach station with destinations in places like Jurong and elsewhere. Sure, it’s not like the hub downtown and next to the high speed rail station. In many cases, places like this are also stopping points on coaches heading out of town. In trips to both Liyang and Yixing, the intercity buses have stopped in other city locations to pick up more travelers, for example.

IMG_20180401_204102

Ok, that’s well and fine. So, what’s the purpose of the 50 municipal bus?

IMG_20180401_185247

It connects an intercity coach station to Dinosaur Park, which is the other terminus. Dino Park is a major source of tourism revenue for both Changzhou and Xinbei. In theory, people in smaller cities to the west could get off bus here and switch to a public bus that would take them to Dinosaur Park and a potential hotel reservation in the area. That’s well and fine. Why would a Changzhou resident use this bus, besides the convenience of some of the stops in the middle of the route?

IMG_20180401_185354

Zhonglou’s Decathlon is the second to last stop. Changzhou only has two of these sporting goods stores. During my years in China, this retail chain has actually meant a lot to me. I am a tall guy with big feet. A lot of brick and mortar stores do not carry sizes 46 or 47. Decathlon does. Also, my Taobao situation is a bit screwy, so if I want to try on shoes to see if they actually fit me, this place has always been reliable. I will ride a bus in the name of convenience and not bothering Chinese friends to order, receive, and return footwear for me.

Changzhou’s other Decathlon is in Wujin. Quite honestly, both are pains to get to when you live in Xinbei, but the one in Zhonglou is easier. I boarded this bus actually at Xinbei Wanda Plaza, and that seems to only other major landmark this line services. For the most part, the 50 is not a scenic ride.

IMG_20180401_185306

The Home of a Doubting Scholar

The academic world sometimes can feel like a separate universe with a secret jargon that requires a decoder ring dug out of a Cracker Jack box. This is a largely technical language needed to speak to very specific issues within scholarship. For example, in literary theory, there are schools of thought like deconstruction, reader-response, queer theory, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and more. Each of those camps has it’s own subsets of jargon that has fueled papers, theses, and dissertations and will continue to do so for centuries to come. For example, post-structuralism has some circular gibberish about “signifier” and “signified” that I could never fully wrap my head around. Trust me, I tried very hard. That’s just the study of literature. That’s not even touching the other English fields of teaching, linguistics, grammar, and translation.

In academia, Chinese history also has its diverse groupings of scholars. One of them is something called “Doubting Antiquity.” These were researchers who expressly voiced concerns about the historical accuracy of some stories within classic Chinese texts like Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian.

sq

It would be a lot like western historians asking and researching critical questions into Herodotus or  Holinshed’s Chronicles — which provided some source material for some of Shakespeare’s plays. Since Qian sometimes wrote about the nearly mythical Shang Dynasty thousands of years ago, it would almost be like historians probing more into the historical accuracy of something the Welsh Mabinogian.

mabinogian

The Doubting Antiquity School was not all about destroying somebody like Sima Qian. Mostly, it’s about raising questions and the researching possible answers. Those answers led to more questions. That’s how scholarship works.

Changzhou was once home to a one of these scholars. His name was Lu Simian 吕思勉 lǚ sī miǎn.

IMG_20180303_213907

He was born in Wujin in 1884, and he went on take a professorship at Kwang Hua University in Shanghai. This institution went on to become East China Normal University. During his academic career, he authored a number of books on antiquity covering subjects like science, ethnicity, literature, and more.

IMG_20180303_235336

His former residence is actually located in downtown Changzhou, and it’s open to the public without an admission fee. A visitor does have to sign into a log book, however.  The place is rather small. You can see some of the living quarters.

IMG_20180303_213930

And places where he kept a personal library and a possible office.

IMG_20180303_213948

Most of the informational displays here are in Chinese, but there is one introductory sign in English. This former residence is downtown, but it’s actually located in an narrow alley a few streets up from Yanling Road, Nandajie, and the Luqiao Commodities Market. So, for some, it may not be easy to find.

IMG_20180303_235413

This alley intersects with Jinling Road. And here it is on Baidu Maps.

Screenshot_2018-03-04-00-33-33-74
Why do I post screenshots of Baidu Maps? English and Google Maps will do nothing for you if you show it to Chinese cab driver. Just saying.

 

For the Love of Spare Ribs

Simple foods can be simple comforts. This is especially true when you are a foreigner living in China. I have been here four years now, and I still haven’t begun to try all the different dishes and snacks to be had in the Middle Kingdom. Recently, I found a new-to-me lunch item that is now in my standard rotation of cheap eats in Changzhou.

IMG_20180223_183229

Grill stands seem to be very common. Two of the more prominent characters in the above picture are 排骨páigǔ — ribs. However, these places offer a variety of meat-on-bone options.

IMG_20180223_183203

So, the selections usually include pig’s feet, shanks, and other things. I can honestly say, I am not a fan of pig’s feet. Or eating feet in general. Thankfully, one of those aforementioned options includes a type of chicken wing I have never tried before.

IMG_20180225_195551

This is 鸡翅包饭 jīchì bāofàn, or basically a stuffed chicken wing. I think it might have originated in Hunan, but I see this everywhere. It’s a boneless chicken wing that’s been stuffed with glutinous rice. At this particular shop, it ran about 10 RMB for one. I enjoyed it, but keep in mind anytime I encounter street food, I always say 不辣 (bù là — not spicy)  when they offer to season my food. Originally, I thought the idea of stuffing a chicken wing was slightly weird, but I remembered chicken corden bleu is a thing in western culture. That’s essentially putting cheese and ham into a breaded chicken breast. Oh, and I love me some chicken corden bleu! So, I should be game for trying something tangentially like it. While I found this snack interesting, it just doesn’t compare to what these grill stands really have to offer.

IMG_20180223_183131

Pork ribs. Pure and simple. Now, these are not the same as ribs you would find in the American south — especially a place like North Carolina. That would be smoky, sweet, and tangy. These are also not the famed ribs you would find in Wuxi, either. Those would just be sweet in taste without any attempt at smoky or tangy flavors. Both American BBQ ribs and Wuxi ones are sauced, and these are not. It’s just simple spare ribs on a grill going for 25 RMB for four bones. So, where can you find simple and yummy pork ribs?

Screenshot_2018-02-25-14-56-07-83

 

Everywhere. The above screenshot is a Baidu Maps search for 桥头排骨 qiáotóu páigǔ,and that is just one chain that does a flaming grill with various meats. There are others. The one I have been going regularly to isn’t even part of that chain, and it’s at the Xinbei Wanda. I seen these rib stands in other cities, too. And that’s a relief, really, I have always been looking for excuses to not to give McDonald’s or Burger King my money when I need to eat and am on the go. These places are also great one you don’t know Chinese all that well. The meat is on display. You don’t have to say anything. Just point at what you want grilled, and it will be grilled.

Waiting for Rabbits in Wujin

Wisdom proverbs and idioms are huge part of Chinese culture. Parents often quote them to children as a way of motivation, and sometimes people say these expressions under their breath to reassure themselves before taking action. Inevitably, when a person is trying to learn to understand and appreciate Chinese culture, coming to know these expressions is also important. These idioms don’t just show up in conversation or in books, but they are often the subject matter of public art — especially sculpture in public parks.

A person can easily find this in Wujin. The Yancheng area is not only home to an amusement park, a zoo, and a bunch of buildings made to look like the China of old, but there is also a very big parking lot there.  Near that part of Yancheng, there are a few statues depicting some famous Chinese expressions. So, here is one of them.

IMG_20180222_204307

守株待兔

shǒuzhūdàitù

This means to “wait by a stump for rabbits.” Basically, a lazy farmer one day watches a blind bunny run into a tree stump and break its neck. The farmer considers himself lucky, and he takes the dead animal home turns it to a very filling dinner. Instead of going back to work the next day and plowing his field, he decides to wait for another rabbit to come by and run into the stump. For some reason, he think that just sitting and waiting will bring him free and easy dietary protein. In the meantime, his field is not plowed, and it eventually does not grow any crops. This idiom can be taken as a chide against think people can get by without doing any hard work.

IMG_20180222_204347

This particular idiom is thousands of years old and goes back to the Warring States period of Chinese history. Han Fei 韓非 wrote an essay entitled “The Five Vermin.”

Portrait_of_Han_Fei

In this polemic, he spoke out against the things that he thought led to bad governance.  Han Fei’s writing belongs to a “legalist” tradition. His work has been said to influence Qin Shihuang as the first emperor of a unified China as well as several more rulers throughout Chinese history.

Manhattan Gets a Central Park

Noticing things that were not there before is a common part of city life, and this is especially true when that city is in China. Construction and development is a nonstop business here. Sometimes, shopping centers are built, and they they lay mostly empty for while the storefronts are slow to fill in. This is the case with the Risesun Manhattan Plaza in Xinbei. Currently, it’s most known for having a statue of Marilyn Monroe that exposes her panties.

IMG_20180210_114924
Actually, you have to walk behind the statue to see Monroe’s underwear.

Construction barricades are still in the area near this plaza, but a bunch of them recently came down and revealed a new park. This is on a plot of land adjacent to the shopping center. Whether it’s coincidence or product of urban planning, it bares the name of Central Park. Remember, the plaza has “Manhattan” in the name, and that borough of New York City is home to the greatest city park in America. So, does this new Central Park in Xinbei resemble the one in the Big Apple? Um, no. Not even close.

IMG_20180210_113603

This tract of land is home to lot of colorful planters with stone mosaics.

IMG_20180210_113639

Since this place is relatively new, there are patches of dirt that have yet to be covered with sod or seeded with grass. A lot of the trees that have been planted still have wooden supports to keep them upright. And, it seems one building is still under construction.

IMG_20180210_113825

While new, the place still seems unfinished and is still a work in progress. China gets some criticism for its relentless building of shopping center and apartment complexes. In Changzhou, at least, it’s always nice to know that open green space is always part of that urban planning. The new Central Park next to Risesun Manhattan Plaza is an example of that.

Max & Salad Lives!

IMG_20180206_201500

A year or two back, it seemed like salad related places were sprouting up across Changzhou. It was likely a fad, and like all trends, the sudden spread of salad shops came to an end. For a while, it seemed like Max and Salad was one of the casualties. It used to be located in the basement of downtown’s Injoy Plaza. Then, one day, there was a lock on the door. It’s a typical restaurant closure — one day it was serving patrons, and the next it wasn’t.

IMG_20180206_201355

A few weeks ago, I discovered that it hadn’t really gone away. It was simply relocating to a smaller, cheaper space on the exterior of Laimeng. The difference between this place and, let’s say, Eco or Evergreen, is that this is a true salad bar where you can pick your ingredients.

IMG_20180206_212721

The set up is the same as before. You choose what you want by grabbing tokens that correspond with ingredients on display. These tokens have internal RFID chips inside. Once you have made your selections, you hand your pile of tokens to the cashier. She runs them over a scanner, and an order for your own, special, unique salad is generated. Obviously, you pay after that. The other places have set menus. They are good, but they do not allow you to indulge in whatever whims you may have in created something personalized. The other thing is this: Evergreen is a locally owned, and Max and Salad is a chain with locations in other Chinese cities.  Either way, some vegetarians and vegans might be glad to know one of their dining options didn’t exactly just go away for good.

IMG_20180206_201251

As stated earlier, this is on the exterior of Laimeng and on a side street that is very close to Nandajie. It’s not that far from where the old Base Bar used to be, and the Band of Brothers DVD shop is across the street.