Category Archives: Downtown

Max & Salad Lives!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Good Person Walk of Fame

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Governments often like to showcase people they deem as exemplary citizens. In China, there has been the tradition of the “model worker” that stretches back to at least 1951 with Hao Jianxiu. This is a commendation that has been given out at both the national and provincial levels. Municipalities, it seems, have been doing something similar with “Good People” streets. In Chinese, it’s 好人街. I have seen this is Danyang and Liyang, and Changzhou has one, too.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be right to talk about the good people of Changzhou without mentioning Ji Zha 季札,Changzhou’s founding father. The rest of the entrants are more contemporary than historical.

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Basically, “good people streets” normally consist of a series of signs that have pictures next biographies.

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Each sign has a QR code that will take you to a webpage that will give you more information on that person. The story, so to speak, that lead them to being featured.

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Of course, the webpages are completely in Chinese. However, Baidu Translate’s camera translation has been getting more and more sophisticated over the years. The other thing to remember, though, is that this is not a “famous person” display. So, besides Ji Zha, you will not find other historical figures like Qu Qiubei, Zhang Tailai, or Yun Daiying here. These are everyday citizens.

These signs can be found along the Grand Canal downtown. It’s in the park that has the Ming Dynasty Wall — which is next to both Comb Alley and the backside of Injoy Plaza.

Something Shitty

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Nandajie used to have a toilet themed restaurant. The seats were actually commodes, and there was fecal related imagery all over the walls, by the cashier, and on the cheap hoodies the employees wore — in cartoonish ways, of course. There wasn’t anything too graphic about it all. I know this sounds utterly bizarre and surreal. However, these types of restaurants are common in China. There is even a multi-city chain of them. Downtown Changzhou had more than one at one point. Then, the one at the Zhonglou Injoy went away. Now, Nandajie has lost its own toilet themed restaurant. It was on the third floor.

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I don’t know exactly when this happened. I only ate there once and only once. Recently, I was wandering around Nandajie as a way to kill some time. I passed the place, and it looked absolutely gutted. Yeah, there are still urinals on the wall, but there was a lot of trash laying around.

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And, a lot of the toilets are still there — as well as the sinks shaped like buttocks.  But it seems most of the BBQ tables were stripped out — along with the a lot of the other kitchen hardware. Pretty much, anything that would be remotely salvagable and used in another restaurant is basically gone. The only clue I found as to what happened to this place was on the door.

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Only, this was not a clue at all. I showed this picture to a Chinese friend, and she told me it was a gas notice. Somebody wanted to do an inspection, and since nobody was there, they slapped this on the door. The date says December of 2016, Also, I walked around Nandajie’s third floor, and counted two other such notices on doors. Those places were also derelict and abandoned. This is not a case like Bellahaus, where it closed and a bill collector had slapped a letter on the door.

The best theory I have, however is this. Forgive the crappy pun, but this place was a little shitty. Trust me, as I said earlier, I ate there once. The food quality was terrible, and they oil they used on the BBQ tables gave off a burning smell that got into your clothes and hair. The low quality ingredients made my stomach feel weird afterwards. So, in many ways, I am not sad to see it go.

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Green Salad Apparently Dead

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Vegetarians may have one less dining option in Changzhou. Green Salad was one of three actual salad bars in the city where a patron could pick and choose their own ingredients. The other two were Salad Stuff in Xinbei and Max and Salad in the basement of Zhonglou’s Injoy shopping mall. Most of the other salad eateries in Changzhou are menu orientated or strictly for delivery.

It usually is sad to see a western-friendly eatery disappear. But some of the people who ate at Green Salad could possibly understand how it could have gone under. Every time I went there, the tables were empty. No customers equals no profit. Quite often, I ordered a salad and the prep cook added stuff I didn’t ask for. The menu had lots of really bad Chinglish that made it hard to comprehend, and some of the prices per portion size were too high for something skimpy. For example, a few RMB for two slices of tomato. However, perhaps the biggest thing could have been competition. For a time, Green Salad was the only salad bar downtown. It’s closest competitor was near the media tower in Xinbei. However, Max and Salad opened less than a city block away, and Green Salad was clearly of lesser quality. Also, Eco — a menu orientated salad place — relocated from Wujin to across the street from Injoy. If you have three salad places clustered together, the nature of business suggests one of them will likely not last.

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Qianbeian: Another Pocket of Recreated History

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As been noted often both here and elsewhere, Changzhou is more of a modern Chinese city. There is not to say that there isn’t a rich history here, it’s just hard to find relics of it still standing around after thousands of years. You can in Nanjing and other places, but sadly in Changzhou most of those attractions just do not exist anymore. There is, however, a move to recreate more places that have an antiquated feel. Qianbeian is one of those places.

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It’s not that far from Wenhuagong — where Changzhou’s downtown subway station is being excavated and built.  A Starbucks is also nearby, and one of Changzhou’s antique markets sits behind it. When I first came to Changzhou in 2014, the place was empty. Weeds were growing through cracks in the walkway, and the windows were dirty and unwashed. Walking through here, back then, felt like walking trough a forlorn, white-washed labyrinth.

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It’s a classic trope in this city. Parts of it looked like a ghost town, but over the years, things have slowly filled in. Qianbeian is a like Qingguo Alley — which can also be found in the city center. Even though it’s either reconstructed or currently under reconstruction, real Changzhou history did happen there. For instance, the great Chinese poet Su Dongpo, once had an academy here, and recently it has been turned into a small gallery for calligraphers and brush-and-ink artists. There is also a tiny display place dedicated to him. There is also a small museum dedicated to local history, and a lot more.

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A Salad Bar Downtown

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Some people have told me that salad bars are all over Changzhou, and recently, armed with Baidu Maps and the characters 沙拉 shālāI started to hunt down these other salad places. Turns out, many of them are not salad bars in the real sense — they are small little holes in the wall that pretty much cater to Meituan and other Chinese food delivery apps. These are not places where the ingredients are on full display and a patron can pick what they want.

So far, I’ve found and enjoyed Salad Stuff in Xinbei, but recently, I found a new actual salad bar. While I don’t think the place is as good as Salad Stuff, there are a few things going for it. First, Green Salad is in a really good location — Yangliu Alley just off of Yanling Road in Changzhou’s city center. The Zhonglou Injoy Mall and Bar Street are not that far away. The selection of both meat and vegetables is very good. You can choose between chicken, duck, pepper beef, steak, seafood, and more. They have the standard set of veggies and dressings to choose from. While this is a salad bar, they also make money through delivery apps. A friend used to order lunch from here without many complaints.

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While that is well and nice, there are a few things that are drawbacks here. My biggest problem with the place is their printed ordering menu. When you come in, you are supposed to grab it and tick off your ingredient choices. This menu is riddled with English language errors that are utterly confusing. For example, “Mixed Greens” is beneath the Chinese characters for “cucumber.” That’s just one example of many. Plus, something oddly named “screw powder” is also on the menu. Another issue is pricing. If you pick “tomato” you are only rewarded with a few meager slices, which seems unfair seeing that you could buy a whole tomato for what you are being charged.

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This place is fairly new, and it has been open for about two months now. So, while there is some room for improvement, it’s good to have another option — especially if you are downtown and don’t have the time to go to the salad bar in Xinbei.

Historical Attractions to Come

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Much of Changzhou’s history and heritage is an intellectual one. For more than a thousand years, this city has produced scholars who did well taking the grueling imperial exams. Even more, there have been luminaries from other parts of China who have passed through Changzhou — the poet Su Dongpo, for example. Many of these people lived in the same part of the city, too.

Qingguo Lane is a long, old alleyway connecting Jinling and Heping roads in downtown part of Tianning. It used to be a time saving shortcut when walking. Interestingly enough, there were historical plaques on the walls in Chinese and in English explaining what things were and who lived there. That was about the extent of it, however. None of the former residences of linguists like Zhao Yuanren or Zhou Youguang were open to the public, for example. Zhou helped create Pinyin, by the way. It would make sense to have the place open as a tourist attraction.

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And that’s what seems to be going on with Qingguo Lane. Access to this alley has be blocked off for a long time, now. Construction and renovation has been ongoing. For a time, I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly was going on there. Then, one day, I took a stroll on the opposite side of the canal Qingguo is adjacent to. I wasn’t able to see much except some of the more decrepit structures have been rebuilt. I did catch a glimpse through the window of one former residence though. I saw a statue of what I suspect is Zhou Youguang. This strengthens and bolsters my suspicions that the alleyway is being turned into a real historical attraction. So, this is definitely something new. Only, I haven’t been able to figure out when the expected completion date will be.

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Nandajie’s Vape Shop

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“If cigarettes are heroin,” I said, “than vaping juice is methadone.”

“That’s a shit comparison,” a friend said. “Don’t go there.”

I still stood by the analogy then, and I still do. What I meant was this: e-cigarettes can be seen as a sort of replacement therapy. It’s meant to help reduce the health risks of nicotine addiction as one slowly transitions off it completely. Sure, some do not quit completely and simply exchange the method of delivery. Plus, e-cigs do not come with the carcinogens and tar that tobacco does. However, this is not meant to advocate one way or another on this issue.

I have been smoking since I was 13 and living in Belgium. Over the years, my habit has grown exponentially where I don’t feel comfortable admitting how many packs a day I was up to. It was that much. Living a life behind a computer as a English graduate student, a college writing instructor, and as a writer and editor over the last twenty years hasn’t really helped. Yet, this post is not meant to be about me, either.  Still, allow me to make this point. I have decided, recently, that it’s time for try, once and for all, to kick cigarettes for good. That’s where the above mentioned friend offered his help.

He took me to a vaping shop downtown. His help was twofold: first, he can speak Chinese, and second, he is very knowledgeable about the world of electronic cigarettes.  There, he was able to explain to me what atomizers do, and more. I eventually left there with the right gear and a complimentary bottle of nicotine liquid. As for my attempt to kick tobacco, it’s still a struggle. However, I can say the amount of smoking I have done has been decreasing. It will just take time.

As for the vape shop, it’s located on the bar street downtown. It’s where a Subway sandwich shop used to be. One of the large dance clubs is also nearby. As for the shop itself, the woman running it has no English abilities. So, it’s either speak Chinese or, like me, go there with a friend who can.

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Comb Lane

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The longer you wander around Changzhou, the more likely you will see colorful wooden combs. These hair care items often feature pictures of woman in traditional Chinese outfits, and sometimes they may feature other designs. Some of them may may look like they have ornate, hand carved details. So, some may have wondered, “Ok, what is the deal with the combs?”

They are a tradition in Changzhou that dates back 2000 years or so. Two industries have called the city home for a long, long, long time. One is textile manufacturing, and the other are those handcrafted combs. And, if you are a western guy thinking of impressing a Chinese girl on Valentines on August 8th, you might want to consider buying one as a gift. However, be careful, as these combs can cost you a fortune. Sure, you can find cheaper fakes all over the city, but a native Changzhou woman will likely be able to spot whether your gift is authentic or not. Or, who knows, a Chinese girlfriend might just be impressed that you know the history of combs in the first place?

However, if you don’t want to risk it, there is a place you can go if you are willing to spend the money. Trust me, it’s really not that hard to find — it’s right behind the Injoy Mall downtown. The buildings in comb lane feature traditional architecture. The part that faces the shopping center is all restaurants. The comb shops are on the other side that runs parallel to the canal.

This has a been one of the historic centers of production within Changzhou. If you were to walk through this small alley, you will see some some unrelated jewelry, but you might also catch an artisan at work, meticulously laboring over a comb one at a time. Whether to buy one as a romantically inclined gift is a choice you will have to make for yourself.

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Reclaiming Old China

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“Stop,” my aunt told me. “You’re ruining my fantasy of where you are going.” She said this, one evening, over a very delicious home cooked dinner of Italian food. For her, the word “China” elicited a vision of vast rice fields and farm workers wearing pointy hats. You know, the sort of thing people read about in Pearl S. Buck novels? I had just told her that Changzhou had two Walmarts and several McDonald’s, KFCs, and Starbucks. That made her grimace. This conversation happened in 2013 and before I left New Jersey. I had just signed a contract with a college in Wujin, and I was waiting out the clock and calendar until I departed. Of course, I had been obsessively Googling “Changzhou” in the meantime.

Nothing ever fully prepares you for arriving into the Middle Kingdom for the first time. You can obsessively net search as much as you like. My first impressions of Changzhou were one of mild shock. Here was a huge city that constantly seemed to be under construction, and high rise after high rise apartment building looked the same. Nearly no traditional architecture seemed to be anywhere. Via Facebook, friends and family back in America asked me to describe what I was seeing. I thought of my aunt and replied, “There is a profound difference between old China and modern China.” This was a non-judgmental statement, too. I was more concerned with new beginnings and making a living wage for the first time in my life than being opinionated.

Of course, I made it a habit to go out and look for history as much as I could. I wanted, and still do, to learn more about my new home. This earnest desire to learn history is often shared by Chinese people I meet. The only difference is that they have spent most of their lives here. I haven’t. There is something else to consider, too. Some foreigners tend to think Chinese business people are all about money and nothing else. These are expatriates who hardly leave their homes, their bars, the tables of their expensive western restaurants, and their small circle of friends. They trade in stereotypes, and most of the Chinese people I meet do not fit that narrow worldview.

For instance, there is a man named Kevin Cao 曹克文. A very good friend introduced me to him. Kevin welcomed me into his home as a matter of humble pride. Currently, he is in the wine importation business, and he can afford to live in any part of Changzhou he pleases. Instead of opting for a life of high tech luxury in one of the many new residential developments, he chose to live in a traditional Chinese home dating back hundreds of years.

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This would be in Minyuanli 民元里 in Changzhou’s city center. This area is a restored bit of traditional Chinese architecture tucked into the Future City development next to the Injoy Mall and not that far all the expensive dance clubs are located on bar street. Minyuanli used to be derelict, but now it has been reopened with expensive craft shops, a cafe, a tea house, and more. In the times I had wandered in there, I didn’t know that people like Kevin also called this place home. IMG_20160615_105816

There are three dwellings at Minyuanli, and Kevin’s home is just one. These homes are absolutely nothing to look at from the outside. In Kevin’s case, the exterior modestly hides something he cares very deeply about. He has put a lot of time, effort, and money into restoring the place and making it as authentically “old China” as possible. This means a lot of antique furniture and fixtures. Real antiques have been worked into the decor. Calligraphy and traditional ink brush works of art hang on the wall. Even the stones in the open air sections of the home have been replaced with care. Having a home like this requires a lot of constant attention and a lot of time replastering walls. Something always needs to be fixed, but you can see in his smile how meaningful it is to him.

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As he, my friend, and I sat around drinking tea, I sort of forgot where I was. The peace and quiet of this place was not that far removed the constant car horns, traffic, and bustle of Lanling Road. Outside of his place, you can sometimes hear construction when you are standing in the Minyuanli compound. Here, things were tranquil, relaxed. It was very easy to see why Kevin was so quietly passionate about this place — why he finds solace in caring for it and its upkeep.

 

This was further reinforced after I left. My friend drove me back to Xinbei. I still had afternoon and evening English classes to teach. My friend and I discussed food, heavy metal, roasted Hong Kong duck, and Kevin’s home. In the back of my mind, though, I thought about the dynamic between what people call “old” and “modern” China. Why was I thinking of this? We were stuck in a traffic jam.

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