Category Archives: Downtown

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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Hong Kong Roasted Goose

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Living in Changzhou and trying to eat locally means you will eventually try things you wouldn’t back home. For me, duck and goose were marvelous revelations. I simply never had them before moving to China, and once I tried both with Chinese friends, it was love at first bite. So, when a good friend recommended a tiny roast goose restaurant, I desperately wanted to try it. And trust me, this friend really, really knows food. He’s a professional.

Weeks went by without me trying out the place, however. Apparently, the place is so good, it always is packed during Saturday lunch. I decided to take a different approach: wait till Monday morning and go right after the doors open. That plan worked.

So, was the meal as good as my friend promised? Yes. For 38 RMB, I was served goose, rice, and side dishes of vegetables. Half of a hard boiled goose egg also come on the plate, but I didn’t care for it all that much. Think of a chicken egg, but bigger and with a strong “game” flavor.  The star of the dish, of course, was the goose itself. Both the texture and flavor are similar to beef. However, badly prepared goose can be extremely greasy. This wasn’t. It was both juicy and tender. This is a Hong Kong specialty, and the manager explained to me that his cook comes from there. It’s really important. For example, try eating Italian food when the kitchen staff were not trained by an Italian or an Italian American. My only complaint, however, was I found myself wishing the portion size was a bit bigger.

The place is also convenient. The menu has pictures. It’s close to the Injoy Shopping center downtown. Cross the street and go to Youdian Road 邮电路. This is the street where all the phone markets are. Basically, you take your first right until you see the place pictured below.

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Chongfa Temple Looks More Like a Temple

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When I moved to Changzhou two and a half years ago, Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park 人民公园 was in a bit of a shambles. While it sported a yellow paint job and the architecture of a temple, it really didn’t function like one. Every time I peered in, I saw large tables of most older people drinking tea or hot water. A lot of the paint was peeling, and people often complained of leaking roof. Then, one day, the government shut the place down for renovation and a structural overhaul.

For some months now, that rejuvenation project has ended. Now, if you got to the park and peer in, it actually looks like a temple complete with a golden Buddha, stone statues of what look to be lohans, and a shelf of buddhist reading material. Of course, there also seems to be a tea counter in there. Plus, the tables with the hot water carafes are still there two. So, Chongfa now looks more like a temple, but I haven’t seen anybody actually use it as one yet. So, you can say the space has been multi-purposed now. That is not a complaint either. It’s nice to see that place is being better looked after now.

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Fast Food Salad at Paris Baguette

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So, a friend of mine recently told me, with much excitement, that there was a new place to get ready-made sandwiches in downtown Changzhou. And since I like a good sandwich, I felt the need to check it out. The place turned out to be Paris Baguette, and while sounds extremely French, it’s actually a Korean chain that specializes in French style baked goods.

The place offers a lot of tempting sweet things in display cases. There is also an open-air refrigerated unit also showcases a variety of wrapped sandwiches and boxed salads. I opted for a sandwich and a salad. The sandwich — with sincere apologies to my friend — left me unimpressed. I just won’t get into it. The salad, on the other hand, was okay.

But let me qualify that “okay,” these salads are better than Starbucks. The city center has like six Starbucks, and all of them serve takeaway salads. Those usually seem relatively skimpy. For example, the pepper beef one his like two rubbery slices of meat and a lot of lettuce. At least, the last one of those I had was like that. Paris Baguette’s salads seemed a little bit better.

However, let’s be real for a moment. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, than these salads are simply not for you. The might just be another frustrating example of how Changzhou doesn’t have a lot to satisfy particular dietary needs. The one I had featured bits of shredded chicken and Chinese bacon. The other option had cheese in it. As for me, it’s just fast food salad on the go; and sometimes I find that appealing. It’s better option than McDonalds or Burger King when you do not have a lot of time.

As for the lackluster sandwich, I will return someday and try a different one. The location is selling-point convenient, however. It’s on Beidajie 北大街, near the Luqiao Market and the New Century department store. That means its across the Yanling Road from Nandajie.

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Mr. Churros at Injoy

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In theory, it sounds really hard to screw up a churro. Basically, it’s just fried dough with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar.  In reality, there are multiple ways it can happen. Bad dough leads to a bad churro. Old and dirty deep fry oil can also mess up what should be utterly simple. Then of course, there is a the quality and the type of oil when it’s fresh.

I was thinking of this because a Mr. Churros recently opened at Changzhou’s downtown Injoy Plaza. It’s yet another coffee and snack place that’s already near a Bread Talk, Costa Coffee, and a Starbucks. I went to try it, and when it comes to western food, the pessimist in me usually expects the worst. Thankfully, my sense of churro-related doom remained unfulfilled. Mr. Churros — while surrounded by coffee competitors — gets one thing uniquely right.

Their signature item is made fresh and on the spot. A string of fresh batter goes directly into the fryer, and the resulting churro is served warm. The menu is kept extremely simple: plain, with chocolate, with ice cream, and so on. It’s a very quick, very simple snack. Their coffee, however, left me unimpressed and with a little bit of heart burn. I had an iced Americano; I wanted it hot and with milk, but that’s not a service issue. My Chinese is just terrible. Still, I would go back. They have a take out window if you just want to stop quickly while on the go.

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Bellahaus Presumed Dead

A Collection Notice?
A Collection Notice?

It’s hard to know the full story of how and why a restaurant goes out of business. From the point of view of a customer, you show up one day and the doors are locked and the place is dark. In Changzhou, this has happened numerous times: Aria, Jack’s Home, Bros Wings, and more. It seems people can now add Bellahaus to that list.

A friend of mine reported this to me the other day. Although I had some issues with the place, I largely liked Bellahaus and ate there frequently on Saturday afternoons. It was a place I often introduced friends to, because when it came down to it, I did like the food there and I wanted the place to succeed. And the times I did eat there, I saw a number of others in there, too. It seemed they were attracting customers. So, I went to go see the door for myself. I had already eaten lunch, but I had other business downtown and it was just a stop on the way. Sure enough, the place was locked with what looked like a collections notice pasted to the door.

In retrospect, maybe the signs of slipping were already there and I fully didn’t notice. Bellahaus didn’t have the problems or shortages that a place like Jack’s Home in Wujin had. However, two things began to happen regularly. When Bellahaus opened, service was prompt and swift. Towards the end, it seemly took forever to get something as simple as a salad. Portions also routinely fluctuated. One week, a friend would be served a large salmon salad, and the next, she would get something smaller. Side dishes to standard menu items also seemed to become randomized. One week, it would be grilled veggies and the next would be a simple lettuce salad. Week after that? Nothing.

There are rumors that the owners or the management will move on and start someplace new. But, then again, those are just unsubstantiated rumors. All I can go off is what I see. One of my favorite restaurants downtown– despite it’s flaws — is now gone. Time for me to find a replacement for my standard Saturday lunch.

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Antique Shopping Near Culture Square

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Once, a guy chased me while wildly swinging a bust of Chairman Mao. He didn’t want to beat me over the head with it; he simply wanted to sell it to me for 800 RMB. No matter how much I said “不要 bu yao,” he kept in hot pursuit, yelling about he’d drop the price. That went in 20 RMB increments. I really didn’t want it; I mean, I was downtown, and how would I get that thing home or just lug it around with me as I did other errands? It didn’t matter how much I didn’t want it; he was damned insistent. It wasn’t the first time this guy chased me, either. Other times, he waved posters of Zhou Enlai at me, as well as a wall tapestry of 10 prominent Red Army generals.

He wasn’t the first person to do this. In this part of downtown, I have been grabbed and pulled into shops with all sorts of junk paraded in front of my face. All of them had absurdly inflated prices. A comic book went for 200 RMB, and red and gold embossed Mao buttons went for 100 RMB. Some of those shopkeepers saw me as a clueless, rich foreigner that they could make easy cash off of. They were tripling their prices just at the mere sight of me.

And what can I say? I have a thing for junk and antique stores. However, as my Chinese abilities slowly improved from non existent to barely minimal, I actually learned how to haggle with these people. I also got it to a point where I don’t even have to say anything anymore. All I need to do is twist my face into a overacted grimace or scowl and wave my hand dismissively. Once these vendors realized I was no longer the goldmine they thought I was, I stopped getting chased or grabbed. Eventually, I settled on one antique merchant I trusted, and now I usually just go to him first.

So, where is this part of Changzhou? If you go to where the downtown central subway station is being built, you will find an antique market behind the Christian church. This would be Wenhuagong 文化宫. You can find everything from old communist propaganda to weathered books of nude photography, framed calligraphy, carved wood, and much more. This is an ideal place for stamp and currency collectors, too. There are two indoor markets with kiosks, but the main part is a small pedestrian street with shopfronts. Only, if you are going to go there for the first time, take a Chinese friend you are actually going to buy something. Otherwise, they will think you are a goldmine, too.

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Sun Zhongshan’s Whistle Stop

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A “whistle stop” used to be common in campaign politics or publicity tours. A candidate, celebrity, or national figure would board a train. Every time the train would pull into the station, the statesman would get off, briefly interact with a  waiting crowd, make a speech, or just simple wave to their supporters. Once finished, they would immediately board again and then quickly depart. The term “whistle stop” comes from the sound of steam engine’s whistle.

In an age of social media, blogs, and media appearances, the importance of these quick stops have lessened. You still see some version of this in American presidential politics, however — but its rarely trains now, but more like airplanes and their hangers. “Whistle stop,” however, can easily be applied to momentous moment in Changzhou.

The Nationalist Revolution in 1911 swept away the Qing Dynasty and put a definitive end to thousands of years of Emperors and their courts. To put it easily, it was the end of epoch and a start of a new era. In 1912, Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) rode towards Nanjing to the eventuality of becoming the Provisional President of the Republic of China. Along the way, he had a “whistle stop” in Changzhou to wave at an enthusiastic crowd.

This moment has now been documented in a new Sun Zhongshan Memorial Hall downtown. It has been there for decades, but it looked abandoned and deteriorating. It was only until recently that the Changzhou municipal government put some money into restoring it.   This place is rather easy to find. It’s located close a KFC and the Qu Quibai former residence on Yangling Road — only it is in an alley behind the retail shops.

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Sun Zhongshan’s Memorial Hall just off Yanling Road.

 

Buying a Digital Watch on Youdian Road

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One of many mobile phone markets on Youdian Road 邮电路 downtown.

Sometimes, I have daydreams of being a swaggering space commander. I might be on a planet of rampaging lava monsters with only a squirt gun when what I really need is a firetruck hose.  Or, I can be stranded in a small shuttle; life and life support systems would flicker as I circle the event horizon of a black hole. Seconds could be counting down before the singularity and it’s gravity stretches me into an infinite noodle. At those moments, I would raise my wrist to my lips, press a button on my watch, and say “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Yes, that’s a Star Trek quote, and yes, both my mind and my daydreams can get that silly. That absurdity, though, led me to buying a digital watch six months ago.  I was extremely curious about being able being able to text and make phone calls by having a device attached to my wrist. It all sounded like something you could read about in a vintage sci-fi novel. Turns out, real life is nothing like that.

As for the watch, I found one while browsing the downtown Changzhou’s mobile phone markets. This is Youdian Road 邮电路near Injoy Mall, a BRT stop, and the statue of a woman riding a horse. The road has a number of retail spaces filled with people sitting behind glass cases and kiosks. All three of my Huawei phones were purchased here — with the aid of Chinese friends who could haggle on my behalf. These markets are where people should by their new phones — not at expensive and over-priced foreign department stores like Walmart or Metro.

Digital Watch Pic
Digital Watch Pic

As for the no-brand name digital watch, I got what I paid 200 RMB for. I could make and receive calls from it, but I still had to have my main phone with me at all times. The watch had to linked to the mobile through a Bluetooth. In theory, I could get text and WeChat messages though it, but the interface screen was so small  that epic typos were inevitable. It also had a camera, and that sounds all James Bond and spy-tastic, but the camera was awkward to use. It involved twisting my wrist at odd angles.  Plus, the eventual photos were too grainy and low-res.

In the end, the watch became nothing more than a conversation topic, and the novelty of that wore off rather quickly. As for the black hole, I am not circling it. The rampaging lava monsters are a figment of my imagination, and I am no swaggering space commander.  I am just a college English teacher with a blog. The digital watch is in a drawer, and haven’t worn it in six months.

 

Strolling Qianguo Lane

红星桥 aka Red Apricot Bridge

Somethings in Changzhou are hidden in plain sight, and this definitely the case for Qianguo Lane 千果巷. It’s right next to Nandajie, which is the busiest area in the city center. Even more so, it runs parallel to the bar street where all the dance clubs are located. A Walmart, a Starbucks, and a McDonald’s are also across the street. I happened upon this because I was at Micky D’s, saw how crowded the place was, and got my Big Mac as take out. I walked across the street thinking I sit on a park bench and eat my lunch.

The hamburger was, of course, unsatisfying, as McDonald’s usually tends to be. Afterwards, I went for a walk. There is a small canal here that’s an offshoot of the famous Grand Canal 京杭大运河 — which runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, and it basically cuts through Changzhou’s downtown.

There are two bridges here in the ancient style. In looking at them, I noticed historical markers. Quickly, I snapped photos of them and sent them to a Chinese friend. Thankfully, he read them, summarized them for me. During the Ming Dynasty, an official named Hu Ying built a house on a wharf. Another bridge inspired a Tang Dynasty era
poem, which is written on the marker itself.

In this small area, there are three walking routes to be had. Two are on both canal sides. Another is a narrow, subtly winding  foot path. This is the one closest to the bar street. that makes up the southern edge of the Landmark Mall in the greater Nandajie area. Here, you can find a few benches like where I ate my lunch. You can also find bamboo and the large, weathered, water-eroded rocks that seem popular in this region as public sculptures.

Nandajie — the road itself —  cuts this area in half. Once you cross the street, this small canal area continues on for a bit. There is large rock here with 千果巷 in the ancient, reversed reading order of 巷果千. The rock itself, my Chinese friend reported, also has a blurb about a cannon crafted during the Ming Dynasty.

Something more curious caught my attention behind this rock. There stones with symbols on them that I couldn’t understand. Since my friend was so generous with his help, I didn’t want to pester him anymore. So, I took to Wechat and posted photos. My thoughts, possibly, were that these were some sort of old, oracle bone Chinese characters. I was dead wrong.

Warring States Era Currency

A host of Chinese friends, via social media, nearly immediately informed me that these are representations of ancient money. Before unifying into one nation, China used to be seven kingdoms. Six of them eventually went down to defeat, as the Qin consolidated everything and everyone into an empire.  Each of these seven states had their own form of currency that cam in irregular shapes. I should have expected this because the more familiar, round ancient coin design were placed in the ground amidst polished and black river stones.

Thousands of years later, and it seems fitting, given its location. Nandajie is the commercial center of the city. There are a lot of shops, boutiques, restaurants, and more here. A lot of money is spent here, and these carvings are a subtle reminder of that.