Category Archives: Downtown

Bellahaus’ Best and Worst

In the Beidajie Parksons.

Bellahaus, by far, is my favorite western restaurant in downtown Changzhou. It’s in the nearly empty mall Parksons built and then abandoned. This is on Beidajie, which is esentially Nandajie once the street crosses Yanling. So, when you are downtown, it is super easy to walk to. Typically, you might find me here on Saturday having lunch.

That being said, I feel the need to point out the worst thing there that I had. And if the owners or the chefs end up reading this, I am not being mean; this is constructive criticism. I once had a

Too much goat cheese.

terrible goat cheese salad here. By terrible, it was nearly all goat cheese and nearly no vegetables. There was nearly two slices of tomato, some cashews and walnuts, and a lot of sweet goat cheese slightly drizzled with balsamic vinegar. It felt like I was eating a desert, not a health conscious salad. A good friend of mine had this many months ago and recommended it. My guess was her salad was prepared differently and didn’t have goat cheese scooped onto lettuce as if it were ice cream.

Even though I hated that dish, i still standby my firm recommendation of the restaurant as a whole.  For example, the “cordon rouge” is something I eat there all the time. Think of it as a cordon blue dish, but substitute pork for the chicken. Yes, that means you get a breaded pork cutlet stuffed with bacon and cheese. There are usually sliced mushrooms in there too. It’s a simple, filling dish that is worth the money.

Yum!

Tianning’s Stations of Guanyin

IMG_7505[1]When you are a Catholic, “The Stations of the Cross” are immensely important. It’s not the same for other Christians — especially American Protestant Evangelicals.  For Roman Catholics, it’s part of the decor of every church. It’s either the art of in all of the stained glass windows, or it’s a series of paintings and bass relief sculptures. So, you may ask, what are these “Stations?” It’s a series pictures of Jesus Christ being put to death and being nailed to planks of wood.  The more exact term is “crucifixion.”
Every Easter, Catholics recreate this scene as a religious drama and watchable spectacle, but the artistic depictions are there in Church throughout the year. The idea is to visit every moment of Christ’s
death for a moment of prayer. For the sake of clarity, let me emphatically say I am not a Christian. My reasoning is intensely personal, and I will not offend people by getting into it here. The subject is also actually a little touchy between me and my father. You see, I was raised in Catholicism. I then walked away from that faith very early in my adulthood.

Yet, prior religions follow you the rest of your life, even when you don’t want them to. I am not being cynical, either. For as much as I am not a Catholic, Roman Catholicism has still shaped the some of the ways I think. It’s just who I am.  I thought about this a lot, IMG_7473[1]recently, when confronted with some Buddhist imagery in Changzhou‘s Tianning Temple.

It’s part of Hongmei Park in a district the bares its name.  The chief attraction there is the pagoda.  One day, however, I visited the temple to just as a way to kill time. It was Easter Sunday, and I was meeting a close friend for dinner in Wujin. Only, she had a lot of grading to do before becoming available.  Tianning Temple has two ticket prices, and since I wasn’t interested in going into the Pagoda, I opted for the cheaper 20 RMB fare.

In one corner of the temple grounds, there is a garden filled with Guanyin Sculptures. Guanyin is a often considered a goddess of
mercy. She’s a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, and as is the case with the Chinese variety of that faith, she’s shared with other religions. In
Taoism and folk religion, she is considered a mercy goddess. Some have even drawn parallels with the Virgin Mary.

And so that brings me to the Stations of the Cross analogy. As I walked around, I stopped at each of the dozens of Guanyin sculptures. Most of them feature her reclining or sitting. Some have her with dragons, and other with birds with ornate plumage.  Incense sticks burn at each statue. At many of the sculptures, people have left coins or other mementos.  It wasn’t the statues themselves that reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. It were the people who came here to pray. Many stopped at each and every statue to be mindful in thought. So, the stories are drastically different, but the method of worship is very similar.IMG_7477[1]

Tianning’s Freakish Chef

These little statues are somewhat common in Downtown Changzhou. Usually, I have seen them near Nandajie or near Culture Square / 文化宫 — where they are building the large downtown subway station.

My guess is that these are characteristic of French or Italian chefs. According to stereotypes, they both tend to be fat, and they both tend to have silly little mustaches. That’s odd, because because these statues are never near European or Western or Anything foreign. Usually, they are near your average Chinese fare.

As for this odd fellow, he’s near a semi deserted dining area of little shops. It’s across the street from the subway construction. Looks like he had his head ripped off, and then somebody put the head upside down back into the hollow opening. You know, for safe keeping. Wouldn’t want to lose a head, wouldn’t you? These statues always looked a bit bug-eyed and creepy to begin with. Now, this one is just downright surreal.

My Apology to the Nobel Laureates

IMG_20151225_173156Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.

Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.

— Wislawa Szymborska

This is, by far, my most favorite lines from the late 1996 Nobel Prize winning Polish poet. It’s also from my favorite Szymborska poem, “Under One Small Star.”I first encountered it roughly like 14 years ago, when I was studying for my masters of fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had this phase where I read nothing but Slavic verse translated into English. The poem itself is a lengthy list of apologies; some of them sounded a bit silly, and others were quite profound. I didn’t know at the time that these set of lines would follow me through life.

This poem served me well the first time I angrily walked away American higher education and piecing together part-time teaching jobs. It was for a retail job at Walmart; the pay was about the same – only you could get health care insurance at Walmart. You couldn’t while part timing for American colleges. (This was before the age of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.) Of course, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I spent years at a superstore in Freehold, New Jersey filled with petty scheming and constant moaning. Practically everybody else’s negativity was around me, and Szymborska’s poem hung in the back of my mind. I had a distinct pattern to my sarcastic retorts to people’s more sillier complaints. It went like this, “On behalf of the Walton Family, I do apologize for your hundreds of price changes and faulty telxon printer.” Some of my coworkers found this quite irritating.

heaneyOf course over the years, I angrily walked away from Walmart, twice. In the end, I went back to teaching freshman college writing. I got extremely frustrated with that, again, and I left for China and Changzhou. Since then, I must say my life has gone to a much happier place. I’m extremely grateful for that. Over the two years I lived here, Szymborska’s list of apologies receded a little in my memory and almost disappeared altogether. Something kept it from vanishing, however.

It’s funny how circumstances can change your appreciation of something, no matter if it’s a movie, a poem, or a memory. I found Szymborska again in Changzhou, as I did poets like Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and T.S Eliot. Not mention gloriously awesome novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No, it wasn’t through an expat book club. It wasn’t through witty banter with fellow foreigners. Let’s face it: I have been quite antisocial for a long time. It was through a specific place, and passing it always made me smile.

The downtown Injoy Mall used to have a whole wall dedicated to Nobel winning writers. It was a timeline depicting the history of the award. Some of the entries had black and white headshots, and others didn’t. Except for the writer’s names, all of it was in Chinese. A few times, I used to get coffee at the nearby Starbucks and visit this display on Injoy’s second floor. Only, I didn’t do it enough.

It’s gone now, and now I know I took this small intellectual comfort for granted. The wallpaper with the Nobel Laureates has been peeled off. It’s been replaced with a bookstore. That should sound appropriate, but the books are in Chinese. While I am trying to learn the language, I am still functionally illiterate. Those books bring no comfort to me, and they essentially mean nothing so long as I can’t read them.

A truth: you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s unavailable and gone. I now sorely miss this one celebration of international culture. So, in that regard, let me summon and channel the ghost of Wislawa Szymborska and her great, great poem. Let me apologize:

Pardon me, Nobel Laureates; I should have spent more time absorbing your words.

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Are You Looking for Shit?

What the hell is this shit?
What the hell is this shit?

Living in China is to be sometimes confronted with a number of hilarious WTF! moments. Imagine this: you are shopping at Nandajie in downtown Changzhou. You pass a restaurant, and you seemingly do not notice at first. Yet, something alarms you. It starts in the corner of vision; something registers as “not quite right,” but you are not sure what it is. So, you stop walking and you turn. What you see, not only makes your jaw drop, but the bottle of water you are sipping falls from your hand. You blink a few times, and you try to comprehend the epic weirdness – but it’s hard. Very hard.

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Literally eating out of a urinal.

Why? You are staring through the window of a poop-themed restaurant. Most of the seats around the tables are toilets. Plush and cuddly stuffed turds hang from the wall. The seat back cushions are shaped like swirled-up piles of crap. Shit really factors in big to the decor, but that’s not the most surreal part of it all. The weirder parts are the patrons, the happy diners you might see here. It’s a Saturday night. A group of guys huddle around a table and the empty beer bottles crowd their table to the very edges. A love struck man ignores the pork, mushrooms, potatoes, and other vegetables in front of him to gaze adoringly at his date. He is oblivious to how shit surrounds him. The most off-putting thing is the family you see.  With chopsticks, a Chinese mom and dad warmly take turns feeding sea vegetables to their young, rambunctious, and squirming son. All three smile and enjoy a heartfelt bonding moment – despite the constant reminders of human excrement around them. I didn’t know how they could be so oblivious about eating around so many reminders of defecation.

Maybe Americans are just culturally prude? This is something I have often asked myself for many reasons – especially when it comes to this particular restaurant. It wasn’t because it offended me; it didn’t. It’s because, secretly, curiosity had the best of me. I wanted to go in and see what the hell the place was about. Only, I didn’t have the courage to do it by myself. Well, that changed, recently – thanks to a most daring and most adventurous friend. Together we boldly went where some Changzhou expats might fear to tread.

So what was the poop restaurant like? Surreal, for sure. I sat on a toilet, and my friend had a regular chair. One of the most immediate drawbacks became apparent. If you sit on a toilet in one of these places, you can’t move it around to find your comfort spot while eating. You are stuck in one place and must stay there. Other problems included the table itself. This was a “Paper Barbecue” place. Like hot pot in China, you select raw ingredients, bring them to your table, and your meal cooks in front of you. “Paper BBQ” has a heating element / grill within the table itself. The paper keeps grease all in one place and not falling into the heating element.. At our table, the grill seemed a bit faulty. Half the food cooked quicker than the other

Breast shaped sippy cups?
Breast shaped sippy cups?

half. The paper itself and oil burned quickly, giving off an unpleasant odor. Long afterwards, my friend complained that the smell had gotten into her clothes and hair. Days later, she reported that the stench is still in her jacket, and she was considering getting it washed or dry cleaned. The taste of the food lingered long afterwards. It was mostly cheap vegetables and inexpensive, low quality meat. The fatty pork and beef left my stomach slightly upset. I chose to ignore that because I was in the presence of my lovely friend. My attention needed to be focused on her, exclusively.

If I tried to describe every weird thing I saw, this review would never end. So, I will just stick to the most utterly bizarre, and the best way to handle artless transitions is to use bullet points.

  • mmexport1458018851332
    A shitty uniform.

    The biggest incongruity is the name, 29 主题烤吧The Chinese word for shit is nowhere in its name. It just plainly says “themed restaurant” and hints at the cooking method.

  • This sort of eatery really doesn’t have real waiters or waitresses. It’s self service, after all. However, one busboy sported a shirt that says, in translation, Are you looking for shit? The Chinese text is above a picture of poo.
  • Some of the  ceramic plates meant for cooked food are shaped like urinals.
  • There are both boxed drinks and fountain drinks available. But the glasses are shaped like breasts that force you to suck at a nipple.
  • Hand-washing sinks are shaped like bent-over buttocks.
  • Cartoonish porcelain turds with exaggerated facial expressions await you upon checkout; they are by the cash register.
  • This wasn’t the only feces-themed restaurant in Changzhou.  There used to be another in the downtown Injoy Mall.
  • If you Google China Shit Themed Restaurant, you will be bewildered to find that these places are extremely common in The Middle Kingdom. 
  • I could go on and on and on. And then go on some more.

And, that’s sort of the point. The surreal nature of the place is its only selling point. It certainly isn’t the food, and women will more than likely hate that a stench will cling to them long after they leave. The only reason to go here is to experience the weirdness first hand.

Cartoon poop.
Cartoon poop.

Yueyuan Garden

IMG_20151018_122819Changzhou is not particularly well known for private gardens. Bigger cities like Suzhou and Shanghai usually get more attention for that, and well they should. This doesn’t mean th

at Changzhou is a wasteland, either. There are some great public parks like Hongmei, Dongpo, and Jingchuan, but they are more recent creations. Many private gardens in Suzhou are also historical sites that have been around for at least two generations or more. I found such a place in downtown Changzhou, recently that dates from the Qing Dynasty. In fact, I have often passed by it since 2014 without even really knowing it was there.

Yueyuan Garden (约园) is practically right on Jinling Road, and the north-bound 302 bus passes it before crossing over Yanling Road. It’s also easy to walk to from Nandajie. If you walk south on Jinling, pass Tartine Bakery, it’s actually one of the immediate turn offs.

The garden itself is encircled by a circular road and some parking spaces and buildings belonging to Changzhou #2 People’s Hospital. The Garden has two pavilions. One sits atop gray and weathered rocks. The other is on an island in the middle of the pond. A concrete walkway with railings provides access. Besides sit – and possibly eat a takeout lunch – in peace and quiet there is not much else to do here. It is a realatively calm space where you hear the burbling of water more than Changzhou traffic.Yueyuan Garden in Tianning District, Changzhou

Nandajie Starbucks, 1 of 3

 

One of newer Starbucks near Nandajie / 南大街 in Downtown Changzhou

This Starbucks is within the Nandajie (南大街) shopping area in downtown Changzhou. There really isn’t much to review about a Starbucks. It serves coffee, the menu is the same in each one.  It’s really expensive, especially for Chinese people. I once wrote a wonky essay on how the growth Starbucks in China is a key indicator of “The Chinese Dream.”

This one is one of three within the Nandajie area proper. Each of them are extremely close to each other in proximity. This one, however, is located at the North Entrance of the Landmark Shopping Center along Yanling Road.  The burning question most people have is… does it have a western sit-down toilet?  Answer: Yes it does.