Category Archives: Tianning

Beitanghe Christian Church

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In my wandering and meandering around Changzhou, I rarely if ever get stopped by security guards. Mostly, they just eye me and then return to their newspaper or mobile phone. I have walked onto housing estates and college campuses and security usually never bats an eye. It’s something I have had to learn in China: walk with confidence and usually people do not bother you. Of course, being six foot two helps. One obvious exception, however, is East Nanjing Road in Shanghai — but that’s panhandlers and con men, not security officers.

So, you can imagine the surprise I felt when several security guards approached me once. I was cruising down Beitanghe Road 北塘河路 in northern Tianning. This road is actually not too far from Dinosaur Park. I stopped to light a cigarette and look at the map. Sure enough, I noticed that a Christian church was somewhere nearby. Only, I had to go over a narrow construction road to get there. And, once I got there, the security guards swarmed in.

Turns out, there was something like a water processing plant nearby and a lot of construction. I simply pointed at the church, held up my phone, and said 照片 (photo) they smiled and then left me alone. I took my photo, and then was on my way.

As far as Changzhou’s churches go, this one seemed moderately sized and and fairly simple in it’s architecture. I neither saw people nor cars there — just security guards and construction workers related to a nearby job site. Then again, it was  also a Friday night. A week or three later, I returned during the day and saw more signs of life. However, I didn’t go in.

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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How To Read A Bus Departure Board

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The departure board in Tianning’s downtown coach station.

My first year in Changzhou, I never left the city. I really didn’t have the confidence to get up from my computer and just go somewhere. I just drank beer at night and stared at Facebook updates. Trying not to be a shut-in came in steps. First, I just started taking random city buses to places and then turning around and coming back. Six months later, I got my first eBike, but the range wasn’t that far. I could go 30 kilometers, turn around and arrive home with a dead battery. Learning how to take the train came next, and they last thing was intercity coaches. Into my third Changzhou year, I have finally figured out long-distance buses.

It does, however, require a little — but minimal — knowledge of Chinese. For example, you have to know the characters of your destination. Jintan is 金坛. Yangzhou is 扬州. Yangzhong is 扬中,and so on. If you have a translation app on your fine, figuring this out is easy if you have done minimal planning.  Departure times in 24-hour format come next destination names.  One column lists prices, and the last one is important: how many seats are left. This set up is pretty much at most Changzhou terminals. The sole exception I have seen, so far, is in Jintan. No display board at all — that station is fairly old.

Our Lady of Pollution

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People have different ways to measure pollution and how bad it is. The most obvious is to wake up in the morning, look out the window, and see how thick, thin, or not there smog is for the day. Other people tend to be more scientific and follow the Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers for Changzhou. For the longest time, I had a more arcane and most nonsensical approach, and it involved a statue.

It looks classically European, and I don’t know the story of why it is where its. It depicts a woman holding a basket of flowers, her garments are draped in a way you see in Italian sculpture, and her breasts are exposed — and so is a long bit of leg! However, the implied sexiness is muted by the “I must look askance and away” modesty thing you often see in art.

I used to pass this statue all the time when I lived in the south of the city. It’s on Heping Road 和平路, right after you cross the bridge from Wujin to Tianning. I would zip by it while on my way downtown on my eBike. This all sounds well and nice, but how did I link this weird girl to air quality?

It came down to how dirty this woman would look. At her worst, she would have black streaks across her face, and yellow smears across her breasts. Then, apparently, somebody would come scrub her and wash her. Then, she would be pristine and white again. Six months would pass, and the yellow smears on her legs and bosom would reappear — and somebody would eventually hose her down again.

As an air quality indicator, this is stupid beyond measure. I know that. Plus, I think the people responsible for the sculpture  have caught on to how nasty this gal can look. Over the last year, the smudges and smears have never returned. And really, if I actually cared about pollution, I should be looking at AQI numbers and not a statue of a woman with her tits exposed.

Cao Zhongzhi and Charitable Wheelchairs

The story of Cao Zhongzhi engraved in stone. You also can see my new conversation buddy’s reflection.

When you are a foriegner in Changzhou, you sometimes get stopped by curious Chinese people who want to practice their English.  Usually, I will oblige for a short and polite conversation.  Depending on what I am doing, I might try to turn this into a “win-win” situation. If I am out looking for things to blog about, I will rather craftily ask them to translate something for me. This was the case a few weeks ago.

I was at Tianning Temple in Hongmei Park. At the time, I was looking at Guanyin “goddess of mercy” statues. A middle schooler stopped me, and after the standard “Do you like Chinese food” questions, I pointed at a nearby gazebo. Inside, a figure of a man pushing a wheelchair “Can you tell me who that is?” He struggled a bit.

“Famous man with big heart,” was all my new friend could manage. “I don’t how else to say in English.”

“Can you write his name for me?” I handed him my phone.  He typed out 曹仲植 Cao Zhongzhi into my dictionary. I saved it for later research.

Turns out, Cao was a famous philanthropist. While originally hailing from Changzhou, he moved to Taiwan. Once, while returning to visit family in 1969, he saw a disabled man and became moved by his situation. So, he set up a charity that donated wheelchairs to the needy.

Once I read the story — badly machine translated from Chinese by Google, of course — the location of the his marker made a lot of sense. In both Buddhism and Taoism, Guanyin is considered a figure of mercy and compassion. To a lot of disabled people in China, Cao Zhongzhi was a humanitarian who embodied those qualities.  It is fitting to to draw this juxtaposition by placing him in a garden dedicated in Guanyin’s honor.

Zhang Tailei and the Guangzhou Uprising

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Detail from a painting inside the Zhang Tailei Memorial Hall

In France, radical socialists and working class activists took over the Parisian government for a few months. They refused to cede the city back to the French government. Brutal suppress followed, and what is often considered the first attempt at a communist government failed. This was The Paris Commune, and it happened back in 1871, These events greatly shaped the direction of Communism as an ideology. Karl Marx even wrote a book about it.

Sometimes there is a parallel drawn between this and event in Chinese history.  In 1927, the Red Guard seized control of the Guangzhou government. Back then, it bore the English moniker

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A bust of Zhang Tailei

Canton.  At the time, both Guangzhou and Hong Kong also had an international presence. The coup didn’t last long. Days after Communists took power on December 11, the Red Guard got militarily routed. The leader, Zhang Tailei, was ambushed and killed. This event went on to spur other uprisings across China. Some have called the events in Guangzhou “The Paris Commune of the East.” In a way, that has a patronizing western-centrist ring to it. Still, one can’t deny the similarities.

That’s well and fine, some might think — but what does any of this have to do with Changzhou? Zhang came from Changzhou. His former home, The Zhang Tailei Memorial Hall 张太雷故居 is now a preserved as a small museum in Tianning. There, you can a few modest rooms that are preserved to look as they would have nearly a 100 years ago. A small display space is next to the modest dwelling. Most of it is in Chinese, but there is a long introductory paragraph in English explaining the Guangzhou uprising and who Zhang was.

This preserved historical space is relatively easy to find.  The Number 2 bus passes it. It is also right across the street from Qingliang Temple. Computer City and Wandu Plaza are also nearby.

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Finding Deals at Jiuzhou Digital Plaza

The digital plaza downtown. Do no confuse this with “Computer City.”

When I lived in Wujin’s College Town, I once realized I was paying too much for computer hardware and digital devices. How? I would always buy stuff like external hard drives at Hutang’s RT Mart.  Sure, buying stuff there is convenient, but that convenience comes with a mark up. Other places in Changzhou stock tech devices for a lower price tag.  I am talking about the computer city and the digital plaza.

成龙 aka Jackie Chan shills for Canon at my go-to kiosk.

The two are close to each other. One mostly just sells computer and their internal parts. This would be a four story shopping center near the new Wandu Mall on Heping Road. It’s easy to spot, because it has a big black orb prominent in its ground-floor architecture. I have bought  two laptops and an Asus tablet here. The other is a big, orange building. This also has like three to four floors.

The only difference is that computer city features shops and storefronts, and the Jiuzhou Digital Plaza 九洲数码城 has open-space floors with vendors behind glass display cases. Typically, I have come here for SD cards, memory cards for a high-end Canon camera, and external hard drives. I have also bought camera filters and a zoom lens here.

As for any market situation in Changzhou, if you are buying something extremely expensive, you should always bring a good Chinese friend with you. They have a talent for haggling  and verbal combat westerners and just don’t. But, for smaller things, like SD Cards, the prices are still cheaper here than RT Mart even when you don’t try to argue the cost down.

Coming here is extremely easy. The 302 bus runs from Wujin’s College Town to Xinbei’s Dinosaur Park. This stop is in the middle of that route, right before a bridge that crosses into the city center.

Open floor market space.

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]

Nanjing Duck Blood and Vermicelli Soup

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Before moving to China, I spent a lot of time rationally thinking about where to look for a job. Eventually, I settled on Nanjing.  While my recruiter contacted potential colleges and universities, I decided to do a little research on the culture of the city. And that’s when I discovered duck blood soup 鸭血粉丝汤.

At the time, it sounded absolutely revolting, even though most websites were calling it a delicacy and were heaping emotive adjectives on weird ingredients — “Sumptuous duck intestines,” for example. To the average American, the ingredients really do sound disgusting. The vermicelli noodles are made from from sweet potato flour. There is a form of fried tofu in here to. That’s well and fine, but lets get to the fun parts!

I guess starting with the blood should suffice. Blood in general is a standard part of Chinese cuisine. In my time in the middle kingdom, I’ve eaten duck, pig, sheep, and goose blood. Typically, it’s shaped  into cubes and it looks like a brown form of tofu, and it tastes that way too, albeit a bit coppery and metallic. Blood pretty much tastes the same — just some, like duck, have stronger flavors that others, like pig. So, the blood is not the stock that makes up the broth at all; it’s a solid.

As for the other ingredients, there is no rest for the squeamish. This soup literally has most of a duck’s organs floating in it. That includes livers, lungs, intestines, gizzards, and more. There may be some variations, but rest assured that there will always be organ meat in this soup. And before somebody screams Barbaric! Keep this in mind: many Americans in the south enjoy eating chicken gizzards and hearts.  Liver and onions is a pretty standard dish. Pork rinds are deep fried pig skin, and so on and so forth.

I once told my father I would never eat something this repulsive.  The funny thing is this: the list of foods I said I would never eat in China keeps getting shorter and shorter.  I have a rule: never insult Chinese hospitality. If I am having dinner with a Chinese friend, and they are paying the bill, I will at least try what they order. After all, dishes are communal when dining out.  And that’s how a mischievous friend tricked me into trying this.

We were at some food street near Cultural Square 文化宫 in downtown Changzhou. He set the bowl down and simply said, “Try this. If you like it, then I will tell you what it is.” I already knew what it was, just by seeing the brown slabs floating in it. So, I gave it a try. Once I could see beyond my own cultural and culinary prejudices, I realized something. It wasn’t that bad at all.

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.