Xitaihu is currently one of of the more underdeveloped areas of Changzhou‘s southern Wuin district. It’s out by a lake with two names: Lake Ge and West Tai Lake. For years, both the municipal and Wujin district government has been trying to entice international business to relocate out here. So, I decided to take a walk around one of the signature science and technology industrial parks.
Being an expat in Shanghai, Suzhou, or Nanjing comes with varying degrees of anonymity. The foreign communities in those places are large enough where a person could relatively fade into the background. This is clearly not the case in smaller towns like Liyang, Yixing, or Changshu; members of those communities all likely know each other. As for more medium-sized cities like Changzhou, the answer is somewhere between those ends of the spectrum.
I have heard more than a few people accuse Changzhou of being clique-ish. That there are actually multiple small communities or circles, and they largely do not interact with each other. For instance, the Germans allegedly all band together, as do the English teachers. The Russians are … very Russian. Certain bars represent community centers for certain expat circles. There may be a grain of truth there, but it’s still not altogether accurate. The reality is actually closer to the silly game of The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Well, this begs the question of what actually is The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? I’d wager a lot of Americans know this, but for non-Americans and non-Canadians, some explaining may be in order. Kevin Bacon is a very talented, very prolific actor and has been one for decades. The idea here is that you can connect Kevin Bacon to just about any other English-speaking actor by looking who his co-stars are and what other projects those coworkers were involved in. The game posits that you can connect Bacon to any other celebrity in up to six projects. Ala: “Bacon stared in this project with ACTRESS, who went on to make a movie with BlahBlah ACTOR, who collaborated with SO-IN-SO. It’s a way of drawing a very tenuous line of connections. Also, it’s like a parlor game that cinephiles and movie nerds play, and Kevin Bacon himself was horrified by this at first.
However, this very silly game is also a very apt way of describing an expat community in a medium-sized Chinese city like Changzhou. Everybody definitively doesn’t know each other, but you can play the Six Degrees game with any foreigner and draw a line through mutual connections to somebody else. I actually got to thinking about his while eating at a private Brazilian BBQ event in Wujin.
This event was held at Kaffa, which is normally a purveyor of Indian cuisine. It’s next to Xintiandi Park in Hutang.
I had never actually had Brazilian BBQ before, and so this was a highly educational and eye opening experience when it comes to food.
This type of BBQ seems to rely heavy on beef, sausage, and salt. Dear lord, salt is dumped on everything before it hits the grill. Even afterwards. The salt makes a lot of sense if you consider the very hot climate of Brazil and the need to actually keep the grilled items from spoiling after cooking. Me? I really don’t mind salty meat; in fact, I love it, as that’s a big part of brined and cured cold cuts you can find in Jewish delis back in New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. In short, I was absolutely loving the food these Brazilians were introducing to me. But to be honest, something else was on my mind.
In Changzhou, I am very well known to be an antisocial person. This is not because I hate people or think I am better than them. It’s just a defect of my personality — I can’t work or glad-hand a room, and I will not, to be honest. And while I was very happy to be munching on cuts of steak while sipping beer, I realized that I hardly knew anybody in this crowd with the exception of maybe three to four people. I kind-of forced myself to be a bit more social, and I was grateful that I did so.
My closest friend got me into this private event as her plus-one. However, looking around the alien-to-me crowd, I did notice some familiar faces. That got me to thinking. Yes, I didn’t know the majority of the people there, but I knew people who knew other people — hence the Six Degrees of Expat Separation in a place like Changzhou. It’s another reason while I still like living here, after all these years. It’s not the anonymous rat race of a place like Shanghai, and it’s not a tiny microcosm like what you’d find in Yixing or Changshu. Changzhou is someplace in between. You may not know everybody in town, but you are likely connected by mutual friends who know other mutual friends.
As for the Brazillian BBQ at Kaffa, maybe I have enlarged my social circle by a little? Those are some good people who enjoy good food. I look forward having a chance to sharing steak, sausage, and beer again with them soon.
During the Chinese Civil War, the Battle of Pingjin was a pivotal moment. The People’s Liberation Army had forced the Nationalist Guomingdang Forces to begin to retreat in certain parts of Northern China — Hebei province in particular. The nationalists would eventually, according to history, lose the war. However, let us not wax poetic on that. Let us delve into something more trivial. As in America, historic warfare is rife for picking as cinematic content in China.
The movie I am screenshotting bares the English moniker Liberation and it tells the story set during the Battle of Pingjin. While I have not seen the movie, the trailer promises Michael Bay styled action where explosives go boom and guns go bang many, many times. I must admit, this is on my to-buy list the next time I visit one of Changzhou’s sole remaining DVD stores. Liberation had a highly limited release schedule in American theaters, but saying that it made it’s way off the Chinese mainland actually says a lot. So, count me as curious.
While the story is set in the greater area around Beijing and Tianjin, it was filmed nowhere near either city. It was actually filmed in Changzhou. The West Tai Lake / Xitaihu region of Wujin is home to a movie lot, and this film was made using those facilities.
This movie lot is a stop on the B15 bus route, and it costs 30 RMB to enter the place and go for a stroll. Doing so feels a little otherworldly. You can actually see external sets that look like they would absolutely fit in with a movie like Liberation. However, this gets more into the nature of Xitaihu. West Tai Lake is currently an underdeveloped region of the city, but a lot of investment is going on here. What is currently here does not equate with the urban planning that suggests what this place may be 10 to 15 years from now. However, if you are thinking of present day Xitaihu — imagine this crammed urban-looking movie lot surrounded by a lot of rural, lakeside, open spaces. It’s like a non-sequitur. Then again, that contrast is what gives this part of Wujin it’s unique character.
There area is not just dedicated to 1940s and Chinese Civil War era exteriors. Other film and TV projects have been filmed out this way.
And these projects do relate to other periods within Chinese history. While a lot of the varied scenery are external sets, there are studio sound stages here as well, and they are likely not open to the public.
The West Tai Lake Yingshi Film and Television Base actually has two entrances: one for tourists and one for professionals actually using the site to produce content. The western tourist entrance is actually closer to the B15 bus stop.
If there is an utterly trivial thing I often complain about, it is about having chronically silly hair — like in competition with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson when it comes to crimes against geometry. I blame Chinese barbers for that. Johnson and Trump, however, have nobody to blame but themselves. For me, it has gotten so bad I have actively thought about shaving my head and being done with being a foreigner in Chinese barbershops . In that regard, I would stop being a Chinese hair stylist’s art project against my express instructions as to what I want. Seriously, I have been photographed and featured on their Wechat moments more times I care to think about.
Yet, I really don’t want to shave my head, and as a result I have developed an obsession for buying baseball hats. However, many of my follicle-challenged male friends complain that I am being childish. They point to their receding hairlines and my lack of one. They tell me I should be content with Chinese barbers butchering my hair and should not hide the resulting crap-do under a cap. To put it simply: Stop complaining! At least you still have hair! Should I should rock out whatever avant garde style Changzhou barbers have bestowed upon me — against my wishes — in public? Um, no. No, I will not.
Typically, though, I’m looking for New York Yankees hats. It’s not because I’m into baseball, per se. It’s more of a regional pride thing. I’m not from New York City at all, but New Jersey is next door, and as I often point out, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia have a lot culturally in common when it comes to food, extremely rude language, and much more. Additionally, the Yankees logo has evolved beyond sports and has become a global fashion symbol — and that makes them easy to find in most Chinese commodities markets. Though, when I go on a hat quest, I may not always leave with NYC related merch. This was a case recently in the former district of Qishuyan in eastern Wujin..
The market in question was tucked away off of Yanling Road. This is the same Yanling that cuts straight through downtown. In fact, taking the #7 bus route from Hongmei Park to this part of Qishuyan is essentially a straight drive with no turns. I left the area to return to Xinbei on the #99, which terminates at Dinosaur Park. The plaza itself seems to be a reminder of how commodity markets are not the bustling places they were many years ago.
While there are empty, abandoned, decrepit-looking booths and stalls here, there is still some life. Not everybody relies on Taobao and the Internet, I guess.
So, how did my quest for NYC-related merchandise go? I only found one thing.
The glitter on the bill was a deal breaker for me. I have no glitter in my soul! Just utter, complete, and all-consuming darkness! Wearing this would be flamboyantly out of character for me. Yet, I did find a silly hat nearby. It was highly tempting.
It took all of my will power to NOT buy the pink one in the middle. I mean, I almost caved and just had to leave that particular vendor before my penchant for and love of absurdity could win me over.
I left with arguably a lamer hat. Still, it did do its required job of hiding my chronically silly-looking hair.
As far as I know, nobody has woken wide-eyed from a dream and stammered, “I need to find a place that sells plant sculptures in the shape of cartoon animals!” Then again in the 1990s, I have had a number of university dormitory roommates complain that I talk loudly while slumbering after a night of drinking. Apparently, I once blurted “My name ain’t Big Dick De La Rocka!” And, that was between heavy, throat-ripping snores. So, who knows？We can safely assume I wasn’t a very good college roommate.
As for the aforementioned plant sculptures shaped like cute animals, I actually have found a place that might sell those in Changzhou. You can also buy fruit-baring orange trees there. Bonsai? Yes, those too. My is guess if you needed to find a tree, a type of plant, or seeds to plant and cultivate something, you’d find it there.
I am speaking of the Xiaxi Flower and Tree Market in Wujin. This is not the part of Wujin that most Changzhou expats know. That would be either Hutang or the College Town. This is more in the Xitaihu region down by the lake; yet, it is also not exactly the stomping grounds that Wycombe Abbey teachers work at and call home. This whole area dates back to the 1990s — incidentally, the same time I lived in West Virginia and blurted nonsensical, surreal word salad while sleeping off a drinking bender.
Getting here wasn’t actually easy. I took the B15 bus to Jiazezhen — the community near the Flower Expo park and Ge Lake / West Tai Lake (same body of water, two different public names) and walked like three kilometers. Jiazezhen is actually the terminus of the B15 route. There is likely a bus combination to get out to the Xiaxi Flower and Tree Market, but saying this area is in a remote part of Changzhou is not putting it lightly. And, I actually haven’t found that route. The public transport infrastructure in this part of the city is fundamentally lacking, which is odd since the market itself is an AAA-rated tourist spot by Chinese government. However, I digress. Let us run a battery of questions!
Can you actually buy orange trees here?
Yes, you can!
Can you see fork lifts moving trees around with some dude standing in a very precarious, very dangerous position?
Yes, you can!
Can you find a bonsai to enhance the nature vibe of your urban living space?
Yes, you can！
Well, how about those plant sculptures that look like cute cartoon animals? You know, the super adorable chia pets that just happen to be very large?
Those look actually like rejected props from horror movies that involve zombie animals. I remember the Resident Evil franchise and their undead dogs rather well. Consider this horse trying to give you the evil eye.
Kidding aside, people who like to garden and cultivate plants might find the Xiaxi Flower and Tree Market a wonderland. If you are one of those people, here’s the address. It’s likely going to be a super expensive Didi trip, a very long walk after getting off a bus with multiple interchanges, or a piece of cake if you can con a Chinese best friend into driving you there after promising to put gas into their car’s tank.
China-fied is a silly term I sometimes throw around when foreign food enters the Middle Kingdom and loses authenticity in the name of getting Chinese butts into restaurant seats. I am not using this in a derogatory way. One can easily argue that a lot of ethnic food in America has been Americanized.
For example, Italian-American and Italian cuisine are not exactly the same. To that end, chicken parm is not something you’ll find in Italy because it was created in the USA — I know this because a good friend of mine is an Italian professional chef and restauranteur, and on multiple occasions he has gleefully pointed out how the dishes my grandmother, mother, and aunts served me growing up were absolutely not Italian. He also accuses Italian-American meatballs of being way too big and meaty. The nerve! I hope the ghost of my grandmother will not try to haunt him! Anyway, let me get to my actual point.
Lotus Thai is a good example of something China-fied. This restaurant is on the uppermost dining floor of Wujin’s Wuyue shopping mall. It has the semblance of Thai food, but it’s something that maybe purists would likely want to avoid due to possible disappointment.
Whenever I go to a Thai place for the first time, the first thing I order would be beef yellow curry. Simply put, it’s usually on every Thai menu and it offers an easy point of comparison to other restaurants. So, how does Lotus Thai stack up? Most other yellow curries I have had limited themselves to meat, potatoes, and sauce. This had a wider variety of vegetables, and the curry itself had a thicker, creamier texture. So, perhaps not totally legit? Still, I had no problem finishing this off with my dining partner. Then, there is this.
The chicken satay skewers were decent — not great, just decent. The other thing: I have normally seen satay served with with a peanut-based dipping sauce. None came with this. Still, I had no complaint with how the chicken was cooked or seasoned. There is one other huge indicator that a menu has been China-fied.
The menu, in English, lists this as “Thai Charcoal Roasted German Salted Pork.” There’s some verbal gymnastics! Whatever. And don’t get me wrong, I actually liked this, despite constantly laughing at the name. But this get’s to a deeper point. The menu boasts Malay, Singaporean, and Vietnamese dishes. This speaks more, again, to attempting to get Chinese asses in seats more than trying to authentically represent a national cuisine. Simple put, Lotus Thai is totally China-fied.
As I said, this is not necessarily meant as a criticism. The food was okay, and two people eating four dishes and drinking a beer a piece resulted in a 228 final bill. So long as you know this in advance, and you’re eating there more out convenience because you’re shopping at Wujin Wuyue, you might not totally be disappointed. Additionally, I’d be willing to return to try other things on their menu out of curiosity. Oh, and by the way, there is some interesting Chinglish in the menu. Consider the following. The English text reads “Charcoal Roasted Pork Neck.” So, please find the pork! Pretty please?
Sitting in Jagerwirt a couple of years ago, I once ate a bowl of spaetzle and burst out into tears. Those who know me personally also know that my first few years in Changzhou were highly moody ones. Essentially, I hadn’t really fully gotten over the death of my mother years before, and that had ripple effects to other parts of my life in highly negative ways. I basically was still in bottle-up your feelings mode. So, what was it about German noodles that sent me off on a crying fit? Trust me, this is going to sound really dumb.
My mother was the greatest cook on the planet, and I’ll fight anybody who disagrees! In my family’s travels across the world, my mom learned how to cook many things from Filipino chicken adobe to various European cuisines and the Italian-America fare my grandmother taught her since childhood. Everyday was a day that my family got spoiled at the dinner table, and if there was anything my mom loved to do, it was spoil her family with good food.
However, there was one dish of hers that I never liked, and for many decades I always refused to order it in German restaurants: spaetzle. The thought was simple: if my mother couldn’t master it, than it was the dish’s fault and not hers. When you are trying to overcome profound grief, it’s best to confront your ghosts, even when those specters are merely represented by a bowl of cheese and noodles. Suffice to say, Jagerwirt’s spaetzle was easily better than my mom’s. I burst into tears because admitting that somebody could cook something better than her felt like an obscene personal heresy. Yes, I said this was really dumb reasoning, but then again, grief can really warp your thinking even on the most mundane things.
All these years later, I can now definitively say that I am in a calmer space where I can eat German cheesy noodles without having a full-tilt emotional breakdown. I know this because I recently dined on this dish twice over the past month. I thought it might be interesting to do a comparative study. Let’s first start with Zapfler over at Canal 5 in Zhonglou.
Zapfler’s spaetzle is solid in its simplicity. You basically have cheese melted over noodles in a very creamy sauce. Changzhou really has nothing by way of American-style mac n’ cheese, but the taste with this is one is one of the closest one will come. For that reason alone, I would definitely go back to Zapfler for this. Next up, let’s give Jagerwirt in Wujin consideration.
Jagerwirt’s version is not as basic as Zapfler’s. This has chives and fried onions as a garnish. Also included are little bits of bacon — which adds a slightly more oily element Zapfler’s lacks. Still, also very good.
So, if this were a noodle fight, who would be victorious? Well, if this were a UFC bout or a boxing match, it would definitely go the distance and to the judges’ scorecard. Both are very good, and this call goes down to basically my personal preference. I would absolutely have both again in the future, but I have to nod my head to Jagerwirt. I liked the contrast crunchy onions bring to what is essentially a very cheesy and gooey dish. Plus, bacon is a universal condiment that makes most anything taste better.
Still, don’t trust me on this. Try both and come to your own conclusion. And, Mom — wherever you are — I’m sorry to say this, really; both are better than yours.
The 63 is a bus route that connects the Changzhou central train station in Tianning to a more remote part of Wujin near the eastern city line with Wuxi. The area around the southern terminus of this line looks deceptively simple.
Arguably, this is a part of southern Changzhou that has a decidedly small town vibe. This part of the city reeks of “nothing to see here.” This is both true and false. First, there really isn’t much to see at the end of the 63 bus route, but there is a personally complicating factor for me. Taking this bus to its final destination resulted in my learning more about Chinese culture.
Yes, this is a relatively small temple with a Guanyin statue out front. The temple doors were shut, and I was not able to enter and look around. I did, however, try research this place a few weeks later. That simply involved learning this place’s Chinese name — Hua Tuo An 华佗庵 and slapping those Chinese characters into net searches. As it turns out, Hua Tuo was a luminary in Chinese medicine.
This doctor lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty; he was born in what would become modern Anhui and died in 208 BCE. In Chinese history, he was the first physician to employ anesthesia during surgery. That likely involved spiking potent alcohol with a couple of herbs and making the patient drink the resulting elixir before cutting them open. Hua Tuo also preformed trepanations — boring holes though a person’s skull to gain access to a person’s brain. His acumen as a doctor and a surgeon was legendary during his life. Cao Cao is perhaps one of Hua’s more famous patients in this regard. This warlord paved the way for the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.
Any old guy who has been near a gaming console over the last twenty years should know the Dynasty Warriors series. It tried to make a player a combatant some of China’s most epic battles. Of course, Cao Cao is a character in those. But, let’s get back to the point.
At one point, Cao Cao started to experience hallucinatory headaches. As concerns over his health mounted, he demanded the best doctor alive tend to him. For reason that I can’t easily find, Hua refused to to treat Cao as ongoing person doctor. While seemingly universal thousands of years later, the Hippocratic Oath just wasn’t a thing in Ancient China — save life whenever you can, and Hua had none of that. Hua continually refused to treat Cao — he made up excuses that involved tending to his allegedly infirm wife. Cao figured out he was lying and ordered his execution. Hua didn’t relent, so he was put to death.
Of course, I’m glossing over this story in the most simplest terms. But for me, it’s a strong reminder of one thing. When you are a foreigner living in a land like the Middle Kingdom with an absurd amount of history, taking a bus like the 63 to the middle of nowhere Wujin will still teach you something, if you look hard enough.
So, what does tacos, Changzhou, and LeBron James have in common?
If you asked me this question yesterday, I would have been totally clueless and perplexed. I might have even shot you a rather pissed off look. I may have ripped some hair out while seething. However, now I know the answer. What do they have in common? There’s a dude in Wujin who apparently loves eating tacos, and LeBron James is his hero.
He has a shop, Taco James, on Wujin Wanda’s pedestrian street that is not that far from Shane English. All the decor is related to either Kobe or the Lakers. In Changzhou, the rumors of potential tacos tends to spread rapidly, and I was surprised I had never heard of this place. Turns out, the owner told me that he opened only a month ago.
So, enough of my jibber-jabber. Are the tacos any good? Before I answer that, I am going to say what I said the last time I posted about tacos: the debate over what is or isn’t an authentic taco bores me to death, as I am only concerned whether or not what I am eating tastes good.
I tried two types. One beef and one chicken. The toppings are not set on the menu. There’s a separate menu of “sauces” to pick from, and this allows you to customize. So, I chose salsa and sour cream — yes, actual sour cream.
The ground beef and chicken both seemed seasoned satisfactorily. Now, somebody might look at the above photo and wonder if a flour tortilla around a corn one might be overkill. Actually, it isn’t. Actually, it’s quite brilliant. Hard-shell tacos sometimes tend to crumble and fall apart while you are eating them. The outer soft tortilla keeps everything together should the corn shell shatter while you’re munching.
Here we have chips and salsa. The salsa is legit. If there is one complaint that I had on this surprise, first, accidental visit, it is this.
The menu has absolutely no English, so you have to use the camera option on your translation app. The above is fairly simple: beef, chicken, steak, and shrimp — in that descending order. The separate sauce menu got a little mangled on my phone. Plus, the owner has poor English skills. Talking to him requires a little bit of patience and using a voice translator on your phone. And don’t get me wrong. Despite the language barrier, he seems like a very cool guy, so in a very friendly way, I did suggest that if he was interested selling foreign food to foreigners, a bilingual menu would be a very good idea. Regardless of that, I am looking forward to going back. Are these the best tacos in the world? No. Of course not. But Changzhou is a veritable taco desert, and Taco James satisfactorily scratches this food itch in my book. That’s alright by me.
Wujin in 2020 is so not the Wujin of 2014 and 15. That’s when I lived down there, and your western food options basically consisted of Monkey King, Jagerwirt, or Chocolates. Kaffa opened, and that gave a bit of scope to a part of the city were “foreign” mostly just meant Japanese or Korean cuisine. Back then, a reason to go to Xinbei was actually quite salivating, because that’s where Changzhou’s one and only Turkish eatery existed. Going up north meant you could actually have hummus and a doner kebab at Istanbul Restaurant. Years ago, I used to dream up excuses to come to Xinbei just eat Turkish food. Well, times do change.
Eventually, I moved to Xinbei, and I actively have taken Istanbul Restaurant for granted. Recently, Wujin got a brand new Turkish eatery called Pistachio. And in an ironic turn, I actually dreamed up an excuse to go to Wujin just so I could go there and try it out. So, how did it go?
Well, here is a feta cheese plate with a wrinkled olive floating in a dipping sauce. That is meant to sound more descriptive than sassy. Also, if you consider that feta is one of the rarer cheeses in Changzhou, this is actually appealing. One of the only places I’ve actually found real feta has been in Metro, and that was in a jar of oil with olives and spices.
Pistachio has most of the traditional dipping sauces. The hummus was particularly good. But, the biggest test of a Turkish place usually comes down to the doner kebab meat.
I went for a beef and cheese fold over, and it was pretty good. However, this brings up an obvious question. How does it compare to Istanbul Restaurant in Xinbei? I would rate the two as pretty much the same. They’re both good and one is not better than other. However, it should be noted this opinion comes after only an initial visit and trying a main dish that is on both menus. All I know is that next time I am in Wujin, I am going to be highly tempted to return to Pistachio.