Category Archives: Wujin

A Ghost in the Valley of Retail Mountains

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This is an old post reposted from my personal blog. 

A few years ago, Changzhou was accused of being a ghost city by the China Youth Daily. Basically, the logic went this way: there were too many unoccupied residential and commercial construction developments. All of these highrises, one might argue, and not one lighted window at night. And with the breakneck speed of construction in Changzhou, could the local population actually support these new apartment blocks and shopping malls, or would they ultimately remain empty? Was Changzhou on the slippery slope towards becoming a lost metropolis like Ordos Kangbashi? To some Chinese folks and foreigners who live in Changzhou, this ghost city allegation is really a load of nonsense.

Even a veteran travel writer Wade Shepard seemed to think so, once he was researching his book Ghosts Cities of China. Since this allegation was made, many of the construction projects have filled in. For example, the Wujin district is now home to both a prospering Wanda Plaza and an Injoy Shopping mall. People are also slowly moving into the new housing estates, too. It’s hard to call a location a ghost town or city when you see people milling about and cars on the street – something the infamous city of Ordos Kangbashi allegedly doesn’t have. But, even that seems to to be changing.

Simply put, the landscape of Changzhou has vastly changed since 2012 and 2013, and it will continue to change. Construction in Wujin and other Changzhou districts is still seemingly on steroids. It seems like not a week goes by without something new opening or something old getting bulldozed. Yet, for all of this economic progress, this city along the Yangtze still has its share of ghosts. All of urban China does, and it will continue on this way for the foreseeable future. These ghosts are bleak, destitute spaces – once built to great fanfare, and then seemingly abandoned over the years once newer, bigger, shinier structures were erected.

 IMG_20151027_161936Yanghu Plaza阳湖广场 is one of these ghosts. Permit me this analogy. If the skyscrapers of Wanda and Injoy were mountains, Yanghu Plaza is a seemingly desolate valley between them. A person could walk from one mall to the other relatively quickly, but they would have to pass Yanghu. The area is actually vibrant with locally owned shops and snack bars. It’s a decidedly different place than the corporate centers nearby. Yet, once you step onto the plaza itself, activity nearly flatlines.

A huge building stands at the center of Yanghu. It consists of two towers connected by an enclosed walkway. Essentially, it looks like a big capital letter H. Such architecture is not uncommon in Changzhou. Changzhou’s main municipal governmental building also sports an H shape, for example. As for Yanghu Plaza in Hutang/Wujin, the building is empty. Many of the windows are missing. Essentially, it’s a derelict tenement. Nobody lives in this weird structure, nobody works there either. Three floors of open air retail space flank this huge H. About 5% of the shop spaces are used, and the rest is enclosed by metal pull-down gates. Some of the areas even have weeds and vegetation growing on the inside – that’s how long this area has been stripped down and largely abandoned. Yet, some people still individually use some of the interior. From time to time, I saw clothing on drying racks inside the building. Of course, I saw this through dirty, smudged windows. This isn’t an area I would feel remotely interested trespassing into.

IMG_20151027_162825As I walked through the shopping areas, I kept hearing dogs barking loudly. At first, I thought it came from a nearly empty pet shop with pooches in cages. Yet, the barking remained and grew slightly louder as I rounded the back structure. There, I found a canal and a weathered, old gazebo with flaking paint and finishing.  There, an old woman sat and eyeing me suspiciously. An old man had curled up on the bench beside her, snoring loudly. I saw some more open windows into the H-shaped building, and decided to go up for a closer look. Again, nothing. Yet, the sounding of dogs barking seemed louder now. I followed the wall and came to an open window. Open may not be the right word. It was still enclosed by a metal-pull down window and decrepit looking slabs of plywood. The interior of the room was dark and shadowy. The barking grew louder, as did sound of scratching of paws against concrete. A big black canine ran out of the shadows. I instantly took a few steps back. As soon as I had, the dog hit the plywood barrier with such force, it buckled and splintered. Then, the mutt stood on its hind legs and forced its nose and snarling mouth through an opening of pull-down gate. This is when I decided to walk away. I had parked my electric moped at the Injoy Mall. I figured it was time to go back, maybe get some coffee at Starbucks, and then go home.

Later, I poked around online for any clues about Yanghu Plaza. Was place ever once a vibrant shopping center? As per the norm, I didn’t find much. If the Google Translate version Yanghu’s Baidu Encyclopedia entry can be trusted, construction on this plaza started back in 2003. At the time, the H-building would have been an impressive feature in Wujin’s cityscape. Now, it’s easily dwarfed by the new Wanda Realm hotel tower behind it.  So, this plaza is more than ten years old, and now it’s a decrepit ruin. From what I have read on Chinese urban development, this is par for the course. Some construction projects are thrown up with developers knowing full well that it ill not survive a decade or two. Yanghu Plaza seems to fit nicely into this category Plus, more often than not, the bulldozers are owned by the people who built the structure. Actually, when I was there, I did see construction workers ripping up sidewalks. So, does this mean that Yanghu Plaza days are numbered? The Baidu Encyclopedia also mentions that there are already redevelopment plans, but no timeline was actually mentioned. Anyway, it’s old by contemporary Chinese standards. Demolition may not be imminent, but it’s likely going to happen. Could be this year, could be the next. Until then, it will remain a ghost in the shadow of things larger, newer, and brighter at night.

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No Love for Qishuyan Station

Changzhou has three high-speed rail stations. The most commonly used can be found in the city center, in the Tianning District. This station services passengers wanting to to use the line between Shanghai and Nanjing. You can also get to other places like Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Hefei from here.

The other major station is in Xinbei. In English, this is most commonly called “Changzhou North.” It’s a totally different rail line connecting Shanghai to Beijing.  The stops are all different, too. Yes, the trains stop in Nanjing and Wuxi, but they don’t stop at the central stations in those cities. (Respectively, its Nanjing South and Wuxi East). Once you pass Nanjing, the train heads north to places like Xuzhou, Chuzhou, Bengbu, and more with Beijing South Station as its terminal point.

Then, there is Qishuyan Station. It’s provincial at best. It’s tiny. And if you do not live in Qishuyan, this is a very annoying stop on the way to Shanghai or other points east. It’s only on the Shanghai-to-Nanjing line. Once you leave Changzhou’s central station, the train coasts very slowly for like five minutes and then stops.  Two to five people may board or depart.  Thankfully, not all trains stop here, according the schedules you can find on Ctrip.com.

I find the existence of this train station a little troubling. First, Qishuyan is no longer a district in Changzhou city proper. It got folded into Wujin last year —  at the same time when Jintan stopped being a independent and was absorbed into Changzhou’s redefined city limits. It’s almost if if the municipal government bet on Qishuyan being an important financial center, hedged it bets, years later, and then started backing away. So, now there is a high speed rail station nobody really uses. Honestly, check Ctrip.com for how many trains actually stop there.

Besides, in the years I lived in Wujin, I always thought having an honest “Changzhou South” station  made more sense. The Xinbei, Tianning, and Qishuyan stations are highly annoying to get to when you work in Wujin’s many, many factories and industrial parks, or at Changzhou’s southern college town. All three are either long bus rides or expensive taxi fares. They are certainly NOT convenient to get to.

But what do I know? Who am I to question grand scheme of urban planning in China? I’m just a silly laowai 老外, a foolish foreigner, right?

Right.

So, I will now shut up and teach my Oral English classes.

Hidden Dragons

Imagine you have a crazy hoarder / packrat as your elderly uncle. Every time you go and visit him, he wants to show you the vintage comic book he paid one dollar for at a neighbor’s yard sale. Even more, he can show off all of his Star Wars related sticks of bubble gum from the late 1970’s. Part of you thinks this uncle is absolutely insane, but you love his crazed passion for culture. Actually, you grow to respect his enthusiasm, partly because you realize his home is actually a museum he spent a lifetime curating. To some people, such people sound far fetched — but they do exist.  For example, there were the Vogels in New York City. On working class salaries, they amassed a priceless art collection.

A few months ago, I met somebody like this in Changzhou. He had turned his passion for collecting everything related to dragons into a government-supported folk history museum.  I found it by complete accident while on my eBike. I was on Renmin Road in Wujin, but much farther to the east than Injoy Plaza. You could say I was halfway to the former district of Qishuyan when I spotted a small public park on the my phone’s Baidu Maps app. So, I veered off course. The park itself wasn’t really much to think of — sort of desolate and deteriorating.  The security guard was sleeping while trying to fish in a man-made pond.

As I walked around, I found myself intrigued by a building with the park grounds itself. Different calligraphy  style for 龙 (Dragon) filled out one of the building’s walls. For a while, I walked around the building and puzzled as to what it was. A week later, I returned have looked it up on the internet with Google Translate, and discovered that it was called Hidden Dragon Pavillion 常州藏龙馆. a man was setting in a lawn chair by an open door. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and he pretty much demanded to take me on a guided tour.

Nevermind I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. I admired, however, his hospitality, and his passion for his collection was evident in how he whisked me from display to display. The musuem itself is a converted residence, so he led me up star cases and into locked rooms. In the process, I saw scrolls of calligraphy, ceramic dragons — even baijiu bottles shaped like the mythical creatures. They were empty, of course!  The entire time I simply nodded my head while taking a look around. Afterwards, two elderly women came in and looked at me with amused shock. That’s when I realize I may have been the only foreigner to come here — or the first in a very long time.

This musuem may be “hidden,” but it’s really easy to get to in Wujin if you have a car or an eBike capable of handling longer distances. Essentially, you get onto Renmin Road 人民路 and stay there until you take a right onto Fenghuang Road 凤凰路. Once you will see the walls of the park when you get there.  If you do visit, it’s probably best you bring a Chinese friend with you. If you do, you will have a better understanding of what you’re looking at.

Zouqu’s Starbucks

As is often pointed out, Starbucks in China is often taken as an economic indicator. As coffee goes, it’s not cheap when compared to Chinese cafes, and Chinese friends sometimes tell me that some people go there more as a fashion statement than for the cakes or the drinks. Going to Starbucks 星巴克 is a way to show off that you have money.

When it comes to Changzhou, I used to think Starbucks were mostly just centralized in denser parts of the city. Hutang in Wujin, the city center, and the greater Wanda area in Xinbei, for example.  Well, that’s starting to change. Xinbei just got two more, and they are not near Wanda.

More interestingly, I found one in Zouqu 邹区 . This is a small township in far western part of Zhonglou District. Technically, it’s not in Zhonglou at all, according to Baidu Maps — rather, in one of the oddly contorted norther arms of Wujin. Still, I choose to lump it in to Zhonglou, partly because Qingfeng Park is like five or more kilometers away.

Zouqu doesn’t strike me as “cosmopolitan Changzhou.” It seems far more industrial and developing economically. Its in Taifu Plaza 泰富时代广场, and that seems pretty new. When I stopped in for a cafe Americano and a bacon and egg sandwich, the place seemed empty. But, it was also late morning on a Thursday when most people would be working. To find a Starbucks here is a real indication of the company’s rapid expansion in China in general and Changzhou in particular.

And yes, they have a western sit-down toilet.

Jagerwirt’s Lamb Special

American holiday traditions can change from family to family; that’s just part of living in a multicultural society. After all, each family has a unique set of ancestors hailing from multiple countries. While growing up, Easter dinner for me, for example, was a hodgepodge of Italian-American dishes, and curiously enough, roasted lamb.  It was one of the only times of the year my mom ever prepared it.

I don’t know if I was thinking about this or not while eating at Jagerwirt in Wujin, recently. I was out at that German restuarant with a friend to celebrate Easter. I puzzled over the menu for a moment and than for some reason impulsively went for the daily special: lamb chops with mashed potatoes and a few grilled veggies.

It was easily the best lamb I’ve eaten in Changzhou. When cooked wrong, lamb can be greasy and chewy. This was tender and easy to cut with a knife. The sauce went well with the mashed potatoes, but you can say this dish skimped a little on the vegetables.  However, This just another example that I’ve seldom had a lackluster meal at Jagerwirt.

I wish the could say the same for other people. As for my friend’s dinner, I have to say Jagerwirt is not exactly vegetarian friendly. For the price on the menu, their mixed vegetable salad struck me as a bit small and lacking. I love how Jagerwirt is the one of the only places that you can get an actual baked potato, but once you strip off the sour cream and chives they can some times taste a little dry — as if prepared a little too far in advanced.

Accidental Duck Guts

IMG_20151116_122948Chinese people once laughed at me when I was eating. I was dining by myself at the time, and tears flowed over my reddened cheeks. Sweat beaded across my brow, and the corners of my mouth curled into a severe frown. From time to time, I had to put my chopsticks down, grab a tissue, and blow my running nose, hard. So, what had happened? Why was I weeping? Was I an emotional wreck? Had a beautiful woman just spurned me? Did somebody kidnap my cat and send me a ransom note?

Um, no. I had made a huge menu mistake with Chinese food. While dining at the Jiangnan People’s Commune 江南人民公社 across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, I ordered what I thought was sauteed string beans. They looked that way on the picture menu. Dear god, they weren’t. They were stir-fried green peppers with lots garlic. Eating this dish brought me physical pain. So, why did I insist on trying to finish it?

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The Mao Zedong themed Jiangnan People’s Commune across from CCIT.

Stubborn, hard-headed pride. I ordered, it was served, and I was going to eat it. I wasn’t going to be that type of foreigner  that would squeal in terror and flee at the sight of culturally challenging dish. So, I sat there and ate half of it. Then, I pretended to be full, and I politely asked for a to-go bag. Once safely out sight of restaurant, I tossed that doggy bag into the garbage.  Why was being so polite? I ate at that eatery quite often, and I didn’t want to insult them. I didn’t want to be an ugly American. Yeah, it was totally a face-saving issue. Especially, if I was going to be going back in the following week for tried-and-true lunch options. One rule of life is this: don’t piss off the people who usually feed you.

Ever since this incident, I have had some delicious lunches and dinners at this particular place. But, I had one other epic ordering blunder. Again, it involved thinking “string beans” and being served something completely else.

In this case, the alleged “string beans” ended up being duck intestines — complemented by tongues and other innards. The name was 干锅鸭四宝, or “Dry Pot Duck Si Bao.” You see, I thought I was ordering something duck meat, because I saw the character 鸭. A Chinese friend later told me that 四宝 (four jewels) means a dish will have four types of organ meat.

I didn’t blanch in horror once I was served this. I have eaten weirder things in the name of respecting Chinese hospitality. Once, I had the rather Satanic sounding “lamb’s blood” in hotpot. I ate about half and found the duck tongues to be very chewy. Then, I left. I had long since stopped the fake “to go” shtick. I had eaten this place enough to know they really didn’t care, so long as I paid my bill.IMG_20151116_125505

Hutang’s Historical Musuem

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Changzhou is made up of districts, and those districts are made up of separate towns and districts.  Xuejia, for example, is a part of Xinbei separate from where you might find Wanda Plaza, expat bars, and foreign restaurants. People often say you see a lot of foreign faces in Xinbei, but that’s only in a small part of the district as a whole. Foreign faces in Xuejia is much more rare.

In Wujin, much the same can be said. In reality, Wujin is Changzhou’s largest district.  Hutang Township is the central part — the downtown.  The district governmental buildings are there, as are the colleges and much of the swanky places to shop. While important, there is much more to Wujin than just Hutang.

Still, the township has it’s own, unique history, and it has been preserved. The Hutang Musuem is a small, privately operated, not for profit historical attraction in Changzhou’s Wujin District. It takes it’s name directly from the township it can be found in. The museum displays mostly cultural relics in lit glass cases. This includes both carvings and pieces of jade. Relatively small in size, the facility is divided into two levels. The museum is located within the New Town development that can be found between Wuyi Road and Huayuan Street. The museum as on the second floor of a strip mall development and can be found after climbing an outdoor set of stairs. A nearby BRT station services the north-to-south running B1 and B16 lines.

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Working the Map: Tianfu Cemetery

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There are many ways to learn about a foreign country. The most obvious is to pick up a book and read, but it’s not that simple when you live in China. A lot of the broader strokes of Chinese history can be found in English, but if you are trying dig your fingers into something local, the information is just not simply there if you can’t read Chinese. Google Translate, while useful, is great for a general idea regarding a text, but it garbles and distorts nuance out of focus. Plus, smaller cities like Changzhou are more obscure subjects to most travel writers. Places like Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou suck up most coverage. So, what does that leave you? Public monuments, parks, museums, and things like that. Recently, I developed another tactic that’s both helped me learn new Chinese characters and more about the landscape I live in.

I call it “working the map.” It’s rather simple, and I doubt I’m the only one to come up with this. I look at a map of Changzhou, Wuxi, Shanghai, et cetera, and pick two to three locations. Then, I go out and actively try to find them in the real world. It works better if you are picking the locations on your computer or your phone and not a real, paper map. This way, I can type in new characters I’ve learned. For instance, 故居 (guju) means “former residence,” and on a map that’s usually attached to a historical figure.  It’s weird how if you change the keywords ever so slightly, you get different results. A word like 墓地 (mudi) will bring you “graveyards,” but a characters like 陵园 (ling yuan) may not. They both are places that involve the dead, but they are not exactly. The first is “graveyard” in a general sense, and the second refers specifically to a walled in compound with graves. The same nuance can be found in English – tomb, grave, mausoleum, and cemetery are not all exactly the same in meaning.

Sometimes, “working the map” leads me to a cultural hidden treasure, and sometimes it doesn’t. On the most basic level, it is what it is: an excuse to get out of my apartment. I did this recently with a place called 天府陵园 (Tianfu Cemetery). Since it’s October and Halloween season, I’ve been making a point to locate and visit as many cemeteries in Changzhou as I can. I can assure you, some Chinese people might find this activity a little bit odd or strange. Chalk that up to cultural differences. Anyhow, I also picked Tianfu Cemetery because it was relatively close. I had an afternoon class, and I didn’t want to venture too far away from my school. Plus, I figured I could stop at RT Mart for dinner provisions on my way back.

Getting to Tianfu didn’t seem as convoluted as some other places I’ve been to in Changzhou, like Yun Nantian’s home. First, I rode my electric moped to Yancheng in Wujin. This is the big historical attraction from the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. There’s also a zoo, an amusement park, and two of Wujin’s foreign restaurants (Monkey King and Chocolate’s). I was on Yanzheng Road, which is on the south end of this popular tourist destination. Once I passed the first intersection, I kept an eye out for Hubin Road. By now, I could smell that I was in one of the more industrial areas of Wujin. You can actually smell the pollution here, and the air feels a bit gritty on your eyeballs.

A crumbling hole where garbage is burned.
A crumbling hole where garbage is burned.

Eventually, I found myself on a Dongbao Road. Here, there are factories, and drab concrete barrier walls. Some of these have crumbling walls, and the locals have used them as incineration points. Basically, people have thrown their garbage through the hole and then set the trash on fire. Only, the job never got completely done. You can say that most places that burn garbage. There’s also something always left over.

This idea also carried over to Tianfu Cemetery. The front of the compound features a semi-enclosed area with a short concrete wall. There, a pile of charred remnants still smoldered and gave off whips of acrid smoke. I wondered how this was different than, say, a Taoist or Buddhist temple, where the air is also thick with smoke. Those sacred sites also have pits and places to burn things, but that’s usually incense. I didn’t smell incense outside Tianfu, but given the Chinese veneration of their ancestors, I also highly doubt people would incinerate garbage there. So, it was probably joss paper. This can be seen as a sort of “spirit money used as a burnt offering to the dead. This paper can be simple, or it can be ornate with gold or silver foil attached. Joss Paper is not fragrant, like incense either. If you believe some sources, this smoke it gives off can be toxic, and prolonged inhalation can harm a person’s health.

The front of the cemetery featured the usual sort of Chinese gate with curved-up edges. Beyond that, I could see

Garbage dump or place of burnt joss paper?
Garbage dump or place of burnt joss paper?

black stone tombstones in rows. There were also buildings and other sorts of things. I looked at the metal gate. It had blocked access to cars. There was a door-like entrance, and for a moment, I thought about walking in and looking around. Only, I didn’t. The place was staffed, and I really didn’t know the Chinese attitudes about regarding burial sites and casual visitors. Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was be culturally offensive.

So, I just jumped on my eBike and moved on down the road. Visiting the entrance of Tianfu Cemetery came with no cultural or personal epiphanies or revelations. My personal knowledge of Chinese or Changzhou history wasn’t particularly advanced by the visit. Going there had just been a case of “working the map.” At the least, another small part of the city is not unfamiliar to me, now.

The West Taihu Church that Wasn’t

West Taihu Wedding Complex

NOTE: This is an old cross post from my personal blog. 

“What do you mean it’s not a church? It has a big cross! It looks Christian to me!” My Chinese friend looked befuddled.

“No,” I said. I pointed out the window at the steeple of one of Changzhou’s very, very, very few Christian worship centers. We were on the sixth floor of a building, and you could see it across Yanling Road, right behind Culture Palace Square. “That is a church. The place in West Taihu is not.”

“Oh,” a second Chinese friend entered the room. “What are you two talking about?”

“Have you seen my Gehu Lake photos on WeChat?”

“Yes. Such still water. Are you going to write about exploring Gehu?”

multi-faceted hall

“Yes … but no, also.” I bit my lip and thought she must have seen the picture of the actual lake I had taken. “No, not that photo. Here—” I dug my cellphone out of my pant pocket and summoned a photo of the building in question. “I mean this.” I found the right picture and tilted my mobile towards her. She leaned over and squinted.

The photo depicted an oddly faceted building with slanted angles. The base of the building, for example, was narrower than the top. Opaque and reflective glass made up the entirety of the exterior. The odd and intersecting lines might remind one of a gem stone you might find set in an engagement or wedding ring. This weird-looking building stood next to a tall, narrow, white arch. Toward the top, there was a simple cross. So, yes, to the casual observer, it did indeed look like a church.

Christian themed gate

The interior, as far as I could tell when I was there, just reinforced that. The entrance was open, but access was closed off by a huge metal gate. Here, too, a golden-yellow cross would remind one of Christianity. If a person were to look towards the roof, they would also see another strong bit of spiritual linkage. The words “Ave Maris Stella” had been carved in white. It’s subtle, but you could see it. The white on white shading, however, made it hard to effectively photograph. In Latin, those words roughly mean “Hail Star of the Sea.” It’s fitting, in a way, since there was a vast body of water right behind the building. It was, however, Gehu Lake and not an actual sea or ocean. Ave Maris Stella was also a hymn or a chant sung in medieval European monasteries and abbeys. The lyrics speak of devotion to the Virgin Mary. So, yes, it’s another misleading detail that screams Christianity.

Although I could peer inside, a slightly rusted cable lock blocked access and entry. One might conclude that the rust meant this place hadn’t been used in a long time. However, if there is one thing I have learned in China, manufactured metal objects here corrode a lot quicker than in other countries. Rust is not a good predictor of age, here. Also, inside: a staircase led upward to a spot that looked like it might be a vessel for holy water. There were spaces on both sides of this staircase, and an elevator door stood on the right. Toward the roof, you could see a chandelier, but it still had a protective covering on it. Besides the Latin inscription, there wasn’t really much else to look at. What appeared to be a stained glass window was over an open doorway into the congregational hall.

Stone slabs around wedding chapel

When I had visited there a few times, this place really piqued my curiosity. I walked around the building several times to see if I could find a window to peer into. I had no such luck. Shiny black stone slabs encircled the structure. There, you could see a series of nozzles, and some of them had been arranged in a pattern. This was likely a water fountain, but its use is also questionable. A few of these dark squares were broken or overturned.

The misleading religious theme continued across the street. A staircase stretched up a small hill to a stone and metal gazebo. At the foot of those steps, a bas relief carving depicted angels. These would not be the winged warriors with flaming swords one might find in The Old Testament or the Torah. These were childlike and nude cherubs – you know, the sort of heavenly creatures that don’t actually smite anything. That’s where the Christian references stop, actually. If you climbed to the top, you would get a good vista point to see the surrounding ecological park land.

As a whole, this place largely confounded me and confused me. This so-called “church” stands in the West Taihu Bay area situated at the north of Gehu Lake. The Galaxy Moon Bay resort is being built on one side, and more construction projects sit on the other side and elsewhere. If you follow the road for a few kilometers, you will end up near the grounds for the Eighth China Flower Expo, which happened in 2013. In short, nobody really lives in the West Taihu park area besides Chinese construction workers. There are not many Christians in China or Changzhou, so the mere existence of this place made me scratch my head. Who would actually attend religious services far out this way? Especially in a building this big?

I later found out, via Baidu, that this place is not a church at all. I first discovered this when I tried locating its name on Baidu Maps. Google’s maps left the whole area blank. Baidu, however, had some text that, when translated, meant “West Taihu Wedding Hall.” After cutting and pasting those characters into Baidu’s search engine, I found a few references that confirmed this. It was, indeed, a wedding hall. This actually made a lot of sense. Every time I visited this part of Gehu Lake, I had seen a lot of couples wandering around with photographers. Not only were the women wearing wedding gowns, but the couples were making the sort of smoochy and lust-filled eyes at each other that only the soon-to-be-married can make.

Notting House

The weirdness of this didn’t stop there. This wedding hall has a financial and business connection with Notting House. This is a gaudy showroom and restaurant in downtown Changzhou, and a highly reliable source told me the German food there was quite terrible. Avoid the schnitzel, I was instructed. As for the showroom, it depicts real estate projects underway. This includes the Notting Town complex. It’s patterned to have a “European” style, but it looks more like a kitschy and cartoony version of medieval architecture. Strangely enough, one website lists 2013 as “opening hours,” and 2014 as “Check in.” The several times I have been out there, the construction site seemed abandoned and derelict. An empty showroom sits in front of the promotional barricade advertising the development. Sometimes, the place seemed haunted and oddly silent with the exception of the sole clank of a metal against something. I have since seen construction workers there, and a news item on the Changzhou government’s website suggests the whole area will be linked to the wedding industry. That post also notes construction of the wedding hall actually concluded in 2013. So, maybe 2014 remains the anticipated completion of this project’s other half? I don’t know; finding information in Chinese can be difficult when you don’t know the language and you’re only equipped with Google Translate. So, this gets me back to the earlier mentioned conversation with two of my good Chinese friends.

“I don’t understand,” my friend said. “It looks like a Christian church.”

“It’s only a for-profit wedding hall.”

She glanced up at me. “But aren’t weddings a religious activity?”

“Yes, but that,” I pointed out the window towards the nearby steeple, “is a real church. People go there for religious services every week. You are not going to attend a Sunday mass at that wedding hall, and that means it’s not a Christian church.”

She smiled. “Oh, I see, now.”

West Taihu Wedding Hall and Notting Town from Above

This was originally published on tguide.org and has been reposted from there. 

Who is Who in Wujin History

Changzhou founding father Ji Zha at Wujin Who's Who Museum
Changzhou founding father Ji Zha at Wujin Who’s Who Museum. Also the guy in Real Changzhou’s Header image!

Sometimes, museums can lack personality. Yes, you can get a sense of history from them, but sometimes it can feel that you’re just looking at a bunch of old stuff that doesn’t have a lot humanity connected to it. If you walk into the Wujin Museum or the Hutang Museum, you certainly get this. Essentially, you’re just looking at old ceramics and bits of sharpened metal. Do not misunderstand me; all historical relics deserve to be not only be protected, but put on public display. This teaches and celebrates history, but as stated earlier, museums can just feel like impersonal spaces filled with lit glass cases.

IMG_20151021_142740The Wujin Who’s Who Museum (武进名人馆) lacks this impersonal atmosphere. Then again, you really can’t call it a museum, either. It’s more of a history-inspired art installation or exhibit. A visitor will not find a lot of relics here. They will, however, see a lot of statues surrounded by colorful displays depicting the nature of an individual life. These displays also feature explanatory text in both Chinese and English. This makes the Wujin Who’s Who Museum extremely foreigner friendly. It mirrors the intent and mission of the place: to convey Wujin’s unique cultural heritage to both visitors and locals. To this end, there is no admission fee.

So, who will a visitor learn about, should they visit? The first display is devoted to Ji Zha, who is the cultural founding father of Changzhou in general. Both a scholar and a warrior, Ji Zha lived during the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. That’s roughly 2500 or so years ago. The nation of China had not totally coalesced yet, and the greater Changzhou area was once part of the Wu Kingdom. Ji Zha’s humility is a well remembered part of his legacy. He shunned power rather seeking it out. This exhibit is hardly the only place a visitor will find Ji Zha in Changzhou. He’s mentioned in the Changzhou Museum. There is a statue of him in Renmin Park downtown, as well a commemorative arch in Hongmei Park – also downtown.

Zhao Yuanren aka Yuen Ren Chao at Wujin's Who's Who Musuem
Zhao Yuanren aka Yuen Ren Chao at Wujin’s Who’s Who Musuem

He is not the only historical figure to cross districts in Changzhou. The Wujin’s Who’s Who Museum also celebrates Qu Quibai, an important figure in the early history of the Chinese Communist Party. His former residence is preserved and open to visitors, but that’s in the Zhonglou part of downtown. Another part of the museum showcases a bust of Zhao Yuanren (English name Yuen Ren Chao). He was a famous linguist who immigrated to the America, became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and taught at Harvard University.  Zhao was one of the first Chinese scholars who helped shape an English-reading audience’s understanding of Chinese language, dialects, and culture. He, for example, coined “stir fry” to explain what happens to both meat and vegetable once it enters a hot wok. The museum notes that he was born in Wujin, but his former residence can actually be found in Tianning. Other examples could be cited, but why explain everything?

Though, one interesting thing remains. The late Ming and early Qing Dynasty painter Yun Nantian (aka Yun Shouping) has space devoted to him. Unlike the other cultural figures on display, he does not have a statue dedicated to him. A visitor instead sees examples of his art and calligraphy behind protective glass. This is one of the rare exceptions to the “this is not about relics” rule stated earlier. It’s particularly interesting, to this writer at least, because the two other Wujin sites associated with Yun Nantian are seemingly closed to the public. His former residence is relatively hard to find and delapidated, as is his well-maintained grave – which is actually in the middle of Wujin farmland and can only be traveled to over rough, narrow concrete pathways. As stated, a laundry list of culturally important people could be described here, but that defeats the purpose. Go visit this place and connect the dots for yourself!

The Wujin Who’s Who Museum is located in Yancheng. This is the area also home to the Wujin Museum, a zoo, an amusement park, and much more. Specifically, it’s inside a recreation of on old Chinese barrier wall with a gate.  Once passing through the central arch, a visitor will find the exhibit’s entrance with signage in both English and Chinese. The B1, B15, and B16 share a mid-road stations near  the Yancheng historical sight / amusement park, and there is also a bus hub for several non-BRT lines.

NOTE: This is an older post cross posted from my personal blog.