Category Archives: Xinbei

Hell By Another Name

hell1You are standing in the Museo de Prado in Madrid, staring at Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It’s a triptych, which means it is three panels depicting three different scenes. You find Bosch’s attention to detail appealing. You find the third panel – a depiction of Christian hell – the most interesting. After all, there you can see a pig in a nun’s habit trying to kiss a naked man. Not far away, a nude woman balances dice on her head. Another man has musical notes tattooed on his buttocks. Those three are only tiny details in a densely populated and gruesome landscape, and the darkly funny brutality goes on and one.
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For the longest time, I didn’t know Buddhism had similar concept. Most Americans know Buddha through Zen, if at all — which is more about intellectual enlightenment than supernatural ghosts and gods. Chinese Buddhism is a blend of things also borrowed from Taoism and traditional folk religion. It even has hell; it’s called Diyu 地狱. Only, Buddhists are not condemned for eternity the way Christians might be. Once they have paid their karmic debt, they can be reincarnated into a friendlier existence. In a way, this makes their “hell” more like Christian purgatory.

I learned about all of this, recently, because I found a depiction of Diyu just as violent as something you would see in a Bosch or a Hans Memling painting. Perhaps even a Slayer song?  It consisted of a series of painted statues depicting torture at Wanfo Temple 万佛禅寺 in northern Xinbei, near an industrial port along the Yangtze River. Wanfo is mostly like other temples in Changzhou. You can see most of the same iconography here that you can in other places.  Only, here, you can also see people getting ground into a bloody pulp. Here, you can see people eviscerated and disemboweled. Here you can see tongues getting ripped out. Here, you can see a flogged sinner being forced to look at himself into a mirror. As the legend goes, sinners must endure these repeated torments again and again and again. Once a fatal amount of damage

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One of the Yamas, or judges, sets behind this very unfortunate guy.

is inflicted, bodies become whole again and the violence starts anew.

At Wanfo, this hellscape takes up the ground floor of a two-story building. Most of the torture takes place in front of desks, where a judge sits. This man is a Yama – a minor deity who decides who must stay for further torment and who can be spared additional abuse. Diyu has many levels, and so there are many Yama sitting behind desks with their record books. Around them, you usually see four other figures. Two of them are Heibai Wuchang — one wears white and has extremely pale skin. The other wears black and possesses a darker complexion. Absurdly long tongues hang from both their mouths. Essentially, these are Chinese Grim Reapers, and they ferry the damned into the underworld. In English, they are also known as the White and Black Impermanence. You will also see Horse Face and Ox Head. In some legends, they are also reapers. However, they are most commonly the guards at the entrance. Most of the sinner’s punishments, though, are doled out by lesser demons.

I had a hard time processing all of this at first. I found both Wanfo Temple and the recreation of Diyu completely by accident. I snapped a few cell phone pics, texted a friend, and eventually I left. Part of me wanted to stay and stare, create stories for what I was seeing. But, the rational part of me knew I needed to go home, get on the internet, and do some research and learn to appreciate whatever it was this temple wanted to teach me. I gained a little more confidence

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The White Guard. One half of the Heibai Wuchang

with the subject matter, and a few weeks later, I returned with an equally curious friend.

Getting to Wanfo Temple from Xinbei Wanda Plaza is nearly absurdly simple –but only if you are driving or going by eBike. Go north on Tongjiang Road for like 20 kilometers until you are near Changzhou’s industrial port along the Yangtze River.  Then, take a left turn onto a concrete road splitting a small farming plot. From there, you travel through an economically depressed neighborhood before taking a right and parking in front of the temple entrance. You can easily see the stone pagoda from the road.  Taking a bus is more complicated. The 48 is the only one servicing this area.

A Place for Turkey

 photo IMG_20160317_124827_zpsnm2zqhkw.jpgNever in a million years did I ever think I would write a blog post about eating at a Subway Restaurant. Perhaps that’s the Jersey in me. As I have noted elsewhere, Jersey-ites can be insane about sandwiches. Just like with pizza, if you tell a guy from The Garden State that you like a corporate restaurant chain, you will get an exasperated response that includes a list of local places. Alas, that is back in America, and I live in China. In the two-plus years I have lived here, I have had a change of heart. I have gone from hating Subway to now begrudgingly tolerating its existence.

There is a very specific reason for this. I still think their sandwiches and hoagies are substandard, but I realized something. Subway is one of the few places that actually sells turkey. Yeah, it’s pre-packed and like the mass produced Oscar Meyer lunch meats back in the USA. Yeah, freshly baked turkey from a Jewish deli is better. Last I checked, though, China really doesn’t have Jewish delis either. Chinese people don’t eat turkey, period. For them, it’s an exotic, foreign, expensive meat that must be imported.

As for Subway, Changzhou has two I know about. Both are in Xinbei; one is near Xinbei Central Park, and the other is in the shopping plaza outside Dinosaur Park. There was a third downtown, in the Nandajie shopping area. Yet, that one shut down, because nobody ever ate there. So, there you go, my only reason to eat at subway: you can find a turkey sandwich there. Truth be told, I don’t often have cravings for those. So, possible return visits for me are still limited.

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Fast Chinese Food: Mala Tang (麻辣烫)

Buffet choices at a 麻辣烫 mala tang restuarant.
Buffet choices at a 麻辣烫 mala tang restuarant.

Here is a problem expats new to China — or new to a Chinese city — routinely face. Where do you eat when you are in a hurry and only want a quick bite? If you live in a medium-sized city like Changzhou, the answer is simple: McDonalds, Burger King, or KFC. But really, that is a diet of unhealthy grease and carbs, and the more you eat it, the more sick of it you become. The novelty of a Big Mac or a Whopper with Cheese in China wears off the longer you live here. Fried Chicken is scrumptious, but eat too much of it every week, and you will loathe that too. And what if you are a vegetarian? A vegan? You feel royally screwed with few options

It doesn’t have to be that way. One of my best friends recently showed me an alternative, and it has quickly become a staple of my eating-out diet. It’s called mala tang (麻辣烫). Literally, it means “hot and numbing soup.” When it comes to Chinese food, this is even more friendly to Chinese-language illiterates than picture menus. Why? There is no menu, at all.

You walk into the place, grab a bowl, and you grab tongs. There is a buffet of meat, raw vegetables, and dumplings to choose from. My first choices are usually cabbage. For me, soup always has to have some sort cabbage in it. I blame my European ancestry for that. From there, it depends on my mood. Today, I had cabbage, mushrooms, quail eggs, and dumplings with pork centers. They other day? A profound fish theme–but with cabbage!. Every time you visit one of these places, the flavor of your soup changes based on your ingredient selections. This means that these places take much longer to become boring than KFC will be within two weeks.

Then, you grab a bottled drink and hand your bowl to a cashier. He or she weighs it, charges you money, and then hands your bowl it to the cook. You go to your table and wait. And then? Five to ten minutes later, your soup is brought to you. Your carefully selected ingredients are sitting in a spicy broth, ready to eat. The most I have paid for this sort of meal has been 30 RMB, but my go to lama tang joint is in Xinbei Wanda Plaza. It is bound to be more expensive the the mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall lama tang restaurants that are all over Changzhou and China in general.

Mala Tang Soup. Withlots of vegetables!
Mala Tang Soup. Withlots of vegetables!

Turkish Pizza at Xinbei’s Istanbul Restuarant

Istanbul Restuarant’s Slightly Oblong Pizza.

Pizza is something I am passionate about. What can I say? I am from New Jersey, a surreal place where intense Facebook drama wars can, and have, broken out over this subject. Do you love Pizza Hut? Never say that in Jersey! You will likely get lengthy list of locally owned pizzerias in response. This list will also be given to you with a bunch of exasperated sighs and eye rolls. Add to this that I am half Italian-American, and the pizza I grew up eating was home cooked and made by my mother.  And if you say anything is better than my mom’s cooking, I will fight you!

Simply put, my standards for judging  pizza quality are absurdly high — to the point where  personal, cultural, and ethnic issues are all in play. Not to mention the memory of my late, dearly departed mother. The worst thing you can do, if you are sharing a pizza with me, is to ask what I think about it. You will get a lengthy, dramatic monologue, with footnotes. And digressions, too! Wild gesticulations might also be possible. After all, I might need to empatically prove a point. Your non-spoken response might be,:”This guy is a bit loony.” You wouldn’t be that far from the truth. We are only talking about pizza after all.

And even despite all of this personal baggage, I can say I have eaten some of the best pizza in Changzhou, recently. For me, it also came from a surprising place: Istanbul Restaurant. I only have a passing knowledge of Turkish cuisine. Sure, I have eaten my share of Donor Kebabs and hummus, but I never knew the country had it’s own, unique heritage when it comes to pizza.

So, Istanbul Restuarant’s pizza doesn’t share the circular shape of it’s Italian and Italian-American. You could say it’s in the shape of an eye, but one were the eyeball is yellow and filled with chunks of meat. Let’s set the surreality of that one side for a moment. The crust is thin, which is a relief. Most of the pizza you can find in China tends to be thick. And for a guy from Jersey, that’s just bad. Very  bad. Pizza should not taste like bread with pizza toppings on it. The greatest thing though, is the beef donor kebab toppings.  That was a first for me, and while the thought sounded alien at first. Actually eating it on a pizza seemed like an absolute no-brainer after the initial first bite.

And so it comes to this: Istanbul Restaurant simply makes pizza you just cannot find anywhere else in Changzhou.

 

Candle’s Mediocre Jeager Schnitzel

Changzhou’s foreigner population contains a high number of Germans. They tend to be engineers — logic dictates that they would not be English teachers. This demographic reality can be seen on high-priced restaurant menus meant to attract expats and their money. And by this, I do not mean Jeagerwirt or Chocolate’s in Wujin — both actually boast themselves as “German Restaurants.” Rightfully so, too. Both are great.  I am talking more about the generally themed “foreign” eateries that want to be everything to everybody.

Candles in Xinbei is such a place. Their menu tries to excite Australians, Americans, Brits, Germans, and more. This is a place often championed as “The Place” to hang out in Changzhou. And that’s true — but only if you live in Xinbei.  The people who champion this place the as the greatest ever are people who live in Xinbei and think Wujin is a waste of time.

I now live in Xinbei, and I can tell you that when it comes to German food, Candles is mediocre. It’s great, because, well, there is nothing else in the Xinbei district that competes. When you have nothing else, and you only have one option, mediocre is quite awesome. Think about it. What other choice do you have? You don’t.

I thought about this, because I ate a Jeager Schnitzel at Candles for lunch, and it was nice. But. But! But, Jeagerwirt  and Chocolate’s in Wujin do this particular dish much better. Please don’t assume this as “hating” on Candles. I would eat this again and eat it again at Candles.

 

Xinbei Wanda Plaza

China can easily be divided between what is “developed” and what is “developing.” Let me put it this way. Changzhou is “developed, but still developing” and a plase like Yancheng is “developing.” Sometimes, that economic growth can be measured in what is being built: super malls. These places can be gargantuan — three to five floors. Quite often, you can find towers dedicated to office space or residential apartments.  The highest-end mall tends to be Wanda. Some Chinese people I know gauge the growth of their cities by counting Starbucks. Some simply count how many Wanda Plazas there are in their city. After all, the Wanda Group is one the biggest real estate companies in China.

Changzhou has two.  One is in Wujin, and the other is in Xinbei. The Xinbei one is the older one.  Both have IMAX theaters on the top most floors. (Case in point: I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Wujin Wanda’s big goddamned screen.) Wanda, even as a corporate group, has bought into American entertainment companies like AMC Theaters.  The stores inside a Wanda are usually the same sort of chains. Think about it. Most American malls have JC Penny and  Sears.

Xinbei Wanda has a Starbucks, a McDonalds, a KFC, and much more. There are the regular mall floors, but there is also a pedestrian walking street with plenty of boutiques and eateries. The Wanda in Xinbei also functions as the defacto dowtown for that district. It’s the commercial / retail hub for northern Changzhou.  If the swanky restaurants are not located here, they are in relative walking distance.

Mr. Bean Coffee

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Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean, seems popular in China, and especially with Chinese children. It’s not hard to guess why, either. Out of the types of cultural imports, physical comedy and bodily humor is the most easy to relate to. Think about it: there is no language to translate, no idioms to misunderstand. It’s one of the reasons why, for example, Jackie Chan has been able to find success outside of China. His English accent is terrible, but no American really watches Chan for a witty punchlines or verbal nimbleness. Profound silliness is inherent in his actions. It’s the same with Atkinson as Mr. Bean.

This popularity can be seen first hand in Changzhou. A Xinbei cafe bares a distinctive  theme. Even down to the name: Mr. Bean Coffee. Inside the cafe, one can see pictures of Atkinson in his grey suit, but also weird, and rather surreal, portraits of the character on the wall. Other depictions range from cartoonish to semi-life-sized. There’s even a photo of him by the entrance, ushering a patron in.IMG_20160228_145057
Sitting and drinking espresso in Mr. Bean Coffee is just an odd, surreal experience. It’s not unpleasant. It’s just strange. But it raises other questions. Is this a case of copyright infringement? Does Atkinson profit from all these kids sitting around in his cafe while eating cake? It’s easy to lob “violating intellectual property” charge at businesses in China. After all, you don’t have to look for in Changzhou to find unlicensed uses of Micky Mouse. This isn’t one of those cases. Mr. Bean Coffee. The cafe is a chain. And it does have a license with Tiger Aspect. In theory, Atkinson should be seeing  profit from this.

In Xinbei, Mr. Bean coffee can be found on a sunken, but open-air basement level of the Changzhou TV Tower complex. It’s the same urban block that’s home to a Lafu supermarket and a Secret Recipe Malaysian fusion restaurant. Mr. Bean is the neighbor to an Internet / computer gaming cafe. Wanda Plaza is in walking distance.

Yet, despite all of these location details, one fundamental question has not been addressed. How is the coffee? Not very good. Usually, I only buy Americanos at cafes. That’s because no business ever makes a simple pot of coffee in China.  And I have no interest in drinking lattes or other types of liquid desserts. So, my judgement comes on the watered-down espresso shots alone. Starbucks is a lot better. The only reason to visit Mr. Bean Coffee is gawk awkwardly at its novelty.

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Welcome to Xinbei!

This seems to be the appropriate place to start: a cell phone shot from my apartment.  I live on the seventh floor of the Hohai University Guest Center. In the foreground, you see some of the rooftops on Hohai’s campus. The school is the Changzhou branch campus of the more prestigious, and older, Nanjing campus. It’s a 211 school, which gives it a lot of prestige and funding from the Chinese government.  In the background, you the Changzhou TV Tower. I often call it the “Xinbei TV Tower,” because — um, well — Wujin also has a TV Tower.

Wujin is the southern district within Changzhou City. Xinbei is the northern one near the Yangtze River. Xinbei basically has more foriegners and expats than most other parts of the city.

Speaking of Wujin, I lived there for two years before moving up here. What is likely to be echoed in the About This Blog page, Real Changzhou will focus on exploring the whole city and the surrounding Changzhou “prefecture lands.” All too often, expats living in Xinbei tend to think they live in the only part of the city that matters. Simply not true.