Category Archives: Zhonglou

Mao in a Wasteland

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The yellow crane is gone, who knows whither?
Only this tower remains a haunt for visitors.

–Mao Zedong, from Yellow Crane Tower

Some people, especially foreigners in The Middle Kingdom, do not know that Mao Zedong once wrote poetry. Whether that poetry was quality or not is not for me to say. I don’t have much to judge it against when it comes to Chinese verse. I know little bit of Li Bai, Du Fu, and Su Shi (Su Dongpo), and that’s about it. It should also be noted that I know these writers in translation, not in their native language. The two above lines strike me for another reason.

They remind me of a local irony in Changzhou. In the northern end of Zhonglou District and the border with Xinbei, you can find a large statue of Mao Zedong. It is basically close to the shipping / offloading area behind the Metro supermarket. He is in a visionary stance with one arm held aloft to the sky — as if to hail people or the sweep of history and the future to come. You see this a lot with the statues of monumental leaders.

IMG_20160505_151920How he is standing is not the irony. Nor is how unnaturally long his arm looks. It’s what surrounds him; it looks like a wasteland. On one side, footpaths twist around mounds of earth, grass, and garbage. The farther you walk into this field, the more you secretly planted crops of vegetables.  If you retrace your steps back and cross Mao’s plaza, you find a different sort of wasteland. Some sort of building or buildings used to stand here. My guess would be factories or some sort of industrial site. Smashed bricks and building materials smother the ground. When I was there, a few guys with a truck picked through the refuse — as if looking for whole bricks to reuse elsewhere. Some of the still-standing buildings are also abandoned.

This gets me back to Mao’s Yellow Crane Tower poem. Of course, he wasn’t writing about Changzhou those many decades ago. Yes, I am taking these lines out of context. But these two lines remind me of the eerie sort of ambiance here. “The yellow crane is gone.” Here, yes, I heard no sounds of birds. You could here the crackle, however, of a few smoldering piles of trash.  As for the second line, the “tower” and the “haunt” is Mao himself.  And the only reason to go to this desolate place is to see him — to be a “visitor.”IMG_20160505_151944

Sylvia Plath and The Daddy Statue

Marble heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

big as a Frisco seal

 

and a head in the freakish Atlantic

— Sylvia Plath

Plath’s work as a poet has always struck me. There is usually a knack for a surreal turn of a phrase. The above lines come from “Daddy,” where a the language — the rhymes and the melody of the words — sounds childish. The content, however, is more a grown woman’s voice contemplating killing her father. Or, in some aspects, wanting to kill the memory of her father.  Brutal themes like this carry mostly all the way through her collection Ariel.

I used to think of this poem, not because I have daddy issues like Plath’s, but more because of a sculpture that used to be in Downtown Changzhou. It used to be the Future City shopping center next door to the Injoy Mall. A year and a half ago, Future City used to be empty, desolate. None of the shops were leased. There were just statues of a fat dude playing golf. Turns out, the area wasn’t a ghostly bit of real estate. The area was still being developed. The shops there have been slowly filling in. As shopkeepers moved in, the statue I used to like to look at vanished.

It was of a nude woman playing a flute.  On her pedestal, she sat semi-cross legged. However, one leg dangled over the side of the pedestal. Surrealistically, the leg became longer and fatter. Her foot always sparked the memories of reading “Daddy.”  Sure, the foot had more than one toe, but it always reminded me of the “Ghastly statue” line.  Overtime, I used to imagine that this was the speaker, the woman in poem. She was playing beautiful sounding music, but she was still deformed. And that’s how I would describe most of Plath’s work. Beautiful, but deformed.

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Buying a Digital Watch on Youdian Road

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One of many mobile phone markets on Youdian Road 邮电路 downtown.

Sometimes, I have daydreams of being a swaggering space commander. I might be on a planet of rampaging lava monsters with only a squirt gun when what I really need is a firetruck hose.  Or, I can be stranded in a small shuttle; life and life support systems would flicker as I circle the event horizon of a black hole. Seconds could be counting down before the singularity and it’s gravity stretches me into an infinite noodle. At those moments, I would raise my wrist to my lips, press a button on my watch, and say “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Yes, that’s a Star Trek quote, and yes, both my mind and my daydreams can get that silly. That absurdity, though, led me to buying a digital watch six months ago.  I was extremely curious about being able being able to text and make phone calls by having a device attached to my wrist. It all sounded like something you could read about in a vintage sci-fi novel. Turns out, real life is nothing like that.

As for the watch, I found one while browsing the downtown Changzhou’s mobile phone markets. This is Youdian Road 邮电路near Injoy Mall, a BRT stop, and the statue of a woman riding a horse. The road has a number of retail spaces filled with people sitting behind glass cases and kiosks. All three of my Huawei phones were purchased here — with the aid of Chinese friends who could haggle on my behalf. These markets are where people should by their new phones — not at expensive and over-priced foreign department stores like Walmart or Metro.

Digital Watch Pic
Digital Watch Pic

As for the no-brand name digital watch, I got what I paid 200 RMB for. I could make and receive calls from it, but I still had to have my main phone with me at all times. The watch had to linked to the mobile through a Bluetooth. In theory, I could get text and WeChat messages though it, but the interface screen was so small  that epic typos were inevitable. It also had a camera, and that sounds all James Bond and spy-tastic, but the camera was awkward to use. It involved twisting my wrist at odd angles.  Plus, the eventual photos were too grainy and low-res.

In the end, the watch became nothing more than a conversation topic, and the novelty of that wore off rather quickly. As for the black hole, I am not circling it. The rampaging lava monsters are a figment of my imagination, and I am no swaggering space commander.  I am just a college English teacher with a blog. The digital watch is in a drawer, and haven’t worn it in six months.

 

Strolling Qianguo Lane

红星桥 aka Red Apricot Bridge

Somethings in Changzhou are hidden in plain sight, and this definitely the case for Qianguo Lane 千果巷. It’s right next to Nandajie, which is the busiest area in the city center. Even more so, it runs parallel to the bar street where all the dance clubs are located. A Walmart, a Starbucks, and a McDonald’s are also across the street. I happened upon this because I was at Micky D’s, saw how crowded the place was, and got my Big Mac as take out. I walked across the street thinking I sit on a park bench and eat my lunch.

The hamburger was, of course, unsatisfying, as McDonald’s usually tends to be. Afterwards, I went for a walk. There is a small canal here that’s an offshoot of the famous Grand Canal 京杭大运河 — which runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, and it basically cuts through Changzhou’s downtown.

There are two bridges here in the ancient style. In looking at them, I noticed historical markers. Quickly, I snapped photos of them and sent them to a Chinese friend. Thankfully, he read them, summarized them for me. During the Ming Dynasty, an official named Hu Ying built a house on a wharf. Another bridge inspired a Tang Dynasty era
poem, which is written on the marker itself.

In this small area, there are three walking routes to be had. Two are on both canal sides. Another is a narrow, subtly winding  foot path. This is the one closest to the bar street. that makes up the southern edge of the Landmark Mall in the greater Nandajie area. Here, you can find a few benches like where I ate my lunch. You can also find bamboo and the large, weathered, water-eroded rocks that seem popular in this region as public sculptures.

Nandajie — the road itself —  cuts this area in half. Once you cross the street, this small canal area continues on for a bit. There is large rock here with 千果巷 in the ancient, reversed reading order of 巷果千. The rock itself, my Chinese friend reported, also has a blurb about a cannon crafted during the Ming Dynasty.

Something more curious caught my attention behind this rock. There stones with symbols on them that I couldn’t understand. Since my friend was so generous with his help, I didn’t want to pester him anymore. So, I took to Wechat and posted photos. My thoughts, possibly, were that these were some sort of old, oracle bone Chinese characters. I was dead wrong.

Warring States Era Currency

A host of Chinese friends, via social media, nearly immediately informed me that these are representations of ancient money. Before unifying into one nation, China used to be seven kingdoms. Six of them eventually went down to defeat, as the Qin consolidated everything and everyone into an empire.  Each of these seven states had their own form of currency that cam in irregular shapes. I should have expected this because the more familiar, round ancient coin design were placed in the ground amidst polished and black river stones.

Thousands of years later, and it seems fitting, given its location. Nandajie is the commercial center of the city. There are a lot of shops, boutiques, restaurants, and more here. A lot of money is spent here, and these carvings are a subtle reminder of that.

Bellahaus’ Best and Worst

In the Beidajie Parksons.

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

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

Too much goat cheese.

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

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

Yum!

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.

Zhonglou’s Child Prodigy

Classroom sculpture at Chun Gui Park in Zhonglou District.“I know this poem,” a Chinese friend and colleague told me via Skype. “This is the child prodigy poem Wang Zhu wrote. My father used to read lines of this to me when I was young. He wanted to remind me the value of education.”  She then went on to give me a rough translation. Unfortunately, my clunky old Compaq computer has been on a data-bleeding rampage as of late. It doesn’t work well, and I’ve been losing a lot of information recently – including her translations. As of right now, it’s lucky to still be in one piece; I have been tempted to throw this clunker out the window many times in a frothing rage. (I will be getting a new laptop soon). Yet, back to the issue at hand. Despite my current tech problems, I still I remember the gist of my colleague’s translations.Trust in books….

These weren’t just random lines I plucked off the Internet or out of a Chinese poetry anthology. The lines of verse come straight from a small park in Downtown, Changzhou. A different Chinese friend told me it’s called “Chun Gui Park.”  It’s one BRT stop past the Injoy Mall. Reciting student in Chun Gui Park's classroom sculpture.This would be the stretch of road that both the B1 and the B12 share with each other.  Chun Gui is across the street from another park alongside a canal. The BRT stop itself has a footwalk overpass. It’s the only one of two over-the-bus-footpaths I have seen in Changzhou thus far.

As for the park itself, it’s filled with statues dedicated to scholars, However, there is something more involved than just metal images of learned men in traditional robes.  There is one very green and lush path dedicated to different and well-known scholars that have at one point or another called Changzhou their home. Who those people are is best saved for another time.  Towards the back of this park, there is an intricate set of metal figures commemorating the spirit of Wang Zhu’s poem. You have to pass over a little bridge to get to it.

It looks like a classroom. You have the traditional Chinese laoshi standing in front of his students. The kids are all seated at their desk with three exceptions. At the very back of the sculpture, you have a child peering over a brick wall and into the classroom. It’s as if he is inquisitive and curious, but his parents did not have the means to

Not all the students in Chun Gui's classroom sculpture are invited.pay for his education. This child is standing on the back of a friend who is on all fours. This detail is very hard to spot, and you actually have to walk around to the back of the piece to actually notice this.

One boy stands in the front and off to the side. The sculptor rendered this kid with his mouth open, as if he was talking or addressing his teacher. Perhaps, he is reciting the lines of Wang Zhu’s poem that is etched on a stone slab nearby? Who knows. That’s the value of imagination. He could be cussing out his teacher for all I know, but that is highly and very unlikely. It is contrary to Chinese culture, after all.

Three of the seated students are paying full attention. They have their books open, and they seem attentive to their classmate and their instructor. That isn’t the really fun part of this scene, though. The two students and the kid peering over the wall suggest that the children all are bright and eager to learn. That Not only is the uninvited guest curious, but he's creatively using a boost from his friend.isn’t the case. Towards the back of the class, there is a kid taking a nap. The kid thinks he’s being sneaky about it. He has his book set up in front of his face, but the side of his cheek is against the desk – as in he is out and snoozing hard. In a sense, this is a more realistic detail when rendering a classroom. No matter if a teacher is in China, Great Britain, Australia, or America, there will always be some reluctant learners.  Only, in this day and age, it is easier to hide between a computer monitor in a language lab then to just merely pretend to read and nap.

There is one other thing this interpretative set of statues reminds me of. Even when I wasn’t having computer and VPN problems, I had real trouble locating any information on Wang Zhu and his child prodigy poem. Finding good information about China in English can be a challenge.  Despite a handful of websites, there really isn’t a lot about Changzhou to found. There is one thing, though, that you can easily find.  Many people in Changzhou are proud of their historical heritage; they are particularly proud of that heritage where education is concerned. This interpretative set of figures in Chun Gui Park is just a reminder of that.

Not every student can be the child prodigy suggested in Wang Zhu's poem, apparently.

Note: This was first published on now gone Tguide.org. It was reposted on my personal blog before being reposting it here. 

My Apology to the Nobel Laureates

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

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

— Wislawa Szymborska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are You Looking for Shit?

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

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

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Literally eating out of a urinal.

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

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

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

Breast shaped sippy cups?
Breast shaped sippy cups?

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

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

  • mmexport1458018851332
    A shitty uniform.

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

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

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

Cartoon poop.
Cartoon poop.