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.

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. 

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

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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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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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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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.

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    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.

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.

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!

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.