With summer officially over, the week-long National Holiday is upon us. Typically, this is a time of travel, but in the our current age of COVID, some may not feel the urge to to jump on an train, plane, or bus. Some of us may even have employers that actively discourage us from doing so. If you fall into that category, there is plenty of stuff to see around Changzhou.
The many public parks around town are actually some very easy places to kill time during the day. Jingchuan over in Zhonglou is one of them. This park is dedicated to a fierce warrior who came from Changzhou and died centuries ago. That warrior’s final resting place is in the very same Zhonglou public park that bares his name.
Though, I do get that I am one the rare people that likes going to places to seek out tombs, dead cultural figures of interest, and local historical anecdotes from antiquity. I do get that some people find that penchant of mine boring. And yes, my essay structure elsewhere on this blog is predictable and circular. My introduction paragraph is similar to my conclusion with a lot of meandering in between. Let’s change that. Let us speak of boats!
Jingchuan Park is one of Changzhou’s public green spaces where you can rent a boat and float around artificially created waterways. Notice I didn’t say the word zoom. The above picture looks very chaotic — like three boats were about to smash spectacularly against each other at high speeds. I can tell you emphatically that didn’t happen. The boats at Jingchuan Park only go like only a kilometer an hour on what feels like a low-grade moped engine that spits out a lot of burnt-oil smoke. Same as go-carts. Still. Our three boats still managed to hit each other under a very classical-looking Chinese stone bridge. Nobody got angry. Nobody exhibited the sort of homicidal road rage one might find on the highways running through Los Angeles, California. In Jingchuan Park, we just pushed ourselves off of each other’s boats and floated our separate ways.
Even at low speeds through artificially created canals, Jingchuan is an enjoyable place to visit by boat. This is especially true if you have somebody in your boat your care about and want to share a leisurely experience with. This is also especially true is your more interested in gazing into somebody’s eyes, holding hands, and want some ambiance for that type of thing.
This was a legal notice posted to the door of a Yun Nantian Memorial Hall back in 2015. I know this because I took this picture back then. Essentially, it was informing the people squatting the place to move out, they had not right to be there in the first place, and this cultural site had been damaged in anyway, extremely hefty fines were going to be doled out. The document also essentially said, “Give up the key you have to the door.” It is not my place to weigh in what or what did not happen regarding this notice. To be honest, I don’t really know the whole story. I just remember that, many years ago, I had taken this picture once I first started to think about doing a blog about Changzhou. However, let’s put the issue of this legal notice to the side, for a moment. Let’s get back to some basics. Who was Yun Nantian?
He was a poet, artist, and calligrapher at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty and lived from 1633 to 1690. He was from Wujin, and he was and still is buried there. His tomb is in an empty field next to the Science and Education Town that’s next to the six-campus cluster of College City.
Yun Nantian, also known as Yun Shouping, is now mostly remembered for painting flowers, insects, and other nature-related subject matter.
So, now, at least, let us get back to that legal notice on the door his memorial hall back in 2015. Wandering around on my ebike in September of 2021, I accidentally found myself back in that corner of Wujin, and the weird notice about squatters was gone. To my surprise, the door was open and the place was open to the public.
So, I just had to go through the door. The curiosity itch just had to be scratched. I mean, years ago, access to this place was denied.
Turns out, the Yun Nantian Memorial Hall is one small building within a walled compound.
Inside said building, you can find a cast-metal sculpture of the artist.
There is some art on the walls, displayed for a visitor to see.
And then you have framed work just sitting in a corner — with layers of dust on it, seemingly forgotten with no available wall space for hanging.
And it should be remembered that all of this is still in a forgotten and obscure alley in Wujin. It’s not tourist friendly. I can only imagine the weird conversations with a taxi or Didi driver one would have to come out to this place. “Um, you want to go where?” and “Do you want me to wait for you as it only takes half an hour to see this place and there is nothing else around of note?”
I don’t know the answers to that. I just know that, for years, this was a Changzhou place of mystery for me. I never did learn about what happened to the squatters that elicited the 2015 ultimatum posted on a locked entrance door. Now that I actually got in and had a look around, the place is still a mystery. I mean this in terms of the neglect and afterthought of a historical Chinese that’s still exhibited internationally. Nothing has been answered. In a way, I’m kind of okay with that; Sometimes, the idea of a mystery is more interesting than having an answer. It gives you more things to think about.
Picture the following scenario. You’re eating at a local Chinese restaurant and a woman starts suddenly screaming. Shortly thereafter, another woman starts screaming. There is an immediate shuffling of chairs as nearly everybody in the eatery bolts to their feet while yelling. You also jump up, but more out of curiosity. Has the nearby table of drunken, extremely boisterous, beer drinking Chinese men smoking cigarettes erupted into fisticuffs? No, because besides the few initial screams, nobody is really talking. There is, however, a big, fat rat scurrying across the floor. Normally, this would elicit a storm of complaints leveled at the owner and management once the rodent runs out the open front door and hushed silence descends. You know, outrage at the apparent lack of cleanliness that has led to a marauding rat. Does that happen in this case? No, it doesn’t. Everybody sits down and resumes eating.
This begs the question why? The above written scenario isn’t a hypothetical. It’s actually a personal experience I have had, but I decided to rewrite it in the second person point of view. You know, the whole put the reader in your shoes literary device. So, now the question is Why didn’t I flee the restaurant or complain? The answer is much more simple than one might think. I sat for likely the same reason everybody else did: I liked the food that much, and I wasn’t going to let one measly rat ruin my dining experience.
The place in question was 司令的锅siling de guo, which translates as “Commander’s Pot.” I have since learned that this is possibly a local chain in Changzhou, but this particular rat incident happened at a Jinling Road location in Tianning that’s very close to the bridge over the canal to Wujin and it’s Wanda Plaza. Up until now, me and my most frequent dining partner have never referred to it by its actual name. To us, it’s simply just The Rat Place. The rodent incident was one of the first times we visited, and we have returned several times since then.
This is well and nice, but it still doesn’t answer the earlier why question. Commader’s Pot specializes in soups — very, very meaty soups. They are actually deceptive in their simplicity.
The above is just simple beef and cabbage. The beef itself has a more brisket-like texture, and all of it is still attached to the bone, which adds a sort of heartiness to the soup’s broth. Also, the stock is not at all spicy; this is local Changzhou food, after all. A little bit salty would be more apropos. The bones, chunks of fat, and more, however, led me to find it easier to use my hands rather than chopsticks to delicately gnaw and otherwise separate what I wanted to eat from what I didn’t or couldn’t.
The same could be said for the pork variety. The meat, in both soups, is tender enough to be easily pulled apart. The proliferation of bones is also something to be considered. Every time I have eaten at this place, I’ve left with a doggy bag of bones and fat scraps, but they were never for my later consumption. My most frequent dining partner has two canines, and those two mutts love the place as well. They get regularly rationed take-out bones for days. And they also absolutely love it when fat scraps have been mixed into their everyday dry food.
While staff and other diners have suggested the pork and cabbage is the signature dish of the place — what it is locally known for in the neighborhood — I actually preferred the beef. I’m not saying that lightly because I really like the pork, too. Speaking of staff and other diners, every time I have eaten here, I have gotten some sort of laowai gawk. All that means, essentially, is that I have gotten a strong suspicion that this place has gotten next to no expat traffic. To be fair, its location was in a place that is not necessarily a population center for the foreign community. The same could be said for the other locations once you look at a map.
No locations downtown. No locations in Wujin. The Xinbei location is actually out by the north train station and near the end of Line 1 of the subway. The other seems to be in a bit of Jiangyin north of Dinosaur Park. As I said, not exactly convenient to where most of the foreign community actually lives. There is little chance of accidental, curious foot traffic.
And this makes me cycle back to the rat — the little rodent that caused chaos one of the first times I ever ate at Siling de Guo, aka Commander’s pot. That Jinling Road location is now gone. I realized, once the place closed, that the rat was not the reason why it shut down.
The area around it has been slowly vacated because demolition and redevelopment is imminent. In short, my Rat Place was surrounded by a lot of delipidated property.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how clean an owner keeps his kitchen. If the other property around him is infested, there will be a de facto rodent problem. It should be noted that I only saw one rat there. Never cockroaches, flies, or other insects. Impending eviction is one reason to shut down a restaurant location and reopen elsewhere. It’s also a convenient one when, despite best efforts, rats still can find away to scamper through your dining room and cause a ruckus of screaming patrons. Perhaps this a good reason why myself and other patrons have been so forgiving?
I write Requiem for Rat Place because it’s exactly that — a requiem. The place whose food had charmed me to the point of forgiving a rat is gone. It’s dead. The above map location is where it used to be. It has since reopened up the street a little on Jinling. In fact, it’s new location is practically at the intersection of Jinling and Zhongwu Da Dao and less than half a kilometer from the old one. But, this new address has not been updated on Baidu Maps. It’s not an easy Wechat Location Sharing pin at this precise moment.
Still, the move has been an upgrade. The place is so clean the white tile floor gleams. The dining area has been enlarged. It’s in a better, easier to find location. This is all great. I wish the place and all profit greater foot traffic will bring it. Yet, part of me will always miss the hole in the wall it used to be.
Xitaihu is currently one of of the more underdeveloped areas of Changzhou‘s southern Wuin district. It’s out by a lake with two names: Lake Ge and West Tai Lake. For years, both the municipal and Wujin district government has been trying to entice international business to relocate out here. So, I decided to take a walk around one of the signature science and technology industrial parks.
Criteria for what sets humanity from the rest of the world certainly has changed over time. Consider the act of tool making, for example. It was largely thought this was an act that only humans did — until Jane Goodall spent a lot of time hanging out with primates. She noticed a chimp using a blade of grass to get termites out of a hill and into his mouth. That was in 1960, and since then, other bits of tool-making evidence has popped up in the primate world.
Okay, how about the inhumanity of murder and waging war? Evidence of that has been discovered, too, and I don’t mean rather fun movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Actually, this goes back to Jane Goodall, again. In 1974, she witnessed the dissolution of a tribe into what would become The Gombe Chimpanzee War.
This was a conflict that lasted about two years. Goodall noticed how the death of the central alpha male led to the disintegration of the tribe. Feuding factions jockeyed for who got to become the next alpha. Sounds positively Shakespearean doesn’t it? Clearly, humans are not the only animals with profoundly dark sides.
Chimps are not always the warm, fuzzy, cute animals many of us would like to think. Little did former hack actor and American president Ronald Reagan know that some apes can rip a limb off and and beat something to death with it. I am guessing that he didn’t have to deal with any such incidents on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo back in 1951. So, tool making and reigning death upon enemies are no longer considered uniquely human.
What is left, then? It’s an act of human vanity to ask how we “are better” than the rest of the animal kingdom, but it is a necessary intellectual pursuit. It’s the only way we really can explain our humanity. Definitions are hard to establish in a void of other references. So, let’s go to one of the other oft mentioned delineation points: art.
Can we assume that the above painting was made by a spastic monkey? Think about it! Force feed a chimp enough high-octane espresso and give that primate access to cans of paint and a canvas. You could plausibly suggest that the above could result. So, did a monkey do this while in a poo-flinging rage?
Um. No. It’s actually American abstract artist Jackson Pollock — who was definitely not a chimpanzee. None of his work can be attributed to poo-flinging rages. Yet, he did throw and drip a lot of paint around. As revolutionary as his work was, it now seems commonplace. I mean, I can see knockoff attempts at abstract art in the hallways of high-end hotels around China. You can also see similar work for sale cheaply at art school dropout yard sales.
So is this a Jackson Pollock?
Is it the work of a failed art student ?
Is this something that’s hanging in the posh corridor of a Chinese hotel catering to international business men?
I neither confirm nor deny that. Actually, it’s quite possible.
Congo was trained by surrealist painter Desmond Morris. This is kind of emblematic of something that has occurred in the art world. Congo was not the only non-human artist. Over the years, elephants, dolphins, donkeys, and rabbits have put paint to paper. Even more, there are 14 elephants in Thailand that comprise an improvisational orchestra.
The idea, here, is that humans are not the only creative, imaginative creatures on this planet. The idea, possibly, stretches into even the realm of insects. Consider the following art installation at Qingguo Lane in Changzhou.
This is 虫子诗, which translates as “Bug Poetry.” It can be found at the Heping Road side of Qingguo.
This whole display is not just dedicated to insects. As the Chinese title suggests, it’s dedicated particularly to the “poetry” insects have written.
This exhibit is more like an outdoor anthology, with individual “poems” displayed in their own special “scripts.” The poems are, of course, completely unreadable. One gets the feeling, though, that appreciating art such as this requires also an appreciation for Chinese calligraphy. Written Chinese uses pictographs as opposed to letters, and each Character can sometimes be appreciated as a work of art unto itself given the skills of the calligrapher holding the brush. But, then one has to wonder. Why is this weird bug exhibition in Changzhou? Who thought up this stuff?
This is actually based off of the work of Zhu Yingchun. He is an artist and director of the Nanjing Normal University Research Center of Book Culture. What is on display here in Changzhou has been taken from his latest book, which translates into English as “Bug Poetry.”
Guangxi Normal University Press released this in 2020, and purports to be a collection of poems. This is not the first time Zhu has turned to insects. While in his Nanjing studio, he actually does study the patterns insects actually create. It’s more than likely that the bug poetry display in Changzhou is a promotion for this recently released book.
That’s well and fine. However, one does have to wonder. Are the pages in Zhu’s book, as well as the Qingguo Lane exhibition dedicated to it, the actual work of insects? While Zhu himself might argue yes, a more realistic answer would be no. The art he finds in the insect world is more of an extension of himself.
And so, one now has to circle back to the initial question. What separates humanity from the animal kingdom? People used to assume that tool making and organized violence were unique to mankind, but that’s not the case. Jane Goodall found instances of that occurring naturally. For the chimps in question, that’s innate behavior. No human taught that to them. The same can’t be said when it comes to high-end art. Whether it’s animals painting, elephants preforming music, and bugs creating their own special calligraphy, it is still a byproduct of human creativity. This is not an knock on such art, either. It’s still interesting enough to try and wrap one’s head around.
Being an expat in Shanghai, Suzhou, or Nanjing comes with varying degrees of anonymity. The foreign communities in those places are large enough where a person could relatively fade into the background. This is clearly not the case in smaller towns like Liyang, Yixing, or Changshu; members of those communities all likely know each other. As for more medium-sized cities like Changzhou, the answer is somewhere between those ends of the spectrum.
I have heard more than a few people accuse Changzhou of being clique-ish. That there are actually multiple small communities or circles, and they largely do not interact with each other. For instance, the Germans allegedly all band together, as do the English teachers. The Russians are … very Russian. Certain bars represent community centers for certain expat circles. There may be a grain of truth there, but it’s still not altogether accurate. The reality is actually closer to the silly game of The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Well, this begs the question of what actually is The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? I’d wager a lot of Americans know this, but for non-Americans and non-Canadians, some explaining may be in order. Kevin Bacon is a very talented, very prolific actor and has been one for decades. The idea here is that you can connect Kevin Bacon to just about any other English-speaking actor by looking who his co-stars are and what other projects those coworkers were involved in. The game posits that you can connect Bacon to any other celebrity in up to six projects. Ala: “Bacon stared in this project with ACTRESS, who went on to make a movie with BlahBlah ACTOR, who collaborated with SO-IN-SO. It’s a way of drawing a very tenuous line of connections. Also, it’s like a parlor game that cinephiles and movie nerds play, and Kevin Bacon himself was horrified by this at first.
However, this very silly game is also a very apt way of describing an expat community in a medium-sized Chinese city like Changzhou. Everybody definitively doesn’t know each other, but you can play the Six Degrees game with any foreigner and draw a line through mutual connections to somebody else. I actually got to thinking about his while eating at a private Brazilian BBQ event in Wujin.
This event was held at Kaffa, which is normally a purveyor of Indian cuisine. It’s next to Xintiandi Park in Hutang.
I had never actually had Brazilian BBQ before, and so this was a highly educational and eye opening experience when it comes to food.
This type of BBQ seems to rely heavy on beef, sausage, and salt. Dear lord, salt is dumped on everything before it hits the grill. Even afterwards. The salt makes a lot of sense if you consider the very hot climate of Brazil and the need to actually keep the grilled items from spoiling after cooking. Me? I really don’t mind salty meat; in fact, I love it, as that’s a big part of brined and cured cold cuts you can find in Jewish delis back in New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. In short, I was absolutely loving the food these Brazilians were introducing to me. But to be honest, something else was on my mind.
In Changzhou, I am very well known to be an antisocial person. This is not because I hate people or think I am better than them. It’s just a defect of my personality — I can’t work or glad-hand a room, and I will not, to be honest. And while I was very happy to be munching on cuts of steak while sipping beer, I realized that I hardly knew anybody in this crowd with the exception of maybe three to four people. I kind-of forced myself to be a bit more social, and I was grateful that I did so.
My closest friend got me into this private event as her plus-one. However, looking around the alien-to-me crowd, I did notice some familiar faces. That got me to thinking. Yes, I didn’t know the majority of the people there, but I knew people who knew other people — hence the Six Degrees of Expat Separation in a place like Changzhou. It’s another reason while I still like living here, after all these years. It’s not the anonymous rat race of a place like Shanghai, and it’s not a tiny microcosm like what you’d find in Yixing or Changshu. Changzhou is someplace in between. You may not know everybody in town, but you are likely connected by mutual friends who know other mutual friends.
As for the Brazillian BBQ at Kaffa, maybe I have enlarged my social circle by a little? Those are some good people who enjoy good food. I look forward having a chance to sharing steak, sausage, and beer again with them soon.
During the Chinese Civil War, the Battle of Pingjin was a pivotal moment. The People’s Liberation Army had forced the Nationalist Guomingdang Forces to begin to retreat in certain parts of Northern China — Hebei province in particular. The nationalists would eventually, according to history, lose the war. However, let us not wax poetic on that. Let us delve into something more trivial. As in America, historic warfare is rife for picking as cinematic content in China.
The movie I am screenshotting bares the English moniker Liberation and it tells the story set during the Battle of Pingjin. While I have not seen the movie, the trailer promises Michael Bay styled action where explosives go boom and guns go bang many, many times. I must admit, this is on my to-buy list the next time I visit one of Changzhou’s sole remaining DVD stores. Liberation had a highly limited release schedule in American theaters, but saying that it made it’s way off the Chinese mainland actually says a lot. So, count me as curious.
While the story is set in the greater area around Beijing and Tianjin, it was filmed nowhere near either city. It was actually filmed in Changzhou. The West Tai Lake / Xitaihu region of Wujin is home to a movie lot, and this film was made using those facilities.
This movie lot is a stop on the B15 bus route, and it costs 30 RMB to enter the place and go for a stroll. Doing so feels a little otherworldly. You can actually see external sets that look like they would absolutely fit in with a movie like Liberation. However, this gets more into the nature of Xitaihu. West Tai Lake is currently an underdeveloped region of the city, but a lot of investment is going on here. What is currently here does not equate with the urban planning that suggests what this place may be 10 to 15 years from now. However, if you are thinking of present day Xitaihu — imagine this crammed urban-looking movie lot surrounded by a lot of rural, lakeside, open spaces. It’s like a non-sequitur. Then again, that contrast is what gives this part of Wujin it’s unique character.
There area is not just dedicated to 1940s and Chinese Civil War era exteriors. Other film and TV projects have been filmed out this way.
And these projects do relate to other periods within Chinese history. While a lot of the varied scenery are external sets, there are studio sound stages here as well, and they are likely not open to the public.
The West Tai Lake Yingshi Film and Television Base actually has two entrances: one for tourists and one for professionals actually using the site to produce content. The western tourist entrance is actually closer to the B15 bus stop.
If there is an utterly trivial thing I often complain about, it is about having chronically silly hair — like in competition with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson when it comes to crimes against geometry. I blame Chinese barbers for that. Johnson and Trump, however, have nobody to blame but themselves. For me, it has gotten so bad I have actively thought about shaving my head and being done with being a foreigner in Chinese barbershops . In that regard, I would stop being a Chinese hair stylist’s art project against my express instructions as to what I want. Seriously, I have been photographed and featured on their Wechat moments more times I care to think about.
Yet, I really don’t want to shave my head, and as a result I have developed an obsession for buying baseball hats. However, many of my follicle-challenged male friends complain that I am being childish. They point to their receding hairlines and my lack of one. They tell me I should be content with Chinese barbers butchering my hair and should not hide the resulting crap-do under a cap. To put it simply: Stop complaining! At least you still have hair! Should I should rock out whatever avant garde style Changzhou barbers have bestowed upon me — against my wishes — in public? Um, no. No, I will not.
Typically, though, I’m looking for New York Yankees hats. It’s not because I’m into baseball, per se. It’s more of a regional pride thing. I’m not from New York City at all, but New Jersey is next door, and as I often point out, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia have a lot culturally in common when it comes to food, extremely rude language, and much more. Additionally, the Yankees logo has evolved beyond sports and has become a global fashion symbol — and that makes them easy to find in most Chinese commodities markets. Though, when I go on a hat quest, I may not always leave with NYC related merch. This was a case recently in the former district of Qishuyan in eastern Wujin..
The market in question was tucked away off of Yanling Road. This is the same Yanling that cuts straight through downtown. In fact, taking the #7 bus route from Hongmei Park to this part of Qishuyan is essentially a straight drive with no turns. I left the area to return to Xinbei on the #99, which terminates at Dinosaur Park. The plaza itself seems to be a reminder of how commodity markets are not the bustling places they were many years ago.
While there are empty, abandoned, decrepit-looking booths and stalls here, there is still some life. Not everybody relies on Taobao and the Internet, I guess.
So, how did my quest for NYC-related merchandise go? I only found one thing.
The glitter on the bill was a deal breaker for me. I have no glitter in my soul! Just utter, complete, and all-consuming darkness! Wearing this would be flamboyantly out of character for me. Yet, I did find a silly hat nearby. It was highly tempting.
It took all of my will power to NOT buy the pink one in the middle. I mean, I almost caved and just had to leave that particular vendor before my penchant for and love of absurdity could win me over.
I left with arguably a lamer hat. Still, it did do its required job of hiding my chronically silly-looking hair.
Graffiti is not a cultural thing the way in China as it is in my part of America, which is the greater Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City region. Murals and tagging is just a thing you don’t see in Changzhou. That being said, it does exist here, and this blog has covered the biggest site over in Zhonglou. That urban art is beneath two bridges flanking Jiangsu University of Technology. There is one other place in Changzhou that has featured the ever-changing nature of graffiti for years. This is on a wall on the south side of People’s Hospital #1 in the city center and not that far from the Wenhuagong / Culture Palace subway station on Line 1.