Tag Archives: China

Mikong: A Taste of Zhejiang

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Some regional cuisines are more closely related than others. For example, nobody in their right mind would ever say Chengdu and Changzhou’s cuisines are remotely similar. One is super spicy, and the other is sweet. However, you can find some commonalities between Jiangsu and Zhejiang. There is an emphasis on lighter, fresher flavors. Both tend to be on sweeter side, but out of the Zhejiang dishes I have tried, the sweetness tends to be more subtle.

A year or more ago, a Chinese friend introduced Zhejiang cuisine to me by taking me to 弥空的小确幸 Mí kōng de xiǎo què xìng. Based on Google Tanslate, a possible English name might be Mikong’s Small Fortune. Then again, it’s always risky to trust non-human machine translators. Also, the restaurant didn’t seem to advertise an English name, so I’ll just call it Mikong going forward. A different good friend and I recently wanted to grab lunch and do some catching up, and I realized that I hadn’t been back  to this particular place. I had good memories of the food the first time around, and so we settled on here as a place to dine. So, how was it?

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Yeah, it’s a picture of a refrigerator. It’s also the only interior shot of Mikong that I have.

The inside has a very cozy atmosphere, and interestingly enough, there was soft, jazzy English-language music on in the background. The location is also highly convenient for downtown; it’s across the street from the rear end of Wuyue / Injoy Plaza. Basically, it’s part of the non-historic side of Comb Lane. On the downside, you have to walk through another restaurant and climb a set of stairs to get to Mikong, but that almost gives it a secluded, tucked away vibe while essentially being in a highly trafficked part of downtown Changzhou. Enough about that, how about the food?

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The shrimp smothered in garlic was particularly good. This was a repeat ordering from my original visit more than a year ago. There is reason why I like this dish. I have always had a problematic relationship with shrimp in China — I don’t like the fact they are often cooked and served with their heads and eye stalks attached. In fact, I still haven’t figured out how to eat shrimp in China. There seems to be an art and skill level involved that is completely lost on me. At Mikong, the prawns are beheaded, and that really simplifies matters.

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Next up was a goose dish. It tasted good, but to be honest, the goose itself seemed to have too many bones. This led me to putting my chopsticks down and using my hands to inelegantly gnaw. The brown sauce it came in reminded me a little of slightly sweet “sort-of” curry. I often used it a dipping sauce for the remaining side dish.

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Lightly fried potato balls. This is just sheer simplicity. It is really hard to go wrong with potatoes that haven’t been overly fussed with. These three dishes led to a final bill around 160ish RMB. The friend and I left satisfied and thinking Mikong would be worth a return visit.

A Lost Town and Forgotten Temple

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Typically, a brown street sign in Changzhou denotes something of cultural value and significance. The above, for example, advertises something called Xucheng Temple and Ruins. It’s next to a narrow little street off shooting from Xiacheng Road in Wujin — this would be on the eastern side of the Science and Education Complex adjacent to College Town. However, sometimes in China signs are not all what they seem. In fact, if you followed this sign, you would end up in a wasteland.

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There is really nothing to see out here. But what about the sign? What about the temple? That would be this….

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Part of the temple is still there, but closed to the public. The front part, however, has been demolished. I know this because I had visited this area four years ago, and it looked different. The front door of the temple was still there. The road here not used to be shattered, and the nearby bridge lead to a rather creepy building where I heard a hoard of pigs screeching and scratching around. That creepy building is now gone, too.

How about the sign’s advertised “Xucheng Ruins?” Yup, that’s actually still there, I think. It has a historical preservation marker.

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So, that means something historical, right?

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Well, maybe — if you’re counting a mound of dirt and pile of stone slabs. In fact, this whole area is something of a seemingly barren and morose landscape. It’s like a memory that is fading away, but still somehow clinging on by its finger nails.

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The above is a marker for Shangdian Ancient Town 上店古镇, and the marker speaks about this. However, if you enter those Chinese characters into Google, nothing comes up, even in Chinese. There was once a Chinese language blog post about the town, but even now that is a broken link. As for Xucheng Temple, there is an entry for that on Baidu’s Chinese language version of Wikipedia, but that seems grossly out of date. The entry ends by mentioning that the area was declared a cultural site worth protecting in 2008. That hardly squares with how the area looks now. There is, however, one thing that has remained intact.

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That would be a grave site. The above is the tomb of Yun Nantian 恽南田, a noted painter from the Qing Dynasty. Yun Nantian has had worldwide fame and has had gallery exhibits held outside of China. He was a native of this particular section of Wujin. His specialties included caligraphy and painting flowers.

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All in all, something was here. Several years ago, Changzhou was accused of being a “ghost city.” This is a term often leveled at over-building and over zealous urban development. The term really isn’t accurate for most of Changzhou these days, and since that initial accusation five to six years ago, major construction projects have finished and many of the eerily quiet parts of Wujin have filled in. So, a ghost city? Maybe not, but some places still have the vibe of “ghost towns” — places that life once was and that have been quietly forgotten.

Qianlong in Changzhou

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Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711 to 1799) has many distinctions in Chinese history. He sat on the throne for sixty or so years, and he had one of the longest reigns. Instead of dying while in power, he gave up the throne out of respect to his grandfather, Kangxi. As a result, Kangxi’s time as Chinese Emperor is longer, but only by one year. Qianlong patronized the arts heavily, and he himself composed a lot of poetry. In world culture, he may actually be the most prolific writer of all time.

Also like his grandfather, Qianlong liked to travel and actually inspect his kingdom first hand. As a result, you end up seeing public references to him all over the Jiangnan region. Changzhou is no different. There are stone markers related to him in Dongpo Park in Tianning. This is basically down the street from Hongmei while on Yanling Road.

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During one visit to the city, Emperor Qianlong actually wrote a few poems mentioning Changzhou. The Emperor greatly admired Su Dongpo as a poet, and Dongpo Park is where the great writer and artist landed after traveling down the Grand Canal. A few hundred years ago, Qianlong actually wanted to visit that very same spot. These verses were carved onto steles — giant stone slabs engraved with calligraphy. That’s where one issue pops up. Chinese calligraphy, even when it’s black ink on white paper, can be hard to read. I showed a couple of pictures to some Chinese friends.

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They had a hard time making out anything. I have tried to see if I could locate these poems online, and I even used Chinese search terms like 乾龙常州市诗, and I still couldn’t locate the poems.Then, I realized my search terms had a Chinese typo. I think “Qianlong” in characters is 乾隆 not 乾龙. I think I might have located them, but it’s going to take a while to see if I can get these poems correctly translated somewhere done the line.

In the meantime, these stele carvings are an interesting little corner in one of Changzhou’s more charming little parks.

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Celebrating American Car Culture in Changzhou

“The Changzhou public bus system is more than likely better than any bus system in America.”

When I say this, my Chinese university students usually gasp in shock. They become even more flabbergasted when I say the US is pretty bad at public transportation. If they counter by bringing up the New York City subway system, I remind them that New York City is always the exception and not the norm, and a lot of the subway stations often smell like a public bathroom — and I am saying that as a New Jersey guy that has always had a very large soft spot for The Big Apple.

Owning a car is not a sign of wealth or status, because even poor or broke people have to drive to get to work.  It’s just that they own a jalopy, wreck, hooptie, rattletrap, clunker, bucket of bolts, lemon, junker, or any other colorful noun that can mean “old car that breaks down often.” America, I always tell my students, has a very car-centered culture. Instead of opting for an intricate rail system, President Eisenhower initiated the construction of a network of super highways in 1956 that has defined America up to the current day.

So, it’s interesting that the Changzhou Museum has a temporary photography exhibit celebrating this aspect of Americana.

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It’s located on the ground floor of the museum.

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There are some old black and white photos as well as some vintage illustrated posters.

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Plus, there are some contemporary shots on display. Not to mention this…

 

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This shot is particularly grainy. That’s because I took this picture with my cell phone (of course), and it’s basically of a TV screen playing a documentary. Some of the guys featured are true whackjobs.  Lastly, I sort of had to take a photo of the place I now love to hate….

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There is a wall of license plates from all 50 states. Not represented, it seemed, were Washington DC and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and The Virgin Islands. Anyhow, it seemed like a quirky temporary exhibit. It runs until November 18th.

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Map location for the Changzhou Museum

First Time to San Sheng Temple

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Sometimes I think I have seen all that Changzhou has to offer, and then something comes out of left field and really surprises me. And, that’s what I can easily say about San Sheng Temple 三圣禅寺 — it really surprised me. With the exception of Maoshan  out in Jintan, I thought I had seen all of Changzhou’s major temples: Tianning, Bailong, Dalin, Baolin, Wanfo, and so on. Well, I was wrong, but then again me being wrong is nothing new. Still, I was awestruck by this place.

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Comparatively speaking, it felt roughly the same size as Tianning — albeit with a smaller pagoda. The pagoda is also not open, so you cannot climb to the top for a view of the surrounding area.

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There is so much to see here, it would be hard to fit it all into one post. So, here are just some of the more unique things.

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There is a huge lighted display dedicated to Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.  The lights change from red to blue and green. However, this wall is massive.

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The textured background is made up of thousands of hands. We also see longer arms sticking out of this wall as well.

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This has spiritual significance; Guanyin is often dipicted with multiple arms, hands, and heads so that she can maximize her reach in hearing prayers and dispensing with mercy. She looks this way because it assists her in helping as many people as possible. There is a downside…

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It’s kind of weird to see disembodied arms in bubble wrap. This is emblematic of what is also currently going on here. The place is undergoing renovations. It seems like they may be adding more arms to the wall. Speaking of walls …

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There is an epic sculpture wall on one side of a staircase. Luckily for me, I had a very kind monk who offered to show me around.

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There is just so much here; it’s hard to digest it all in one visit. I am definitely going to return. However, some people who know me personally might ask, “You have lived in Changzhou for years. How is it you missed a place this large?”

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It’s in a very remote part of Changzhou. This is out in the former Qishuyan District, which is now currently part of Wujin. As a one way bike ride, this was 20 kilometers away from Xinbei. Basically, it’s eastern Changzhou, near the hills where there are a lot of public cemeteries. The 316 bus from the downtown train station comes out this way, but there are only a few buses a day, as the below sign illustrates.

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All You Can Eat at Pomel

“One day, I am going to try eel, but today is just not that day.” 

This is something I used to say while looking at a sushi menu. Essentially, I would be tempted to be adventuresome and try new things, but I would always chicken out in the end. This was seemingly a lifetime ago, back when I lived in North Carolina and New Jersey. Sushi places seemed few and far between, and I quite often had zero disposable cash. So, the fear was partly economic — why pay a lot of money for something I may not exactly like?

Times change, and now I am in Changzhou. Sushi isn’t really a hard to find, exotic item here. That’s especially true now that I live near Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street in Xinbei. While there are plenty of sushi options to pick from, one place has a great deal to consider.

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Pomel has an all you can eat deal for 198 RMB. This is not a buffet, either. You basically have full run at the menu, and you can order multiple times. Both beer and sake are included. Upon a recent visit with a friend, we basically got to have our fill of sashimi…

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If you think about how much sashimi grade salmon and tuna can cost, the 198 RMB price tag quickly pays for itself, and that’s not even factoring in beer and sake refills.

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And, of course, it’s hard to go to a Japanese place and not order sushi. Then, there is another good aspect of an all you can eat deal.

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You can try things out without the fear of wasting money. I have long gotten over trepidation surrounding eel. The friend I was dining with had already introduced me its yumminess on a separate occasion. However, this time, I had the opportunity to try my first couple of cups of warm sake. I also got a chance to sample sea urchin as part of a second sashimi platter. I appreciated the sake, yet raw sea urchin just really isn’t my thing. It’s got the appearance and consistency of — not to be gross — snot. However, I now can say been there, done that and move on. Again, that’s the value of this deal at Pomel — or any other Japanese all you can eat places — you can try things you normally wouldn’t if you were doing ala carte.

Dacheng #3 Factory, Then and Now

Back in 2017, I visited a canal-side historical marker. It was for an old factory.  I knew of it’s existence, but I had trouble actually finding it. So, getting there, at the time, involved randomly riding my ebike down narrow alleys in Tianning, but across the grand canal, in a very diagonal and distant sort of way, from Dongpo Park

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It claimed that the area was being preserved, but in actual fact, the whole area was in the process of getting gutted and demolished.

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The actual English language historical marker was next to a rather derelict looking door.

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These photos not only come from 2017, but also the year before. Recently, I returned to the area out of curiosity. Vast changes are underway. The above door now looks like this.

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The walkway in front of this door, about a year ago, looked like this.

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People were basically cultivating the land into tiny vegetable plots. Now, the area looks like this.

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So, what is going on here? Whatever is being built here is not actually not finished, yet. However, it seems to be a development project with the English moniker Legends of Canal. My guess says real estate, and not a historical district. I say this, because I walked through the gate and wandered around. I was not the only person wandering, either.

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At first, with all of the old industrial machines encased in glass, as well as the public sculptures, my mind went immediately to Canal 5, which has a similar sort of vibe. However, as I was walking around, somebody stopped me and asked me why I was there. It wasn’t the security guys by the gate, either. It seemed to be a salesman asking if I was wanted to possibly invest into real estate. So, my guess is that this area is now the grounds of a business office for a future development project. I could still be totally wrong, of course; the guy’s English was terrible, and my Chinese only exists in survival mode. Given that there are still huge barricades around the rest of the area, there really will not be much else to see here for at least a year or two.

 

Cruising Around Lijia

I sometimes forget how large Wujin actually is. Most people know the area typically as Hutang and the College Town, but there is more to it than just that. Recently, I took an bike ride to Lijia 礼嘉镇 which is roughly about 12 kilometers from Changzhou University if you are going south and east. The 320 bus swings out this way. So, what is out here? Keep in mind this was an unplanned trip. This was the “point my bike in that direction and see what’s there“ sort of thing.

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This can be easily described as small town China. Still, the central shopping area was quite busy. While stopping here, I checked Baidu Maps if there was anything historical nearby. That lead me here.

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I got chased by a dog, twice. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, and I survived without getting bitten. What I was looking for was behind the above buildings.

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This is 王氏宗祠,or The Wang Family Ancestral Hall. Most time, when I find these places, they are closed to the public. I ran into another up the road a few kilometers …

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This one was 何氏大宗祠,or The He Family Great Ancestral Hall. Like it’s counterpart, seemed closed to the public. However, this building had large tomb nearby.

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Because I wasn’t careful in conserving battery power, my bike clunked out when I hit downtown, on my way back to Xinbei. In trying to figure a few things out, I ended up consulting the town’s Baike encyclopedia page once I finally got home. Turns out, I might have missed something. That just means instead of going there on a whim next time, I should do something new and different and actually make more of a concrete plan.

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Silver Thread Noodles 银丝面红汤

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When I lived in Wujin, I used to ask my college students for recommendations about what was truly “local” Changzhou food. Most of them didn’t know what to say because 1) their English levels were so low and 2) most of them didn’t come from Changzhou. So, I used to get some silly answers like “Go to the top floor of Injoy.” One day, a friend brought me to Yinsi Noodles. Eventually, I was handed a bowl of noodles, and that became my first exposure to Changzhou’s food.

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That was more than a couple of years ago, now. Recently, I returned to Yinsi and tried the same dish. Only, I went to a different location. This cafeteria style restaurant is a prolific chain with locations all over the city. It serves a variety of non-local dishes that can be easily found elsewhere.

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So, if that is the case, what is so special about this place? A very cheap 5 RMB bowl of noodles.

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The dish’s name is actually shared with the eatery. Yinsi Noodles in Chinese is 常州银丝面 chángzhōu yín sī miàn. The actual above noodle soup is 银丝面红汤  yín sī miànhóng tāng. The literal translation would be “silver thread noodles red soup.” The characters 银丝 refers to the actual noodles themselves. According to Baidu’s version of Wikipedia, the name comes from how the ingredients in the dough results in very white noodles.  The “red soup” comes from the broth base, which is made with soy sauce. The result is a slightly salty taste that never becomes too much.

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You can also add a few things to the soup to customize the flavor a little more. If you look closely at the above, you’ll notice I chopped up a meatball and mixed it in. So, what else can I say?

This dish has been part of Changzhou culture for nearly 100 years. However, one should clarify one thing: only the recipe is that old. The current chain of Yinsi cafeterias doesn’t date back that far. The original shop, from all those decades ago, is also gone and lost to history. It used to be in what would become the Nandajie area of downtown.

 

Unassuming Qingshan

Typically, when one mentions “half naked woman riding a dragon,” one might either thinking 1980’s heavy metal album covers or fantasy mass market paperback covers. Dungeons and dragons and role playing games might also be involved in that thought process. If you image search “half naked woman riding a dragon” on Google, you might get the following results. I sort of did.

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This is, of course, dragons in a western context.  Turns out, it can be more of cross-cultural idea in art. In Changzhou, there is a stone mural of depicting the same thing.

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In this case, the woman is holding what looks to be a shiny orb. This is likely a flaming pearl, which in some Asian cultures can be associated with spiritual energy. A lot of depictions of Eastern dragons come with some sort of pearl references. All of this is lore and mythology that, quite honestly, I need to learn more about. The above picture had me intrigued partly because it was in an unassuming park that I have passed by for years but never took the time to actually walk around in.

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The public space is Qingshan Zhuang 青山庄. It’s actually part of the ancient canal network that has been part of Changzhou for thousands of years. The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal flows into into the city and splits into what can be described as a series of offshoots, tributaries, and a moat-and-wall complex around what used to be ancient Changzhou. In the above photo, you have the characters 北塘 běi táng. This is the part of that canal network that splits off of the central city canal circular and heads north.

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A good portion of this canal is adjacent to Jinling Road, but it’s at the point where that road forks into two one way roads downtown. This is why, for example, the 302 bus route from Wujin to Xinbei is different from it’s course from Xinbei to Wujin when going south.

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Qingshan Zhuang, as a public green space, is actually split into two. There is part that straddles the Beitang Canal (where the half naked dragon rider can be found), and then there is the other part across the busy street. It’s mostly a small public space with benches.  There are also a few bits of public art here, too.

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Here we have a primate eating something oblong. Mangos are oblong. They are also quite delicious, so my personal interpretation and title would be “Monkey Eating a Mango.”

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I am not going to venture a guess as to the meaning of this.

At anyrate, Qingshan Zhuang is definitely not one of Changzhou’s major or culturally significant spaces. For many of us, it’s just something we have passed by on a bus while going someplace else.
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