Tag Archives: China

Wujin Has Arms!

Wujin looks like an amoeba! It’s getting its psuedopods around Tianning, Zhonglou, and Xinbei! Nobody is safe! It already ate Qishuyan!

It’s actually wrong to think of Wujin as Changzhou’s southern district. True, a good bit of it is in the south of the city, but if you look at a map, district lines have Wujin surrounding much much of the city. For instance, you can stand in Xinbei, drive west, and find yourself in Wujin. The same will happen in you drive east. So, if you’re trying to describe Changzhou to somebody, you have to be specific when you are talking about Wujin. I have devised my own

system for the two northern parts: the “west arm” and the “east

arm.” In the USA, such map irregularities

are called “panhandles.” Because, well, they are shaped like panhandles.  For non-native speakers, the metaphorical use of the word might be difficult — hence my “arm” preference.

For a little added perspective, the blue dot in both Baidu Maps screenshots is me. I am at my computer in my apartment at Hohai University. This is on Hehai Road. Xinbei Wanda Plaza is in walking distance. Dinosaur Park is four kilometers away.  Downtown is about 20 minutes away when I am doing 60 kph on my eBike.

Xinbei’s district lines

Last Resort Breakfast Eggs

When you are travelling, and you don’t know Chinese food all that well, there is one place you can always count on in an emergency: Pizza Hut. To be honest, the place is way over priced, and the quality of the food isn’t all that great. However, here is a scary thought: Pizza Hut in China is actually better than Pizza Hut back in America.  One of the only selling points is the convenience. In this part of China, Pizza Huts are nearly everywhere.

The other thing is breakfast. Pizza Hut is one of the places where you can get western style eggs, including omelettes and bacon.   Sure, diners back in Jersey do this much, much better. But this obviously isn’t New Jersey, and thank the lord for that. If you are in Xinbei, it might be better to check into OK Koala first — especially if it’s a Sunday morning. 

Tianning’s Stations of Guanyin

IMG_7505[1]When you are a Catholic, “The Stations of the Cross” are immensely important. It’s not the same for other Christians — especially American Protestant Evangelicals.  For Roman Catholics, it’s part of the decor of every church. It’s either the art of in all of the stained glass windows, or it’s a series of paintings and bass relief sculptures. So, you may ask, what are these “Stations?” It’s a series pictures of Jesus Christ being put to death and being nailed to planks of wood.  The more exact term is “crucifixion.”
Every Easter, Catholics recreate this scene as a religious drama and watchable spectacle, but the artistic depictions are there in Church throughout the year. The idea is to visit every moment of Christ’s
death for a moment of prayer. For the sake of clarity, let me emphatically say I am not a Christian. My reasoning is intensely personal, and I will not offend people by getting into it here. The subject is also actually a little touchy between me and my father. You see, I was raised in Catholicism. I then walked away from that faith very early in my adulthood.

Yet, prior religions follow you the rest of your life, even when you don’t want them to. I am not being cynical, either. For as much as I am not a Catholic, Roman Catholicism has still shaped the some of the ways I think. It’s just who I am.  I thought about this a lot, IMG_7473[1]recently, when confronted with some Buddhist imagery in Changzhou‘s Tianning Temple.

It’s part of Hongmei Park in a district the bares its name.  The chief attraction there is the pagoda.  One day, however, I visited the temple to just as a way to kill time. It was Easter Sunday, and I was meeting a close friend for dinner in Wujin. Only, she had a lot of grading to do before becoming available.  Tianning Temple has two ticket prices, and since I wasn’t interested in going into the Pagoda, I opted for the cheaper 20 RMB fare.

In one corner of the temple grounds, there is a garden filled with Guanyin Sculptures. Guanyin is a often considered a goddess of
mercy. She’s a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, and as is the case with the Chinese variety of that faith, she’s shared with other religions. In
Taoism and folk religion, she is considered a mercy goddess. Some have even drawn parallels with the Virgin Mary.

And so that brings me to the Stations of the Cross analogy. As I walked around, I stopped at each of the dozens of Guanyin sculptures. Most of them feature her reclining or sitting. Some have her with dragons, and other with birds with ornate plumage.  Incense sticks burn at each statue. At many of the sculptures, people have left coins or other mementos.  It wasn’t the statues themselves that reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. It were the people who came here to pray. Many stopped at each and every statue to be mindful in thought. So, the stories are drastically different, but the method of worship is very similar.IMG_7477[1]

Way To Delicious 味和氏

The store near Changzhou’s Dinosaur Park

“If you can’t find it at Metro, you probably will not find it in Changzhou.”

I used to say these words all the time, but lately I realized how fundamentally I was wrong. On the surface, it seems logical and plausible. Some supermarkets carry items that others do not. For example, I routinely can’t find German pickled red cabbage at Metro, but it’s on the import shelf at the Xinbei Wanda Walmart. Metro basically has most of what a westerner may want an need, but often items show up in other places all the time. Yet, that superstore is only convenient if you live in Xinbei or near the nothern end of Changzhou. Wujin is set to get its own sometime this year, and that will be in the Coco City shopping center near Injoy Mall. Coco City is still under construction.

Snapple!

I recently discovered this at a small import shop / supermarket called Way To Delicious 味和氏. This is likely a chain, as Baidu maps lists several locations when you search using the Chinese name. I have only been to three. There used to be a small one in Hutang, right across the street from Tesco. However, it closed. The two others I have visited were in Xinbei. One is near Changfa Plaza and the Xinbei TV Tower and media center.  The other was closer to Indian Kitchen and Dinosaur Park.

The one thing, however, is that they don’t seem to carry the same products. For example, I found Polish plum juice at one, but no Snapple. The other had Snapple, but none of the Polish beverages. The unpredictable nature of the stocking means, well, you don’t make special trips to them. You just go there because you live or work near one, and its convenient. So, what am I judging Metro on, here? The Polish plum juice.  I know because I check the last time I went to Metro. And by the way, Way To Delicious may be out of plum juice. I bought all five last time I was there.

Tarczyn. The Polish equivalent of Snapple?

Kong Rong and Small Pears

A younger sibling gives a pear to an older sibling.

The Chinese is 孔融让梨, or in Pinyin without the proper tone markers: kong rong rang li. If you translate the characters verbatim, you get “Kong Rong yeild pear.” In the picture, you can barely make out the characters, but I sent the photo to a Chinese friend who is native to Changzhou’s Jintan District.  Turns out, many Chinese people could probably figure this out, due to how famous the expression is.

Kong Rong was both a scholar and a descendant of Confucius. His literary achievements likely outlive his acts as a minor warlord. Once, he spoke ill of Cao Cao, a Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Both Kong Rong and his entire family were executed as a result, and their corpses were left in the street  As ancient Chinese history goes, this was during the Three Kingdoms period.  The killing of the family is strangely a reminder of a different part of Chinese culture.

Family is important in The Middle Kingdom in a way it just isn’t in the west. Honoring your father and following his orders are paramount. That’s filial piety, two English words seldomly used in the USA or UK. But it even gets into sibling hierarchy.  Younger brothers are supposed to respect older brothers — the same with older sisters and younger sisters.

As legend goes, as a boy, Kong Rong would only pick up or pick small pears to eat. This would be from or around the trees near his home. Why? He felt it was his duty to leave the plumper, juicier fruit for his elder brothers. Hence, 孔融让梨, or “Kong Rong yeilds pears.”

As for this sculpture, it’s in Jintan’s Hua Luogeng Park 华罗庚公园. It’s one of three statues dedicated to Chinese idioms.  The park itself is in walking distance from the long-distance bus terminal.

OK Koala: Sunday Brunch with Grandma

“You are asking the wrong person. I am quite antisocial. I don’t know.” 

I said this to a friend of mine, recently. She’s Chinese, and her fiance is an American new to China. In day to day to life, he is surrounded by his future Chinese in-laws.  He’s also surrounded by Chinese, and not his native language. Potentially, he may feel like a stranger in strange land, and she was wondering how and where he could meet fellow expats. As we talked, I realized that trying to use my fundamental lack of people skills as an escape was not going to be helpful to her and her fiance.  So, I thought extra hard for answer.

And then my mind drifted to Satina Anziano. She used to operate Grandma’s Nook in Wujin. It was a bakery that specialized in super awesome multigrain and sour dough breads. Plus there were always homemade chocolate chip cookies and rather illicit and guilty pleasure inducing cinnamon rolls. I mean, who else in Changzhou actually made and sold cinnamon rolls? She used to do Sunday brunch in at her Wujin shop, too. Only, I was always too busy to go. After all, I tend to be an antisocial, brooding, solitary type of guy. I know that’s a problem, and I am trying to get over it. Plus, I had too many part time jobs on Sunday, so I never went.

Satina has since retired and sold her shop. But, she’s still active in the expat community. Her brunches never ended, they just migrated from Wujin to Xinbei. Every sunday, Grandma’s brunches are now available at OK Koala, which can be found just one B1 BRT stop beyond Xinbei Wanda Plaza.

Every Sunday, you can get the sort of heavy breakfast that would be readily available all day in either an Australian cafe or a New Jersey diner. By this, I mean scrambled eggs, toast, potatoes, omelettes, and much more. This is the ultimate comfort food while living in Changzhou. Why? It’s hard to find. if you don’t make it for yourself. Besides OK Koala, the only place to get a breakfast like this would be Pizza Hut. After all, they serve omelettes and hash brown sticks.  Only, the person eating one table over from you will be Chinese, and they will be spooning an expensive porridge into their mouth. And they will likely be more concerned with staring at QQ on their iPhone than talking to you.

Grandma’s brunch’s at OK Koala is a great chance to meet your fellow expats. I went there recently. I realized that it had been forever since I talked to Satina, I went there to find her, only to find out that she had been feeling ill, Still, I hung around, and for the first time somebody showed me what Australian vegemite was, when

Vegemite on toast!

thinly spread onto bread. A New Zealander was also quick on hand that marmite was better. Vegemite? Marmite? It’s all the same to

this Jersey guy.  It’s deliciously sort of bitter on toast. But, honestly, I loved that a Kiwi and an Aussie had a chance to argue their cases in front of clueless American. And, right now, OK Koala is the only place to to have discussions like that on Sunday mornings.

 

 

 

A Ghost in the Valley of Retail Mountains

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This is an old post reposted from my personal blog. 

A few years ago, Changzhou was accused of being a ghost city by the China Youth Daily. Basically, the logic went this way: there were too many unoccupied residential and commercial construction developments. All of these highrises, one might argue, and not one lighted window at night. And with the breakneck speed of construction in Changzhou, could the local population actually support these new apartment blocks and shopping malls, or would they ultimately remain empty? Was Changzhou on the slippery slope towards becoming a lost metropolis like Ordos Kangbashi? To some Chinese folks and foreigners who live in Changzhou, this ghost city allegation is really a load of nonsense.

Even a veteran travel writer Wade Shepard seemed to think so, once he was researching his book Ghosts Cities of China. Since this allegation was made, many of the construction projects have filled in. For example, the Wujin district is now home to both a prospering Wanda Plaza and an Injoy Shopping mall. People are also slowly moving into the new housing estates, too. It’s hard to call a location a ghost town or city when you see people milling about and cars on the street – something the infamous city of Ordos Kangbashi allegedly doesn’t have. But, even that seems to to be changing.

Simply put, the landscape of Changzhou has vastly changed since 2012 and 2013, and it will continue to change. Construction in Wujin and other Changzhou districts is still seemingly on steroids. It seems like not a week goes by without something new opening or something old getting bulldozed. Yet, for all of this economic progress, this city along the Yangtze still has its share of ghosts. All of urban China does, and it will continue on this way for the foreseeable future. These ghosts are bleak, destitute spaces – once built to great fanfare, and then seemingly abandoned over the years once newer, bigger, shinier structures were erected.

 IMG_20151027_161936Yanghu Plaza阳湖广场 is one of these ghosts. Permit me this analogy. If the skyscrapers of Wanda and Injoy were mountains, Yanghu Plaza is a seemingly desolate valley between them. A person could walk from one mall to the other relatively quickly, but they would have to pass Yanghu. The area is actually vibrant with locally owned shops and snack bars. It’s a decidedly different place than the corporate centers nearby. Yet, once you step onto the plaza itself, activity nearly flatlines.

A huge building stands at the center of Yanghu. It consists of two towers connected by an enclosed walkway. Essentially, it looks like a big capital letter H. Such architecture is not uncommon in Changzhou. Changzhou’s main municipal governmental building also sports an H shape, for example. As for Yanghu Plaza in Hutang/Wujin, the building is empty. Many of the windows are missing. Essentially, it’s a derelict tenement. Nobody lives in this weird structure, nobody works there either. Three floors of open air retail space flank this huge H. About 5% of the shop spaces are used, and the rest is enclosed by metal pull-down gates. Some of the areas even have weeds and vegetation growing on the inside – that’s how long this area has been stripped down and largely abandoned. Yet, some people still individually use some of the interior. From time to time, I saw clothing on drying racks inside the building. Of course, I saw this through dirty, smudged windows. This isn’t an area I would feel remotely interested trespassing into.

IMG_20151027_162825As I walked through the shopping areas, I kept hearing dogs barking loudly. At first, I thought it came from a nearly empty pet shop with pooches in cages. Yet, the barking remained and grew slightly louder as I rounded the back structure. There, I found a canal and a weathered, old gazebo with flaking paint and finishing.  There, an old woman sat and eyeing me suspiciously. An old man had curled up on the bench beside her, snoring loudly. I saw some more open windows into the H-shaped building, and decided to go up for a closer look. Again, nothing. Yet, the sounding of dogs barking seemed louder now. I followed the wall and came to an open window. Open may not be the right word. It was still enclosed by a metal-pull down window and decrepit looking slabs of plywood. The interior of the room was dark and shadowy. The barking grew louder, as did sound of scratching of paws against concrete. A big black canine ran out of the shadows. I instantly took a few steps back. As soon as I had, the dog hit the plywood barrier with such force, it buckled and splintered. Then, the mutt stood on its hind legs and forced its nose and snarling mouth through an opening of pull-down gate. This is when I decided to walk away. I had parked my electric moped at the Injoy Mall. I figured it was time to go back, maybe get some coffee at Starbucks, and then go home.

Later, I poked around online for any clues about Yanghu Plaza. Was place ever once a vibrant shopping center? As per the norm, I didn’t find much. If the Google Translate version Yanghu’s Baidu Encyclopedia entry can be trusted, construction on this plaza started back in 2003. At the time, the H-building would have been an impressive feature in Wujin’s cityscape. Now, it’s easily dwarfed by the new Wanda Realm hotel tower behind it.  So, this plaza is more than ten years old, and now it’s a decrepit ruin. From what I have read on Chinese urban development, this is par for the course. Some construction projects are thrown up with developers knowing full well that it ill not survive a decade or two. Yanghu Plaza seems to fit nicely into this category Plus, more often than not, the bulldozers are owned by the people who built the structure. Actually, when I was there, I did see construction workers ripping up sidewalks. So, does this mean that Yanghu Plaza days are numbered? The Baidu Encyclopedia also mentions that there are already redevelopment plans, but no timeline was actually mentioned. Anyway, it’s old by contemporary Chinese standards. Demolition may not be imminent, but it’s likely going to happen. Could be this year, could be the next. Until then, it will remain a ghost in the shadow of things larger, newer, and brighter at night.

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Nanjing Duck Blood and Vermicelli Soup

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Before moving to China, I spent a lot of time rationally thinking about where to look for a job. Eventually, I settled on Nanjing.  While my recruiter contacted potential colleges and universities, I decided to do a little research on the culture of the city. And that’s when I discovered duck blood soup 鸭血粉丝汤.

At the time, it sounded absolutely revolting, even though most websites were calling it a delicacy and were heaping emotive adjectives on weird ingredients — “Sumptuous duck intestines,” for example. To the average American, the ingredients really do sound disgusting. The vermicelli noodles are made from from sweet potato flour. There is a form of fried tofu in here to. That’s well and fine, but lets get to the fun parts!

I guess starting with the blood should suffice. Blood in general is a standard part of Chinese cuisine. In my time in the middle kingdom, I’ve eaten duck, pig, sheep, and goose blood. Typically, it’s shaped  into cubes and it looks like a brown form of tofu, and it tastes that way too, albeit a bit coppery and metallic. Blood pretty much tastes the same — just some, like duck, have stronger flavors that others, like pig. So, the blood is not the stock that makes up the broth at all; it’s a solid.

As for the other ingredients, there is no rest for the squeamish. This soup literally has most of a duck’s organs floating in it. That includes livers, lungs, intestines, gizzards, and more. There may be some variations, but rest assured that there will always be organ meat in this soup. And before somebody screams Barbaric! Keep this in mind: many Americans in the south enjoy eating chicken gizzards and hearts.  Liver and onions is a pretty standard dish. Pork rinds are deep fried pig skin, and so on and so forth.

I once told my father I would never eat something this repulsive.  The funny thing is this: the list of foods I said I would never eat in China keeps getting shorter and shorter.  I have a rule: never insult Chinese hospitality. If I am having dinner with a Chinese friend, and they are paying the bill, I will at least try what they order. After all, dishes are communal when dining out.  And that’s how a mischievous friend tricked me into trying this.

We were at some food street near Cultural Square 文化宫 in downtown Changzhou. He set the bowl down and simply said, “Try this. If you like it, then I will tell you what it is.” I already knew what it was, just by seeing the brown slabs floating in it. So, I gave it a try. Once I could see beyond my own cultural and culinary prejudices, I realized something. It wasn’t that bad at all.

Looking Up Marilyn Monroe’s Skirt

IMG_20160511_132818Certain moments in film are iconic enough to become ingrained into culture. These moments tend to outlive the media that spawned them, and people become aware of them without even knowing where they originated. The shower murder scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” for example.  Adolf Hitler, in the German picture Der Untergang, having a meltdown is another.  That became a viral meme on the Internet; people removed the subtitles, added their own, and then uploaded it to YouTube.  So, you can now see the worst megalomaniac in history become unhinged regarding everything from the iPad to J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Another example would be Marilyn Monroe wearing a white dress.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The scene goes like this: Marilyn Monroe steps on a sewer grate in New York City. A gush of air blows upward, and the iconic diva fights to hold the dress drown.  Originally, the scene came from 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Now, however, it’s gone on to become a cultural reference that pops up everywhere. Most recently, Daniel Defoe crossdressed as Monroe in a Snickers Superbowl ad. He scowled as he held down the white dress. He did not want to be indecently exposed.

These references can even show up in places like China. Two years ago, when I first moved to Wujin, I once saw a Chinese college student wearing a jean jacket; Monroe was airbrushed on the back throwing up gang signs. The word gangsta! was written out below. Sadly, I never took a picture.  Yet, I saw something even more absurd than that, recently.

It was at the RiseSun Manhattan plaza. It’s a relatively new shopping center in Xinbei. It’s not exactly filled with shops, and the last two times I went there, construction workers were still at work. Plus, new and different things were erected. One of them was a large statue of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic white dress.
This scene from the seven year itch has lived on because it’s tantalizing. It teases men with prospect a more private aspect of

Monroe, but the original film clip denies this at the same time. That makes the imagery all the more erotic — after all, it leaves men to their lewd imaginations. Only, this version of the white dress gets a little more raunchy. It leaves little to the imagination.  Yes, you can see Marilyn Monroe’s white panties.

I can imagine some potential critics right now, screaming, “Pervert! Why were you intentionally trying to look up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt?” That’s the thing, I wasn’t. This statue is makes the undergarments extremely visible. If you are standing behind this statue, you have no choice but to see them.IMG_20160511_132851

A Post for Tomb Sweeping

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“I was going to ask you if you felt anything. You know, like a haunted presence?”

A friend said this once while visiting Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei. We had just spent a lot of time looking at brutal and bloody depictions of torture. The temple has a room depicting diyu 地狱 aka Chinese Buddhist Hell. But that was more kitsch than off-putting.  My friend was referring more to the small mausoleum we had accidentally walked into. She tends to be a lot more spiritually sensitive than me. To be honest, I had no feelings of foreboding, but once I realized where we were, I decided to stop taking pictures.

I’m only posting photos here, because well, it seems appropriate.  Today is Qingming 清明节 in China — Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s a festival to honor the dead and prior ancestors. Comparing this to American Halloween would be a mistake. That’s just a day people dress up like monsters and have a party. It’s much more solemn than that. In fact, it’s much more similar to All Souls Day in Europe. In some countries, like Belgium, it’s a day to go to a graveyard and clean and respect your dearly departed’s burial plot.

Traditionally speaking, Qingming is sort of the same in spirit. How the dead are respected, however, might be a little more  different. The mausoleum my friend and I walked into was filled with pictures of the dead. Sometimes, flowers were near these pictures, and other instances sacrificial offerings. Quite often, this takes the form of food or fruit. You see this often in temples — especially altars devoted to Buddha. Only, here, you could also find bundles of “hell money.” Its a special type of Joss Paper printed to look like cash. More often, these bills look like the red 100 RMB note.  The idea is that you are giving a form of spiritual currency that they can spend and use in the afterlife.

I found this all quite fascinating to look at — until I recognized one subtle detail near some of these pictures. Behind glass, wooden boxes sat.  I quickly realized that these were likely urns filled with ashes. Human remains were all around my friend and I. While I had not had any sense of foreboding before, I was a little unsettled now. I was looking at this place from the perspective of a curious foreign tourist, and I realized it would be best to leave and leave the dead in peace.