Tag Archives: City Center

Mala Tang vs. Mala Xiang Guo

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“See, this is mala tang.” I pointed to the characters. At the time, my friend and I were hungry and we were on the third floor of the shopping center next to the clock tower where Nandajie intersects with Yanling Road in downtown Changzhou. We both were hungry, and we thought we were about to enter an pick-your-own-ingredients spicy soup shop. We went in, and it wasn’t that. We got bowls where our vegetables had been fried.

As it turns out, my mistake is a common one for Chinese language newbies. 麻辣烫 are the characters for málà tàng. 麻辣香锅 are the characters for málà xiāng guō. 麻辣 málà means “hot and numbing.” 烫 tàng is soup. 香锅 xiāng guō is “fragrant pot,” I think. As for the cuisine, they are very similar. You pick your ingredients, and you hand them to the cashier. They weigh your selections, charge you a price, and then they hand it to a cook. It’s the cooking process that is different.

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So, enough about the Chinese language, right? Was the food any good? I sort of liked it, but my friend didn’t and started picking out bits of red pepper, hunks of garlic, and other spices. She even wondered if the frying base liquid had meat broth in it. My friend also had an excellent point about the restaurant itself. Some of the spoons were not clean. As for the staff, they were using the same tongs for meat and vegetables. If you a are a vegetarian, this is a huge concern. The staff were also in the habit of setting the dirty bottoms of steel bowls on top of the ingredients. One staff member didn’t exactly have a good attention to cleanliness. For example, when a quail’s egg was accidentally dropped, she would either throw it into your bowl or back into the ingredient’s bowl. Those dropped bits of food hardly ever went into the trash. Since it was my first time with this type of Chinese food, I found myself intrigued, but I wouldn’t try it at that third floor eatery at Nandajie again. Actually, I would want to find a higher quality establishment, first.

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Nandajie’s Vape Shop

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“If cigarettes are heroin,” I said, “than vaping juice is methadone.”

“That’s a shit comparison,” a friend said. “Don’t go there.”

I still stood by the analogy then, and I still do. What I meant was this: e-cigarettes can be seen as a sort of replacement therapy. It’s meant to help reduce the health risks of nicotine addiction as one slowly transitions off it completely. Sure, some do not quit completely and simply exchange the method of delivery. Plus, e-cigs do not come with the carcinogens and tar that tobacco does. However, this is not meant to advocate one way or another on this issue.

I have been smoking since I was 13 and living in Belgium. Over the years, my habit has grown exponentially where I don’t feel comfortable admitting how many packs a day I was up to. It was that much. Living a life behind a computer as a English graduate student, a college writing instructor, and as a writer and editor over the last twenty years hasn’t really helped. Yet, this post is not meant to be about me, either.  Still, allow me to make this point. I have decided, recently, that it’s time for try, once and for all, to kick cigarettes for good. That’s where the above mentioned friend offered his help.

He took me to a vaping shop downtown. His help was twofold: first, he can speak Chinese, and second, he is very knowledgeable about the world of electronic cigarettes.  There, he was able to explain to me what atomizers do, and more. I eventually left there with the right gear and a complimentary bottle of nicotine liquid. As for my attempt to kick tobacco, it’s still a struggle. However, I can say the amount of smoking I have done has been decreasing. It will just take time.

As for the vape shop, it’s located on the bar street downtown. It’s where a Subway sandwich shop used to be. One of the large dance clubs is also nearby. As for the shop itself, the woman running it has no English abilities. So, it’s either speak Chinese or, like me, go there with a friend who can.

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Comb Lane

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The longer you wander around Changzhou, the more likely you will see colorful wooden combs. These hair care items often feature pictures of woman in traditional Chinese outfits, and sometimes they may feature other designs. Some of them may may look like they have ornate, hand carved details. So, some may have wondered, “Ok, what is the deal with the combs?”

They are a tradition in Changzhou that dates back 2000 years or so. Two industries have called the city home for a long, long, long time. One is textile manufacturing, and the other are those handcrafted combs. And, if you are a western guy thinking of impressing a Chinese girl on Valentines on August 8th, you might want to consider buying one as a gift. However, be careful, as these combs can cost you a fortune. Sure, you can find cheaper fakes all over the city, but a native Changzhou woman will likely be able to spot whether your gift is authentic or not. Or, who knows, a Chinese girlfriend might just be impressed that you know the history of combs in the first place?

However, if you don’t want to risk it, there is a place you can go if you are willing to spend the money. Trust me, it’s really not that hard to find — it’s right behind the Injoy Mall downtown. The buildings in comb lane feature traditional architecture. The part that faces the shopping center is all restaurants. The comb shops are on the other side that runs parallel to the canal.

This has a been one of the historic centers of production within Changzhou. If you were to walk through this small alley, you will see some some unrelated jewelry, but you might also catch an artisan at work, meticulously laboring over a comb one at a time. Whether to buy one as a romantically inclined gift is a choice you will have to make for yourself.

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Reclaiming Old China

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“Stop,” my aunt told me. “You’re ruining my fantasy of where you are going.” She said this, one evening, over a very delicious home cooked dinner of Italian food. For her, the word “China” elicited a vision of vast rice fields and farm workers wearing pointy hats. You know, the sort of thing people read about in Pearl S. Buck novels? I had just told her that Changzhou had two Walmarts and several McDonald’s, KFCs, and Starbucks. That made her grimace. This conversation happened in 2013 and before I left New Jersey. I had just signed a contract with a college in Wujin, and I was waiting out the clock and calendar until I departed. Of course, I had been obsessively Googling “Changzhou” in the meantime.

Nothing ever fully prepares you for arriving into the Middle Kingdom for the first time. You can obsessively net search as much as you like. My first impressions of Changzhou were one of mild shock. Here was a huge city that constantly seemed to be under construction, and high rise after high rise apartment building looked the same. Nearly no traditional architecture seemed to be anywhere. Via Facebook, friends and family back in America asked me to describe what I was seeing. I thought of my aunt and replied, “There is a profound difference between old China and modern China.” This was a non-judgmental statement, too. I was more concerned with new beginnings and making a living wage for the first time in my life than being opinionated.

Of course, I made it a habit to go out and look for history as much as I could. I wanted, and still do, to learn more about my new home. This earnest desire to learn history is often shared by Chinese people I meet. The only difference is that they have spent most of their lives here. I haven’t. There is something else to consider, too. Some foreigners tend to think Chinese business people are all about money and nothing else. These are expatriates who hardly leave their homes, their bars, the tables of their expensive western restaurants, and their small circle of friends. They trade in stereotypes, and most of the Chinese people I meet do not fit that narrow worldview.

For instance, there is a man named Kevin Cao 曹克文. A very good friend introduced me to him. Kevin welcomed me into his home as a matter of humble pride. Currently, he is in the wine importation business, and he can afford to live in any part of Changzhou he pleases. Instead of opting for a life of high tech luxury in one of the many new residential developments, he chose to live in a traditional Chinese home dating back hundreds of years.

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This would be in Minyuanli 民元里 in Changzhou’s city center. This area is a restored bit of traditional Chinese architecture tucked into the Future City development next to the Injoy Mall and not that far all the expensive dance clubs are located on bar street. Minyuanli used to be derelict, but now it has been reopened with expensive craft shops, a cafe, a tea house, and more. In the times I had wandered in there, I didn’t know that people like Kevin also called this place home. IMG_20160615_105816

There are three dwellings at Minyuanli, and Kevin’s home is just one. These homes are absolutely nothing to look at from the outside. In Kevin’s case, the exterior modestly hides something he cares very deeply about. He has put a lot of time, effort, and money into restoring the place and making it as authentically “old China” as possible. This means a lot of antique furniture and fixtures. Real antiques have been worked into the decor. Calligraphy and traditional ink brush works of art hang on the wall. Even the stones in the open air sections of the home have been replaced with care. Having a home like this requires a lot of constant attention and a lot of time replastering walls. Something always needs to be fixed, but you can see in his smile how meaningful it is to him.

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As he, my friend, and I sat around drinking tea, I sort of forgot where I was. The peace and quiet of this place was not that far removed the constant car horns, traffic, and bustle of Lanling Road. Outside of his place, you can sometimes hear construction when you are standing in the Minyuanli compound. Here, things were tranquil, relaxed. It was very easy to see why Kevin was so quietly passionate about this place — why he finds solace in caring for it and its upkeep.

 

This was further reinforced after I left. My friend drove me back to Xinbei. I still had afternoon and evening English classes to teach. My friend and I discussed food, heavy metal, roasted Hong Kong duck, and Kevin’s home. In the back of my mind, though, I thought about the dynamic between what people call “old” and “modern” China. Why was I thinking of this? We were stuck in a traffic jam.

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Hong Kong Roasted Goose

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Living in Changzhou and trying to eat locally means you will eventually try things you wouldn’t back home. For me, duck and goose were marvelous revelations. I simply never had them before moving to China, and once I tried both with Chinese friends, it was love at first bite. So, when a good friend recommended a tiny roast goose restaurant, I desperately wanted to try it. And trust me, this friend really, really knows food. He’s a professional.

Weeks went by without me trying out the place, however. Apparently, the place is so good, it always is packed during Saturday lunch. I decided to take a different approach: wait till Monday morning and go right after the doors open. That plan worked.

So, was the meal as good as my friend promised? Yes. For 38 RMB, I was served goose, rice, and side dishes of vegetables. Half of a hard boiled goose egg also come on the plate, but I didn’t care for it all that much. Think of a chicken egg, but bigger and with a strong “game” flavor.  The star of the dish, of course, was the goose itself. Both the texture and flavor are similar to beef. However, badly prepared goose can be extremely greasy. This wasn’t. It was both juicy and tender. This is a Hong Kong specialty, and the manager explained to me that his cook comes from there. It’s really important. For example, try eating Italian food when the kitchen staff were not trained by an Italian or an Italian American. My only complaint, however, was I found myself wishing the portion size was a bit bigger.

The place is also convenient. The menu has pictures. It’s close to the Injoy Shopping center downtown. Cross the street and go to Youdian Road 邮电路. This is the street where all the phone markets are. Basically, you take your first right until you see the place pictured below.

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Nevermind The Gorilla

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Construction changes everything in Changzhou very quickly, but nothing has been more of a disruptive change than the ongoing subway / metro / underground construction. For those who don’t know, this project is slated for completion in a couple of years. It’s not going away anytime soon. Last I heard, Line 1 will be done in 2019, and Line 2 will be coming in 2020. Hundreds of expats, business execs, and English teachers will likely have passed through Changzhou by the time this ultimate urban convenience will be finished.

One of the biggest casualties has been Wenhuagong 文化宫 aka “Culture Palace” downtown and near Hongmei Park 红梅公园. Downtown’s Christian Church is nearby, as is a Confucian Temple and the antique / collector’s market. Right now, the the square is surrounded by construction barriers, and during the day, you hear lots of excavators and heavy industrial machines hard at work.

When I first came to Changzhou in 2014, it looked like a largely empty city square. with a few benches, a water fountain that was never really turned on, and a Chinese flag flapping in the breeze. It was a deceptive sight. The bustle of Cultural Palace was completely subterranean. Changzhou has a number of sunken retail spaces. These are underpasses beneath the streets. Downtown has them, Xinbei has them, and to weaker extent, so does Hutang in Wujin.

The one beneath Wenhuagong / Cultural Palace seemed particularly labyrinthine at first. Even during the day, this place seemed dark with splashy neon advertising boutique shopping. There was even in McDonald’s down there. There was also a circular — but sunken one level down — outdoor food court.    And then, everything changed seemingly overnight.

One Saturday morning, I tried going to the McDonald’s for a Sausage Egg McMuffin; the fast food joint was dark with a bicycle D-lock on the door. . But, then again, that wasn’t the only thing that was a little off putting. Not only had all the shops been vacated, but somebody smashed all the windows, and shards of glass littered the floor. Honestly, I wondered if some sort of riot had erupted that led to mass looting. The place looked that destroyed. A week later, access to the underground shopping area had been completely sealed off.

Many months later, I learned this had all been part of the planned subway construction. Wenhuagong / Culture Palace will be the underground’s downtown central station. It will be were Lines 1 and 2 will intersect and where commuters will interchange. When it’s completed, the place will be likely be flashier, modern, and high tech as ever. Still, it will never be what it once was, and that’s not a complaint. It’s just an observation. Nothing will ever be what it once was. I also do not have many photos of what the place used to be. I just have a picture of a pissed off gorilla guarding a door at the bottom of set of stairs. Again, another part of Changzhou has faded into oblivion in the name of urban development. And honestly, like before, that’s not a complaint either. It’s just an observation.

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This is an old photo. Currently, Culture Palace / Wenhuagong / 文化宫 looks even more like an excavated construction pit.

 

Sylvia Plath and The Daddy Statue

Marble heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

big as a Frisco seal

 

and a head in the freakish Atlantic

— Sylvia Plath

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

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

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

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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.