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.
I have loved skateboarding since I was like 12. I have a board, but honestly, I haven’t ridden it in years. To be honest, I’m in my mid-forties, and I somehow managed to put my midlife crisis behind me — although, I do own a couple fake leather jackets, and you can only pry those away from me from my cold dead fingers. So, why don’t I ride anymore? It has more to do with just getting old and the fact that gravity can sometimes hurt and the resulting ouchies and booboos will linger for days. I’m out of shape, and I do not have the resiliency if a 20 year old. It’s a fundamental law of skateboarding: you will fall down. You will wipe out.
Also, there really doesn’t seem anywhere to ride around in Changzhou. Qingfeng Park had an X-Games styled park, but the metal ramps became spotted with rust years ago and it became unsafe to ride. Foundcity Plaza in Xinbei also had a little park, but that’s long since gone. The only place left seems to be a concrete snake run in Wujin. So, I was excited — even though I really don’t skate anymore — to see that downtown’s Laimeng was putting a concrete course in its basement.
It seemed like sheer simplicity. You have a few transitions, a slide rail, and some flat banks.
Sounds good, right? If you sense a “but” coming, you would be absolutely correct. This park seems to be Changzhou skateboarding history repeating itself. By that, I mean the problem that troubled the Qingfeng X Games Park.
It is unsafe and unfit to ride. I don’t know if they used a low-quality concrete for this, but the riding surface is riddled with potholes. The above photo shows one of many. However, the chalk outline makes me think that people know this and the park will be fixed. However, I do know that Qingfeng’s X Games Park had lots dangerous rust spots. Those were never fixed. So, count me as not optimistic.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
Much of Changzhou’s history and heritage is an intellectual one. For more than a thousand years, this city has produced scholars who did well taking the grueling imperial exams. Even more, there have been luminaries from other parts of China who have passed through Changzhou — the poet Su Dongpo, for example. Many of these people lived in the same part of the city, too.
Qingguo Lane is a long, old alleyway connecting Jinling and Heping roads in downtown part of Tianning. It used to be a time saving shortcut when walking. Interestingly enough, there were historical plaques on the walls in Chinese and in English explaining what things were and who lived there. That was about the extent of it, however. None of the former residences of linguists like Zhao Yuanren or Zhou Youguang were open to the public, for example. Zhou helped create Pinyin, by the way. It would make sense to have the place open as a tourist attraction.
And that’s what seems to be going on with Qingguo Lane. Access to this alley has be blocked off for a long time, now. Construction and renovation has been ongoing. For a time, I couldn’t quite figure out what exactly was going on there. Then, one day, I took a stroll on the opposite side of the canal Qingguo is adjacent to. I wasn’t able to see much except some of the more decrepit structures have been rebuilt. I did catch a glimpse through the window of one former residence though. I saw a statue of what I suspect is Zhou Youguang. This strengthens and bolsters my suspicions that the alleyway is being turned into a real historical attraction. So, this is definitely something new. Only, I haven’t been able to figure out when the expected completion date will be.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I moved to Changzhou two and a half years ago, Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park 人民公园 was in a bit of a shambles. While it sported a yellow paint job and the architecture of a temple, it really didn’t function like one. Every time I peered in, I saw large tables of most older people drinking tea or hot water. A lot of the paint was peeling, and people often complained of leaking roof. Then, one day, the government shut the place down for renovation and a structural overhaul.
For some months now, that rejuvenation project has ended. Now, if you got to the park and peer in, it actually looks like a temple complete with a golden Buddha, stone statues of what look to be lohans, and a shelf of buddhist reading material. Of course, there also seems to be a tea counter in there. Plus, the tables with the hot water carafes are still there two. So, Chongfa now looks more like a temple, but I haven’t seen anybody actually use it as one yet. So, you can say the space has been multi-purposed now. That is not a complaint either. It’s nice to see that place is being better looked after now.