Tag Archives: Jiangsu

Where Movies are Made in Changzhou

During the Chinese Civil War, the Battle of Pingjin was a pivotal moment. The People’s Liberation Army had forced the Nationalist Guomingdang Forces to begin to retreat in certain parts of Northern China — Hebei province in particular. The nationalists would eventually, according to history, lose the war. However, let us not wax poetic on that. Let us delve into something more trivial. As in America, historic warfare is rife for picking as cinematic content in China.

The movie I am screenshotting bares the English moniker Liberation and it tells the story set during the Battle of Pingjin. While I have not seen the movie, the trailer promises Michael Bay styled action where explosives go boom and guns go bang many, many times. I must admit, this is on my to-buy list the next time I visit one of Changzhou’s sole remaining DVD stores. Liberation had a highly limited release schedule in American theaters, but saying that it made it’s way off the Chinese mainland actually says a lot. So, count me as curious.

While the story is set in the greater area around Beijing and Tianjin, it was filmed nowhere near either city. It was actually filmed in Changzhou. The West Tai Lake / Xitaihu region of Wujin is home to a movie lot, and this film was made using those facilities.

This movie lot is a stop on the B15 bus route, and it costs 30 RMB to enter the place and go for a stroll. Doing so feels a little otherworldly. You can actually see external sets that look like they would absolutely fit in with a movie like Liberation. However, this gets more into the nature of Xitaihu. West Tai Lake is currently an underdeveloped region of the city, but a lot of investment is going on here. What is currently here does not equate with the urban planning that suggests what this place may be 10 to 15 years from now. However, if you are thinking of present day Xitaihu — imagine this crammed urban-looking movie lot surrounded by a lot of rural, lakeside, open spaces. It’s like a non-sequitur. Then again, that contrast is what gives this part of Wujin it’s unique character.

There area is not just dedicated to 1940s and Chinese Civil War era exteriors. Other film and TV projects have been filmed out this way.

And these projects do relate to other periods within Chinese history. While a lot of the varied scenery are external sets, there are studio sound stages here as well, and they are likely not open to the public.

The West Tai Lake Yingshi Film and Television Base actually has two entrances: one for tourists and one for professionals actually using the site to produce content. The western tourist entrance is actually closer to the B15 bus stop.

Hunting Yankee Hats in Qishuyan

Curtesy of the British TV show Spitting Image

If there is an utterly trivial thing I often complain about, it is about having chronically silly hair — like in competition with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson when it comes to crimes against geometry. I blame Chinese barbers for that. Johnson and Trump, however, have nobody to blame but themselves. For me, it has gotten so bad I have actively thought about shaving my head and being done with being a foreigner in Chinese barbershops . In that regard, I would stop being a Chinese hair stylist’s art project against my express instructions as to what I want. Seriously, I have been photographed and featured on their Wechat moments more times I care to think about.

Yet, I really don’t want to shave my head, and as a result I have developed an obsession for buying baseball hats. However, many of my follicle-challenged male friends complain that I am being childish. They point to their receding hairlines and my lack of one. They tell me I should be content with Chinese barbers butchering my hair and should not hide the resulting crap-do under a cap. To put it simply: Stop complaining! At least you still have hair! Should I should rock out whatever avant garde style Changzhou barbers have bestowed upon me — against my wishes — in public? Um, no. No, I will not.

Typically, though, I’m looking for New York Yankees hats. It’s not because I’m into baseball, per se. It’s more of a regional pride thing. I’m not from New York City at all, but New Jersey is next door, and as I often point out, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia have a lot culturally in common when it comes to food, extremely rude language, and much more. Additionally, the Yankees logo has evolved beyond sports and has become a global fashion symbol — and that makes them easy to find in most Chinese commodities markets. Though, when I go on a hat quest, I may not always leave with NYC related merch. This was a case recently in the former district of Qishuyan in eastern Wujin..

The market in question was tucked away off of Yanling Road. This is the same Yanling that cuts straight through downtown. In fact, taking the #7 bus route from Hongmei Park to this part of Qishuyan is essentially a straight drive with no turns. I left the area to return to Xinbei on the #99, which terminates at Dinosaur Park. The plaza itself seems to be a reminder of how commodity markets are not the bustling places they were many years ago.

While there are empty, abandoned, decrepit-looking booths and stalls here, there is still some life. Not everybody relies on Taobao and the Internet, I guess.

So, how did my quest for NYC-related merchandise go? I only found one thing.

The glitter on the bill was a deal breaker for me. I have no glitter in my soul! Just utter, complete, and all-consuming darkness! Wearing this would be flamboyantly out of character for me. Yet, I did find a silly hat nearby. It was highly tempting.

It took all of my will power to NOT buy the pink one in the middle. I mean, I almost caved and just had to leave that particular vendor before my penchant for and love of absurdity could win me over.

I left with arguably a lamer hat. Still, it did do its required job of hiding my chronically silly-looking hair.

Where in Changzhou to Buy Trees

As far as I know, nobody has woken wide-eyed from a dream and stammered, “I need to find a place that sells plant sculptures in the shape of cartoon animals!” Then again in the 1990s, I have had a number of university dormitory roommates complain that I talk loudly while slumbering after a night of drinking. Apparently, I once blurted “My name ain’t Big Dick De La Rocka!” And, that was between heavy, throat-ripping snores. So, who knows?We can safely assume I wasn’t a very good college roommate.

As for the aforementioned plant sculptures shaped like cute animals, I actually have found a place that might sell those in Changzhou. You can also buy fruit-baring orange trees there. Bonsai? Yes, those too. My is guess if you needed to find a tree, a type of plant, or seeds to plant and cultivate something, you’d find it there.

I am speaking of the Xiaxi Flower and Tree Market in Wujin. This is not the part of Wujin that most Changzhou expats know. That would be either Hutang or the College Town. This is more in the Xitaihu region down by the lake; yet, it is also not exactly the stomping grounds that Wycombe Abbey teachers work at and call home. This whole area dates back to the 1990s — incidentally, the same time I lived in West Virginia and blurted nonsensical, surreal word salad while sleeping off a drinking bender.

Getting here wasn’t actually easy. I took the B15 bus to Jiazezhen — the community near the Flower Expo park and Ge Lake / West Tai Lake (same body of water, two different public names) and walked like three kilometers. Jiazezhen is actually the terminus of the B15 route. There is likely a bus combination to get out to the Xiaxi Flower and Tree Market, but saying this area is in a remote part of Changzhou is not putting it lightly. And, I actually haven’t found that route. The public transport infrastructure in this part of the city is fundamentally lacking, which is odd since the market itself is an AAA-rated tourist spot by Chinese government. However, I digress. Let us run a battery of questions!

Can you actually buy orange trees here?

Yes, you can!

Can you see fork lifts moving trees around with some dude standing in a very precarious, very dangerous position?

Yes, you can!

Can you find a bonsai to enhance the nature vibe of your urban living space?

Yes, you can!

Well, how about those plant sculptures that look like cute cartoon animals? You know, the super adorable chia pets that just happen to be very large?

Um, no!

Those look actually like rejected props from horror movies that involve zombie animals. I remember the Resident Evil franchise and their undead dogs rather well. Consider this horse trying to give you the evil eye.

Kidding aside, people who like to garden and cultivate plants might find the Xiaxi Flower and Tree Market a wonderland. If you are one of those people, here’s the address. It’s likely going to be a super expensive Didi trip, a very long walk after getting off a bus with multiple interchanges, or a piece of cake if you can con a Chinese best friend into driving you there after promising to put gas into their car’s tank.

China-fied Thai

China-fied is a silly term I sometimes throw around when foreign food enters the Middle Kingdom and loses authenticity in the name of getting Chinese butts into restaurant seats. I am not using this in a derogatory way. One can easily argue that a lot of ethnic food in America has been Americanized.

For example, Italian-American and Italian cuisine are not exactly the same. To that end, chicken parm is not something you’ll find in Italy because it was created in the USA — I know this because a good friend of mine is an Italian professional chef and restauranteur, and on multiple occasions he has gleefully pointed out how the dishes my grandmother, mother, and aunts served me growing up were absolutely not Italian. He also accuses Italian-American meatballs of being way too big and meaty. The nerve! I hope the ghost of my grandmother will not try to haunt him! Anyway, let me get to my actual point.

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Lotus Thai is a good example of something China-fied. This restaurant is on the uppermost dining floor of Wujin’s Wuyue shopping mall. It has the semblance of Thai food, but it’s something that maybe purists would likely want to avoid due to possible disappointment.

Whenever I go to a Thai place for the first time, the first thing I order would be beef yellow curry. Simply put, it’s usually on every Thai menu and it offers an easy point of comparison to other restaurants. So, how does Lotus Thai stack up? Most other yellow curries I have had limited themselves to meat, potatoes, and sauce. This had a wider variety of vegetables, and the curry itself had a thicker, creamier texture. So, perhaps not totally legit? Still, I had no problem finishing this off with my dining partner. Then, there is this.

The chicken satay skewers were decent — not great, just decent. The other thing: I have normally seen satay served with with a peanut-based dipping sauce. None came with this. Still, I had no complaint with how the chicken was cooked or seasoned. There is one other huge indicator that a menu has been China-fied.

The menu, in English, lists this as “Thai Charcoal Roasted German Salted Pork.” There’s some verbal gymnastics! Whatever. And don’t get me wrong, I actually liked this, despite constantly laughing at the name. But this get’s to a deeper point. The menu boasts Malay, Singaporean, and Vietnamese dishes. This speaks more, again, to attempting to get Chinese asses in seats more than trying to authentically represent a national cuisine. Simple put, Lotus Thai is totally China-fied.

As I said, this is not necessarily meant as a criticism. The food was okay, and two people eating four dishes and drinking a beer a piece resulted in a 228 final bill. So long as you know this in advance, and you’re eating there more out convenience because you’re shopping at Wujin Wuyue, you might not totally be disappointed. Additionally, I’d be willing to return to try other things on their menu out of curiosity. Oh, and by the way, there is some interesting Chinglish in the menu. Consider the following. The English text reads “Charcoal Roasted Pork Neck.” So, please find the pork! Pretty please?

Some Urban Art in Zhonglou

As somebody who enjoys looking at art, there is a special place in my heart for graffiti — especially murals. It does have cultural resonance across urban America, but it’s especially the case in New York City, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. For example, Asbury Park (where I used to live before coming to China) definitely doesn’t feel like a city; it’s a beach town, but the ocean front features a fair share graffiti. A lot of it has remained over the years and is just part of Asbury Park’s individual character.

This is a phenomenon not necessarily seen in China as much, and that is most definitely the case for Changzhou. There is one part of the city, though, that has had it’s fair share of it over the years. It’s the undersides of the bridges on both sides of Jaingsu University of Technology in Zhonglou.

My most recent visit to reminded me of a fundamental truth regarding urban street art, but I’ll get to that point after a few pictures. These are a selection and is by no way a comprehensive compiling.

The greatest compliment you can pay a graffiti artist is to take pictures of their work. Urban street art, especially in the USA, can be a highly temporary thing. For example, the pieces currently beneath the two canal bridges near JUT are largely not the same as when I first found these two spots years ago. First of all, graffiti is against the law — the artist is vandalizing somebody else’s property. So, colorful tags and murals can often disappear when authorities whitewash and paint over them. But that’s not the only threat. Often, the biggest nuisance to artists are actually other artists.

In this particular culture, deliberately painting over somebody else’s work is considered the highest sign of disrespect. Doing stuff like this in urban America can lead to actual fights and other crime — never mind that the art itself as actually illegal.

Somebody painted the black mask on the original above and ruined it. Trust me, I know what this piece used to look like. Thankfully, I do have pictures of this area from a few years ago in my photo archive. The travesty of the above makes me actually want to go back and find those pics to see what was. But here is another truth: years from now, this area will likely mutate again and look different again or may even have all the pieces removed. Such is the nature of this type of art.

These are NOT Lanzhou Shaved Noodles

Some staple vegetables and fruits easily have cross-cultural appeal. To that end, consider the tomato. It can effortlessly show up in multiple cuisines. For example, I grew up eating noodles in a tomato-based soup as part of my mother’s Italian-American home cooking. That was minestrone. It is not by coincidence, then, that one of my favorite dishes in China would be 刀削面 daoxiaomian — a reliable staple at Lanzhou noodle joints across the Middle Kingdom. It’s simple: if there are tomatoes and noodles involved, I am more than likely going to like the result. This was confirmed for me recently while dining in the basement of Global Harbour in Xinbei. I was having lunch at the above pictured 啊利茄汁面 aliqiezhimian. It’s a place that specializes in noodles and vegetables served in a tomato broth.

On their menu, the above is 茄汁牛肉面 qiezhiniuroumian. No, a soup lover might like at this and ponder, well, how is that different than Lanzhou shaved noodles (daoxiaomian)? And that would be a legitimate question. For some tomato soup is tomato soup is tomato soup! Who cares? Well, let me show you the math here.

Let’s start with the most important part: the noodle. Lanzhou shaved noodles are thicker, denser, and more chewy. These are a little bit lighter without going to the thinness of spaghetti, stretched noodles, or vermicelli / angel hair. On to the next component. . .

The beef is different. Lanzhou shaved noodles usually employs it as paper thin slices, lean slices. If you go to a Lanzhou joint that has the hongshourou variety, that’s just a type of beef that’s usually been braised in a soy sauce or something like it. The meat is still in some sliced variety most time. This place in Global Harbour has it cubed. The cut of beef has the same consistency of something that might have been braised, but the cubed orientation makes you think you’re actually getting more chewable meat. I have always felt that Lanzhou places are usually skimpy.

Lanzhou shaved noodles have a larger variety of vegetables. Besides some errant meng bean spouts and bok choy, the main vegetable here are mushrooms. (And to nerds that want to argue that mushrooms are type of fungus and not a vegetable, I will counter with this question: Who cares? Technically you are right, but who really cares about your hair splitting?)

For some reason I have yet to figure out, mushrooms and meat are perfect companions. They beautifully compliment each other. I think it has something to do with the texture of both and how they can soak in a good marinade. If you want more vegetables with tomato broth and noodles, Lanzhou shaved noodles may be better for you. I do love a plethora of vegetables floating in my soup, but I just enjoyed the boiled-down simplicity of this of this a lot. I am not saying one is better than the other; I’m just explaining why I liked this and would have it for lunch again sometime during a future revisit to Global Harbour. Yeah, and about that shopping mall.

There is no map location I can drop for it. If you enter the characters 啊利茄汁面 into Baidu Maps, you will get the above, deserted store front in Wujin’s college town as the sole representative. The Global Harbour location does not even come up, so it seems that this is the only iteration of this franchise in Changzhou — if you go by Baidu Maps results. Rest assured, it’s in the “B District” of that absurdly large mall, and it’s on the basement level nearest to Global Harbour’s subway station. While I highly enjoyed eating this, I also have to stress that I would only go here for lunch if I am at this plaza for other reasons. It’s solid, but it will not take your breath away, culinarily speaking.

Changzhou Station Over a Century

If you think about it technically, the Changzhou Railway Station in Tianning has a history that’s longer than the People’s Republic of China. Planning for the Shanghai-Nanjing line actually dates back to the end of the Qing Dynasty. This was a time when China was opening to the west and trying to catch in terms of industrialization. According to the Baidu version of Wikipedia, this planning began in 1898. The relatively small, first iteration of the station was built in 1907, and it had two platforms. Once the Qing fell, Chinese founding father Sun Zhongshan actually did a whistle stop to wave at cheering crowds as he made his way to Nanjing. There’s a memorial hall in Changzhou dedicated to this. I thought it might be interesting to see a pictorial evolution over the years. Some of these are photos of photos I took at the Changzhou Museum, and some of them, I took personally — specifically the last three.

My First Beef Wellington

Ignorant American: British food is absolutely and totally gut wrenching disgusting!

Average Brit: Well then, it sounds like you’ve never had a proper beef wellington!

I would imagine that this snippet of conversation could have happened in High Wycombe, West Ruislip, Upper Heyford, or the greater Oxford area, but then again, that’s the part of the United Kingdom I know the most and have a personal connection to. That’s were I lived. In this instance, the Ignorant American is likely a armed service member or one of their dependents. It’s likely the 1980’s and they just ate at a Wimpy burger and are quite sad and on tearful crying bit that it’s not McDonalds or Burger King. (Trust me, I had to deal with these spoiled countrymen while spending part of my youth there and, later, my university vacation life in Buckinghamshire.) American corporate fast food really didn’t start invading Europe until the 1990s.

The Wimpy bar is coming back… and could soon be in a high street near you

To the average non-Brit, some UK food can look disgusting. Beans on toast? I once showed a picture of that to a Chinese friend, and they retorted, “Is that vomit on toast?” Yes, the optics are not optimal, but I would never turn away a plate of beans on toast — especially if there’s a bit of cheese sprinkled on top. If we are talking about the optics of so something not being optimal, there is always eel pie.

I have never tried this. I don’t think I could, either. In all my years in China, I sampled a number of things — usually in hotpot — that I would say I normally wouldn’t eat in America. Organ meat would be chief among that. For me, the above is roughly about the same has Zhou Hei Ya duck — it has eyes, and I don’t like eating things that stare at me.

Getting back to the idea of a proper beef wellington, I realized recently that in all the years I lived in or visited the United Kingdom, I have never tried it. Not once. And here is something else crazy: I sampled it for the first time in Changzhou. For a while, I thought this was something that you could maybe dine on in Shanghai or Nanjing, but not here. Well, apparently you can.

Houde Steak is located in the new Cultural Plaza in Xinbei. This whole area is in a greater cluster that also includes the stadium, the city government, the theater, and the museum. Houde is not your typical Chinese steak place that sells a slab of inedible rubber on a sizzling iron plate. No, Houde serves good cuts of meat that’s been minimally plated with like one carrot, one tine bit of broccoli, and one cube of potato.

So, it was here that I lost my beef wellington virginity. The below cost about 198 RMB on the menu. Obviously, this is one that I cut in half.

The theory of a wellington goes as follows. A chef sears all the sides of cut of beef. Then, that gets rolled in pate. Afterwards, it’s re-rolled in Parma ham and subsequently wrapped in pastry dough. It goes into the oven and gets baked. Of course, I’m likely oversimplifying everything. I can testify, though, that it’s juicy and delicious when done right, and Houde has seem to have done this correctly. But then again, Houde’s wellingtons (I’ve tried it more than once) are the only ones I’ve actually had. So, I don’t know if it’s proper or not. I do have the rest of my life to thoroughly and scientifically try other ones and see for myself. I’m assuming spending the rest of your life questing after the most proper wellington would not be a bad endeavor.

As four Houde, despite the minimal plating, there are other issues to consider here. I could not find a location for this place on Baidu Maps, so I’m unable to post that. Just go to the basement level of the Changzhou Cultural Plaza and you’ll eventually find it. Also, the ordering system involves scanning a table QR Code, and annoyingly enough, the menu itself is totally in Chinese with no English. You have to go off the pictures, or you can feed screenshots into a translation app like I did. All that being said, I’d go back again, and I have several times.

Timeless and from Changzhou

Does this sound familiar? Somebody gets sick from a highly contagious disease, and the patient is told to go into isolation for their greater good of their community. Everybody around the infected person is told to quarantine, because they too might be infected. Only, the patient’s newlywed husband refuses to follow the advice of doctors. He demands that he must stay to tend her and nurse her back to health. She does recover, but because newlywed refused to follow the doctor’s instructions, he contracts the illness from his betrothed and dies.

This sounds like a COVID-19 tragedy — especially if you are American where the disease is still out of control. But, it is not. Actually, it’s a Chinese story, and it has nothing to do with COVID-19. It is a plot of a play written originally in English by a Changzhou native, Hong Shen, more than a hundred years ago. It was originally performed at Ohio State University. In 2013, the university revived the play with a multicultural casting. The disease in question was the plague. The story goes like follows.

This play, “The Wedded Husband,” was about much more than just dealing with an epidemic. It was also about the conflicts of traditional Chinese values confronting a modernizing world. It tells the tale of an arranged marriage. The perspective husband is a bumbling idiot, as he is both childish and a simpleton.

Here, you see him more engaged with sexy fan dancers than the adults in the room.

And his future wife? She wants none of that noise.

These screen captures come YouTube, by the way.

She knows she has been promised her father’s close friend. Even though she loves somebody else, she’s willing to accept her duty and do as her father commands. It’s a basic case of Chinese filial piety.

Yet, she faints during the wedding ceremony. She’s whisked away, and the diagnosis is not a broken heart, it’s the plague that’s hit China. Throughout the script, plague has always been in “The City” and not the small town where they are at. I know this is wild extrapolation, but I never saw a Changzhou-Shanghai conflict if I actually hadn’t before. Changzhou, and every thing else that isn’t Shanghai, are just mere provinces. They are The City. We who don’t live there are the The Wilderness. It’s not a big part of a this play, but is a part of living in China and near Shanghai is to be constantly told that you are always inferior to Shanghai. Anyhow moving on.

The play ends with a reversal. The widow now has a chance at a wedding she wanted from the get go: to a man she actually loved. Only, now, she refuses that as well, citing Chinese tradition and a sense of duty to a man she never liked. She now feels the need to honor a guy who nursed her back to health and gave his own life doing so.

The psychological entanglements here are epic. Hong Shen, as a modernizing dramatist wanting to pull the Chinese stage away from traditional opera, once professed a desire to become his native country’s Henrik Ibsen. Besides possibly “Pyr Gynt,” most of this Norwegian’s plays were gritty and real and tackled issues facing everyday people. A play like “The Wedded Husband” definitely shows that influence — gritty and real — goes a long way in doing exactly that.

There is a very tiny memorial hall dedicated Hong’s family. It’s in an alley next to Hongmei Park. It’s in this hall that I learned of “The Wedded Husband” and the Changzhou native that sought to revolutionize Chinese drama.

COVID-19 is a generational issue. It has affected so many lives across the world that one blogger could never totally assess its impact. It’s an issue that historians for generations to come will be examining. Living through it has been hell. A lot of expats have experienced this pain both in China and then in our native countries. Finding this play gave me some comfort that outbreaks have happened before, and people do find a way through them. And, most importantly, dealing with the corona virus is not new. Fighting disease is a story as old as being human.

See the source image

A Farewell to an F-Word

“This has all happened before, and it will happen again.”

The above quote comes from Battlestar Galactica, which is one of the greatest sci-fi TV shows of all time. Humans build robots. Robots rebel and almost kill off all of humanity. Humanity recovers and builds more robots. Like shampoo, rinse and repeat. History can be cyclical, and patterns do repeat themselves in different contexts from eon to epoch. Just give it time, and a certain type of event will repeat itself. I was thinking about this recently in a much more silly and mundane context.

I took the above photo recently. It’s of a YMD supermarket’s grand openning near Hohai University’s north gate. Specifically, the grocery store is on the second floor, and you have to take an escalator to get in. The ground floor is a fresh market where vendors sell meat and vegetables.

As of this writing, I am less than one month away from my seven-year anniversary of moving from America to Changzhou. The last five have been in Xinbei when I took my current job at Hohai. In all of those years, there has been something weird about this exact retail location. Supermarkets have opened here to much fanfare, and then they go out of business inevitably. They get gutted and remodeled and they reopen. I don’t know why, exactly. Part of me would like to wager that having a grocery store selling meat and vege above a fresh market that sells the same is a bit of a redundancy. By my calculation, I think this is the third or fourth time a supermarket has had a grand opening here while I have been around.

There is also another reason why this YMD caught my attention. It’s an end of an era to an extent. This part of Xinbei used to be home to one of the most infamous bits of Chinglish in Changzhou history.

The English name of the previous supermarket is common misspelling of a frequently used swear word — one euphemistically referred to as “The F-Word.” Chinglish happens in many ways, and this instance is by using the Pinyin for 福客多 fu ke duo and turning that into Fuked Mart. It’s purely accidental — just like when I learned to never use the word shabby while teaching because it sounds like a nasty Chinese vulgarity. Well, now Fuked is gone forever. YMD — which has no scandalous misinterpretations that I can think of — has taken its place. But, seriously, when it comes to this real estate location and supermarkets, Battlestar Gallactica’s logic still applies. This has happened before, and it will happen again. I get the feeling that YMD’s future at this location is Fuked.