Xitaihu is currently one of of the more underdeveloped areas of Changzhou‘s southern Wuin district. It’s out by a lake with two names: Lake Ge and West Tai Lake. For years, both the municipal and Wujin district government has been trying to entice international business to relocate out here. So, I decided to take a walk around one of the signature science and technology industrial parks.
Criteria for what sets humanity from the rest of the world certainly has changed over time. Consider the act of tool making, for example. It was largely thought this was an act that only humans did — until Jane Goodall spent a lot of time hanging out with primates. She noticed a chimp using a blade of grass to get termites out of a hill and into his mouth. That was in 1960, and since then, other bits of tool-making evidence has popped up in the primate world.
Okay, how about the inhumanity of murder and waging war? Evidence of that has been discovered, too, and I don’t mean rather fun movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Actually, this goes back to Jane Goodall, again. In 1974, she witnessed the dissolution of a tribe into what would become The Gombe Chimpanzee War.
This was a conflict that lasted about two years. Goodall noticed how the death of the central alpha male led to the disintegration of the tribe. Feuding factions jockeyed for who got to become the next alpha. Sounds positively Shakespearean doesn’t it? Clearly, humans are not the only animals with profoundly dark sides.
Chimps are not always the warm, fuzzy, cute animals many of us would like to think. Little did former hack actor and American president Ronald Reagan know that some apes can rip a limb off and and beat something to death with it. I am guessing that he didn’t have to deal with any such incidents on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo back in 1951. So, tool making and reigning death upon enemies are no longer considered uniquely human.
What is left, then? It’s an act of human vanity to ask how we “are better” than the rest of the animal kingdom, but it is a necessary intellectual pursuit. It’s the only way we really can explain our humanity. Definitions are hard to establish in a void of other references. So, let’s go to one of the other oft mentioned delineation points: art.
Can we assume that the above painting was made by a spastic monkey? Think about it! Force feed a chimp enough high-octane espresso and give that primate access to cans of paint and a canvas. You could plausibly suggest that the above could result. So, did a monkey do this while in a poo-flinging rage?
Um. No. It’s actually American abstract artist Jackson Pollock — who was definitely not a chimpanzee. None of his work can be attributed to poo-flinging rages. Yet, he did throw and drip a lot of paint around. As revolutionary as his work was, it now seems commonplace. I mean, I can see knockoff attempts at abstract art in the hallways of high-end hotels around China. You can also see similar work for sale cheaply at art school dropout yard sales.
So is this a Jackson Pollock?
Is it the work of a failed art student ?
Is this something that’s hanging in the posh corridor of a Chinese hotel catering to international business men?
I neither confirm nor deny that. Actually, it’s quite possible.
But, one thing is certain.
It’s the work of Congo the Chimp, and he was once a sensation in the 1950s art world. Believe it or not, even artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali bought the ape’s work and added it to their personal collections. But, did Congo — all by his lonesome — become inspired one day to pick up a brush and express his inner self? No.
Congo was trained by surrealist painter Desmond Morris. This is kind of emblematic of something that has occurred in the art world. Congo was not the only non-human artist. Over the years, elephants, dolphins, donkeys, and rabbits have put paint to paper. Even more, there are 14 elephants in Thailand that comprise an improvisational orchestra.
The idea, here, is that humans are not the only creative, imaginative creatures on this planet. The idea, possibly, stretches into even the realm of insects. Consider the following art installation at Qingguo Lane in Changzhou.
This is 虫子诗, which translates as “Bug Poetry.” It can be found at the Heping Road side of Qingguo.
This whole display is not just dedicated to insects. As the Chinese title suggests, it’s dedicated particularly to the “poetry” insects have written.
This exhibit is more like an outdoor anthology, with individual “poems” displayed in their own special “scripts.” The poems are, of course, completely unreadable. One gets the feeling, though, that appreciating art such as this requires also an appreciation for Chinese calligraphy. Written Chinese uses pictographs as opposed to letters, and each Character can sometimes be appreciated as a work of art unto itself given the skills of the calligrapher holding the brush. But, then one has to wonder. Why is this weird bug exhibition in Changzhou? Who thought up this stuff?
This is actually based off of the work of Zhu Yingchun. He is an artist and director of the Nanjing Normal University Research Center of Book Culture. What is on display here in Changzhou has been taken from his latest book, which translates into English as “Bug Poetry.”
Guangxi Normal University Press released this in 2020, and purports to be a collection of poems. This is not the first time Zhu has turned to insects. While in his Nanjing studio, he actually does study the patterns insects actually create. It’s more than likely that the bug poetry display in Changzhou is a promotion for this recently released book.
That’s well and fine. However, one does have to wonder. Are the pages in Zhu’s book, as well as the Qingguo Lane exhibition dedicated to it, the actual work of insects? While Zhu himself might argue yes, a more realistic answer would be no. The art he finds in the insect world is more of an extension of himself.
And so, one now has to circle back to the initial question. What separates humanity from the animal kingdom? People used to assume that tool making and organized violence were unique to mankind, but that’s not the case. Jane Goodall found instances of that occurring naturally. For the chimps in question, that’s innate behavior. No human taught that to them. The same can’t be said when it comes to high-end art. Whether it’s animals painting, elephants preforming music, and bugs creating their own special calligraphy, it is still a byproduct of human creativity. This is not an knock on such art, either. It’s still interesting enough to try and wrap one’s head around.
Being an expat in Shanghai, Suzhou, or Nanjing comes with varying degrees of anonymity. The foreign communities in those places are large enough where a person could relatively fade into the background. This is clearly not the case in smaller towns like Liyang, Yixing, or Changshu; members of those communities all likely know each other. As for more medium-sized cities like Changzhou, the answer is somewhere between those ends of the spectrum.
I have heard more than a few people accuse Changzhou of being clique-ish. That there are actually multiple small communities or circles, and they largely do not interact with each other. For instance, the Germans allegedly all band together, as do the English teachers. The Russians are … very Russian. Certain bars represent community centers for certain expat circles. There may be a grain of truth there, but it’s still not altogether accurate. The reality is actually closer to the silly game of The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Well, this begs the question of what actually is The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? I’d wager a lot of Americans know this, but for non-Americans and non-Canadians, some explaining may be in order. Kevin Bacon is a very talented, very prolific actor and has been one for decades. The idea here is that you can connect Kevin Bacon to just about any other English-speaking actor by looking who his co-stars are and what other projects those coworkers were involved in. The game posits that you can connect Bacon to any other celebrity in up to six projects. Ala: “Bacon stared in this project with ACTRESS, who went on to make a movie with BlahBlah ACTOR, who collaborated with SO-IN-SO. It’s a way of drawing a very tenuous line of connections. Also, it’s like a parlor game that cinephiles and movie nerds play, and Kevin Bacon himself was horrified by this at first.
However, this very silly game is also a very apt way of describing an expat community in a medium-sized Chinese city like Changzhou. Everybody definitively doesn’t know each other, but you can play the Six Degrees game with any foreigner and draw a line through mutual connections to somebody else. I actually got to thinking about his while eating at a private Brazilian BBQ event in Wujin.
This event was held at Kaffa, which is normally a purveyor of Indian cuisine. It’s next to Xintiandi Park in Hutang.
I had never actually had Brazilian BBQ before, and so this was a highly educational and eye opening experience when it comes to food.
This type of BBQ seems to rely heavy on beef, sausage, and salt. Dear lord, salt is dumped on everything before it hits the grill. Even afterwards. The salt makes a lot of sense if you consider the very hot climate of Brazil and the need to actually keep the grilled items from spoiling after cooking. Me? I really don’t mind salty meat; in fact, I love it, as that’s a big part of brined and cured cold cuts you can find in Jewish delis back in New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. In short, I was absolutely loving the food these Brazilians were introducing to me. But to be honest, something else was on my mind.
In Changzhou, I am very well known to be an antisocial person. This is not because I hate people or think I am better than them. It’s just a defect of my personality — I can’t work or glad-hand a room, and I will not, to be honest. And while I was very happy to be munching on cuts of steak while sipping beer, I realized that I hardly knew anybody in this crowd with the exception of maybe three to four people. I kind-of forced myself to be a bit more social, and I was grateful that I did so.
My closest friend got me into this private event as her plus-one. However, looking around the alien-to-me crowd, I did notice some familiar faces. That got me to thinking. Yes, I didn’t know the majority of the people there, but I knew people who knew other people — hence the Six Degrees of Expat Separation in a place like Changzhou. It’s another reason while I still like living here, after all these years. It’s not the anonymous rat race of a place like Shanghai, and it’s not a tiny microcosm like what you’d find in Yixing or Changshu. Changzhou is someplace in between. You may not know everybody in town, but you are likely connected by mutual friends who know other mutual friends.
As for the Brazillian BBQ at Kaffa, maybe I have enlarged my social circle by a little? Those are some good people who enjoy good food. I look forward having a chance to sharing steak, sausage, and beer again with them soon.
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.
Mengcheng is a small town out near the city line with Yangzhong. Here is a video I made about a recent visit.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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?
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.