Category Archives: Xinbei

Singaporean Food at Xinbei Wanda

Over the years, Changzhou seems to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Singaporean and Malaysian food. Years ago, both Xinbei and Wujin had Secret Recipe, a chain catering to Malaysian cuisine with some Singaporean and western dishes. Their lamb shank was pretty good. It was also this place were I had tried laksa for the first time. Tianning was about to get one, but then chain went out of business in Changzhou. No more Secret Recipe in this city. There was an iteration or two of other Malaysian or Singaporean-centric places. The most recently departed was located at on ground floor, exterior rear of Zhonglou’s Wu Yue Plaza downtown. For those in town craving this sort of cuisine, there is a reason to be happy again.

The fourth floor of Xinbei Wanda is home to 星洲小馆 aka Singapore Restaurant. Singapore is well known for it’s curry, and it would put it up there with Indian and Thai as some of the best in the world. Naturally, whenever I am trying a new-to-me place selling this cuisine, the curry is the first thing that must be tried — as a general quality determinant.

They were out of the their curry beef brisket, so I opted for the fish instead. This also had eggplant, tomato, okra, and slices of cinnamon bark. Most other Singaporean places I’ve been to, I always leaned towards brisket. This fish variety was not that bad at all. The fish itself was white meat without any bones, and it soaked in the curry very nicely. The next item was a ordering error.

Laksa is another signature dish that should be sampled up a first visit to a Singaporean joint. I actually pointed to this noodle dish on the menu, and somehow that got interpreted as fried rice. Still, it was good. Topped with meat floss, the rice also come with shrimp, ham, cashews, egg whites, peas, raisins, and chunks of pineapple mixed in . This taste ended up being sweet but in a subtle, non-overpowering way. Typically, there is one more dish that should be ordered on a first visit.

Hainan chicken. While this dish did originate on the Chinese island of its namesake, it’s considered a national dish in Singapore. It’s also very popular in Malaysia and other parts of Asia. Typically, the chicken is either poached or steamed and served cold. This leads to meat to tasting moist and juicy. Also, there are condiment sauces meant to gussy up the taste. One is green and involves basil and lemon grass, and the other is orange an has a spicy bite to it.

My dining partner preferred the green sauce, but I personally liked this more. Usually, I am not one for super spicy food, but the taste of this struck me as familiar. The more I dipped slices of chicken into it, it reminded me a lot of the chilies used to make American buffalo chicken wings. Once I realized this, I abandoned the green goop to my dinner pal and hogged the orange sauce for myself. The person I was eating with didn’t mind this at all.

So, is this place at Xinbei Wanda the best of Singaporean cuisine? No, but it’s pretty solid — especially if there are not a lot of other options around. Also, the menu is in both Chinese and English, so that’s convenient. I am definitely going back. I can’t wait to see what the curry beef brisket and the laksa noodle soup has to offer.

ALAS, POOR PINOCCHIO

This was originally published in 2017.

Apparently, the word for killing or murdering kangaroos is macropocide. When they were living, if you were to take a hatchet to Ezra Pound, William Carlos William, Wallace Stevens, or any other modernist, you would be committing modernicide. Poultry? Poultrycide. I didn’t make any of these up. I ran into them while looking for an appropriate –cide word for when somebody kills a cartoon character. Toonicide? Animanicide? Those two I did make up just now, as they weren’t on the list of words I was just looking at. Why would I even care if such a word existed? Well, it would be to describe something slightly surreal I saw at Xinbei Wanda.  But, first, consider this picture.

To be fair, there was always something a little creepy about Pinocchio over on Xinbei Wanda’s pedestrian street. I think it was the eyes. Yes, definitely the eyes when paired with that smile of his. Still, if this statue looked a little creepy, that still doesn’t compare to this in terms of creepiness ….

WHERE DOMINO’S PIZZA IS NOT

This post was originally published back in 2017.

Sometimes, Baidu and other map apps are not to be trusted in China. They will say something exists when it actually doesn’t. Consider the above screenshot. It’s giving a Changzhou location for 达美乐比萨,or, as it is better known in English, Domino’s Pizza. According to the picture, it can be found in the relatively new and empty Rise Sun Manhattan Plaza in Xinbei. The above is what I like to term as a “map ghost.” If you actually go there, you will not find the American pizza chain. Nothing is there.

Sure, the marquee says “pizza” and has the 达美乐 characters, but the place is absolutely empty and devoid of life with a bare concrete floor. So, maybe Domino’s is still in Changzhou, and maybe it’s a a different location? Map apps are quite often wrong right? I say this because two friends of mine were very hopeful, and they heard rumors of a Changzhou Domino’s from Chinese people. However, if you go by Domino’s actual Chinese website, the chances are bleak. Their store locator only lists locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Not to point out the obvious, but if their website does not acknowledge a presence in Changzhou, than Domino’s Pizza is more than likely not in Changzhou.

THE TASTE FOR ASS

This was originally posted back in 2017, and this restaurant has long since dissappeared,

“I love the taste of ass,” my student said. She was short, mousy, and wearing glasses with wide lenses that seemed to cover a quarter of her face. “For me, ass is hard to find in Changzhou. So, I am always looking for ass because I want to eat ass all the time.” Her smile was wide, warm, and sincere. She was also wearing a modest blue fuzzy sweater. What she was saying and how she looked was a total non sequitur to me.

This was during a recent presentation in one of my university classes. The water I was drinking almost came out of my nose. It’s not the first time a student has said this, and it will not be the last time I desperately try to remain composed and not descend into fits of hysterical laughter.

“Um,” I said, “in the future, you may want to refer to that type of meat as donkey. Some native English speakers might misunderstand what exactly you are trying to say to them — especially if they are weird, perverted men.” My student was standing in front of the class, and her PowerPoint showcased a picture of rectangular sandwich stuffed with a very dark red chopped meat.

In Chinese cuisine, it’s called 驴肉火烧 or Lǘ ròu huǒshāo in Pinyin. I have heard Chinese people call it donkey burger, in English. Thank God I have not heard ass burger, yet. It is further evidence that the Chinese actually created the concept of a “sandwich” a very, very long time ago. Long before the British or the Germans. Recently, I spent a day looking all over Changzhou for donkey flesh. My reason for doing so was simple.  If i am going to spend my EFL teaching career always telling Chinese students to say “donkey” and not “ass” in reference to eating something, I should at least try the actual sandwich.

Turns out, donkey sandwiches are not as easy to find in Changzhou as I originally thought. I entered 驴肉火烧 into Baidu Maps. I went to four of the red dots that popped up, and only one seemed to actually exist. It was in Xinbei on Jinling Road — just up the road from Kingsport and Hohai University’s east gate. It looked a little dumpy, and most of the menu consisted of soups, hot pot, and more where donkey meat was the central ingredient. There was even a picture of the beloved Shrek character Donkey on the wall. I am not kidding.

So, lets get down to the nitty gritty. How was the sandwich? Eating locally in China is sometimes embracing that you might, in fact, try things that sounds weird to you. I have a few lines I will not cross, but I am willing to try not to be a western snob. Meat is meat, and I don’t think people who eat cows, chickens, lamb, turkeys, pigs, and fish have to moral clarity scream at Chinese people who eat donkeys or Belgians who eat horse. Some Indian Hindus think Americans are barbaric for eating steak and ground beef that’s formed into hamburger patties. Cows are a sacred animal to them. Either way, if you are eating meat, something had to die before it was served to you. And this is coming from a former vegetarian. I know the arguments of both worlds.

Okay, enough about the politics of eating. What was the sandwich like? Honestly, it tasted a lot like corned beef. I had the same experience when I tried camel a few years ago. The texture of the meat itself is very lean, and it tastes like it has been through a curing process. That makes sense if you consider that a donkey is a very muscular animal, and lean, muscular meat tends to be tough and hard to eat when not prepared right. Something has to be chemically done to it just soften it up. And, but the way, corned beef is also cured — as is pastrami. All pastrami is a corned beef that’s been rolled in black pepper. And donkey can taste like pastrami that has not been rolled in black pepper.

Also, as any sandwich lover can tell you, meat is one thing and bread is another. You could have most delicious filling in the word, but if the bread is bad, the sandwich will still be a dismal failure. The donkey burger 驴肉火烧 uses a bread unlike other Chinese sandwiches. It’s very crispy and flaky. It has the crunch of non-sweetened pastry dough. So, would I eat this again?

Yes, and I already have. Please forgive the double entendres I am about to employ. As jokes go, these are easily picked, low-hanging fruit that are hard to pass by. I cannot stop myself.  Do I like eating ass? Yes. Have I hit the streets looking for ass? Yes.  Do I like getting my hands around more ass? Yes. Do I wish I had more ass in my life? Yes.

ZHANG QUANHAI AND MICROSCOPIC MASTERPIECES

This was originally published in 2016. This was a temporary art exhibit at the Changzhou Museum in Xinbei.

Could the Mona Lisa have been painted on a single kernel of rice? Yes, it sounds like a fundamentally absurd question, but then again, the Changzhou Museum currently has a mind blowing temporary exhibit that led me to ask myself the question in the first place. Zhang Quanhai specializes in making colorful art so small, you need a magnifying glass just to look at it. He uses tiny, polished stones. While many are bigger than a rice kernel, the amount of precision and skill it takes create such small pictures is a bit breath taking. The exhibit is divided into two sections. One has the stones in ornate display boxes, and the other has Zhang’s work with magnifying glasses positioned over them. Out of the two options, the magnifying glasses were a better viewing experience. It allowed me, at least, to fully appreciate talent it takes to produce such tiny works of art. Time is running out on this exhibit, however. I cannot read Chinese, but the sign said it was supposed to end a few days ago. If it is still there, it’s on the third floor.

WHERE XUEJIA HONORS SU DONGPO

This was originally pusblished in 2017.

Dare to pray benevolence, less thanks to mercy. Chen see one side to go to Nanjing since, waiting for the purpose of the DPRK. Do not take the day.

— Definitely Not Su Dongpo

Su Dongpo 苏东坡, often considered one of the greatest poets of the Chinese language, did not write the above quote. It would be beyond absurd to suggest that a noted writer and artist of the Song Dynasty could foretell of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka North Korea. No, this is something that became garbled into English once I copy and pasted the Chinese characters of his article 乞常州居住表 Qǐ chángzhōu jūzhù biǎo into Google Translate. Since it was beyond incomprehensible and impossible to Google in English, I showed this short text to a Chinese colleague and asked him for a general summary. Even he, a university professor and native Chinese speaker, had a hard time reading it. Ancient versions of Chinese doesn’t use compound characters the way the modern language does. A lot of Su’s pictograph choices are simply not used anymore. Put it this way: Su Dongpo’s Chinese is very antiquated, much the same way Geofrey Chaucer’s Middle English is impossible to fully comprehend by a modern speaker.

Su’s text, whose title could be loosely translated as “Request to Live in Changzhou,” captured my curiosity recently because of a monument in Xinbei. Specifically, it’s in town of Xuejia 薛家镇. This is a town out west of the greater Wanda area most expats know and associate with the name “Xinbei.” It is a stone wall shaped to look like an old bamboo scroll with vertical lines of text meant to be read from up to down and from right to left.

The wall itself seems to be part of a greater cultural plaza dedicated to the memory of this great writer and artist. But there seems to be another thing, and this seems common to Changzhou, sometimes.

The place doesn’t seem hardly used at all for it’s originally stated purpose, and some if it actually seems empty. Curious, I texted a friend that actually lives in Xuejia and asked her about it. She also give me the gist of the article, but she also noted that it seems to be a weird thing to have, here. Xuejia didn’t even exist when Su Dongpo was alive. She noted that the history of the town, much like that of Xinbei in general, is relatively short when compared to the rest of the city.

So, what was the article actually about? From what friends have told me, it was actually more of a written request sent to the emperor. He was asking for permission to live in Changzhou. I was told that this original request went ignored, and Su had to resort to writing a second request to live in this city. At times in his life, Su was an exiled imperial official — like most Chinese poets of antiquity were — and spent the most of his life traveling. Of course, he did end up living here. He eventually died here, too. So, it would make sense that even relatively new places in the city would erect some sort of cultural recognition that Changzhou people, to this day still, still consider him one of their own, even if he wasn’t born here.

Here is the original text …

乞 常 州 居 住 表

臣 軾 言 。 臣 聞 聖 人 之 行 法 也 , 如 雷 霆 之 震 草 木 , 威 怒 雖 甚 , 而 歸 於 欲 其 生 ; 人 主 之 罪 人 也 , 如 父 母 之 譴 子 孫 , 鞭 撻 雖 嚴 , 而 不 忍 致 之 死 。 臣 漂 流 棄 物 , 枯 槁 餘 生 〔 一 〕 。 泣 血 書 詞 , 呼 天 請 命 。 願 回 日 月 之 照 , 一 明 葵 藿 之 心 。 此 言 朝 聞 , 夕 死 無 憾 。 臣 軾 誠 惶 誠 恐 , 頓 首 頓 首 。 臣 昔 者 嘗 對 便 殿 , 親 聞 德 音 。 似 蒙 聖 知 , 不 在 人 後 。 而 狂 狷 妄 發 , 上 負 恩 私 。 既 有 司 皆 以 為 可 誅 , 雖 明 主 不 得 而 獨 赦 。 一 從 吏 議 , 坐 廢 五 年 。 積 憂 薰 心 , 驚 齒 髮 之 先 變 ; 抱 恨 刻 骨 , 傷 皮 肉 之 僅 存 。 近 者 蒙 恩 量 移 汝 州 , 伏 讀 訓 詞 , 有 「 人 材 實 難 , 弗 忍 終 棄 」 之 語 。 豈 獨 知 免 於 縲 絏 , 亦 將 有 望 於 桑 榆 。 但 未 死 亡 , 終 見 天 日 。 豈 敢 復 以 遲 暮 為 歎 , 更 生 僥 覬 之 心 。 但 以 祿 廩 久 空 , 衣 食 不 繼 。 累 重 道 遠 , 不 免 舟 行 。 自 離 黃 州 , 風 濤 驚 恐 , 舉 家 重 病 , 一 子 喪 亡 。 今 雖 已 至 泗 州 , 而 資 用 罄 竭 , 去 汝 尚 遠 , 難 於 陸 行 。 無 屋 可 居 , 無 田 可 食 , 二 十 餘 口 , 不 知 所 歸 , 飢 寒 之 憂 , 近 在 朝 夕 。 與 其 強 顏 忍 恥 , 干 求 於 眾 人 ; 不 若 歸 命 投 誠 , 控 告 於 君 父 。 臣 有 薄 田 在 常 州 宜 興 縣 , 粗 給 饘 粥 , 欲 望 聖 慈 , 許 於 常 州 居 住 。 又 恐 罪 戾 至 重 , 未 可 聽 從 便 安 , 輒 敘 微 勞 , 庶 蒙 恩 貸 。 臣 先 任 徐 州 日 , 以 河 水 浸 城 , 幾 至 淪 陷 。 臣 日 夜 守 捍 , 偶 獲 安 全 , 曾 蒙 朝 廷 降 敕 獎 諭 。 又 嘗 選 用 沂 州 百 姓 程 棐 , 令 購 捕 凶 黨 , 致 獲 謀 反 妖 賊 李 鐸 、 郭 進 等 一 十 七 人 , 亦 蒙 聖 恩 保 明 放 罪 。 皆 臣 子 之 常 分 , 無 涓 埃 之 可 言 。 冒 昧 自 陳 , 出 於 窮 迫 。 庶 幾 因 緣 僥 倖 , 功 過 相 除 。 稍 出 羈 囚 , 得 從 所 便 。 重 念 臣 受 性 剛 褊 〔 二 〕 , 賦 命 奇 窮 。 既 獲 罪 於 天 , 天 無 助 於 下 。 怨 仇 交 積 , 罪 惡 橫 生 。 群 言 或 起 於 愛 憎 , 孤 忠 遂 陷 於 疑 似 。 中 雖 無 愧 , 不 敢 自 明 。 向 非 人 主 獨 賜 保 全 , 則 臣 之 微 生 豈 有 今 日 。 伏 惟 皇 帝 陛 下 , 聖 神 天 縱 , 文 武 生 知 。 得 天 下 之 英 才 , 已 全 三 樂 ; 躋 斯 民 於 仁 壽 , 不 棄 一 夫 。 勃 然 中 興 , 可 謂 盡 善 。 而 臣 抱 百 年 之 永 嘆 , 悼 一 飽 之 無 時 。 貧 病 交 攻 , 死 生 莫 保 。 雖 鳧 鴈 飛 集 , 何 足 計 於 江 湖 〔 三 〕 ; 而 犬 馬 蓋 帷 , 猶 有 求 於 君 父 〔 四 〕 。 敢 祈 仁 聖 , 少 賜 矜 憐 。 臣 見 一 面 前 去 , 至 南 京 以 來 , 聽 候 朝 旨 。 干 冒 天 威 , 臣 無 任 。

MR. BEAN COFFEE

This was originally published in 2016. It no longer exists. Reposting this because it was just a surreal place.

This popularity can be seen first hand in Changzhou. A Xinbei cafe bares a distinctive  theme. Even down to the name: Mr. Bean Coffee. Inside the cafe, one can see pictures of Atkinson in his grey suit, but also weird, and rather surreal, portraits of the character on the wall. Other depictions range from cartoonish to semi-life-sized. There’s even a photo of him by the entrance, ushering a patron in.

Sitting and drinking espresso in Mr. Bean Coffee is just an odd, surreal experience. It’s not unpleasant. It’s just strange. But it raises other questions. Is this a case of copyright infringement? Does Atkinson profit from all these kids sitting around in his cafe while eating cake? It’s easy to lob “violating intellectual property” charge at businesses in China. After all, you don’t have to look for in Changzhou to find unlicensed uses of Micky Mouse. This isn’t one of those cases. Mr. Bean Coffee. The cafe is a chain. And it does have a license with Tiger Aspect. In theory, Atkinson should be seeing  profit from this.

In Xinbei, Mr. Bean coffee can be found on a sunken, but open-air basement level of the Changzhou TV Tower complex. It’s the same urban block that’s home to a Lafu supermarket and a Secret Recipe Malaysian fusion restaurant. Mr. Bean is the neighbor to an Internet / computer gaming cafe. Wanda Plaza is in walking distance.

Yet, despite all of these location details, one fundamental question has not been addressed. How is the coffee? Not very good. Usually, I only buy Americanos at cafes. That’s because no business ever makes a simple pot of coffee in China.  And I have no interest in drinking lattes or other types of liquid desserts. So, my judgement comes on the watered-down espresso shots alone. Starbucks is a lot better. The only reason to visit Mr. Bean Coffee is gawk awkwardly at its novelty.

Xinbei’s Militant Gas Station

When you have spent years wandering around a Chinese city on an ebike, you actually miss things. It’s an experience and foot-on-the-ground thing. Ebikes are more localized due to the range of a battery’s charge, and cars cover a much longer distance. Scooters are better for cruising through alleys whereas a car can get stuck a complex u- and/or k-turn situations in profoundly weird rural situations on narrow roads. Trust me, I’ve been stuck there before.

There’s that, and then there’s the culture of gas stations. Normally, there isn’t a “culture of gas stations.” They usually tend to be sterile places where you fill your fuel tank and buy a cold drink and a snack before hitting the road again. Visiting the restroom for a poo or pee is just a given.

However, I have been on back roads in North Carolina and West Virginia. In Appalachia, I have seen gas stations that also sold liquor, ammo, shotguns, and pets. This was in wooded mountains, and it was deer season. Still, those gas stations had some very confused parrots and kittens in cages — while some dude with a greasy mullet intensely, and very loudly, negotiated the price of a box of buckshot.

To be clear, I haven’t seen anything like that in China. Yet, in Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district, I have found a gas station that is just patriotically weird. I have never seen anything like it elsewhere. And it’s highly militaristic with both painted propaganda and actual hardware laying around. I have yet to figure out why it’s there. Baidu Maps lists the location as only a gas station and not a museum or an army recruiting station. So, to that end, here are some pictures.

BRICKS AND MARBLE

This was originally published in 2016.

I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.

–Augustus Caesar

Historians can argue wither Augustus Caesar was accurate or not with this claim. However, casual history buffs do know he rose to power after a period of war, instability, and political intrigue. Some people know this because they were forced to read Shakespeare in high school and college. Julius Caesar, Augustus’ uncle, had high political ambitions and got stabbed to death for it in the Roman senate. If you put the context of the above quote to one side for the moment, Augustus’ words makes me think Chinese urban planning, sometimes.This isn’t a case of random associations, either. I actually ran into a statue of Augustus in Xinbei.

At first, this seemed a bit random. This is inside a small housing complex very close to Hohai University and on Jinling Road.

Other than maybe the architecture, there is nothing remotely European about the place. Augustus is the only statue here. It seems like a non-sequitur if you zero in on the sculpture itself. If one steps back, however, there is a wider context. Changzhou and China in general seem to build things with non-Chinese themes all the time. Many expensive Chinese residential complexes sport European tropes in an attempt to look wealthy and suggest sophistication. Examples of this can be found all over the city — and also not that far from where I found Augustus.

Sometimes I wonder about Changzhou and the above Augustus Caesar quote. Changzhou, like many other cities across China, is a city of bricks. You see this in poorer neighborhoods here and places that has met the wrecking ball and are now temporary fields of rubble. Literally, piles of bricks waiting to be taken away so the land can be redeveloped into something more “modern” and “contemporary.”  That is part of the “Chinese dream” I guess. Knock it all you want as over zealous urban planning, but deep down, this city wants to be one of marble.

BRIGHTLY COLORED MOTHER’S LOVE

This was originally published in 2017.

Who says my heart of a grass seedling

Can ever repay her warm spring sun?

–Meng Jiao, from Traveler’s Song

Meng Jiao 孟郊 clearly loved and cared for his mother. The above lines — taken from this translation of “A Traveler’s Song” — convey that as do the rest of the poem. For a large part of his life, he refused to take the imperial exams, but he eventually relented once he reached middle age. A civil service job, he reasoned, would allow him to financially support her as she grew older.  This eventually led him to a ministerial position in Liyang — a city to the south that is part of Changzhou’s prefecture. There, he dithered around among streams and forests while composing poems.

“A Traveler’s Song” (遊子吟) was one of those poems he wrote while living in Liyang. It’s a short bit of a verse. It speaks of a son about to set off to travel, and his mom is sewing his clothing for him before he leaves. The poem doesn’t mention where the son is going or how long he will be gone. It’s just the departure is impending, and that both the son and the mother will miss each other.

Generality can be a blessing and a curse in poetry. It largely depends on the linguistic skill of the poet in conveying emotion. This poem, in the variety of English language translations I have read, uses generality and vagueness rather well. It gives a reader just enough information while allowing them to read their own life into the lines.

For example, Meng Jiao’s poem remind me of my own mom. While I was in college in West Virginia, my parents still lived overseas — The Netherlands for a year, and then the UK until my father retired from the US Department of Defense. I came to visit for a few weeks every Christmas and New Years. Eventually, I would have to get back on the airplane and fly across the Atlantic. I wouldn’t see them again until summer, when they would come to the US to see my brother, sister, and myself. There was always talk of time and distance every time my Mom and I parted ways.  Of course, plenty of other readers around China and the rest of the world have had no problem understanding this poem. It is one of Meng Jiao’s most famous works.

It is always interesting to see how a famous piece of literature transcends written text and takes on a life out in the world. “A Traveler’s Tale” is actually part of the decorative lanterns at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei. A large chunk of the colorful art on display have more generalized holiday themes. However, there is a portion close to Hehai Road that recreates Changzhou history.

I found this recently because a friend and I went on a stroll specifically to look at the lanterns and laugh at their gaudy silliness. We both sort of stopped and lingered at the Meng Jiao display, because, well, part of it looked a little creepy.

At the time, we both didn’t know what we were looking at. The reddish marks on her face look a little like bruises. I didn’t quite know what to make about the black smudges around the both eyes. Now that I have had time to think about it, it’s the limitations of the medium when it comes to this sort of public art. Spring Festival lanterns easily look childish. The vibrant, bright colors have something to do with that. However, if you look at Meng Jiao’s mom, and the nearby recreation of Su Dongpo, they have a difficulty in conveying age.

Of course, I am nit picking. The point Spring Festival lantern displays is to do exactly what my friend and I did — walk around and smile at them. There is plenty of time to do just that. While the western holiday season is coming to an end, the run up to Spring Festival is just beginning.