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.
There is one municipal employee in Changzhou that is perhaps the easiest to find — street cleaners. If you think about it, it is probably one of the most thankless jobs in the city. Even in humidity and high heat, these people are out picking up cigarette butts and other errant bits of trash on roads and sidewalks.
There is a statue dedicated to these workers. It’s located at a cheng guan — municipal code enforcers — headquarters in Wujin. There is another statue of the cheng guan nearby. Like that one, the street cleaners are depicted in a strange sort of buttery yellow. The chinese on the statue reads as 奉献, which loosely translates as devotion.
Qingming Mountain, over in the northeastern arm of Wujin, seems to be a spiritual destination in Changzhou. Dalin and Bailong temples are located there, and both are equally large as Buddhist and Taoist religious destinations. Both cost about 10 RMB to get in. But Qingming seems home to other places. A cemetery covers a lot of the hill. There is also a perpetually closed martyr’s graveyard, and then there is also Fushou Temple.
Every time I have visited Dalin or Bailong, the doors were usually closed and locked. Recently, I returned to Qingming Mountain to visit Dalin — as part of ongoing research into who and what louhans are in Buddhism. This time, Fushou’s doors were open, and there was a red and yellow banner over the entrance. Cars were parked there. I parked my bike and I walked in.
Unlike Dalin and Bailong, nobody was at the door to collect an entrance fee. I have seen this in temples around Changzhou when they are attempting to focus more as a place of worship and less as a tourist destination. As I walked around the temple grounds, one other thing just reinforced this. I passed by the main hall and heard chanting and a drum. I stopped to peer in. However, whenever I hear religious activity in progress, I tend to leave it alone. So, I didn’t enter that hall. Half an hour later, as I was leaving, I noticed the door to that big altar hall had been closed.
One of the most intriguing things, however, was not that shut entrance. Fushou Temple is the home to three large golden statues. There is also a room of what looked to be white-jade sculptures — one of which is a reclining Buddha. In this building, I climbed a set of stairs to the second level and found an empty space. Still, I was able to get a good shot of the three gold statues from behind.
The empty space reminded me of something else about Fushou. A lot of it seems to be renovation in progress. This isn’t like what you see at neighboring Dalin Temple, where new additions like an underground parking lot is being added. This looked like Fushou’s main facilities are getting an upgrade. After all, there was a cement mixer laying out in the open, as well as large stacks of concrete tiles. This puts the temple, like so many other places around Changzhou, on my “to watch list.” With a lot of facilities under renovation, this place could look completely different in one year. My guess, though, is that the three statues will remain.
From time to time, I sometimes buy philatelic products — especially if they have a greater Jiangsu or regional Jiangnan theme. This isn’t so much for myself but for my father. He’s a lifelong stamp collector, and his interest in Chinese stamps mostly comes from me giving them to him since I live here.
So, recently, I happened on a collection of Qingguo Lane themed postcards. These actually already have the postage printed on them. In terms of stamp collecting, this is something that father would term “postal stationary,” which is a smaller niche within stamp collecting.Yes, there is something infinitely more nerdy than stamps: the people who collect pre-postage marked envelopes and post cards. But who am I to judge? I collect Magic: The Gathering cards. The nerd gene is strong in my family!
While the English name of the set seems to be Elegant Rhyme of Qingguoxiang, these cards really have nothing to do with poetry. The Chinese title of 唐氏八宅 seems more practical. It can be translated as the Eight Houses of the Tang Family.
The cards themselves are relatively simple — black line drawings on a tan background. However, since Qingguo recently was revamped and reopened to the public, I decided to see if I could actually find the places depicted on these cards.
A majority of them did correspond with actual locations. Interestingly enough, some didn’t. The locations actually don’t look like the pictures, either. How could that be? There’s an easy answer to that: these postcards were issued ten years ago in 2009. So, these cards are commemorating the Qingguo that once was. As for the homes that are no longer there, it’s possible that they will be at some point. What was recently opened was just a first step. There are plans to add to Qingguo over the years.
I took the above photo back in 2014.That was before the area was cordoned off and thoroughly demolished and rebuilt. My guess is the Qingguo of that year also didn’t look like what is on the China Post issued cards. Qingguo of that era was crumbling and nearly derelict. Despite these disparities, the cards themselves can be taken as a celebration of the area in general. Historically influential Changzhou families — like the Tangs — did live here. Still, the disparity of what was and what things are going forward is a typically accurate display of this city’s extremely quick economic development.
Actually, this question unexpectedly elicits a secret shame I have lived with my adult entire life. Because of mixed genetics I have inherited from my-multi-ethnic-but-still-European-descended family, I lack the rather manly ability to grow a full, bushy beard. Viking, I am not. Nor will I ever be.
My dad suffers the same. An inside joke between us is: don’t shave for a month or more, and either of us may end up looking like the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat. All that means is that there always ends up being empty, barren, and smooth patches on my neck and cheeks. In other areas, singular rogue hairs protrude and then spiral out of control. If you selectively pluck them with tweezers, they grow even more serpentine and longer. The most logical response is to just nuke your face and shave it all off with a mutli-bladed razor and an aloe-based foam. Dull-and-cheap single blades may hack up your face, produce scabs, and prompt your friends to ask if you’ve been hard drinking again and fell off your bike — when you haven’t in a very long time.
Every time I have actually tried to grow a beard, the results have been disastrous. The most recent was during the initial onset of COVID-19 and its resulting lockdown in Changzhou back in 2020. I had the really dumb idea of “I shall not shave until there is a COVID vaccine!” Months went on and on. The more I gazed upon my reflection, I was just constantly reminded that I could not even grow a competent moustache, goatee, or soul patch.
Think about that; the bushy hipster triangle of follicles beneath a man’s lower lip that enrages most – I can’t even have that. I can’t even troll people with that. Maybe I should be grateful? Growing hair just because you can is a confirmed case of insecure and aging masculinity. Yet, in a man’s more desperate and impotent moments he might be willing to accept any sort of facial hair. Just because. I would equate the beard-deprived desire for just-a-soul patch as the same as bald men who does greasy comb-overs over a sunburnt scalp. The same goes for heavy metal gods experiencing male-pattern hair loss and compensate by growing out absurdly long beards. If they can no longer flair hair while head banging, at least they have reversed-compensated with a swishable beard, responsive to all head movements.
Just the term Beardtown elicits imagery of a desolate like Appalachian mountainside hamlet where all the men have crazy beards with a slight look of murder in their eyes look in their eyes. During my time in West Virginia back in the 1990s, it felt like that whenever my older brother and I got lost in the mountains once we left the interstate highways between Huntington and Morgantown — thinking we had found a solid back road shortcut.
At this point, it would be fair if somebody reading this might ask: what is even the point of this other than some loser blogger’s beardless pathos?
So, let me just rush to my point. Beardtown is not a product of my weird imagination. It’s a place that exists in the county-level of Jiangyin (Wuxi), and this would be the Huangtu part where you can actually see Xinbei landmarks like the media tower off in the distance. I have known of its existence for years, but I could never actually find it. I could only find signs pointing its direction.
So, I have spent years of wandering around this part of Huangtu obsessed with Beardtown and what could actually be there. Instead, I just saw a lot of stuff like this.
After all those years, I finally found Beardtown. It was easier than I thought. I actually paid attention to the Chinese characters of 胡子小镇 and not the English name. One quick map search later, and I realized that I had by walking past the place for years and not noticing.
Admittedly, the place was not what I expected. There were no scraggly facial hair anywhere! That being said, the place is still pretty surreal.
As it turns out, Beardtown is a tiny art campus affiliated with at least a Shanghai company and a Nanjing university. The surreality around this area is almost like a non-sequitur. For example, there is a golden-colored NFL statue between playpens for kids.
While Beardtown doesn’t actually feature anything with facial hair, there is one slogan that is painted all over the space.
It’s an intriguing slogan for a place called Beardtown. However….
There still not an actual follicle in sight. Just crazy art. I am not complaining. This small place is actually much more interesting than West Virginian hamlet with a bunch of dudes with stringy beards down to their knees.
There is a café here, though. This place is just so weird, but it’s also an interesting place to just sit and drink some coffee and soak in some ambiance.
Or tea and fruit.
It’s important to remember that Beardtown is just one tiny dot in a part of Huangtu that’s been zoned and urban planned for “rural tourism.” As far as I know, no busses actually come here. But, it’s an easy ride from Changzhou on an e-bike, car, or a DiDi — especially if a traveler is starting from Xinbei.
I just know, that over the years, this whole area, despite my “No Sleep Till Beardtown” obsession, has some weird things to look at. This, after coffee and cake, was spotted on the back to the car. At least this building has a moustache.
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.
HOSS FIGHT （Noun):1. A very violent confrontation between two very large, beefy slabs of manhood, usually in a professional wrestling ring. See Undertaker V. Kane.
2. When two giant science fiction monsters, aka kaiju, collide with massive urban destruction as collateral damage. See Godzilla v. Kong or mostly anything involving the Godzilla.
Of course, I got to thinking about this in one of the most random of rural places.
Liyang #1 Road is a scenic drive through the country side. Sometimes, this route is also referred to as “The Rainbow Road” because of the red, yellow, and blue center stripes. About six months ago, I passed the Chinese driving test, and I now possess a license. A friend of mine figured out how to rent cars, and we decided to get as far outside of Changzhou proper without actually leaving the prefecture — because of COVID travel restrictions and not wanting to quarantine upon reentry. While driving, I religiously avoided toll roads for the same reason.
One way, the distance was about 72 kilometers. Along the way, we passed by Xitaihu Lake in Wujin and through the district of Jintan. The destination was the Bieqiao Scenic Spot 别桥原景区. Liyang’s signature tourist destinations has always been Tianmuhu Lake and the Bamboo Forest, but Bieqiao has always had some mentions online. I actually spotted this destination using Baidu Maps, and something in particular intrigued me.
Among other things, Bieqiao is made up of rice fields. The area is home to a sculpture park called Dao Meng Kongjian 稻梦空间. The statuary here is entirely made from twisting, knotting, and fusing straw stalks together. The effect is a bit surreal. The translation of the Chinese name reinforces that: Rice Dream Space.
If human figures can seem unworldly, the park can get bizarre rather quickly. We will skip pieces depicting airplanes and just jump straight into it.
There are two giant spiders here as well.
So, did spiders make me think of hoss fights? No.
Well, I must refer back to the second entry of my above definition of hoss fight. In this corner, we have a giant gorilla. Notice the Chinese dude on the right for sizing scale.
And, of course I had to snap a butt pic.
And in this corner, we have a dinosaur. The stubby arms suggest a T-Rex. It’s possibly a female, if one considers the cluster of egg-shaped stones clustered around this giant lizard. Again, for size perspective, notice the guy behind the left leg.
If you consider the eggs, the ape here is likely the aggressor. However, since this a sculpture park, this particular hoss fight is still in pre-fight theatrics and stand offs. The gorilla has yet to stand up and beat his chest. This is a fight stuck in time, and it always will be. Your imagination has to do the rest
As much as I enjoyed visiting this part of Bieqiao and Liyang, coming here made realize how easy it is to miss a lot of things while traveling China without having access to a car you can drive yourself. There is no public transportation access to Bieqiao and this particular park.
So, it made me extremely grateful to have a license and access to car rentals. Consider these DiDi prices as they are only one way and only point-to-point travel. Renting is way much cheaper. Because of that, I look forward to renting and driving out to much more places like this.
I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.
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.
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.
Changzhou’s central station is not what it once was in bygone eras. I discovered this, recently, through a series of photos on display near the station, but in an easy to miss location if you are not hunting for them specifically.
This is something I found while doing legwork on a different writing project. I had become intrigued with the city’s network of canals, as it is one of the oldest surviving landmarks still around from the city’s antiquity of more than a thousand years. During this bit of fieldwork, I found a threesome of small memorials dedicated to the train station itself. This is across the street from the south plaza.
On wooden walkway next to the canal, there are three photos in glass cases. The appear to be laser etchings on sheets of brass-colored metal. These display windows are set into the staircases that lead down to the canal’s walkway. As one can see from the above photo, they do not photograph very well.
The only way to get discernible details was to get my phone close to the glass to cut out as much glare and reflection as possible. Of course, it’s hard to reproduce the entire photo this way. The above photo seems to be from circa 1907. Besides the crowds, the station itself seems rather modest and is only a building or two.
The next shot shows the second incarnation from the late 1950’s and 1960’s. I do have to say, it is really hard to fact check these photos online. I had trouble finding the real photos these metal sheets are based off of.
The third and final plaque suggests something more modern and geometric in its architecture. This would be in the 1990’s. However, as most of us who have traveled through Changzhou’s downtown station, it most certainly doesn’t look like this anymore.
Who knows what the train station will look like in the future. The south plaza — where some would get tickets to board the slow trains — is currently under renovation. Parts of the south plaza has been absolutely gutted to make way for something new. Who knows, maybe is 20 to 50 years, there will be a fourth installment into this pictorial history showing our current station as a relic of the past?