In the cultural history of Wuxi, Abing is a heavyweight. In many respects, he is remembered as a folk hero — here was this blind and impoverished Taoist priest roaming around Wuxi while writing and playing music on his erhu or pippa. Some of his songs were topical, and some of them are still transcendent. Not a lot of his creations were written down as sheet music, and only a few have been recorded for posterity. Imagine if somebody in America like Woody Guthrie had their body of work lost to history. Abing’s surviving compositions are now considered Chinese national and cultural treasures.
In Wuxi, his home has been preserved as a museum in his honor. Upon my last visit, I was struck by the sculptural and artistic renditions of him. Some are quite surreal. Here are some pictures to that end.
Let’s start with a fairly realistic head bust for comparative value. Now, let’s move on to a selection. The following are not all of the sculpture’s at Abing’s former home. It’s just a quick sampling.
Most of the sculptures — and their dreamlike qualities — make Abing seem like a larger than life figure. But, then again, most folk heroes are just that: larger than life. And, the legend of a person may or may not gel exactly with who they actually were. Still, here was a Chinese musician who engaged the imaginations of his listeners. It’s only fitting that he have equally imaginative artistic renditions of his likeness.
Of Zhenjiang’s local specialties, perhaps pot covered noodles 镇江锅盖面 Zhènjiāng guō gài miàn and vinegar are two of the most well known. There is, however, a third: cured pork 肴肉Yáo ròu. On a recent trip to the city, I had the opportunity to try both. On a menu board, the dish goes by Yao Rou Mian肴肉面.
The soup itself has a brown soy-based broth that is quite similar to local noodles in other cities. The main difference is in the preparation. As the above cited English name suggests, the noodles are cooked in a covered pot, and that has an effect on both the noodles’ texture and taste. So how about the meat?
it’s basically cured pork held together with what I gathered was either a gelatin or an aspic. In many respects, it can be taken as a Chinese version of head cheese — although the two evolved independent of each other.
However, I also highly doubt the meat in the Chinese version comes from a pig’s head. The origin story I read involved accidentally using nitrites instead of salt while preparing a pig’s foot. In my noodles, though, I made the mistake eating one of the slices of yao rou immediately. It was cold. However, I quickly discovered that if you submerged it into the warm soup, the gelatin / aspic dissolved.
This allowed me evenly distribute the remaining bits throughout my noodles. Once I had done this, I enjoyed my soup a little bit more. The meat had the same tough texture as corned beef, but since it was pork, you could easily say the taste was not the same. A friend likened it to ham, but the yao rou I had didn’t have the saltiness I often associate with ham. All in all, this was a satisfying dish, and I imagine I would have it again the next time I am in Zhenjiang.
I suspect graffiti and public art may be more of a American cultural phenomenon, especially in New York City, New Jersey, Philadephia, and other urban settings. I don’t really see it much in this part of Jiangnan, and so when I do, I always take notice and give it a good, long look. I always take pictures. For example, in Wuxi, there used to be stuff like this on a long wall.
This is just three selections from a bigger personal photo archive I have. This was near Sanyang Plaza in downtown Wuxi — walking distance from the subway station and Chong’an Temple. I always found these murals quirky, whimsical, and fun to look at. Now, the area looks like this.
The graffiti wall is completely gone. It seems something with traditional architecture is taking its place. A similar situation has happened with another long mural wall across the street.
So, what does this look like, now?
If you look closely, the artwork is now covered by advertisements. I am not complaining about this. I am not somebody who thinks every bit of artwork needs to physically preserved either. There are reasons why some American art lovers, like myself, always snap cell pictures of graffiti. It’s a finite experience. A city or real estate company may remove it, eventually — such as what has happened in Wuxi. In America, graffiti pieces are often covered by rival artists who hate each other. As I said, street art can be a finite experience. So, to that, I am glad to enjoy both mural walls while I could.
“Why do Americans eat potatoes with nearly everything? It’s not right!” A Chinese teaching colleague blinked at me a few times. “I mean, when I lived in the US, I grew to hate potatoes at first and never wanted to look at them again. Eventually, I realized I had no choice and just learned to like them.”
I smiled. “First, I don’t know why. Second, a question. Why do lots of Chinese people always eat rice with their meals?”
This colleague then laughed. “OK. Fair point.”
This conversation happened many years ago. I lived in Wujin at the time. There is, however, a reason why I still remember this exchange. When a person is actively trying to assimilate into a foreign culture, two of the most immediate challenges are language and food. My colleague essentially was saying “I had to learn to like potatoes if I ever was to appreciate American food.” There is something similar that occurs to some westerners when they move to China. Some might find a few Chinese dishes culturally offensive due to organ meat and animal parts they are not used to. To appreciate Chinese food, sometimes, one has to turn these cultural sensitivities off.
I recently did this when some Chinese friends invited me out to lunch. They had a “free” coupon for a place called 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo. It’s relatively new and on one of the upper levels of Injoy / Wuyue Plaza downtown. Actually, it may be occupying the space that used to be home to Summer and then a Vietnamese pho noodle shop. Alright then, so it’s new. What’s the culturally challenging part? It specializes 毛血旺 máo xuè wàng. Also, I quickly learned that when you feed those three characters in Baidu Translate, you get some hilarious Chinglish.
No, mao xue wang is not hairy blood. No strand, root, or follicle of hair is involved! This is one of those instances where it’s best to write the name in Pinyin without tone markers and call that the dish’s English name. Okay, so what is it?
It’s a soup originally from Chongqing. Oh, and by the way, it’s extremely spicy. The above photo was taken from a soup that had been intentionally toned down at my request. So, instead of “extremely spicy,” it was just “very, very spicy.” I can’t imagine how mao xue wang in it’s natural, highly nuclear state would make me weep and sob with each bite. Spicy red peppers are not culturally challenging. What is? The two signature ingredients.
Tripe! This is hardly the first time I have eaten animal stomach. That is just merely the cost of living in China for years and trying to make friends with the locals. However, I have always struggled on how to describe tripe’s flavor. So, I consulted a fellow foodie — who is a rather intrepid and fearless gastronaut (inside joke). He said, “I don’t know. Tripe has always been more about its chewy texture than it’s flavor.” Right, he is. So, what’s the other challenging ingredient in mao xue wang?
Blood! Congealed blood shows up in a lot of Chinese cuisine. Once you get past the very American icky ick ick gross! factor, it basically tastes like a slightly metalic tofu. One of the greater things about mao xue wang is the other ingredients. This soup can be customized, but it typically also has seafood in it.
You can find shrimp, squid, fish, vegetables floating or submerged in this soup. So, if you are out to lunch with Chinese friends, and you don’t want to eat blood and guts, simply pick out the stuff you do like. This restaurant offers a variety of side dishes. One of those was very welcome to my inner American.
Cheesy potatoes! Oh, what a comfort food and an emotional crutch while eating adventuresome! At any rate, did I enjoy the totality of my lunch at 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo? Yes. Would I eat there again? Also yes, but with one caveat. This is the sort of place that you share with other people. It’s not meant for solo dining. It’s more of a communal experience, and the restaurant itself caps tables at four people and no more than that.
While the place is relatively new, it has seemed to drawn a crowd. This might mean, depending on when you visit, there could be a bit of a wait to be seated.
In souterhn Jiangsu, there are plenty of old towns, but many of them are closely associated with canals. Lishe Village 礼社古村 is certainly not that type. China Daily makes the place seem vibrant with a lot of local history. However, I went here on my ebike, since it was right over the city line with Changzhou and the former Qishuyan district. It largely seemed very quiet. So, what is there to see here? My experience was different than the China Daily article linked above. This wasn’t a guided tour. Just a random, solo westerner showing up. That is neither good nor bad. Here is what I did see.
There are two former residences open to the public. They are of Xue Muqiao 薛暮桥 and Sun Yefang 孙冶方. Both were prominent members of the Chinese communist party, and both were Marxist economists of note.
Other than that, there is a traditional stage / performance space.
With noodles drying in the sun!
Lishe Village is quite small. It takes roughly about an hour — two at the most — to see everything there is to see here. You can easily walk out of historic part and end up in a working class neighborhood next to a canal.
It was here that I saw a Chinese guy just wandering in tighty-whitey underpants with nothing else. In his defense, it was a hot day. He was also chain smoking cigarettes. The course correction back to the historical area wasn’t hard.
All in all, you get a fundamentally different vibe here than you would in, say, Wuxi’s Nanchan area. There, there is a bustle of tourists and people catering to tourists. Here, it’s almost serene. Then again, Nanchan is centrally located in Wuxi. This is in an extreme corner to the Huishan District. As stated earlier, it’s just over the city line with Changzhou.
When you are an expat living in places like Changzhou, Wuxi, Zhenjiang, and some of the smaller satellite cities around those prefectures, getting to Pudong International can be a bit of a drama sometimes. This is more the case when you are on a university teacher’s salary and need to travel on budget. You don’t have the deep pockets of an engineer or a business man, and there is no hiring a private driver; you basically have to take a combination of train, subway, and coaches just to get to the airport — and that is just the beginning of a longer journey back to the west. And, sometimes, even logical plans and preparations can go awry.
I know this because I am writing this in New Jersey. It’s that time of year when I go back to America to see my family. Part of my plan involved going to Pudong a night early and staying at the hotel there. Only, no rooms were available once I arrived, and when that happens, one of the airport employees / ushers points you at an booking office that will help you find lodging elsewhere.
I eventually ended up in a shuttle bus to a nearby hotel. By close, I mean 7 kilometers and in a village near a highway’s on and off ramps. If you are not careful, you could end up in a “super bargain” of a hotel. Of course, “super bargain” could be a euphemism for something like this…
I ended up here because I thought a representative standing near the Korea Air help desk was some how affiliated with that airline. He wasn’t. This bit of lodging was located on a back street next to a decrepit canal.
Because of a flight scheduling mishap, I ended up staying here for two days. Before anybody suspects that this is the beginning of a horror story, let me just say it isn’t. I have very low standards for hotels — all I need is a clean room, a clean bathroom, a functional shower, wifi, and a desk. If I have that and a cheap lodging price, I am extremely happy. Pools? A weight room? A swanky bar? A fancy restaurant? All that is pretty much useless to me. I am also a guy that doesn’t mind wandering places unfamiliar to me, and I certainly spent a lot time doing that.
At first, Jiangzhen — the town I was in — seemed like a dusty little backwater of Shaghai’s Pudong New District. The major industry here are solely hotels serving overflow passengers needing a temporary accommodation. I chose to try hard to not look at it that way, and I tried to wander to get a sense of the landscape. I felt watched, quite frankly. Especially by this guy …
This all sounds bad, but the entire area has some basic amenities for international travelers that may end up here a night or two.
Starbucks, a Burger King, a KFC, and a few other things. Those are not reasons to come here. Most international travelers do not choose to visit a place like Jiangzhen. None-the-less, they end up here, and time seems to slow down as if you have no other place to go.
Either way, the Jiangzhen area was better than a similar area I stayed in last year while traveling to the USA. That was Hongqiao — their hotel overflow area had nothing, the ATMs were all out of money, and the whole area was a construction site with people staying in it. To that end, Jiangzhen seems a bit cozy.
A snowflake falls from a winter cloud, but it seems intent. It’s consumed with desire. As it flutters its way to earth; it works hard to avoid forests, mountains, and valleys. It does not want to land on something or somebody meaningless. It knows what it wants its destiny to be: it has to seek out a garden and fall onto a beautiful woman so that it could melt and “dissolve into the cordial waves of her heart.”
This is the gist of 徐志摩 Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, “A Snowflake’s Happiness” — 雪花的快樂. My summation is a bit crude, because there is more at work here. The whole poem is a complicated metaphor about love, and that gets into the mechanics of how it was written. The first line goes like this:
If I were a snowflake
The voice of the poem is not declaring, “I am a snow flake.“ The operative word here, if we are trusting the translator, is if. That means its a metaphor and not a description of real life or something following a more narrative context. Much like other effective poems, the middle is there to build tension and led to the emotional payoff of the end. Of course, I’m not basing this off the Chinese original, but a translation I found on a blog. This version reads like a few of the others that I have found
This is well and fine, one might say. But what does this have to do with Changzhou? Xu, after all, was born in Zhejiang and spent a lot of time studying in the US and the UK. Living in England is the subject his most anthologized poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” As it turns out, Xu had a few links to Changzhou. The first comes by way of his romantic relationship with Lu Xiaoman.陆小曼. She spent sometime growing up in the Dragon City and had a definite connection to it. By default, that gave Xu an connection, too.
During his writing career, Xu also wrote a poem about Tianning Temple. The temple’s website even acknowledges this. This has been translated into English, but its only available in print. It isn’t online, and the collection of verse does not have an eBook version. I would have bought a copy if it had. One can shove the Chinese version into an online translator, but that really does a bunch of indignities to poetry. Verse is a medium where the choice of language is mostly exact and precise. It’s all about the subtleties of nuance. Translating something like this with Google is like taking a beautiful, delicate, and exquisite piece of porcelain and dropping it into a blender.
Despite these literary and historical connections to Changzhou, there is something real that somebody can go see. It’s in Tianning, near a northern exit of Hongmei Park and just down the street from the downtown train station. There is a statue depicting a romantic couple, and the are standing next carved metal baring the title of Xu’s snowflake poem.
It would be easy to pass this by and think it’s the only thing referencing Xu Zhimo in the area. However, if a person were to descend a nearby staircase and stand along the canal, they would see this.
These are inscribed tablets reproducing pages from Xu Zhimo’s diaries. This, in particular comes from 爱眉小札日记. This diary has been published in Chinese as a book, but like a lot of Xu’s prose, it has not been translated into English. If one were to look at some of what has been reproduced on this wall, it’s a emblematic of Xu and the writer he was.
Of course, Xu was a hopeless romantic. He not only had a relationship with Lu Xiaoman, but he had conducted affairs with lots of other women. If you take the content and context of his writing and put that to one side, there is something more stylistic. The passages on display near Hongmei are bilingual. English sentences like
Oh May! Love me; give me all your love. Let us become one…
are interspersed into Chinese. This is no accident. Xu also worked as a translator, and he was proficient enough in English to study both in the UK and the USA. This also gets into the type of writer he was.
In some ways, Xu Zhimo can be compared to Ezra Pound in America. Pound looked at traditional forms in English language prosody and wanted to throw them out, start over, and bring in something new. He had translated Chinese poets like Li Bai and felt their influence. Pound also translated Japanese verse, and his famous “In The Station of the Metro” poem reads like a haiku. On the other hand, Xu Zhimo returned from study abroad. and did the same thing. Only, he loved western poets like Keats and Shelley. He wanted to throw out traditional Chinese poetic standards and write something more influenced by the west. In short: Xu was not immune to experimenting and playing around with language.
Whether it is by way of his Tianning Temple poem or his relationship with Lu Xiaoman, Xu had some connection with Changzhou. This city has had a long reputation for helping cultivate scholars and and people of intellect. Xu Zhimo definitely didn’t come from here, but as evidenced by sculpture and canal-side engraved passages, Changzhou will still celebrate its link to him.
Steam technology came to China during the Qing Dynasty, and there is an interesting dynamic to think about there. In Ancient history, the Chinese were essentially global leaders of innovation. Gun powder, for example, came into being during the 9th century, and the Chinese followed that up with the “fire lance” a hundred or so years later. This was basically a tube at the end of a spear the could belch out fire and sometimes, if one had some really nasty intent, flaming hot shrapnel. The fire lance was the precursor to all firearms and guns to follow.
Ask yourself how something like that didn’t change the world? Then, somehow, China lost its edge. During the Ming and early Qing Dynasties, The Middle Kingdom shut itself off from the rest of the world. In isolation, the culture slowed its technological growth and the west caught up and surpassed China. Once the later Qing reopened to western trade, China had a lot of catching up to do. What good is a ancient Chinese fire lance in battle when Americans invented the first rapid-fire machine gun? (The Gatlin Gun)
Guns or otherwise, the Chinese had fallen behind. So, back to my original point. The British first demonstrated a steam powered locomotive to imperial court in 1864, and the trend from there indicates that most of the innovations like this came from foreign sources at high cost. Most people and nation states dream and aspire towards self reliance. So, you can imagine how some Chinese people would actively want to make their own steam engines and not have to pay top sums of money for a foreigner to manufacture one for them.
Here is where an interesting — but almost forgettable — little display in present day Wuxi comes into play. It’s along the Liangxi Touring Recreational Greenway. This is a part of the greater Grand Canal network of artificial waterways that can be found in cities from Hangzhou to Beijing. This particular stretch of water is walking distance from Wuxi’s central train station and is near a thick cluster of dance clubs.
So, what exactly am I talking about? There is a replica of a steamship permanently moored to the side of the canal here. Next to this boat, three statues of Chinese men stand. In all likelihood, they are Xu Shou with his son, Xu Jiangyan, and a family friend, Hua Hengfang. These three conceived, designed, built, and test drove the first steam-powered boat ever locally produced in China. This endeavor was funded by Zeng Guofan. He is perhaps more well known for his efforts in helping to put down the the extremely bloody and destructive Taiping Rebellion. So, this little boat thing in Wuxi is more of a minor footnote on his career as an imperial official.
In some respects, China is still playing “catch up” with the west when it comes to technology. In other areas, like the building infrastructure like roads, rail systems, subway networks, and much more, China is already leading and has left the USA far, far behind. But, in history, a lot of things are interconnected in subtle ways. So, Wuxi’s claim to have been the home of the first domestically created steamship engine may not sound like a big deal. It may still sound like a footnote in history, but even footnotes have context and greater meanings.
When I raised the sandwich to my mouth, it fell apart into a disgusting pile of steak, mayonnaise, corn kernels, and more. I glared at the mess on my plate. I tried to quell my mounting rage, because — well — sane people don’t lose their minds over hoagies. Also, I shouldn’t have gotten so excited that a new sandwich place opened at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. I set myself up for disappointment. In the end, I told myself that this is normal for a Chinese city like Changzhou. The Dragon City is not Manhattan, Brooklyn, or New Jersey. Jewish delis do not exist here.
One does, however, exist in Shanghai, and to say it’s awesome is an understatement. They smoke their own meat and make their own pastrami. In Canada, this would be called “Montreal smoked meat,” but it’s essentially the same thing as pastrami. Montreal does have a legacy of Jewish immigration that also brought kosher deli traditions, and that’s what gives Tock’s — on the other side of the world in China — unique character.
Obviously, the pastrami is the signature menu item, here. It’s featured a few different sandwiches and platters. There are three versions of this cured and brined beef, too, and the differences depend on how much fat you are willing to consume. So, there is a lean, a medium, and a fatty version that you can specify. The times I have eaten there, the waitstaff have always recommended “medium” as the most popular among regular customers. That’s what I had, and it was just perfect, and pastrami really is my favorite lunch meat of all time. It’s one of the few thing I actually miss about living in New Jersey. I guess you can say that’s also why this deli really was “love at first bite” for me.
As for the two other specialties available, there is smoked duck and smoked chicken. The smoked duck is just glorious. The resulting sandwich was just meat and bread, but the flavor of the meat, piled high and served warm, could give Tock’s pastrami a run for it’s money. While very good, the duck here will always come in second, however.
The smoked chicken is in a distant third. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good, but it just does not have the strong, distinctive flavor of pastrami or duck. Tock’s has a menu option where you can have two different meats within one sandwich. It would be best to pair the chicken with the pastrami or the duck. Pairing the duck and the pastrami would be a bad idea, since you would have two unique, complex flavors clashing with each other.
Tock’s also has poutine. This is a food nearly all my Canadian friends are passionate about. In other English languages cultures, we would call these “wet fries” — fried potatoes smothered with a topping. In that regard, I guess you could argue that “chili fries” would be an American version of poutine. In Canada, this delicious bit of junk food has gravy and cheese curds as basic toppings that could be built upon. Tock’s provides this, but they also have versions that include chopped smoked meat. You can either order a large portion of whatever poutine preference, or you can pay extra and have your side of fries jazzed up beside your sandwich.
I have always left Tock’s stuffed and satisfied. Every time I go there, or some of the other great food places in Shanghai, it gives me the patience to persevere through some of the more blundering attempts you might find in Changzhou start-up sandwich places. That’s not to say Changzhou is bad; I live here and it’s my point of reference. You can find similar experiences in other smaller-sized Chinese cities. In short, Tock’s is absolutely worth a stop while you are visiting Shanghai and conducting other business.
Tock’s Montreal Deli can be found in The Bund. It is walking distance from the East Nanjing Road subway station, which services Line 2 and Line 11. It can be found on Henan Road.
Hell, and the doorway to it, can be found in Xinbei. Somebody could accuse me of being facetious, and they would be absolutely, 100% correct! I am not talking about a mythological nether region where the souls of the damned are tormented. Actually, I’m talking about a statuary recreation of an underworld that is part of Chinese Buddhism. The torture meted out in this version of hell can be particularly brutal, but the saving grace is that the damned can pay their karmic debt and eventually be reincarnated. In Buddhism, people are not meant to rot in such a place for eternity.
Going north, I boarded the 36 at a stop in front of Xinbei Wanda Plaza. However, there are stops at points south of here. The 36 originates at the downtown train station and terminates in a part of Xinbei that’s just a couple of kilometers from the city line with Yangzhong. For a large section of the journey, this bus travels north on Tongjiang Road before turning.
Eventually, I found myself in a small town called Weitang 圩塘镇. Instead of giving the street name, I would just say if you see the chimney from the industrial port along the Yangtze River, it’s time to get off the bus.
Walk in a straight line towards that smoke stack. Sometimes, it will be hidden behind a building, but you can still see evidence of it on a clear day.
The walkway might become a bit narrow, as you will end up walking through a working class neighborhood of desolate concrete. However, if you keep walking straight, you will not get lost. And trust me, I have been lost in this neighborhood before; it’s labyrinthine and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. So, I can’t stress how you only have to walk a straight line from the previously mentioned bus stop.
A ticket runs about 10 RMB. Also, there are old ladies nearby that will want to sell you ceremonial incense. I skipped it this time, but a prior time I came here, a packet ran me about 10 additional RMB.
As soon as you see something that looks like Guanyin dispensing mercy to troubled souls, you have almost found Hell.In the background of the above picture, you can see the entrance to the hall.
The above picture doesn’t really do justice the gruesome detail on display here. So, consider this as an advisory. Graphic depictions of violence shall follow.
The above three photos are just a minuscule sampling of what is here. A potential visitor should know that this a real religious site and not a wax museum like Madame Tussaud’s in London. The amount of carnage and brutality on display here may seem outlandish, but this is a place where I have always heard monks chanting in the background — every time I have been here. Christian cathedrals in Europe have been treated like tourist attractions, but visitors are still expected to treat the place with some sense of solemnity. The same could be said for Buddhist temples in Changzhou, China, and elsewhere in Asia.