Changshu is known as a textile town, and part of the city is a series of non-stop clothing markets. Each of these massive plazas can be dedicated to different types of clothes — leather city, woman’s apparel city, etc. Clothing markets are prime places where, if one went looking for it, you could easily find Chinglish. The last time I was in Changshu, I did exactly that in the menswear plaza. Here are some shots.
August is the season of Qixi. Every year, this day is the traditional Chinese Valentines — whereas the day in February is a cultural import. Then, there are others; a friend of mine likes to complain there are many “Valentines” that were created by Chinese women conspiring to get more chocolate, flowers, and attention every year. I don’t know about that. He is married to a Chinese woman, and I am not. And instead of actually having a date on Qixi, I decided to take a bus to Jintan and walk to a small lake. What can I say? I’m sort of an emo dude sometimes. Besides, a nice bit of a water is always nice to look at when you want to contemplate things and stuff.
Yeah, but I didn’t get to contemplate things and stuff. Most of my trips to Changzhou’s westernmost district have been to wander around the downtown area and the parks next to it. This time, I decided to go south of the bus station and the district’s Wuyue Plaza. This whole area is either under construction, or the land is open and awaiting development. When I finally got to Qianzi Ecological Park, I noticed a smaller, sillier park within it.
Themed parks or sections of a park is not anything really new in this end of China. However, this one was gaudy in an aged-and-weathered looking way.
Then, I perhaps saw what has got to be the silliest thing in Jintan. A public bathroom with loved inspired architecture. The theme did not carry into the bathroom. I know. because I personally inspected and used said restroom.
There is no subtle art to wandering around. Sometimes you find things by sheer accident, and sometimes you don’t. Recently, in a fit of culinary despair, I typed the words “Shanghai Pierogies” into Google. Why? Real Polish food is the rarest of treats for me. I say that as somebody with Polish-American blood. Only, like any cuisine, it has lost some of its authenticity once it immigrated to US soil and changed over a generation or two. For many Americans, Polish food can be summed up as basically pierogies and kielbasa. Possibly also stuffed cabbage. Everything else is slightly alien. Still, that being said, even the most basic American variants on Poland are easily missed when you live in China.
So, “Shanghai Pierogies.” Did that search net any results? Actually, yes — on the first page. Something called Pierogi Ladies popped up, and that lead to a “work in progress” website that at least listed a Chinese address. Once I set to actually locating the place, it turned out not that hard to find.
Over all, the place is small, and it’s in a little nook off of Jiaozhou Road. This is in walking distance from Jingan Temple and its Line 1 subway station, and it’s a relatively simple route with turns on two streets. Once you’re on Jiaozhou Road, it straight through a few intersections. As I said earlier, it’s in a nook and not a storefront facing the road. So, one has to pay attention to building numbers and look for #283.
The interior is actually rather cozy. I was greeted by this bit of furry cuteness. At first, I thought the cat was happy to see me, but it’s a cat — there is always another motive in play. My selected seat was next to a heater.
There is a lot of charm packed into the ambiance of this small space, and that’s even if you forget about that cat. Some of it is quite sassy.
One might argue that this is a cafe more than an actual restaurant. So, if you sit, somebody will not come and take your order. You have to go to the bar.
How was the food? Normally, whenever I try a place that’s new to me, I normally stick with simple things that can be compared to other dining experiences. I said “normally.” Since they were out of Polish sausage, I opted for blood sausage instead.
Arguably, this is not the most photogenic of dishes. And to be honest, the name “blood sausage” used to scare me. When I was actually in Poland many years ago, I refused to even try it because I was disgusted by the word “blood.” Now, I have lived in China for many years and have eaten plenty of things that would have grossed out my former, squeamish self. Turns out, blood sausage is quite delicious when paired with scrambled egg whites, bread, and warm pickles. Of course, I also had to try what I had Googled in my fit of culinary despair.
There seems to be an infinite number of pierogies to be had. Americans normally eat the potato ones in large quantities. They are sometimes the only variety you can find in a standard supermarket’s frozen food section. If I had been having a pierogi craving, it would have been for that particular type. They did not disappoint. In fact, there are so many types of pierogi available at this place — including an intriguing duck stuffed one — that I absolutely want to try. Also, the menu is filled out with other traditional Polish dishes like bigos hunter’s stew and much more. So, it’s almost like I have no choice. Next time I am in Shanghai, I am going to have to go back.
Leaving a place comes with a complex stew of emotions. This is something I have come to know a lot over a lifetime of travel from one place to another. Even if you have plans set in place, the future is uncertain. Even more, you are leaving behind people and friendships that you have emotionally invested time in. While looking at some verses by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi, I have had to think about this.
bǎi nián chóu lǐ guò ， wàn gǎn zuì zhōng lái 。
chóu chàng chéng xī bié ， chóu méi liǎng bù kāi 。
A lifetime in sadness —
Ten thousand drunken feelings hit me.
I leave the city going west,
And my weeping eyes will not open.
As translations of poetry go, I’m not even going to claim this is particularly good. Poetry can be impossible to translate correctly, and the best one can ever hope for, sometimes, is a rough approximation. What does one hope for? An exacting, meaningful translation, or something that strenuously remains true to the prosody in which the poet was intending? Bai Juyi is using end rhymes in the original Chinese, and I didn’t even try to attempt that. In fact, I feel like I have taken a lot of liberties in just trying to understand Bai’s meaning.
What I do know is that the title of 寄别韦苏州 jì bié wéi sū zhōu mentions the city of Suzhou. It may also be a reference to Wei Yingwu — also a Tang Dynasty poet. He, like Bai Juyi, was once a governor of Suzhou; however, my Chinese language net searching skills are sorely lacking. One of the rules of elementary translation I have told university students goes like this: “If you’re not absolutely sure, leave it in Chinese so that you avoid creating Chinglish.” So, ultimately frustrated, I’m leaving the title in Chinese.
However, the substance of the poem itself intrigues me. Bai Juyi is clearly writing about the sadness of leaving a place. In poking around the net in trying to learn more about him, I did find a mention of how the people of Suzhou were upset to see him go. Apparently, crowds lined the street and cried as he departed. This is believable in a way that during his lifetime, he had achieved a popularity other Tang Dynasty poets had not. Also, as governor, he had achieved a significant feat. Under his watch, the Shantangjie Canal was excavated and created in order to connect the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal to Tiger Hill — which to this day is one of Suzhou’s major scenic spots. Even centuries ago, Tiger Hill was a tourist attractions that merited travel by canal boat.
Personally speaking, learning about this is all part of the happenstance, down-the-rabbit-hole approach I take to traveling sometimes. I was in Suzhou with a friend, we were at Shantangjie, and we just walked into a memorial hall without knowing what it or its purpose was. None of the signage was in English. My non-Chinese-very-much-did-university-in-Virginia pal, however, claims his Chinese skills are bad — while reading the signs, telling me the guy’s name, and giving me the gist of some of what I we were looking at. It’s like modesty is his bragging point. We collectively said “interesting” and then went off to seek out lunch. I had a plate of rice with bits of duck in it. It was most delicious.
However, the more I started to read about Bai Juyi, the more perplexed I got. He was born in Shanxi Province. Much of his life was definitely not spent in Suzhou. Like so many other Chinese poets, he had a penchant for making enemies within the imperial court and was subsequently sent into exile. At a first and very ignorant glance, it seems a bit random that there would be a memorial hall built to him at Shantangjie. However, history is sometimes in the footnotes.
His time in Suzhou was fleeting — about two years based on what I have read. However, playing a major role in the creation of Shantangjie is a “minor” career achievement that would outlive him by more than 1000 years. So much so that a couple of Americans blundering and bumbling through one of Suzhou’s major tourist attractions end up looking at a statue of him. Think about that. It’s staggering. If we take his poem noted above at face value, he very was sad to leave Suzhou. However, he did leave something of consequence in his wake.
There are only seven different stories, and everything else is either a blending or a variation on those types.
If you have ever studied literature, you would have likely heard this idea at some point. For me, it was also kind of hard to nail down the exact origin of this, because I have heard countless professors and teachers spin it. For example:
There are only ten original stories, and they all come from The Bard!
Obviously, that came from one of my Shakespeare professors back in my undergraduate days. Some say that the idea comes from Christopher Booker and his tome The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. At first glance, that idea doesn’t sit well with me. His book was first published in 2004, and that’s the year I finished my MFA in poetry. So, obviously this idea has been floating around English departments long before that.
Where the idea originally comes from, or what version of it is being cited, in a sense ultimately doesn’t matter. Part of the idea is essentially true, as one can find stories from different cultures that have similar arcs. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is essentially a tale of two teenage lovers that are kept apart by their families, and that ends tragically in a double suicide. Any tragic romance is ultimately compared to that story — if you come from a western culture.
China, on the other hand, has tales that predate Shakespeare and western culture in general by many centuries to a thousand or so years. Take, for instance, The Butterfly Lovers. It’s considered one of the four greatest folktales in Chinese culture. Like Romeo and Juliet, it’s about a girl and a guy who are kept apart by their families. The story goes like this.
Zhu Yingtai wants an education. However, it’s not common for women of the time period. Regardless, she persuades her father to allow it. However, to do so, she must cross dress as a man. During three years of study, she falls in love with her classmate, Liang Shanbo. He does not catch on at first, so Zhu insists that she play the role of matchmaker so Liang can marry her “sister.” However, Zhu is the only girl in a family of nine total children. It’s just a ruse to come out to him. Eventually, when all is revealed, they swear a “till death parts us” oath. However, Zhu’s father had already arranged a marriage for her to the son a wealthy businessman. Zhu is basically torn away from Liang, and he withers and dies with a profoundly broken heart. When Zhu visits his grave, she becomes filled with absolute despair. She begs his grave to open up. It does. She flings herself in and also dies. Then, both of their spirits rise in the form of colorful butterflies. They fly off to spend the rest of eternity together.
The first recorded instance of this dates back to the Tang Dynasty –long before Shakespeare ever put ink and quill to paper. The other thing is this, and this happens anywhere, any country legends exist. Many different locations claim to the original “home” of the story. Liang Shanbo, for example, is said to be from Ningbo, where there is a temple dedicated to him.
The Wuxi county-level city of Yixing also claims to be part of this story. Essentially, Yixing clams to be where Zhu once studied. This has been worked into one of the town’s higher-profile tourist attractions, Shanjuan Cave. It should be noted that this legend is not the whole story of the cave — just a part. Once one sees the cavern, a garden / courtyard dubbed Yingtai Academy is next. This is essentially near the exit and a cable car station.
This is just but one reason to see this particular place in Yixing. As of this writing, I have been here twice. I recently went back because all of my photos of Shanjuan were on a cell phone that was eventually stolen. I hadn’t backed them up. During this more recent visit, the cable cars to the top of the mountain were not working. Eventually, I may go to Shanjuan again to do that — so I can finally claim that I have seen everything the place has to offer.
The first time I ever visit a city, I like to wander around without a plan. The idea is that the new location will reveal itself to me in its own time and manner. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, I decided to go to Zhangjiagang, because, well, I have been meaning to for two years now. I mean, it’s only a little over an hour by bus from Changzhou. Not that far from the city center, I ran into a a statue of what looked like an ancient statesman.
Public sculpture has always intrigued me — especially when it’s not abstract. It usually signifies and represents the history and the stories a city or a town wants to tell. Since the above photoed figure is holding a sword, it probably means he was some sort of heroic figure. Unfortunately for me, the Chinese text on the wall behind the statue didn’t read well on my phone.
All I could really get was “许蓉抗倭…” And that translated as “Xu Rong fights Japanese.” In this case, 倭 is an archaic character for “Japanese.” It’s no longer used in everyday Chinese, so the ones he had to be fighting had to be really, really old. Thankfully, there was a bas relief sculpture on the other side of the wall. It depicted a very chaotic scene. Here are two details.
Further intrigued, a made a few more attempts at translating the explanatory text behind the Xu statue. All I could glean was another word: 倭寇. In English, that would be Wokou — with a spelling variant (from a different Romanization scheme) of “wako.” These were Japanese pirates. I left the statue and wandered around to see what else downtown Zhangjiagang had to offer. My thought was once I eventually returned to my hotel room, the Internet would help me fill in the rest of the story. Of course, it didn’t. I searched in both English and Chinese and turned up next to nothing on who Xu Rong was.
So, the next day, I went The Zhangjiagang Musuem. Surely, there had to be a mentions of the Xu there.
There was some mention of him, but not a lot. He lived from 1500 to 1570 — basically, during the Ming Dynasty. There were more mentions of Japanese pirates, but that was about it. Apparently, these Wokou attacked the town and sacked it several times.
The above obviously is from Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s of Chow Yun Fat 周润发. It is also the highest profile representation of the Wokou in western culture. Because, the more I could not find information about Xu Rong and why he’s a hero, I was able to piece together a bigger picture.
The Wokou started off as Japanese pirates raiding and pillaging Korea and coastal China. But, Zhangjiagang is not a coastal town. However, it is near the Yangtze delta and the Wokou had no problem sailing up river and causing chaos inland. That being said, if these pirates were Japanese, why do you have a Chinese actor playing one? History is a little more complicated. So, let’s back up and talk about this dude.
This is the Jiajing Emperor — born as Zhu Houcong. Pretty much, he was an useless ruler and a terrible human being. He was an ardent Taoist and was into alchemy. He thought if he drank the menstrual blood of virgins, he could prolong his life and attain immortality. He actually kept a harem of young girls for this exact purpose, but he treated them so badly that his phalanx of concubines tried to assassinate him and failed. That was the Renyin Plot, and those concubines were slowly tortured to death for the efforts. Oh, and their family members were also beheaded. It’s pretty gory reading, as far as history goes.
However, that is beside the point. He, like other Ming Emperors, was an isolationist. Trade with the outside world had been made illegal. There were coastal communities that were basically not allowed to capitalize on their greatest local asset: proximity to the sea. So, eventually, a some Chinese people started joining the Wokou. There were even Portuguese sailors among their ranks. So, these pirates started off Japanese, but they were largely international during the Ming Dynasty according to some historians. So, having Chow Yun Fat play an Asian pirate may not be that far off from the truth.
However, let me digress back to Zhangjiagang. The years of the Jiajing Emperor were the worst when it came to Wokou incursions into China. According to Wikipedia, there were 602 pirate raids during Jiajing’s reign. At the time, China didn’t have much of a navy to defend itself because of Ming rulers thinking the world outside China was irrelevant. Some towns like Zhangjiagang had to turn to local officials like Xu Rong to try and address the issue.
So, who was Xu Rong? Truthfully, I still don’t have a clue. However, trying to figure that out did teach me some historical lessons I didn’t know before. That’s a good thing. Also, another takeaway from all of this is that some of the Chinese distrust of the of the Japanese goes back A LOT longer than World War 2, the occupation, and the war crimes that came with it. This is true if were are discussing Japanese pirates — however international their crews may have been — attacking a town like Zhangjiagang during the Ming Dynasty.
Over the years, I have weirdly romanticized the idea of the Yangtze River.. I blame an adulthood filled with kung fu movies for that. There have been times I have sought out the river with the hopes of enjoying a scenic view, but those attempts were usually dashed by large, hulking industrial ports. I did get down to the river bank once in Jiangyin. What I saw that time was far from picturesque; it was more of a display of the strength of China’s manufacturing and shipping prowess. The river was bustling with cargo ships likely headed to the west with goods to be sold in places like Walmart, Target, and other big box retailers. It was the real Yangtze and not the one I often have in my head. I was reminded of this recently because I took a bus to Taixing. Along the way, I got to spend some quality time with the river again.
To get from Changzhou to Taixing, crossing is a necessity. Part of me was afraid that the journey to this small county-level city in Taizhou would involve going via Zhenjiang and Yangzhou — you know, the long way round. The thought there involved bridges. However, both Changzhou and Taixing have ferry ports. In this case, buses, cars, and even eBikes can get from one side of the river to the other. As a coach passenger, you can either stay on the bus or get off during the ferry ride. I chose to get off.
The back and forth ferry traffic is fairly brisk. So, the actual wait time for a boat is fairly low. On the way across the river, you are likely going to see more than one boat heading in the opposite direction.
Of course, there is more than enough reminders that this a very industrial body of water and not a scenic one. This is view of some of Changzhou’s port facilities.
So, yeah, it wasn’t as scenic as I dreamed. Especially when the phrase “I live near the Yangtze” sounds super sexy to friends and family back in America. But then again, you you’re supposed to love something for what it is and not what the fantasy in your brain wants it to be. As for my journey to Taixing, the ferry ride is actually a nice break in what is usually a two hour journey.
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.