Extremely large and highly specialized markets are nothing new in China. There are some, however, that are just surreal, and 江苏省华东石材市场jiāngsū shěng huádōng shícái shìchǎng, aka the Jiangsu East China Stone Market certainly fits the “surreal” description.
This is located in Yixing (Wuxi prefecture), but it’s essentially just over the city line with southern Changzhou. I first found this place years ago when I first took a bus to Yixing. However, since I was on an intercity express coach, there was never any chance to get off and walk around. Over the years, every time I bussed it to Yixing, I passed this place and my desire to explore grew more and more. Once I got my Chinese driver’s license, this stone market was in the top three of places I wanted to go. So, the question here is: why?
Nearly 80% of the area sells stuff like industrial marble slabs, but the more interesting stuff is along the road. That’s where the statues for sale are located. As somebody who loves art, I knew this area would be a fundamentally fun experience.
Museum and gallery exhibits are curated. Somebody has had a hand in selecting what goes where and next to what. That is not the same as a purely retail experience where there is absolutely no thought in how stuff is displayed. This can lead to purely chaotic, haphazard, and unintended juxtapositions.
For those who who may not know the term, a juxtaposition is a type of metaphorical comparison. Two things of unlike nature are placed together for contrasting effect. Think of editorial decisions involving newspaper layouts. One headline screams “Evangelical Pastor Pubically Cries While Admitting Hooker Addiction.” The story next to it is titled “Hurricane Floods Sends Hog Waste into Drinking Water.” One could accuse me of being sarcastic, but I actually saw this once when I lived in North Carolina. Trust me, the decision to put the stories next to each other is not an accident.
The wonder of wandering around a place like this, with a camera or a mobile phone, are the dramatic pairings that one can find.
Like Mao Zedong and Guanyin, the goddess of mercy.
Here, a crucified Jesus is hanging out with Buddha. Is one blessing the other?
Here there is Charles Darwin, who postulated the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. His neighbor is CPC model worker and folk hero Lei Feng — who died in 1962 when a telephone pole accidentally fell on him.
As wild as a juxtaposition that would be, it wasn’t the silliest. That would be Guanyin flanked by demonic versions of Mickey and Minney Mouse.
This is one that I just can’t unpack. I prefer the mystery of it.
Honey Trap(noun): A spy using seduction and sexual acts to compromise a target for purposes of blackmail. Example: A Russian hyper male FSB officer falls for a twink CIA dude while dancing at an illicit gay bar in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Strobe lights and mirrored disco ball spinning from the ceiling are certainly involved as they make eye contact. Afterwards, the two relocate to a hotel room so they can be very naughty with each other. The Russian becomes a double agent as a result to keep his real sexual orientation secret from his FSB coworkers.
Honey traps are frequent plot points in James Bond movies and TV shows like The Americans — or just about any entertainment product involving espionage. However, there are more to them than just John Le Carré novels and stories like them,
Sure, a bit of sexy intrigue does spice up a fictional plot and narrative, but honey traps are actually a part of world history. During the Cold War, Warsaw Pact nations did this on a routine basis, where handsome young men were often dispatched to seduce secretaries within the Pentagon and within other American governmental agencies.
In a time of rampant and institutionalized homophobia, it was particularly effective if you could ensnare a closeted lesbian or gay man, because that person would be even more existentially compromised. The illicit secret might become very public. This is why, by the way, the previous joke above regarding gay discos in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, actually is quite real and not a total joke as it originally sounds. If the game is hard intelligence in a pre-Internet world, a spy doesn’t have to bring down a high ranking official. A spy just needs to seduce somebody who has access to a higher ranking official’s filing cabinet and documents.
If you go back farther into ancient history, a honey trap may not even involve access to papers. It might involv sending a beautiful woman into somebody else’s kingdom — just to create chaos. That actually was purported to have happened thousands of years ago in what is now Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. This was during the Spring and Autumn era (770-476 BCE), and the specific kingdoms were Wu 吴 and Yue 越. This should not be misconstrued to having anything to do with Wuyue shopping plazas; those characters are 吾悦. Anyhow, Wu was predominately modern Jiangsu, and Yue, Zhejiang. The border between the two sometimes shifted due to ongoing war.
Gou Jian sat on the Yue throne from roughly 495 to 465 BCE in what would become present day Shaoxing (a city between Hangzhou and Ningbo). At the beginning of his reign, King Helu of Wu had his army march south and attack. Gou Jian defeated that advance and pushed the invaders back. Helu never forgot this, and on his deathbed, he commanded his son and heir, Fu Chai, to avenge the loss.
Eventually, he did, and he took both Gou Jian and his top advisor, Fan Li, prisoner. Both were forced to work as slaves performing manual labor. Guo kept his misery to himself, and after a few years, the Wu king granted the Guo and his advisor freedom and the ability to return to south to Yue. That was a colossally bad idea. Once returning to their own country, the two dedicated themselves to plotting the tragic downfall of Wu and Fu Chai. Of course, that involved troops, but Fan Li had spicy idea to plop on top of that.
As tribute from Yue, Fu Chai was gifted a beautiful woman, Xi Shi. She was so gorgeous, according to legend, birds would drop out of the sky if they caught a glimpse of her. Also, if fish saw her peering into their waters, they fell to the bottom of the river; they would become so mesmerized that they would forget how to swim. She is credited as the origin of the Chinese idiom 沉鱼落雁 chén yú luò yàn — literally “Fish sink and wild geese drop.” It’s often used to describe woman who are so beautiful, men literally go insane while looking at them.
The idea, basically, entailed that Fu Chai was a fundamentally horny man who couldn’t control himself. If he had the stunning Xi Shi all to himself, his constant arousal would distract him from matters of state and the Wu kingdom would fall into disorganization. That’s exactly what happened. In the end, Guo Jian prevailed. While Yue forces sieged the Wu capital of Gusu (part of present day Suzhou) for the final time, Fu Chai committed suicide. Yue absorbed the Wu kingdom thereafter in 473 BCE.
One could easily argue that Fu Chai fell into one of the oldest honey traps in history. This is one of the epic Chinese stories that a person can easily find English YouTube videos on. That’s nice, but one can easily look at my clickbait-ish title and ask what Changzhou has to do with this. It’s where, allegedly, the story goes after the fall of Wu.
People who misunderstand this story might accuse Xi Shi of a sluttery; they might also accuse Fan Li and Gou Jian as being her pimps. This leaves out the fact that she was possibly a willing third accomplice, knew what she was getting into, and did it because of a sense of duty to her country. How different is this story from the one of KGB women spreading their legs to get kompromat on Americans or western Europeans? Every spy has a handler. And those managers have managers,
To that end, Xi Shi and Fan Li were also lovers, and she likely gave herself willingly to Fu Chai at Fan’s direction. The Yue King may have merely signed off on the plot. After Fu Chai killed himself and the Wu Kingdom became ripe for annexation, King Guo Jian of Yue deemed it necessary to purge (assassinate) many of his advisors and reboot his court with fresh faces. Fan Li anticipated this, and he and his eventual wife fled together.
At the time, Changzhou was not known by that name. It was Piling 毗陵. Fan Li, during his time in town as a Yue governmental minister, also over saw the dredging of canals. One of which involved a waterway connecting Lake Ge (which everybody in Changzhou now calls Xitaihu) and Tai Lake — the third largest freshwater body of water in China. Canals in ancient China were a network of liquid roads. Something a lot quicker than riding horse or donkey out of town. A getaway car in this period of Chinese history is a canal boat, and Fan Li likely knew how to navigate that system.
Changzhou claims to be the departure point of Fan Li and Xi Shi. It is here they got away and evaded detection. At some point, Piling was under Yue control, and Fan was in the area overseeing the dredging of canals. There was a need to connect Lake Ge (what everybody know calls Xitaihu) with Tai Lake, which is the third largest freshwater body in China. It is argued that, with government agents in hot pursuit, Xi and Fan boarded a canal boat in Piling, navigated the system of artificial waterways to the vast safety of Tai Lake. Of course, with a story this old, there are other variations and it’s hard to confirm 100% accuracy.
There is a marker in present day Changzhou commemorating this story. It bares the name 西蠡古渡xili gu du, or Xi Li Ancient Ferry. Of course, “Xili” is a name combination technique. These days, it’s used to name celebrity couples. For example, Ben Affleck + Jennifer Lopez = Bennifer. It would be silly to claim that this marker and the accompanying stone pavilion actually dates to antiquity. It was open to the public back in 2010.
It is a narrow strip of green space next to a canal. There are multiple boarding points and loading and unloading ramps for cargo.
Besides this, there are views of the canal itself.
This small bit of canal area is not that far the Wuyue 吾悦 Plaza downtown. Truth be told, the area can be seen in about five minutes, and what is there is not as epic as the story that inspired them. How could it be?
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.
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. Liignature 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.
f 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.
Some old Chinese buildings are so ugly, they are unique and should be admired and loved for their unruly character and oddball personality.
I said this to a friend as we strolled the streets of Jiangyin at night. At the time, we had just taken a bus into town from Changzhou, and both of us were hungry. We resolved to try the Munich-styled beer hall Hofbrau Haus on Jingyin’s bar street. On our way there, we stopped for a moment to take in the above building. I also uttered the above italicized quote.
It’s one of the many odd sort of experimental buildings that seemed to have been built decades ago. The lines and angles seem a little off kilter, and the exterior of these structures are always covered with small ceramic tiles that have been mortared together. These buildings also never seem to age well and develop vertical corroded streaks or rusted drip lines.
Ultimately, the fate of such architecture is that they will eventually be demolished and replaced with the steel and glass rectangular towers that are growing more and more common in Chinese cities.
I have always wondered how to technically describe such buildings in China. I even asked myself if they would classify as brutalistarchitecture, but I could only scratch my head. Brutalism grew out of modernism in terms of designing buildings. This style can be described as blocky, spare; geometric patterns can be rigid, and the color schemes tend to be drab, dull, and monochromic. This originated in the UK at first during the 1950s before spreading globally. Over decades, this style has earned a fair share of detractors and discontents. For example, one of Prince Charles’ most famous speeches railed against brutalism without even saying the word. To be blunt, these buildings tend to look like the following. Straight up fugly.
So, I eventually sent the Jiangyin picture to a friend who knows a lot more about architecture than I do. I am only a mere hobbyist when it comes to looking at urban landscapes. My pal is more of a master fanboy (nerd!) when it comes to this stuff, and I will always defer to his judgement. His answer was something to the effect of “Close, but not quite. There are too many curves and rounded parts; plus, there are glass surfaces, which you normally don’t normally see on purely brutal buildings.”
So, I asked, “Brutal-esque?”
“Perhaps,” he said, “but think more like brutalism with Chinese characteristics.“
“Dude,” I said. “I’m totally going to quote you on that.”
Instead of acknowledging or refusing, he simply changed the subject to his love of rollercoasters.
This was days later, but let’s get back to the moment I took the above picture. My dining partner discussed it a bit. We compared it to other, similar buildings we have seen all over the southern end of Jiangsu. And then, we simply just moved onto the topic of hunger and actually eating, and so we made our way to the German beerhall for dinner. The building really didn’t reenter our consciousness. That would be much later. After all, we were far more engrossed in what constitutes the proper temperature of an “plausibly” authentic beer at a Chinese Octoberfest. Although this was not part of that yearly occasion, we did agree that the Hofbrau Jiangyin lager — brewed on site –was quite cold and quite good.
Our stay in Jiangyin was for two evenings, about two days. My travel partner wanted to get a look at the Yangtze River for the first time, and the city has at least three parks that offers that. Changzhou has none that I know of. Jiangyin is known for shipbuilding, after all.
I, on the other hand, had a fundamentally different desire. I wanted to find fresh matisu 马蹄酥，and Jiangyin is widely known for this particular snack.
The name matisu 马蹄 roughly translates “horse hoof,” and 酥 would be “shortbread” or “crisp.” I was once told that this pastry used to actually be shaped like a horse hoof, but now, clearly it doesn’t appear that way at all. One can easily guess the shapes have changed as dishes spread through China and are adapted locally. It is made with flower and sesame seeds, but the dark, slightly sweet filling is a mixture of walnuts with red bean paste. To be fair, this snack can easily be found in regional supermarkets.
Fair enough, yes you can. But this is a case of it being packaged with preservatives, and they end up tasting stiff like chalky cardboard. It’s kind of like saying Chips Ahoy! sold at Walmart are the most authentic American chocolate chip cookies when they clearly are not. So, my travel partner and I set out by foot to see if we could find something local and very fresh in Jiangyin.
At first, we followed the recommendation of a local, but that didn’t pan out the way we thought. Somewhere down the above street, we ended up at a bakery. Only, their shelving and display cases were picked over and didn’t have anything really appetizing to sell. When I asked if they had matisu, they simply looked confused, shrugged, and said no. So, that brought an end to what I thought was going to be an easy task. I had asked a local, after all! So, I had to revert to old investigative habits.
Pulling up Baidu Maps on my phone, I typed the characters 马蹄酥 as keywords and looked at the resulting addresses to see if something was close and gotten to on foot. Something did come up, but it required walking through a gated community. The travel partner and I had no problem doing just that. The results were utterly disappointing.
The travel partner and I ended up at a gift bag shop for this type of snack. Giving gifts are a fundamental part of Chinese culture and hospitality. This is especially true during holidays like Mid-Autumn Festival where the mooncake industry likely makes up the bulk of their yearly profit. If you need cultural equivalency, think about how many frozen turkeys are sold in America around Thanksgiving versus the rest of the year. That’s well and nice, but when it comes to mooncakes, matisu, or any other type of Chinese pastry, what has been prepackaged into a giftbag is just as bad as buying something vacuum sealed at a supermarket bin. Both taste like grainy chalk and nothing that is fresh. At any rate, it was time to move on and take a taxi to the next and most nearest dot. That lead to a surprise.
By sheer happenstance, we ended up at the brutal-looking building from two nights before. This provided interesting bookending to an extent, as this hunt for matisu was to be the last thing we did before returning to Changzhou. In daylight, I made out the characters 商城– fashion city or shopping mall. This huge, hulking eyesore of a building is, essentially, an old commodities market. Baidu maps didn’t provide a picture, just a name Tian Xiang Matisu 天香马蹄酥. However, I figured that if there was no external storefront, there likely an internal kiosk. Multi-floor commodities markets usually have meat, vegetables, and prepared food on the ground level. So, I set to looking.
At first, the interior of the building looked as desolate as the exterior. It would be very easy to misjudge here. I entered from the rear of the building, not the main entrance. This is because I tried to find a bakery by circling and looking for the characters 天香马蹄酥 on outside marquees. Since I didn’t find anything there, I had to probe the interior.
Eventually, my travel partner and I found ourselves at a small market at the center of the ground floor. What we were looking for turned out to be a small stall behind us.
They had exactly what we were looking for. While it wasn’t hot out of the oven, it was apparent that they were freshly made that day. The bigger ones cost 6 RMB each and smaller ones went for 3 RMB. The Chinese shopkeeper seemed absolutely flabbergasted that two foreigners would go out of their way to find and try something this local. She gave us one extra, and I think we ended up on her TikTok feed or some other type of social media. Though, we didn’t stick around much longer. A cab returned us to downtown, and we went to Starbucks for coffee. Sitting on a bench near the pedestrian street, we tried our new snack. The red bean paste made things slightly sweet, and that fit nicely with walnuts that had been mixed in. It was as yummy as I was expecting it to be.
As for the building, I stick by my initial reaction to it. The Wending Shopping Mall 文定商城 is certainly ugly to look at, but it does have a lot of personality. Last I checked, providing a sense of hospitality and feeding somebody is a good character quality.
FART (verb): an action where gas collected in the rectum passes through the anus and into open and commonly breathable air, sometimes rather violently. (Definition source: the author of this blog post)
In linguistics, there is a thing called false cognates. A more friendlier term might be false friends. These are words that look and sound alike across two different languages, but the meanings are not the same. When you are learning a new language, these words and letters are misleading and can lead to embarrassment when used improperly. Consider the above provided definition. I know it rather well. I have done it often, especially after eating beans and drinking a lot of cheap malt liquor in my university studies in West Virginia. People still accuse me of doing it to this very day. And to those critics, I normally retort, with all the legal wisdom and judicial acumen I can summon: He who smelt it dealt it! A common rejoinder to that is: He who denied it supplied it!
And yes, I just lobbed a fart joke, which is a very low bar if you’re writing humor. Yet, stop and consider if you’re a Russian trying to learn English. Think of the following.
ФАРТ (noun): a Russian world that can mean “luck.” If transliterated from Cyrillic to a Latin alphabet, it would phonetically read as FART.
Not knowing false cognates or false friends can lead to highly embarrassing moments. Imagine a Russian immigrant in Brooklyn, New York City, trying to impress a sexy native New York fashionista by wishing her “All the farts imaginable!” That well-meaning schmuck would get slapped in the face five ways of Sunday.
I know this first hand — but not because I once pissed off a Brooklynite diva. I value my life too much to ever do that. During my first year in China, I once made the mistake of describing my clothing style as shabby to my college class. I, of course, was speaking of the holes in my pants and dress shirt. They erupted in laughter. I looked utterly confused. Then, one of my students rather bashfully informed me that shabby sounds a lot like 傻逼 shǎbī, which can be taken as dumb fuck or motherfucker in Chinese. You can rest assured I never made that speaking mistake again.
Not all false cognates are overly dramatic and embarrassing, though. Some of the most mundane can be found between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Cyrillic Р actually represents the Latin R sound, and В sounds more like the English V. A Cyrillic Н is not an English H, because it’s actually N. Don’t call Я a backwards R, because it represents the sound Ya. And so on. Of course, this is not just limited to the alphabet that Russia and a large section of Eastern Europe uses. Translating the names of food dishes usually leads to some types of language weirdness. That can be from Chinese into English, and also from Serbian into English.
This is the Sunday-only menu at Yugo Bar in Shanghai’s Jing’an district. It’s a relatively new place that serves Serbian food. The last time I was in Shanghai, I was itching to try this place. I never had Serbian food, but as an American with some Slavic blood (Polish) in my family, my curiosity had been stoked and I simply had to investigate. Since I am from New Jersey, I also simply can’t refuse a sandwich and I wanted to try the komplet.
This particular sandwich consisted of beef salad — which tasted like shredded beef mixed with mayonnaise. The condiment slathered onto the Serbian egg bread is kaymak, which is like a sweet, skimmed butter after being churned. There’s also pickles and slices of a type of cured beef that reminded me a lot of Italian bresaola. Think dry-aged prosciutto, but beef and not pork as the cured meat.
I cannot simply say I liked this sandwich. This was love at first bite. Amazed — I was just simply amazed by this komplet. It wasn’t just that, either.
I loved the spicy sausages. Think of what Polish-Americans like to call kielbasa (and actual Poles freak out about that and want to correct their American friends and worst enemies with That’s just a general word for all sausages in our language! What the hell are you talking about?!?!) I write the parenthetical, of course, because we are talking about translation weirdness. It’s like the main thesis here. Anyhow, take what Americans mistake as Polish sausage and just kick up the heat a little. It’s just absolutely delicious. The sausage and sandwiches made me fall in love very hard with Yugo Bar.
Then there was the décor. It consisted of reproductions of the Josip Broz Tito “Not USSR but still Communist” propaganda from when Yugoslavia was a country and didn’t disintegrate into a bunch of extremely violent squabbling nations during the 1990s. That actually happened after he died.
I will absolutely not say I was transported to Serbia or the former Yugoslavia by eating this komplet. That would be false. We’re talking about a pub that serves sandwiches in Shanghai, after all. I have never been to Serbia and don’t know what the country is like. What Yugo Bar did was far more insidious. It made me very curious about Serbian food. It was so much so that I had to go into jealous-smitten-man-who’s-just-met-a-sexy-girl mode. I had to spend long hours using Google to find out as much information as possible. Yes, I actually stalked Serbian food on the Internet.
The results were actually confusing, and this is where we come back to false cognates. The Serbian word “Komplet” looks awful lot like the English “complete.” This is not so.
It is not a “Serbian Complete Sandwich.” This makes the sandwich sound like it is the most Serbian sandwich ever. The word complete, after all, conveys a sense of totality, and komplet doesn’t mean that. It means “set.” A friend from the Balkans remarked that the word can be used for a sandwich that has multiple elements between two fluffy bits of Serbian-styled bread —hence, a set of ingredients. In short, it can be taken as another word for sandwich with multiple ingredients.
I can imagine somebody staring holes into my face at the moment, saying komplet or complete? Who really cares, and why are you splitting linguistic hairs? And that would be a valid question. To that, I will answer. If a sandwich can send me into a tizzy of research into linguistic theory across different alphabets , I must of have loved the taste very, very much. And I did. You should try it. too.
Unfortunately, Yugo Bar is still relatively new and is not findable on Baidu Maps or Wechat Map Sharing. In Shanghai, it’s in Jing’an, and it’s not that far from West Nanjing Road and the American Consulate.
Someone be a rose tree Some be the wind’s daughters Some the rose thieves
The rose thieves creep up on the rose tree One of them steals a rose Hides it in his heart
The wind’s daughters appear See the tree stripped of its beauty And give chase to the rose thieves
Open up their breasts one by one In some they find a heart In some so help me none
They go on opening up their breasts Until they uncover one heart And in that heart the stolen rose
These are the lines of “The Rose Thieves,” a poem I have found perplexing for a while. It’s cryptic, but one might usually argue that poetry is cryptic by nature. Yet, Vasko Popa — a luminary within Serbian verse — had a penchant for purposefully trying to misdirect his reader. For example, he poem “Horse,” one of his more famous pieces translated into English, famously starts with “It has eight legs.” The combination of that and the title leads to a rather surreal of an eight legged horse. If you could look hard enough, though, one could argue that the title is referencing a spider. My problem with “The Rose Thieves” is I’m trying to figure out what the “thieves” actually are, and that is a mistake. There are no skeleton keys for unlocking a good bit of verse. Each should poem should be considered its ownspecial puzzle box.
When it comes to Popa, “The Rose Thieves” was one of his works that I had never read before. I found it in Nanjing, of all places.
This was posted outside of a café and art gallery in the China Lane complex. This is near the Confucian Temple. China Lane is basically a collection of restaurants, galleries, and boutique shops dressed up in the architecture of Chinese antiquity. The Gan Xi Former Residence is also here as a historical attraction. However, back to the poem; Elegant, I believe, is the name of the gallery in question.
As challenging as Popa’s poem is, it’s next an equally perplexing statue. It’s a figure standing with a rigid posture with his head tilted towards the heavens. There is also a curious thing sitting on this figure’s face.
What on earth is on this man’s mouth, nose and eyes? Could it be some sort of space amoeba trying to force its way past the guy’s lips and down his throat? Um, no. Amoebas don’t operate that way. They stretch out pseudopods around something like a sinister hug and draw their food towards them. They ingest by absorbing their prey directly into their body. So, no, amoebas are definitely out. It could be an intergalactic gelatinous blob trying to find an entry point — via the mouth — to ultimately gain parasitic control over a human host. But, why does everything have to be sinister? Maybe that gelatinous blob is just an extra terrestrial pet that’s giving his man-friend an affectionate kiss?
What on earth does this have to do with Vasko Popa’s poetry? None, actually. Except, the poetry was posted next to the statue. Give me time, a lot of alcohol, and cigarettes, and I likely could conflate an answer. But, I’m not going to do it here. The truth is, the statue is a permanent fixture in this part of Nanjing. “The Rose Thieves” poem, however, was not.
Essentially, the poem was linked to a gallery exhibit dedicated to painting of roses. Since the public display of verse is quite a thing in China, it’s likely that one of the gallery employees searched the English Internet for rose-themed pieces. So, even though there is no obvious linkage between the two, it still interesting how they parallel each other, even if accidentally and temporarily. One day, I went back to see the actual art exhibit, but the paintings had already been taken down and replaced with a new themed display.
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.