How can one have an zoo where one never feeds the animals, never cleans up their poop, or never actually render any tender loving care? All while never getting in trouble with the authorities or locals who care deeply about creature welfare? The answer is quite simple: create a fake zoo with totally fake animals. I don’t mean once living animals that have been preserved via taxidermy. That would be highly expensive to do and hard to pull off in an outdoor setting; besides, that would also be highly creepy to the point of possibly scaring small children, too. So, why not just fabricate some “allegedly” cute animals and put them in cages?
Such a place actually exists in Changzhou, and it’s in Xishu Village 西墅村 that’s incorporated into the town of Huangli 湟里镇. This would be in Wujin, but on the strip of land between West Tai / Gehu and Changdang Lakes. Xishu can easily be classed as a demonstration village. This term refers to tiny little towns that a greater municipal authority invests a lot of money into as a way to promote rural tourism. Next to Xinbei, Jiangyin has done something similar with the rather surreal Beardtown.
There is more to Xishu than just a fake zoo. There’s the obligatory patriotic statue, a memorial to a brick kiln, and more. It’s just the fake zoo is the weirdest thing there. Consider some of these pictures.
This donkey is one of the funniest things in this tiny little spot. Each of these enclosures with a fake animal comes with a sign that purports something the creature is trying to say to a visitor. The donkey’s message is bit odd.
To paraphrase the translation: I am such a useful animal. I carry heavy things around for you guys, and people still want to eat me because you think I am delicious. It makes me so sad!
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.
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.
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.
Can you take a train from Suzhou to Hogwarts? Of course you cannot. Hogwarts and the Hogwarts Express exists only in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels. However, there is “Platform Nine and Three Quarters” at Guangjinan Station in Suzhou. This would be on Line 2 as part of Suzhou’s subway system.
Nine and Three Quarters is not the most magical or inspiring place in the Potterverse. After all, you have to pass through a solid concrete pillar to get to it. Not much happens there either. Parents put their kids on a train to wizarding school there. Even in magical world of J.K. Rowling’s fiction, train stations fail to be truly inspiring. However, think of how important the place is in Harry Potter’s life. It is here he departs for Hogwarts and a new life for the first time, and here is where the seven-novel series ends after he defeats Voldamort and the Death Eaters. He sends his youngest son off for magical training for the first time. Incidentally, this is where the new Harry Potter Broadway play also begins. So, while not inspiring, it is still an important place.
“Nine and Three Quarters Platform” in Suzhou can just be chalked up as another bit of seemingly random Chinese weirdness. Here, you can find two wall displays related to Potter’s world. Everything else looked shuttered and shut down. This could be because Spring Festival holidays are gearing up in Suzhou and around China. But, in the end, it’s just a strange and tiny underground shopping area.
Xinbei’s central park is filled with lots of absurd Chinglish, but that is not the only weird thing to be see. The park is filled with lots of trully strange signs detailing EMERGENCY! situations. These seem out of place. For example, one talks about water, and there is no sign of publicly available water. For a time, I thought it was just unique to Xinbei’s central park. However, I started seeing similar signs over in Xuejia’s park. I also saw similar things in Hongmei, downtown. Then, I started seeing in other city’s parks — like in Jiangyin last sunday. So, naturally, I started taking pictures.
For a laugh, I showed the pictures to a friend while we were having coffee. She laughed at them just as I had, but then she pointed out something I hadn’t thought of. Maybe these signs are not just randomly placed? Maybe some parks are designated as places to go if a real emergency did happen? After all, Sichuan has had earthquakes. Cities in the south of China have seen flooding. Typhoons seem to be getting stronger every year. Maybe this signs are set purposefully to denote where stations for water, garbage, toilets, and more should be set up should the park actually be needed in an emergency. Given the Chinese zeal for urban planning, it seems plausible to me. I tried Googling an answer, based on this theory, and I didn’t find one. At any rate, here are some of those park emergencies.