One of the American comfort foods I miss quite a bit are hotdogs, but it’s not just any variety. Given the Jewish demographics in New Jersey and New York City, it’s all-beef kosher Frankfurters I miss the most. Typically, all I need on one of those is a single stripe of mustard.
I am not completely opposed to messy hotdogs, though. Give me a good chili dog any day of the week. In West Virginia, coleslaw is a frequent topping, and that’s not something I am against, either. So, I was intrigued when a friend returned from Wuxi recently and was positively gushing about a tiny hotdog shop. A different friend and I decided to jump into a car, drive over to Wuxi, and make a thorough investigation.
Rambo’s Hotdog & Grill is located on an off street between the Sanyang Plaza and Nanchan Temple subway stops. The “grill” part of the name is important, as they do not boil their sausages. New York City, for example, is infamous for dirty water street carts. There, the hot dog is boiled as opposed to being turned over a hot metal surface. The slur of “dirty water” refers to how some these street carts never actually change their water — which would not exactly pass the scrutiny of a health inspector’s surprise visit. Some say not changing the water improves the flavor of tubed meat. Others — typically some people from Chicago who want to argue with New Yorkers on everything food related — might refer to this as salmonella served on the street!
That’s well and nice. But, it doesn’t answer the question of “What are these Wuxi hotdogs actually like?” The answer: very messy.
My travel partner and and I each ordered two dogs a piece. She got one of standards.
This had a few drizzles of ketchup, mustard, crunchy chips, and something pickled. My co-adventurer also ordered this.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around this at first. It’s smoked salmon draped over a sausage and then drizzled with a mixture of mayo and sour cream. Normally, smoked salmon is something I would enjoy by itself or as part of sushi or sashimi. Never would I put it on a hotdog. Yet, this won me over. Now, onto what I ordered.
This is Rambo’s Buffalo chicken dog. There was no chicken meat here; it refers more to the orange sauce splashed onto the very drippy, melty mozzarella. It’s the same sauce used to coat Buffalo-styled chicken wings. My second selection …
This is, allegedly, is a “Philly cheese steak dog.” For reference purpose, a Philadelphia cheesesteak actually looks like this.
It’s basically bread, cheese, steak, and sometimes fried bell peppers and onions. Depending on where you are eating a Philly, the cheese choices are either processed cheese whiz, cheddar, or provolone. What was on Rambo’s Philly dog definitely was not any of those. The texture of the beef, however, was legit — the steak needs to be thinly shredded, not chunked or cubed.
My biggest criticism of all Rambo’s “hotdog” is the sausage itself. They are not using Frankfurters. Rather, they are using German Nurembergers. That’s just not the taste I am thinking of when somebody says “hotdog.” I am highly prejudiced, given the part of America I am from. For me, this was a profound disappointment, but I forced myself to get over that. After all, kosher all-beef hotdogs just don’t exist in this end of China. A lot of what is labeled and sold as “American hotdogs” is just flavorless mystery meat. Chinese hotdogs? Um, no. Just no. German sausages are also likely easier and cheaper to source. So, grumble, grumble — but, okay, I understand.
The other thing is what is actually piled on top of the sausage. There is actually so much there; it may leave somebody absolutely stuffed if they are eating more than one. It happened to me. It also happened to my dining partner. Either way, Rambo’s may be a return visit for me, despite my being underwhelmed a little. There are other things on the menu I am curious about.
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.
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.
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.
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.