When searching out foreign food in China, bread can be a source of contention. When one is used to eating the western variety, one’s mouth is not really prepared slightly salty or sweet tastes. This can also wreck havoc when making a sandwich. To paraphrase a line of thinking back in New Jersey, the innards of a sandwich can be awesome, but if the bread is awful, the sandwich will end up as a rank failure. So, when you find a shop that mostly gets it right, it is a cause for celebration. In this regard, let’s consider Bagelous Head in Wuxi.
This place is relatively new, and it is located next to a shop that sells New York style pizza by the slice and another offering very messy hotdogs. The specialty at this shop, allegedly, are bagels.
Let’s get one thing out of way. If one is a bagel snob — and I am not — these don’t taste like bagels. This is because this type of bread is boiled first, baked second. This leads to a tough, dense, and chewy texture. Bagelous Head’s offerings do not taste that way. They are more like donut-like-in-shape bread rings.
That being said, what is on the shop’s menu still works well. They don’t have the earlier noted issues that come with a lot of Chinese bread. So, while technically not a bagel, the bread quality is still good. Let’s consider a few of offerings one by one. Keep in mind that following pictures are of take out, and these sandwich were eaten after driving back to Changzhou from Wuxi. So, they sat in a car for a little over an hour.
This is listed as a mozzarella Rueben. It certainly isn’t that. Reubens tend to have sauerkraut and cheese on cured meat — usually pastrami or corned beef. The meat here tastes more like cured beef one can buy in Chinese supermarkets, which means it’s slightly spicy and like nothing you’d ever find in a Jewish deli. That being said, it’s still a good sandwich, and I would have no problem ordering it again upon a return visit.
This is shredded pork with red cabbage and pickles. Also, quite good.
Here we have a vegetarian — but not vegan — friendly tomato, avocado and egg sandwich. The simplicity works very well here.
This is tuna and mozzarella served in an open-faced style. My dining partner wanted this, and I was initially hesitant at first. In America, there are things called tuna melts, which is essentially what this is. I used to hate them, because the only time I ever had them were in high school and college cafeterias. These sorts of places always like to cut corners for budgetary reasons, and to that end, the alleged diary product used was processed American.
Getting back to the point at hand, I was surprised I liked this. The tuna itself had been dusted with oregano, and of course, if I said I hated mozzarella in general, the ghosts of my Italian ancestors would torment and haunt me. Bagelous Head actually made me rethink the concept of a tuna melt. Good for them.
This shop is in easy walking distance from the Sanyang Plaza subway station where Wuxi Metro lines 1 and 2 intersect.
For those driving there, the best place to park is beneath the 66 Center 恒隆广场. The shop, and it’s too also good neighbors, is two blocks away on foot. If one does choose to park there, though, be warned: getting in and out involves driving one of the most insanely narrow spirals I have ever seen.
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.
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.
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.
There are only seven different stories, and everything else is either a blending or a variation on those types.
If you have ever studied literature, you would have likely heard this idea at some point. For me, it was also kind of hard to nail down the exact origin of this, because I have heard countless professors and teachers spin it. For example:
There are only ten original stories, and they all come from The Bard!
Obviously, that came from one of my Shakespeare professors back in my undergraduate days. Some say that the idea comes from Christopher Booker and his tome The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. At first glance, that idea doesn’t sit well with me. His book was first published in 2004, and that’s the year I finished my MFA in poetry. So, obviously this idea has been floating around English departments long before that.
Where the idea originally comes from, or what version of it is being cited, in a sense ultimately doesn’t matter. Part of the idea is essentially true, as one can find stories from different cultures that have similar arcs. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is essentially a tale of two teenage lovers that are kept apart by their families, and that ends tragically in a double suicide. Any tragic romance is ultimately compared to that story — if you come from a western culture.
China, on the other hand, has tales that predate Shakespeare and western culture in general by many centuries to a thousand or so years. Take, for instance, The Butterfly Lovers. It’s considered one of the four greatest folktales in Chinese culture. Like Romeo and Juliet, it’s about a girl and a guy who are kept apart by their families. The story goes like this.
Zhu Yingtai wants an education. However, it’s not common for women of the time period. Regardless, she persuades her father to allow it. However, to do so, she must cross dress as a man. During three years of study, she falls in love with her classmate, Liang Shanbo. He does not catch on at first, so Zhu insists that she play the role of matchmaker so Liang can marry her “sister.” However, Zhu is the only girl in a family of nine total children. It’s just a ruse to come out to him. Eventually, when all is revealed, they swear a “till death parts us” oath. However, Zhu’s father had already arranged a marriage for her to the son a wealthy businessman. Zhu is basically torn away from Liang, and he withers and dies with a profoundly broken heart. When Zhu visits his grave, she becomes filled with absolute despair. She begs his grave to open up. It does. She flings herself in and also dies. Then, both of their spirits rise in the form of colorful butterflies. They fly off to spend the rest of eternity together.
The first recorded instance of this dates back to the Tang Dynasty –long before Shakespeare ever put ink and quill to paper. The other thing is this, and this happens anywhere, any country legends exist. Many different locations claim to the original “home” of the story. Liang Shanbo, for example, is said to be from Ningbo, where there is a temple dedicated to him.
The Wuxi county-level city of Yixing also claims to be part of this story. Essentially, Yixing clams to be where Zhu once studied. This has been worked into one of the town’s higher-profile tourist attractions, Shanjuan Cave. It should be noted that this legend is not the whole story of the cave — just a part. Once one sees the cavern, a garden / courtyard dubbed Yingtai Academy is next. This is essentially near the exit and a cable car station.
This is just but one reason to see this particular place in Yixing. As of this writing, I have been here twice. I recently went back because all of my photos of Shanjuan were on a cell phone that was eventually stolen. I hadn’t backed them up. During this more recent visit, the cable cars to the top of the mountain were not working. Eventually, I may go to Shanjuan again to do that — so I can finally claim that I have seen everything the place has to offer.
In the cultural history of Wuxi, Abing is a heavyweight. In many respects, he is remembered as a folk hero — here was this blind and impoverished Taoist priest roaming around Wuxi while writing and playing music on his erhu or pippa. Some of his songs were topical, and some of them are still transcendent. Not a lot of his creations were written down as sheet music, and only a few have been recorded for posterity. Imagine if somebody in America like Woody Guthrie had their body of work lost to history. Abing’s surviving compositions are now considered Chinese national and cultural treasures.
In Wuxi, his home has been preserved as a museum in his honor. Upon my last visit, I was struck by the sculptural and artistic renditions of him. Some are quite surreal. Here are some pictures to that end.
Let’s start with a fairly realistic head bust for comparative value. Now, let’s move on to a selection. The following are not all of the sculpture’s at Abing’s former home. It’s just a quick sampling.
Most of the sculptures — and their dreamlike qualities — make Abing seem like a larger than life figure. But, then again, most folk heroes are just that: larger than life. And, the legend of a person may or may not gel exactly with who they actually were. Still, here was a Chinese musician who engaged the imaginations of his listeners. It’s only fitting that he have equally imaginative artistic renditions of his likeness.
I suspect graffiti and public art may be more of a American cultural phenomenon, especially in New York City, New Jersey, Philadephia, and other urban settings. I don’t really see it much in this part of Jiangnan, and so when I do, I always take notice and give it a good, long look. I always take pictures. For example, in Wuxi, there used to be stuff like this on a long wall.
This is just three selections from a bigger personal photo archive I have. This was near Sanyang Plaza in downtown Wuxi — walking distance from the subway station and Chong’an Temple. I always found these murals quirky, whimsical, and fun to look at. Now, the area looks like this.
The graffiti wall is completely gone. It seems something with traditional architecture is taking its place. A similar situation has happened with another long mural wall across the street.
So, what does this look like, now?
If you look closely, the artwork is now covered by advertisements. I am not complaining about this. I am not somebody who thinks every bit of artwork needs to physically preserved either. There are reasons why some American art lovers, like myself, always snap cell pictures of graffiti. It’s a finite experience. A city or real estate company may remove it, eventually — such as what has happened in Wuxi. In America, graffiti pieces are often covered by rival artists who hate each other. As I said, street art can be a finite experience. So, to that, I am glad to enjoy both mural walls while I could.
In souterhn Jiangsu, there are plenty of old towns, but many of them are closely associated with canals. Lishe Village 礼社古村 is certainly not that type. China Daily makes the place seem vibrant with a lot of local history. However, I went here on my ebike, since it was right over the city line with Changzhou and the former Qishuyan district. It largely seemed very quiet. So, what is there to see here? My experience was different than the China Daily article linked above. This wasn’t a guided tour. Just a random, solo westerner showing up. That is neither good nor bad. Here is what I did see.
There are two former residences open to the public. They are of Xue Muqiao 薛暮桥 and Sun Yefang 孙冶方. Both were prominent members of the Chinese communist party, and both were Marxist economists of note.
Other than that, there is a traditional stage / performance space.
With noodles drying in the sun!
Lishe Village is quite small. It takes roughly about an hour — two at the most — to see everything there is to see here. You can easily walk out of historic part and end up in a working class neighborhood next to a canal.
It was here that I saw a Chinese guy just wandering in tighty-whitey underpants with nothing else. In his defense, it was a hot day. He was also chain smoking cigarettes. The course correction back to the historical area wasn’t hard.
All in all, you get a fundamentally different vibe here than you would in, say, Wuxi’s Nanchan area. There, there is a bustle of tourists and people catering to tourists. Here, it’s almost serene. Then again, Nanchan is centrally located in Wuxi. This is in an extreme corner to the Huishan District. As stated earlier, it’s just over the city line with Changzhou.
Steam technology came to China during the Qing Dynasty, and there is an interesting dynamic to think about there. In Ancient history, the Chinese were essentially global leaders of innovation. Gun powder, for example, came into being during the 9th century, and the Chinese followed that up with the “fire lance” a hundred or so years later. This was basically a tube at the end of a spear the could belch out fire and sometimes, if one had some really nasty intent, flaming hot shrapnel. The fire lance was the precursor to all firearms and guns to follow.
Ask yourself how something like that didn’t change the world? Then, somehow, China lost its edge. During the Ming and early Qing Dynasties, The Middle Kingdom shut itself off from the rest of the world. In isolation, the culture slowed its technological growth and the west caught up and surpassed China. Once the later Qing reopened to western trade, China had a lot of catching up to do. What good is a ancient Chinese fire lance in battle when Americans invented the first rapid-fire machine gun? (The Gatlin Gun)
Guns or otherwise, the Chinese had fallen behind. So, back to my original point. The British first demonstrated a steam powered locomotive to imperial court in 1864, and the trend from there indicates that most of the innovations like this came from foreign sources at high cost. Most people and nation states dream and aspire towards self reliance. So, you can imagine how some Chinese people would actively want to make their own steam engines and not have to pay top sums of money for a foreigner to manufacture one for them.
Here is where an interesting — but almost forgettable — little display in present day Wuxi comes into play. It’s along the Liangxi Touring Recreational Greenway. This is a part of the greater Grand Canal network of artificial waterways that can be found in cities from Hangzhou to Beijing. This particular stretch of water is walking distance from Wuxi’s central train station and is near a thick cluster of dance clubs.
So, what exactly am I talking about? There is a replica of a steamship permanently moored to the side of the canal here. Next to this boat, three statues of Chinese men stand. In all likelihood, they are Xu Shou with his son, Xu Jiangyan, and a family friend, Hua Hengfang. These three conceived, designed, built, and test drove the first steam-powered boat ever locally produced in China. This endeavor was funded by Zeng Guofan. He is perhaps more well known for his efforts in helping to put down the the extremely bloody and destructive Taiping Rebellion. So, this little boat thing in Wuxi is more of a minor footnote on his career as an imperial official.
In some respects, China is still playing “catch up” with the west when it comes to technology. In other areas, like the building infrastructure like roads, rail systems, subway networks, and much more, China is already leading and has left the USA far, far behind. But, in history, a lot of things are interconnected in subtle ways. So, Wuxi’s claim to have been the home of the first domestically created steamship engine may not sound like a big deal. It may still sound like a footnote in history, but even footnotes have context and greater meanings.