Surprising Chinese Food

What could be surprising about Chinese food, you ask? Isn’t it all chop suey and sweet and sour chicken, spring rolls and sweet corn soup, chili chicken and gobi Manchurian? On my first visit to China a few years ago I was surprised at how wrong this is. Noodle soups were only a quick stop for lunch. After working my way through many pleasant surprises, I settled on stir fried veggies with slices of meat, lots of different kinds of veggies on the side, and a bowl of steamed rice as a default comfortable dinner.

For dinner with non-Chinese friends on my last visit to Wuhan, I walked into a nice large restaurant full of people. Negotiating a menu is no longer impossible, now that everyone is equipped with apps that look through the camera or translate speech instantly. It may still be hard to understand what the translation means (an example is in the photo above). One of the dishes we ordered was billed as a fish soup, and the lady who was taking our orders added that it had eggs. A little confusing, we thought, but let out order stand. The result was a complete, but pleasant surprise. It looked like a custard (featured photo) but tasted of fish soup. It came studded with mussels. It was one of most delightfully different things I’ve come across for half a year.

I forgot to take note of what it is called. Can an old China hand help me out with guesses about what its name might be? (Thanks to a fellow blogger, I now have an answer. It is called 蒸蛋羹, Zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg).

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A weekday evening

One of the great stories of the end of the 20th century is the lifting of about half a billion people from China into the world’s middle class. That is about ten times larger than the middle class in India. When I return from a trip to China, people are always curious about how the Chinese middle class lives. They commute to work in buses and trains, and sometimes cars. Their day’s commute starts at about 5 in the morning, and ends between 5 and 6 in the evening. Dinner is early, so that by 8 they are free to relax.

The video you see here was taken in Wuhan on a weekday night. In most cities in China, when you pass by a housing complex you see something like what I captured in it. Women exercise with dances (there are two groups in this video), parents are out strolling with their children, there is a lot of socializing in the neighbourhood. It looks like a nice and relaxed lifestyle. But, of course, I haven’t lived it from the inside.

Three views of the Third Yangtze River Bridge

Last week I was in a meeting in Wuhan, a city that tourists overlook. This powerhouse city in central China was the origin of the successful Republican revolution which overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911, and, in succeeding years, became the capital of the nation for brief periods. One of its sights is the Soviet-era bridge across the Yangtze, the first modern bridge to be built across the river. That was in 1957. Other bridges have come up since then. I find the third bridge very photogenic. The featured photo is a view at sunset, just as the lights came on.

Walking between two tall brutalist concrete blocks, I looked up to see the nearest tower of the three and a half kilometer long cable-stayed bridge, lit up by the afternoon’s sun on the day of the summer solstice. This was a lucky shot because it had threatened to rain all day, and the sun had just briefly come out as I walked out towards the bridge. This is not a very famous bridge, having been completed in 2000 during a period of intense construction. Its main span is 681 meters, which makes it only the 31st longest span among cable-stayed bridges today. Still, I liked the looks of it.

It passes right next to the Hilton. I crossed a road and walked out under the bridge where a little riverside promenade has been built up. This was a cheerful place with families walking around. A toddler inspected me carefully as I took this shot, teetering and nearly out of balance. His father smiled at me. In most other countries my bright red phone causes people to recoil a little. In China it does not draw a second glance. Red (红 = hóng) is a lucky colour, and very common. What a strange happenstance that the colour of the French revolution of 1789, found its way through the Paris Commune, and its adoption by the Communist movements of the world to this country where it is the traditional colour of joy and luck.

Lingnan life

In Guangzhou you can’t help reading about the Lingnan style of architecture, without learning much. The old classical Lingnan style was built around the structure of life of those times. The high-rises of today are the same across all of China. When you try to find out more about the modern Lingnan style you are referred to examples: the Chen Clan Academy or the lobby of the White Swan Hotel in Shamian island. What I understood was that the Lingnan architectural style referred to adaptations to the warmer climate of southern China, including the materials used. As an example, the open verandahs of the Museum of Cantonese Opera that you see in the featured photo channel air over water to cool the surroundings.

I walked through the museum asking myself whether I could think of it as an example of the modern Lingnan style of architecture. The wood and clay tiles that are used in these roofs could possibly count. The clay tiles insulate against heat. The decorative fired black clay panels just below the roof are holdovers from older Lingnan architecture. So this combination would count as Lingnan.

The large pool and the cascading water from the rocks in the middle of it are definitely in the Lingnan style. Chinese gardens from across the country use water and rocks, but such a large open pool, not shaded by trees, is unlikely to be seen in Shanghai or Beijing. Pools there reflect the greenery of large overhanging trees. This one does not have the feel of the pools and streams in the Summer Palace of Beijing or in Shanghai’s Yu garden.

This part of the complex induced a sudden sharp burst of nostalgia. The banana trees and the coloured glass panels in windows reminded me of one of my childhood homes. The combination of hot-climate plant and glass designed to block out the sun would definitely make this part of the vocabulary of the Lingnan style. In fact, walking around the neighbourhood you can see many more examples of these glass panels on doors and windows.

A Bougainvillea flower floated on a stream full of carp. This was again typical of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. This plant does not grow well in the cold of China to the north of these provinces. In fact when we flew in to Guangzhou, the sight of Bougainvillea growing in the city made me think of the balcony of our flat in Mumbai where we have managed to get two of these plants to grow. The carp is common across China, so between the two, this is a Lingnan voice speaking.

The building above the museum has a tower with the upturned corners which some people say typifies this style. I also liked the adaptation of modernity in the simple rectangular glass windows. They would not be out of place transplanted to the Barcelona Pavilion. The building stands next to the pool whose photo you saw above. So, together, they take modernity and Lingnan’s old architectural vocabulary and merge them together.

Snacking in Shanghai

It was a few hours after lunch, and as we walked around Tianzifang, I began to feel hungry again. What could I snack on? In China it is not hard to find snacks. We passed several kiosks selling skewered meat. That looked good, but did I want such a substantial snack at this time? I have a tendency to pass up perfectly good snacks until I get so hungry that I eat the first thing that I see.

We passed a nice little kiosk (featured photo) advertising a wide variety of things that I could eat. The Family knows how bad I’m at selecting snacks, and drew my attention to the various steamed dumplings. Dumplings! Do I look like a Kung Fu Panda? My attention was on the interesting looking popsicles. And was that an ice cream freezer there? I looked in. I’m never able to pass up an opportunity to take photos of ice cream. I’d just barely recovered from a flu the previous evening, and I wasn’t going to take a chance on catching another throat infection. So I walked away.

We passed a restaurant. It looked inviting. The Family knew that we didn’t have enough time to sit down at a restaurant and eat. She walked past. My hunger pangs were getting more severe by the minute, so I paused here. No menu hanging outside. I took a photo and walked on.

Somewhere nearby, inside a tiny lane we found the perfect place. Yogurt in many flavours! This was exactly what I wanted, a combination of sugar and proteins. The Family also likes yogurt, so we had our little snack here. Nice place, we said to each other as we sat at one of the tables and shared two flavours of yogurt. I was satisfied for a while, and then I said to The Family, “I think I need to eat something more.”

Tranquility recalled

As a tourist, perpetually on a short time-budget, I don’t seek out tranquility. So I’m all the more appreciative of it, especially when it comes on you inside the crowded and noisy Six Banyan Tree temple in Guangzhou, where people are busy exchanging money for spiritual satisfaction. I paused inside a hall with vast statues of various Buddhas and saw this scene. The image of the world’s most famous ascetic juxtaposed with a priest waiting patiently for his next customer was something one could not pass up.

While I was sleeping

“What did you do while I slept?” I asked The Family when I finally gave up trying to sleep through my flu. “This and that. I went shopping and I took lots of photos,” she said. We went out together in the late afternoon, walking again through the Liwan district.

She showed me the photos when we sat down. She’d taken the trouble to stop in front of each of the bronze statues that the city has installed on Shangxiajiu pedestrian street and photographed it. We’d both admired these pieces of public art which celebrate the heydays of Guangzhou, the 1920s and 30s.These bronzes are evidence of China’s renewed fascination with the life of those times. I had very few photos of them, and, in fact, The Family had discovered ones that I’d not even seen. The plaques below the pedestals did not give us any information on the dates of installation or the names of artists, but, of course, we do not read Chinese. Later we searched on the web but couldn’t find any information either.

The Emperor’s Lane

Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.

The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.

We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.

If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.

Chinese tees

I love the meaningless phrases that the Chinese put on their tees. That red tee (hong cha, to mistranslate a pun) in the featured photo was a word salad: full of the taste of English without too many of the calories.

When I took a photo of this jacket in a shop’s display the salesgirl was very annoyed with me. Photos of jackets? Seriously?

This shop window was visible from inside a metro station. Truly, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.

And you too. Thanks for all the fish, by the way.

Shootout in Shanghai

Strolling along the pedestrian section of Nanjing Street at night, The Family and I came across public nostalgia for Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. The 1920s and 30s were a gilded age. In this new gilded age of Shanghai, it seems that nostalgia for that century old era is rife. The photo shoot in the video was street theatre, very deliberate, drawing an appreciative audience. I was happy to do my bit of ambush photography.