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.

Ambushing wedding albums

Ambush photography seems to be a phrase which should exist. I do it all the time. I’ve ambushed film shoots, models, even wedding albums in the making. As long as you keep out of the way no one minds. Wedding photo shoots have slowly become a thing in China. The couple is always in Western dress (though occasionally in traditional red), but the setting is usually not traditionally Chinese.

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I think in a few more years I can create an album of the most touristy spots in China with ambush photos of wedding shoots. I liked the occasions in the album above for simple reasons: the light in the featured photo, taken in the top floor of the Canton Tower, the activity in several, but also because they show off some of Guangzhou’s (and Wuhan’s) iconic spots.

Living in a ghost town

China’s ghosts are the ghosts of the future. After my first visit in 2011, it took me a couple of years to realize that I would often live in a ghost town. The featured photo was taken one morning in November 2011 from a hotel room in Wuhan, probably on the last morning before I left. Photos taken from the same window at night showed large patches of darkness with a few brightly lit buildings (photo below). The hotel was very good, priced very reasonably, but far from full. On the few nights when I was not at an official dinner I would walk ten minutes to a brightly lit mall nearby and eat at one of the many restaurants there. I never questioned why the roads were not as crowded as the ones in India.

In later visits I found that life on the streets can be quite as crowded and interesting as that in India; it depends on where you live. Other questions attached themselves to this bit of oddity. Why did colleagues speak of the difficulty of finding affordable housing when a fast train across China would pass town after town where very few people seemed to live? Search for “ghost towns in China” and you can piece together an intriguing story. My sources are secondary, so the story is probably more nuanced than I can tell, but bear with me.

More than a decade ago, the government decided to increase spending in housing a hundredfold. It created public and state controlled corporations which started building apartments at a very rapid pace. The industry created jobs, and fuelled the current explosion in the economy. (This has already improved living conditions: the pollution and haze that you see in the featured photo is not seen any longer.) Provinces converted some of the land earmarked for agriculture to construction, so earning part of this budget. In order to control land speculation, builders could not squat on land until the prices rose, but were obliged by law to build immediately. The result was a huge glut in the housing market. But people with money started buying up flats which they did not need as investment. This pushed up housing prices very rapidly. To curb speculation, the government created a class of housing which had to be occupied immediately, but the harm was already done; property prices had gone through the roof. Nobody could buy, so nobody could sell. The government can’t stop financing construction because then a very large number of people will lose jobs. The result is a speculative bubble which is simmering while flats lie vacant. This problem arises from precisely the same long-term planning that China is famous for.

Again, in a November seven years after my first visit to China, I stayed in a nice, very large, and awfully underutilized, hotel in Hefei, The hotel and the recreational area around it were well lit, and reasonably full at night. But when I took a taxi to work in the early mornings, or returned at dusk, I would pass kilometers of housing which seemed barely occupied. China is incredibly safe from street crime, otherwise they would be dangerous places to walk through.

I look at the lone lit window in the photo above and think of the hope which China has of providing housing to all of its people. This photo was taken on the hundred and first anniversary of the failed Russian revolution. The developed world is still living out the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare of shifting jobs, the Blair-Clinton pruning of alternative viewpoints. Has China truly discovered the middle path of publicly funded private enterprise with long-range planning by the government? These ghost cities wait for the future to answer.

Horses

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I find that Chinese images of horses are subtly disorienting. Perhaps I’m too used to the use of images of horses to depict freedom, grace and wild spirits: this is ubiquitous in advertising. Indian art also sees the horse as a symbol of grace. Chinese art, on the other hand, seems to see the horse as a symbol of power. The muscles of the chest and haunches are exaggerated. The photo above is a typical contemporary depiction of a horse; this is a piece in the art museum in Wuhan. Of course, contemporary art exaggerates. But the exaggeration says something about the artist’s notion of the subject.

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How far back did this iconography emerge? I flicked through the photos that I’d taken during my recent trips to China and stopped at the image of the oldest horses I’d seen. The photo above is a famous piece, one of the two chariots dug up from near the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shih Huang. It can be seen in a special exhibit in the enclosure with the famous terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. One can see a fairly realistic depiction of a horse. If there is an exaggeration of the chest and haunches then it is mild. So the current Chinese concept of a horse is not two thousand years old.

That’s a long enough time for an academic to research and build a thesis upon! I’m happy enough just looking at these strange Chinese horses.

Chinese contemporary art in Wuhan

I passed Wuhan’s museum of contemporary art on the way in from the airport. I’m extremely fond of contemporary Chinese sculpture, so I went to look. How wide is contemporary art in China? In Beijing and Shanghai I’d seen photography, paintings, calligraphy, as well as metal and ceramic sculpture.2015-10-07 15.03.37 During a brief chat in Shanghai with a ceramics artist called Liu Ping, I discovered that the art of porcelain has been transformed by the new glazes which utilize the new high-temperature kilns.

My acquaintance with Chinese art is so new that I was sure I would find interesting new media in Wuhan. I was not disappointed: the ground floor contains a gallery of video installations. They ranged from the extreme abstract to ones which had the look of modern animation cartoons. I liked one in which a video was projected from inside on to a spherical paper lantern (photo on the left). A gallery on the second floor had beautiful lacquer work. This is something I don’t know much about, so I was not sure what was new about the pretty pieces which I saw.

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The sculptures were as innovative as those I’ve seen elsewhere. There was a field of paper mushrooms (above) stretching out to great distances. It was a sculptural equivalent of calligraphy. The form of each of the mushrooms was fairly well fixed: the artist did not invent a new type of mushroom each time he rolled the paper. The art was in how the whole was put together. You could step back and look at the scale of the whole thing, in which case you did not see each figure. Or you could bend down and look at each mushroom, and lose sight of the whole.2015-10-07 16.09.15

There was a stunning piece of woodwork elsewhere: a long table with a steamship sailing through it. The wooden steamship belches out wooden smoke, and throws up a wooden wake as it plows through a wooden sea. My dinky little phone does not really do justice to the sculpture. Part of the fun is in the fact that it is a long table, which could be usable as a table. The far end of the piece (not seen in the photo) looks just like an ordinary, but good, piece of furniture. You might admire the grain and the polish, but you could just use it as a table. The other end of the long piece is the end in the photo above. The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the unexpected is part of the fun here.

I’m sure I have other photos. More about Chinese art as I discover them.

The Yangtze river

I had hazy memory from my school books that the Yangtze river is among the world’s longest. Before going to Wuhan, I checked that it is actually the third in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. I’d passed over Wuhan’s Second Yangtze Bridge on the way in from the airport. On the way to see the river a few days later, as the taxi negotiated a traffic tunnel, the driver told me proudly that it is China’s longest: a three kilometer long tunnel under the Yangtze (Changjiang in Mandarin), connecting the Wuchang and Hankou districts of the town. We emerged into Hankou, and turned past a river boat terminal into the mouth of a pedestrian entry.

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Yangtze river cruises through the Three Gorges have been heavily advertised in recent years, and are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. These boats dock at the interesting looking terminal we passed. I got off the car and walked past the levees (which were raised in 2005 to protect the town against flooding) to the river. No large cruise boats were to be seen. But there were these interesting looking boats moored to a quay. They seem to have a very shallow draught, like the famous old sailboats of the Yangtze. I wondered whether they are floating docks or boats, until I went close and found that they are boats. They have so many cabins that they must be used for short cruises. If there were smaller boats I wouldn’t have minded spending a day drifting down this river. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.

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It was late in the morning of a working day, so there weren’t too many people around. I walked down to the water. There was a lone swimmer near the bank, far from him were a couple of anglers. This is a nice lazy pastime. One angler was leaning on a barricade and chatting with another person: a friend or a passerby. You could see from here how wide the river was. It was hard to make out any details in the towers of Wuchang one could see on the far bank. As always in China, things were under construction. You could see cranes poking their necks out over the skyline.

Barely have I drunk the waters of Changsha,
Now I am eating fish in Wuchang.
I swim across the great Yangtse River
And see the sky of Chu unfolding before me.
–Mao Zedong

The Yangtze has inspired poetry from some of the most famous poets of China. Even Mao Zedong wrote about it, after swimming from the Hankou side to Wuchang. This is something that people in China still talk about. I can understand it now. Swimming across this river is a pretty impressive feat. It also helps that Mao was a reasonably good poet in the classical Chinese tradition. The Yangtze attracts Chinese tourists, perhaps in greater numbers than foreigners. I’m happy to see that even on this fairly empty morning I’m not the only tourist toting a camera. At the back you can see the piers where the cruise boats dock, and the passenger terminal building.

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I climbed back up to the levee. On the landward side is a long garden where grandparents had taken their grandchildren for an outing. There were vendors selling glittery kites and a few children were trying to fly them. As I wandered through the garden I heard music. I tracked it down to a person sitting and playing a small stringed instrument which I did not recognize. After he had finished, he packed the instrument into the carry-box of the scooter above, slipped his arms into the gloves built into the blanket you can see in the photo above, and drove off. Electric scooters in China are treated as pedestrians. I’d not seen this interesting blanket before, but it makes sense that they are being brought out in Autumn. I didn’t think it was cold enough for protection, but then I’m from hot and sweltering Mumbai, where the autumn temperature exceeds Wuhan’s fabled summer heat.

The story of Lem the singer

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Lawrence of China is going slow on the Baijiu and is the first to notice that the bar has live music. Kind of; the singer has karaoke backing. Next to her a piano is covered in red velvet. A few of us keep aside the shots of sorghum liquor and listen. She has a good voice. It inspires several people in the party to do a Karaoke. During this I realize that she’s not Chinese.

China is a new magnet: even with its economic swings, even as skilled Chinese learn English and dream of settling in the US. The economic growth and the accumulation of money means that there are new opportunities for workers as well as entertainers. Some years ago Tash Aw came close to the Booker Prize with a novel about immigrant workers in China. Some are illegal factory workers, others relatively well-paid entertainers, and then there are the academics and stratospheric bankers. I’ve only met the high-earning Shanghai Pudong expats before. They are different, their backs rest briefly in China, their legs straddle continents. I have no idea what it is to be an immigrant struggling to make it in China.

Her name is Lem. She is from the Philippines. She’s happy to talk about her work and her experience of China. I learn that she always wanted to do music. Lem says that she was part of a band, all members of which have been in China for a while. They could not get a job together initially. She got a contract with this hotel in Wuhan, others in her band found work in Chongqing. Lem looks at me questioningly as she mentions this town. I nod. Although I’ve heard of it, I can’t recall how far away it is.

I ask how it is to live in China. She says, obliquely, that she liked her job in the hotel; it helped her to get experience in a smaller place in China. Wuhan has a population of 10 million; more than New York City holds. But I can see that for her it would be a small place. Bangalore has a similar population, but has more music pubs.

Outside of work? Lem evades this question. She says she has a room in the hotel, so she does not have to try to rent a place on her own. She has visited her band members several times in the year. They now have a contract to play together.

She perks up. Her contract here has ended and she will leave Wuhan after the weekend. She and her band have a contract to play together in Nanjing. She looks a question at me again. Yes, I know about Nanjing. Never been there. Is it better than Wuhan? She nods vigorously. I know that it is closer to Shanghai. She agrees. She eventually wants to go to Shanghai. I know how lively the music scene is in Shanghai. I wish her luck. Lem smiles broadly and thanks me.

I run into her in the lobby the next morning. She’s dressed for a sunny day, her last in Wuhan. She is bubbling and happy, ready for the next year of her life. I wish her luck. China, like India, is a hard and competitive place. She’ll need luck.

Wuhan’s east lake in two moods

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I arrived in Wuhan a couple of days after typhoon Mujigae hit southern China. It was raining in Shanghai and Wuhan. I checked in and looked out of the window at Wuhan’s famous East Lake and saw the foggy scene in the photo above. Very dark and brooding, I thought to myself. Misty like a Chinese landscape painting. All I was missing in the photo was a man in the middle distance fishing.

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A couple of days later the weather had changed. The days were clearer than I’d ever seen in Wuhan before. The East Lake was a placid mirror reflecting the blue of the sky and the white fluffy clouds. The days were perfect for casual strolls by the lake. I liked these days better, but I liked that darker picture more.