Author Archive

Famous in Hangzhou

Two weekends ago I was invited back down to Hangzhou to schmooze the press at a launch ceremony for the book I wrote about the city. It was pretty fun to sit up on the dais and half-understand all the things the (probable) party members and higher-ups in the Tourism Commission and city government were saying about me and the book. I gave a short speech and read from the book (the section on my visit to the three temples at Tianzhu) in front of a crowd of forty some-odd reporters, and even a crew from Hangzhou Television. Apparently, in addition to being on the nightly news, I’ve also been featured on at least one website, in an article which seems to be a write-up of the press conference and descriptions of the book. If anyone wants to translate, drop me a summary in the comments!

Posted by on August 5th, 2006

The World’s Best Soup Dumplings

I grew up eating some of the top xiao long bao in America–not that I knew that at the time, or that I knew what they were really called–at Flushing’s own Joe’s Shanghai, a mere seven miles from my childhood home. It wasn’t until I ventured to the Beijing branch of Din Tai Fung, a storied Taiwanese purveyor of classic Shanghainese cuisine, however, that I realized the world had even better soup dumplings in store.

Soup dumplings originated in Shanghai (as the name Joe’s Shanghai would seem to suggest) and are its most famous food export–perhaps assorted crab parts, from legs to roe, don’t really captivate the international palate quite as easily. In any case, the best of them are bundles of hot heaven, with a flour wrapper just thick enough to prevent disintegration concealing a mass of steamed pork (or pork-and-crab, if you swing that way) swimming in a sea of soup. The taste is unrivalled in the world of dumplings (except, to be completely fair, by my Great-Aunt Rozzie’s Thanksgiving kreplach). On top of the taste, there is also surprise and wonder, especially on the part of the soup dumpling newcomer: how did they get the soup inside the dumpling?

Behold, the answer (thanks to Google for the link…I had read this somewhere but couldn’t remember where). The Food Section references a 2004 article by Margo True in Saveur, which is sadly unavailable online. Their summary, however, will suffice:

Ms. True writes that the exact origins of soup dumplings, or xiao long bao (“little dumplings from basket”), are unknown, but they first appeared in Nanxiang, northwest of Shanghai, at least 100 years ago…Ms. True reveals the secret behind the soup. The rich liquid comes from small cubes of aspic made from pork skin that is mixed into the filling. As the filling steams, the aspic melts–turning from solid into liquid–and soup dumplings are born.

One of my all-time favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin, writes a bit more eloquently (or at least humorously) about these Shanghai treasures in a New Yorker article that was later included in his book Feeding a Yen (which I actually reviewed for the Harvard Book Review):

Several years ago, Joe’s Shanghai, a Queens restaurant that was noted for its soup dumplings, opened a Manhattan Chinatown branch that became a huge hit with the pasty-faced citizens the Chinese in America sometimes refer to, when in a benign mood, as “foreign devils.” Soup dumplings, which are often called steamed buns on menus, get their name from the fact that the dumpling skin holds not only a core that is often made of pork and crab—Jewish connoisseurs sometimes refer to soup dumplings as “double-trayf specials”—but also a liquid so tasty that diners tend to be sanguine about the clothing stains they acquire while trying to get to it.

Din Tai Fung’s dumplings are exquisite, and not just the soup variety–they make wonderful wontons, superlative shaomai (a taller version than usual, with a dainty shrimp curled into the crimped crown), and delightful dessert buns, filled with either smooth red-bean paste or slightly gritty and sweet black sesame paste). To wash them down, lulu, China’s take on horchata, which tastes like liquid marzipan, is never a bad bet, but the honey cucumber juice is unusually refreshing.

Posted by on July 30th, 2006

Crawfish, dumplings, and beer

Tonight I met my friend M. and his friend T. at a night market in Wudaokou, the part of town where most of Beijing’s universities are located, and to which I’ve never really ventured before, except when I had to take the various parts of the GRE exam last fall. M., and especially T., know the area a lot better than I do, and it was worth making the trek just to get out of my small neighborhood, even if the night market was hyped a bit beyond reality, which is to say, from what I’d heard I’d imagined it was interesting, and it turned out to be not particularly cool. However, a couple of vendors did have some exciting fare, like gigantic live crawfish stir-fried with spices on the spot, good pork jiaozi (dumplings) with spicy bean sauce, cucumber, and cilantro, and Yanjing Beer (Beijing’s hometown ale–Yanjing is an old name for the city) on tap, unusual for a city where beer is much more common bottled than draft. In all, it was a fine night, made more so by a return to M.’s apartment for some Trivial Pursuit and homemade banana bread–and, at the very least, a delicious one.

Posted by on June 5th, 2006

Google blocked in China

Perhaps it’s the approaching 17th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square (Sunday, June 4th) or the 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution (Tuesday, June 6th), or maybe it’s just another attempt by the world’s rising second superpower to put the internet’s undisputed premiere force in its place, but at some point yesterday morning Google ceased to work in China–or at least here in Beijing.

For over 24 hours, Google, in all its manifestations and permutations, was absent from my life, limiting my ability to email, search, map, and track blogs. Blogspot has been blocked since August, Wikipedia joined the blacklist back in the fall, and Technorati has been offline here since April, but the first two sites were still reachable with an online anonymizer (I used anonymouse.org.), and I had Google Blogsearch to compensate for Technorati. The sidelining of the big G, however, was too much to handle–and I began to worry how I was ever going to make it in China until December. By now, and for me, Google is basically synonymous with the internet, and therefore with a great portion of my personal and working lives.

I’ve gotten around the censors by now with a hard-core proxy-server (I’m running FoxyProxy in Firefox alongside Tor.), but even I probably couldn’t have managed to figure that out without help from the awesome Brazilian super-tech guy, Lalo, from my office. Imagine the computing skills of the average Chinese person (for city residents, about the same as the typical American of the same age, with unsurprisingly less expertise in rural areas) and it’s easy to see what a huge demonstration of strength this was on the part of the Chinese government. If even I, a foreigner who could leave the country at any time she chose, who could still watch satellite TV, make international phone calls, and subvent the restrictions to reach most websites, felt besieged and cut off from the outside world, how must Chinese citizens feel?

One of the most surprising aspects of this whole censorship experience has been that I haven’t been able to find any information about it online. Part of that might be the inaccesibility of the best search engine available, but I searched all the usual alternatives (Yahoo, MSN, A9, even Whonu for “Google blocked China” and came up blank, or just about. I did find old articles and blog posts about prior instances of the government putting on a show of power for Google (for example in October 2002–part of a long history of the power struggle between these giants), but nothing relevant to what was actually happening here right now. It made me wonder if people here are afraid that the guardians of the Great Firewall of China might brand their blog with the mark of the barbarian hordes as well, and block their sites in China. I’m not too worried about what could happen to my site….I just really want to know what’s going on!

Update (6:16pm CST June 1st): I’ve found at least one other post about the block, at Matthew Stinson’s blog, which I read from time to time.

Update (12:29am CST June 4th): Looks like Richard over at The Peking Duck has caught up with the news as well, though from the comments it seems it might not be an issue everywhere in China.

Posted by on June 1st, 2006

Mountains and markets and mystique

I’ve posted my photos from Dali now as well–a varied bunch of shots from two days spent exploring the old town of this beautiful ancient capital of the Bai people, hiking on the mountain that stands above it, surveying street food and produce, and basically taking it all in (with exhausted breaths due to the altitude…). They’re up on the photo page in this album and posted on flickr, as usual.

Posted by on March 31st, 2006

Hundreds of photos, dozens of stories

That’s what I have to share from the past few weeks. It’s too much to deal with all at once, especially while I have to work, so I’ve decided to go at it in reverse chronological order, roughly. I’ve uploaded my photos from Lijiang, the final stop on my short trip to Yunnan with my brother, to flickr and to an album here. As soon as I get a chance, I’ll write a bit about their context, but for now here are a couple of my favorite shots from our two days in that ancient town, home to the Naxi culture.

Posted by on March 30th, 2006

Realizations

1. It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Sorry. I’ve been out enjoying Beijing, people-watching at Hong Kong Disney (and riding Space Mountain for the first time in my life), working hard on the run-up to launch at work, which releases to the public a week from tomorrow, and gallivanting around with Matt, who came to visit me and ended up cleaning my bathroom. I have many photos to upload and stories to tell, and I’ll try to get around to it as soon as I can, although, since my brother, J., arrives tomorrow, it may be another while yet.

2. It’s been an entire year since I finished writing my thesis. It was on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one of the most incredible books ever written. Read it, if you haven’t, in memory of the hours I spent writing about it–or just read it because it’s truly wonderful. Still, I can’t believe it’s been a year.

Posted by on March 14th, 2006

Thick into paper

One last excerpt from my book–I posted briefly about this experience, but not at all about the details…and it was pretty cool.

Along with gunpowder, clocks, and noodles, the Chinese are said to have invented paper. As is the case with many similar generalizations, a great deal of truth actually stands behind that notion: while the Mediterranean world was still drawing on papyrus and etching with styluses on wax tablets and the Incas were conveying messages with knotted ropes, the Chinese had a fifteen-hundred-year head start writing on the cheap and versatile medium of paper—and even printing on it.

Less than an hour southwest of Hangzhou, fifteen minutes shy of the city of Fuyang, an organization still produces paper the same way it has been made for millennia in the region just south of the Yangtze River, and prints hand-bound books of ancient texts on it in the traditional manner. I’ve always been fascinated by the artifacts of writing and printing, and so I jumped at the chance to visit this ancient papermaking village, as the place is known, and see what’s behind this historically and artistically important art form.

A guide led me around the village, which is laid out in the style of the Ming Dynasty (although it has certainly been reconstructed to some degree), and she walked me through the process of making paper from pulp to poetry. The first steps take place outside the village itself, in the bamboo forests up on the hills that line the banks of the nearby Fuchun River. There, sturdy men fell clumps of bamboo and hack it into serviceable pieces, after which it is transported to the village to be transformed. This is one of the few ways in which the modern process diverges from the ancient one: today trucks carry the bamboo from the forests to the village, but in years past it was carried on the backs of animals, or of men, and sometimes it was floated down the river.

Once it arrives at the village, machines of antique construction reduce the bamboo to a woody pulp. This pulp is then transferred into giant vats, which are filled to the top with cold water. The entire production line is located in buildings sheltered by roofs but open in the front to the elements, which makes this a chilling process even in early fall, let alone in winter. Men with chapped but cold-hardened hands wield giant frames over the vats, on which is suspended a fine metal netting. They lower these wooden frames into the freezing vats slowly, rest them beneath the surface of the pulpy water for a moment, and carefully lift them back up and behind them, all in one smooth motion. The guide insisted I try this for myself, and, though I feigned disinterest, I was secretly glad to have the chance to imitate these actions—it had seemed too easy to be interesting when I watched the men at work, but dipping wire into water and coming up with paper was much more difficult than it appeared.

Once the pulp rests perfectly on the netting stretched across the frame, the artisan places it on a pile until dozens of layers have accumulated. It takes twenty or more layers to make one of these outsized sheets of paper. The sheets then make their way to the next station, where women work actively to dry them evenly. The worker takes a sheet and sticks it onto a slate-black wall, which is heated from the inside by a roaring furnace. She brushes down the length of the sheet until the color starts to change from muddy gray to a brighter white. When the paper is dry, she stacks it by the door for easy access. From there it is taken to be cut down to the proper size and moved over to the next set of small buildings, where the printers keep their shop.

There, using ancient wooden blocks of characters borrowed from museums and archives, women work to print traditional texts by China’s renowned historians and beloved poets. Each block of writing is enough to print a page, and the wooden blocks, black from use over the centuries, must be coated perfectly by brush with thick ink in order to create a good print. Again, I was encouraged to have a go myself at what seemed like a mindless task, using a block engraved with a drawing of a phoenix, and again I proved myself foolish. The lines that resulted on my paper were splotchy in some regions and barely visible in others, the head was a giant blur of ink, and black specks dotted the white background. I carefully placed my embarrassment in my bag and moved on to the shop. It was months before I threw away the travesty—for a while it served as a nice reminder that things aren’t always as easy as they look, especially when the thing in question is the hard work of someone else.

The other souvenir I acquired, however, is something to cherish. In the wood-beamed shop at the end of the production line, I browsed through the shelves of books bound in blue or yellow cloth until I found the perfect gift for my friend, a casual scholar of classical Chinese poetry: an edition of the collected works of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, constructed from scratch entirely on site and bound accordion-style, in the traditional fashion. Looking at the gorgeous volumes of lyrical observations, military histories, and philosophical ruminations, it was hard to believe that these had all started out as the cold mixture of pulp and water into which I’d dipped my hands just a while before. It seemed impossible that every page was made of dozens of thin sheets interlaced and compressed, that each character of every poem was printed with the care required not to smudge the fine calligraphy, that these books had begun as bamboo groves up on the hills behind the village, and, by extension, as ideas in the heads of long-dead writers.

Posted by on March 1st, 2006

It’s a dog-eat-dog-year world

I spotted this ad in the classified section on the That’s Beijing website, and I couldn’t get over how weird it was. Why wouldn’t they want someone born in the year of the dog? Is it really that unlucky to have been born under the same zodiac as the current year? Or is it just a way of discriminating against applicants that are too young or too old? The subject was “Urgent: Film Production Company Need an Assistant,” and the text went like this, seemingly normal and justified until the end:

Position: Office Assistant
Requirements:
-native Chinese male or female
-love film and drama
– Ability to co-ordinate, organize and follow-up with tasks
– Ability to prioritize projects and tasks
– Open-minded attitude and willing to learn
– Strong ability to problem solve, delegate, multi-task, plan and organize
– Confidence in communication with a direct and open style
– Enthusiasm and motivation with evidence of going the extra mile
– An essential high degree of confidentiality
– Ability to research and collect data
– Patient and thoughtful
– Phone contact and meeting attendance

Responsibilities:
– General administrative duties
– Communicate, organize and co-ordinate
– Research and collect information to draft reports
– Preparation of documents, reports and answering of email

Computer Experience:
Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Powerpoint , Macromedia-Dreamwaver.

NOT BEEN BORN IN A DOG YEAR (NEITHER 1982 NOR 1970)

Isn’t that strange?

Posted by on February 21st, 2006

A pirate’s life for me

I’ve been getting back on a movie kick the past few days, after a few weeks spent doing a lot of reading. Mostly, I think, I’m inspired by the Academy, which nominated a lot of films that I’ve heard are really terrific for Oscars this year. The weather was gorgeous this afternoon, sunny and in the high 40s or low 50s, so I decided to take a ride out to the suburbs to Tom’s–by far the best DVD store in Beijing. Their prices are more expensive, but the quality of the DVDs is great, and their selection is unrivalled, as well as incredibly (alphabetically!) organized. I found just about every movie I was hoping to buy, plus, of course, a number of others that caught my eye in the process:

Munich
Walk the Line
The Constant Gardener
The Family Stone
A Home at the End of the World
Edward Scissorhands
Everything is Illuminated
Transamerica
Proof
Elizabethtown
The Aristocrats
The Simpsons – Season 15
The Pretender – Season 2

Altogether, they cost me about $32–but I’m flush since I got paid on Friday. Besides, these movies are all well worth it, or so I hope, and just compare how much I spent with the prices at Amazon!

Posted by on February 19th, 2006