Archive for Beijing

Goodbye, Anus Hospital


Photo courtesy of eychao

I’m sure the Beijing landscape has changed vastly since I left there in December, but the New York Times confirms at least one transformation that saddens me deeply. Around the corner from my first apartment in Beijing, on Dongdaqiao Lu near Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, stands a hospital that specializes in proctology. Their sign used to read, “Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease.” Apparently, that is not the case any longer, as Beijing strives to put on its best face for the Olympics.

Mr. Tool said he spent his weekends visiting different businesses as if he were a detective in a linguistic vice squad. “I go in and I say the Olympics are coming and this sign is wrong,” Mr. Tool said. He then sends an e-mail message with a correct translation or has a printout delivered.

He is writing a book on the subject, and no wonder: regular blunders include typos on menus in which the ‘b’ in crab becomes a ‘p.’ Some translations are trickier, like describing pullet, which is a hen less than a year old but appears on some menus as Sexually Inexperienced Chicken. Mr. Tool said one prominent sign had become a regular photo op for foreigners: the Dongda Anus Hospital.

Mr. Tool intervened. It is now the Dongda Proctology Hospital. Score another gold medal for Beijing’s self-improvement campaign.

Posted by on April 20th, 2007

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

The east is red

If I’m up at dawn, I might as well take pictures of it.

Posted by on February 8th, 2006

A snowy day in Beijing

Snow is rare in Beijing despite how cold it gets. It’s been well below freezing for two months or so, but yesterday was only the second time it’s snowed. Some people attribute the clear (ahem) skies of a Beijing winter to it being somehow too cold to snow, but I know exactly how ridiculous that is. Witness any winter in Boston, or in the northern half of the US, for that matter. So it was a welcome change in the weather when I woke up yesterday morning to find the sky outside my window a hazy shade of winter and not just the usual grayscale hues of haze and pollution. While I was on my way back to the office from lunch later in the day, I spotted this man on his bicycle. It seems to capture Beijing in an essential sort of mood. What I know for sure: god was I glad I’d gone out the night before and bought a proper winter jacket! (It’s “Columbia”–though I think it actually might not be counterfeit–in bright shades of red and gray.)

Posted by on February 7th, 2006

Happy New Year

And again, sadly, it’s been a while, but things in Beijing have been as hectic as ever. I started a new job two weeks ago, as the Managing Editor of a new digital travel guide company that’s about to launch this month. It’s called Schmap, and I’m enjoying my work there so far, even though it means I have a schedule like the rest of the world and have to be in the office at 9 each morning, and I usually don’t get out at night until after 7. I’ve also been busy finishing my Hangzhou guide project–and watching the fireworks. Yes, it’s with noise and light that the Chinese celebrate their New Year, which in practical terms translates to three weeks of nonstop fireworks and firecrackers.

From my aerie on the 22nd floor, I’ve had a great view of all the artful gunpowder, which has been more exciting and interesting than annoying, even though at times it’s sounded like Dresden must have on Valentine’s Day in 1945. According to R., who was around last year for Spring Festival–the name for the two-plus weeks of festivities surrounding the actual lunar new year–the government banned the setting off of fireworks in Beijing last year, and the ruckus wasn’t close to a match for this year. Apparently, the people weren’t happy about losing a chance to celebrate life. I can understand that–until now it hadn’t really seemed like the people here took life by the throat at all, but these two weeks have given me some new insight–Spring Festival seems like the only real chance they have to let loose. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the notion that they must have been celebrating like this for centuries: warding off the dark and cold that characterize north China this time of year with colored lights and echoing booms.

Posted by on February 5th, 2006

Beijing’s Little California

In the northeast corner of Beijing, between the third and fourth ring roads, exists a neighborhood called Lido (pronounced lee-DOO), where large stand-alone restaurants line a long strip of street, foreigners stream into Starbucks and Baskin Robbins, and I spent an evening last weekend with my friends, eating at a restaurant called Eudora Station and, amazingly, going bowling.

The twenty lanes at Lido Place were fitted with high-tech Brunswick equipment, electronic scoring systems, and fluorescent bowling balls with holes perfectly spaced for my hands–small by American standards but seemingly average here in China. We had a wild time, drinking Asahi until at one point one of us released a bowling ball in the wrong direction, letting it fly out toward her amused and frightened friends (that was me, but shhhhhh). R. fell a bunch of times, as she told us beforehand she was certain to do, and then on the way out lifted a small pumpkin from in front of a shop in the lobby, with which we proceded to play catch until we got in a taxi on our way back to our part of town. The cabbie taught us how to say “pumpkin” in Chinese–it’s nangua–although I never did learn how to say “bowling,” and we convinced him to take it from us as a gift. In any case, the experience was a bit surreal, as there was even a group of expat middle school students bowling and causing trouble in the lane next to us. I don’t think I have ever felt less like I was in a foreign country before in my experience. It was disconcerting, but also great fun–it may happen again this weekend, although I’m pushing for karaoke on my last weekend in Beijing before I head down to Hangzhou on Monday (or Tuesday, but probably Monday) for a month and then New York for three weeks.

Posted by on November 10th, 2005

My first publication on the Mainland

My review of Yiyun Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was published in the most recent edition of City Weekend, my favorite of the expat-focused magazines here in Beijing. I’ve also proofed the past two issues, which is always fun, since I like the crazy detail-obsessed exercise of checking an entire magazine for errors, and since the people who work there are so much fun. The managing editor, C., is a really cool guy, as well, which is always a bonus. In any case, here’s my review, and a short excerpt from it:

Li’s characters are at the same time figures of the so-called New China and fascinating individuals, people any of us would be intrigued to talk with waiting on line at the bank. In these stories, Beijing opera singers turned male prostitutes mingle with students heading abroad on scholarship, while deposed kings of rocket science tour the American Midwest and laid-off factory workers marry decomposing widowers to ensure a nice standard of living.

Doesn’t it sound great? It was actually a pretty fair read, though what I wrote in the lead is completely true–I did forget for almost the entire length of the first story that I had actually already read it in The New Yorker a couple of years ago.

Posted by on November 10th, 2005

Beijing acrobats

My new friend K. wanted to see the famed traditional acrobats while he’s here studying for a month in Beijing, so I decided to head over to one of their performances with him. I’d never seen the full-out show, having only experienced a few acts of acrobatics while at a more pervasive (and less fun) Chinese cultural extravanga at the touristy Lao She Tea House six years ago. The best part of that night had been my discovery of watermelon seeds spiced with anise, a favorite Chinese snack that I actually haven’t had since I’ve been here (even though I feel the need to run to the Chinese supermarket at home every once in a while and buy them). I think I might look for them soon. They make a terrific not-awful snack food.

In any case, I was pretty impressed with these acrobats, who not only balanced in all sorts of contorted positions, but often did it while holding on with their mouths to various sexual-seeming apparati or swinging from a ribbon in a duet with another acrobat (this effect was sometimes heteroerotic, sometimes homoerotic, as K. aptly put it). There were also plate twirlers, bicycle tricksters, and, surprisingly, a few acrobats who danced to music that approached hip hop. My favorite music was the Chinese ’80s music megamix that came on for the grand finale. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Posted by on November 3rd, 2005