Archive for Culture

Christmas comes to Hangzhou

These santas were milling about by West Lake on Saturday morning. I love how they’re wearing their mustaches on top of their noses and their beards over their mouths–charming!

Posted by on December 13th, 2005

The world’s favorite beverage

Tea is the most popular drink in the world, according to one of those amorphous statistics that float out there in the quip ether. From the vantage point of China, and in particular Hangzhou, it would be hard to doubt that claim. The city is famous throughout China for its renowned Longjing tea, a variety of green tea named for Hangzhou’s Dragon Well and grown around its outskirts.

I ventured out to Meijiawu, one of the most picturesque of the tea-growing villages, where I happened upon some gorgeous fields of tea framed by autumnal mountains. I sat outside at a run-down teahouse on the side of the road so I could enjoy the view, and I lucked out in my choice of establishments out of the many, seemingly indistinguishable cha guan that lined the street.

This teahouse was the home of a really friendly (and well behaved) dog named Huan Huan, and her owners, some equally friendly Chinese around my age. They all (the people and the dog) sat with me as I drank my scalding-hot tea and ate some delicious spinach and tofu soup and the absolute best rendition I’ve ever had of one of my favorite Chinese dishes–xihongshi jidan, which is basically eggs scrambled with tomatoes, but which can transport the soul if it’s done well, as it was at this scuffed teahouse fifteen kilometers from the city center.

A few days earlier, I had the chance to experience a very different species of teahouse, a fancy place done up in the truest Hangzhou style located right off of Yanan Lu, the main commercial thoroughfare of the city. L. had told me I was going to have a meeting with his boss, H., at a teahouse, but I had no clue what I was in for and dreaded a really boring morning sipping tea and prattling on about my research with only L. to interpret, since I figured that H. wouldn’t possibly speak English. Well, his vocabulary wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate more than adequately, with L. pitching in to help in the odd moments where his facility was needed. Not only was H. a pretty interesting guy, having graduated from BeiDa (Peking University) and currently planning on getting his masters in public administration in the States next year, but the teahouse itself was incredible.

My first glance at the menu was misleading–I was surprised that a cup of tea would cost 40-60 kuai anywhere in China ($5-7.50), and no food at all appeared on the menu. After a few minutes, though, I realized that not only did that cover a pot of tea with unlimited refills on hot water, plus one change of leaves, but it also included as much food as we wanted from a huge buffet in the main room, filled with fruits, nuts, meats, and various cold dishes, as well as more elaborate items from the carts being wheeled around the building, like soups, dumplings, noodles, rice, and more. In our three-and-a-half hours there, we had: peanuts, pistachios, oranges, grapes, raisins, pomelos, dragon eyes (longyanin Chinese, a fruit related to the lychee, I think, but in any case weird and delicious…small brown spheres that you peel to uncover the soft, slightly sweet, translucent flesh within…you have to watch out for the large pits in the middle, though), wolfberries, cherry tomatoes, chicken feet (no, I didn’t try them), fried noodles, fried rice, soup with dumplings, weird sweet soup that I also didn’t try, surprisingly tasty little cakes, and these are just the things I can remember and could identify. According to L., it’s popular among locals to come to a teahouse like this on weekends or holidays in the morning, order a cup of tea, and sit all day drinking and eating and practicing the finely honed art of good conversation. That’s a cultural practice I could adopt!

Posted by on December 12th, 2005

Awesome video

Shot by me on my trusty digital camera in the Banana Leaf Curry House here in Hangzhou, tonight while eating dinner. Click on the image to launch the movie:

link to video

Posted by on November 28th, 2005

A village visit

After my interview with the Fuyang Ribao reporter, I finally headed to what had been my intended destination for the day–Longmen (Dragon Gate) Village–an ancient town 10 kilometers outside the city. The town is in a state of stunning decay, Ming and Qing dynasty buildings and archways with faded characters crumble over narrow streets, populated by well kempt cats, scraggly dogs, pig-tailed children, and weathered grandparents, hunched over on stools stringing plastic badminton racquets with neon strings–the local cottage industry, I guess.

One familial clan dominates, the descendants of a man named Sun Quan, who was a king during the Wuyue Kingdom. Around 95% of the town’s population even today bears his surname, Sun, and a line of descent parallel to that running through Longmen Village was responsible for the production of China’s Republican hero, Sun Zhongshan, better known to English speakers as Sun Yatsen. One of the town’s own favorite sons was Sun Kun, who isn’t that interesting except for the fact that he built ships for one of the most intriguing characters in Chinese history–and my own personal favorite–Zheng He, the eunuch from Xinjiang who captained a fleet of Ming Dynasty treasure ships throughout Southeast Asia all the way to India.

Despite its semi-illustrious history, Longmen Village today is a shell of its past, albeit a beautiful one. In open courtyards, 400-year-old furniture sits under overhangs, unpreserved and unprotected against the bottoms of overexcited tourists, inquisitive youngsters, and jaded locals. My guide to the town, a young, bored Sun descendant, seemed both excessively proud of his family’s long and distinguished narrative and untouched by the splendor and ruin (and the splendor of the ruins) that surround him. The only thing that really lit him up was when he mentioned a number of Chinese TV shows that have been filmed in the town.

Still, walking through this town was an almost mystical experience, especially after all my time in big-city China, a classification under which even this current interlude in (relatively) green, moist, Hangzhou falls. Husked corn dried on the side of a pond, men eating cloud-like dumplings in a small shop called out an invitation for me to try some, the setting sun cast the town into stunning shadow. In all, it was well worth the strangeness of the events that came before it to visit this place, as it is now, and witness such spectacular living ruin.

Posted by on November 26th, 2005

Street food in Hangzhou

Today I happened upon what can only be described as a “snack street” here in Hangzhou. It was off of Hefang Lu, otherwise known as “History Street,” a pedestrian shopping area where old, probably restored, buildings line the street, housing souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses. I’m still a bit amazed that the city can be full of tourists without there being more than a couple of other foreigners walking around–they’re just all Chinese. There are so many of them (as if I could ever forget that fact of demography)!

The snack street clearly caters to their tastes, while at the same time highlighting the ghastly specialities for which Hangzhou is famous. I saw giant snails, fried sea creatures on a stick (with their shells still attached below the tempura-like crust), chicken feet, pigs’ feet, unidentifiable feet, duck heads complete with bills, skewered giant silkworm pupae, scary stews and porridges, and some more appealing treats (to my tastes, anyway) like black sesame candy, naan-like bread stuffed with pineapple, rou chuan(r)–the Chinese take on shish kebab–and pancakes with noodles and vegetables inside.

I was actually still full from lunch and looking ahead to dinner with L., so I managed not to eat anything myself, although I did buy some of the sesame candy for my room, and I’m sure I’ll return to snack street at least once before I leave. I mean, who could resist?

Posted by on November 21st, 2005

An enlightening day

This afternoon I decided to head out to the opposite side of the lake and up a hill to a string of temples called by the name of the small winding street on which they’re located–Tianzhu Road, which I later learned is actually the archaic Chinese name for India, which makes sense since Buddhism first came to China over the Himalayas. I called the monastery on my cell phone so the taxi driver could get more specific directions than just the name of the street and the street number, which never seems to be enough information to satisfy cabbies in Beijing either.

Finally I arrived at the gates of the topmost temple, where one of the women who always sit outside temple entrances selling incense convinced me (without having to try too hard, certainly) to buy some pink sticks to burn inside. The people working at the temple were really friendly–they all wanted to know whether I was in Hangzhou to visit or to work, and were excited when I lit the incense and knew what to do with it. There were only two or three other visitors to the temple (which seemed to be a monastery from all the monks walking around but which I had read was actually a nunnery), and they passed me as I walked down the hill on the side of the road toward the next of the three temples.

I was content to take my time and revel in the calm greenery that surrounded me. A stream ran alongside me, and dogs ran from tree to tree next to it. I said hello to all the dogs, but they were all kind of scared of me. I was only scared of the chickens I passed crossing the road and wandering around outside the houses. It brought real clarity to my vision of the impossibility of what the Chinese government proposed yesterday–to vaccinate all the 4-5 billion chickens in the country against bird flu–after the first three confirmed cases of human bird flu in China were announced.

The next two temples were a bit larger but still beautiful and interesting, which is much more than could be said of my final stop of the day, the (supposedly) famous Lingyin Temple. The book I bought described it as one of ten temples of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist sect in China, but it was possibly the least zen place I’ve ever been. Gigantic tour groups with guides herding them with instructions shouted into blaring loudspeakers are not exactly my idea of tranquil. It was a disappointing end to a day of reflection and insight. Still, it was probably equally enlightening.

Posted by on November 17th, 2005

Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow

The title of this post is also the official name of one of the enumerated “Ten Views of West Lake” that appear in every Chinese-published English-language guidebook to this city currently in print. Most of the views (which are accompanied by “Ten New Views of West Lake”) don’t seem that special, but, as a fan of “evening glow,” I figured it couldn’t hurt to try to time my first visit to the Leifeng Pagoda on the southwest shore of the lake to coincide with that golden time of day. As these photos show, it probably wasn’t a bad decision. Leifeng Pagoda was originally built to house what the posted signs called “relics of Sakyamuni,” or Buddhist holy objects of some kind, but it was destroyed in the 1920s. The current structure, which stands seven pagoda-storeys high on the summit of a hill, was built of steel over the ruins in 2001. What makes it hysterical, though, is the fact that you can go from the level of the lake to the top of the tower without climbing more than ten or fifteen steps–the rest of the journey is made by a combination of two escalators and two elevators. That was great for all the elderly tourists I ran into at the top, but seems strange after climbing so many stairs at other ancient towers, both in China and around the world. I had not expected to rest my weary feet by getting to the top of a pagoda.

Posted by on November 17th, 2005

Welcome to West Lake

West Lake is considered the traditional (and official) heart of Hangzhou, and I figured I’d head there first in my attempt to wrap my head around this city as quickly and thoroughly as possible. I had not at all imagined that it would actually be as beautiful as it proved today: I spent over five hours walking around it, interspersed with stops at cafes and visits to just two of the dozens of peripheral sites that surround it. In that time, I only made it halfway around–I think the perimeter is probably about eight or nine miles, if not more. In all the statistics I’ve gathered so far, I’ve only found the area of the lake in square kilometers, which I don’t remember and I’m not about to look up again right now.

I was surprised by the large percentage of the people gathered around the lake who seemed like locals–although it is the middle of November and a weekday to boot. I was one of very few foreign faces in the crowd, certainly, but many of the Chinese just seemed to be living out their daily lives on the lakeshore, and not snapping pictures with goofy expressions and amusing poses like they’d most likely be doing if they were not Hangzhouren.

I’ve posted only my favorites of the many, many photos I took today. With a digital camera, it meant nothing to take over 140 pictures in the course of six or seven hours, and I know that as I spend more time here, I’ll become innoculated to the splendor of this city. I wanted to make sure to capture my original impressions of awe, as I’ve failed to do in most of the places in which I’ve spent long amounts of time (Beijing, and Madrid, and Cuzco, and Salamanca–basically every foreign city in which I’ve spent a month or more).

Posted by on November 16th, 2005

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