Bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦), A Supersweet Chinese Treat

Bingtanghulu at Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing, China

China’s 冰糖葫芦 bīng​táng​hú​lu are what you offer to someone who has grown tired of having teeth.  I suppose you could say it’s China’s version of Coca-Cola.  Basically, a skewer of bingtanghulu is a blanket of sugar around pieces of fruit.

This street food is more popular in northern China in the winter months, though I have spotted it at touristy markets during the summer, too.  Since bingtanghulu is a snack in the mainland, pretty much any fruit (botanically or not) is at risk of becoming impaled on the bamboo stick.  Thus, cherry tomatoes, plums, melon, kumquat, bananas, strawberries, haw, smoked duck necks – most of those, anyhow – will do.  Here are an English recipe and a Chinese recipe for your indulgent pleasures.

Have you tried bingtanghulu?  Would you compare it to coating baklava with a layer of spun sugar?


Chinese Lesson
冰 bīng “ice”
糖 táng “sugar”
葫芦 húlu “calabash/bottle gourd”

Lost in Translation: The “Hungry for Gold” Edition

Throughout my travels, I’ve come across a heady amount of signs, ads, and menus lost in translation.  Though it’s more fun when I’m able to read the original language, too, it’s very easy to bowl me over with copy that was clearly pasted into an online translator, and then pasted verbatim onto whatever deliverable for which it was being prepared.

Having spent much of my overseas time in East Asia, I can cheekily say that Japan and China share the gold medal for the volume and quality of their Engrish.  However, if I had to nominate two favorites – one from each country – I think it would be these.

Let’s start with China.

In Guangzhou, one of my favorite places to wander and dine is the neighborhood of Xiaobei, known for its population of folks from all around Africa, as well being a de facto hub for Islam.  The extraordinary amount of trade and commerce that occurs in this area, the seething relationship between African expats and locals, and the diverse food options all contribute to making it a unique part of the city, nay, country to visit.

In general, I would go there when hungry, either to get a bite of something Turkish, or for some superb Uyghur bread, called nan, covered in sesame or sunflower seeds:

To get back on topic, on the second floor of the same restaurant where I’d buy the nan, I would get mixed noodles with a cumin-laced soup, and a couple of kebabs.

The menu, however, had already made up its mind about who I was:

First of all, this one is so amusing in that they even got the Chinese wrong.  Whereas the Chinese says 馄饨 (húntun), or wonton, their translation is of the word 混沌 (hùndùn), which alternatively refers to a chaos that existed before earth.

In other words, mentally dense.

For you see, the character 混 means to mix/blend, and the character 沌 is chaotic/murky.  Somehow, when you combine the two, you get sucked up by Chinese creationist theory.  —

As for Japan, it’s a shorter story, but no less risible.

After arriving in the port city of Takamatsu, I started to feel peckish.  Yes, I would eat their famed Sanuki udon later that day, but for the time being, a Japanese bakery was in the cards.

For twenty years, I’ve been a fan of Japanese bakeries, starting with the corn kernel-stuffed buttery loaves, and right up to the tingly “mapo” roll found last year.

But then, I’ve never encountered this:

Even at a bakery named after a Scottish nursery rhyme, I’m still confused.

Is there an explanation?  Yes.  Somewhat.

The name of the bread is – wait for it – translated correctly.  クリーミ (kuriimi) is creamy, and ソフト (sofuto) is shorthand for software.  But,       ソフト also means soft.  Of course, the folks who printed up this label – whose description reads as a “moist and soft bread with custard cream folded inside” – would have chosen more wisely – though less memorably for marketing purposes – if they had gone with the Japanese word for soft,
柔らかい (yawarakai).


Would you have put these two entries in your pantheon of Engrish?  Which would be your two candidates?

Welcome to Chinatown

As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane.  Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.

In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) /  唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).

朝陽門 (Chaoyang Gate), Yokohama Chinatown, Japan

Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.

Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct.  Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.

西安門 (Xi’an Gate), Kobe Chinatown, Japan

Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments.  Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.”  Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology.  For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.

With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.

What?!  A paifang in China?  Of course!  This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen.  If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.

The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul.  Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.

Latin America++

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Busan, Republic of Korea

USA

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?

Parallel Photography: Appreciating Impermanence

For most of my life, I’ve lived close to or in big, vast cities.  Vast.  Wandering around them, eating all over them, and perhaps most memorably, photographing them.

Yet, after a recent cleaning of the closet, I am remiss about one major aspect of my photos from years back– for the most part, they don’t demonstrate transience in the urban jungle.  Yes, of course I have shots of friends and family, but also of certain stores that no longer exist, food not readily available, and pairs of JNCO jeans too spacious even for a Missouri Walmart.  But, rare is the photo that shows a building, mass transit system, or complex under various phases of construction – and on that bandwagon, how the neighborhood might be changing with said construction.  Also rare, shots of the same subject during different seasons.

Only within the past decade have I thought more about this notion of the ephemeral qualities of photographed subjects; in Japanese, this idea of feeling compassion for impermanence is known as  物の哀れ (もの の あはれ), literally “the sorrow of things.”

Take this photo as an example:

Starting from Somewhere, in the Middle of Nowhere

Soon after the Guangmingcheng station of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link opened in late 2011, I went to the area specifically to photograph “what might become.”  In other words, China is building high-speed rail stations at ludicrous speed, with neighborhoods booming up directly around those new stations.  Amusingly – and ironically, for the purposes of this post – not much has changed where this photo was taken.

However, if it’s change you’ve got on your mind, then check this out…

February 2005, my first visit to Guangzhou, China.  Back then, the White Swan Hotel was the swankiest place in town by a long shot, national high-speed rail was still in the planning stages, and I didn’t know any Chinese.  And how about that metro rail map?  Amusingly, each station has the Chinese character for station in the name (站 zhan4), in case you’d confuse the circles for donut shops.

Now, what if we look at a Guangzhou metro map from November 2019?

Apologies for the lack of clarity in the photo, but the point is made.  Although mind-numbingly long and crowded, you can now travel from Guangzhou’s primary high-speed rail station Guangzhou South – to Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, with a minimum of one transfer.  In fact, you can take the metro to neighboring Foshan, best known for being the ancestral home of Bruce Lee, and its own metro system.   Even wilder, you will probably eventually be able to ride a metro from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Dongguan to Guangzhou to Foshan, once – or, if – the merger takes place.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve also become more appreciate of the seasons, be it for their effect on trees, flowers, and potholes, or for the timely foods that appear.  For instance, take this late spring photo of Clark Square Park in Evanston, Illinois, USA:

Looks peaceful, right?  What you can’t see just beyond the trees and rocks is Lake Michigan, a large part of what makes Chicagoland livable for a few months of the year, yet what also makes it…

a torture the rest of the time!  I took this absolutely frigid shot during the “polar vortex” of 2019, and I’m still shivering as a result.  Nevertheless, it was this pair of photos that made me think more closely attentively about choosing certain subjects to photograph, and then sticking with them over time to document changes.


Are you interested in photography?  How do you feel about photographing things that time doesn’t ignore?

Traveling to the Wrong Destination is Still Traveling

Ever end up in the wrong city?  I ask this, because I read a story a few years ago about someone flying to the wrong “Taiwan.”  Which is to say, the passenger meant to go to the island, but ended up in Taiyuan, China instead.  Never mind that the two places are spelled differently – in both English and Chinese, that the former isn’t a city, and that the person likely needed a visa for China, but I decided to see how common this type of mistake was.  Indeed, it does happen from time to time, that folks end up in the wrong place– just ask these travelers.

Although China did for a spell have a thing for building its own versions of European hotspots – Austrian villages, anyone? – supposedly, the central government has put the kibosh on those.  Then again, it’s unlikely one would confuse Paris, Tianducheng for Paris, France…or even Paris, Texas.

And then we have Atlanta, which really doesn’t want you to get anywhere quickly if you’re looking for an address on Peachtree Street.  (Hint: there are no less than 71 streets with the name Peachtree in them.)

Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Located – I’m Shocked – on Peachtree Street

Thus, in the vein of this topic, I’ll pose this question to my readers– if someone offered you a trip to Mecca, which would you choose?:

Mecca, population ~ 7, 100, in California?  It is also close to the fascinatingly dubious Salton Sea, which I’ll get to in a later post.

Or…

Mecca, population ~ 1.5 million, in Saudi Arabia?

Suggestion: Having been to both, Saudi dates are the best I’ve ever tried.

Chinese Desserts: Fried Mantou with Condensed Milk

When much of the world thinks of Chinese food, do bread, dairy and dessert often come to mind?  I’m not even referring to ingredients or dishes from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or Chinese restaurant kitchens adapted to local tastes.

My introduction to 馒头 (mán​tou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories.  In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab.  Not only was the crab delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.

It’s easy to satisfy salty and umami cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?

From having lived all over Shenzhen, China – a city built by and on internal migration – I had come to get familiar with menus from regional Chinese cuisines.  However, based on those experiences, there seemed to be no better way to conclude a meal drowned in reused cooking oil and loaded with MSG than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything.

Shenzhen, China- Fried Manotu with Condensed Milk

Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liàn​nǎi), or sweetened condensed milk.


Have you tried this combo before?  If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.

The Neptunus Group Building, Shenzhen (China)

Recently, I came across an article from two months ago that mentioned how Chinese Leader Jinping Xi issued a decree limiting the construction of buildings >250 meters (~821 feet) tall, disallowing buildings > 500 meters (~1641 feet), and prohibiting copycat behavior – in architecture.

That article made me reflect on the architectural scene in China, and how I relish exploring its urban fabric in the hunt for the most bizarre structures exemplifying a combination of the modern vicissitudes of Chinese capitalism and tradition.  Whereas there are some real winners out in the mainland, I believe this one, located in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, also deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China, #1

Founded in Shenzhen in 1989, the Neptunus Group is a dominant player in the Chinese health and pharmaceutical industries; if you have visited China, you may have seen their Nepstar drugstore, the largest pharmacy chain in the country.  They have other skyscrapers throughout the city, but only this one merited a report.

You also might be wondering, what’s with the names?  The Chinese characters 海王 can be translated as Neptune, the Roman “god of fresh water,” and analogous to the Greek Poseidon.  Wouldn’t the name work better for a shipping company?  Also,  isn’t China officially atheist?  Hmmm.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (2)
Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (1)

If you, too would like to see Neptune riding through the façade of a Chinese skyscraper, it’s located in the Nanshan district of western Shenzhen.

Chinese Address: 深圳市南山区南海大道2225号海王大厦A座5层

What is Falun Gong (法轮功)?

Truth (真)

Compassion (善)

Forbearance (忍)

Those three words represent the primary tenets of Falun Gong (法轮功/法輪功) aka Falun Dafa (法轮大法), a quasi-religious movement first practiced in China by Mr. Li Hongzhi in 1992.

Drawing from a combination of Buddhist and Taoist teachings, as well as employing qigong (气功) breathing exercises, the characters of Falun Gong translate as achievement (功) through the wheel (轮) of law (法).

Even if you haven’t heard the term Falun Gong, you have may seen propaganda littering hardware store windows and bus stops for Shen Yun, the performing arts show fully backed by Mr. Li and his acolytes.

Taken in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

Sounds harmless enough, right?  But, if Falun Gong merely exists as a way for people to improve their health by doing a few breathing exercises and lithe movements, what caused this spiritual movement to be banned in China by June 1999?

Simply put, the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, and cannot tolerate any potentially competing ideology in its territory.  Unlike other health-focused movements such as Tai Ji (太极), adherents of Mr. Li were under the impression that through practicing Falun Gong, they were able to join a path to salvation and enlightenment, with some even believing Li to have the power to levitate.

At first glance, it’s a bit David and Goliath, isn’t it?  Then again, the CCP would absolutely not want a contemporary analog to the mid-1800s Taiping Rebellion, in which Mr. Hong Xiuquan believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and claimed to receive orders to rid China of all the non-native Manchu rulers.

Anti-Falun Gong messages, in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

As Falun Gong gained more followers, Beijing first prohibited the sale of its official text, called the Zhuan Falun (转 法轮).  Some periodicals even started claim that practitioners were so taken by Mr. Li’s gospel that they committed suicide.  After a mass display of loyalty to Mr. Li in front of the CCP headquarters in Beijing, Office 610 was set up in June 1999 to oversee the prohibition of Falun Gong in China, as well as to “disappear” thousands of believers.

Mr. Li fled to a usual suspect, the United States – notably, there is no extradition treaty between the US and China – and in New York state, he set up the secretive Dragon Springs Falun Gong facility in Cuddebackville.  As with other religious beliefs, it is likely that there are still underground followers in mainland China.  However, being that Falun Gong is one of the CCP’s “Five Poisons” – along with Uyghurs, Tibetans, democracy movements, and Taiwanese separatists – any news of their successes and practices is suppressed and/or censored.