All Posts by Mitchell Blatt

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

Nov 04

Drinking baijiu with Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Literature

On November 1, the same day his book was released, I interviewed Derek Sandhaus about his new release, Drunk in China. The book explains baijiu, the fiery white spirits of China, and the culture surrounding baijiu through the lenses of history, society, cuisine, and Sandhaus’s experiences drinking baijiu. 

Sandhaus has been living in China on and off since 2006 where he worked as a writer. After returning to the U.S., he ended up back in China in 2011 as the boyfriend, then husband, of an Foreign Service officer. That is when he started to become interested in learning about and writing about baijiu, chronicling his experience at the blogs 300 Shots at Greatness and Drink Baijiu.com, and launching the brand Ming River Sichuan Baijiu. He is the author of four books, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and, now, Drunk in China.

I interviewed him at one of Washington, DC’s most authentic Chinese restaurants, Sichuan Pavilion, where we talked about a wide range of topics while drinking baijiu and eating twice fried pork, dry fried green beans, and fish-fragrant eggplant.

In Drunk in China, you say you need 300 drinks of baijiu to hit the “taste threshold,” the level at which you are accustomed to the taste of baijiu.

There’s an idea of a taste threshold, that if you don’t like the taste of something, if you keep drinking it, you will become used to it, which isn’t true in all cases, but is often true. Common examples are coffee and beer. You begin to like it, and then you start seeking it out and savoring it.

So my friend said that they’ve done the study on different drinks. He asked me, ‘Do you know how many drinks it takes to become accustomed to baijiu?’ I asked, ‘How many?’ and he said 300. 

So, one of the ways I began to organize my early writing about baijiu is I started a blog called Three Hundred Shots at Greatness. I went out and bought different kinds of baijiu and thought I would chronicle my experience going from not liking baijiu to loving it by the time I got to 300.

I think, in retrospect, that’s kind of a misguided notion. It rests on a fundamental misunderstanding that baijiu is one drink.

Baijiu is any kind of Chinese liquor, like the equivalent of ‘Chinese food.’

What’s this misunderstanding about baijiu?

I thought baijiu was one drink, like tequila or bourbon. In reality, baijiu is any kind of Chinese liquor, like the equivalent of ‘Chinese food.’ Different parts of China make different kinds of baijiu, which are very different drinks that taste very different from each other.

What I noticed when I went out and bought five bottles of baijiu is that those five bottles don’t taste anything like each other. So, for me, the process was exploring different styles of baijiu and finding out what style I liked best. 

By the time I had about 50 or 60 shots, I found a kind of baijiu that I thought was great. I really liked it. It was made by the Luzhou Laojiao distillery in Sichuan, from the same distillery as the baijiu we are drinking now. In China, you could buy this for 7 or 8 US dollars. The one I tried that I really liked was about 200 USD. It was at a diplomatic function I’d been invited to. 

That’s when I was able to really appreciate baijiu for what it was. Then I could see, even when I am drinking a lower-end baijiu, I could still see what they were trying to do.

What exactly is baijiu in a technical sense? What is the difference between baijiu and huangjiu?

Huangjiu, “yellow wine,” is a Chinese grain-based drink, that is fermented but not distilled. Baijiu is fermented then distilled. But it’s not as simple as saying that baijiu is distilled huangjiu. It is true that you wouldn’t have baijiu without huangjiu coming first. However, they differ production-wise in a number of other important ways.

In China, when the food went bad and decomposed, it smelled sweet, people they thought it smelled delicious.

Basically, the origin of East Asian alcohol is something called qu, which is the result of East Asians were working with soft grains, as opposed to in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where they were using barley and grain, which are hard-shelled grains, that you had to mash and turn into flour. In China and Asia, the grains that they were using in the ancient world were rice and soft-shelled grains, which had an exterior that allows you to eat it without much intervention. The oldest way to consume them was to boil them into porridges. Starting about 6000 BC, they started steaming grains. When you steam a grain, you do some interesting things that break it down so that it is easier for it to interact with its surroundings. If you have a bowl of rice that has been steamed, when it is decomposing, it will start to absorb the things that are in the air—mold, yeast, and bacteria. As those things interact, it starts to ferment naturally, and it develops a sweet smell. 

When the flour they were eating in the Middle East went bad, it got moldy and smelled bad. But in China, when the food went bad and decomposed, the fermentation made it smell sweet, so people kept it around, because they thought it was delicious. So those grains were fermenting naturally. Then they found that if they dried out the grains, you could take the grains that had naturally decomposed, mix it with some water, and that’s qu, the principal agent of fermentation for East Asian liquor. It’s usually shaped into a ball or a brick. For most rice wines, it’s made of rice. For most other liquors, including baijiu, it’s made of wheat, or barley.

Now they use that technique for all kinds of fermented foods—soy sauce, vinegar, tofu, all the pickled meats and vegetables, too.

With huangjiu, they press the liquid out of the mash, and that’s the alcohol.

With baijiu, it’s different. They never press the liquid out of the mash. The way they get it out is they distill it. They put it in a pot still and run steam through it. As the steam heats up the mash, the ethanol within the grains will reach a boiling temperature and begin steaming off the top of the mash.

What kinds of regional differences are there when it comes to the taste of baijiu?

What people who make baijiu are trying to do is come up with the perfect flavor combination to go with the food of that region. So in Sichuan, you have very spicy, bold flavors. You’ve got lots of fermented condiments with a lot of funkiness to it. You’ve got a lot of ginger and chili and garlic. Then the baijiu in Sichuan has some sweetness to it. Like the one we’re drinking now, it has a bit of pineapple, licorice, even a little funky cheesiness. Something this sweet can really bring down the spiciness. And the spiciness can bring out a lot of the complexity of this drink as well. 

So I think an important thing to do when you want to experience baijiu at it’s best is to figure out where the baijiu that you’re drinking comes from, and pair it with the food to get the best flavors of each.

What would you say to foreigners who think baijiu is undrinkable, some foreigners who reject it after a few sips or those who might not even want to try it?

One thing that’s very important is that at the moment you encounter something that really blows your mind is to not immediately discard that experience. When you taste something where you think, ‘That’s not how things are supposed to taste,’ or when you experience something where you think, ‘That’s not something that’s supposed to happen,’ don’t immediately think there’s something wrong with it. I hadn’t gotten to that reflective state either, when I first arrived in China. Most of the world hasn’t gotten to that state when it comes to baijiu, but had I not gotten there, I would have missed out on so many amazing experiences in China.

If we were drinking in China, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao, it gets “loud and hot.”

Talk about the social function of baijiu.

If this were a restaurant in China and we were drinking baijiu together, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao [roughly translated as “exciting”/“lively”], “loud and hot,” where you’ve been eating for a while, you’ve been drinking for a while, you’re kind of drunk on the spice, you’re drunk on the liquor, and you’re in this mood of pure joy. You can bounce around a little bit; you can go sit at a stranger’s table and make a toast to them, invite them to join in your revelry. 

If you look at alcohol in China, that is how it’s always been. It’s always been a communal experience. Going back 7000-9000 years, people have always been using alcohol to create this sense of shared connection. 

It’s the way most people in China socialize with each other. If you only drink at the local Irish pub in China, you’re not going to experience this part of Chinese culture. You’re basically saying, ‘My drinking, the way I experience China, has to happen on Western terms.’

You include a lot of your own experiences in your book, your experiences in China, trying baijiu. It seems to me kind of like a “baijiu memoir.”

About half of the book is my story and half of the book is the alcohol’s story in China. I do go in and out of those threads throughout the book. 

It was important for me to put the book in the first person, to be upfront about who I am, what my experiences are. If I am a white American going to write this book about a Chinese liquor most Americans are unfamiliar with, I want to let readers know how I relate to it and where my knowledge comes from. 

At the same time, a lot of the attitudes I am critical of from foreigners who dismiss baijiu or who dismiss elements of Chinese culture are not attitudes from which I have been completely immune. I had some of those attitudes in the past. So what I am saying is I am not a remarkably tolerant or intolerant person. If I can get past some of the prejudices I bring to my subject, then so can some of my readers.

There are not many English-language books on the market about baijiu, and I would love for more people to write about it. I would also love to see Chinese, or Chinese-American authors write about it, because they would bring a much different perspective.

Bonus content: Derek Sandhaus talks about how Korean soju has changed since the 1960’s

Jul 03

Best Restaurants for Nanjing University (Gulou) Students

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips , Cool Restaurants/Bars

Kexima (可西玛) Smallest Spanish Restaurant in China

120 Shanghai Road, just south of Taogu New Village Road (上海路120号)

Photos from Dazhong Dianping.

This restaurant fits three cozy wooden tables (plus two more outside). Romantic and novel, there’s nothing like it. As the proprietor lived and studied cooking in Spain, the food is delicious, too. Especially recommended: jamón and paella. (Just be sure to ask for no Japanese mayonnaise on your paella unless you are one of those crazy people who likes it.)

Hezhouchun Muslim Food (河州春穆斯林美食)

Intersection of Huju Road and Longpanli (虎踞路和龙蟠里的路口)

If love delicious Xinjiang big plate chicken (大盘鸡 – da pan ji)and lamb skewers, this is the place to go. Dapanji is a must try in China. Hezhouchun’s version includes potatoes, sweet potatoes, green onions, and, of course, tender chicken. All is sauteed in a spicy, star anisey sauce.

Mrs. Zhang’s Jianbing

How delicious a simple street snack can be. Flour pancake with cracked egg, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, mustard pickles, scallions, crunchy cui bing (or fried breadstick (油条)) in the center. Delicious and cheap (5 yuan) for breakfast or anytime during the day.

A jianbing being made. Photo by Wikipedia’s Ernie.CC.

Although there are stalls around the city, the one that is best and closest to campus is Mrs. Zhang’s stall. It sometimes changes location, but it can be found on side roads off Shanghai Road south from the HNC gate, either South Yinyang Ying (南阴阳营) or the intersection of Shanghai Road and Jinyin Jie (金银街).

Secret Dumplings

Special Contribution by Khun Nyan Min Htet, aka Joy Joy

Mitchell Blatt (bottom left), Joy Joy (bottom right) and fellow HNC classmates at “Secret Dumplings.”

During my procrastination research session (I research about non-academic related things when I procrastinate), I came upon a student blog written by someone at the HNC some years ago. She wrote about a “secret” jiaozi (steamed dumplings) place on Nanjing Campus. In her blog, she talked about how her Chinese roommate took her to this place that even Chinese students don’t know about.

Dumplings photo by Joy Joy.

Upon reading the blog, I couldn’t resist the temptation of steamed dumplings. Having no idea where the place is on campus, I showed my roommate the picture of the dumpling and the place from the blog. He immediately said, “I know this place! I know it well!”
The rest of the story is history! My roommate and I went to this steamed dumpling place. It was located in a small alley behind the student dormitories on Nanjing Gulou Campus. The alley itself was crowded with clotheslines and tables full of people eating the steamed dumplings. A glance to the end of the alley resembles nothing more than a residential area of one-story houses. It is not a place where you could expect a dumpling restaurant.
I watched waves of people come and go to this steamed dumpling place. The old man and woman (presumably the owners) work fast in preparing the food. They take orders, pick out the uncooked dumplings based on the order, cook them, and pack them into white styrofoam containers. It is amazing how quick they are with this whole process and while still remembering the exact order from multiple customers. That was the most efficient multitasking right there.

Photo by Joy Joy.

The dumplings were really cheap! The shop only sells four kinds of steamed dumplings and they are steamed right before your eyes.  I was a bit concerned about the quality of the dumplings at first only because of its cheap price. For 6 steamed dumplings of any kind, the price doesn’t exceed above 4RMB (US$ 0.60). For 18 steamed dumplings, it cost me about 11RMB (US$ 1.66).

Benjia Hanguo Liaoli (本家韩国料理)

(Back to Mitch)

108 Hanzhou Rd (新街口汉中路108号-1金轮大厦)

Photo from Dazhong Dianping.

A chain started by a famous Korean chief, Benjia has two locations in Nanjing, both with 5-star ratings on Dazhong Dianping (and 9.2 ratings for taste). Like many Korean restaurants, it does have Korean bbq. But I recommend Benjia primarily for its quality Korean cuisine. It is a little bit more upscale than the average K-bbq restaurant. Long lines apt to form on weekends during peak dining hours.

Sakura (ramen and sushi)

87 Shanghai Road (上海路87号)

“Like a bar in a Murakami novel,” I once described it. By which I was referring to how aesthetically dark the lights were dimmed, the wooden tables, the Japanese movie posters and decorations that melded naturally with the wall, combined with the cool jazz that was playing.

Bars

Whisky Bar: Hermit

49 Qingyun Lane (青云巷49号)

Located inside a villa-style house, the first floor is supposed to be themed after Breaking Bad. The second floor is a real nice cocktail bar–the kind with Manhattans (曼哈顿) for 120 yuan (or so) a glass. What do you expect from the photo?

Honorable Mentions: Bottle, Yihe Guangchang (玄武区中山路286号羲和广场)

Finnegans Wake Irish Pub & Malt Room,No.6 Xinanli Street, No.400 Zhongshan South Road, Qinhuai District (whiskey room on second floor)

Beer (Speakeasy): Elephant Bar

Selection of all kinds of bottled beers from around the world. Not as expensive as Guns n Hops.

Down Nanxiucun Rd and on the road going south between Nanxiucun and Taogu New Village Road. One of the first buildings on the right when heading south. Big wooden door that blends in with the building. You can miss it. Open the door, and then you are in a different world.

Beer (Chinese Crafts): Tap Planet

Does Chinese beer taste good? Hell yes, it tastes good. You just have to drink the craft beers. Tap Planet has more than 30 beers from across the country on tap at any given time. It was billed as having “the biggest selection of beers on tap” when it was opened in 2015 by an HNC alumnus, Chase Stewart.

Local Brewer: Master Gao

Producing about half a dozen beers, Master Gao has its own brew pub located in 1912. Its beers also have distribution at convenience stores nearby the HNC; its Jasmine Tea Lager can be found at the Bai Jia Le on Shanghai Road and the Happy Lady on Jin Yin Jie.

Jun 20

Wooden Paradise review: artisan cocktails and a polished aesthetic in Shanghai, Kunming – 木制天堂上海酒吧评论

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Drinking , Reviews

Kevin came from Yunnan to Shanghai and opened Wooden Paradise (63-3 Fuxing Xi Lu) in order to give cocktail lovers “a place to relax … where they can feel like they have returned home.”

Wooden Paradise (木制天堂)2014年开的,是一个“让人放松舒适的地方,让我们的客人有中回家的感觉”的鸡尾酒吧。

I first visited Wooden Paradise shortly after it opened in 2014. I read about it in a lifestyle magazine’s review of the best cocktail bartenders in Shanghai. It said Kevin made a mean spicy cocktail.

Located in a small, cozy shophouse in the French Concession, Wooden Paradise really lived (and lives) up to its name. The tables were simple but elegant and polished. The decor was refined and natural.

True to the review and to Kevin’s Yunnan background, his “Spicy Paradise” cocktail, with Russian vodka and pepper liquor, in addition to citrus fruits and leaves, was a flavor sensation. As Kevin said, “I am from Yunnan. Besides classic cocktails, we also created some cocktails with the flavors of Yunnan and Southeast Asia.”

Endless Summer (无尽的夏日) cocktail

Wooden Paradise Mule 木制天堂骡子

Thai ginger, lemongrass, lemon leaves, vodka, Malibu coconut liquor, fresh lemon juice, ginger beer, spicy pepper liquor. “Sweet and sour and a little bit spicy, it’s refreshing and tasty.”

泰国姜,柠檬草,柠檬叶,伏特加,马利宝、
新鲜柠檬汁,干姜啤酒、辣椒酒等调制而成的。酸甜微辣,
清爽可口

Cachaça Lemongrass Cooler 柠檬草酷乐

Cachaça, Thai lemongrass, lime, ginger-flavored soda water. “Refreshing sweet and sour, smooth drinking, and fragrant lemongrass flavor.”

朗姆酒,还有你们泰国的柠檬草,青柠檬,还有干姜水等调整成,
酸甜清爽,容易入口,还有柠檬草的清香味

Spicy Paradise 辣味天堂

Russian vodka, a slice of lime, basil leaves, spicy pepper liquor, fresh pineapple and lemon leaves. “Refreshing sweet and sour, a moderate level of alcohol, smooth drinking with a touch a spiciness and rich fruit flavor.”

俄罗斯的伏特加,青柠角、罗勒叶、辣椒酒,
还有凤梨和新鲜柠檬汁调制而成,酸甜清爽,酒精适中,
容易入口带点辣,果香浓郁

XYZ cocktail

Wooden Paradise has renovated a little bit since it first opened, but always kept the same classic speakeasy style. You can enter either through a backdoor in the courtyard that evokes old Shanghai, or by stepping through a window on the outside, stepping into the “paradise” of varnished wood and Yunnan artwork under the dimmed lights.

“Because many people like furniture made of wood, this kind of furniture that is warm in winter and cool in summer, we used wood to create this comfortable place where people can relax, where our customers can feel like they have returned home,” Kevin said.

“我们是2014年开的,因为大多人喜欢木制家具,冬暖夏凉,我们用木制来制造一个让人放松舒适的地方,让我们的客人有种回家的感觉!” 老板Kevin说过了。

Kevin sharing a drink with a guest.

Kevin remains his hospitable self. Too hospitable, maybe. Last time I visited with a colleague, he gave us enough free shots and sample cocktails before we left to make my colleague puke outside the courtyard. He said he had a good time, though.

Kevin has also opened a branch of Wooden Paradise in his native Yunnan in the Wenhua Xiang (Cultural Alley) district of Kunming, nearby Yunnan University. “That one is larger,” Kevin said, and it includes Western food, as well as cocktails.

Wooden Paradise – Shanghai

63-3 Fuxing Xi Lu (Changshu Road station or Shanghai Library station)

徐汇区复兴西路63-3号

Wooden Paradise – Kunming

10 Wenhua Xiang
昆明文化巷10号

Jun 04

Images from 9,000 meters above the Arctic Ocean

By Mitchell Blatt | Photos , Travel

Flying from Beijing to Washington, DC, I had a window seat, and for most of the flight, there were clear views. I always find it interesting to look out at life below. On this flight, I also had a chance to look down at lack of life. The flight took a route over Russia and passed over the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska before passing over Yukon and the Northwestern Territories (seems to be similar to the A218 route). The vastness of the empty space, pure snowfields for miles, is mystical. But so, too, is the view high above cities and farmland, roads extending to the horizon, thoughts of what so many people are doing on the ground 30,000 feet below. It is interesting to look out the window with the flight’s live tracking map on, as you can see just about where you are. Comparing the lay of the land in China and the U.S., you can learn a little about urban planning.

I begin to notice the view as the plane is flying over Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. With a population of 38 million, it is one of China’s lesser-populated provinces, and the sixth least populated by density.
A short time later, the plane flies over Harbin, the capital city. By Chinese standards, Harbin is not a huge city, but it is not small. The population of its urban center is about 5 million. I was looking out the right side of the plane, towards the east, so it appears the view is of the eastern suburbs. The downtown area is to the west of Harbin’s administrative area, which would probably be out the other window or under the plane.
The Far Eastern Federal District has a population of 8.3 million, smaller than the population of the entire Harbin administrative district. Its population density of 1.2 people per square kilometer is less than half that of Tibet. Just two cities have populations larger than 500,000.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is about 1,000 miles away from here.
The airline’s flight tracker showed we were near Cape Dalhousie, at the northern tip of the Northwest Territories. It may have been some other ice feature in Liverpool Bay. Sir John Franklin explored this area between 1825-1827, helping to map the coast and the Mackenzie River.
I zoomed in for this one. I was admiring the textures on the ground.

The total population of the Northwest Territories is 41,786. That’s a population density of 0.04/sq km. (And that’s only the second smallest in Canada.) Yellowknife, its capital city (located in the southern half of the territory), has a population of 19,569.
My inflight TV console had malfunctioned by this point in the flight, so I’m not sure what town exactly this is. It’s either in Pennsylvania or Maryland. According to the flight route, one possibility is Hagerstown, MD. It looks like much of the Eastern United States. Compare the layout of the roads in this small city to those of Harbin. This American city appears to have more subdivisions, more curved and disconnected roads, than Harbin, which has more of a block-by-block layout.
We descend into the Virginia/DC suburb area. My phone dies after taking this shot.
May 27

Nanjing University of the Arts graduation show: Interview with the artists – 南艺毕业展览和采访

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Culture , 中文文章 Chinese Language Articles

Art works and designs created by 2019 graduates of Nanjing Institute of the Arts are currently on display at the school’s museum. The works are in all kinds of media, including paintings, printings, digital media, videos, video games, furniture, and architectural designs. One theme on display in many of the works was the interaction between China’s increasing modernization and nostalgia (or false nostalgia) for a simpler time. Two graduating artists who hit on this theme were Jia Wenda (贾闻达) and Zhu Tongtong (朱同同).

I interviewed them and share their works here.

Jia Wenda: Childhood Pleasure

First, Jia Wenda combined the iconic yellow duckie with the image of a playful young boy in his work Chongya. “Chongya” is a homophone that means both marching forward and water duck.

When Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant Rubber Duck was displayed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in 2013, the duck quickly became one of China’s biggest celebrities. It went viral on social media and made newspapers and television broadcasts. The project would make official appearances in Beijing, Hangzjhou, Shanghai, and Macau over the next few years, and unofficial versions of giant rubber ducks are currently on display in lakes in Nanjing and elsewhere around China. 

According to Jia, the duck represents the innocent feelings of childhood. Even though few Chinese people have memories of playing with a rubber duckie, which was not widely available, as a child, the duckie is iconic, cute, and a stand-in for a host of feelings.

Q: In your view, what does the rubber duckie represent? The meaning?

对你来说,小黄鸭代表什么?有什么意义?

“If you ask me, because the rubber duckie is a toy that everyone can play with as a child, this represents a kind of romantic or cute feeling,” Jia said.

“对我来讲的话,因为小黄鸭是一个小时侯大家会玩的玩具,这个东西就代表一种浪漫或者可爱的感觉。”

Q: Why did you choose to have the boy holding a clothes-hanging fork (for lifting clothes to and from the drying line)?

为什么男孩在拿着晒衣叉?

“All of the materials represent childhood pleasure, so I thought, what things can reflect that kind of playful meaning. So the fork reflects how young boys like to play and fight, and they could have a little fight with clothes forks.”

“因为整个题材是代表一个童趣所以我就想用哪些物品可以反应那种玩了的意思。所以衣叉小时侯,男生和男生可以一起用衣叉玩或打架。”

Q: Your work has been very popular. Everyone is taking photos of it…

你的作品很受欢迎,谁都要拍它的照。

“In my point of view, making art is not exclusively for individual self-expression. Of course self-expression is important. But I also hope my work can be enjoyed by others and that it is not a ‘lone flower admiring itself.’”

“在我的观点里面,做一个作品不完全是一个个人代表。当然个人代表很重要,但是我也希望我的作品能够受其他人的欣赏,而不是孤芳自赏。”

After graduation, Jia is preparing to take the graduate school test and then go study conceptual art.

Zhu Tongtong: Entertaining Ourselves to Death

Zhu Tongtong’s mat, Hot It Is, Love It Is (多么热,多么爱), displays fun and interesting items of the internet and pop culture in striking color. If it looks overwhelming, that’s just what she was going for. She wants to explore the themes of “entertaining ourselves to death” and “excessive entertainment-ization,” she said.

Q: Why did you decide to make a rug?

为什么决定做地毯这种作品?

“I am a photography major, but early on when we were selecting topics, I wanted to do one related to installations. I made a total of two rugs. One is on display on the third floor of the institute of broadcast media.”

“我是摄影专业的学生但是在选题初期的时候我就想做关于装置类的作品。我一共制作了两块地毯。一块在美术馆,还有一块在传媒学院三楼。”

Zhu Tongtong with her second mat in the broadcast school.

Q: Where did you get the inspiration for the objects you chose to portray?

你从哪里得到元素的灵感?

“My work used that kind of childish, cartoonish depictions, and combined a lot of contemporary Weibo trending topics with keywords the media frequently uses and symbols, in order to reflect the phenomenons of ‘entertaining ourselves to death’ and ‘excessive entertainment-ization.’ I also hope sympathy and a heightened state of awareness can be generated in the viewer who experiences the resulting familiar and unexpected feelings. 

The inspiration for this work came from conversations between my advisor and myself. I personally enjoy elements of relaxation, gaming, and entertainment fields. For a previous version, I used the style of a collage. After continuous searching for a solution, I determined to use this style.”

“我的作品是用这种幼稚化、卡通化的图形,结合现在当下微博热搜榜等媒体惯用的一些标题字和符号,来反应当下“娱乐至死”的“泛娱乐化”的现象,也希望观者在这种熟悉的又意外的效果中产生共鸣和警醒。    这个作品的灵感来源于我和我导师的交流中,我个人喜好偏向轻松、游戏、游乐等方面的元素,在前一个版本中,使用了拼贴的方式,再不停的检索的过程中,确定了采用这样的图形元素。”

Fans of Chinese pop culture might notice some of the names of Chinese celebrities behind the “@“ signs. There is Angelababy, the actress who has starred in the TV show Keep Running and films like Mojin and Young Detective Dee; Fan Bingbing, the highest-paid actress in China who played the empress Wu Zetian before she was accused of tax evasion; and Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, China’s (and the world’s) largest online shopping group. 

Besides the trending celebrities, some of the imagery is also clearly identifiable from memes and the retro style that is popular in the internet genre of vaporwave, an art and music movement that evokes “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” The flamingo, for example, is popularly associated with vaporwave, as are old fashioned entertainment technologies, like tapes and Game Boys.

“The friends surrounding me, including myself, understand that many youths today love retro style,” Zhu said. “For example, today’s vaporwave is already a popular element. Some photo editing apps can also synthesize vaporwave style and other popular style elements.”

Zhu will work in a commercial media production house after graduation. She hopes that she will also be able to continue to work to perfect this work, whether that means expanding on it or finding another medium by which to represent the theme.

Chinese Vocabulary Study

童趣 tong2qu4 – childhood pleasure, qualities that delight children and evoke childhood memories to adults, bold colors, cute characters, etc

孤芳自赏 gu1fang1zi4shang3 – a Chinese chengyu for narcissism, literally “lone flower admiring itself”

衣叉 yi1cha1 – a fork used to lift clothes to and from drying lines or drying poles

蒸汽波 zheng1qi4bo1 – vaporwave

May 19

Spontaneous travel: On the pleasure of throwing away plans, wandering randomly, and finding an off-the-Google-Maps soju room

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

Before I arrived at my planned destination last night, I said to hell with it. I got off at a random station instead and followed streets my eyes and intuition told me would be interesting. I found a small storefront with the sign Yaho Soju Room (야호 소주방), within which I could see three swivel bar stools, a 50’s-looking man in the middle chair, and a similarly-aged woman standing behind the counter chopping vegetables and serving drinks.

I entered.

I knew I was on the right track when I passed by this karaoke room.

“Soju room.” It’s a kind of phrase that bring to mind the many other kinds of rooms for commercial use in Korea: singing rooms (karaoke), PC rooms, DVD rooms—even cafe rooms can provide you your own private cafe-like studio. The name evoked a very Korean kind of place. A more common name for “bar” in Korean is “drinking house.” Not far off the English “draft house” or even “pub.”

Korean drinking houses today serve beer, whisky, tequila and vodka shots. They have loud pop music playing. You won’t fine good old soju, the traditional Korean drink made by distilling grain wine, on the menu.

At Yaho Soju Room, soju was the main feature—Daesun (대선) soju in particular, Busan’s local brand. Beer (Korean beer) was available in the fridge, too, and a variety of traditional liquors in the cabinet behind the bar, but no whisky or cocktails. The barkeeper was cooking the snacks herself.

Price of the soju and complimentary snacks: 4,000 won (US$3.35).

She gave me a dish of tofu with spicy sauce and plate of carrots and cucumbers, complimentary with my bottle of soju. The ajeossi next to me (Korean older man, “uncle,” or “sir”) also ordered/asked for a plate of a kind of fish. On the stove, a pot simmered.

The handwritten soju appetizers menu.

There were only four customers in there, including me. Besides the ajeossi sitting next to me, a couple were sitting in one of the three booth tables in the place.

It was not a place I could have found on Google Maps. It was not a place I could have found if I planned my destination in advance. When we go traveling, we often pore over guides and itineraries, listings and descriptions. We query Google and Tripadvisor for the “best” restaurants, bars, cafes, and attractions in a city, a city we chose based on conscientious consideration. Often such planning ends up being useful. We find worthwhile destinations to enjoy. But too much planning—Googling every morning before leaving the hostel—takes away the element of serendipity, or fate, that allows special experiences to happen. It leaves a traveler without the excitement of ‘discovering’ someplace new. A little bit of planning is a good thing, but we also have to be willing to throw away the guidebook.

A restaurant serving seafood pancakes.
May 17

A coffee and a view at Huinnyeoul Culture Village, Busan

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Travel

Visiting Huinnyeoul Culture Village today, I stopped by a popular young cafe cum bookstore, Book Coffee, or Sonmog Seoga (손목서가) in Korean. The cafe is run by a couple and serves drip coffee in an artsy environment with views of the sea, while selling Korean language versions of progressive publications. After opening in the early summer of 2018, it has amassed 4,000 followers on Instagram.

Sonmog Seoga fits with the vibe local officials were trying to create at Huinnyeoul Culture Village when development began in late 2011, turning the shantytown located high above the ocean into an arts and culture tourist attraction. The coasts of Yeong Island became home to many refugees displaced by the Korean War.

A visitor looks at one of the filming sites of The Attorney.

Eventually, the government sought to redevelop, and some of the homes became run down and abandoned. According to Kim Hye-Ran, then Director of Cultural Tourism Division of the Education and Culture Department of Yeong Island’s district government, they offered some of the dilapidated houses to artists. Soon murals got painted, the area became more famous, and it was used as a filming location for 2013’s The Attorney, about former president Roh Moo-hyun’s championing of a civil liberties case during Chun Doo-hwan’s period of authoritarian rule.

A cairn we built by the ocean.

Although it has become increasingly developed towards tourism, locals insist Huinnyeoul Culture Village is not as crowded or commercialized as the nearby Gamcheon Culture Village. Huinnyeoul also appears to have a clearer view of the sea. It is accessible via steps up from Jeolyoung Marina Trail.

Walking along the marina trail.

Book Cafe succeeded in its goal of creating a charming environment with pleasing aesthetics, quality coffee, and erudite selection of reading material. The magazines were mass market high-brow. Feminist (Womankind, Australian), secular science (Skeptic, U.S.), Korean literature (Littor, Korea), and politics/society (시사in, Korea). Not independent and not entirely local, but not found in the convenience store either.

Crowded as it is, and not huge in terms of space, it charges high prices for its coffee. Most cost 6,000 won (US$5 at present conversion).

One thing you will find a lot of at Huinnyeoul Culture Village.
May 16

I visited “the most beautiful temple in Korea,” where I bought squid, then went on a hike

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

“Is this the #1 temple in Korea?” a foreign visitor with whiting grey hair asked his Korean guide as he walked into the Haedong Yonggungsa temple.

“No,” the Korean man said.

“Why does it say that?”

Over the gate to the temple stood a sign that says “the most beautiful temple in Korea.”

Haedong Yonggungsa temple Summary

Location: The end of Yonggung-gil (용궁길), off Gijanghaean-ro (기장해안로)
Transportation: From Jangsan station (the final subway stop on the green line), a taxi costs about 6000 won, or you can take bus no. 100
Price: Free
Tips: Get there early (before 10 am). When it gets crowded starting in late morning, it is loud and difficult to move around.

It may be the most heavily-self-promoted temple in Korean (and honestly, it is pretty damn beautiful). Many a tourist putting up some quick photos to social media takes the title (“called the…”) and uses it. Now if you Google the phrase, you’ll find a YouTube video, a Lonely Planet tour entry, and multiple TripAdvisor reviews (it is the #7 highest rated attraction in Busan).

The path into the temple takes you past a line of restaurants, shops, and street food stalls; even Ediya Coffee, one of the largest chains in Korea, has a location there! Since long ago, markets have organically developed around temples to provide worshipers with necessities like incense and food, but the way the market street was situated leading into Yonggungsa reminded me more of the placement of a gift shop at a Disneyland ride. Or the market streets leading into AAAAA Chinese tourist attractions. I’m not complaining; I bought a grilled octopus there and some instant coffee from Ediya. But if they had put up a sign calling it “the most commercialized temple in Korea,” I wouldn’t question it.

Buy as a poster, postcard, or other product at RedBubble.

Make no mistake, Haedong Yonggungsa offers numerous feasts for the eyes. A line of zodiac animals greets you when you get past the tempting snack stalls. As you walk down the steps into the main body of the temple, bamboo forests to each side, the finely-painted buildings come into view alongside the cliffs and the sea. (Those steps become single-file when it is too crowded.)

The dancheong-painted (red and blue-green decorative coloring, 단청) eaves of the main building include a dragon’s face carved into the wood. There are two opportunities to toss coins for good luck. From the bridge, you can try to hit the shot into a bucket held by a young girl sitting on a lotus in the water below. Yonggungsa is a real working temple. As I was sitting, watching, and feeling, a family came inside, laid out prayer mats, and offered two bags of rice to the bodhisattvas.

Buy as a postcard or other item from RedBubble.

By the time I had seen all of the buildings, it was past 11 am, and it was getting more and more crowded. The tourist buses had rolled into the parking lot. I bought myself some fried squid from the market and would have headed back if I had not noticed a trail leading into the woods of the hill behind the temple.

Inside the temple complex, there is also a cafe–it’s not a chain.
A visitor from China tosses a coin from the bridge.
Guanyin

So I bought some squid and took it with me in its convenient bag to the trail.

Hiking Along the Coast
The 3.5 kilometer (2.1 mi) trail follows the coastline, next to open views of the sea for the first half, shrouded by pine trees for the second half.

Also available on RedBubble.

When I got out on the other side, I came into an intersection beside the parking lot and a road to a construction site where the DoDo J mobile cafe truck was parked. Enjoying an iced coffee, I chatted with some Korean women on vacation from Seoul.

When they left, a group of men in suits came over from the direction of the construction. Mr. Heo showed me a video of a condo complex that will be going up. “It looks beautiful,” I said.

Apr 18

Shaxi, Yunnan: Let me tell you about the first time I ate bugs

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips , Living in China , Travel

It was during my final week in Yunnan, the far southwestern province bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. I had just been hired to write a guidebook about Hong Kong and only had a short time to explore before moving there for good.

I had been living in Dali Ancient City and spent most of my time those three months around Er Hai Lake in Dali County. But Dali County is just one of twelve counties in Dali Prefecture, which covers 11,370 square miles (29,450 sq km). I wanted to see some more far flung places. So I got on a small bus and rode over mountains and around steep curves until I arrived in Shaxi.

Halfway between Dali and Lijiang, Shaxi is one of the towns on the ancient Tea Horse Road to Bengal that is still in relatively good condition. The scenery is amazing. The architecture is beautiful. The town has a laid back vibe. I walked through the fields and saw local people wearing their traditional clothing. Children who had just gotten out of school celebrated summer break by tearing their papers up and flinging them in the air. A local music group was practicing, and they let me watch. Then at night my fellow hostel stayers and I sat outside on the square and drank beer.

Compared to Dali, it was less crowded and more relaxed but just as worthy of visiting. I would have stayed longer, had I time, but I had just a few days there, and in that time I had to try its local food. 

Shaxi, like Dali, is a town with a population that is majority Bai ethnicity. Shaxi is about 90 percent Bai; Dali 60 percent. The Bai are one of the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China. Eighty percent of them live in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, which was the base of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms. At its peak, Nanzhao had conquered northern Burma and defeated the Tang Dynasty in battles, expanding all the way to Chengdu. Only the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty could eventually conquer the Dali Kingdom and integrate Yunnan into China. 

So they are the same ethnic group, from the same prefecture, sharing much of the same history and culture. Do the Shaxi Bai eat the same foods as the Dali Bai?

“Do you eat huangmen chicken here in Shaxi?” I asked. No, one of the Bai people working the desk at the hostel said. That’s Dali people’s food.

I went to a small family-owned restaurant out down the road away from the square to see.

“I want your most authentic, most te se (‘characteristic’) local food,” I said.

I went to take a look at what they were cooking, and I was clueless. There were some colorless, thin round things in their wok. They didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen cooked before.

“What is this?” I asked.

The chief said a word I didn’t know.

“Is it a vegetable?”

“It’s not a vegetable.”

“What kind of meat is it?”

“It’s not meat.”

What could it be if it wasn’t meat or vegetable?

When they delivered it to my table, I admit my first instinct was disgust–disgusted intrigue. Fried, oily, segmented things whose bodies plump at one end. It was served with fried crunchy strips of rice cake.

Looking at it, I thought, why would you go to a small town in rural China and order the most te se dish on the menu? Not even on the menu. You didn’t even look at the menu! They gave me just what I ordered. Not like a restaurant that doesn’t trust the foreigner can eat their food and makes something tame, Americanizes it for them. I did want to experience something authentic, didn’t I?

I took one between my chopsticks and lifted it towards my mouth. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. It really didn’t taste like anything. It was just crunchy and had a little bit of a texture.

The dish was bamboo worms—the things that grow up to be moths. Cut open a stick of bamboo, and you can find a feast of these. Omphisa fuscindentalis is the name of one of the most popular of the bamboo worms served in Yunnan and Thailand.

A year or so later, I was back in Shanghai visiting a Chinese friend, and I took her to a Yunnan restaurant. I ordered her bamboo worm larvae, as well as other things. She did not end up eating any, but I enjoyed it. The bamboo worms there were cooked with mint leaves and spices. It seems the restaurant in Shanghai did a more elaborate recipe than the one in a local person’s home cooking restaurant. 

The fried worms were minty and fragrant; they take on the taste of whatever they are cooked with. The restaurant is called Yunshang—Beyond the Clouds—and it’s located at the end of the Nanjing East Road pedestrian road and Henan Middle Road. I would recommend it. (I say, eating larvae at a local restaurant when you aren’t expecting it is more exciting than going to a restaurant with the plan already in your mind and time to mentally prepare.)

Bamboo worms were not my favorite dish in China. Not even close. But larvae and dragon flies and scorpions are the best dish to have with your friend who is visiting China for the first time.

Apr 16

Urban parks: We need more greenways like Nanjing’s

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Living in China

With the coming of spring, kites fill the sky in Nanjing. Parents take their toddlers to run around in the grass, old folks walk along the path while listening to music of their youth, and young people run and bike along the Yangtze River.

Kites being flown from Yangtze River Greenway in April 2016 (photos by Mitchell Blatt).

Nanjing’s Greenway is a long stretch of interconnected parklands and trails that follow along the Yangtze River, the Qinhuai River, and Nanjing’s 21-kilometer ancient city wall. The benefits it brings to urban beautification, public health, and even transportation (I biked to work along it) are immense.

A study of urban parks in Los Angeles published in 2014 found that people who live nearby public parks display significantly better mental health states, as measured by responses to the MHI-5 mental health inventory, than do people who live far from public parks. Other studies in other countries have found similar results. Parks can stimulate people to exercise, facilitate social interactions, and bring people closer to nature. This has led policy planners to advocate for community-focused measures to help create environments relatively more conducive to positive mental health.

It’s not just about mental health. Urban parks and urban park networks are beneficial to the environment as well as just being good and enjoyable for their own sake.

Nanjing Ming City Wall (photo by Mitchell Blatt).

Chinese urban planners and researchers have made urban greenways an important part of their strategies for years. As far back as 1998, the Nanjing government envisioned a plan for preservation of the Ming Dynasty City Wall based on the creation of urban parks around the wall. For at least 15 meters around the walls, there would be no construction at all; just green grass, trees, and trails. The height of nearby buildings would also be limited, with no buildings allowed higher than the wall for at least 50 meters and up to 200 meters in some places, according to a case study by Yao Yanqi and Li Zhenyu, a student and professor, respectively, at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University.

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