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, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.
It is May Day in China, but the Chinese people are unable to celebrate the true meaning of the holiday.
May Day isn’t about the canonization of Saint Walpurga. It’s not about walking around a maypole with streamers. And it’s certainly not about labour.
No, May Day, in the People’s Republic of China, is about music.
Since the late 1990’s, music festivals have been held around the country over the four-day May Day holiday. The first Midi Music Festival was held in Beijing from May 1-3, 1997. The festival has been expanded such that it now holds performances simultaneously in multiple cities. More festivals followed. In 2013, the Strawberry Music Festival, which is put on by Modern Sky Records, was held during May Day holiday in Beijing and Shanghai.
2013 was a great year for music festivals. In addition to Midi and Strawberry, Dali held the Erhai World Music Festival for the first time. Best of all: I was there!
Dali is an ancient town situated between Mount Cang and the high-alpine Er Hai Lake. It was the capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom from 738-937 AD and the subsequent Dali Kingdom. Now it’s a beautiful tourist town with stone streets lined with blossoming trees, canals, and white-walls painted with murals.
I was working at a bar on Foreigner Street in spring of 2013. I stood outside of Tang Dynasty every night from 8 pm to 11 pm waving at people and inviting them in. It was a fun job, and one that provided me with free beer as well as a high wage (for the city) and free housing at the run-down guesthouse behind the bar.
Dali Erhai Music Festival was a held at a park on the banks of the Er Hai Lake kilometers to the south of the walled ancient city. Some people set up tents on the grass and stayed for the full three days. The grassy peninsula was also where the pot smoking happened. Marijuana use and sale is punished with strict penalties in China. But in Yunnan, being far from Beijing and close to the Golden Triangle, there is relatively lax enforcement of such laws. (It is said that in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, people could smoke openly in the ancient city. That era has wafted away in time.)
The 2013 festival showcased some big names: Black Panther, the first metal band in China; Brain Failure, a punk band that has done colabs with Big D and the Kids Table; Reflector, a pop-punk band that was the first Chinese band I had ever seen in concert; and Misandao, a skinhead punk band with songs and lyrics you’d never expect to hear in China (and would have been impossible in Mao’s dictatorship of the proletariat). Misandao’s frontman Lei Jun died in May 2015, so it was one of the last music festivals they ever played.
Chinese guys and gals waved flags and fists up in front of the stage. BMXers jumped off ramps in the parking lot, and hippies sold crafts (much of which they purchased on Taobao) on blankets. To be sure, a few of the bands (Misandao, for example) embodied working class anger and revolutionary ardor.
But for the most part, there was no sign of the spirit of 1889; it was the spirit of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, that which left political and economic dogmas by the wayside and brought out the reforms that would lead to a growing middle class, that would open the world up to allow the proliferation of foreign music on tape, foreign brands, and foreign culture.
This year, there can be no music festivals. But the spirit of May Day is still alive in the youths singing at newly-opened karaoke parlours.
Forcibly put intercity travelers into 14 day self-isolation
Used cell phone data to do contact tracing
You don’t have to believe the Chinese Communist Party. You don’t have to believe the numbers. Just look with your own eyes to see how China responded to coronavirus.
I would just like to give you an explanation of what happened in most of the country—with videos, photos, and first-hand reporting—because I have lived in China for six years, deeply immersed myself in the country and the culture, more so than many reporters and certainly more so than bloggers who have never stepped foot in China who are writing and speculating based on second- or third-hand information.
I stayed in Nanjing during the outbreak, the capital of Jiangsu province in the east, which was not one of the hardest hit regions, but major cities like Nanjing are where hundreds of millions of Chinese people stayed during the outbreak. I don’t claim to know in detail what happened in Wuhan or how many people died, numbers that the C.I.A. is reportedly questioning.
But how many people got infected and died is a separate question from the question of whether China’s conducted an aggressive response. China did in fact enact particular measures that were put in place to limit interactions between people, identify and track cases, and quarantine infected people.
Neighborhood Checkpoints and Individual Quarantine
In China, there were checkpoints set up around residential neighborhoods. People had to be registered before entering or leaving. Not only did the checkpoints manned by “temporary party committees” allow for neighborhoods to be observed and managed, they also allowed the authorities to make sure that self-isolation was observed. Anyone returning from one city to another city after Spring Festival was required to self-isolate for 14 days, and the party members and/or volunteers on the neighborhood committee would make sure of it. (See my reporting: I Am Watching China Wage a ‘People’s War’ Against Coronavirus (65,000 Cases and Growing).)
You can see what the checkpoints look like in my video from the streets of Nanjing. (It’s cued up at the 5:44 mark.)
Now you might look at these fences and the close monitoring of communities as a kind of heavy-handed Chinese authoritarianism. That is a much different response than to deny that China took effective measures.
In the United States, however, passengers from Italy were not so much as having their temperatures checked up until the travel ban was issued on March 14. Americans arriving from Italy to this day still do not have to be quarantined and did not have to track their temperatures on an app with results submitted to health authorities, as was the case in Korea.
When I arrived from China, my temperature was taken at the arrival gate, and I was given papers telling me to self-isolate for 14 days, and I did self-isolate for 14 days, but there was no enforcement mechanism to make sure I did.
China also used individual cell phone data to trace the contacts of infected people and quarantine those contacts who had been infected. Again, Americans might protest the use of individual cell phone data as a violation of their privacy—more Chinese authoritarianism—but that is entirely different from suggesting China did not take aggressive measures.
As I said in my video on February 22,
“You can come in [to the park] if you scan the QR code. … The reason you need to scan the QR code is so that if it is found somebody who has coronavirus visited this park, then they [i.e. the authorities] know to get in contact with you and check to see that you are okay or not. … Each [of the three codes] is marked with the name of the phone company: China Unicom, [China Mobile], etc. … If you use the phone signal [as opposed to wifi], they know your phone’s location, they know your phone’s previous location…”
My summary on the spot in the video is in line with what has been reported by both Chinese and American sources:
Business Insider: “The country implemented large-scale contact tracing in the early 2000s. … During the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, China set up large-scale surveillance systems that included contact tracing, a front-line public-health strategy that involves identifying and following up with people who may have come into contact with an infected person.”
Forbes: “China has spent years building a vast surveillance state to digitally track its population, a system that has come to the fore in its attempts to monitor and control the spread of coronavirus. … When coronavirus first hit China, the country repurposed its surveillance state into a contact tracing and quarantine enforcement machine. The infrastructure was in place. Facial and license plate recognition, contact tracing and phone tracking, proximity reports from public transportation, apps to determine quarantine status and freedom of movement, and social media to inform on rule-breakers.”
The Guardian: “Getting into one’s apartment compound or workplace requires scanning a QR code, writing down one’s name and ID number, temperature and recent travel history. Telecom operators track people’s movements while social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report others who may be sick.”
China Travel Writer/CTW Weekly: “Any passengers who rode in train cars with people who were found to have contracted coronavirus are urged by Chinese authorities, in calls promoted in the press, to visit a disease prevention and control center in their hometown.”
Business Insider: “”In America, you have to stay at home, but there’s no police,” said Huang. “There’s no one actively enforcing that rule, but in China, you have what are basically security guards on patrol of every residence to make sure they don’t violate the government containment measures. That’s a kind of approach I think can’t be copied here in the United States.””
It is clear that taking such measures to close businesses, quarantine people and trace contacts would prevent cases compared to allowing people to continue to congregate in public places and spread the disease. You don’t really need to prove it with science, but scientists have done so, anyway. Twenty-one scholars, including some from the University of Oxford, Harvard, Cal Davis, Peking University, and Hong Kong University, tried to estimate the effects in a report published in Science and estimated that the number of confirmed cases was 96% fewer than “expected in the absence of interventions.” Their study compared data from different provinces, all within China, so that is to say that cities and provinces within China had fewer confirmed cases than other Chinese cities and provinces that acted later or less aggressively. Undercounting of raw numbers wouldn’t affect comparisons of intracountry data if the numbers were undercounted on the same scale in each province.
Should China have quarantined tens of millions of people before they knew what was happening? No one knew the full extent of coronavirus and how easily-transmissible it was at the time. In some instances, China is criticized for being too authoritarian. But in other instances China is criticized for being not authoritarian enough.
(The suggestion that Chinese people were fleeing Wuhan is also unsubstantiated. People leave and enter major cities all the time, and in January everyone was going to their ancestral hometowns for Spring Festival, an annual tradition no different than Americans traveling for Thanksgiving or Christmas.)
(Plus, again, with the fact we only know now that asymptomatic people can transmit the disease, there would have been many people who had no reason to suspect they had the then-mystery virus who were traveling.)
It wasn’t until later that it was found that coronavirus could spread in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases. The fact that it takes multiple days to show symptoms and continues to spread during that period makes coronavirus very different from the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak.
In fact, American media frequently misreported into March that coronavirus probably can’t spread among those who aren’t sick, misinforming many ignorant millennials (and Americans of all ages) who went to bars in Manhattan and beaches in Florida. The American government adopted an arbitrary “6 foot” rule and the Surgeon General scolded Americans for wearing masks. Now scientists report that coronavirus can travel 24 feet, and the CDC is recommending Americans wear masks.
Could it be that we simply don’t know everything about novel coronavirus because it is a newly-discovered virus?
Maybe we should have assumed that coronavirus can travel through coughing and breathing—or at least acted as if it could—just like we should have assumed any disease can be transmitted between humans and taken precautions even before it was scientifically proven.
Anyone who has expertise in the relevant medical and scientific subjects can take a look at this article/timeline by Caixin Global and see if make their determination as to whether China’s policies slowed down the identification of the virus.
The relevant time periods are from around late December when doctors began to notice and investigate the cluster of pneumonia caused by an unknown source and an as-yet-undiscovered virus that caused symptoms similar to the flu. On December 27, a company sequenced most of the virus and found that it was similar to, but not the same as, the 2002-03 SARS virus. On January 3, China’s National Health Commission “ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions, or to destroy them,” in the words of the Caixin Global journalists. Two days later, professors at Fudan University identified novel coronavirus, it was reported.
But that day, Professor Zhang Yongzhen of Fudan University in Shanghai received biological samples packed in dry ice in metal boxes and shipped by rail from Wuhan Central Hospital. By Jan. 5, Zhang’s team had also identified the new, SARS-like coronavirus through using high-throughput sequencing.
Zhang reported his findings to the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission as well as China’s National Health Commission, warning the new virus was like SARS, and was being transmitted through the respiratory route. This sparked a secondary emergency response within the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Jan. 6.
On Jan. 9, an expert team led by the CDC made a preliminary conclusion that the disease was caused by a new strain of coronavirus, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
The technical aspects of how viruses are tested and how diseases are identified and what kind of regulations should govern labs are topics I know little to nothing about, and I suspect some other journalists and bloggers might not know about those topics either. So I’ll avoid analysis of whether China’s discovery period from late December to January 9 was fast or slow.
If China’s government made mistakes in December and January that might have allowed the virus to spread further than it otherwise would, other countries, including the United States also made mistakes. The U.S. shut down the CDC epidemiologist position, among the responsibilities of which was monitoring and training Chinese to monitor outbreaks, in China in July 2019 and shut down its pandemic response team in 2018. The U.S. also waited longer than nine days to put any kind of travel regulations on flights coming in from Europe or declare a state of emergency when it was already clear that coronavirus had been spreading in foreign countries.
Most countries made some mistakes—particular when viewing responses from hindsight—but to no country could have identified every case on day one and implemented the kind of quarantines on day one that other countries won’t even implement four month later. Debating whether or not the virus could have been contained at this point is all speculation.
For weeks, as China was struggling to contain coronavirus in January and early February, Viet Nam took pride in the fact that the number of cases in country could be counted on fingers and toes.
Viet Nam took action to shut down travel from China even earlier than the United States. It stopped all flights from China on February 1.
Things were going good for them with weeks of no new cases. On February 28, the government announced all 16 cases had been treated and discharged from the hospital.
On February 12, its tourism chairman put out a letter stating, “Since the first day when the disease was recognized until the epidemic was officially announced by the Government of Viet Nam on February 1st, 2020 and now, Viet Nam has controlled the situation very well by promoting infection prevention, while isolating and quarantining Vietnamese citizens, who have travel history to China…”
“At present, attractions, heritage sites and restaurants are still open for tourists as usual,” the letter continued.
Now that is not so true.
Things changed on March 6. A 27-year old Hà Nội woman returned from Europe last week, after traipsing around France, Italy, and England, before returning to Việt Nam and walking the streets of Hà Nội. She was confirmed to be infected with coronavirus on Friday.
By then, at least three other people had been infected by transmission from the woman, Patient #17, who was referred to as “N.H.N.” in newspapers, and 27 others had to be isolated, although they tested negative. She met one person who was later infected at Milan Fashion week.
Vietnamese people began attacking N.H.N. They called her a spoiled rich girl. They accused her of being irresponsible, of moving around on the airplane and switching seats four times (I have found no confirmation of that rumor). They discovered and published her full name, and supposedly she doesn’t like to look at her phone now, while she’s in the hospital.
More here: says the patient met Case #17 at Milan Fashion Week and they also interacted in London. If nothing else, this is shining a spotlight on Vietnam’s jet-setter class. https://t.co/Leow7BH7VT— Michael Tatarski (@miketatarski) March 10, 2020
I thought of similar cases in other countries. In South Korea, Patient #31, went from Seoul to Daegu, attended the Shincheonji church cult, refused to heed a doctor’s request that she get tested, and then hit up a hotel buffet, before finally testing positive a few days later. In New Hampshire, USA, a medical worker ignored doctors’ warnings and attended a networking event.
N.H.N. may have been irresponsible, but the virus is so widespread now, and there are so many unknown cases transmitting undetected, that there’s little that can be done to stop it, short of maybe shutting down whole countries.
There’s been more and more people coming into Viet Nam, both for travel and returning from travel abroad. The Vietnamese government tried to keep matters calm at the beginning. Tour agents announced that there was no reason to avoid Viet Nam. Now those who arrive are finding hotels closed, streets empty, even being stuck on islands with their flights canceled!
Over 240 Norwegian travelers were stuck on Phú Quốc Island after Viet Nam suspended visa-free travel for Norway, resulting in flights being stopped.
Cát Bà, the most popular island in Hạ Long Bay is shut down. Tourists who visited the coastal area of Hạ Long Bay said it was a ghost town.
In Hội An, the coastal “ancient-style” “Lijiang-of-Vietnam” town with lantern-strung streets, half of the hotels are closed.
Sa Pa, a trekking base, has also been affected.
There are still tourists walking the streets of Hà Nội Old Quarter, but nowhere near as many as usual, and a report out of Hue yesterday said the tourism areas were still active. But things can change at any instant.
One tourism professional says that hotels and cruises and such are closing because of lack of demand, “not because of fear of the virus.” “Majority of travelers coming here are from China, Korea and domestic Vietnamese. The virus really affects their business.” (Now all entries from China are blocked, as are entries from Korea who transited through Daegu or South Gyeongsang province.)
But in the end, if businesses are closed, and if people cannot find accommodations, fewer people will want to travel. The effect becomes a vicious cycle.
already had one expat friend refused entry to a restaurant yesterday for being a foreigner…— Mallory Graves (@Mal_Graves) March 10, 2020
Travelers to many countries at this time have to put up with annoyances. In Viet Nam, they seem to be taking a much more aggressive response towards limiting the virus than many other countries. The government has ordered everyone living in the country to submit regular health declarations. You can even hear the old propaganda speakers announcing virus-prevention information.
There’s the catch-22 facing tourism boards in a time of pandemic. If a country does a good job protecting itself, keeping cases down, they can go out and market their tourism to try to keep their economy up. But if tourists come, coronavirus is going to come. The only way to keep the country perfectly safe is to limit travel.
Viet Nam still has low numbers–34 cases in a country of 95 million people–but disruptions to Viet Nam’s school systems and leisure activities have not been avoided.
It is a beautiful country with waterfalls, caves, rice paddies, forests, and rivers. There are places where a traveler could get away from other people, where the lack of commerce in downtown Saïgon doesn’t matter to them.
Not to say that such things are completely gone. People are still living their daily lives. Maybe if your goal is to hang around Hà Nội and Saïgon and take in daily life, you are less affected that if you planned to visit a tourism-oriented town on the coast. For now, anyway. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Drinking Bai Jiu at a hostel in China During Spring Festival 2020
“It’s New Years Somewhere” is a series that explores drinking and celebrating around the world
Spring Festival in a big city is always a strange time. Streets are empty, and shops are closed. Most urban residents take the train to their ancestral hometowns to ring in the new year with their whole families.
Ordinarily, I might join Chinese friends to celebrate together, but with the coronavirus spreading, just in time for travel rush, I opted to stay put in Nanjing, a city of 8 million in ordinary times and the ancient capital of China through multiple dynasties. By the time Spring Festival started, already 600 people had caught the highly-contagious disease, and two dozen had died. Now, the total is over 2,000, with more than 50 dead.
Fear over the spread has made cities even more lifeless. Museums are closed, too, and those remaining remaining are scared of going outside. But that didn’t stop me and three foreign friends I met at a hostel in Nanjing from feasting on roast duck and dropping back shots of bai jiu.
After finding storefronts boarded up and the city wall closed, I resigned myself to grabbing a bottle of bai jiu (“white liquor”) and heading to the hostel in Laomendong. Laomendong, an “ancient-style” street south of Confucius Temple, was still more or less bustling. As it was designed with tourism and leisure in mind and decorated with brightly lit lanterns in the shapes of animals and Chinese legends, Laomendong attracted those revelers willing to brave the open air.
Bai jiu is China’s traditional liquor made from sorghum (or other wheat product) that is steamed, fermented, and distilled. It’s the world’s bestselling alcoholic beverage—by far—and no Chinese celebration is complete without it. As any foreigner, myself included, who has been invited to a Chinese wedding can attest, it can be tough to keep up with the constant demands to gan bei (bottoms up).
I selected a bottle of Liuyang He, which came in a bright red box—the color of good fortune—for 35 Chinese yuan, one of the most affordable selections. (The famous national brand Moutai will set you back 3,000.)
Like Moutai, Liuyang He is also named after the region where it is produced. Liuyang is located in northeastern Hunan, east of Changsha, nearby the historical birthplace of Mao Zedong and many early Communist Party leaders. The liquor produced with Liuyang River water has been acclaimed since the Song Dynasty, when local official and poet Yang Shi lauded it in verse. In addition to bai jiu, it is also one of China’s biggest fireworks-producing cities. Its products will have been used widely across the country by the end of the two-weeks-long festival period.
I poured two glasses at the table in the lobby of the hostel and gave one to Thomas, who is from Germany.
“What do you think?” I asked, after we cleaned our glasses.
“Um…” After a pause, he said, “It’s strong.”
It’s 52 percent alcohol.
The local people’s government of Liuyang established the Liuyang He bai jiu factory in 1956—six years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China—inside an old liquor fermenting yard. The brand began acquiring a reputation and was known for its red packaging and its “strong aroma” flavor. In 1998, in order to revitalize the brand, Liuyang He was purchased by the Hunan Zhongshang Group and production was turned over to the nation’s top-selling distillery, Wuliangye.
Sylvain and Lucas, from France, joined us in the lobby, and we went out to look for a restaurant. We ordered a feast of six dishes, including Guangzhou roast duck and glass noodles. It was just coincidental that the restaurant had no Snow Beer in its refrigerator, and Corona was the only brand of beer they had cold.
All three of the foreigners who had come to China to celebrate Spring Festival had their plans thwarted by the virus. “I wanted to go to the Ming Tomb at Purple Mountain,” Thomas said, “but it was closed, so I went to the [Xuanwu] Lake, but it was closed, as well, so I took the Metro back to the Confucius Temple, and the temple was closed, but the area around it, the shops were open.”
With life in the city paralyzed by Spring Festival and coronavirus, there’s nothing much to do but stay inside and get drunk.
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.
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.
Kexima (可西玛) –Smallest Spanish Restaurant in China
120 Shanghai Road, just south of Taogu New Village Road (上海路120号)
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.
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).
Special Contribution by Khun Nyan Min Htet, aka Joy Joy
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
Cachaça, Thai lemongrass, lime, ginger-flavored soda water. “Refreshing sweet and sour, smooth drinking, and fragrant lemongrass flavor.”
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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?
“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.
Q: Why did you choose to have the boy holding a clothes-hanging fork (for lifting clothes to and from the drying line)?
“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.”
Q: Your work has been very popular. Everyone is taking photos of it…
“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.’”
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?
“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.”
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for the objects you chose to portray?
“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.”
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.