Category Archives for "China"

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

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

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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Mar 28

Flowers of Nanjing: Plum blossoms and rapeseed flowers in bloom

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips

Spring brings the flowers across China.

The flowers of Nanjing are plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and rapeseed flowers. Plum blossoms (梅花 – mei hua) have been chosen as Nanjing’s city flower, and the annual plum blossom festival is taking place now at Plum Blossom Hill on Purple Mountain. It is near the end of plum blossom season, which lasts from February through the end of March, but some flowers remain, and you will have missed the crowds.

”The fragrance of the plum blossom pierces the bones on the bridge.”
– Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber

The plum trees, with some other kinds of trees mixed in, are arranged all over a field and hill near the Ming Dynasty Tombs. The gardens and nearby mansion are inspired in part by Cao Xueqin’s classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦 – Hong Lou Meng). Cao was born in Nanjing and grew up in the privileged home of a scholar-official. In the book, Cao made frequent references to plum blossoms.

During the festival, the plum hill is open free to the public. To visit, take line 2 on the subway to Muxuyuan (苜蓿园) station and follow either Lingyuan Road or Mingling Road into the park.

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See other images of China at Mitch’s RedBubble page.

Rapeseed Flowers

South of urban Nanjing, the fields have just turned blazingly yellow this month. Rapeseed, which is used for cooking oil (canola) and cattle feed, is one of the major agricultural products of the fertile Jiangnan (江南, which means “south of the [Yangtze] river”) region. China is the number two producer of rapeseed in the world (behind Canada), producing 15 million tons in 2016. Taking the high speed train between Nanjing and Shanghai, I would see the yellow go by every spring.

Gaochun is one of the best places to see the flowers in easily-accessible fields. Walk or take a bike along a paved road through the fields, and get off to walk within the fields. Nearby, white-walled homes complement the timeless aesthetic.

There is now a subway line going from downtown Nanjing all the way to Gaochun. Buses also run from the South Nanjing Station.

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Gaochun, a good place to bike.

Gaochun, a good place to bike.

Tea is harvested in the hills nearby the rapeseed fields.

Tea is harvested in the hills nearby the rapeseed fields.

Mar 13

An interview with travel writer Alec Le Sueur, marketing manager of the first international hotel in Tibet

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Travel

Alec Le Sueur spent five years as the marketing and sales manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, the first international hotel to be opened in Tibet after China reformed and opened to the world.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

The Holiday Inn was known as “the hardest hardship post.” Nicholas Kristof once wrote an article about it titled “A Tibetan Horror Story.” It was two flights away from Hong Kong on the chaotic state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, and for long periods of the year, the only meal to be had was spam. But the sights on mountains, Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and streets with yaks wandering freely were another thing.

Le Sueur chronicled the beauty of Tibet and the absurdities of running a hotel, where management duties were duplicated between a Chinese party and a foreign party that rarely saw eye-to-eye, where staff didn’t know how to use the new, technologically-advanced washing machines, where teaspoons went missing and a guard was hired to protect the toilet paper, in his book The Hotel on the Roof of the World.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Le Sueur’s witty and conversational style brings the place to life. Some of the scenes will look familiar to people who have spent time in China recently (Chengdu taxi drivers racing to the airport, rice wine banquets), but much else is lost into the past. Tibet has changed much. China’s airports are still chaotic masses of people, but they have changed, for the better, with modern airplanes and functioning logistical processes. The Holiday Inn has been taken over by the Chinese government’s managers, and new international hotels have opened up in Lhasa.

Le Sueur was also in Tibet at a time when pro-autonomy protests and riots broke out between 1987-89, and Tibet was under martial law for about a year, with no tourism. He mentions the political situation in so much as it impacted daily life and hotel operations, but he did not dwell on politics as a main subject.

Nicholas Kristof's 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

Nicholas Kristof’s 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

After five years, he left Tibet with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and went with her to Belgium, which was the subject of his next book, Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land. He also left the hotel business and got an MBA in law firm management. He continues to contribute to travel magazines, including Food & Wine.

Following is my interview with the author:Continue reading

Dec 28

China Travel Writer 2018 year in review

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Food and Leisure , Korea , Living in China

January: Largest Starbucks in the World

Jan - Starbucks
In December 2017, the 30,000 Starbucks Reserve Roastery opened in Jing’an district of Shanghai (West Nanjing Station). Early in January, I visited. The massive two-story museum-like establishment serves beer and libations, including coffee cocktails, as well as coffee. I enjoyed a Manhattan with Starbucks’ special touch.

February: Spring Festival

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I went to a friend’s hometown for Spring Festival. Off a provincial road, Baichi village (in Henan province) consisted of dirt roads lined with cement-walled courtyard homes. Everyone seemed to know their neighbors and most of the villagers. Few foreigners ever visited, and I was a source of interest. They were passionate and hospitable during the Spring Festival season. Each even began with me eating dinner with my friends and his family, followed by us walking to one of his friends’ homes to drink beer, and invariably, their family would prepare a second dinner for us.
Feb - Spring Festival
One afternoon, friends and family came over for the Chinese New Year feast. Tables were set up in two rooms, and there was little room for any more food to be placed on them. Every adult who came, it seemed, brought a bottle of rice wine. If one’s cup was empty, it wouldn’t be empty for long. Someone would come along to fill it, and then it would be emptied again.
Feb - Spring Fest Liquor
Feb - Spring Fest Drinking
Children played with small gunpowder-filled toys in the courtyard. Popping things that you throw at the ground for the littlest ones. Exploding ones for the older boys.

Midnight on new years eve was a cacophony. Across the village, people launched firework out of their courtyards.

June: Singapore

Mid-June - Singapore Glamour
In June, I visited Singapore for the first time. The city-state is known for its posh, hypermodern central business district. The variety of cheap food at hawker stalls was delicious.

My favorite part was the vibrant street culture of Chinatown. I wrote about the dancing,

But there they were on the corner of New Bridge Street and the lantern-adorned Smith Street at 8 pm shaking their hips, swinging their arms, and doing the twist. I began watching and talking to a local, and soon enough the woman had convinced me to join in singing and dancing.

Mid-June - Singapore Dancing

July 4: Fireworks in DC

July 4 in DC
Sitting on the National Mall with people from all of the United States–and the world–you have the best view of one of the best fireworks shows in the country taking place in front of the Washington Monument.

August: Counterprotesting Unite the Right II

Aug - Alt-Right Rally Counterprotest
When the alt-right racists came to Washington, DC on the anniversary of their 2017 rally in Charlottesville, friend and contributor to my political blog, Bombs + Dollars, Patrick Rincon came from Korea to counterprotest. We’d be joined by thousands of others from nearby and across the country–mostly individuals who detest racism but also radical groups like the Revolutionary Communists and antifa. And also a lot–a lot–of media. Patrick, dressed as Captain America, was mistaken for an alt-rightist twice due to his flag.

I described the scene at B+D:

At around 4:55 pm, a commotion could be heard near the entrance to the subway station. People started shouting, “Fuck you, Nazis!” … Along the protest route, there was less of the chanting often heard at the protest site from members of organized groups and more homemade cursing and insults. Marchers were mocked about how, for example, their status as unemployable losers with no girlfriend is their own damn fault.

“No one wants you,” someone said.

“We are replacing you!” said another.

I did some digging on one of the featured speakers, Charles Edward Lincoln III, and found that he had a criminal conviction and long trail of court cases against him and reported on him for The Daily Beast.

My column that week: The alt-right’s lasting impact

Late August: Eating Hongeo

At the end of August, I went to Korea to meet friends during the final week before the new semester of my masters program at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies began. In Busan, I met up with a classmate from my program in Nanjing, and we ate one of the most infamous dishes in all of Korea: skate (홍어 – hongeo). Here we are featured on the restaurant’s Instagram account:
Aug - Eating Honeo

Why is hongeo so infamous? It is an ugly fish with a bony texture that is fermented in its own piss.

It was the third time I have eaten it–always for kicks. Taking a friend who has never eaten it, going on a quest to find the small restaurant (the only one in the vicinity of Busan Fish Market that served hongeo), and then having enough makgeolli in your bowl to override the taste is a good time every once in a while.
August - Hongeo

November: International Dinner

Nov - Int'l Dinner
At SAIS, I became Social Media Director of the SAIS Korea Club. The Korea Club hosted various events this past semester celebrating Korean culture, and we also participated in the International Dinner, an event where multiple clubs prepare food representing their country or culture. I served food while wearing traditional Korean clothing (hanbok). There’s also a contest for most popular food served. Korea Club placed third. Congratulations to Taiwan Club for winning.

December: Visiting the Old Korean Legation

Dec - Korean Legation Group Pic
This old house in Logan Circle of Washington, DC, the former home of Civil War hero Seth Ledyard Phelps, became the first diplomatic headquarters for Korea in the United States in 1889. It was only 1905 when Japan occupied Korea, however, and denied the country its sovereignty, later forcing Korea to give the property over to Japan. The Korean government finally repurchased the building in 2012, and it opened to the public in 2018, after years of historical restoration.
Dec - Korean Legation

Writing in 2018

In February, I was published in Silkwinds, the inflight magazine of Silk Air, for the first time, offering travel tips for Xiamen in the “Postcards” section. I have also written “Postcards” features on Changsha and Shenzhen for the magazine.

I reported on the criminal history and legal troubles of an alt-right speaker for The Daily Beast.

Can you read Chinese? I had a Chinese-language article published in JiangsuNow about woodblock text engraving. (Can’t read Chinese? There’s an English translation at the end.)

I began working for The National Interest and had multiple articles published on its website.

That’s just a sample of some of my big articles and interesting experiences this past year. Subscribe to my email list (use the form below or menu above) and follow me on Facebook to see even more.

Oct 15

What it’s like living in a Chinese corental with 8 flatmates, a crazy downstairs neighbor who hates us, and a landlord who doesn’t take shit from us or him

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Living in China

When I arrived in China six years ago, I was a recent graduate fresh out of college with no idea how to rent an apartment in a foreign country and a stipend much too small to cover a studio apartment in Shanghai.

So I did what any foreigner in that situation should do: I rented a room in an illegal co-rental apartment (hezu) with eight flatmates. What I learned from that experience is that living in a hezu is a great way to make Chinese friends and become accustomed to life in China.

After I found an internship in 2012, the first thing I did was to get a list together of apartments from the website 58Tongcheng, a sort of Craigslist-esque website for which professional real estate listings are a main feature (“a magical website,” according to its commercials). Quickly I learned that the listings have almost no relation to the apartments an agent will show clients.

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I called to express interest in a promising apartment listed on the 27th floor of a building a few subway stops away from downtown. The agent told me to meet outside Lujiabang subway station and took me to the 23rd floor of a tower with European-esque colonnades and design ornaments. The apartment was new, he said, and I could tell, because there were still wood planks lying against the wall, and tape and paint on the floor and walls. It wasn’t the place in the listing.

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Nonetheless, I liked what I saw. It had five bedrooms, a common room, a refrigerator, and a spectacular view from the glass-enclosed balcony. I quickly decided I wanted to live there. There was only one problem: I was a foreigner. Only Chinese could live there, the landlord said.

I felt the sting of discrimination. Why couldn’t foreigners live with Chinese? I knew some foreigners in China could be loud and obnoxious, but I wasn’t that kind of foreigner. Why’d they show it to me in the first place if I couldn’t live there?

I told the landlord, “Wo hui shuo zhongwen” (“I can speak Chinese”), and I appreciate Chinese culture, so I should be able to get along with the others.

“That’s not the problem,” Landlord said. It’s just that the apartment, you see, was not technically a legal living arrangement. After all, Landlord had taken what was licensed as a single-family apartment and turned it into a flophouse. She had put up makeshift walls and rewired the electricity. Even the kitchen was a bedroom.

“Only ‘family’ can live there,” she said, referring to an apparently loophole. Why couldn’t I be “family”? “Aren’t I your nephew? Don’t you have a ‘sister’ who married a foreigner and had children?” I asked.

The landlord was charmed and eventually let me stay. A Chinese friend negotiated to cut the price by 200 yuan a month. I moved in a few days after signing the contract and was disappointed to see that the balcony had disappeared. There was a wall in front of it. The landlord had created yet another new bedroom!

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Besides me, 8 other people were living in the hezu, a word that means co-rented apartment. They were male and female, old and young. I was the only foreigner. Four of my flatmates were recent college graduates like me who had moved to Shanghai for work. Among them were three women, two of whom worked as models, and one man who worked first as a real estate agent and later as an event host. Next door to me was a young couple and their infant baby, and, in the smallest room, was an old man, who collected the rent.

The day I moved in was July 4, America’s Independence Day. In order to celebrate, I offered my flatmates American whisky. “I brought this from America, it’s one of my country’s biggest brands,” I said, as I unveiled the Jim Beam. We clanked cups together, gan bei-ed, and then went to a dinner of hot pot. To celebrate a country that aspires to be a melting pot, I felt whisky and hot pot was an ideal meal.

Before long, conflicts began. The root of the conflicts stemmed not from my being a foreigner but rather from all of us being outsiders—foreign to Shanghai. Some Shanghainese who had moved to Shanghai a decade or two ago don’t like recent arrivals, especially those from neighboring Anhui, a less prosperous inland province where a few of the models were from, whom they view as “uncultured” “peasants.”

The man living on the floor below us was one such person. Despite us following Landlord’s request not to be too loud, the man below quickly went to war with us.

He would knock the women’s clothes off the drying poles when it was hanging to outside the windows. He came to our apartment one day and got into a fistfight with the husband living next door to me. One night in winter, we heard a loud crack. The next morning, we discovered the crazy man had smashed the bathroom window from below. Showering was very cold for the next month until Landlord finally had it fixed.

Worse than the December cold was the scorching summer heat. With 8 people in the place and the temperature hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) a few times, we had air conditioning cranking to the max all summer long. Often the power would go out. After all of us called Landlord to complain, she would eventually come late the next day, sometimes two days later, to fix it.

Within the hezu, however, we were getting along and making friends. I became good friends with the model, “Small A”, and the real estate agent, “Small W”. We all had dreams. Being young workers in Shanghai, we were intoxicated by the bright lights of the big city. We went to a nightclub one night and drank Qingdaos while standing at the bar and marveling at the spectacle of champaign being served with sparklers to tables with bottle service.

sparklers and fire dance

Most nights, however, it was shao kao barbecue. Small W told me he was gay. He couldn’t tell his parents or almost anyone else, he said, but he trusted me because, “Foreigners are more open.” Now he’s married to a woman. Small A told me how tough it is to stand on your feet all day at expos for video games, wine, cars, and washing machines while keeping up a constant smile and cute demeanor towards strange men who ogle you. We all complained about Landlord and how she didn’t treat us well enough.

shaokao

But then one day we arrived at the apartment and there was a notice on the door from the police telling us to leave by the end of the week. Our illegal apartment had finally been uncovered and sanctioned. When I called Landlord, she told me not to worry. She was there quickly and had a curtain put over Small A’s door and left some boxes scattered haphazardly in the common room. When the police came back, she told them that we had moved out.

I did move out for good halfway through my lease. I had found a new job, which offered its own housing on site in a much nicer apartment with just two flatmates in Lujiazui, the posh financial district. In the ensuing six years, I lived in many different apartments in different cities, most of which were vastly more comfortably than that 9-person co-rental.

But none of them had the same charm and excitement. Living with 8 Chinese flatmates from different provinces who shared common goals and faced common challenges. Even Landlord ultimately stood up for us.

A few years late, I was reminiscing about those times with Small A, and I asked her if she knew why the man downstairs came to our apartment to fight. You didn’t know? she said. It was because Landlord left a used tampon on his door after he started bothering us.

Jun 01

Dali’s most important religious festival starts June 6: Photos

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Photos

During Raosanling festival in Dali, Yunnan province, people sing and dance, slaughter chickens, and pray in front of epic billows of smoke emanating from the most burning joss paper most tourists will ever see in one place at one time.

Raosanling is a festival of the local Bai ethnicity, who believe in both Buddhism and Benzhu folk religion. It lasts three days and is celebrated at three separate locations nearby Dali Ancient Village: Qingdong temple on the first day, Xizhou the second day, and Majiuyi temple on the third day.

Because it begins on the 23rd day of the 4th lunar month, it starts on June 6 on the Gregorian calendar this year. Here are some photos I took of the first day of Raosanling in 2013:
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