August in China: An Odd Collection of Bronze Statues

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Shamian Island was leased to foreigners as they were not allowed into the city gates. The British and French shared this tiny strip of land and it’s amazing how they managed not to mix at all, staying in their separate buildings and places of worship. Today’s Shamian Island is something of a quiet escape from the frenetic and rather in-your-face Guangzhou city proper. The shady trees and quiet roads seemed to transport me out of China for a while.

There’s nothing much here except the quiet and a collection of amusing bronze sculptures that do not quite qualify as art. Here’s one of a gaggle of schoolchildren following behind their music teacher. Most of the kids are hanging on and following just fine. The last kid is the problem one. He can’t or won’t follow and is bawling at the back for attention, distracting the last boy in the chain. I wonder what this sculpture is saying. The first of the good girls in front tilts her face up adoringly at the teacher while the boys behind are acting out. Interesting description of gender roles in contemporary Chinese society.

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I quite liked this avid photographer. I felt a delicious sense of contrast taking a picture of this photographer in action.

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Of course I liked him even better from this angle. So confrontational, so bold: The real life person as mirror to the sculpture.

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And last of all was this statue on the Guangzhou-proper side. It wasn’t meant to be whimsical at all. It was a symbol of the strength of communism, represented by the powerful worker and his hammer in action. Too bad it was so ugly and too bad power isn’t really in the hands of the workers anymore.

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August in China: Guangzhou’s Many Places of Worship

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I blended in pretty well in Guangzhou as I look just like them and in Guangzhou people dress as they please. No one took a second look at my crappy T-shirt and loose drawstring trousers ensemble. In other towns, that would immediately brand me as a tourist.

I very much enjoyed walking the streets of Guangzhou in the early evening. There was just so much life going on: people balancing bundles of vegetables as they stopped by the market on the way home, rickety grandmas taking their precious grandsons out for an evening walk, younger people playing ball games on a grass patch.

I liked how Guangzhou had a lot of diversity in religion. There were of course plenty of temples which I skipped, mainly because of their similarity to those in Singapore.

On Shamian Island, a tiny plot of land barely qualifying as an islet, there was the Shamian Church started by the British. It was in a pretty spot full of trees, nicely isolated from the bustle of central Guangzhou.

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Then in Guangzhou city proper, Sacred Heart Church seemed to pop out from nowhere as I turned a corner. The Gothic architecture was a refreshing change from the traditional Chinese temples or modern buildings I’d seen so far.

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Last of all was something quite surprising. It’s probably quite hard to spot in the picture below, but this place is actually a mosque! I really dug how local architecture was incorporated into this place of worship.

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The accompanying minaret is supposedly ancient. It is speculated to be the oldest minaret outside of Mecca although some guide books say that dates supplied by the relevant “authorities” show that the tower was built even before Islam was founded. Go figure.

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It was fun trying to figure out from the map where the next place of worship was. It reminded me that Singapore’s religious diversity isn’t that unique after all. It was also comforting to realise that religious diversity and tolerance can occur spontaneously as happens in Guangzhou, without any artificial encouragement from the authorities.

August in China: Guangzhou’s Nanyue Tomb

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In terms of tourist attractions, Guangzhou is a bit like Singapore. While there are lots of little things here and there, there aren’t really a whole load of interesting things to see. Sure, there are some historical sights and lots of parks, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a theme to the place and not much really stands out as a must-see for a foreign tourist. Guangzhou is more a place to be experienced by walking through the streets and observing life as the locals live it.

The only place billed as a tourist attraction that I really liked and felt was worth the entry fee was the Nanyue Tomb. This place was discovered, as per the typical case, by excavations for a spanking new skyscraper. It was not to be when they found the 2000-year old tomb of Zhao Mo, the grandson of the founder of the Nanyue kingdom. The tomb was pretty much intact and there were loads of precious artefacts and (gulp) skeletons of concubines and servants buried together with the ruler.

The imposing front edifice of the place had some odd carvings probably copied from the tomb. It was a nice non-tacky touch, quite atypical compared to other museums I’d been to.

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Unfortunately, they couldn’t resist references to Egypt and I.M. Pei. This is as good as it gets.

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The tomb itself wasn’t too impressive because it was pretty much empty. All the articles of note were put in the adjoining museum and only little scraps put behind glass were left. Not surprisingly, it was rather claustrophic and had lots of little side chambers. The most chilling bit was how the side chambers contained the remains of real people with real functions, even for the afterlife. There was a kitchen section with skeletons of the cooks and kitchen workers, and there was a concubine section where at least three wives were identified from their jewellery near their remains.

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In the museum proper were lots of beautiful things, from jewellery and musical instruments to weapons and religious symbols. It was all pretty cool. The best part of the museum was the burial suit consisted of lots of little jade pieces stitched together to form something like full body armour. It was obviously custom-made, all the way from the hands and feet to the little paunch for the emperor’s spare tire. (The red thread was also a modern reconstruction.)

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This place was so good that I spent two hours there and left reluctantly at closing time. I’d definitely have spent longer there had I known what was inside.

August in China: Guangzhou Goose Galore

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I started August in China by crashing at Tortoise’s pad in Guangzhou. She wasn’t too impressed with the food there compared to her native Hong Kong, so I didn’t get many recommendations for where to go for good food. All I knew was that bird flu warnings or not, I was going to get my fill of goose.

And boy did I get my fill. One evening I walked down Beijing Street, a crowded shopping street crammed with tiny shops. Turning into one of the garrets, I found a little eating place like those pseudo-coffeeshops in Far East Plaza. This one had roast goose and I happily tucked into the soft kway tiao and msg-laden soup.

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In my last few days in Guangzhou, I was caught by Typhoon Nuri which was given a typhoon warning of 10! Tortoise had already evacuated back to Hong Kong but I had to stay put because of visa issues. I spent two days haunting her apartment, doing nothing but braving the occasional trip out to get food and then watching the Olympics on cable.

Tortoise had the good sense to stay nearby some decent food. There was this Teochew place that had braised goose. Ducking into the shop during lunch time, I asked for just a goose drumstick, but they only sold it by weight. I ended up ordering a jin (500 g) of goose, which worked out to be  about a third of the bird. I went the faux-Atkins route and had it accompanied only by vegetables. Boy was it heavenly.

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I ate the rest of it for dinner. And for breakfast the next morning, both in front of the TV watching Typhoon Nuri’s progress.

Another time, I made it to the Chinese fast food chain Zhen Gong Fu (literally: real kungfu), complete with Bruce Lee cartoon image. I’m guessing that they probably just lifted his image from some website and didn’t bother with copyrighting. The restaurant itself, if you can call it that, looked exactly like a McDonalds or KFC. You’ll have to look closely at the picture below to realise that they actually sold steamed dishes.

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A typical set meal consisted of a double-boiled soup, some kind of steamed meat and steamed vegetables. The Cantonese in me expected to have something vaguely wholesome and at the very least not too oily, but fast food is fast food and China is China. I had some kind of pork herbal soup covered with a layer of oil, chicken in black bean paste and too much oil, and steamed iceberg lettuce with (no prizes here) way too much oil. I suppose it’s still better in the nutritional scale than McDonalds anyway. Great concept though. I wonder if it’ll fly in Singapore.

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Nuri soon fizzled out and it was back to my regular programming of pulling up a stool at a roadside stall.

Decadent Chicken Pasta in White Sauce

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There was some leftover sour cream staring accusingly at me each time I opened the fridge door. Thing is, I wasn’t the one to buy it. Mum bought it for some cake she baked and left them for me to finish, I was innocent! Stuck for something to do with it, I opted for a cream sauce for pasta and figured that chicken probably went best with it. I also added in some of my favourite soft green peppercorns in brine I bought from a fancy supermarket. It worked pretty well.

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Ingredients:
linguine for one person
1 knob butter (about ½ tbsp, but no one’s looking, add as much as you like!)
2 shallots, chopped fine
1 chicken breast, cut into strips
1 tbsp dry sherry
2 tsp soft green peppercorns
50 ml sour cream

Method:

  1. Boil the pasta in lots of salted water.
  2. In the meanwhile, melt the butter in a frying pan and then sweat the shallots very gently on low heat. It should be bubbling gently and should not brown. Stir constantly.
  3. Turn up the heat to high, then add the chicken strips, stir till they change colour to white and add the splash of sherry and peppercorns. Stir, stir, stir.
  4. The pasta should be done by now. If not, wait for it. Just leave the chicken pan aside off the heat till you’re ready to go to the next step.
  5. Dump the pasta into the chicken pan, add the sour cream and turn the heat back on to medium. Stir till well coated.
  6. Taste and add salt accordingly, then serve.

Serves 1.

Tanglin Curry Puff at Hong Lim

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Tanglin Curry Puff at Hong Lim Hawker Centre may well have the best curry puffs in the CBD area. The puffs are pretty huge. Flaky pastry, lots of potato, lovely chicken chunks and a slice of egg make this a worthwhile snack for only $1.20. My one grouse is that the pastry can be a tad oily, even though they claim to drain it very well, so well that they don’t provide paper to soak up the oil. Only plastic bags at this stall.

Here’s what it looks like the moment before entering the Jaws of Greed.

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What sets this puff apart from the rest are the juicy chunks of chicken thigh in the filling. While there’s of course more potato than anything else in there, the chicken chunks are very moreish. I also liked the egg a lot, it’s a little treat, a diversion in the midst of the curry goodness.

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They also do sardine and yam versions. I’m not keen on the sardine version because it’s very potato-y, I prefer the more traditional sardine, onion and tomato only filling. Even though I keep meaning to try the yam flavour, which is filled with sweet yam paste, I never get round to doing it. I always get too attracted to the chicken flavour!

Tanglin Curry Puff
Hong Lim Hawker Centre
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The Many Meanings of Slow Food: Zhen Zhen Porridge

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Zhen Zhen Porridge and Maxwell Hawker Centre are perhaps more famous for the long queues than the great award-winning porridge. I made the fatal mistake of meeting a friend there for lunch at 12.30 pm. Patting myself on the back for arriving early at 12.15, I put down my tissue paper and book bag on two seats in the classic CBD Tissue Paper Chope and went off to queue. As I’d not queued longer than 25 minutes before, I figured it’d only be a 10 minute wait by the time said friend arrived.

Boy was I wrong. When she showed up, I hardly moved from my original spot. Apparently some unmentionables in front had ordered takeaway porridge for their entire building. There was no choice but to wait. And wait. And wait. I finally made my order at 1 pm and collected 10 minutes later. It was almost an hour’s wait! By then my friend had finished her fishball noodles (no queue, not nice) and was eyeing dessert.

The chicken porridge was good as always, smooth and thick with ghosts of rice grains, generous portions of chicken thigh chunks and loads of toppings. They’d obviously spent ages boiling the grains off the rice. There’s plenty of spring onion, fried shallots, dong choi (preserved Tianjin vegetable) and sesame oil. It all comes together in a surprisingly crunchy and textured whole. Very yummy. I also like waiting for the egg to set a bit so I get swirls of soft just-set egg white and rich streaks of runny yolk, then as a prize I sometimes get a bit of yielding solid yolk. Mmm.

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I always have the yu-sheng as a side. No other stall I’ve tried makes it this way. Again, the theme is generous servings and toppings. I can barely finish the small portion. It’s made of slices of raw fish topped with ginger matchsticks, spring onion, fried shallots, toasted black and white sesame and sesame oil. Top it all off with a sprinkling of lime juice and some cut red chilli and the flavour combination is phenomenal. It’s almost the entire reason why I keep coming back for more.

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$4.50 for a chicken porridge with egg and a small yu-sheng. Go early or on an especially hot day where there’s less of a queue. Don’t dither with your order because the lady can be quite curt. Be brave!

November in China: Fried Rice Un-Paradise

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Since Yangzhou was on the way back from Nanjing and Tangshan, we thought we’d stop by at the capital of fried rice. In Mandarin, fried rice is generally referred to as Yangzhou fried rice, just like fried beehoon with curry powder is called Singapore fried noodles and chicken rice is called Hainan chicken rice. We stopped for lunch at a fairly large restaurant and had an abysmal Yangzhou fried rice, complete with yucky extra-large and extra-starchy frozen peas. Yuck. It wasn’t the best experience, especially since the wait staff starting changing into their street clothes and switching off the lights at 1.30pm even though we weren’t even halfway through lunch!

We also stopped by Yangzhou’s biggest attraction, Shou Xihu (literally: skinny West Lake). It’s modelled after the many West Lakes all over China, in particular the one at Hangzhou. There’s of course a skinny lake and it’s surrounded by atmosherically grim weeping willows and lots of bridges and pavilions. The dreary weather, for once, added to the feel of the place.

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It was a long walk round the park and we only made it halfway round before giving up and heading back.

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Grey weather and tourist hordes notwithstanding, it was a decent place to spend a few overpriced hours. It is in the end just a garden.

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Though it did have some pretty but ageing flowers.

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November in China: Tangshan Hotsprings

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No pictures this post. You’ll figure out why in a bit.

After Nanjing, we headed to the hotsprings at nearby Tangshan (literally: soup mountain; I think tang could also be an old-fashioned term for hot water). When Nanjing was a capital, Tangshan was highly regarded for a place to take the waters. Apparently one of the Soong sisters, most likely Ching-ling, liked going there so much she commissioned a special road to lead there from Nanjing.

The town itself was the usual dusty nondescript so typical of minor Chinese townships. The only difference was the numerous spa resorts dotting the area. Ours was the Yishang Spring Resort, consisting of a hotel complex complete with restaurant and spa park.

At the reception, we were issued with a bead bracelet that also had an electronic locker tag. Then we were ushered to the spa park entrance that had turnstiles quite like those at amusement parks! Here was where Mum and I said bye to Dad and we separated into male and female locker rooms. We were issued with ugly mass-produced rubber slippers and tacky Hawaiian-motif happy coats. A friendly attendant grabbed us firmly by the elbow in case we slipped on the wet floor and walked us into the massive (this is China, remember?) locker room to locate our lockers.  She instructed us to change into our bathing suits and then proceed to the shower rooms for a rinse before entering the park proper.

Before entering the showers, we had to run the gauntlet of more attendants who checked if patrons were going in or out and made sure that each person was sufficient hosed down before getting a towel to proceed inside! Coming out of the park was worse, they wouldn’t give out towels till after the shower! Mum was aghast when she saw naked locals coming out from the shower dripping so that one of the attendants would wrap them in a fresh towel. She made sure to ask for a towel before going in to shower and spoke in English when they threatened to be uncooperative.

There were lots of different pools in the spa park. Most of them were hot pools. On the periphery were pools of spa water of varying temperatures, as stated on little wooden boards above. You could start from 32ºC all the way up to 45ºC. Another area had some roman-style dry baths where people could sit on the heated marble floor between a series of partitions along a marble wall. With such cold weather, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to sit on heated marble out in the semi-open.

There was also a heated swimming pool, though no one swam in it and also an area for getting buried in hot sand. Extra was charged for the privilege of being buried alive. Mum and I went past all these and quickly jumped into one of the 32ºC pools before we froze to death from exposure. I wanted to go straight into a 45ºC one but Mum stopped me. You have to start cooler lest you overheat!

Preliminary soak over, we proceeded inside to explore further. There was so much more! One of the highlights was a heated pool filled with lots of little nibbling fish. The trick is to find a spot to sit comfortably and where you’re covered to the chin and stay absolutely still. The fish would then come over and nibble on toes, knees and elbows . The first nip was startling and we could immediately spot the newbies from their tickled yelps and screeches. Soon I got used to it and was trying to figure out how to get more fish to turn up and also how to get them to nibble  on my fingers. None did no matter how hard I tried.

This place was pretty upmarket, with lots of little services. Waiters would serve soft drinks in plastic cups directly to people soaking in the pools. It got pretty gross when the kids would then proceed on to use the cups to catch fish. Whenever someone hacked and showed the slightest hint of spitting, we’d immediately exit and move on.

Other pools in the area had lots of exotic brews. There were pools of red wine, chrysanthemum, rose,lemon, lemongrass and pomelo-flavoured soaks. Of course there were also lots more flavours I hadn’t even seen before. It was great to pick one, lie in there for a while, feel too cool, pick a warmer one and then get too hot. After soaking for about half an hour, Mum and I would then go to an indoor area for complimentary flower tea. We’d towel off and sit for a while, watching incredulously as groups of men would sit around playing cards and smoking cigarettes (again provided free). Cigarette in mouth, they’d grab another one from the box and stick it behind their ears for later. Odd, but part of the spa experience.

If we were tired from the repeated raisin treatment, we could go inside to the clubhouse. Here there was an area full of rows and rows of soft sofas, all (surprise, surprise!) facing a TV playing the latest Chinese soaps. If not for the TV, it would be a quiet rest room. Once coming in, you could have a nap, get a foot massage or pedicure  (extra charges) or just read a book and have some refreshments. This is how people spend days there!

The best part of the spa was going there after dark. I remember lazing in one of the faux-rock pools looking up at the dark sky. I felt warm from the water, yet my face was cool from the early winter air. I was on holiday. It was the best feeling in the world.

A Reviving Broth

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I like to cook chicken and vegetable broth because it’s so comforting and reviving. It takes a bit of time and effort to debone the chicken, but the results are well worth it. Freeze the thigh and breast meat for some other use and put only the bones into the soup. If you’re feeling lazy, you can just chuck the whole chicken in, but don’t blame me if you get dry stringy meat. Add as much or as little of the veggies as you like. If you have leeks or potatoes, feel free to add those too.

A note on the aromatics: I like the deep flavour cloves give to the broth. It somehow makes the soup extra satisfying. I stash parsley and coriander stems in the freezer each time I use the leaves, so making this broth just involves unpacking whatever there is in the fridge. Don’t worry if you don’t have it.

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Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 large onion, cut into large wedges
2 carrots, scraped and cut into rounds
4 sticks celery, cut into chunks
bones of three chickens (if lazy, just use one whole chicken)
4 cloves
a sprinkle of whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
parsley and coriander stalks

Method:

  1. In a big pot, heat the oil and the onion, carrot and celery. Stir on low heat for about 5 minutes to sweat. Make sure the vegetables don’t brown.
  2. When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken bones or whole chicken and pour water over it till covered. Add the cloves, peppercorns and bay leaf.
  3. Bring the broth to a gentle boil for about one hour. Alternately, if you have a thermopot, put it in the thermopot for about two hours.
  4. When the soup is done, lift out the bones or chicken and extract whatever meat you can. Serve on the side with the soup.

Enough for 4.