Thursday Through the Lens: Beijing

Picture of streets in Houhai, Beijing, China

Houhai, Beijing

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Tuesday Tip: Chinese New Year

Even though you may still be recovering from last week’s over-indulgences, it’s not too early to start planning for the next new year’s celebration. Of course, you don’t have to wait until December 31–ring in the new Chinese year this February!

London boasts the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia, and they are planning a full event schedule that will delight tourists and locals alike.

Although the New Year officially begins on February 19, the festivities in London won’t start until Sunday, February 22. Head to Trafalgar Square for a lively, colorful parade, dragon dancers, and vendors selling traditional food and crafts. Nearby Chinatown will be offering special holiday menus–book now to guarantee yourself a table.

For more information on the London celebration, visit the London Chinatown Chinese Association’s website.

If you’re Stateside, you have several event options, though none will be as robust as London’s festivities. New York City has a firecracker ceremony on February 19 and its own parade on February 22. The Los Angeles parade is on February 21. Other major US cities will also be holding new year’s celebrations–check your local event listings for details.

China’s Peculiar Classified Ads

China’s city parks ripple with activity. Friends gather around stone tables to play mahjong, lawns fill with slow-moving octogenarians practicing tai chi, lively dancers spin in giant circles. The energy is frenzied and chaotic and completely intoxicating.

But not all is fun and games. No, the Chinese are far too pragmatic for that. They enjoy the present always with a careful eye on the future.

And so they advertise their unwed, adult children.

Picture of signs advertising unwed children in a park in Chengdu, China

Advertisements in Chengdu

Scores of handwritten signs, pleading for a spouse for a child, litter public gathering places. A child’s best qualities are advertised–sometimes this means salary, sometimes a list of a child’s personality traits and desires, sometimes a more-thorough background on the family itself.

More often than not, the children are male. As China struggles with a society that has historically undervalued daughters, the disparity between the number of eligible men and that of eligible women is growing. More and more men are reaching their 30s and beyond never having married, and not by choice.

But women, too, are under pressure to find a mate. The most-educated women are, perhaps surprisingly, the least likely to marry. Again, this is not by choice. Rather, it is the result of these women taking time for education and inadvertently “aging out” of desirability.

It is rare that these highly educated women will find a husband if they have not yet done so by the time they reach 27. At this point they are the “leftover women”–women too old to be desirable mates. Their only hope is to marry someone far beneath them, socially speaking, and even then their pronounced age is a strike against them.

And so parents take to the city parks in a desperate bid to save their children–and their family’s honor–from these troubling marriage statistics.

An Evening with Shanghai’s Finest

We had only been in Shanghai for a few hours before we realized something was terribly wrong.

It began as we checked in at our hotel. My friend reached for the passports in her bag. The pocket in which they had been safely contained was open, and the precious documents weren’t there.

The bag was dumped out, all contents sorted through. No passports.

Our local guide conversed with the hotel staff–we needed passports to confirm our rooms, and without passports or a police report confirming that they had been stolen, we would have no place to stay.

And so we were whisked off to a local precinct of Shanghai’s police department. The drive there was completely silent, the only sound the patter of rain on the windshield.

Had we been targeted, I wondered with a disgusted feeling in my stomach. We had walked from the airport directly into our tour company’s van…how terrifying that someone had robbed us in that short time.

At the precinct, a police officer took us into a tiny, windowless room. It was stuffy and desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint, with only a card-table desk and a computer to distract the eye.

He recorded all of our information, our guide helpfully translating our responses. He asked when we had arrived in the country and, a few taps on the keyboard later, he pulled up images of us arriving at the Beijing airport weeks earlier. Then, images of us at the Shanghai airport earlier that day.

The images confirmed for him that our story was true and confirmed for me that a terrifying surveillance state is drawing nigh.

Several hours later, we were free to go. The hotel gave us our rooms and an official report of our adventures was uploaded to The Machine.

We got up early the next morning to head to the US and UK embassies. Luckily, we had copies of our papers and so didn’t anticipate temporary passports to be a problem, but I for one was not looking forward to wasting an entire precious day in Shanghai dealing with bureaucracy.

Then, the call came: the passports were found!

Because they had fallen out of my friend’s bag at the airport, and were sitting in lost and found.

Another tour guide swung by the airport to pick them up for us.

Hot Pot!

I love Chinese food. Always have, always will. When I visit China in 2010, I’m cognizant of the fact that what I’ve been eating for the past two decades in the US isn’t real Chinese food, but I’m completely ignorant of what real Chinese food will be.

I try many (vegetarian) dishes throughout the country. Out of dozens, a few are unpalatable, several decent, and many delicious. Only one, though, will stand out in my mind for years to come: hot pot.

Hot pot is essentially a shared stew. (The closest Western analogue that I can think of is fondue.) A large pot containing spicy broth is brought to the table, and each person adds meat or vegetables to the simmering stock. Ingredients are removed when cooked, and new pieces added in. There is usually a dipping sauce to drench the cooked items in additional flavors.

Allegedly the dish was first created more than 1000 years ago in Mongolia as soldiers filled their helmets with water to cook meats. Today, it has spread through eastern Asia, with different regions adding their unique flair. I’m sure they’re all quite lovely, but my obsession is with the Sichuan variety.

I have never heard of hot pot when I visit Chengdu. My friend, a bit of a spice connoisseur, tells our local guide of her love of Sichuan food. Our guide seems impressed that we are not intimidated by spice, and she shares with us the tale of Sichuan hot pot. We decide we must try it. Our guide gives us directions to a hot pot restaurant she fancies and writes down the characters for various vegetables and tofus. (She also notes that we want a vegetarian broth, though I might as well admit now that I have no idea if anything we ate in China was truly vegetarian.)

The hot pot restaurant is in a large building in Chengdu’s bustling shopping district. The restaurant itself is huge, and, as we hand over our cheat sheet to the confused-looking hostess, it’s obvious that we are probably the only Westerners to have stepped foot in here.

Our table has a butane heater fitted into the middle of the table. The waitress covers our bags with napkins as other patrons unabashedly stare at us. A large metal pot arrives, filled with two kinds of broth, while different types of tofu, potatoes, lotus roots, and other vegetables are set out on the table. We have no idea what’s going on. We dump all the ingredients into the simmering pot.

Picture of hot pot at restaurant in Chengdu, China

The original hot pot in Chengdu (faces covered to protect the identity of fellow hot-pot enthusiasts)

Waitstaff rush over, their faces sporting giant grins tinged with anxiety. They drain some of the broth as it begins to boil over onto the table. We don’t quite understand what we’ve done wrong, and it’s not until we later mull on the event that we realize we were meant to add in the ingredients one by one, not all at once. Archimedes would be so disappointed in us.

The (hopefully) vegetable stock has been mixed with numerous spices, including ginger, black-bean paste, and onions, and floating in the broth are seeds, peppercorns, and small red peppers. We poke the vegetables with our chopsticks and hesitantly fish out pieces of tofu, dropping them into the garlic-and-oil dipping sauce.

I wish I was a poet, because I do not possess the vocabulary necessary to describe the incredible blend of flavors dancing across my tongue: pungent garlic, almost-unbearably hot peppers, occasional zesty citrus. Then, a slightly worrying sensation: We all pause as our gums, throats, jaws begin to tingle like after taking a fresh sip of carbonated soda. We squeal to each other, laughing and not understanding what we’re experiencing.

We finally pinpoint the culprit as the peppercorns, and when we’re feeling daring we crunch down an entire one between the teeth and laugh at the shocking sensation it produces. (Later, we learn they’re Sichuan peppers, and apparently they produce “neurological confusion.”) We discover the inner section of the pot is milder stock, while the outer ring is filled with the super-spicy, peppercorn-heavy broth. Quickly we’re fighting over the outer ring and its bizarre sensations.

By the end of the meal, we reek of garlic and peppers, our mouths nearly numb. It is the most amazing meal I have ever had.

We try hot pot a few more times before our China tour concludes. The second time is in Chongqing–the guide there does not want to recommend a restaurant (she fears we will hold the tour company responsible if we are food poisoned), so instead she writes down something like, “We are hungry. Take us to hot pot,” to hand to a cab driver. When we find a cab, I greet him in Mandarin and hesitantly hand over the request. He squints, cocks his head to the side, and bursts out laughing. We load in the cab and are off to deliciousness!

Picture of Hot pot restaurant in Chongqing, China

Cabbie-recommended hot pot restaurant in Chongqing

The third time is in Shanghai. We’re told about what appears to be a fairly upscale chain restaurant in the shopping district. It’s a bit of an effort to find in the large building, and it’s different than the other two places. Here, there are individual hot pot heaters and make-your-own dipping sauce.

Picture of hot pot restaurant in Shanghai, China

Individualized hot pot in Shanghai

Picture of hot pot restaurant in Shanghai, China

The upscale-looking Shanghai restaurant

Years later, when I visit my friends in London, we call around for restaurants serving Sichuan hot pot. A dive-y joint promises vegetarian broth. When we show up, we see the restaurant is divided into two sections: the traditional Western-ized restaurant and the hot pot tables. We are the only Westerners on the hot-pot side. At first our waitress tries to convince us to have the mild version. When we explain we’ve had the real thing in Chengdu, she relents and brings over the second-best hot pot we’ve had thus far.

Picture of hot pot restaurant in London

London hot pot

Soon after that, I have a 3D portrait of our first hot pot experience commissioned as a present for my friend.

Picture of art work created by Sharie's Craft World to commemorate hot pot

Artwork (created by Sharie’s Craft World) to commemorate the first hot pot experience

I’ve searched high and low for the Sichuan version in this country and thus far have been unsuccessful. I’ve scoured the internet for a decent recipe, ordered the spices, and made it myself, but it just isn’t the same.

Picture of homemade hot pot

Homemade hot pot – I just can’t get the spices right!

If you know of a Sichuan hot pot place on the US east coast, let me know in the comments. I am willing to travel for it. Lord, how I’m willing to travel for it.

What dish do you most-fondly remember from your travels?

The Forbidden City

This is one of my favorite images I took when visiting China in 2010. It’s of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and it was the first place I toured in my month-long Chinese sojourn.

Built in the 15th century, the giant palace housed China’s emperors until the last emperor abdicated in 1912. The complex is awash in history. Unfortunately, my cat is having some issues today, so I don’t have time to delve into all the interesting features.

This was actually taken as I left the complex, looking back across the moat at the palace. The image quality isn’t as high as I’d like, but I love how, well, forbidden the city looks, cold and quiet across the water. It must have been surreal to live here soon after its creation, to be so close to power and wealth but utterly shut out of it.

Picture of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Forbidden City