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Serve the People

Is it June already? How did that happen? This year seems to be positively flying by at great speed. I am guilty of having failed to post my promised monthly book review for the Foodie’s Reading Challenge (where I may have, in a moment of bravado, promised to read 12 books this year about Chinese food and cooking, fiction and non-fiction). Let’s see…this is June, and so far I’ve posted Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef in February, and Kylie Kwong’s My China in March. What happened to April and May? I suppose tripping around the countryside and ignoring/neglecting my regular reading in favour of Lonely Planet China and Simon Winchester‘s incredible book, The River at the Centre of The World (a Journey up the Yangtze and back, in Chinese time) explains a fair bit of it.

This month I bring you another wonderful book about Chinese food, Serve The People – a memoir by American-born journalist of Taiwanese heritage Jen Lin-Liu. I have read Serve the People twice now. The first time, a month after I arrived in China, I remember devourng the entire book in an afternoon, trying desperately to get a grip on the confusing country I found myself in and trying to make sense, any sense, of Chinese food. The second time was last month, when I could read and slowly savour the foods, the recipes, and the life stories that all now fell into place and made much more sense to me. I guess I’ve learned a lot in two years. 

This true story recounts Lin-Liu’s desire to reclaim her Chinese roots through food. Having lived and worked in China for five years before taking the plunge and enrolling as a student in the Beijing Hualian Cooking School in the book’s opening chapter, Lin takes us on her adventures first as a cooking school student, then as an apprentice noodle and dumpling maker, and finally as an assistant in the kitchens of a high-end Shanghai restaurant. Throughout, Lin meets an extraordinary array of ordinary Chinese people who earn a living working with food – chefs, kitchen hands, cooking students, waitresses and farmers, and visits some unusual places – the rice terraces of Ping’an, near Guilin, an MSG factory in Henan, and Nanxiang, the home of xiao long bao.  

It is the human stories that remain with the reader long after the food descriptions have faded. After three months of learning the ropes of Chinese restaurant cooking, Lin leaves the cooking school with something even more valuable – a friendship with the cooking school’s assistant, a sixty-year old woman fondly nicknamed Chairman Wang.

“Chairman” was a bit misleading: it was more of an honorary title for a low-paying, all-purpose job that encompassed serving as a registrar, assistant to the school’s president, assistant teacher, food purveyor, and de facto janitor – in short, all the tasks that no one else wanted to do. During demonstration classes, Chairman Wang moved around the kitchen in a slow shuffle, tidying up after Chef Gao and lighting the burner just when he needed it. She had a stern, matronly air about her, but once in a while she’d break into howling laughter. She always wore a blue lab coat, which, combined with eyeglasses and wiry gray hair that stood up in stiff, Albert Einstein-like puffs, made her look like a mad scientist.’ 

Lin-Liu’s friendship with Chairman Wang threads through much of the book, and as Chairman Wang gives extra lessons to help her pass the difficult cooking school exam, she gradually learns about the Chairman’s troubled past and her terrible struggles during the Cultural Revolution. But if Lin-Liu thought getting through cooking school was difficult, the hard graft really begins when she is taken on as apprentice to noodle maker Chef Zhang, a poor migrant worker struggling to make it in his own noodle stand after twenty years working in a state-run restaurant.

‘Chef Zhang was my introduction to an entirely different class of people, the struggling migrant workers with little time to complain about social ills or the graft of government officials…..He was born into a family with five sons and one daughter. Zhang’s parents were too poor to raise all six children, so they decided to give two of them away. Zhang, as son number four (an unlucky number in Chinese tradition) and his sister (unwanted because of her gender) were sent to live with a childless aunt and uncle…’

Hard beginnings, but Chef Zhang’s life, as a migrant worker supporting a family back home, continues to be a struggle. Noodle-making is difficult, repetitive, sweaty work, but despite this Lin-Liu has great respect for Chef Zhang and with intense resolve, comes back day after day for hours of back-breaking toil until she feels she can hold her head up high as a noodle maker. Her first attempts though, meet with limited success.

‘Splashes of boiling water singed the back of my hand. Steam penetrated the pores of my face. I glanced uneasily into the gigantic wok and took a deep breath. With a noodle knife as sharp as a razor blade, I was trying to grate the five-pund slab of dough I held on my left forearm into ribbons. Dao xiao mian – knife grated noodles – were a specialty of Chef Zhang’s home province of Shanxi. When Zhang made them, they came out ridged and elegant, like party streamers. They slid into the wok with just a hint of a splash, like a succession of Olympic divers. Mine looked more like stretched out wads of chewing gum, too fat and shaved at the wrong angle. They belly-flopped into the wok, like chubby kids at a community pool. Each splash of boiling water was an indictment from the noodle gods.’

Eventually Lin-Liu completes her noodle apprenticeship, spends a while learning how to master dumplings, then manages to work in the kitchens of Shanghai’s Whampoa Club alongside celebrity chef in the making, Jereme Leung. It’s a stark contrast to the noodle stall but offers a fascinating insider’s view of the business of fine dining, with emphasis on the ‘business’.

Serve the People ends with Lin-Liu’s eventual return to Beijing, and to a developing relationship with the man who becomes her husband. You feel that after all her struggles and learning, Lin-liu has achieved her goal and is truly connected with Chinese food, Chinese cooking, and Chinese people. Through wonderful character portrayals and a great talent for description, Serve The People often reads more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. The recipes sprinkled throughout the book serve as a reminder that Jen Lin-Liu actually cooked this, in real life, and snap the reader back to the realisation that these are not stories, but real events.

After completing Serve The People, and unable to get cooking out of her system, Lin-Liu established Beijing’s Black Sesame Kitchen cooking school along with Chairman Wang. I took a look yesterday at the Staff Bios page on the website, and an inadvertent tear sprang to my eye to see, not only a photograph of the wonderful Chairman Wang, exactly as I imagined her, but also Chef Zhang, the noodle master, now working as a teacher at Black Sesame Kitchen and recently returned from a stint cooking in Las Vegas. He looked plump and happy in the photos, a far cry from his struggles to raise a family and make ends meet in the 40cents-a-bowl noodle trade. It seemed a fitting end to a wonderful story.

‘Then I remembred something that Chairman Wang had told me once: “Suan, tian, ku, la. Sour, sweet, bitter, spicy. In my life, I’ve tasted them all.” Her life had been more bitter than sweet, more sour than spicy, but things were hai xing, not bad, and that gave me hope for the rest.’

Yanqing Lu, 6pm

Yanqing Lu is one of my most favourite streets in Shanghai, a dog-legged lane lined with a beautiful green arcade of plane trees, and always full of life and activity. It’s not really on the way to anywhere, and it doesn’t join any two important places together, so it gets very little traffic except for locals going to and from the wet market, and kids coming home from school. I walk along it most days, just enjoying the sights and sounds.
A man whizzes past on his scooter with three ornate square wooden birdcages on the back, protected by embroidered blue covers, and turns into his lane way. He will have been taking them for a sing and some air in the park, along with all the other bird enthusiasts. Outside the wetmarket a husband and wife team are bird enthusiasts of an altogether different kind, slaughtering chickens and pigeons to order from the cages strapped to their bicycle. A pile of wet bloody feathers gathers next to them in the gutter. 
But mostly it’s life as usual, just like any other city in the world – mothers walking babies in prams, grandfathers walking dogs and talking on their mobile phones, and young guys trying to look cool in front of their friends.

Time to Put Away the Quilted PJs. Probably.

Back in Shanghai, and the city is suffering from a major seasonal confusion disorder. Is it spring? Is it summer already? Could it possibly already be autumn? A whole six months early? That’s the problem with deciding to define seasons by what, on the surface at least, seems like a rigorous scientific method. It can, however, all fall embarrassingly apart in the face of real life weather.

In China, the seasons start and end according to a set of pre-defined weather criteria. I still find this quite a giggle, beacuse it means that a short cold or warm spell can bring on the early arrival of a season before the previous season has had a chance to walk in, sit on the couch and get comfortable.The Shanghai Weather Bureau announced that Spring arrived this year on March 31, after five consecutive days in which the average daily temperature was above ten degrees. Spring’s arrival is ‘back-dated’ to the first of those days. Whatever – we all enjoyed the magnificent magnolia blossoms, the cherry and plum blossoms, and the sight of that green canopy of the plane trees returning to the French Concession, arching back over the streets after months of bare branches.

But this flurry of bud-burst and greenery didn’t last long, because Spring was stopped dead
in its tracks after only 45 days when summer arrived early on May 13 following a brief heatwave, terminating the shortest spring in 20 years. Before I left for Xian, given that summer was well and truly here (daily highs of 34 and 35C) and in a highly unusual burst of organisation and tidiness, I packed away all my winter clothes, washed all my winter woollens, and put all the winter coats -suffering from five months of hard wear- in the dry-cleaning bag. Luckily I wasn’t organised enough to actually take it to the dry-cleaners, because Shanghai was then engulfed by a prolonged cold spell, the temperature plummeting from 35 degrees to a pretty chilly 19 degrees. This has gone on for well over a week now, so people are asking, not unreasonably ‘Is autumn already here?’

Based on the rigorous scientific method, it has. Scamps all over the internet suggested we might be in for the earliest, hottest and longest autumn on record as autumn stretches across the six hottest months of the year. Some thought we could just wait until it’s hot again and announce the re-arrival of summer, and still others suggested we should have a token winter (just a day or two) and then go back to spring again. That’s the problem of pitting rigorous scientific method against the vagaries of the weather.

Of course the Shanghai Weather Bureau guys didn’t think it was funny at all and issued a terse statement published in the Shanghai Daily this week.

‘ officials hastily protested yesterday, the five-day rule in relation to autumn shouldn’t apply before li qiu, or beginning of autumn, the 13th of the 24 solar terms in the Chinese lunar calendar which this year falls on August 8.’

(OK. So if Plan A doesn’t work out, switch to Plan B, invoking the Chinese lunar calendar.)

‘Zhang Ruiyi, a chief weather service officer, said the bureau never predicts seasons but only announces them after they have arrived. The five-day rule was just one standard used to determine changing seasons, Zheang said.

People should pay more attention to the daily weather forecasts, Zhang said. 

“The large temperature difference among the days just happens,” Zhang said yesterday. “Never be confused by the readings of the previous day.”‘

So I think what he’s saying is, today it’s safe to air your puffer coats, delouse your quilts, and put your quilted pink pyjamas back in the closet. But tomorrow, you might have to drag them back out again. That’s the weather for you!

Xian Street Food – The Glutton Returns

This, my last post from Xi’an, is a loving tribute to all the street foods I ate in and around the Muslim Quarter (Huí Fāng – Muslim Street). Some, like the persimmon cakes, I tried again, possibly more than once (in the interests of trying the different flavours you know), and some are new eats I didn’t get the chance to try on my first epic Glutton’s Journey through the foods of the Muslim quarter. Enjoy.

Stepping through the gateway of the Muslim Quarter is to enter a world that looks, smells and tastes very different to the world outside it. Men in white embroidered skullcaps spill out of mosques as prayers finish, women in headscarves stand gossiping on their way home with the shopping, and old men, in thick-rimmed glasses, sit quietly smoking and watching it all happen. The streets are filled with the steam and charcoal smoke of hundreds of street food stalls, and the scents of cumin, chili, and char-grilled lamb fill the air.

First up is one of Xi’an’s most famous dishes – yáng ròu pào mó 羊肉泡馍 – consisting of a richly fragrant lamb broth, in which the lamb has been cooked with spices for at least 24 hours. The meat pieces, as soft as butter, are placed in the bottom of the soup bowl with noodles and some coriander. Alongside the soup are several bowls of condiments – spiced chopped pickles, and roasted chili and sesame paste you can add to taste. With your soup comes a basket of flatbreads, warm from the oven, which you traditionally tear into small pieces and drop in your soup where they can soak up the meaty goodness of the broth.

Persimmon Cakes – shì zi bĭng 柿子餅 – are one of my all time favourite street foods! The soft ball of orange persimmon dough is filled with a dry mixture of granulated sugar and one of several fillings – black sesame, peanut, rose petal or walnut, then pan-fried until the outside is crisped and the filling melts to a sweet sticky syrup which oozes out when you take a bite.

Peanut cake, and walnut cake – huā shēng gāo 花生糕 and hě tao gāo 核桃 糕 – are delicious flaky sweets made with nuts, sesame paste and sugar, much like halva. It’s interesting to see the influence of the Middle East on foods brought in by the Silk Road.

Fan Ji La Zhi Rou Jia mo – famous Xian rou jia mo restaurant on Zhu Ba Shi, near the Drum Tower
And introducing a new favourite – ròu jiā mó 肉夹馍 – a warm flatbread, stuffed with shreds of slow cooked meat, either pork or lamb, with a slick of gravy. It’s a tender, juicy, roast meat sandwich with loads of rich buttery juices that would run down your arm if it weren’t for the handy greaseproof paper bag. 

This very friendly gentleman is selling thin slices of a glutinous rice cake, coloured with saffron, and flavoured with a syrup made from dates and rosewater. Served cold on a skewer, it’s a surprisingly delicious snack. The gent told me it was hui huā gāo (回花糕) which I took to be literally Muslim flower cake. When I asked our guide Melanie the next day, she thought it was more likely mei huā gāo (糕) – plum blossom cake. Either way, it was the surprise find of the night, because frankly, it doesn’t look like it would be that tasty.

Red dates, known also as jujubes (hóng zăo 棗) are available at every street stall in Xi’an because they’re grown further north in Shaanxi province. They make a lovely little snack as you walk along thinking what to eat next. Whether you pronounce them joo-joo-bees (the way the locals say it) or joojoobs (like the sweet), they taste just like honey, and along with dried whole persimmons and local walnuts, are really popular Xi’an food souvenirs.

You’re not going to believe what these are called – Dragon’s Beard Sweets! (lóng xū táng ). What a great name! Shreds of white floss (just like Persian fairy floss) are cocooned carefully around a centre of finely chopped nuts and black and white sesame seeds. The Dragon’s beard unravels as you bite into them and you have to take care to catch all the yummy bits.

This is a type of chăo miàn – fried noodles – quite different from usual though with the addition of sliced flatbread strips to the beansprouts and noodles, thrown into the streetside wok along with spices and seasonings. The fried bread strips add a lovely chewy texture.

Two flatbreads are spread thinly with a savoury filling (spiced lamb mince, for example) then pressed firmly together and fried on a griddle until crispy, then sliced into easy to eat pieces.

No trip to Xi’an for me is complete without a bringing home a few bags of spiced nuts and broad beans from one of dozens of peanut/broadbean shops. The broadbeans are absolutely delicious, fried until very crispy and then seasoned with salt and spices. And the peanuts? Roasted with industrial grade chilies, they will blow your head off if you try eating a whole handful, so savour them slowly.
Need more about Xi’an? Look here:

Xian: The Abandoned Cave House Village

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a cave? Tucked away deep into the earth, quiet and cool, and a little dark… There are still many, many people living in caves in China, or working in them, like the papermakers I wrote of last month, and the area around Xi’an is rich with caves – almost all man-made – called yáodòngcarved right out of the soft red-yellow earth of Shaanxi’s Loess plateau – millennia of compressed and striated dust blown in from the Gobi Desert.

Coming into Xi’an by train, I noticed hundreds of cave-houses in the hillsides, and I became fascinated by them. Who wouldn’t want to see a real, live cave house? So I asked our lovely guide Melanie if she could help us see inside some, and to my surprise she told me that her parents, and her husband’s parents all have yáodòngs on their farms, sadly too far from Xi’an to get there and back easily in a day; so she proposed we visit a recently abandoned yáodòng village instead. Melanie explained that they are a common type of dwelling in Shaanxi province, the loess earth is easy to dig, and the lack of other building materials has made them popular dwellings for hundreds of years.
The downside of living in a cave however is the threat of collapse, ever present. In the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, the deadliest earthquake ever recorded, 830,000 cave dwellers perished when their homes collapsed. I imagine this is now why all the caves appear to be of fairly standard dimensions, four to five metres wide and with an arched roof, this combination giving the maximum stability for height. 

The other downside is that the Xi’an local government has decided that they are either treacherous, or an eyesore, or both, and in the spirit of making everyone’s lives better they have recently begun demolition on an entire yáodòng village outside Xi’an, to make way for a new high class housing development. In the interim, everyone has been moved out of the homes they’ve occupied for some generations, and required to relocate to modern apartments elsewhere, at approximately double the cost of their compensation money. Families were reluctant to leave but had no choice, although I notice a single dwelling still seems occupied, with washing hanging out to dry outside the door.

As we enter the demolition site I don’t know if the occupant is a stalwart resident or the caretaker living on site, but when we approach he comes out to chase us away – Melanie ignores him and we carry on exploring, and he gives us no further trouble once we’re out of sight.

In the village it is clear that the demolition is well underway, and all that remains are the caves themselves and the rubble of what were once courtyards and outdoor dwellings. Amongst the broken bricks lie smashed plates, old shoes, and bits of plastic, discarded remnants of lives left behind.

The cave houses are still fascinating, despite being stripped of almost every last vestige of habitation. The cool smooth walls have been plastered and whitewashed, and here and there a few posters and calenders remain pinned to the walls. The light inside the caves comes from the only opening, giving a soft, muted glow reflected off the reddish earth. Some caves are divided into two separate rooms, perhaps a living area closer to the opening and a sleeping area at the back of the cave.

In a couple of the houses we can see the remains of a kong, an elevated earth bed connected by a flue to the fireplace, by far the warmest place to sit and sleep in wintertime. In another, a tiny alcove within the back wall is now an empty shrine, under the lonely poster of a Taoist god – I’m not sure if it’s Zai Jun the kitchen god, or Cai Shen, the god of prosperity watching now over the empty room.

I wonder how it feels to go from living in a community of cave-dwellers to a high rise apartment, when a cave is all you’ve ever known. I ask Melanie what she thinks.
‘Some of them are happy, particularly the younger ones who wanted to move closer to the city anyway’ she says. ‘But the older people didn’t want to move. They liked it here.’

I can see why. The cave houses have a beautiful, simple quality to them, with their thick earth walls and soft light. Next time I come to Shaanxi, I ask, will she take me to a living yáodòng village? For sure, comes the reply.

Xian: Evening Accomplish Dumplings

Luckily my good friend Dr S. likes Chinese food, and bonus, she likes homestyle Chinese food, street food and dumplings just as much as restaurant food. Having flatted together as Uni students about a hundred years ago, and eaten everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants in France through to street barbecues I can vouch for the fact that although we’re not sisters, we have pretty much identical-twin culinary DNA. 
For this, my second visit to the Army of the Terracotta Warriors and Dr S.’s first, we have had the good fortune to find an extremely excellent and personable local guide, Melanie, to provide us with more in-depth background and history of the warriors and the Qin Emperor who commissioned them. Last time I visited I found the displays lacked much English translation and my thousand questions went unanswered because our ‘guide’ Andy spent the time gambling away the kickbacks he’d earned by taking us to the Offical Chinese Government Terracotta Warriors Factory Shop. (‘You go in by yourselves!’ he said at the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors. ‘They have many informations in English!’…..this turned out to be partly true. The sign saying ‘Toilets’ and ‘Coffee Shop’ certainly were bilingual).

Aside from being a more committed guide than Andy, Melanie also proved to be something of a major foodie, having previously run a restaurant with her husband before going into the touring business. It’s a long drive from Xi’an to the warriors, so we got to talking about food and before long we were all pretty famished. 
‘Where do you want to eat?’ she asked. ‘Usually I take my clients to a restaurant where they serve some Western dishes, because they don’t like Chinese food…but you guys like to eat Chinese right?’
Yeeesss we do! ‘Just take us where you would eat!’ said Dr S.. Brilliant idea.
And that was how we ended up at Wan Cheng Jiaozi. Jiaozi means dumplings, and Wan Cheng is just the restaurant’s name, but literally translated it means ‘Evening Accomplished’. Good. The restaurant is down a side-street in the small town of Ling Tong (famed for its red-orange Fire Crystal Persimmons), and through a pair of net curtains you enter into a small room with six orange formica tables and a dozen or so plastic stools. There are only three menu items – jiazi, cold dishes, and drinks.
Firstly, and most importantly, are the jiaozi – pork, lamb (given the region’s Islamic influence) or vegetable, all made fresh within the hour, and ordered by weight; secondly, cold dishes – liang cai – these made from a combination of cooked and uncooked ingredients, usually vegetables and tofu. You could call them salads but really they’re more complex and satisfying than a salad, and this restaurant had their four ‘liang cai of the day’ displayed in rectangular tin trays inside a glass cabinet. Lastly the drinks, and here the choices were very spare – warm beer, or warm Ice Mountain orangeade. 
We began with the liang cai – this dish was as delectable as it looks, a spanking fresh combination of vibrant green black-bean sprouts, slivers of red pepper, slices of cucumber and shards of cabbage, flashed in a wok for about three seconds to slightly wilt and soften the vegetables, than cooled and dressed with a chili, soy and vinegar dressing. The vegetables and sprouts had crunch without tasting raw, and the black bean sprouts,  many with their baby black-bean skins still attached, had the taste of freshly shelled peas.
The second was a hearty mixture of finely sliced tofu strips, celery, red peppers, zucchini and cucumber, again with a hot, sour dressing with a touch of sweetness and a lot of garlic.
The jiaozi, plump pillows stuffed full of filling, survived only long enough to be photographed dunked in black vinegar and chili, (top photo) the local way. We wolfed down a plate of lamb jiaozi, spiced lightly with cumin and garlic, and a plate of pork jiaozi with finely chopped lotus root, sweet and crunchy, then finished off with vegetable jiaozi made with leafy greens, garlic and a little egg. I was slightly shocked when Melanie told us we’d eaten one and a half kilograms of dumplings. Our driver, a tall skinny streak of a man, probably ate most of those. One and a half KILOS??
 ‘They were really very good’ said Dr S., as we waddled to the car. Of course they were good. 

Xi’an Tour Guide (and foodie) Melanie 
600 yuan per day (about $100 total price for 1-5 persons) for 8 hours, including minivan, driver and English-speaking guide. She can also book hotels, flights and train tickets, and has great historical knowledge. 

Xian: The Two Thousand Year Old Houseold of Emperor Han Jing Di

Outside the air is warm and dry, and a breeze- carrying red dust and the smell of flowers – blows across the grassy fields nearby as you walk from the harsh sunlight down a long sloping ramp into increasing darkness, and it takes some time for your eyes to adjust as you descend underground into the two thousand year old tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di.

I am back in ancient Xi’an this week, my second visit to the terracotta warriors in less than a year, and yes it does seem like I’ve done nothing but trip around China these last couple of months. Yet another advantage of having a friend visit is that I have an excuse to go travelling again barely two weeks after returning fromy last trip, and to be honest, the allure of Xi’an’s street food was a major pull. Xian’s fame comes justifiably from its terracotta army, but for me, other than the delicious streets of the Muslim Quarter,the place I really looked forward to revisiting was this much quieter mausoleum north of Xi’an.

Where the warriors are certainly large, impressive and imposing, the crowds chattering in eight different languages and shoving you on all sides to get photos can detract from the experience a bit. The terracotta figures in the Tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di on the other hand are small – half life-size – and you can enjoy them quite alone in the dark solitude of this underground museum which far fewer people visit.

As your eyes grow accustomed to the very low light, you realise you are walking on a see-through glass foor, and stretching out under you are nine of the Emperor’s eighty-one burial pits. The pyramid-shaped grave of the Emperor is a smallish hill outside, covered with wild grasses and jujube trees. Not far away lies the smaller grass-covered hill of Empress Wang’s tomb, he in the west, she in the east. Radiating out from each of the pyramid’s four sides, deep underground, lie neatly arranged rows of pits, each representing a department in the Emperor’s household.

Just like Emperor Qin Shi Huang who built an entire replica terracotta army with which to continue waging wars in the afterlife, Emperor Han Jiang Di also created a replica of his household to accompany him, but instead of soldiers there are thousands of fine-featured members of the Imperial household, administrators, advisors, craftsmen, kitchen hands and cooks. Jiang Di was not a warring man, and together with his father their reign is considered one of the golden periods in Chinese history – a time of relative peace and prosperity. 

I now stand above the first pit. It is filled with small doll-like figures, all naked and armless, and they look strangely vulnerable. Once, in the beginning, they had carved wooden arms holding swords, and scrolls, and they wore the elegant and brighty coloured silk robes of the Western Han Dynasty, but time has taken away all but their pale thin terracotta bodies. A face appears out of the dirt with tiny distinct features – a broad forehead, strong nose and small lips sit above an armless torso still buried in the earth.

The next pit contains around a hundred figures, all lying knocked over like so many skittles. I notice the figures with male faces have very small or absent genitalia, and I realise this is the Department of Imperial Eunuchs, castrated as children to protect both the beautiful concubines they serve, and the Emperor from internal threat. A white skinned figure stands out from the others, with a small delicate face, and tiny breasts. She is a concubine, fair-skinned and lovely, protected on all sides by ranks of eunuchs.

The next pit is extraordinary but so dark it is difficult to make out much at all until my eyes adjust again. Instead of the disorder of the previous pits, many of the figures here stand in ordered columns, buried alarmingly up to their necks in earth. Historians believe that by some minor past miracle, this pit was the victim of grave robbers – they dug a deep hole, and stole some figures leaving a circular disrupted area seen in the centre of the photo. It’s thought that heavy rains seeped down the hole soon after, bringing a thick layer of mud to rest in the floor of the pit and cementing the figures forever in their original positions. These are the members of the Imperial kitchen, a vast department with many staff.

The kitchen department is the last to have been excavated. So that the Emperor would have sufficient food in the after-life the kitchen is stocked with hundreds of pots of grain, wine and condiments, hundreds of cooking vessels and implements, and thousands of livestock, all in terracotta miniature. Ranks and orderly rows of pigs and piglets, nanny goats and billy goats, chickens, ducks, geese and dogs line up to pay their respects to the Emperor. 
The wild dogs, pointy eared with down-hanging tails, look mean and nasty and were apparently intended for the cooking pot, but the domestic dogs, round-eared and cheery, stare at me through two thousand year old eyes, tails practicaly wagging with friendliness and…wait a second…is that miniature dog grinning at me??  The sculptor’s playful hand reaches through two thousand years, and grabs me firmly by the arm. ‘Do you like the expression on that one?’ he seems to be askingI can feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck as, in the dark and the solitude, I feel the history.

Hanyangling Museum
(also known as the Tomb of Emperor Han Jing Di)
Approximately 20 mins east of Xi’an Airport
Open 7 days
Entrance March to November 90 yuan pp, 8.30am – 7pm
Entrance December to February 65 yuan pp, 8.30am – 6pm

How to Thoroughly Spoil Yourself in Shanghai

This week my lovely friend Dr S. is in town, visiting Shanghai for the third time. She’s practically a local now, so we can avoid going back to Yu Gradens for the tenth time and instead enjoy some of Shanghai’s less crowded sights. In fact, having friends in town is the perfect excuse to do the things you’d like to do every week – visit that fancy restaurant down the street, or spend the night in a jazz bar -but couldn’t quite justify doing on your own. So this week, we had an afternoon of completely indulgent beauty treatments at The Peace Hotel’s new Willow Stream Spa, followed by an evening of wonderful food and  jazz. What a great way to spend the day! 
The Willow Stream Spa has just opened, although the Peace Hotel re-opened its doors a year ago now. It’s an art deco dream, with a plush fit-out just as you’d expect from Shanghai’s favourite historic hotel, except a facial there costs no more than at my local salon so it seems like fantastic justification to go to The Peace Hotel instead. I wish I could have shown you the powder-blue skylit pool with striped sun-loungers, and the mahogony-furnished treatment rooms, but cameras were off-limits. 
Looking quite pink-faced and shiny by now, it was back to the French Concession for dinner at modern Chinese restaurant People’s 7. Exactly what constitutes modern Chinese food is hard to know, because modern Chinese cuisine is still very undefined, but the food at People’s 7 is light, and successfully metamorphoses some traditional dishes into their up-to-date counterparts.
The trickiest part of the evening is actually getting in the door. No doormen, mind you, just a dead-end with nine back-lit wells in the wall, and no door, no doorbell, no buzzer, and no idea how to get in. When we made our reservation though, they told us our ‘table number is 29’, and it took the very switched-on Dr S. less than two minutes to figure out that she needed to put her arm into the holes corresponding to ‘2’ and ‘9’ in the correct order, and suddenly the door slid back to reveal a dimly lit space of corridors and alcoves, where a waiter dressed in black guided us to our table while our eyes adjusted.

With tablepapers printed with Chinese word puzzles, and the same puzzles printed on plates by local ceramic studio Spin, you only hope that the food will be less tricksy. And it is. We began with a classic Shanghainese cold dish, ‘drunken chicken’ (chicken poached in Shaoxing wine) which had been deboned, gently poached and marinated, then chilled. Usually this dish consists of chopped chicken pieces, bones and all, so sharp bone shards are a constant distraction. It was delightful to enjoy the delicate flavours without having to worry about choking or where to put your spat out bone bits.

We followed with shrimp cooked with lily bulbs, a light and flavorsome stir-fry that allowed the delicate sweet flavour of the crunchy lily bulb petals to shine through. The restaurants’s specialty is mapo tofu cooked in paper and the spicy pork and tofu dish doesn’t disapoint, arriving atop a flaming burner which somehow heats the dish while failing to set the paper alight.
It’s my sixth or seventh visit to People’s 7, a rarity in itself in this city of ever-changing fortunes where restaurants come and go literally overnight. The food is consistently good, the service attentive, and visitors love the light Chinese flavours.
Next stop – back to The Peace Hotel for some old-time jazz. I still love seeing these guys play together – the average age of the self-titled Old Jazz Band is 77 years, and they play together like they’ve been doing it for decades, which I guess they have. Occasionally someone forgets to start a tune along with the others and just joins in randomly at his own pace, but no-one seems to mind, we’re all drinking old-fashioned favourites like martinis and Shirey Temples and enjoying the atmosphere. Get to Shanghai and get yourself some jazz, you’ll love it!

People’s 7 Restaurant 人间银七
805 Julu Lu,

+8621 54040707
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

The Cathay Peace Hotel Jazz Bar
20 Nanjing Dong Lu
+8621 63216888
Open 7 days from 7pm, bookings suggested
No entry fee, minimum spend 150 rmb pp

Qibao: 7 Buddhas, 7 Street Foods

Talk about mixing the sacred and the profane, but when I was in Qibao last week I did just that – visited the Qibao Temple, then ate a stack of great street food. Qibao, you may remember from a long ago post (wow, my photos were really pretty terrible back then) is a little water town (read: tourist trap) in the south-western suburbs of Shanghai.

Way back in the days of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Qibao was a flourishing town in its own right, famed for its wine and its temple. Legend has it that Qibao (literally, “seven treasures”) was once the home of seven priceless treasures including a Ming Dynasty bronze bell (‘floated from afar’), an iron Buddha, a thousand year old tree, a jade axe, a cockerel made of gold, jade chopsticks and a Golden Lotus Sutra written by a tenth century Imperial concubine.  Some of the treasures may never have actually existed, but the bell and the Sutra reside in Qibao today. 

Qibao Temple (Qibao Jiaosi) is just down the main canal from Qibao’s food street, and it’s a refreshingly simple and unpretentious place, with a seven story pagoda in the grounds which can be climbed for a great view. Each of the seven floors of the pagoda contains a different manifestation of Buddha repeated in hundreds of perfect golden miniatures arranged in orderly rows around the octagonal walls. At least, I think some of them are Buddha, but at least one is a woman and two are sporting a very unBuddha-like goatee beard.

Once you have visited the temple it’s time to eat! I have kind of been avoiding Qibao for a while because the last time I went it was overwhelmingly crowded…but I had forgotten just how good the street food is there. They have a couple of their own specialties, including stinky tofu, which I avoided, and red bean cakes, which I enjoyed. Here are seven of the most interesting:

1. Chick on a stick. At least they removed the feet.
2. Juqibao fangzheng gao – a steamed pastry made of glutinous rice with sweet bean paste, best eaten hot

3. Lovingly basting a tray of succulent pigs’ trotters. Try and look elegant while gnawing on one of these as you walk.
4. Bamboo stuffed with flavoured sticky rice. These are definitely delicious.

5. I have no idea what these are, and I’ve studied anatomy. Innards of some kind would be a fairly good guess, but really, no idea. And no, I didn’t taste them.

6. Chicken feet bound with tendon, in case one tough gristly item isn’t enough.

7. Lotus root stuffed with sweetened sticky rice and coated in syrup. Really fantastically delicious, the lotus root is slow roasted so it takes on a caramelised dark red-brown colour and a sweet nutty flavour. Serve in slices cold or warm.

Qibao’s main canal, with the pagoda in the distance.

Fiona, Almost Slightly Famous. A Bit.

In the world of blogging, where apparently 50,000 new blogs pop into existence every day, I sometimes think it’s a minor miracle when someone other than my parents are reading about my adventures in Shanghai from places as far afield as Finland, Alaska, and Brazil. It’s quite mind-blowing, and I get a quiet thrill from all you wonderful readers out there in your very diverse locations. 

But up until now my blog has been quite invisible inside China – for a start, I write in English, and although I entertain plans of one day writing in Chinese, that day is about five thousand years from now. Also, Life on Nanchang Lu is blocked in China, because…well, I have no idea why – it’s not a personal blockade related to my political views – all blogspots are blocked, whether they’re kntting blogs or anarchy blogs, and mine is blocked along with all the others. So without the magical portal into the internet known as a VPN (virtual private network), Chinese readers can’t access my blog. In an attempt to rectify this I recently purchased my own domain name,, only to find that the host is also blocked in China. Back to square one. (by the way, you can now use either or to access Life on Nanchang Lu. Both work.)
So given my extremely low profile locally, it was with some surprise that I was contacted by the lovely people at Ctrip, China’s largest travel website, to ask if they could feature an interview with me this week. Ah….let me think about that for a nanosecond…yes! I don’t quite know how it happened, but strange things are afoot with this blog. Some sort of critical mass has been achieved, in terms of longevity, or gradual persistence, or just sheer doggedness, but either way, people are starting to notice it exists. People other than my parents even. First it was the lovely Maryanne at Ephemera and Detritus who interviewed me for her expat traveller series; CNNgo are about to publish my Shanghai Factory Girls as a photo series on their fabulous travel website; and now here I am, Ctrip’s featured blogger for the week. 

Don’t worry, I won’t let all this go to my head, but for sure Jackie Chan will be calling soon about a kung fu street food movie he’s making….;)