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Can Someone Please Let Me Know When My Good Luck Is About To Run Out?

It’s been quite the week.

Not one, but three extraordinary and amazing things have happened one after the other, bang, bang, bang, and I’m beginning to worry that my overflowing Good Luck will cause some Bad Luck to sit up and pay attention, hoping to get in on the act. I suspect, on reflection, that I’ve become quite Chinese in my thinking.

Firstly, I was asked to take part in the Shanghai International Literary Festival next month, a three week smorgasbord of writers, books and avid readers starting tomorrow, March 1, and running until March 17.
I’ll be the session moderator for a literary lunch on Friday, March 15 at M on the Bund featuring author Audra Ang and her new book ‘To The People, Food Is Heaven’, describing Audra’s years in China as an Associated Press journalist obsessed by food. During that time Audra covered some of the most remarkable and memorable stories in China’s recent history, and her book is an incredible account of those times.
Later that same afternoon Audra and I will lead a Shanghai street food tour, introducing a lucky group of food-lovers to some of Sanghai’s best and tastiest street food.

I can’t think of anything better than to get together with food-loving book-lovers, so when I was approached to take part in the festival I said yes, right away! If you’d like to come along and enjoy a great meal and hear Audra speak I’d so love to see you there. Tickets are selling fast, so I’ve included details below on how you can attend. (Stop press: tickets to the food tour have SOLD OUT but lunch tickets are still available)

Then a few days later I discovered I had been named a finalist in this year’s Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year awards, the award ceremony I was lucky enough to attend last year in London. I was completely excited about making it to the finals with almost 8,000 entries this year from talented food photographers the world over, and judges of the likes of food writer Jay Rayner, celebrated chef Tom Aikens, and incredible food photographer David Loftus. Jumping up and down a bit? Perhaps I was…

(Much as I’d love to, I’m not permitted to reveal the photo that made the finals until the awards in London in April.)

Finally, and as if the week wasn’t already shaping up to a cracker, I discovered I was a finalist in the 2013 Bloggies (yes! the Oscars for the blogging world!), in the category of Best Asian Weblog.

Now I don’t which of you wonderful people nominated me, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart – I feel extraordinarily humbled and grateful that you considered my blog as worthy of being amongst the best in that category. Wow.  WOW.

The other blogs in this category are all brilliant and if you have a chance check them out.

The winner is decided on the number of votes received, so if you have a minute please hop onto the 2013 Bloggies website to vote.

All you need do is tick the blogs you like (I have included a voting example above, in case you’re confused 😉 and after writing the robot-proof words in the box at the bottom of the page with your email address, click to submit your nominations. Your email address is needed to prevent you voting 800 times from one email address. Which you can totally do if you want, but they won’t count 799 of those votes. Damn.

Anyway, it’s dead easy and I will love you forever and ever if you vote. I might even send you a dumpling or ten. Pork and chive? Shrimp and white cabbage?

With an abundance of good luck raining down on my head this week I began to wonder when it would all end. I’m not naturally a pessimist you know, but working in the Emergency Room of a great big hospital does tend to make you think that Good Luck can’t last forever, and runs of Bad Luck happen all too often, even to very nice people. When my Bad Luck turns up, I’d like enough warning so I could get to a bunker somewhere quiet, in the hope of avoiding it for as long as possible.

According to Chinese thinking, when a run of good luck occurs, bad luck is likely to be just around the corner waiting for you to mess up. When things go up, the Chinese believe that the natural tendency of the universe is to turn in the opposite direction, and quite soon. It’s their way of being prepared at all times for sudden changes in ones’ fortune, good or bad.

Well, to hell with that. I think I just need to analyze it all less and enjoy it more. Stop thinking. Start opening champagne and preparing those dumplings for all of you!

But just in case, if you see my Bad Luck lurking around a corner somewhere, could you let me know?It’ll give me time to get my bunker filled with snacks.

Shanghai International Literary Festival March 1-17, 2013 
Full event program here

Audra Ang Literary Lunch
M on the Bund, Friday March 15, 12pm – 2pm
RMB 188 including meal

Market Walk and Food Tour   SOLD OUT!
With Audra Ang and yours truly
Friday March 15, 3pm – 4.30pm
RMB 75

You can purchase tickets one of two ways:

Through mypiao  or at M on the Bund, in person only, Saturdays and Sundays 10am-5pm during the festival.

The Manchurian Dumpling Shop

Every dumpling lover, and there are many of us out there, should know a great local dumpling shop. A place devoted to the art of crafting plump little dumplings from dawn to dusk, where there is always a pot on the boil ready to cook a freshly-made batch at any time. A simple, warm and inviting shop no bigger than a single room, with tiny formica tables and plastic stools, and wisping tendrils of steam coming from the front door, where you can stop in anytime for your favourite kind of dumpling – pork and chinese cabbage breakfast dumplings, fragrant chive flower and shrimp afternoon dumplings, late night beef dumplings.  
The Manchurian Dumpling Shop is my local dumpling joint, sitting at the end of a long narrow lane near my house, a secret pedestrian walkway between Nanchang Lu and Fuxing Lu. It doesn’t look like much, with a single round sign outside bearing just two characters: 饺子,jiaozi or dumplings.
For months when I first moved back to Nanchang Lu I thought The Manchurian was a wholesale dumpling shop, because every time I walked past customers were purchasing entire silver trays, as big as tabletops, full of freshly made dumplings. 
Turns out I was wrong about that – The Manchurian is a regular dumpling shop where anyone can eat in or take away freshly made dumplings to cook at home, but with dumplings so good that for many customers, buying less than one hundred dumplings at a time is just a false economy. A dozen or so to eat now, the rest in the freezer for later.

The Manchurian belongs to a hard-working husband and wife, helped out by the husband’s aunt. Like so many small business owners in Shanghai they work seven days a work, long, long days, and live above the shop.
When you enter the tiny space, you walk right into its dumpling-making heart with both women wrapping dumplings at one end of a long steel bench while the husband rolls round white circles of dumpling wrappers by hand at the other. The women move fast, scooping the shrimp, pork and vegetable filling into the centre of a dough circle, and pressing it expertly closed between both thumbs and forefingers to make a beautiful ruffled edge, a dough frill. Each one joins rows of fat white dumplings in a silver tray. 
Steam billows from the tiny back kitchen where a batch of dumplings is cooking for the couple sitting in the miniature ‘mezzanine’, a low space stolen from above the kitchen, thus lowering the kitchen ceiling by several feet.

The Manchurian’s menu runs to five items, with a space reserved for seasonal specialties. The ‘Fine Handmade Dumplings’ are sold by the liang 两, a traditional Chinese measure of weight equivalent to 50g. The menu states ‘one liang is five dumplings’. Or, if you’re a regular customer, occasionally six.
You can choose from:
Shepherd’s purse (a leafy green vegetable) with meat and shelled fresh shrimp dumplings jicai rou xiaren jiaozi è èœè‚‰è™¾ä»é¥ºå­ 6 yuan/liang (less than a dollar)
Beef dumplings niurou jiaozi 牛肉饺子 6 yuan/liang
Fragrant flowered chives and egg dumplings jiucai jidan jiaozi 韭菜鸡蛋饺子 6 yuan/liang
Chinese cabbage and pork dumplings baicai rou jiaozi 白菜肉饺子 5 yuan/liang
Fragrant flowered chives and pork dumplings jiucai rou jiaozi  éŸ­èœè‚‰é¥ºå­ 5 yuan/liang
My favourites are the simplest – chinese cabbage and pork dumplings, boiled for a few minutes and eaten straight away dipped in strong Shanxi vinegar mixed with lajiao chili paste. 
Aaahh. Dumplings. I find a liang of dumplings makes most problems disappear. You?

The Manchurian Dumpling Shop
Dongbei Manzu Jiaozi
Lane 1252, Fuxing Zhong Lu, Xuhui District Shanghai
Close to the Fuxing Lu lane entrance
Open seven days +86 21 64669197

24 Hours in Shaoxing

If you ask, almost everyone has heard of Shaoxing rice wine, the ubiquitous Chinese cooking wine.

But would everyone know Shaoxing is an actual place and not just a brand? A really beautiful place with canals and bridges and parks full of old ladies in red tracksuits doing tai chi with swords (see above) – and a thriving wine industry, vibrant food culture, and a pivotal place in Chinese literary history.

Shaoxing (say shao – to rhyme with cow – shing)  is barely two hours’ by train from Shanghai and makes one of the best foodie weekends away from the city. Or literary weekends, if that’s your thing.

I wanted to combine both of these interests and spent an overnighter in Shaoxing with two gorgeous foodie/photography girlfriends just before I left Shanghai to come back to Australia. Here’s what we managed to pack in to just 24 hours in Shaoxing (a lot!), but the small city hold enough interest for several days of contented wandering, eating and drinking amongst its many canals and back streets.

1. Experience Shaoxing Wine

The obvious place to start on your journey of discovery of Shaoxing is the Yellow Rice Wine Museum, dedicated to Shaoxing’s most famous export.

An impressive looking edifice, once inside we discover that 98% of their budget has been spent on the building and exterior, and the interior is rather dark and drab. I had hoped the museum would tell me everything I wanted to know about how yellow rice wine is made, and the differences between the various types. Sadly there was little information about this (see instead the brilliant CCTV series Bite of China: here with English subtitles, from 33:37) but there was some really cracking Chinglish in the captions.

‘Wine became a must of human comity and banquet, meanly bibulosity and swizzling often occurred.’

Bibulosity! Wonderful word!

So you mean people actually drink Shaoxing wine? Why yes. Shaoxing wine (properly called shaoxing haung jiu ç»å…´é»„é…’ or Shaoxing yellow wine) can be every bit as refined and complex as a red wine.

Sadly for most of us the Shaoxing wine available in Chinese supermarkets around the world is rubbish. In many countries the wine is salted to circumvent strict liquor laws and taxes, thus rendering it undrinkable but legal for sale in a supermarket. Does that make any sense? No. 

Real Shaoxing wine is smooth and mellow, amber gold with the barest hint of sweetness, served warmed in tiny cups or rice bowls with food – hairy crab, salted beans, dried mustard greens, fatty pork – all of which it pairs with beautifully. 

Shaoxing wine is made from glutinous rice and is fermented using yeast and aspergillus oryzae. The result, after at least six months of fermentation, is an amber-coloured mellow wine with an alcohol content of less than 20%. The wine is further aged in huge rough sealed stoneware jars for several years, and the colour changes from amber through dark gold to dark gold-brown.

In a lovely tradition, Shaoxing fathers would bury a decorative red bottle of rice wine soon after the birth of their daughters, digging it up in time to celebrate her wedding many years later. This wine became known as hua diao 花雕 or ‘flower engraved’ because of the appearance of the jars (see below) but the wine is really no different from any other aged Shaoxing rice wine. Sometimes it is also called nu’er hong 女儿红 or ‘daughter red’.

The easiest way to taste different Shaoxing wines is at one of the many wine shops lining Cang Qiao Jie, where you can taste before you buy or just sit and enjoy some wine and aniseed beans.

Shaoxing Rice Wine Museum ç»å…´é»„酒博物馆 
557 Xiada Lu, Shaoxing ç»å…´é»„酒博物馆 å¸‚区下大路557号

Admission 60 yuan per person including a small bottle of Shaoxing wine

+86 (0)575 85176032

2. Lu Xun Memorial Museum

‘Suddenly, I saw in my mind’s eye a marvellous golden moon hanging in a midnight-blue sky over a seashore planted endlessly with dark green watermelons. A boy, around ten or eleven years old, a silver chain around his neck and a pitchfork in his hand, was stabbing at a fierce looking dog darting between his legs. The boy was Runtu.’

 From My Old Home, 1921

One of China’s most beloved literary sons, Lu Xun (1881-1936) was born in Shaoxing and spent all his early life there. His fluid, deceptively simple short stories tell of China in a time of massive change – the fall of the Qing Dynasty and rise of the Republic – through the eyes of provincial people grappling with events in their daily lives that seem to speak of a much greater upheaval occurring around them.

I first visited the Lu Xun Memorial Museum in 2009, having no real idea of who Lu Xun was, or why he was important enough to have an entire museum devoted to him. What struck me on that first visit was the quiet and thoughtful reverence of the normally loud, bustling and camera-wielding Chinese tourists. 

An older Chinese man stopped our large family group and asked “How do you know of Lu Xun?” I admitted I knew nothing of him, and felt ashamed, but he seemed glad that we were there at all. 

I resolved to discover more about the man and read his works. In 2009 Penguin Classics published Lu Xun’s complete fiction, translated by Julia Lovell, and a copy was put into my hands soon after. But I failed to read a single page until we started our Great China Roadtrip and that, as they say, was that. Some of the most wonderful and meaningful short stories I have ever read.

This time I too, joined the lines of reverent pilgrims as we trailed past Lu Xun’s study and his ancestral home. Those who have read Lu Xun’s works will get a great deal of enjoyment from the museum and associated dwellings, but it may hold limited interest for those with no knowledge of the writer or his work.
The sanwei (three tastes) study where Lu Xun took lessons as a boy: Reading reflects three kinds of tastes in our everyday life – some reading is simple and satisfying, like rice, some reading is sumptuous and rich, like a banquet, and some reading we need only in little doses, like seasoning.

Lu Xun Memorial Museum ç»å…´é²è¿…纪念馆
235 Luxun Zhong Lu, Shaoxing ç»å…´é²è¿…纪念馆 é²è¿…中路235号
Admission price varies depending on how many sites you want to see: 140 yuan gives you all-inclusive entry to the Lu Xun Memorial Museum, Lu Xun’s ancestral home, Lu Xun’s former home, the Sanwei Study, and nine other sites.
3.Wander Shaoxing’s Canals
Shaoxing is latticed with ancient canals and you can walk the length of many of these between rows of traditional black-roofed whitewashed houses. Start with the canal alongside Xiada Lu after visiting the Shaoxing Rice Wine Museum, then head south to the Cang Qiao Jie canal. It’s a wonderful way to see the oldest parts of Shaoxing and walk between sites.

You can also take a traditional black-awning boat up and down the canals encircling the old city (the jetty is located near the Jishan Gate in the south-east corner of the city).
4.Visit Fushan Park
I can never pass up the opportunity to walk through a Chinese park, and Fushan Park – just east of Cang Qiao Jie historical street – is delightful.

On the morning we visited there were groups of tai chi practitioners, musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments, huddles of old men playing weiqi å›´æ£‹ or chinese chess, and women singing in the cold morning air. Lovely.
5. Eat Shaoxing Snacks
Although no trip to Shaoxing is complete without trying as many of the local foods as possible, first time visitors might be deterred by the local habit of decorating the outsides of houses, gates and doorways with drying pieces of fish, duck, sausage and flayed pigs’ heads.

Shaoxing is famed for dried, preserved and fermented foods including the abominably famous stinky tofu. Not surprisingly, there are also a lot of snacks you can eat with wine, known as xia jiu cai 下酒菜or ‘downing wine dishes’.

Snacks include:

Aniseed beans: hui xiang dou èŒ´é¦™è±† A type of soft, chewy salted broad bean served as a bar snack alongside Shaoxing wine. These were made famous by Lu Xun’s boozy character Kong Yiji, whose standing order at the Unversal Prosperity bar was always ‘Two bowls of wine, warm, and a plate of aniseed beans’.

Stinky tofu: chou doufu 臭豆腐 Eat at your peril. Much better both with and after Shaoxing wine.

Drunken dried fish: zui yu gan 醉鱼干 Deliciously chewy, salty, and a little sweet, pieces of dried fish are then soaked in Shaoxing wine to make them tender. Terrific.

Taidiao dates: These are dried jujubes (Chinese dates) soaked in local tai diao wine – dark and sweet, and with a taste of dried plums. A delicacy. (see picture below right)

Pork Belly with Dried Mustard Greens: gan cai men rou 干菜焖肉 I can’t believe this an acquired taste for some – cubes of glossy, fatty pork belly are cooked together with Shaoxing wine and salty, pungent dried mustard greens – a local specialty, seen below left in the dried form, and cooked with pork belly. It’s a spectacularly tasty dish that hits all the right notes for me – complex, salty, with a touch of sweetness from the pork, and great texture.
You might well wonder why there aren’t the requisite number of Life on Nanchang Lu photos of these snacks, after all, it’s not like me to eat something without photographing it first. 

But forgive me – my time in Shaoxing was amongst my last few days in China and for once I just put the camera down and savoured what I was eating. Something I highly recommend from time to time.

Instead, here are some artful shots of all that air-dried meat and fish. Enjoy.

Getting to Shaoxing
Train is by far the most convenient way to get to Shaoxing from Shanghai and high speed D trains run every half hour through the day from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station. The 220km trip takes two hours.

Fares 68 rmb ($10.30) one way

Where to Stay
The Xian Heng Hotel is right in the centre of Shaoxing and a short walk from canals and the Lu Xun Memorial Museum. As an added bonus, next door is the restaurant of the same name (established 1894), which serves some of the best local food in Shaoxing.
Essentially a 5 star hotel with 3 star prices, doubles from 600 yuan/night including breakfast.

Xian Heng Hotel
179 Lu Xun Zhong Lu, Shaoxing
咸亨酒店 绍兴市区鲁迅中路179号

(Take care! There are two Xian Heng hotels in Shaoxing, this is the original. The other is on Jiefang Nan Lu, also good, but not as central)

Please note: I pay for all my own transport, accommodation and meals everywhere I go.

Southern Migration

Well, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve left China.

After forty odd years of swearing I could never live in a big city, then a good year or so of swearing that if I was going to live in a big city, it certainly wouldn’t be bloody Shanghai of all places, I sort of caved in, little by little, and fell in love with the damn place. With its gorgeous old houses. With its parks and trees. With its completely fascinating street life. With its dumplings.

Tree exercises. No fancy lycra exercise gear or gym memberships required, all you need is a tree and a healthy dose of self-confidence.
Xiaolongbao. Shanghai’s contribution to culinary world heritage.
And if Shanghai wasn’t enough China for all of us, after three years of living, breathing, exploring and eating our way around Shanghai we suddenly felt the rest of China deserved the same amount of in-depth attention we had lavished on its most vibrant city (Beijingers, hold yourselves back) and so we trundled for six months around China in the most inconvenient vehicle ever invented for getting from A to B, Mr Chen’s campervan, observing every minute detail of every corner of China.
Far from putting us off the country for life, we fell utterly and completely in love with China, all its good bits, all its bad bits, and all its weird Chinglishy bits
And then last week we left. Back to the land of big blue skies, clean air, and so-bright-they-hurt-your-eyes colours – Australia.
It almost broke my heart actually. I started crying in front of one of the ladies at the wet market, explaining that I couldn’t buy any dry goods today because I was leaving.
There’s that mad foreigner weeping all over the dried soybeans again….Perhaps if I just smile politely she’ll bugger off….
But left China we did, handing Mr Chen’s campervan back to the wily Mr Chen and holding our breath for the itemised damages bill which I imagine will go something like this:

Item 97: Clean ashtray. Cost of returning ashtray to original cigarette stub-encrusted ash-filled condition: 488 yuan
Item 98: Clean refrigerator. Cost of regrowing black mold: 488 yuan 
We packed up our house and three and a half years of our lives and said long goodbyes to wonderful friends, and stepped onto the plane. I only cried some of the way home so as not to upset the children.
There were lots of reasons to come back – the pollution, the traffic, the soaring cost of schooling, the stinky tofu – but in the end those things mattered little and it all came down to a promise we made to our children – we would return to Australia by the time our eldest began high school, a response to the girls’ homesickness and our desire to give them stability after dragging them around a strange country for years.

The girls started school on January 29th, 2013, a date that had for several years seemed so unlikely to find us still in China that it came as something of an affront when it did, looming out of the start of this year like a bad omen.

The initial weeks here have been rugged and quite difficult, which explains my silence for the last two weeks. A frenzy of unpacking, of starting school, of the tail end of a tropical cyclone that brought power cuts and flooding, of me starting work again at my old hospital. Of tears and unexpected homesickness for Shanghai (the children) and very expected homesickness for Shanghai (me). We’ve all hit the ground with an audible thud.

Rather than feeling like I had arrived home, I felt like we had migrated to another country, where everything was so much the same and yet so, so different – a feeling I’m sure is shared by anyone who’s been away from home for a long, long time. Suddenly all that was familiar seemed foreign again, and more than a little strange. I imagine us like birds migrating south for the winter, and flying back again when the summer comes. I guess we’ll get used to it.
What about Life on Nanchang Lu? Is it over?
No, absolutely no!

I knew I would feel bereft when I left Shanghai, but I also knew the one thing that would keep me connected to China was this – writing about it. Life on Nanchang Lu will continue to bring you great stories of food, people and travel in China with lovely pictures. Posting will be weekly rather than twice weekly from now on (yes, I know it’s been two weeks since my last post, but moving house is kind of frantic, not to mention moving countries too).

I’ve taken my lead from my lovely friend Sally at Unbrave Girl, who went home for the first time in a long time last year. Now her wonderful travel blog is full of couches and unicorns and experiments in waffle-eating. Which is to say, it hasn’t changed a bit, except for the background location.
So I’ll still be writing about China and Chinese food and adventures in eating, it’s just that I’ll be writing it from my back deck in the sunshine overlooking the swimming pool. (Sorry, did I write that out loud?)

I already have big plans to make 2013 my official Year of Fermentation and Curdling where I learn to make traditional Chinese pickles and my own tofu. Those amazing pickles in twenty-five varieties you can buy in every market in China? Can’t get those in Australia, so I’m going to have to make my own. Should be interesting to see how that turns out.

I’ll continue visiting Shanghai regularly, now a place I regard as my ‘other’ home, to stock up on essential food items and eat my body weight in dumplings. I’ve just confirmed my first trip back to Shanghai in only seven weeks’ time, which will help a lot with the homesickness I’m suffering.

The other big news is that I’ve finally decided to get brave and write a book about our travels. It’s daunting, terrifying, and at the same time terrifically exciting to work on a project as big as a book, so here goes. I’ll let you know how it’s progressing.

But a blog, and for that matter a book, is nothing without readers. So again, thanks each and every one of you for following our travels, our adventures, and our disasters. I love hearing from you and have loved getting to know you all through the last three years.

I hope you’ll continue to love reading about China, a place that is truly amazing. And also how my pickles are going.