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God’s First Visit to Yu Gardens, Shanghai

I love that after five years, China still has the capacity to surprise me. 
A few weeks ago we visited Yu Gardens in Shanghai to see the Chinese New Year lantern display. For my girls it has become an annual rite of passage, just like visiting the Myer department store was when I was a kid, to see their Christmas window display. Every year they would have a different spectacular theme, my child’s mind thrilled with the colours and imaginary possibilities of the little story in each window.
Chinese New Year is the same for Chinese kids – each year they visit the temple at Yu Gardens with their parents to see the exciting new lantern displays for Chinese New Year, usually followed by something good to eat. Ordinary lanterns these most definitely are not – huge and spectacular 3-D masterpieces of technicolour construction, they are as impressive in the daylight as they are lit up at night.

Year of the Tiger, 2010, Year of the Rabbit, 2011
Year of the Dragon 2012
(I missed Year of the Snake in 2013 because we were in Australia. Also, I don’t like snakes, having grown up in a country that considers itself home to seven of the world’s ten deadliest of that species.)
One of the highlights of the lantern display is the narrative tableaux floating in the waters around the Huxinting Tea House at the centre of the gardens. Past lantern epics have included the story of the Yellow Emperor’s flight into immortality from the top of Huang Shan, and the parable of Confucius’ meeting with Lao Tzu.
This year was different though. This year, the inspirational story for thousands of Chinese people at the biggest celebration of the lunar calendar and in the grounds of a Taoist temple was….Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 
Different.
According to the very economically worded placard to one side of the scene:
Cursed forever.
And that will be the beginning and end, the Genesis to Exodus if you will, of most of the visitors’ understanding of the Story of Creation. 
A dude in a red dress, a snake, an apple tree, all the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and a pair of very very pale and awkward humans.

 Okay then.

Thank goodness around the corner everything returned to normal – there were a lot of reassuring horse motifs, and plenty of honest to goodness regular lanterns.

Happy (belated) Year of the Horse everyone! Here’s to the joy of constant surprises. 

Shanghai Dumpling Wars: A New Contender Emerges in Paradise Dynasty

There’s an open battle being waged, probably for centuries now, over who makes Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao
Not sure what xiaolongbao are? They’re Shanghai’s famous soup-filled dumplings, small steamed dumpling miracles that defy the laws of nature by having hot soup held delicately inside them, along with a fragrant mix of pork and seasonings. And Shanghai locals feel very, very passionate about their xiaolongbao and who makes the best ones.
(If you’re still not sure you could check out Xiaolongbao – The Complete Guide)
The battle really comes down to what you, as an eater, prefer.
Do you crave authenticity or novelty? 
Do you like your dumpling skins rolled or hand-flattened?
Do Shanghainese people make the best xiaolongbao? Or can anyone do it?
Paradise Dynasty challenges all these assumptions. Coming from Singapore, where they are already an established brand, they have gone straight for the jugular by opening their flagship Chinese store in Shanghai and – wait for it – calling it Paradise Dynasty: Legend of Xiaolongbao. Cheeky. That’s like opening your first macaron shop in Paris, right next to Laduree, and calling it Fiona: Legend of Macarons
Just a little bit self-indulgent, but why shouldn’t you be when you have the behemoth Paradise restaurant group behind you?
  

Their signature dish is a basket of eight rainbow-hued xiaolongbao (RMB 68) with novel fillings:

Foie Gras (tan)
Black truffle (black)
Crab Roe (orange)
Ginseng (green)
Mozzarella (yellow)
Garlic (grey)
Szechuan (sic) (dark pink)
Original Pork (white)

The dumpling wrappers are very fine, soft, and strong, and the eight colours looked beautiful sitting on their linen cloth inside the basket.

I tried the original steamed pork flavour first, as a true test of xiaolongbao-ness. It was good – plenty of fragrant soup, a little ginger, a smooth pork filling. The ‘szechuan’ dumpling was an explosion of chili and flowery Sichuan pepper, although the pepper made the filling a little gritty. The foie gras and crab roe dumplings were rich and full of flavour, the garlic and ginseng dumplings more subtle but still tasty. I wouldn’t revisit the mozzarella dumpling though, with its very odd taste and texture, but my girls like it the best of all of them.

The stand out for me was the black truffle xiaolongbao, rich, dark, deeply truffley and intensely satisfying. After trying just one I ordered a whole extra basket of (RMB 65). Any flavour can be ordered separately as a basket of six or ten dumplings.

Paradise Dynasty serves other dishes too – la mian or pulled noodles, which seems odd (given that la mian originated in central China, a Hui Muslim dish, and xiaolongbao are from eastern China’s Nanxiang village, now part of Shanghai). But the menu tells us that Executive Chef Ge Sheng is a specialty la mian chef, and it’s the female sous chef, Yan Wei, who knows a thing or two about xiaolongbao.
While waiting for our table I watched the chefs in the kitchen making the dumplings, and was amazed to see that they weighed the filling for every single dumpling on a digital scale. That exactitude is rare and spoke of very high standards in the kitchen.

It’s a shame then that the same care and attention isn’t taken in the dining room – we waited 45 minutes for a table on a regular weekday lunchtime and when we did arrive at our table it was full of dirty dishes from the previous diners and took fifteen minutes to be cleared after three requests from me and one from a neighbouring diner. The restaurant is always this busy, so I’m told, so it should be staffed accordingly. 
The xiaolongbao were delicious, but hard to eat without chopsticks, a spoon, a dish for vinegar, or a bowl. These arrived on request, one at a time, five minutes apart, so by the time we had all the necessary eating utensils the dumplings were cold. A great shame.
So are these Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Paradise Dynasty: Legend of Xiaolongbao – Details
IFC Mall, Lujiazui, Pudong
Level Three, Shop 36
Ph +86 21 58342291
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner, last orders 9.30pm.

Spring Festival at Shidong Market – Will It All Be Gone This Time Next Year?

Two weeks ago I found myself back in Shidong, in the heart of Miao country in Guizhou Province, at the market they hold there by the river. I didn’t plan on writing about it again, because I wrote about it last September when the market was full of indigo sellers.
It’s a market with seductive colour and energy though, absolutely one of the best rural markets in China and blessed with a stunning location.
You arrive in the fraught and dusty main street of Shidong, packed with cars and motorbikes and minivans, horns blaring, and wend your way behind the street into one of many crowded, dark, cool side lanes where there will be someone selling brightly coloured plastic basins next to a man with a bamboo pen full of noisy ducks, and then suddenly the darkness gives way to sunlight and the long jade-green Qingshui river opens up before you, with its Shidong-side cobblestone banks lined with hundreds of coloured tents and thousands of people, and on the other side a tiny village climbs the hill from the water’s edge, connected by a narrow suspension bridge.
People come and go by boat, from villages up- and downstream. It’s delightful, but more importantly it is the main source of income for many local families who sell their wares at the market.

But it seems the market might be under threat, something I didn’t discover until literally a few hours ago when I was researching this blog post, and so I became convinced of the need to write about it again. More on that below.
On the surface though, the market was busier than ever, being the frantic final market day before Chinese New Year and full of everything one might need for a Spring Festival celebration.
The cobbled river bank was laid with hundreds of red paper chunlian 春联 door decorations, held down against the wind with rocks and painted with calligraphy couplets conveying one’s best wishes for the year ahead – health, happiness, and prosperity. 
Open air barbers, five in a  row, had set up nearby so men could have their hair cut before New Year, thus avoiding an unlucky haircut in the first month of the Year of the Horse.
One and all were buying chickens and ducks for the New Year’s feast, along with bunches of lucky extra-long chillies and sweet treats like honey on the comb.

Some, like this family, had all their Spring Festival needs loaded in their wooden boat – a box of firecrackers, some incense and candles to offer to the ancestors, and about twenty-five new stools for all the expected guests.

Buying new bowls was common too, both for eating and for drinking rice wine, neatly tied in stacks of ten. Always ten – I’d love to know why.
The Miao ladies of Shidong, lovers of silver adornment and jewellery, were crowding the silver sellers with New Year sales.
It was at this point, as I was photographing a dead cow being picturesquely butchered by the riverside, that I realised I was being followed. There were two men, one with a camera, photographing me photographing the butcher, and another one. They were youngish, smallish, not very threatening looking, and wearing a ubiquitous countryside uniform of soft shoes, perma-press trousers and zip-up jackets, both black, one of them made from artificial leather. 
They looked nervous and shy when I caught them spying on me, and seemed to be metaphorically poking each other in the ribs saying:
“You talk to her”
“No, you talk to her”
“No, you first”
“You”
Until I couldn’t take their discomfort any more and said hello in Chinese.
It’s my favourite moment in any conversation, when the other person suddenly realises they can communicate with me, this stranger, this foreigner.
“Hello” said Mr Artificial Leather, smiling very tentatively. “We’ve been following you.”
I smiled.
“We don’t see so many tourists here. Well, a few. Hmmm. Not that many. I’m from the local government. Can I ask you a few questions about your experience in Shidong market?”
There’s a curve ball I wasn’t expecting.
“Sure” I said, and put my camera away. This could take a while.
“So, my first question is…” He flipped out a notebook and seemed to be rifling through the pages looking for the question. The other guy held on to the camera awkwardly. 
“Oh, here it is. Okay. What is your name?”
I told him my Chinese name, and he told me what a nice name it was. I told him my English name too, but from upside-down I couldn’t tell if he wrote it down in English.
“And what are you doing here?” This question sounded innocuous, and it probably was, but he was a local government official.
“Just travelling, taking photos. It’s very colourful here!” I said, pointing to the rows of tents nearby.
“This is your first visit to Shidong?” he asked.
I considered for a moment, trying to remember. “It’s my fourth visit I think. My fifth visit to Guizhou.”
He was surprised. And pleased. He rifled a few more pages and looked for the next question. It must have been important because he asked the other guy to take a photo of us doing the interview, but the other guy struggled with the camera, and I felt bad for him.
“So…when you come to Shidong next time, which of the following would enhance your tourist experience?” He paused. “Ethnic dancing? Singing and Music? Discount vouchers? Gifts?”
Now I did feel sorry for him, because I can say in all honesty that none of those things would have made the market any more colourful or more alive and vibrant than it already was. In fact, they might do something irrevocably bad to it by trying to attract Chinese tourists to it with gimmicks.
“Actually, none of those” I said. “I just like to experience the local culture as it is, especially on Market Day.” He looked really disappointed in me.
“Not even dancing?” he asked.
“OK, maybe just a little bit of dancing. But you know in my country we have nothing at all like this market. This is very special.”
He gave me a look that said he didn’t quite believe me, either about the my country not having markets like this, or the bit about it being special. His look seemed to convey that the sooner he could clear space along the river for ethnic dancing and music displays and give away discount vouchers, the better.
The other guy took photos of us all together, then someone took photos of all three of us together, and that concluded the interview.
I thought nothing more of it for the last two weeks, until just now I googled ‘Shidong tourism’ and an article came up on the Guizhou government website explaining that Shidong is to be one of ‘One Hundred Demonstration Towns’ in Guizhou. Oh no.
According to their research, Shidong is an ideal location for this development because:
‘Miao people account for 98% of the local population. So, the town is a place where Miao people highly gather. Shidong Town not only has graceful and charming landscape scenery, but also has unique and rich national customs. In addition, it’s the most representative Miao region and is a place where national intangible cultural heritage gather.’
They’re looking for 680 million yuan joint venture investments to build:
‘special architectural complex and special leisure hotels and venues (read – KTV and spas), sell cultural crafts, develop a series of market-oriented national culture display platform, build 500 buildings with Miao nationality characteristics, and create a world-class Miao nationality art town.’
My heart broke, then fell on the floor in a hundred pieces. It will be a Chinese Disneyland with Miao characteristics. It happened in Kashgar. It happened in Beijing. It happened in Hangzhou. And Lijiang, Shanghai, Pingyao, and Qufu. Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.
They will destroy Shidong, and rebuild it as a fake version of itself, with homogenous ‘cultural crafts’ and concrete buildings made to look like the wooden structures they have replaced. It was all a terribly, terribly sad read. 
As sweet as Mr Artificial Leather was, I hope no one comes to his great big fake Miao Shidong party. 
So get yourself to Shidong right now before it’s all gone.

Feeding Four Hundred For Lunch In Guizhou

The first thing I noticed as we came over the rise was a crowd of people all over the road, most with bowls and chopsticks in hand, eating.
There must have been another two hundred people sitting outdoors at round tables on a terrace in front of a new-looking house. Dozens of motorbikes, the local transport of choice, lined both sides of the road. Was it a wedding? A funeral? Some other kind of celebration?
“It’s a new house party” said our driver. “Very auspicious day for it.”
It was late afternoon, just at that golden hour when the sun is slipping low into the hills and a chill is creeping back into the air from the lengthening shadows. Perfect light for photographers. 
My flight had landed in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, less than an hour before, and I was travelling to Kaili to do more work on a project involving Miao artisans, a project my husband and I have been working on together for the last half year, when the driver suggested we take the scenic road instead of the highway. Of course, I agreed immediately. Who wouldn’t? 
When we reached the house we were already deep into the countryside, in the midst of tiny villages smelling deliciously of woodsmoke and winter. 
“Can you stop?” I asked the driver. I thought I might be able to take some photos, as long as the house’s new owner approved and the light lasted.
The house, a two story building facing the road, was painted in white with grey trimming, and festooned with auspicious red ribbons and lanterns. It was built in the simple modern style common to all of rural China – two large rooms on the lower floor for storing farming equipment and produce, with a central staircase leading to the upper floor with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The flat roof meant that if the family continued to prosper a third floor could be readily added, but for now housed a brand new satellite dish.
The guests, initially a little surprised at seeing a stranger (especially a foreign stranger), soon pointed me in the direction of the home’s owner, a woman my age, who welcomed us like long lost friends, agreed without hesitation to my taking photographs, and insisted with some forcefulness that we stay to eat. When we thanked her for her kind offer but began to decline, she laughed, took me by the elbow and said:
“No, no! You must stay to eat!” and sat us on two empty stools. “Just wait!” she said. “More food is coming soon.”
Around me two hundred men, women and children were at the tail end of what looked to have been a long and tasty meal. Empty red and white enamel platters covered every table, food scraps covered the ground and the rosy flushed faces of the guests were reflected in rows of empty beer and baijiu bottles. Cigarettes were being smoked, jokes were being told, and legs were being stretched.
As we sat, the tables nearest to us began emptying out. Was the party already over?
I sat and watched as two hundred guests took leave of their lady host, two hundred plates were cleared from tables, and countless empty bottles were gathered up and taken away.
It was over. I felt a sense of disappointment – we’d arrived just a little too late.
But then our lady host rushed over and said, full of smiles: “Now the food is coming! Please enjoy yourselves!”
I looked about, confused – the tables had all been cleared and emptied, the guests all gone bar a few stalwarts – wondering if we were to have a small meal by ourselves. 
But now a small army of men and women appeared with fresh table covers, bowls, chopsticks, glasses and napkins, and began laying each of the twenty tables, again.
Within minutes more people began to arrive – by motorbike, by minivan, and on foot, a second wave of two hundred guests who now sat in every single empty place. I was astounded. This woman was about to feed four hundred people in celebration of her new house. 

We were joined at our table by an old man, his son, two granddaughters, his nephew, sister-in-law, and a couple of his friends. Out came the beer. Out came the baijiu. Cigarettes were handed around the table.

And then the food: the food was being cooked in a makeshift outdoor kitchen by a battalion of cooks, with steamers the size of hula hoops resting on wood-fired boilers, and two of the largest woks I had ever seen. The food began to arrive on great heavy trays.

There was roast crispy chicken, spicy pickled pig’s ear, translucent preserved quail eggs with fermented chili sauce, a fiery braise of pork and chitterlings in the centre of the table, and bowls of noodles and pickles. There was whole fried fish with sour chilies, mountain mushrooms, and plates of slow-cooked fat pork slices with mei gan cai, a salt-preserved green vegetable.
It was the tastiest food I’d eaten since my last trip to Guizhou. Every time I stopped chewing momentarily one of my fellow guests would urge me on.
 “Eat up! Have some more! Taste a little of this!”

While we ate I asked them about the house party. They told me in this part of the world it was considered very good luck to ‘christen’ your new house by having a celebration with all your family. And all of your friends. And your neighbours. And your neighbours’ friends. And anyone else you could think of, including a random foreigner. (Foreigners were considered to be especially lucky for the house, should one happen along at the right time, they told me. I felt incredibly auspicious for the first time in my life.)

When I asked my fellow guests how they knew our lady host they made vague mentions of living “over the hill” and “in the next village”.

“Not related?” I asked.

“Er…no.”

“So do you actually, like, know her?” I asked.

Chabuduo” came the hilarious reply. Sort of. Approximately. Kinda.

We all toasted her anyway.

“To the new house! Ganbei!”