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The Embroidery and Antique Textiles Market, Kaili

“In ancient times…there was a smart Miao girl named Bang Xiang. The beautiful girl was very skilful at embroidering flowers – they were so vivid they could even compare with real flowers.
After Bang Xiang was married she had nine sons and seven daughters. Her seven daughters were as smart as her. In no time, Bang Xiang’s daughters themselves reached the age of marriage. Bang Xiang made wedding gowns in seven different colours for her daughters and told them to pass down the colours of the wedding gowns to their own children.
Later, only by taking a look at what colour girls wore, could Bang Xiang recognise whose children they were.”
                                                                                                                    Traditional Miao Story

Central Guizhou is a living museum of opulent textile arts with more than one hundred varieties of ethnic dress worn by local women, all typified by colours, styles and patterns of embroidery particular to one local area or village – as the story goes, each village descended from one of Bang Xiang’s colourful daughters. 
Having no written language, Miao women have long told their legends and history stitch by stitch, on their clothing. – the terrifying migration across the deep waters of the Yellow River, the battles and victories, the mythical beasts and birds that saved their ancestors, and the Butterfly Mother from whom all Miao people are descended.
Even today, every Miao girl learns to embroider and in her teenage years will produce two masterpieces – a full set of embroidered panels to be attached to the sleeves and bodice of her wedding jacket, and a richly decorative baby carrier. Later, she will embroider another set of panels for festival dress, hats and clothes for her children, and in her later years a set of funeral clothes. 
This rich textile heritage is beginning to be appreciated by museums and textile collectors all over the world, and there is a growing market for the buying and selling of new and antique textiles. Now every Friday and Saturday in Kaili you can find pieces from all over Guizhou gathered together in a single marketplace. It’s a dream for textile lovers and collectors – wall to wall embroidery, colour, pattern, weaving, pleating, applique, knot work, batik, and metal threadwork. Stunning.
Baby’s hat, and Miao woman making appliqued shoes
Detail of baby carrier
Miao woman selling knot work baby carriers, and an embroidered baby carrier in use
Scraps of old embroideries re-made into bracelets

Embroidery patterns for sale – the designs for the panels are drawn by hand then paper cut, and then tacked to the back of the fabric.
Typical completed design (detail) with birds and animals
Paper cut design set depicting the Butterfly Mother and a dancing woman. Every idle moment is spent embroidering.
Antique panel used to decorate the top of an everyday apron. 
The market stretches the length of the street and into the building on the left. Miao woman from Shidong village.
Dress aprons for festival wear
Gejia Miao woman with distinctive head dress and highly decorative wax resist indigo textiles. Metal thread embroidery on back of jacket. 
Antique woven head scarf, fragment.
Miao woman selling indigo and plant dyed stiff cotton fabric, used for festival jackets. Embroidered panels are then sewn on top of the finished jacket. 
Occasionally textiles from further afield find their way to the market – like these Yi minority embroidered belts
Kaili Embroidery and Antique Textiles Market – Details
Jinquan Lu Textile Market
Jinquan Lu, Kaili, near the Kaili National Stadium
Every Friday and Saturday, 9.30am – 3pm

Yaks, Goats and Fat-Tailed Sheep: The Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar

Need a yak? Want to know the going rate for a donkey? Got a few spare goats you’d like to get off your hands because they keep eating your shoes?
Then get yourself to Kashgar’s weekly animal market, held every Sunday just outside town. In the past the animal market was part of the regular Sunday Market in Kashgar, until I guess it got too messy and rowdy and they decided to give the animals their own purpose-built venue. And don’t go worrying that you’re going to see puppies and kittens in cages, this is an agricultural market, strictly for farmer types. The main business is in cows, yaks, goats and fat-tailed sheep, with a few donkeys and horses and the occasional camel thrown in once a month on camel trading day.
The market is held in a large open field, bordered with walls and entered through a wide gate. Early in the morning the livestock begins to arrive by whatever means is available.
By tricycle…
By tractor….

By truck…
By trailer…

Or on foot.
Once inside the animals are lined up neatly and tethered together, cheek-to-cheek. Goats with goats, sheep with sheep and so on.

Not everyone is happy to be at the market, of course. For some, it’s unbearable being in such close proximity to other animals.
Occasionally on-the-spot pre-sale repairs need to be carried out, like trimming the dirty wool from the extraordinary tails of these local fat-tailed sheep.
Now they look the business. 
Like traders in any part of the world, the farmers walk around, mobile phones pressed to ears, inspecting stock.

At a point, after teeth, hoofs, testicles and overall sheep-ness are inspected, a deal is done. Hands are shaken. Money presumably changes hands, but it’s invisible to the naked eye.

Like stockbrokers working the stock exchange I’m told that some buyers spend the whole day at the markets buying and selling repeatedly in order to make a margin on the sale – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The busines of livestock selling is conducted exclusively by Uighur men – Chinese animal traders are not admitted to the market.Women appear to be welcome but don’t participate in the trading, at least not obviously.

Once everyone is happy with the price, it’s time for breakfast. Around the perimeter of the market food stalls are already feeding dozens with mutton polo, soups, noodles, and samsas.
Diced lamb is ready for wrapping into tasty little pastry envelopes – samsas – cooked inside the smoking tandoor oven.

The tasty soup is kept steaming hot, seasoned by the chief taster after a sip from his ladle.
After watching this expert butcher for ages I decide to buy a beautiful handmade Uighur knife – not because I’m planning to do my own butchering, but as a fruit knife. 

The knives, with exquisite copper-inlaid bone, horn, wood or metal handles are beautifully crafted. They come with their own leather holster so you can wear them on your belt Uighur style. 
I buy one with a smooth black handle inlaid with brass and copper diamonds, but it causes me no end of trouble over the next few days as it becomes clear I can’t take it back to Shanghai on the train, and China Post won’t allow it to be sent. 
Eventually a private courier company comes to my hotel room to tell me that for double the cost of the knife’s purchase price, it can be returned to Shanghai by bus accompanied by a police declaration, and will take one month. I’ll let you know if it ever gets here. To be honest, it would have been less hassle and a lot cheaper to buy a yak. Next time I’ll know better!

Kashgar Animal Market
Every Sunday from dawn
The market has moved three times in the last year alone, so it’s worth checking the current location before you go.

Travels on the Silk Road

Kashgar: The Sunday Market, The Old City – A Dream Realized

I have a little story to tell you about Kashgar and how pivotal it was in my eventual move to China.

Kashgar, market town smack in the middle of the Silk Road, with hundreds of years of traveller and trader history. I don’t think I was even consciously aware that it was in China. Four years ago my husband began coming to China for work, visits that became more frequent and more prolonged. He could obviously see the writing on the wall that I couldn’t – our whole family was going to need to relocate to China within the year. I had listened with rapt attention to his stories about Shanghai, but China was a huge unknown quantity, and only the previous year I had turned down a trip to the Beijing Olympics on ‘ethical humanitarian grounds’. I was so full of shit.

Realising I may need a bit more convincing before a relocation was proposed, after one particular trip he bought a book for me called ‘Kashgar – Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road’. It was full of incredible photographs of a city that had lived only in my imagination – dusty adobe houses, cool courtyards shaded by trellised grapevines, mosques, deserts, camels, brass and copper  (you can read an interview with the photographer John Gollings here).

In particular the images of the Sunday Market in Kashgar captured me completely. The men in embroidered caps, faces like oiled walnuts, surrounded by richly coloured carpets and donkey carts. The rows of brass teapots and oil lamps. It became a burning obsession.
“Kashgar’s in China you know” my husband said. “We might get to visit if we lived there.”
So there you have it. A promise to visit Kashgar became part of the decision to move to China, all based on a book of photographs of a place I’d never been but longed to see. Once here, I was in no rush – Kashgar wasn’t going anywhere. Then I heard about the attempted destruction of the Old City, narrow lanes full of traditional adobe houses, quiet and mysterious, and I knew the time had come to see before it was too late.

Kashgar didn’t disappoint. It’s all you imagine of an ancient silk road city and more. I think I won’t write any more, and let you see for yourself the beauty of fascination of the place. Smell the spices, taste the juicy pomegranates and the char-grilled meats, feel the smooth cool dusty adobe walls of the quiet alleys of the old city and hear the hawker cries of the busy, bustling Sunday Market. You must go.

Dali: The Trouble With Being a Pig

It’s tough being a pig in China. You have very little chance of a long and happy life because, well, you’re just too edible, every last bit of you. It’s the sad truth. But for a western girl like myself, it’s all too easy to get sqeamish with the non…how to put it….non-pork chop aspects of eating a pig. We westerners get a pretty standard choice of say, pork chops, bacon, pork shoulder and ham, with a few odds and ends like ribs, and everything else thrown together to make sausages. I don’t recall ever going into my butcher back home and ordering up half a kilo of trotters (although they could be bought with difficulty if ordered a day ahead, in fact I often did because they were perfect for the medical students to practice suturing on. But we never, ever, actually ate them.). And I certainly never saw snouts or ears in their clean glass cabinet lined with the plastic grass.

Having travelled over a fair bit of China I can now say that pork chops are probably the least interesting edible parts of a pig. Having tried air-dried salted pig’s cheek in the villages near Huangshan, and seen preserved and deboned pigs’ heads in Shanghai, I was no longer surprised to walk into the open air market in Dali, about three hours south of Lijiang,  to find these scorched and blackened pigs’ heads for sale on a heavy trestle table.

Dali is an old walled city, sitting by the western shore of Lake Erhai below a row of sharply ridged mountains dusted with the last of the winter’s snow. It feels ancient, and cars seem out of place in the cobbled streets where near everyone walks with a wicker basket tied to their back instead of carrying groceries in plastic bags. The fresh food market runs every day, a maze of trestles and stalls set up in the alleys behind Bo’ai Lu, not far from the square turrets of the Eastern gate. You enter the market flanked by rows of berry sellers – mulberries, in season for only a week or two, strawberries, small chinese cherries, and orange loquats. Further in are the vegetables and the noodles, tofu and grain sellers, and further still the butchers.   

The pigs’ heads were being torched at very high heat, while the butcher rested his other hand nonchalantly on a snout. I’m unsure whether the scorching burnt off all the tough bristles, or served another purpose, but once the heads were thoroughly blackened they were passed across to the butcheress, to have their ears sliced off – the white fat underneath a stark contrast to the black skin. 

The ears were being sold by the piece, so all that was left were rows of earless, blackened pigs’ heads. And if you’re wondering, after the bugs and bark I’ve been eating lately, whether I tried the ears? No. I think they needed further preparation of some kind, and further cooking. But I wouldn’t be averse to trying them.

But my favourite way to eat pork by far is in the form of Yunnan ham, and cheek by jowl, so to speak, with the pigs’ heads, was the lady selling Yunnan hams by the jin (500g) or by the leg. Yunnan ham, properly called Xuanwei ham (Xuanwei huo tui), named for the town in northern Yunnan where it is produced, has a delicacy as refined as the best prosciutto, and its flavour once eaten will render all other ham completely second rate.  It can be eaten raw, sliced as finely as jamon iberico, or cooked in stir fries (recipe here), soups, or braises.

Were I not going to be travelling for another week or two, I’d have bought a whole leg, and lugged it back to Shanghai. Where I can probably buy it at the local ham guy on Wulumuqi Lu. Come to think of it, when I get back I will buy a whole leg, and feast on Yunnan ham for the next six months. For now I’ll make do with a smallish travel-sized piece, which can be sliced finely and the unlucky pigs toasted with a glass of rough-as-guts Great Wall red.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

The Shanghai Seafood Market

How would you feel about choosing your dinner while it’s still alive? For me, it sort of goes against some deeply held moral food principle to point out exactly which creature I’d like to have killed for my supper. But when I seriously, seriously ask myself whether I feel less guilt about eating a critter that someone else has chosen before killing it on my behalf, the whole moral house of cards comes tumbling down. I mean, really, it’s ridiculous logic.

In China, I’m rapidly learning that interest in food and eating extends to the diner’s ability to choose, with some degree of expertise, the protein component of their main course. At Shanghai’s Tongchuan Lu Seafood Market this is exactly what happens every single day. The market is primarily a wholesale fish and seafood market for restaurants and hotels, but
they run an excellent sideline in personal shopping too – walk the stalls, choose some seafood, then take it to one of the local restaurants where they can cook it to order for you – freshness guaranteed.

Tongchuan Lu is way out in Putuo District, north Shanghai, in the midst of non-descript streets and mid-level apartment blocks. Stepping out of the taxi you immediately know exactly where you’ve alighted as a strong briny smell with an overlay of fishiness reaches your nose. The open air section of the market stretches out on both sides of the road, and as far as you can see there are rows, and rows, and more rows of tanks bubbling with oxygen and holding every imaginable edible sea creature. Behind the street-front stalls is a larger indoor market, with air-conditioning and freezers where most of the jellyfish and frozen fish can be found.

There is nothing that lives in the seas around the world that can’t be found here – crabs from Canada, lobsters from Australia, razor clams from the Philipines, salmon from Norway, abalone from South Australia, shrimp from Taiwan, and so on. There are sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea snakes, oysters, clams, cockles, periwinkles, tiger prawns, pipi prawns, hairy crabs, white crabs, mud crabs, jellyfish, sharks fins and octopus. Plus lots of things I can’t identify and I’m relying on my knowledgeable marine biologist brother and sister-in-law to name for me.

They’re moving and squirming, and I’m assured they’re good to eat. But what are they? And am I the only one who thinks they look like double-ended penises?

What are these on the left for example? They look like giant mollusc tongues.

An entire shop full of nothing but dried shark fins. I have tasted sharks fin, but I don’t understand the attraction (to be honest) of the gelatinous fibres it dissolves into once cooked. The plaice on the right can be seen below with soy sauce.

The fishmongers at Tongchuan Lu are a very friendly bunch, helping us identify what might be nice to eat, and suggesting ways to cook it.

Once we decided on a stall with reasonable prices and healthy looking seafood we made our selection. Two whole plaice went flapping straight into a large red plastic bag, followed by 2 jin (1kg) of pipi prawns (scampi) and 1 jin of clams. A further jin of tiny fingernail clams was thrown in for free by our cheerful fishmonger, happy to have the first sale of the day.
He then took us three doors down to the restaurant to have the whole lot cooked, at the ridiculous price of 13 yuan ($2) per 500g. The plastic bags were handed over and some rapid-fire discussions between our fishmonger and the wait staff followed, after the pictureless Chinese menu proved to be a barrier for all of us. 
It became clear that the staff had decided themselves how our seafood should be cooked, and a fruitless discussion about whether we could have the clams with chili and blackbean was vetoed by the kitchen staff on the grounds that we didn’t know what we were talking about. They were right – the clams arrived sweet and creamy and perfectly cooked – gently steamed open and flavoured with ginger and chili, which didn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the clams as black bean might have done.  The tiny clams followed, cooked with soy, shaoxing wine and a touch of sugar, chili and ginger. Divine. So small they were almost impossible to eat with chopsticks, they were an exercise in patience and perseverance.

The pipi prawns were flash-fried with salt and pepper coating – crunchy, papery shells giving way to firm white flesh. Delicious. The entire kilo was gone in about five minutes flat. And lastly the plaice were steamed and dressed with a soy and ginger glaze, a perfect way to preserve the delicate fresh flavour of the fish. The four seafood dishes, plus noodles and two vegetable dishes, rice and tea, came to an unbelievable 170 yuan ($25) for six people.
While hunting for our lunch I had spotted a very atractive looking piece of salmon in one of the stalls, and at 70 yuan a kilo ($12) it was too good to pass up. On top of an old styrofoam box, positioned next to a dirty old bucket, the fishmonger used the sharpest cleaver I’ve ever seen to cut and trim the salmon into four manageable pieces. I ate it for dinner tonight, pan fried skin side down with oven roasted herbed cherry tomatoes, potatoes with capers, and asparagus.  Fantastic. I look forward to going back to get some more next time.
(Just an aside – if you do go, wear old shoes)

Shanghai Seafood Market (Shànghǎi Hǎixiān Shìchǎng 上海 海鲜 市场)

Tongchuan Lu, near Caoyang Lu 
Putuo, Shanghai


Open 24 hours

Ghost Market Cakes

I got badly stung the last time I bought an ‘antique’ at the Ghost Market on Fangbang Lu. I bargained real hard for a 1920s era vase, and handed over my cash. As the seller wrapped up what he’d told me was a one of a kind, he made the mistake of asking if I’d like a matching one to go with it. A matching one. Right. He could bring it for next week, if I ‘d like. Now every time I go to the weekend Ghost Market I see that piece bought, replenished, bought again – it’s the perpetual vase…..Either the seller has access to the entire remaining stock of a 1920s ceramic factory, or he’s making antiques himself. Hmmm… 

Not that the market isn’t also full of interesting real antiques, and I often run into antique dealers and collectors from around town amongst the old books and photos, who think there are still bargains to be had if you really, really know your stuff. Fake antiques are big business in China, and sometimes even the experts get duped. 
Emerging from the clouds of thick cigarette smoke inside, I walked back out on to Fangbang Lu and found this lovely lady selling steamed cakes from the back of her bicycle. I came across these delicious little cakes, topped with dried fruits, once before in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an, but on asking this lady she told me they were Dong Bei Gao – from far north-eastern China. The light sponge tastes slightly of coconut, and is cooked upside down in a special steamer with the dried fruit arranged in a pattern on the bottom, then turned out so that the pattern of fruit is visible on top. The black-speckled ones are flavoured with hēi zhī má (black sesame) 黑芝麻 giving them a slighty nutty flavour. 

At least I know these are real – for one kuai each (16 cents), they taste great!

Red Underwear for Rabbits

All the internet buzz this week about Ophiucus, the ‘new star sign’ of the Western zodiac, has had everyone’s astrological knickers in a major knot. (you can read this simple explanation of why you don’t need to change your star sign, followed by pages of entertaining loony comments)

And speaking of knickers, did you know that Chinese New Year is coming in less than a week, and 2011 will be the Year of the Rabbit?   How is that related to knickers??
Well, if you are born in a rabbit year, tradition dictates that this year, your year (which rolls around once every 12 years), you should wear red knickers. Every day for a whole year. For luck and auspiciousness, of course, and to turn all your whites pink.

Never able to let a good sales opportunity go begging, the Commodities Market today was a sea of red lanterns, red hong baos, and red knickers. Ladies, mens, kids, all in standard issue China red, one size fits all. You can have red knickers with fireworks on the front, cartoon characters, or a map of China with a loveheart. All tasteful, and colourfast guaranteed.

In case you have never heard of the Chinese Zodiac (中国十二生肖 Zhōngguó shí èr Shēngxiào), you can look at this table to see what zodiac animal you are, what your characeristics are, and when you’ll be wearing red undies next.

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939  
Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, shy, astute, compassionate, lucky, flexible. Can be moody, detached, self-indulgent.

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940   
Strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, artistic, generous, loyal. Can be tactless, arrogant, demanding.

2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941  
Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, sensual, creative, elegant, calm, strong, constant, purposeful. Can be loner, possessive, self-doubting, distrustful, cold.

2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930  
Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile—mentally and physically, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded. Can be fickle, arrogant, stubborn.

2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931   
Sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, peaceful, generous, seeks security. Can be moody, indecisive, pessimistic

2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932    
Inventive, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual. Can be egotistical, arrogant, selfish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.

2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933    
Neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, practical, scientific, responsible. Can be over zealous and critical, egotistical, abrasive, proud, opinionated.

2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934    
Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going. Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn.

2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935   
Honest, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, passionate, intelligent. Can be naïve, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936    
Forthright, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, intellectual, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, and shrewd. Can be manipulative, vindictive, self-destructive, critical, scheming.

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937   
Dependable, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, conventional, steady, modest, tenacious. Can be stubborn, hot-tempered, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938   
Unpredictable, rebellious, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, moody.

(adapted from Wikipedia)

Flat-out Pigs’ Heads, Yongkang Lu

Need a flattened out pig’s head to help with your Chinese New Year celebrations? Or how about a compressed dried chicken, feet’n’all? Just two of the many intriguing items available at the Year of the Rabbit market on Yongkang Lu this week! Festive markets like this one spring up all over Shanghai in preparation for the upcoming Spring Festival, and whole streets are taken over by long rows of red-tented stalls. The stalls are open all day, every day, and into the night, and after close of business the stall holders, who may have come from far afield, put up a drape and sleep on the floor of the stall to keep their goods safe from would-be thieves. Tough going when it’s minus four outside. 
Everyone loves to buy special foods to take home for the holidays, just like we do, although at these markets you won’t spot a single box of chocolates or marzipan fruit, and there certainly aren’t any neat packets of assorted nuts. There is dried dog but I didn’t want to put you off, so no photos, sorry. Luckily there are plenty of other slightly more palatable options to choose from!

You could try the red dates or dried lychees……

Special harvest rice……

Various dried seaweeds, or Chinese pork sausages and other assorted bits of dried meats, geese, ducks, dogs….
Or you could just hang out in your warm quilted PJs and sample all the pickles on offer…including pickled jellyfish….

In amongst all the odder foods I was dragged over to take the photo of this super-apple-salesman, along with the sign that says he is a certified apple seller, best quality. There was a really great camaraderie between the sellers as they joked and gave him a hard time about having the poses he was happily adopting for the picture. Apples are popular Chinese New Year gifts because they’re red. And the redder they are, the more expensive they are. Of course!
And by the way, does anybody know what you do with those pig’s heads? I tried googling ‘how to cook a Chinese flat dried pig’s head’ and got this fascinating account of Imperial Foods of the Ming Dynasty:
 How to pickle a pig’s head and trotters. Cook the pig’s head and trotters until they are very soft, then remove the bones. Spread the meat on a cloth and press it flat overnight with a large stone. It is very delicious when pickled in grains. (Eight Commentaries on How to Live )

Love that google.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 4 Hunt for a Tree

Where do you find a genuine Christmas tree amongst 20 million people who don’t celebrate Christmas? Last year, determined to have a real, living Christmas tree for the first time ever, I travelled to furtherest Pudong, to a giant indoor plant nursery to buy the only vaguely Nordic looking potted tree they had. It was green, it was spiky, but it only barely passed muster as a Christmas tree. Two tiny Chinese delivery men heaved it up to our second floor living room, where it died, lonely and neglected, about five months later. It was too heavy for even four strapping western men to move, so I had to hack it up, branch by branch, and take it on bits to the rubbish bins. Not good.
This year I was determined to do better, and I had much better intel. The Hongqiao Bird and Flower market had finally cottoned on to what we have known all along. That Christmas is a really, really good opportunity to make money if you’re selling the right thing. And they are! Firs! Spruce! Pines! Rows and rows of them in pots. Real, live, living, breathing Christmas trees. I walked through the doors and just breathed deeply on the Christmas smell.
I asked the first vendor how much. 450 kuai, she said. About $40 for an 8ft tree. Not bad, but something about them looked not quite right…..the lower branches were dried out and kind of…dead looking. Hmmm. The second venor offered the same size for only 300 kuai. Great price, but hers looked even sadder and more dried out. The prices were much the same all along the row until I got to the last shop. She was selling short, squat, but very green and healthy looking trees for ….wait for it…….880 kuai!!
No way! I told her. I can get one next door for 300!! 
Then this is where it got interesting. And intriguing.  What she told me, in a mix of English, Chinese, Shanghainese and sign langage, was that the trees in the others stores were FAKE. 
They are not, I said, Come on…..I broke off a small branch from the next door shop to prove it. 
No, no, no! Not real! She insisted. Then she drew her hand quickly across the front of her neck and made a sound like a buzz saw. Not real! CUT!!
Ah hah. The other trees were indeed real, but had just been lopped off and stuck in a pot to simulate a living Christmas tree. If I bought one of the cheap ones, she said, it would be DEAD before Christmas. Well, I wasn’t going to fall for that particular caper.
I sighed. I chose the healthiest looking one. I paid 880 kuai. It got delivered this morning with this note attached to a branch. It probably says ‘A sucker paid 880 kuai for this tree’ I grumbled to my husband.    
Actually, he said, it’s our address. Oh.
Hongqiao Bird and Flower market
(Hongqiao Hua Shi)
718 Hongjing Lu, near Hongsong Lu. 

虹井路718号, 近红松路. 

Open daily 9am – 6pm

Grocer and Ham Expert, Shao Xing

This kindly camo-wearing grocer operates a stall in the big wet-market in Shao Xing. While stumbling around in the rain yesterday we practically fell into the wet-market entrance, and the first stall we came across was his. A neater, tidier little shop I have never seen (one of these days I’ll post some behind-the-scenes photos of the barely managed chaos that is my local grocery store in Shanghai).
These grocery shops can be found in the corner position of every wet market, and they sell dry goods of all kinds, from bottled sauces (soy, oyster, chili) to dried pulses (millet, soybeans, mungbeans), dried fruits (red dates, Xinjiang sultanas) and lastly dried meats, jellyfish, shrimp and fish. 
This fellow’s specialty was clearly ham, and I have never seen so many good looking pig’s legs in one place. Jinghua ham, Yunnan ham, cured pork belly, it was all here. He passed me various cuts to smell – all the different hams have different curing processes, so the aroma of each is quite different. An entire leg of cured Jinghua ham cost 150 yuan ($25) and came in its own tennis-racquet shaped plastic holder with a handle. If I hadn’t already bought two heavy porcelain bottles of Shao Xing wine I would have been sorely tempted to take one back to Shangai to hang in the kitchen for the winter.  I could take it down and saw bits off as needed, all medieval-like. 
I think you can tell a lot about a town by the state of its wet markets and grocers. Shao Xing looks to be in pretty good shape – a vibrant food and wine culture, a well-maintained and very clean wet market, and little gems like this shop here there and everywhere. Just planning my next trip there now…..