Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Our Stuff

Yesterday was a big day here in Beijing! The stuff that we shipped to ourselves from our storage units back in Virginia arrived at our place, including our dining table and chairs, several boxes of clothes, our good wine glasses, and assorted other things. We expected it to take on the order of 3 months for these things to get here, but the shipper ended up shipping by air instead of by sea, so it took only a few weeks to arrive. The only problem was that, for some reason, the Chinese customs authorities don't like heavy shipments to come by air (our dining set was pretty heavy, as was all the copper and Calphalon pans that I sent), and apparently they had no idea what to do, so they delayed the release of the goods until someone could tell them what to do, I guess. In any event, the stuff got to us yesterday, and now we are busy putting it all away. Timing turned out to be great, too, since this Saturday we'll have a dinner party where we'll be able to put our things to good use!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Passover in Beijing (#2)

This is our second Passover in Beijing, and once again we were invited to the home of the founder of our company who is also pretty much the founder of the Jewish community here, for the first night's dinner. Like last year, she had a house full of people (35 or so by my count) including a large number whom she had never met before, but who learned of the event from friends of friends and who thus found themselves invited to join in. Among the actual friends was the usual assortment of fascinating people, including this time around the guy who, at the age of 6 in the mid-1960s was sent by his leftist parents from their home in the Lower East Side to China (then in the grips of the Cultural Revolution) to share in the Revolution or something. The parents eventually left, but he wound up staying, getting shuttled around to avoid the xenophobic Red Guards. His experience must have been pretty horrific, but Chinese is amazing.

In contrast with last year, this year I decided I was going to make my own chicken soup with matzo balls, since our hostess for the Seder is vegetarian, and her soup, while it would be delicious, would not be quite the same as mom's. So I went to the Xinyuanli market to pick up my chicken and vegetables and while there I realized I'd need chicken fat to make the matzo balls. I figured for sure the poultry lady would have chicken fat, and asked if she had 鸡肥 (literally "chicken fat") but she had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to explain it in as many ways as I could think while she was busy preparing someone else's chickens, removing the giblets and eventually pulling off a pile of fat. When I saw her yanking the fat out of the chicken I said that was what I want, and I thus learned that it is called 鸡油 (literally "chicken oil") and it was thus that I ended up with about a pound of chicken fat, which I rendered back at home with mom's recipe. This made a heck of a lot of chicken fat, which I have no idea how I'll use, but at least it does not go bad.

The resulting chicken soup and matzo balls came out very well, and my charoset was a real standout, perhaps because this year I came to the realization that Chinese apples are not as sweet as their US counterparts, and added some sugar to make up for the shortfall. And since I brought back a whole horseradish root from my last trip to the US, my chopped horseradish is nice and strong.

Now that we have done the traditional dishes we can say we've done Passover 2008 and move on to prepare for our next cooking event--a dinner party at our place on Saturday night for the Usual Suspects.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Count Potemkin's Lessons

It's been a little while since I have had a chance to go to our little local market, what with my trip to the US, and then a week in Wuxi and Shanghai, but yesterday I finally had the opportunity, and the need, to stop by and see about buying a few things. (Among those things were a new shower head for our master bathroom. I have never had to replace shower heads as often anywhere else as I have had to here, probably due to the fact that our water come laden with all sorts of crap that, despite the filter in the hose, still blocks up the nozzles.)

Anyway, I was startled by the changes that have started to appear on our little street, some of which are so manifestly just cosmetic as to bring to mind the Potemkin Villages of tsarist Russia. For those unfamiliar with them, Count Potemkin was nervous that Catherine the Great would have a bad impression of the state of Russia as she traveled through Crimea, so he set up facades of villages along the route she would take. There was nothing to the villages beyond the facades, but they sure looked good.

Beijing is so worried that the world will get a bad impression of the place during the Olympics that they are busy cleaning up the city and tottying up as much as they can. The closer the street is to a venue, the more likely it is be the subject of a clean-up, and since our street has not one, but two venues on it, it was only a matter of time before it started to get dolled up. Thus a traditional looking Chinese wall has been built to block the view of the market from the street, and all the little prepared food vendors who used to make roast breads, steamed buns, and our favorite breakfast items have disappeared. The meat section has also been torn down, perhaps to be rebuilt. The hardware store next door has been gussied up with a fancy wall, too, and along the opposite side of the street where there are some ugly apartment buildings, they have put up more walls with planters full of marigolds and pansies. Even the crappy little convenience shop has got a fancy new sign.

I wonder what people think about the changes, since the drab and unsightly state of things before was never deemed worthy of a fix-up before, but now that the rest of the world is going to see it the authorities have decided to fix it all up. Wonder how long it'll stay neat and tidy?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ken Lee

Thanks to my friend Digo, here is a little video of the famous Mariah Carey song, "Ken Lee", as sung by a would-be contestant on the Bulgarian version of one of J2's favorite shows, American Idol.  

Friday, April 04, 2008


So it's a national holiday here in China, so the people of Shanghai, where I am spending the weekend, do what comes natural when the Chinese have a day off--they go shopping.  Never one to buck the trend, I of course decided to try to fit in with the locals, and took the opportunity to visit my new favorite place in Shanghai, the South Bund Fabric Market in the Lujiazui area just west of the Huangpu River.  Since many of China's best tailors come from the area around Shanghai, it stands to reason that Shanghai would have the best fabric market, and this goes a pretty long way to proving that assumption right.  It's got three floors of stall after stall, selling fabric to make shirts, suits, trousers, qipao dresses, tablecloths, etc, all at very reasonable prices (particularly if you remember to haggle).  Quality varies quite a bit, but if you insist that you want the "good stuff" they will show it to you, and if they like you they'll even point out just how bad the quality of most of the stuff they sell really is.  

As regular readers of this blog will know, J2 and I went on a big exercise and diet regimen last June or so, so now most of our clothes no longer fit us (and thus we went on a big shopping binge in the US for smaller sized cas
ual clothes).  Even suits that I had made as recently as last autumn are now a bit big on me, and the ones that we made soon after our arrival in China are unwearable, so this was an opportunity for a redo.  Besides, the suits made by Mr Ding's (our new favorite tailor) are so much better than Mr Zhu's (the old one) that I had stopped wearing those old ones anyway.  Even so
me of my shirts have become ridiculous to wear, so this was a good opportunity to update a bit.

While Mr Ding has a pretty good range of material that he brings around when you want him to make you some clothes, it's nothing compared with the range of the market, where each stall has hundreds of choices within any conceivable color or style.  In the end I got material for about 8 shirts (around $10/each), 4 suits ($70/each) and two pairs of trousers ($35/each), along with some interesting lining material for the suits ($14/each) and some really beautiful buttons (horn for the suits and trousers, shell for the shirts).  For anyone who plans to visit the market, and is looking for recommendations, here's where I finally bought the stuff:

Shirt material: San-San Fashion, Shop 137
Suit material and lining: Yang Yonggang, Shop 389
Buttons: A-Fu Buttons, Shop 381 (next to Ms Yang's shop)
Suit material (didn't find anything there this time, but I bought material there last time, in the autumn): Liu Jian'guang, Shop 245

Mr Ding is already on notice that he has some work to do, so he plans to come by on Monday for a re-measuring and to pick it all up.  

Visiting the market can be daunting, and it takes a good deal of time to do it justice (especially if you don't have recommended stalls to limit yourself to), and I wound up spending around three hours there this morning.  By the time I was done, I was starving, so I headed to the Wujiang Road Snack Street (吴江路美食街) for lunch.  One of Shanghai's best purveyors of shengjian bao is on this street, with two locations a few doors apart from each other.  It's called Yang's Fry-Dumpling (小扬生煎馆) and as you can see from the photo--taken with my iPhone--there's usually a line out the door waiting for the dumplings to be ready.  They are absolutely delicious, and a bit dangerous, since they contain blazing-hot broth inside the dumpling that spurts out as you bit into them.  How are these different from xialong bao, Shanghai's more famous cousin to the shengjian bao?  Well, these have thicker skins and are fried on the bottom, so they develop a delectable crispy texture.  Also, these never have crab in them, whereas xiaolong bao often do.  

I have always liked shengjian bao better, but just to be sure, I decided to try a xiaolong bao maker that I had heard was the best but that I had never visited before.  This was Jia Jia Xiaolong Bao (佳家小龙包), on Huanghe Lu, just off of Nanjing Lu, the big shopping street.  These are nowhere near as famous as the dumplings at Nanxiang in the Yuyuan garden, and also nowhere near as expensive.  But there was a long line to get in, even at 2:30pm, and almost all the varieties were already sold out.  I ended up having the pork and crab dumplings, for Y19.50 (less than $3), and they were incredible, very redolent of the crab and with a succulent broth inside.  Served with vinegar and ginger shreds on the side (for an extra 14 cents), they cannot be beat.  And best of all--there's a branch of Yang's Fry-Dumpling across the street, so you can try both!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Tomb Sweeping Day

Earlier this year the Chinese government announced that it was doing away with one of the three "Golden Week" holidays that used to be only real time off that Chinese citizens got during the year.  The three holidays--Spring Festival (aka "Chinese New Year"), May Day, and National Day--were week-long holidays that were promulgated in the 1990s to provide people with an opportunity to spend some of their pent-up cash on holidays, thus not only serving to free up some of the population's enormous savings, but also help develop the domestic tourism sector.  The policy was far more successful than the government could have imagined, since entire cities appeared to take the opportunity to travel during these holidays, and woe betide anyone who wanted to visit any of China's leading sights during these periods.  We made the mistake of traveling with friends to two of these places last year during the May and National Day holidays, and were overwhelmed by the numbers of Chinese people enjoying the scenery with us.

But as of this year only two of these Golden Weeks remain, with the May Holiday reduced to one solitary day.  To compensate, the government dusted off three other holidays, thus technically adding one more day to the total number of days off that the people get (since while they're called Golden "Weeks", they're actually only Golden "Three Days", since the Saturday before the holiday and the Sunday after are usually made into workdays so that people could get five weekdays in a row off).  In any event, one of these "new old holidays" is coming up this weekend, and it's the Qingming Festival, aka "Tomb Sweeping Day".  On this holiday, Chinese are supposed to tend to the graves of their ancestors, but in fact I have never known anyone actually to do so.  

I am spending the weekend in Shanghai, planning on meeting two friends who are coming to China from Washington State.  J2 was going to join me, but he has to work on the holiday and besides he doesn't like Shanghai too much, so he's staying home.  So while I was all set to fly down for the weekend and pay out of my own pocket, there ended up being a business reason for me to come down, so the company ended up paying instead (which meant I got to fly first-class, too!).  However, the business reason was actually not in Shanghai but in nearby Wuxi, where we opened a new clinic that we had been working on for a couple of months.  Wuxi is a nice enough town, with a lovely setting on the shores of Lake Tai, but we got in and out as quickly as we could, and my colleagues just left for the airport moments ago to be able to maximize their enjoyment of the three day weekend.

So while I have no tombs to sweep here, I do have something to celebrate this weekend--today it was announced that I was being elevated to a full Vice President of the company, with all the perquisites and appurtenances that pertain thereto (whatever they may be).  As J2 would say, "Woot!".