Monday, September 28, 2009

Well Over The Moon

I was just away from home for only 4 years and the mooncakes that I used to know are now almost beyond recognition.

To begin with, mooncakes are part and parcel for this particular Chinese festival--known in Chinese--Mid. Autumn Festival, aka in English as Lantern Festival/Mooncake Festival. The origins of this festival was about the celebration of the harvest which took place in the middle of autumn, that will be in August by the lunar calendar. 15th of August, to be exact when it is believed that will the brightest full moon of the entire year. The mooncakes, which are consumed on this festival, are made to resemble the moon, in a way, with the egg yolk within the lotus paste.

(Snow-skin mooncakes)

There are alot of myths associated with this festival, including one which took place during Yuan Dynasty when the Han Chinese were reigned by the Mongols. It was said that notes with plans to upsurp the dynasty were hidden within the mooncakes.

Chinese version of cakes
The idea of cakes are very different from the Western form of cakes. Chinese cakes are nothing like sponge cakes, closer to biscuits but softer and they usually come with a filling. For mooncakes, the golden brown crust is not flakey but soft. Traditionally, lotus paste is used for the fillings, together with egg yolks. The more luxurious mooncakes are those that come with four yolks, so that each quarter of a mooncake will carry the entire egg yolk.

I love the egg yolks!

A slice of the cake
The industry for mooncakes has definitely flourished in a span of four years. So much so that even occidental companies like The TWG and Starbucks (yes, Starbucks) are competiting for a slice of this industry.

Many years ago, the snow-skin mooncakes have come and settled into our selection of mooncakes for good. It is softer than the traditional crust and it's cool to taste. Due to the nature of the skin, it has to be stored in the fridge.

Variations
To give you an idea of how many flavours of mooncakes in this current industry:

champagne, truffles, lychee liquer, soursop, apricot, strawberry, osmanthus (see the photo above), jasmine infused, dark chocolates, green tea, black sesame, durian, chrysanthemum, figs, ginger, cinnamon.............

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Starbucks teahouse

Been looking for a Suzhou-style teahouse upon arrival.

Shouldn't be too difficult. As Suzhou is renowned for its teahouse culture. Have been dreaming about sitting in a traditional teahouse with wooden panel doors carved with beautiful patterns and sunshine pouring into the teahouse through these doors and windows, creating patterns of shadows on the floor; sitting back on those traditional bamboo or wooden chairs...

To my dismay, it is certainly ten times easier to find cafes than teahouses! It was only after a long relentless walk and search that I finally found one--a franchise some more--meaning it is not unique to Suzhou but a product of mass production.

I like the decor of the teahouse though, thoughtfully decorated with duplicates of (Chinese) ornaments and bits and parts of Suzhou old houses. There is a drum stone (usually found at the sides of the front doors of the traditional Chinese old houses), a duplicate of an arch stone bridge (which Suzhou is renowned for), decorative panels of wooden doors (ancient panel doors were usually carved with a lot of motiffs), bronze door knobs (ancient style, those with huge rings to be used to knock against the doors) ......it has a nice ambience. Each sitting area is separated either by a curtain or a screen for privacy. Nice thought.

There is a free flow of hot water for the tea that you ordered and FREE flow of food. There is a kitchen that is always churning out food. You can place order for a dish or the waitress/es will carry trays of food that is freshly prepared from the kitchen and serve them round. It is not a wonder to find the patrons at the teahouse twice the size of a typical Chinese. There was a table next to us who were always sweeping all the food off the trays whenever the waitress/es come around and I caught them having a siesta on their tables when we first came in. There is no restriction of time apparently.

According to its brochure, this teahouse has outlets all over China and prides itself as the representative of the tea culture in China, just like Starbucks for coffee culture. I almost spat out my tea, for two reasons: one, Starbucks is an icon of coffee culture (probably the culture of drinking coffee but definitely not a culture of drinking good coffee); two, a Chinese teahouse equating itself with a Western symbol.

Seriously, I will not be surprised that ten years or so down the road, in China, the Chinese will only be speaking English among themselves and that Mandarin will be redundant among themselves.

A Poem.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

(Chinese) Gardens

It is a (Chinese) painting. Meant to be appreciated like one. To be unscrolled slowly……so that the contents of the painting can be revealed gradually. A little at a time. Not all at once. That would be too abrupt and robbing off the delight of subtlety.

If you compare the gardens of the West with Suzhou Gardens, it helps to put Suzhou Gardens in perspective. Upon the entrance of a garden in the West, a visitor is able to, most likely, be granted an omni-vision of the garden. It is the contrary for a Chinese garden as the architect of the garden prefers to shield the rest of the garden off the visitor so as to unravel the surprises with every step he takes. Taking pleasure at a time so as to leave a deeper impression on the five senses of its visitor.

Suzhou gardens are actually private residential dwellings constructed alongside with the gardens. They are both a place to live in and a place to unwind.

The emphasis of visual effect
Chinese gardens are paintings and I meant it literally.

1) “Borrowing” the contents of scenery to create a natural painting. Interestingly, such “paintings” will change in accordance with the passage of time and seasons.




(The same doorway projecting a completely different “painting” altogether from different angles.)




2) Creating paintings at corners. Not a corner is spared in the effort of creating the photographic effect in the garden. The main themes are: mountains and forests. Artificial rocks are used as a means to bring the mountainous landscape into the household artificially whilst bamboos and banana plants for forests.


Spot the painting.


3) Reflection. The reflection of the water offers such wonderful visual distortions and the play of light that this quality of water did not escape the notice of the architect. Not forgetting the infinite possibilities of reflections with the changing daylight and the touch of breeze or the movement of fish in the water.



4) Real paintings in frames. Besides making paintings in the walls, paintings can be hung up on the walls too. Patterns on rocks can be deciphered as paintings too. So what are the interpretations of yours of the following “art works”?



Creation of Space

It is not a matter of space but how the sense of space can be manipulated. By doing the followings:

1) Winding lanes: extending the length of a walk to create a false impression of space.

2) Walls with doorways or windows so as to segregate the garden into different, yet, connected parts. Passing through the doorway resembles travelling from one place to another. The sense of transit creates the sense of a change of space.



3) Hidden corners: Enshrouded in another world.

4) Space in the reflection of water: Away from the buildings and vegetation, a pond offers a refreshing breather and a different way of appreciating the garden at the same time.


Minute details

A lot of details were taken into account in the construction of a Chinese garden. The fragrance, the colours of seasonal flowers and the range of trees were carefully chosen and positioned to achieve a specific archiectural effect with the best intention for the residents of the gardens--so that there will be pleasures in the gardens to be explored at all seasons, at all time of the day and on all occasions.


The best musical piece

Lotus leaves in the ponds are decoration ornaments to the ponds on a dry day and yet, could transform a quiet pond into a musical sensation on a wet day too with the pitter patter from the falling rain drops. Banana plants were popular in Chinese gardens for their broad leaves so as to orchestra a nice little concert in the rain too.



At the end of the day, I just wonder where did people of those days find the luxury of time and the creativtiy to entertain themselves in such ways?


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Suzhou

While Beijing is majestic, sombre and hard, Suzhou is exquisite, approachable and “soft”. With Great Wall, Heaven of Temple, Forbidden Palace, Tian’anmen Square etc…..Beijing has no lack of grandeur or pompousness and so is the burden of history. Thankfully, Suzhou has none of these. It is an ancient city hidden in the shadows and relish in it. It has nothing grand in physical to showcase, only the finer taste of living and art appreciation.

I find Suzhou “soft” visually—its winding canals carrying boats in an unhurried manner; its abundance of greens (in their gardens) that softens the contours of the landscapes; it is soft from a cultural aspect as its people, in comparison to the northern Chinese, are relatively gentler (in terms of their dialects and mannerism) and subtle in expressions; it is soft from a social aspect, where people tend to appreciate the finer way of living and therefore spend their time excelling in embroidery, relishing in the fine arts of calligraphy, poems, operas, tea appreciating and idling their time in tea houses and gardens—a stark contrast to their northern counterparts in Beijing. Beijing is the traditional power house whilst Suzhou was an inexplicable magnet to literati, painters, calligraphers and retired officials.


(Canals are definitely one of Suzhou’s unique features. Nowadays, canals lie wasted and are only of use to canal tours.)



A Suzhou that is independent of Venice

The Chinese definitely has a terrible inferiority complex in the presence of the West. More often than not, we often need to ascertain our own worth and standard with an equivalence of the West (in whatever ways).

(Some of the remaining canals to meander through the modern city, serving as a reminder and reminisce to those days of prosper.)



Suzhou is dubbed as the Venice of the East. I find that remark insulting to Suzhou. Don’t get me wrong, I love Venice but I find the act of seeking constant recognition from the West truly undignified. There is no comparison between these two cities apart for the presence of large number of canals.


In terms of the length of history and the size of trade, Suzhou, in my opinion again, has more to offer. Tribes lived there as early as BC 1000, Shang Dynasty. By BC 514, it was made the capital of the Wu and King Helu was buried right in Suzhou. Suzhou was renowned for its silk production and was a centre of fine embroidery. The completion of the Grand Canal ( spanning approximately1700km from Beijing to the south, Madrid to Koln) by AD 600 brought about a great change in China. Goods and food supplies, which were paramount to the military and political stability of Beijing, could then be channelled to the north efficiently by water. Grand Canal also facilitated the flow and volume of trade between cities on the route. Lying in the route of Grand Canal, Suzhou’s trade benefitted from it.


Looking away from economic growth, Suzhou was once a cradle of literary arts and an inspiration for artists and literati.


Not forgetting to mention the unique Chinese architecture manifested in the creation of Suzhou Gardens that is second to none in the world (I dare say so).

(Street lamps presented in the form of lanterns.)


Modern Suzhou in white and grey

Suzhou has not completely sold its soul to modernization and capitalism (well, soon). Outwardly, one could still find some traces of traditional Suzhou-style architecture blending into modern facilities.



(Bus stops and public toilets manifested in the traditional architecture style of Suzhou--white washed walls and grey tiles)


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Suzhou Train Station


This is my second time to Suzhou but the first time to notice its station. It did not look modern in terms of design but it was a very impressive station in terms of its size.


(This is the other end of the platform where I could only see the head of the train which was 13 or more wagons long.)


(Standing in the middle of the train station, I took this part of the station where I couldn’t even see the end of the platform.)

The entrance was located in the middle of the building and our train stopped at the east end of the platform. It took us about 10 minutes of walk to reach the exit/entrance. I later learnt that (from Wikipedia) appromixately 130 trains passed by Suzhou on a daily basis. If the train station was to run 24 hours a day non-stop with a single platform, there will be about 5.4 trains stopping by every hour, which is, about one train every11minute.


This explains the size.


Shanghai Railway Station and the Train-phobia

C insisted to experience the true Chinese way of travelling by train. Therefore, I did not purchase tickets in advance from ticketing outlets around the city in order to present the entire train travelling process in its rawest form.

China has a population of 1 billion. It is difficult for Europeans who enjoy large public space and quality life to truly grasp the impact or understand the implication of living in a country of such population from day to day. Huge population puts extreme pressure on urban centres and on practically every tangible and intangible.


I know the Chinese mentality and therefore, I dread taking trains in China. It was like fighting a battle. I can foresee a lot of pushing, cutting queues, shouting, spitting, littering and unreasonable people taking up your seats even though you have a ticket to prove your rights—some of these experiences were shared by friends have travelled in China. Honestly, I cannot remember any bad encounters myself travelling by train in China apart from that 10-hour train ride on a hard seat to the Yellow Mountains. Not any yet.

Low Expectation Higher Rewards
It was a once and a life time experience for C to witness the scale of Chinese public transport. I had done my part to mentally prepare him for the possible horrible experiences that he might encounter in the process. I feel that it is better to start off from a zero expectation to avoid any forms of disappointment.

The walk from the metro to the train station itself was amusing. We have to pass through an underground tunnel which was about 5 metres wide. Both sides of the tunnels were lined up with shops. Space is definitely fully utilized to generate the greatest monetary returns.

There must be like hundreds of thousands of people at the train station. There is a ten metre wide walkway in front of the station building but you can hardly see the ground as it was filled by people—passengers pouring out of the exit of the train stations, hawkers who were trying their business luck put up their goods all over the place; waiting passengers; confused passengers scampering all over; passengers flooding towards the entrance of the station…

Not surprisingly, all the ticketing purchase buildings were flooded with people.

I shan’t describe the ordeal of purchasing train tickets on the day as I have described it earlier in the Lost & Found entry. But I shall mention that we arrived at 9:30 am and I managed to get a ticket for that day by 10:10am which was really fast if you could see the size of crowds at the counters. If you place such crowds at Kings Cross, that will definitely sink the station.

A Serious Mode of Transport
We aimed to catch the 10:26 or 10:44am train to Suzhou. By the time I got to the counter, the earliest train I could get was at 11:59am. All trains were full; and we were looking at full-sized trains of at least 13 wagons long with each wagon with a capacity of about 80 seated passengers and not to mention standing capacity too. Also to point out the fact that between 10:26 to 11:59 am, there were at least 3 other trains leaving for Suzhou.


The tickets were issued with the platform number which the train would be arriving into (wonderful!). All passengers had to pass through screening before entering the main building and there were several waiting rooms and each was used for at least 4 departing trains. C found the system easy to understand even for people who no Chinese ability.
The waiting halls were full of people of course. Looking at the size of the hall and the number of people there and the kinds of goods that they travel with them, you will realize that the train network is of a paramount importance for trans-city travel in this country. It is the artery that channels people between the cities for work, home and leisure. It must have the ability to transport a huge number of passengers efficiently. In short, it has to work.

The station itself was of course equipped with all kinds of eateries and supermarkets. Surprisingly, one could redeem a bottle of water with each train ticket. There was hot water available for free and some passengers were eating pot noodles during their wait.


Just to Suzhou alone, there are more than 60 trains everyday (there is no such thing as weekends, apparently.) And Suzhou is not the only major city in this country. Although there is a South Station in Shanghai to relieve the transport pressure, I can fully imagine the number of trains and passengers that pass through the Main Station every day and the pressure on the railway tracks.


By the way, all trains in our waiting hall were on time. Half an hour before departing time, the gate would be opened and tickets were to be checked before boarding the trains. Of course, there will be a lot of shuffling among “eager” passengers, cutting queue without fail by stepping over the seats and squeezing into the line….and you will think that the queue will take ages to get through the gate….but the fact is, the loooooooong queue vanished from the hall in a matter of 10 minutes. There is order, if you find it incredible.


Numeracy Required for Trains

All trains were numbered and most with beginning with an alphabet. There is no way which you can board the wrong train even if you don’t understand a word of Chinese, unless you can’t understand number. It was therefore easy to check for your waiting room as each room clearly displayed the trains’ numbers. Once you get to your waiting room, you will see huge display boards for different trains.


Actually, there should be no rush to board the train as the seats on the trains were numbered. But knowing how the Chinese could be, I had to be competitive and try to get close to the gate as soon as possible. The queue was formed half an hour before the gate was opened and when it did open, you could see some people squeezing into the front of the line “naturally”.


Once passengers get through the narrow gate, it was just like a water spout, with passengers dispersing all over the platform to get to their wagons.


Hooray! Nobody took our seats! We sat in 3-seaters. Two men came and seemed surprised to see us there and demanded to see our tickets. Apparently, they were the rare ones who couldn’t understand Arabic numbers and so I have to point specifically at the numbers that were displayed overhead and read to him loud and clear in Mandarin and then to point to where his seat should be and where his friend’s was.


D-Trains and Three Pounds Worth

There are T-, K-, Z-, D- and non-alphabet trains in China. We soon found out the D-trains were the fastest and the latest form of trains.


Train tickets in China were classified into “hard seat” (economy class) and “soft seat” (first class). C specially requested for soft ones as I told him hard seats were really hard. But it turned out that the “hard seats” in D-trains were soft and there was a lot of leg space and definitely more than enough space to open a 17-inch laptop easily. C has the experience on UK trains struggling to open his laptop and not to mention stretching his legs.


The train was new and fast—it could travel up to 200km/hr. The arrival time for next station, the name of next stop, travelling speed were all displayed clearly in each wagon. It was air-conditioned and non-smoking (Thank goodness!!). It wasn’t a typical train experience that one would expect to get in China and for the price of 26 yuan (2.50pounds).


Suzhou, approximately 100km from Shanghai, was the next stop for our train and it took us about 40minutes to reach our destination.


But I must still say that the level of comfort and standard of trains vary drastically once you move further westward, away from the coastal regions, into the relatively less developed areas of China.