Thursday, December 29, 2011

Real Chinese Food

This trip, we explored a bit more, food wise.  I love Chinese food, and it's always nice to hunt down a little hole in the wall sort of place to see what we could find.  The cardinal rule with finding a restaurant in China is to go for somewhere that's pretty busy, and following that rule I've come across some beauties.  Some of the places may look like absolute dives, but they often have great food.  Some of the food this trip was not so good, but it has to happen.  The good stuff made up for it. 

Starting off with a little Sichuan restaurant.  We ordered this excellent fish fragrant pork, and it came packed with chilli, green onion and some Sichuan pepper.  It was quite spicy, and very tasty, not to mention cheap.

Shredded potato with green chilli, with a bit of vinegar.  I really want to try making this at home, but the effort of shredding up the potato keeps putting me off.

The best thing about hitting Guangzhou in the winter time are the chuan sellers.  Most of them are not ethnically Chinese, and they come from the Uigher region in north western China, or in the surrounding grasslands.  They make these sticks of lamb freshly on the street, and hand them too you straight of the grill.  They are seasoned with a mix of chilli, cumin, pepper, salt and I don't know what else, but they're delicious.  6 sticks cost us only 10 yuan (about $1.20 AUD).

I DIDN'T eat this.  I was just fascinated by this in the KFC window.  Prawn filled hats.  I haven't a clue why.  Both KFC and McDonalds menus are quite interesting to keep an eye on in overseas.  As well as the normal stuff, I have also seen fish balls, stuffed lotus root and rice wrapped in leaves in fast food joints here.

This was an attempt at Christmas lunch.  We didn't feel like turkey, so we went hunting for a nice Chinese meal.  I broke my rule here.  We were wandering about a new development in Foshan (more on that later) and came across a restaurant that looked quite nice.  It did have some customers, but not many. It was new, so I thought it would be worth a try.  Who knows, it might have been a new favourite.  It wasn't.  The above dish, I think, was fish paste with beans and what I think are Chinese olives.  It was horribly bland and really lacked any redeeming features. 

And this one, unfortunately, was proof that my reading of characters is not at 100%, because it had prawns in it.  It did look really good, and apparently tasted much better than the things that looked like grubs.  It was eggplant stuffed with a chicken and prawn mix in a garlic sauce.

So after the highly disappointing lunch, we splashed out a bit and ate at our hotel's Chinese restaurant. While the western restaurant was serving a very pricey Christmas set menu, we had a lovely Peking Duck for dinner, complemented by a very tasty garlic fried spinach. 

It was a very non-traditional Christmas meal, but very tasty.

These popped up in ou hotel room on Christmas night.  The gingerbread star was particularly good.

On our last day we had time to fill before our train back to Hong Kong, so we went walking.  For breakfast, we had freshly made barbeque pork buns.  They cost 1.5 yuan each, and were very yummy.  They weren't really enough to fuel a few hours' walk though, so by the time we found somewhere for lunch we were very hungry.  With all the new developments and changes in Foshan, we took a while to find somewhere for lunch, but when we did, it was so good!  Another Sichuan restaurant seemed like a good idea, as Sichuan food here in HK isn't that great.  This place was a tiny little restaurant made up of 2 tiny dining rooms and a tiny kitchen.  It was packed, and we stood out in there just a tiny bit, but it was worth it for the meal.

 We started with dan dan mian, which was pleasantly spicy.  The noodles were fresh, and very flavoursome.  We shared the bowl, but I think we could have eaten one each.  The bowl was only 11 yuan!  A lot of prices have gone up in China, so it makes me happy that I can still get an excellent bowl of noodles for so little cost.

This one is shuizhu niurou, which roughly translates as water boiled beef.  As you can see, the "water" is more of a chilli soup.  This one (despite the colour) was fairly mild so long as you didn't bite straight onto the Sichuan peppercorns, which have a curious numbing effect.  It was full of bean sprouts, cabbage and cucumber, and incredibly tender beef.  Delicious, and again, so cheap!

We finished off with shredded potatoes again, made slightly differently this time, without the chilli.  Instead, these were very garlicky and gingery which was a nice contrast from the chilli and numbing power of the sichuan pepper.  I think next time we're in Foshan, we'll definitely be heading back to this little restaurant. 

Christmas lights in Hong Kong

Hong Kong loves Christmas.  Any excuse to put up more neon is embraced by the city.  This time of year marks a build up to a long (longer than most) festive season.  First Christmas, then New Year and then Chinese New Year make for a very busy festive season.  On January 23rd, we'll be ushering in the year of the dragon.  It should be a good one!

The front of the beautiful Peninsula Hotel, with Santa and his reindeer.

1881 Heritage had a lovely set up, and even included a brass band playing Christmas carols.

The rest are buildings along Victoria Harbour.   Some of the lights were specifically put up for Christmas, and others for the whole season.  Next time I'm down there I am guessing that the whole lot will be dragon themed.  Dragon lights, lanterns, and flags are going up everywhere right now. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Still Alive

I am still alive.  It's been a busy few weeks, and I haven't had much time/energy for blogging.

I started my new job, as an educational assistant at an international school.  It's not a forever job, but it's a good one for getting more experience.  So far it seems to be going alright.  I miss the interpersonal contact of my old job, but there's more opportunities for advancement and new skills in this job I think.  Besides, the school is a bilingual school with Mandarin and English, so I have the opportunity to improve my language skills there.

The other bit of fun I've had in the past three weeks was my wisdom tooth on my right side decided that it wanted to make my life hell for a week.  I still have it in, but I think it will be removed soon.  That is not something I am looking forward to.

Christmas is something I am looking forward to though.  Beautiful decorations are going up everywhere, but otherwise things seem quite low key.  I haven't been to the Island for a while though, so I imagine that Central/Admiralty is less low key.  I get a week off at Christmas, so we're heading to Guangzhou I think, to spend Christmas in China.  This might seem a bit disingenuous given that China is officially atheist, but I've spent Christmas there before, and it was quite wonderful.  It basically prooved that if you want Christmas, you can have it anywhere, and any way you want.

And then after Christmas, it's only a few weeks until Chinese New Year, and my mum and sister are coming up for a visit.  So it's an exciting time coming up!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Our little home!

After a fourth (ugh) trip to Ikea last night, we finally have just about everything set up in our apartment.  We are still sans dining table, but we are waiting on that till we get our bank account set up here.  There's still a few bare walls which we want to put things on, but we haven't found those things yet.

Our living room, with couch and bookshelves.  That's a goldfish lantern at the top there.  We're thinking about getting a few more to line across the top of the shelves.  We really need some colour in here!

Our couch with cushions and random signs from Temple Street.

A close up of the signs.  We bought them purely for the nonsense.

We brought some of our own trinkets from Australia and Canada.  Technically, this one came from Austria, but since it was a gift from my mum, it counts as Australian.  Next to him are our Olympic Mascots from the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

The cake toppers from our Australian wedding reception, made by my wonderful older sister (who also made the most spectacular cake)

A wise savings owl.  He's already about half full with the masses of heavy change we keep ending up with.

Our rather poetic bathroom sign.

Coat/keys/umbrella hooks. 

I love our kitchen!  Sure, there's no oven, but I'm not sure how much baking I'd want to do with the heat here more of the year.  The stove is awesome!  I love cooking on gas. 

Our spare room and study.  It's tiny, but somehow we managed to fit the desk, chair and day bed in there.  It's a nice little space.  We do still want something for the wall though.  If we could get Craig's tylosaur painting over here that would be perfect, but I'm a touch nervous about shipping it.

The entrance to our room.  We have a corner wardrobe, which is one of my favourite inventions.  It's given us so much storage space!

Our bed and the window shelf.  I want to jazz up the boxes I bought (on the left of the shelf) with ribbons or lace or something.  They're a bit boring right now.

The goldfish.  He really is a bit lonely.

The Chinese food magnets for the fridge.  Tacky, but I like them!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good food, old friends and a lot of Very Nice People

We're back from our first trip into China together.  It barely feels like we've been away, and when I think, "hey, I was in China yesterday" it seems a little be weird, but that's what these quick trips always feel like to me.

We left Hong Kong on Thursday night.  We had been under the influence of a fairly strong monsoon system all week that had appeared to move off by the time we left, and hoped that it had moved away from China altogether.  It hadn't.  The rain started about half way through the train trip, and by the time we got to Guangzhou East Station, torrential would have been a good way to describe it.  We toyed with the idea of getting a taxi, considering the weather, but after seeing the line, hopped on the metro.  The metro actually runs to Foshan now, a concept that was a wishful dream during my time there, but as I was unsure if I would still know my way round, we caught a taxi part of the way anyway.  Of course, that involved finding a taxi in the rain, but oh well.  By the time we got to our hotel, at 11:50 pm, we were soaked through.

We got the pleasant surprise of a free upgrade on checking in, and after some room service (thank goodness for 24 hour room service), we went to bed.  We stayed at Swissotel Foshan, a fairly new and very nice hotel.  When I was in China in 2005, the building was an empty and very creepy skeleton and had never been finished.  Quite a shock to find it a glossy luxury hotel.

In the morning, we headed off to start exploring.  My friend, and former colleague Candy called me to say that we were invited to lunch by one of the leaders at Shimen, so off we went to Shishan.  In the daylight I surprised myself by not only still knowing my way around Foshan, but also remembering which bus I needed, and where to get it.  The bus ride from Foshan to Shishan was one thing that hadn't changed a bit.  The road was the same, the buildings were the same, the stray chickens could well have been the same, and the Luocun canal still looks like a place where walking on water wouldn't have been such a miracle.

On arriving in Shishan, the first things we saw upon getting off the bus was this. A multinational branded hotel. In Shishan. This, more than anything else, tells me what sort of place Shishan is supposed to become in the next ten years. The previous Shishan Hotel was torn down during my time there, and was a dodgy looking place with rumours of prostitutes using it to ply their services. This slick Aloft hotel couldn't be further from that.

The park which I walked through nearly every day to leave the school has been renamed, from Shishan Town Park, to Nanhai Central Park. Shishan is due to become Nanhai's new centre, and I suppose that a lot of things have to be changed to reflect that. 

On our wander towards the school, I was pleased to notice that the duck farms in the park are still there.  I became rather attached to these ducks, and was always quite upset when they got loaded up and taken off to become dinner.  The problem was, of course, that they would be replaced with cute little yellow ducklings and I'd get attached all over again.  I love duck, but I never ate it in Shishan.

 My school, still huge and still rather impressive.  The number of students has now grown to 3000, and while it's undergone a large number of staffing changes since I left, and weathered its share of scandals, it was still wonderful to come back.  None of my students are there still, the youngest of them would be about 15 now, but the students who are there are, like mine, incredibly friendly, and very happy to simply run up, say hello and ask how your day is and then run away again.

 I walked through this every day from my apartment to my office.  It's amazing what grown up trees can do for a place. 

 The bottom floor of the school canteen.  Shimen is a boarding school, and provides 3 meals a day for kids and teachers alike, as well as snacks, supper and daily fruit or sweet soup.  The food was hit and miss.  The occasional thing was completely inedible, like the time we were served tails of something reptilian.  I have no idea what it was.

 Heading to the teachers' dorms.  A lot of teachers live in the school during the week if they live too far to commute daily.  From the number of teachers that now own private cars, I'm going to guess that the number of teachers who live on campus has dropped as driving does make it easier to get around.

 My old apartment, third up on the right.  This was my home for a year, and was a nice little place too. 

 Craig and I at the front of the school.  Every morning in this square, the kids have daily exercises.  On Mondays, the national anthem is played as well.  I was never required to join in the daily exercises, which is probably a blessing given my lack of coordination.  I've never been good at anything choreographed.

 This is where I spent the majority of my second semester working.  I worked it out at one point that I was climbing over 100 flights of stairs a week.  This was fine, except that I probably fell down 2 or 3 flights a week.

 Some of the kids of Shimen, still as cute, bright and smiley as the ones I taught.

 After the visit to the school and some lunch we went with Yan Jun to Gaoming, a newly developed district of Foshan.  This is more what Shishan looked like when I lived there, with road works and new buildings everywhere. 

 That night, we went to dinner with a group of teachers that I worked with.  These are all people who I hadn't seen in nearly six years, and it was a very special experience to see them again.  In particular, Candy Huang, who was my saviour in China.  Without her, I doubt I would have stayed there, or have coped at all.  Having kept in touch all these years it was wonderful to see her again, and to know that it won't have to be another six years either.

 L-R: Yan Jun, me, Candy, Craig, Jackie, Athena, Miss Tan, Miss Tan's daughter.  Jackie was one of the leaders at Shimen when I was there, and has since moved to a different school.  He doesn't speak much English, but is very nice.  Despite the language barrier he and Craig got along quite well.  His eyes nearly fell out of his head when I spoke to him in Chinese though.  Miss Tan's daughter is one  that I would have taught.  She's 15 now, and apparently shows a lot of potential as a swimmer.  She was quite shy with her English, but it was very good.

 On Saturday, we took a wander through Foshan before we headed to Guangzhou.  This used to be John's Bar, and has now changed to Jen's bar.  It still looks very much the same from the outside though.

 A Nanhai style lion outside the Agricultural Bank of China.  Lion dancing is a Nanhai speciality, and the best lion dancers in the world come from that area. 

Monument in Guangzhou.  He was fenced off due to road works, so I couldn't get up close to see who he was, but my best guess is the communist hero, Lei Feng.

 We went to Beijing Road, a pedestrianised shopping street (or as the sign said, "on foot shopping street").  There's been a lot of work done on the street, and these perspex covers showing some of the archaeological work down on the street are really neat.  That's some Ming dynasty streets right there people!

 The unbookstore.  I was tempted to go in to see if they had any unbooks.  And, for that matter, to see what an unbook was.

 Busy Beijing Road.  We were constantly being approached by watch and bag salesman, with their catch cry of "watchy watchy".  Usually, a simple "buyao" ("I don't want it") was enough to get rid of them, but some were a bit pushy. I had this conversation with one (roughly translated)
Seller: missy, watchy watchy
Me: No, I don't want it
Seller: Bag? Bag?
Me: No
Seller: You want a watchy? Bag?
Me: For goodness sake, no I don't want it, leave me alone.
Seller: You don't want it?
Me: I really don't want it.
Seller: Really don't want it?  OK

Aside from the watch sellers, and the big brands on the street fronts, Beijing road has a lot of little side markets.  You can find some really good things there, but the sellers were particularly pushy, and the markets were particularly crowded, so we ended up not buying much.  I found a couple of scarves I liked, and when I asked the seller how much, she said "120 yuan". I told her no, and that I'd bought scarves for 25 earlier that day (I wasn't lying), and walked away. As I walked away she said "OK, fine 25 yuan then" and then asked me if I was Russian. I have to wonder how many people are stupid enough to pay more than 60 for one of those scarves...

 Terrible knock off toys are part of the fun of these markets.  Craig took a few more photos of "transformers" all with poor translations and different brand names.  My favourite was the Interchange.

 Our last stop of the day was Hualin Jade market in western Guangzhou.  I have no idea how long this market has been there, but it feels like it could have just grown there. 

 There's been a few changes to the outer edges, but the inside is still the same labyrinth of alleyways and small stores. Unfortunately we didn't really have time to explore as much as I would have liked, but there's always another time. The quality of the jade varies here, from cheap pieces right up to the A quality stuff that can be worth a lot.

 Near the jade market, there is also a jewellery market as well.  About 6 floors of gemstones in bulk form.  This is a pearl store, and every single one of those bags is packed with different sizes shapes and colours of freshwater pearls.

After we finished with the jewellery market, we attempted to leave the jewellery market.  This is where I made a discovery, that the jewellery market is joined to another mall, that is exactly the same as the jewellery side, but sells normal malls things.  Somehow, we got so turned about that we ended in completely the wrong place.  I knew where I was, but not how it connected to where we needed to be.  Summoning up the best of my Chinese skills, I asked two young women where the subway station was.  They pointed in a direction and said "that way, but we're going there too, so follow us."  And off we went.  As we went, one of the girls turned and said to me "It's quite far", to which I replied "That's OK".  She wasn't wrong, as it turned out.  We wandered along some very interesting streets for a while where you could buy just about every sort of art and craft supply you might ever want (I must find this place again).  Eventually the girls stopped and asked a little old lady where to go.  They were lost too.  The lady pointed back the way we had come.  The girls said no, that can't be right and asked an old man.  He too pointed back the way they'd come.  So off we went again, with the girls apologising profusely.  I pointed out to them that I hadn't known either.  The girls wove through the streets at an impressive pace, but always checked to make sure they hadn't lost us, and eventually we got to the subway station some 40 minutes later.  Many thanks and laughter all round.

 On our last day, we returned to Shishan, as we hadn't really gotten a chance to look round much when we were there on Friday.  My main reason to go back was to visit a restaurant.  Back when Shishan was newer, there were very few choices on places to eat out.  One of the choices was known somewhat unimaginatively by the foreign teachers as Orange Tables, strangely enough, because of the orange table cloths. We ate there often, sometimes 3 or 4 times a week, and the food was simple, and tasty the way that good Chinese food should be.  When we walked in, the husband of the lady who ran the restaurant was there, and I thought I saw something like recognition in his face, but figured I was just being hopeful.

The old Orange Tables was a small restaurant, two big tables and a number of small tables, occasionally extending to tables on the footpath.  Through my year there, they gradually added improvements, such as private rooms and air conditioners.

 This is Orange Tables now.  It's three times the size, and clearly the orange tablecloths have gone.  I know to some, it mightn't look like much, but I had some of the best meals in China here, and not once did I get sick from the food, which is not something I can say about much fancier restaurants.

 Coke playing badminton.  That is all.  It's cute.

 We started with dumplings, an Orange Tables classic.  They were amazing.  Hot, fresh and juicy and full of tasty filling.

 Look at all the chives!  These are simple pork and chive dumplings, and I don't think I've ever met a more addictive food item.  They also make great hangover food.

 The other dish we had was Shui zhu niu rou, which loosely translates as boiled water beef.  This sounds rather innocuous, but as you can see from the chillis poking out of the bowl, it can be lethal.  This version was made with cabbage and cucumber, with a huge pile of garlic on top and the result was absolutely delicious.  I only wish we'd had more people so we could have tasted more dishes!

 It turned out that  had been right about the flicker of recognition I had seen on the mans face when we walked in.  About halfway through our mail, this lady popped up by our table to say hello.  She remembered me from 6 years ago, and I was able to talk to her a little and tell her how happy I was to be able to come back.  When it came to paying, she wouldn't take any money from me for the meal.  At this point, my Chinese pretty much deserted me, but I hope that my many "Xiexie" (Thank you) were enough.  I like to think she understood.  These people were some of the friendliest in China. They tolerated our terrible Chinese, let us play lolly poker at their tables, helped us learn some new Chinese, and were always smiling.  It was truly wonderful to be able to return.  I told her that now we lived in Hong Kong, I hoped to come back often, and it's true.

 After lunch we took a walk around Shishan to see some of the changes, and to see what had stayed the same.  These building were only just finished in the last few weeks I was there.  Now they are lived in and the bottom stores are full of businesses.

 These are very new, possibly only just completed.  A lot of the newer buildings seem to be going up on the same principle as the area we live in in Hong Kong, with as much emphasis on empty spaces around the buildings for green areas and the like, as making sure the space usage is efficient.  Another sign of the changes in China.

 This was one of the other few options for eating out when I lived here.  The food was quite good, but the staff were quite rude.  The fried noodles in particular were very good, but also possibly the cause of the rudeness.  The Mandarin word for fried "chao" when said in a southern accent (which mine was back then) sounds very similar to the word for fuck "cao", with a difference in tones being the main distinguishing factor.  I hate to think how many times I ordered fucked noodles before that key difference was pointed out to me.  I am very careful with that particular pronunciation now.

 Shimen Senior Middle School.  One of the three Shimen campuses in Shishan, to go with the two original Shimen campuses about half an hour away in Huangqi.

 It may seem like a strange thing to take a photo off, but just across the road there was where I was mugged.  I see such incidents as being a bit less likely in Shishan these day with all the changes.  There are more people around, and vacant areas less common.

 The new ugly tower in Shishan to complete with the old ugly tower in the park.

 This clock tower is the centre of the Natural Disaster square.  It's more of a civil defence area.  I'm not sure what sort of natural disasters they expect in Shishan, but I imagine there's a bit of preparation put aside from not so natural disasters too.  I also can't help but think that "Emergency Response Area" might have been a better translation.

And so, after a leisurely afternoon in Natural Disaster square, we headed back to Foshan to catch the train home.  It was such a short visit, but only confirmed that I want to spend more time in China, in that area, and around the rest of the country too.