The Streets of Guangzhou (广州 guǎngzhōu)

Shopping

Shopping & eating

Cantonese culture is close to my heart. Just out of high school I moved to Hong Kong and spent one and a half years there. Over the years I have traveled to Hong Kong and Guangzhou on several occasions. In fact, I learned Cantonese before I ever learned Mandarin. Students often ask me which language I like better. My response is, “It depends on where I am.” I much prefer Cantonese when I am in Hong Kong or the Cantonese speaking areas of Southern China. In fact, it seems that it is still a bit of a novelty for a foreigner to speak Cantonese. It reminded me of what it was like for a foreigner to speak Mandarin back in the 1980’s. Now it seems foreigners speaking Mandarin is not such a big deal.

Though I have been to Guangzhou on several occasions, before this year, my last trip there was in 1998. In late February of this year I spent a couple weeks in Guangzhou and the surrounding area on a research trip. Needless to say, much has changed and I hardly recognized the place. It took me a couple days to get into the swing of things with my Cantonese as I don’t have much opportunity to use it these days and I was definitely rusty. But after a few days I was feeling fairly comfortable. I was very fortunate in that one of my colleagues at BYU is from Guangzhou and I was able to meet her parents and spend some time with them. They showed me the city and introduced me to some excellent Cantonese restaurants. Guangzhou, along with Beijing and Shanghai, is one of China’s most important economic centers. It is also a major metropolitan city in China with major universities, a sophisticated subway system, and significant foreign investment.

The Cantonese are passionate about two things—eating and shopping, and it is evident everywhere in Guangzhou. If they are not eating, they are talking about eating, at the market shopping for ingredients, or at the least thinking about food. Cantonese cuisine is one of the four major cuisines in China with a long and rich history. Restaurants, meat and produce markets, and street vendors are everywhere and it seems the Cantonese are eating at all times of the day and late into the night.

Streetside dimsum

Streetside dimsum

Shop workers taking a lunch break.

Shop workers taking a lunch break.

Roasted meats are an important part of Cantonese cuisine.

Roasted meats are an important part of Cantonese cuisine.

Steamed bread

Steamed bread

Spicy soup

Spicy soup

Sleeping sugar cane juice vendor.

Sleeping sugar cane juice vendor.

Street-side Chinese style fast food restaurant.

Street-side Chinese style fast food restaurant.

Street food.

Street food.

Though there are now large grocery stores all over China, the Cantonese still do a fair amount of shopping in outdoor meat, poultry, and produce markets. They are similar to farmer’s markets here in the U.S. Just a couple decades ago all Chinese shopped this way. At that time most Chinese did not own refrigerators and shopped every day for produce. This habit is still practiced by many Chinese who insist on the freshest ingredients. In the past, it was not uncommon for someone to buy a live chicken, take it home, and let it strut around in the kitchen until time to prepare the meal. Live fish are also bought and either taken home alive, or prepared by the vendor on the spot. These kinds of markets are still around in China though they are a bit harder to find and the Chinese are shopping more and more in grocery stores.

Ginger

Ginger

Grapes

Dry beans

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Grapes

Fishmonger

Fishmonger

Fresh chicken

Fresh chicken

Butcher

Butcher

Dried mushroom shop

Dried mushroom shop

Huge dried mushrooms

Huge dried mushrooms

Preparing dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea

Preparing dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea

Selecting dried fungus

Selecting dried fungus

Tomato vender

Tomato vender

With Guangzhou’s proximity to Hong Kong, the Cantonese have been exposed to the West and Western goods for quite a bit longer than the rest of China. Even back in the eighties Guangzhou received some TV and radio stations from Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s fanatic attitude toward shopping rubbed off on Guangzhou. They is everything from European designer boutiques to tiny shops selling Chinese brands.

Shoppers

Shoppers

Adidas man

Adidas man

Maybelline girls

Maybelline girls

Night market

Night market

Tama Yaki

Tama Yaki

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Ornamental plant street vendor

McDonald's coupons

McDonald’s coupons anyone

Women's shoe shop

Women’s shoe shop

Colorful shoes

Colorful shoes

Boring men's shoes

Boring men’s shoes

Finally, here are a few random shots from Guangzhou.

Guangzhou street just after Chinese New Year

Guangzhou street just after Chinese New Year

Incense

Incense

Worshippers

Worshippers

Learning to ride

Learning to ride

Smile for grandpa

Smile for grandpa

Chaozhou (潮州, cháozhōu)

Chaozhou native

Chaozhou native

It is always interesting to visit a new city. In February I had the chance to spend a couple days in the Southern Guangdong city of Chaozhou, or as it is sometimes transliterated from the Cantonese pronunciation Chiuhchow (chiùhjāu) ; it is also sometimes written as Teochew. This smaller Chinese city (less than 3 million) sits along the Han River and is just 40 kilometers from the port city Shantou (Swatow) on the South China Sea. It is in the far southeastern part of Guangdong Province, quite close to Fujian. I was in Guangzhou and decided to take the 6 hour train ride out to see Chaozhou. When I was living in Hong Kong back in the early 80’s I had met many people from Chaozhou; I was also interested in Chaozhou cuisines which has a major culinary tradition, though it is usually considered a subcategory of Cantonese cuisine.

The old part of Chaozhou

The old part of Chaozhou

Many Chinese cities have two distinct parts, the old, original part, and the newer built up part. The old sections of these cities are full of character with winding alleys, vendors hawking their goods on the streets, and small restaurants and shops lining the streets. The new sections of these cities have wide streets, skyscrapers, and very little character, in my opinion. Chaozhou has a quaint feel to it. Though there is a newer section to town, most of the city seems to have retained that old China feel to it. The most interesting part of town consists of a maze of narrow alleys clustered around the Kaiyuan Temple (Buddhist). In ancient China these religious centers were the focus of any city and vendors would set up stalls and shops all around these temples. Even now in China some of the bigger outdoor markets surround Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian Temples. The famous Fuzi Miao shopping area in Nanjing is a classic example of this. The very name of this market means “Confucius Temple.”

The pace of life seemed slower and more laid back than many other parts of China where I have spent time. Instead of large grocery stores and discount stores, there were open meat and vegetable markets. Vendors sold goods off the backs of their bicycles. Traditional hats and clothing were observed on the streets and in the markets. Three wheeled pedicabs were abundant, both for transporting people, as well as the flat bed variety for transported large goods. Restaurants were everywhere, sometimes with tables set out on the sidewalks. The people of Chaozhou take their food and eating very seriously, just like the Cantonese. Street food was everywhere and the snacks were delicious. The people were friendly, gracious, and not afraid to talk to a foreigner. The Chaozhou dialect is completely different from Mandarin or Cantonese. Since I don’t know any Chaozhou dialect I was stuck with using Mandarin, or occasionally Cantonese when I met someone from somewhere else in Guangdong Province.

I enjoyed two and half days wandering around sampling the local cuisine, strolling the narrow alleys, talking to locals, and relaxing in this rather laid back small city in China’s far south. The following photographs are my impressions of Chaozhou. Black and white seemed fitting for Chaozhou as the area I spent most of my time had that old China feel to it. It was a very nice change of pace from bigger, more hectic Chinese cities.

Informal outdoor dining

Informal outdoor dining

Waiting for a delivery job

Waiting for a delivery job

Pedicab station

Pedicab station

In no hurry

In no hurry

Scooter ladies

Scooter ladies

Shoulder pole

Shoulder pole

Shopping

Shopping

Dry goods

Dry goods

The hat

The hat

Vegetable hawker

Vegetable hawker

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Noodles

Noodles

Chess

Chess

Buying flowers

Buying flowers

Alley in the rain

Alley in the rain

Men & Women's leather shoes

Men & Women’s leather shoes

Old city wall

Old city wall

Fisherman on the Han River

Fisherman on the Han River

China’s Rising Middle Class

Starbucks, Macbook, young people.

Starbucks, Macbook, young people.

China has changed immensely in the 25+ years I have been traveling there. When I first spent time in China as a study abroad student, everyone wore green or blue Mao suits, and everyone addressed everyone else as ‘comrade.’ Private enterprise was unknown and most cities literally shut down at 8:00 pm. There was very little Western influence. It was a very different time.

I recently spent time in Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guiyang, and Kunming. Everywhere I went there was ample evidence of China’s growing middle class. People have money to spend and time to play. Luxury cars are everywhere, high end Western designer boutiques abound, and Chinese tourists are all over the place. And it isn’t just high ranking officials that are enjoying these things. There is a new middle class in China comprised of ordinary folks. Granted this middles class, in most cases, come from larger urban areas. There is still a significant wealth gap between urban centers and the countryside (but that’s a topic for another post).

Here are a few things the visitor to China will see as evidence of this rising middle class.

1. Luxury cars

On these last two trips alone I saw Bentleys, Mercedes, Porches, BMWs, Ferraris, Audis, and just about every other kind of luxury car. This was in addition to the countless Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords, and Volkswagon Passats. When I was first in China in the mid 80’s private cars were practically unknown, and the bike lanes were wider than the lanes for cars. Now every city in China is congested with cars and the bike lanes get narrower and narrower every year.

Study in contrasts.

Study in contrasts.

Ferrari parked  on the sidewalk in front of a high end seafood restaurant in Guangzhou.

Ferrari parked on the sidewalk in front of a high end seafood restaurant in Guangzhou.

Bentley

Bentley

Porsche

Porsche

BMW

BMW

2. High end shopping malls

When I was a student in China my classmates and I would joke about going shopping for clothes in China. You would walk into the big state-run department store and say, “I’ll take a pair of the blue pants, the white shirt, and the belt.” Size didn’t matter because there seemed to be only one or two sizes. The belt fit the big guy pretty well, but the little skinny guy had the belt wrapped halfway around his waist again. There was not much selection and everyone dressed the same, men and women alike.

Now, every large-ish city has numerous high end shopping centers. Even the Chinese style department stores have an astonishing array of goods. But it is the Western designer boutiques that are really astonishing. And they are not just for decoration; these places are crowded with shoppers buying things. Some of the designers and other high end stores that have a noticeable presence in China include, Gucci, Zegna, Rolex, Tudor, Omega, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and so on.

Gucci

Gucci

Dior girl

Dior girl

Cartier

Cartier

Rolex

Rolex

Omega boys

Omega boys

Shopping in Chengdu

Shopping in Chengdu

3. Western restaurants and products.

Though we would never think of McDonald’s as a hip place to hang out in the U.S., it is just that in China. Eating Western food in China tells people you have money, you’re hip, and you’re international. Young people especially like to hang out, study, and talk business at places like Starbucks and McDonalds. These Western restaurants in China are big business. In 2010 the 100th McDonalds opened . . . in Shanghai. That’s right, there are now more than 100 McDonalds restaurants in Shanghai alone. The first Starbucks in China opened in Beijing in 1999. There are now 851 Starbucks in China. Starbucks believes China will be the second largest market after the U.S.

Starbucks

Starbucks

McDonald's

McDonald’s

School kids I met at a McDonald's in Chaozhou. They said they liked to study there.

School kids I met at a McDonald’s in Chaozhou. They said they liked to study there.

 

KFC is also immensely popular

KFC is also immensely popular

iPhones and fake iPhones are everywhere, as our Apple stores.

iPhones and fake iPhones are everywhere, as our Apple stores.

4. Pets, especially dogs

In traditional China pets generally consisted of crickets and birds. Now everyone wants a dog, and there are dogs all over the place. The Chinese not only like to walk them, but they like to congregate in public squares where they can socialize and let their dogs play together. Though many people like small dogs, especially the puffy poodle types, I have also seen many large dogs including Huskies, Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and so on. Having a dog for a pet is a sign of affluence in China. It says, “Hey, I can not only feed myself and my family, but I can also feed a dog and I have time to take care of it.”

Walking the dogs in Chengdu

Walking the dogs in Chengdu

Doggie playtime in Chongqing

Doggie playtime in Chongqing

Dressed up in Guangzhou. Seriously??

Dressed up in Guangzhou. Seriously??

5. Chinese tourists

In the past 10 years or so the Chinese have begun traveling. The Chinese middle class are the new tourists around the world and in China. It used to be the Japanese that you used to see all over in large groups, everyone with a large camera around their neck. Now it is the Chinese turn. They have taken to tourism in their own country in a big way. They are crowded all over the important cultural sites in China.

A quick story. Last year my son and I were on a  week long bicycle tour. We were sitting in front of a small store in the tiny ranching town of Woodruff, Utah, near the Wyoming border. We had been riding all day and still had a few miles to go to our campground. As we were sitting there two brand new Dodge minivans pulled up and a dozen or so Asians poured out. I learned they were a group of friends from Shanghai. They had flown into Las Vegas, rented the cars, and were working their way through the Utah National Parks and were on their way to Yellowstone. I was really surprised, and I think they were a little taken back seeing a middle-aged guy wearing spandex in the middle of nowhere speaking Chinese with them.

The photos below are from an ancient town about 75 km outside Chengdu.

Chinese tourists getting their feet wet.

Chinese tourists getting their feet wet.

Hip young couple from Chengdu.

Hip young couple from Chengdu.

Strolling though the ancient village.

Strolling though the ancient village.

There is lots of other evidence of a wealth China as well. We saw one area in Chongqing where there were dozens of night clubs and dance clubs. On public squares kids flew kites, rode BMX bikes, and rollerblades. It’s getting harder and harder to see the old China; not impossible, you just have to look harder.

Dance club in Chongqing

Dance club in Chongqing

Rollerblading in Guiyang

Rollerblading in Guiyang

China Street Photography

You have probably noticed by now that I enjoy photography. Whenever I am in China (or just about anywhere) I have a camera with me. The following are a few shots I took on my last trip in October/November 2013, on the streets of Nanjing, Beijing, and Tianjin. To see more of my photography, visit my Flickr site using the link on the right side of the page.

Not that into you.

Not that into you.

Street snacks

Street snacks

Nanjing specialty

Nanjing specialty

Taiwan food on the Mainland

Taiwan food on the Mainland

Bunnies anyone?

Bunnies anyone?

Delivery bike

Delivery bike

Yellow hoods

Orange hoods

Hard boiled eggs, Chinese style

Hard boiled eggs, Chinese style

Beijing breakfast

Beijing breakfast

Hutong

Hutong

Hutong grandma

Hutong grandma

Hutong life

Hutong life

Big celery

Big celery

Leeks

Leeks

For Rent

For Rent

Catholic church in Tianjin

Catholic church in Tianjin

Decoding China

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Back in 1998 I was leading a study abroad group to China, Nanjing University to be specific. We had been in the country for only two or three days. I was eating lunch in a small restaurant just off campus when I noticed three of my students enter. They didn’t see me, so I just observed what happened. They entered the restaurant and stood just inside the door. I knew what they were thinking—they were waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a table, just like in an American restaurant. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could see they were getting impatient and maybe a bit frustrated. I also observed the two waitresses working in the restaurant. They seemed equally perplexed. One said to the other, “What are they doing just standing there?” The other replied, “I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.” What my students did not understand is that in small, informal restaurants like this you simply find an empty table without waiting for someone to show you. In other words, there is no host or hostess. They assumed that eating in China was the same as eating in the U.S. These students had pretty good Chinese having studied at the University for 4 to 5 semesters. I knew they had the linguistic capacity to order a meal and do whatever else they needed in a restaurant. But they still didn’t know the “rules” or “codes” involved in eating at a restaurant in China. It’s not as simple as it may seem, even if you know some Chinese.

This experience impressed upon me the importance of cultural knowledge. To get things done in China requires a whole set of knowledge that goes far beyond linguistics. In fact, one could argue pretty persuasively that cultural knowledge will get you farther in China than linguistic knowledge alone. This book is the result of several years of research on how to get things done in China; how to make sense of the Chinese world; how to decode China so it makes sense for a foreigner.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I am happy to announce that my book, Decoding China: A Handbook or Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China is now available for pre-order. It is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and there are links on the right side of the main page of this blog under Books. It will be available in April.

Who is this book for?

I think this book would be a great benefit to students going to China to study, students doing internships in China, people going to China to live and work, independent travelers in China, and even armchair travelers. It contains all the information I wish I had when I first started traveling to China. I think it will even be valuable for those who have been living in China, even for several years. Basically, this is a book for those that want to go beyond the tourist or typical expat level of understanding. This is a book for those who want to live, work, or study independently among the Chinese. It is for those who want to blend in, not stand out.

Here are just a few topics covered in this book:

Which train should I take? Deciphering the train class numbering system.

Characteristics of hotels in China.

How to make sense of a Chinese menu.

How to buy and make sense of cell phone plans in China.

How to use the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter.

How to open a bank account in China.

How to barter like a native.

Self study learning strategies.

How to select a Chines study program.

Making sense of Chinese “face” relations.

The concept of guanxi explained.

What kinds of gifts should you give.

How to deal with culture shock.

Strategies for staying healthy in China.

Send me a message if you have any questions.

The Doors and Windows of Tibet’s Monasteries

When I was in Tibet in May, we visited quite a few Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. I am fascinated by doors, and to a lesser extent windows. I’m not sure what draws me to these colorful doors; it probably has something to do with what lies behind them. I found myself so many times wandering around a monastery and wondering what was behind some lonely door. I wished I could wander at will, especially at the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is almost like a small city with countless halls and rooms. Of course, the tourists are only allowed to see a very small portion of them.

The doors and windows in this post are only a portion of what I shot. They are mostly brightly colored, though some of the out of the way doors look neglected, and used. They are in no particular order, and are from the following monasteries:

Lhasa:   Jokham Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Potala Palace

Gyantze:   Pochu Monastery

Shigatze:   Tashi Lhunpo Monastery

Sakya:   Sakya Monastery

I thought about labeling where each photo was shot, but I decided it probably doesn’t matter. If you would really like to know where a door or window was shot, send me a message and I’l let you know.

Yangzhou Dimsum

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (Steamed dumplings)

In late February and early March of this year I was in Nanjing doing some work for our language program there. I extended my stay a few days to do some food and eating research. This area of China, the lower Yangtze River valley, is where you find Huaiyang Cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài). The name comes from the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. This is one of the eight major cuisines of China (八大菜系 bādà càixì). I have spent quite a bit of time in Nanjing, and have traveled to Shanghai on occasion. I have also been to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou, but I had never really explored in much depth real Huaiyang Cuisine. On this trip, in addition to visiting the city of Huai’an, I spent a couple days in Yangzhou, eating. I had a Chinese colleague and good friend with me. Not only is he a real Chinese foodie, but he is also very familiar with the city of Yangzhou.

Yechun Teahouse, Yangzhou

In this post I want to focus only on Yangzhou style dimsum (点心 diǎnxīn), or breakfast food. I am quite familiar with Cantonese style dimsum from my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. To be honest I didn’t know that dimsum (even using this term) existed outside Cantonese food (粤菜 yuècài). On our first morning in Yangzhou, my friend took me to probably the second most famous restaurant (at least for dimsum) in Yangzhou, 冶春茶社 yěchūn cháshè. I was completely blown away, and have to rank this as one of the most spectacular meals I have eaten in China, and I have eaten countless meals in China.

Yechun Teahouse in Yangzhou

Though the restaurant has a very long history, it had been remodeled in traditional style. It sits on one the many canals in Yangzhou and was a favorite stop for emperors touring the Southern part of the kingdom. Unlike some Chinese restaurants, it was clean and very nice, bordering on swanky.

Yechun Teahouse

Decor at Yechun Teahouse

We started with a couple appetizers. My mother always told me that you can tell a good restaurant by the little things like appetizers and side dishes. A good quality restaurant will spend time to make excellent little dishes, not just the main dishes. We had boiled peanuts and red peppers with garlic. The peppers had a fantastic flavor seasoned with fresh garlic and a hint of vinegar. The peanuts were crunchy, just a little salty, and had a faint hint of vinegar. It’s hard to describe this very simple dish. Who would think eating plain old peanuts would be very good, but I assure you the Chinese have elevated the peanut to haute cuisine. The were so good we had our little appetizer dishes refilled twice.

Peanuts and red pepper appetizers

One of the first things that struck me about the dumplings were how big they were. Most Cantonese dimsum dishes are quite small. The steamed jiaozi were enormous in comparison. The were freshly made right next to the dining room and were succulent and full of flavor. They had just the right amount of oil, being tender and juicy without feeling the least bit greasy.

Making 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed dumplings)

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo

Fabulous!

I also had a kind up dumpling that I had not eaten before, though I had heard about them. Think of a very large dumpling filled with a delicious broth and tiny bits of minced meat and you have Yangzhou style 汤包 tāngbāo. It is served with a small straw. Simply poke the straw into the dumpling and slurp out the rich, flavorful broth. Then eat the dumpling. Not only is it a creative way to serve a rich broth, it was absolutely delicious. The menu name of those that we ate were called, 蟹黄汤包 xìehuáng tāngbāo. In this case it was a rich crab-based broth. They reminded me a bit of Shanghai style 小笼包 xiǎolóngbāo.

汤包 tāngbāo (Soup dumpling)

Slurping up the rich broth

Yangzhou is famous for their pastries, though they are not much like what we call pastries in the West. They are called 酥饼 sūbǐng and have a flaky and crispy, yet tender texture. They can be sweet or savory. We ordered  萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng or shredded carrot sūbǐng. Yangzhou Subing are made with white sesame seeds on the outside, both the sweet and savory kinds.

萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng (Shredded carrot cakes)

The pastry was wonderfully crispy and flaky. In addition to shredded carrots, there was also some turnips and green onion. They were addictively good. In fact each dish was so good, I would have been happy just eating more of the same.

We next had a beautiful and delicious 烧麦 shāomài. This is a common Cantonese dimsum dish, usually written as siumai. They are a stuffed steamed dumpling. We ordered 翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài, which basically means jade or emerald shaomai. They were exquisite to look at and to eat. It was obviousl that this restaurant took great pride in using very fresh ingredients. One of the ways you can tell nicer Chinese restaurants from others is the amount of grease in the food. Crummier restaurants tend to have pretty greasy, oily dishes, but since nicer restaurants use higher quality ingredients they don’t need to hide things in a lot of oil.

翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài (Green steamed dumplings)

Finally, we ordered 千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo, which was a layered cake. The Chinese are not too fond of sweets so their desserts tend to be much less sweet than what we are used to in the West. This was a slightly sweet layered cake, that was pretty good, as long as you were not expecting Western-cake-sweet. It was light and airy.

千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo (Layered cake)

This was truly a spectacular meal for me. And it was a revelation to eat such wonderful dimsum outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Yangzhou. In fact, I loved this dimsum so much, I went to another pretty well-known restaurant by myself the next morning to try some more dishes. I was not disappointed.

Chinese food is so varied and delicious that eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China.