Western food, Chinese style

Chinese food is great. I would eat Yunnan tofu and mint salad all day. I love a messy Jian Bing and a decent baozi cannot be beat. But a stomach raised on meat pies and vegemite can’t live on Chinese food alone. I need variety, I need the odd roast, toast, a bowl of pasta and most importantly… cheese.

When searching for good Western food in China, you should follow the same rules you might apply were you seeking decent Chinese food in Australia. Namely, if a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Chinatown, has a Chinese chef and is full of Chinese people, chances are the food is the real deal.

A burger restaurant in Beijing full of hipster Americans speaking a mix of loud English and bad Mandarin, or a French restaurant in Shanghai staffed by perfectly coiffed French waiters speaking sexily accented English, is probably going to be a safer bet than the place down the road offering “passta”, each dish with a fried egg on top. Continue reading

Shanghai vs Beijing

Shanghai and Beijing have an intense city rivalry. It goes something like this.

Beijing: We’re arty and cool, Shanghai is soulless and the people are really snooty.

Shanghai: Oh yeah!? Well we’re the most international city in China and have a super glamorous nightlife. Beijing is polluted and dirty.

*fight fight fight fight*

Over the past two years I have become a proud “Beijing ren” trotting out the typical arguments when someone asks me which city is better. A lot of my Chinese friends in Beijing – none of whom are actually from Beijing, tell me they chose to move to the capital over Shanghai because they worried they wouldn’t make friends in Shanghai. That they would struggle not speaking the local dialect and seemed to hold the impression the people would look down on them.



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Goodbye Gulou

In a city that is almost unrecognisable from pictures taken only 50 years ago, a city of ugly shopping malls, grim traffic choked highways and scores of depressing, boxy, apartment blocks, Gulou is Beijing’s heart and soul.

The labyrinth of alleyways, or hutong, have wound their way around the old Drum and Bell towers, two majestic structures that once kept the time for the city’s residents, for centuries.

The square between the two towers was, until recently, the Saturday night hang out of groups of elderly Chinese women who would set up a blaring speakers for their group dancing. The local men, meanwhile, would gather in half-lit doorways surrounding the square, huddled over games of Mah Jong. Kids would run lose through the streets, stopping at houses to pick up their mates, more like siblings in this nation of only children.

These alleyways have housed Beijing families for hundreds of years. Families that have watched emperors come and go, dynasties rise and fall, war, revolution, famine. But now they are falling victim to something they can’t stop – gentrification.



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Weekend at Chenjiapu

I’m struggling to breathe. I pause for breath, and as a cover, squint a bit and imagine the hoards from Mongolia bearing down. “Come at me! King of the North” I imagine myself bellowing at the approaching army. “You will never conquer this Kingdom!”

Out loud I say: “Does anyone else want to take a bit of a break? I think I’m going to faint.”IMG_7712

We are climbing an un-restored section of the Great Wall near the Chenjiapu valley. The bricks are loose, crumbling and many parts have been almost entirely overtaken by the thick shrubbery. It’s been a wet summer and everything is green, lush and beautiful – snakes hiss in the thick undergrowth as we trudge past.

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Stop the press! It’s wedding time

A couple got married in the lobby of the China Daily today.

The groom works for the paper as a copy editor (in Australia he would be called a sub editor). He is from the US and his bride is from a town in China about five hours away from Beijing, although someone told me she was from Tianjin, which is 30 minutes away, so I’m not quite sure. Anyway, they are in love and they got married and did it on a Thursday afternoon in the office lobby because I guess why the hell not?


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Truth be told

This is a column I wrote that was originally published in the China Daily on July 4, 2014, all copyright belongs to China Daily.

A few minutes after my plane touched down in China, the woman who picked me up from the airport looked at me very seriously and said: “You are very beautiful.” “Thank you”, I said, bewildered. “I think I’m going to like China.” Don’t worry, it didn’t go to my head, because not long after that I was also told my hair was a mess and my skin terrible. One new friend asked what sort of fashion labels I was interested in, before looking me up and down, patting me on the arm and saying: “I think you like comfortable clothes.” My language teacher taught me the grammatical structure for “become” with the sample sentence: “Belle is becoming fat”.

It may have been upsetting, but luckily obsessive viewing of China’s most popular dating show, If You Are the One, had prepared me for this sort of brutal honesty, which is by no means unique to China, but it’s certainly foreign to me.

For the uninitiated, If You Are the One, or Fei Cheng Wu Rao, is one of the most popular dating shows in China and it enjoys a cult following in Australia where it is aired with subtitles.

The reality TV program follows a game-show type format in which a single man faces 24 women standing on lit-up podiums. Each of the women has a light, which they can turn off if they decide they are not interested in the man. They are quick to hit that switch, which makes a noise that’s somewhere around the icky mid-point between stomach-dropping rejection and bone-crushing humiliation.

Too short? POW! Too tall? POW! Pursuing a passion career? POW! POW! POW! POW!

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Walking the Dragon’s Backbone

A little old lady has kidnapped me and is making me lunch.

She is bent over a pile of bamboo, preparing it for cooking, while I gaze around at the few possessions in her one room wooden home. Two chairs, a fridge, that pile of bamboo and a tattered poster of Stalin.

“You like him?” I ask, pointing to the picture. She nods. “I like.”

“He’s Russian,” I say. She shakes her head. “German,” she corrects me. “Russian,” I insist. She looks confused and shrugs “I don’t know”, and goes back to making me lunch.

Well, I think, news must be a little slow to arrive in this corner of the world. IMG_6660

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A very Chinese Christmas

Merry Christmas everybody, I hope wherever you are in the world you are full of food and merriment and all the rest. (Merriment, there is a word you don’t hear outside December)

For my sins I am at work. Christmas is not a holiday in China and even if it was, I work at a newspaper so I’d probably be stuck in the office anyway, but nevermind! Some of the foreign staff are ducking out to the restaurant next door for a Peking Duck Christmas lunch and I celebrated with rather a lot of merriment last night.

I wanted to write this post to tell you a little about Christmas in China.

A few weeks ago my Chinese language tutor, Ivy, told me her husband had suggested they go to church on Christmas, to find out what it was actually all about.

“Oh, you don’t have to go to church for that,” I said. “I’ll tell you about Christmas”.

I explained the basics of the Christmas story, Joseph, Mary and the manger, the three wise men etc. Ivy listened seriously but when I finished her brow furrowed with confusion.

“But where does Santa Claus fit in?” she asked.

Christmas carols have been playing in the bakery down the street, and my office has stuck a tree up in the lobby, but if you are one of those types who moan that the religious aspect of Christmas has been lost in the West, then you best avoid China in December.

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Call ya mum! (Or she’ll sue)

It’s not the first family feud to end up in court but it is one of the more unusual.

Ma and her 77-year-old mother, known in the media as a Ms Chu, lived together until a falling out in September 2012 led to the older women moving out.

Ma did not keep in touch, she did not call, she did not visit. But in China, you don’t just cut off contact with your mother and get away with it.

Ms Chu didn’t dip into the typical motherly arsenal of guilt trips and psychological warfare. Instead she sued her daughter for filial neglect – and won.

A court in Wuxi, Jiangsu province (just above Shanghai) found in favor of Ms Chu, using a new law that came into effect on July 1 that requires children to provide mental, financial and life support to their parents once they turn 60. The court ordered Ma and her husband to visit Ms Chu at least once every two months in addition to seeing her on all public holidays (and China has a lot of those). If they don’t visit, Ms Chu can ask authorities to issues fines, or even detain them. And you think your family is dysfunctional.

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