and while we’re at it let’s talk about food.
and while we’re at it let’s talk about food.
and while we’re at it let’s talk about food.
December in Shenzhen is known as “Creative December”. The city has been officially promoting culture and creative industries since 2005, moving manufacturing to the outer districts, incubating start-ups, and funding creative spaces and so forth. Many of the large-scale, government promoted events during Creative December 2015 focused on history and memory and the scale of these imaginary formations. For those who often what to do on a weekend afternoon, this past December offered an embarrassment of choices in addition to the city sponsored Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/ architecture and the Shenzhen Public Sculpture Exhibition, every single level of government and private art spaces sponsored large-scale cultural events that ranged from the first Kylin Dance Festival (in Longhua) to the Indie Animation Festival in Overseas Chinese Town. In addition, every weekend has been filled with lectures, workshops and salons. For those of us who work in culture—we paint or run galleries or act or produce plays or think about society and take critical photographs of changes in the land—December is the month when we present a year’s worth (or not) of endeavor to the public.
In January, before Shenzhen turns its gaze back to the problem of making an industry of culture—Culture, Inc, we begin rounds of New Year’s dining privately with friends and family, as well as formally with colleagues. During these meals, culture and Culture, Inc are discussed in tandem; there is a potentially large market for culture because everyone is vaguely dissatisfied and looking for spiritual forms of satisfaction that are also economically viable. Continue reading
Mao’s style food is barbaric spicy Hunan food. At an eponymous restaurant (毛家菜), he and his red handkerchief occupy the entryway. There is a God of wealth in the corner. My interest in Mao’s godhead caused a bit of awkwardness with a friend, who is anti-superstition and often finds things anthropological condescending. She let me know in no uncertain terms, it would be inappropriate for me to use this image as a WeChat avatar. And then she softened the blow, “You like to use your art work. Keep doing that, everyone likes it.”
When I was young, I heard Johnny Cash singing about John Henry–the American version of man versus machine. However, an informercial about the Shandong style noodle-bot (below) reminds us that we’re talking about the social organization and reproduction of skilled labor. Continue reading
This past week has been a rush, with little time for organized thinking, let alone putting those thoughts together in written form. Nevertheless, while waiting for my noodles at the shop below Handshake 302, I watched the interactions of the proprietor and a local beggar. He sat at the table, silently, staring out at the road. She cleared tables, made noodles, and then graciously served him a bowl. He didn’t acknowledge her and ate. She returned to her work.
There is a current blurb flitting through virtual space about a fictional meeting between Xi Jinping and Obama, who has just finished watching an episode of CCTV’s popular 舌尖上的中国后 (A Bite of China). A friend described this parody of bi-lateral mis/understanding as hilarious, another called it an example of literary talent, and yet another as nugget of cultural truth so Chinese it could not be translated!
High praise for a political side dish. So, I decided to create a taste challenge for bi-lingual readers, adapting the piece from Chinese to English. Four political facts might enhance appreciation of the spoof: (1) Obama is just Obama, but Xi Jinping is always, “General Secretary”; (2) there is an important role for overseas Chinese figured by US Ambassador to China Gary Faye Locke (骆家辉); (3) subtitled episodes of A Bite of China can be viewed on Youtube, which remains off menu for those of us dining chez Cafe le Firewall, and; (4) General Party Secretary Xi never mentions the iron rice bowl (铁饭碗), an expression used to described the difficulty of removing officials from their posts. Also of note, the expressions emphasize the acting of eating, not food. Consequently, more colloquial English would use variously use “take” or “swallow” or “suck up” or “eat” to translate 吃 — and therein, perhaps, is an experiential entry into cultural differences structuring Sino-American misunderstanding.
After viewing “A Bite of China [literally China on the Tongue]”, Obama said to General Secretary Xi Jinping, “I’ve realized that although Chinese culture consists of extensive knowlege and profound scholarship, it is really an eating culture. Consider: a job is called a rice bowl, working is called living from hand to mouth (糊口); to be employed is called getting enough to eat (混饭), getting by in style is called eating with gusto (吃得开), and things that are liked are said to whet one’s appetite（吃香); to be taken care of is called eating from the little stove (吃小灶), to spend your savings is called eating your principle (吃老本) to take advantage of a woman is called eating tofu (吃豆腐); to depend on your parents is called gnawing on the old (啃老); a man who spends a woman’s money is said to eat soft rice (吃软饭); to overwork is to eat without digesting (吃不消), to take advantage of someone is to eat an advantage (吃亏), jealousy is called eating vinegar (吃醋); to dither is called to eat indesively (吃不准), to do substandard work is to eat dry rice (吃干饭), to take advantage of anyone is also to eat tofu (吃豆腐), to be taken advantage of is to have swallowed the disadvantage (吃了亏), to be afraid to speak up is called a mute eats coptis root (哑巴吃黄连). To have nothing better to do than make trouble for others is called overeating (吃饱撑), to make a decision is called Eight Wang eats the scales (王八吃秤砣), to ignore an order is not to eat soft or hard (软硬不吃), and to have reached one’s limits is called can’t swallow and slink off (吃不了兜着走).
General Secretary Xi interupted him and said, “We should speak about Sino-American relations. Are you talking about this because you’ve overeaten?”
Obama fainted at these words!
When Obama had recovered, General Secretary Xi earnestly said, “With respect to the importance of Sino-American relations, we will eat deeply and throughly, because we haven’t any principle to eat. The way of the world is that big fish eat little fish, but Cold War thinking is no longer appetizing, and cooperating for mutual benefit is the only way to eat with gusto. Only if China and the United States join hands will the benefits be eaten together. There are those who eat at our table and secretly help others; they eat from the rice bowl of harming Sino-American relations. We eat too much bitterness because they eat vinegar, making us eat with effort to establish a partnership. We have to learn from eating the moat (吃一堑长一智), and prevent them from eating from their bowls with their eyes on the pot. This will also let the world eat heart balls of reassurance. Mister President, are you still eating indesively about these matters? If not, I’d like to dine with you in this compound.”
Obama was speachless, and said after a pause, “It really is too deep to be predicted! Only the last idea could be expressed without the character for eating!”
Gary Faye Locke was standing nearby and couldn’t resist reminding Obama, “That’s because he was actually inviting you to eat!”
It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival. Depending on your historical inclinations, you’re either remembering ancient moon worship and sacrifice, recounting the story of moon goddess Chang’e, or going Tang-litterati and appreciating the moon. You may even know about the anti-Yuan uprising that Han nationalist, Liu Bowen organized by inserting the message “on 8.15 the uprising will start” in mooncake gifts. Apparently, the revolt was successful, and future first emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang ordered his advisors and troops to celebrate by distributing and eating mooncakes with the common folk.
Historical inclinations, notwithstanding, the point of the Mid-Autumn Festival chez Shenzhen is giving mooncakes to family and friends. There are traditional double yolk lotus seed paste mooncakes, green tea vegan mooncakes, and fruit paste filled iced mooncakes. There are Cantonese style mooncakes and northern mooncakes, healthy mooncakes and fusion mooncakes. In fact, every major hotel, restaurant and chain, including Starbucks and Haagan Daaz sell their own mooncakes.
All this to say, mooncakes are big, big amazingly packaged business. One can buy individual cakes starting at 7 yuan a piece, or a box of four for 60-70 yuan. But in the big hotels, the packaging escalates. There are heavy cardboard boxes and embossed tins, and often the more expensive sets will include tea. At this level, prices for ordinary boxes of four start around 175 yuan and can go up to over 1,000 yuan. I’ve even seen (but not touched), mooncake sets priced over 2,000 yuan.
Once all the mooncakes have been distributed (and redistributed– the boxes circulate among family and friends until you receive the kind of mooncake you actually want to eat), just as the opening and enjoyment of mooncakes begin, the news media and weixin begin to alert us to mooncake ethics. Mooncakes are so overpriced relative to the cost of ingredients ( flour, lard, sugar, a bit of paste and maybe an egg or two), that by giving them to friends or eating them ourselves, we’re either participating in conspicuous levels of unseemly consumption or are in danger of eating “fake” mooncakes. Indeed, one of the most persistent mooncake rumors is that some company is selling last year’s mooncakes which have been beautifully packaged but have already gone bad.
Today, I’m preparing to go out and eat my share of mooncakes, with as much moderation as possible. Western blogs remind us that the average mooncake has 800-1,200 caleries. The Chinese press has been more explicit: one mooncake is the equivalent of eating three bowls of rice, and neither mooncakes nor rice are packed with nutrition. And yet. There they are, sticky sweet temptations in the middle of a table. And I succumb every year.
Happy, happy Mooncake Festival!