Shopping, Shenzhen and Farmer Ye: Pondering the New China

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHENZHEN, China — I’ve come to the conclusion that many, if not most Chinese people love to shop.

Now before the ignorant self-righteous weigh in, let me add that I’m not knocking China; far from it. After all, the movement to a market economy is still underway — less than a generation ago, really — and I imagine that many middle-aged people have disposable income for the first time in their lives, and want to spend it. As a middle class American I would feel hypocritical if I found fault with that.

Then of course, there is the bargaining. Travelers to China know all about the tourist or laowai price vs. the Chinese price, and one’s new-found Chinese friends are always on the lookout for you, making sure you get the Chinese price whenever possible. Like friends I’ve known of Middle Eastern descent, I think perhaps the bargaining is half the fun for them.

But for myself, I really don’t care to shop or bargain. While many Americans do, I think my disinterest stems also from being American — by Asian standards we tend to be rather abrupt and forthright; even by American standards most people would consider me very direct.

And I’m not one to mess around with shopping; if I need something I go buy it, as quickly as possible, end of story, no screwing around. I remember getting out of the mag lev station in Shanghai, along with my interpreter, Zhike; we were immediately besieged by taxicab drivers. When they realized that we wanted to go to the other side of the city, there was silence.

Finally one young man ventured timidly, “250 yuan.” I did the math in my head: expensive by Chinese cab fare standards, but still cheaper than many a cab ride from an airport or train station in the U.S. “Done!” I cried, happily. “Let’s go,” I said, proceeding to wheel my luggage toward the gentleman’s cab. At that point I was already sick of carting around luggage — business trips always seem to require 3x as much stuff as vacation — on planes, trains and automobiles, and the sooner this was done, the better.

But you could literally hear the sounds of jaws of everyone within earshot of this exchange bouncing off the pavement. Our cab driver looked a little bewildered; Zhike seemed almost shocked. At the time, I wasn’t sure what faux pas I had committed; now I know — crazy, hasty Americans.

But running around Shenzhen the past couple of days, conducting interviews or just wandering at random, phrase-book in hand, I’ve been thinking a lot about shopping. Shenzhen by all accounts was a sleepy, balmy fishing village 20 some years ago, when the central government decided to make it a special administrative zone. Viola — now it’s a busy, balmy port metropolis, the heart of the country’s electronics manufacturing, and consequently its richest city.

It shows. Everything seems new and sparkling, and the shops stay open very late; downtown there are shopping districts where the stores are open past midnight.

Shenzhen has also been recognized in China as a garden city, for its cleanliness and green space — and indeed it is, especially compared to China’s older cities, and even Shanghai. It provides quite a contrast to the rural areas that I glimpsed outside Chengdu this past weekend. Many of my newly met Chinese colleagues and associates have observed that the gap between rich and poor in China is greater than many in the West realize, especially those that never venture beyond the popular eastern cities — like Shanghai and Shenzhen. Judging from what I saw, I’m inclined to agree.

But I think it is also a generational issue as well; like Zhike and others pointed out to me, young people from rural villages are flocking to cities, hearing stories of the new wealth to be had; once they glimpse a “better” way of life, they head for the smoke.

I put the word “better” in quotes, because I suppose it’s a matter of perspective, in this case, a generational perspective. This past weekend, while hiking up the 1,200-meter Qingcheng Shan, a holy Taoist mountain some 65 kilometers west of Chengdu, I took us off the beaten path. I have a habit of doing that; chalk it up to a streak of Robert Frost.

The path took us to a small farm, a subsistence farm, really, of one Ye Wen Fu (you can see a few pictures of Ye and his farm in the photo section of the Silicon Road — I think it starts with photo no. 65). He told us that he and his wife had been living off the side of the mountain for nearly 50 years. At one point the government had tried to get him and his family to go down to the city, and he did for awhile, but he couldn’t meet his family’s needs, so he returned to the mountain.

While by the standards of any developed nation, East or West, Ye is literally dirt poor, all his basic needs are met, and he seems happy and content with his lifestyle as it is. It’s hard to argue with that, and I wouldn’t presume too. I wouldn’t choose his life, but I understand the attraction to its simple and uncomplicated nature. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the “New China” that interests him, even though he came down off the mountain to see it.

I have no idea how many people there are like Ye in China; I haven’t been here nearly long enough, and won’t presume to draw any broad conclusions. But I can’t help but think about him when I hear people who reside solidly in the New China talk about how China must bring the entire population up to speed in the modern world. People often talk about how 50 percent of the population doesn’t have any sort of reliable means of communication — no land telephone line, no mobile phone, no satellite phone — and how that is a market opportunity that needs to be developed, not only for their own sake, but for those who are rapidly becoming attached to disposable income.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaBut I’m guessing that Ye isn’t the only simple rural farmer out there who might not be interested in the Brave New World. Many of their children are, to be sure, but people like Ye are not. Just how much of a bump, if any, this will be on the road to the modernization of rural China remains to be seen.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 11/2/2005 12:47:16 PM, W. Wong said:

Hi Jeff: I was born in HK and left there to live in thhe US when I was 10. Now I’m 50, I have yet return or have any desire to visit China. Your article and pictures have really touched my inner soul, so that I should plan a visit to my own country and see the changes that have developed since I left. Thanks

at 11/2/2005 1:28:26 PM, TerryP in VA said: Can you get Chinese food without MSG there?

at 11/3/2005 7:40:53 AM, AndyB said: I look forward to seeing pictures and hearing more about Shenzhen. I spent about a week there visiting companies and was awestruck by the growth and size according to some locals (that was 6 years ago). I was amazed by the unmarked dirt piles blocking freeway lanes and dodging bicycle rickshaws as well (4-way unmarked intersections on the freeway were interesting as well). Thanks for the very interesting personal experiences.

at 11/3/2005 10:00:15 PM, Jeff Chappell said: Yes, you can order food without MSG; you just have to ask (I recommend the Lonley Planet Mandarin phrasebook). And the food is so awesome here. … You can also find espresso; it’s not the espresso you’d find in say, Rome or Paris, but it’s often comparable to what you can get in the U.S., much to my delight. Starbucks is already here, of course. But then some of the tea over here will wire you right up 🙂 and it is about 1,000x better than any tea in Europe.

at 11/3/2005 10:03:59 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

Thank you Mr./Ms. Wong, for your kind words. And I think you would find that your childhood home has indeed dramatically changed …

at 11/3/2005 10:08:12 PM, Jeff Chappell said: AndyB, what you describe is typical of many a Chinese city. In that respect, Shenzhen is Chinese through and through.

at 11/4/2005 12:55:25 PM, BobboMax said:

Hey, I’ve enjoyed the blog- a pleasant mix of humility, openness, observation and that rarity of modern life, good writing.

at 11/7/2005 12:30:52 PM, D Autry said: Hello Jeff, I have thoroughly enjoyed your stories and pictures. We are a small electronics company and will be opening an office in Dan Dong.

Grasping at Straws … er, Spicy Noodles

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — It is with a somewhat heavy heart — and a very depressed palate — that I find myself in the Chengdu airport waiting to catch a flight to Shenzhen.

There are a number of reasons for this; I’m acutely aware that my trip is more than three-quarters over; in less than a week I’ll be back in the States. And yet I feel like I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of China, much less gain an acute understanding.

Not that I expected to develop an innate understanding of an ancient culture in a matter of weeks, but I feel like I’ve only just begun my task, and soon it will be over — but not finished.

Plus, I’ve had to say goodbye to Zhike, my interpreter, who has been an invaluable asset these past three weeks — not to mention a new but nevertheless trusted and valued friend. I would not have guessed that I could grow so fond of someone that is twelve years younger than me and from a different culture so quickly.

I find myself not really wanting to leave Chengdu, either. Its food has been fantastic, some of the best I’ve eaten ever; I could happily eat genuine Sichuan food once a day for the rest of my life. Plus the women here in Chengdu seem to be nearly as spicy as the food. Maybe too spicy, says Zhike, both about the food and the girls, but on that score I have to disagree with my new-found friend.

But beyond the spice the Sichuan lifestyle seems more in tune with my own lifestyle — Xiamen tugged at my heart strings, and Beijing stimulated my mind, and I firmly believe that home is wherever I put my head down at night. But Chengdu almost feels like it could indeed be home for awhile.

I think this also has to do with the fact that after three weeks straight of business class hotels, cabs and conference rooms, interviews and airplanes, we actually got out in the countryside this past weekend, and I saw aspects of China that many Western business travels don’t see. You’ll read more about that later on, I promise.

But the green mountains outside Chengdu reminded me of my new home in West Virginia, and it didn ‘ make me homesick, exactly — part of me really would like to remain here in China for awhile — but it reminded me just how tired I am of business travel and hotels, and all the attendant hassle. Someday I will return here for a month, maybe longer, perhaps, with nothing but time and a backpack.

Most important of all though, I find myself with mixed emotions because I feel like I’m getting close to understanding something important about Chinese culture, but I’m not sure yet what that quite is. I’ve gone from thinking Chinese culture is really different, to thinking that’s it’s not that different, to realizing that below the surface it is very different from my own culture. And I feel like I’m getting close to being able to grasp that difference and understand it, but I haven’t got there yet.

And I’m not talking about the mundane differences, like the way traffic works here or what there is too eat, or the status of China’s economic and technological development. I guess I’m talking about what makes me a Westerner, specifically American, and what makes the Chinese … well, Chinese. Of course if I could articulate what I’m trying to grasp, I would have grasped it.

It suddenly strikes me that these words sound familiar.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaAnyway, I had a long talk with Zhike today, about why certain things are the way they are in China — not because I’m annoyed that they aren’t like in the States, or any silly thing like that, but because I feel like there’s something I’m missing, something I can’t understand, and I’m not sure what it is yet. I fear that I’ll be on a plane back to the States before I can grasp that epiphany.

Ah well, my plane is boarding soon. The mundane duties of life intrude. …

Jeff

P.S. Actually, the data function on my cell phone’s smart card wasn’t working for some reason when I was at the Chengdu airport earlier, so this was technically filed from Shenzhen at 2 a.m. the next day, but that’s neither here nor there.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 10/31/2005 12:02:21 PM, yours truly, reader said:

I found you are a passionate person. When I read your article, tear running in my eyes. I am not sure why I got that feeling..

at 11/1/2005 1:51:13 PM, Sonia Harrison said:

Jeff, I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed reading your Blog the last few weeks. Thanks for letting me visit China with you–even if only through your stories.

at 11/1/2005 3:31:45 PM, Jim H. said:

It’s been fun reading about your journey, both geographically and mentally. I see parallels to my experience with marrying into a Chinese family after growing up in a typical midwestern family. I too went from thinking that they were really different from us, to thinking that they are the same but just talk a different language, to realizing that there are some differences that I will never comprehend and there are things that they will never comprehend about me.

One difference I see is the American desire to be self-sufficient, to be able to repair things oneself, to be able to take care of oneself, to even survive in the wild if one needed to (our recreation of camping). The Chinese see a virtue in relying on ones family and reciprocating by helping ones family. The first is useful if you are in a frontier environment (which we no longer are), the latter is useful if you are in a fully settled country of a billion people.

The Chinese also cannot comprehend why anyone would ever want to be alone, and I cannot comprehend why they always want to be in large noisy groups. Of course these are generalizations, not all Americans or Chinese fit these stereotypes. I will be interested to see what you come up with.

at 11/1/2005 4:45:32 PM, Jane said:

Shenzhen is a very young city. The average age of the population is only 27. A lovely place you sure will have a good time there.

at 11/3/2005 10:23:44 PM, Jeff Chappell said: Thank you all for the kind comments. Jim H: you are dead-on in that observation about self-sufficiency. This is the only place I’ve been where people seemed shocked and bewildered that I would want to carry my own luggage. I didn’t understand why at first. … It was a foreign concept for Zhike and other new friends that if I needed or wanted help, I would ask for it; otherwise I did not want it or need it — that I appreciated the show of respect and friendship, but was quite capable of managing on my own.

I fear I’ve inadvertently insulted hotel bell staff from one end of China to the other. And I confess, as much as I have truly loved China, I think I’m ready for some quiet solitude in the middle of nowhere 🙂

at 11/4/2005 2:10:38 PM, Bill in Mpls said:

Having spent a very short time in Korea, I also searched for some way to explain differences in culture from my own. I see in the Koreans a sense of ethnicity over nationality which is almost opposite of our upbringing. Their history (their “people’s” history) – what they all have in common – goes so far back beyond whatever the current government is that they identify more with their family and neighbors than any larger-scale institution. Our history in the U.S. is focused on what we have in common – our government, local, and national institutions. We don’t have a common ethnicity or history with most of our neighbors. Thanks for the blog.

No McDonalds Please; I’ll Have the Fish Head Hotpot

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — I never would have thought something with a fish head floating in it could taste so good, but more on that later.

I want to make an observation about something that always bugs me when I travel abroad. Why do hotel employees always want to send you to some place that’s foreign friendly? Even when you tell them that’s not what you want.

I suppose there is some general truism to be gleaned from this observation, but I’m not sure what it is. Surely I’m not that different from most business travelers?

Tonight my intrepid interpreter and I returned from dinner to the hotel, but I decided the evening couldn’t be done yet. It is Friday night, I’m in a foreign city — I’m not going to go to bed early. So we asked a bellhop to direct us to a good nearby local bar. He disappeared behind the concierge desk only to return and apologize that there were no bars nearby, and then proceeded to give me a card from some Irish bar, making it a point to say that it was popular with laowai, expats, etc., and that it was only a short cab ride, blah blah blah.

I promptly declared “Rubbish!” and strolled out into the night (that was probably the bottle of Great Wall cabernet we had with dinner talking), Zhike in tow. This is a business class hotel — people on expense accounts are constantly running in and out — smack in the middle of a city of 4.1 million people; there was bound to be a local pub somewhere nearby, I reasoned.

Sure enough, I promptly spotted two within a stone’s throw of the hotel. Had the bellhop never actually set foot outside the Sheraton? Why does this always happen in nicer hotels when traveling abroad?

Sure, I could understand if I moved to a foreign land permanently, I’d want to have a bit of home now and then, and go to the American restaurant or the Irish pub. And it was fun in Shanghai to introduce Zhike to all sorts of goofy Western food and drink.

But when I’m visiting a foreign place and only have a short time, I don’t want someplace familiar. If wanted to experience familiar, I’d stay at home. If I travel to Chengdu, I want to experience what Chengdu people experience. That’s the fun of traveling, experiencing the unfamiliar.

The only thing I can conclude is that many business travelers want what’s familiar; I just don’t understand why. Seems to me if you are there on business, it’s even more important to understand the local culture. Incidentally, I’ve found that when I’ve traveled on my own abroad and stayed in cheap hotels, you seem to get directed to cheap local places, rather than tourist/businessmen-on-expense-account traps.

Anyway, I just had to get that off my chest. After three weeks of this, it gets a bit frustrating at times. It’s hard to explain through an interpreter that no, you don’t want to go to the tourist place. You don’t want to go to the place that caters to foreigners. You don’t want to go to a club with the flashy neon lights, overpriced, water-downed drinks and bad, pop music that was old ten years ago. You want to go where the locals go. …

Anyway, Onto the Fish Heads

We couldn’t locate The Little Chili Pepper referenced in the previous blog entry. Apparently it’s so small and so local that most of the locals haven’t heard of it, although one person we stopped on that he knew of the place, but failed to prove it with adequate directions. If the folks at Agilent-Qianfeng read this, please call me or e-mail me with proper directions

So we ended up at a restaurant called Tan Yu Tou, a chain of popular Sichuan restaurants in China that started out here in Chengdu. It’s a “huoguo” place, or hotpot. Translated, the restaurant’s name refers to the surname of the person that started the place, Tan, and “yu tou,” which means fish head.

I told Zhike, my interpreter, upon hearing this — after we had left the restaurant — that he had no idea how amused it made me to dine at a restaurant essentially called Tan’s Fish Heads. And that’s true; I’m sure he really did have no idea. Cultural differences. …

But I digress. Essentially hotpot cooking is kind of like fondue; you dip meat and veggies and whatnot into big pots filled with heated, spicy oil; and I do mean lip numbing, tongue-searing spicy. It was one of the hottest, flavorful dishes I’ve had the pleasure of eating. I instructed Zhike to tell our waitress to make sure that we did not get the laowai-friendly version; I was not disappointed — poor Zhike even complained at one point, albeit with a smile on his face as he wiped his forehead, that it was too spicy.

I assured him there is no such state of being. It wasn’t as good as yu xiang rou si, the Food of the Gods, but almost. Even now, my stomach feels warm. Should have some interesting dreams when I finally go to sleep tonight.

Oh, almost forgot the fish heads. In addition to all manner of spices, fish heads and miscellaneous parts are added to the hotpot for flavor, and of course, you can eat some of the fish. Like I said at the beginning, being a Westerner, I never would have guessed that a dish with half a fish head floating in it would taste so yummy.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaThe rest of the evening, I’ve had that Fish Heads song from the early 1980s in my head. You 30-somethings like me, members of the inaugural MTV generation, know what I’m talking about. Google “Barnes and Barnes,” like I did just now, and take a trip down Nostalgic Lane. And now I know what the line that states “floating in the soup” is about.

Thank you and good night.

Jeff

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Peanuts, Tea and Massage: A Night at the Sichuan Opera

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — Last night I attended the Sichuan Opera here in Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan province. Lemme tell ya, it ain’t fat ladies in brass brassieres and horned Viking helmets singing Wagner, that’s for sure.

Nor is it a black-tie affair. Peanuts, sunflower seeds and tea are served, and people roam the aisles offering massages, their white jackets proclaiming “Ear Cleaning and Health Massage.” And there are boisterous conversations throughout the audience, throughout the performance — I confess, my Western sensibilities sometimes got the best of me, and I found myself wishing I knew how to say “Give it a rest!” or “Shut the hell up!” in the local dialect once or twice.

In fact, during the one part of the performance that actually involved dialogue, the woman next to me was getting a full-body massage — while fully clothed, get your minds out of the gutter — and her and her masseuse kept up a steady stream of conversation. Then, on the other side of the theater, there was some sort of fight or altercation that distracted everyone except the performers — a night at the Sichuan Opera is kind of like being at a bar or a ball game back home, or maybe a football game (think soccer, my American brethren) in the U.K.

I think the European tourists sitting next to me were rather appalled.

But I of course thought it was great; one of those wonderful “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” moments that I treasure while traveling abroad.

No, opera means something entirely different to East and West. I confess that I’ve never been to a Western opera; the closest I’ve come is that hilarious Bugs Bunny cartoon that spoofs the aforementioned Wagner. But I know enough to know it isn’t anything like what I saw here last night.

But there are some 1,300 operas throughout China, and they vary from region to region, from what I can gather. There are some 300 types of opera as well. So from what I understand, if you’re familiar with the Beijing Opera, well, Sichuan may be something else again.

Where to begin? I’m not sure I can describe the spectacle without offending the literary sensibilities of at least one reader, Goose Hosage (see the comments section of this particular blog entry). The Sichuan Opera has a 200-year tradition; it is currently housed in the back of a very crowded market adjacent to the Wuhou Temple grounds, Wuhou Temple being a monument to Zhuge Liang, a famous Chinese military strategist who served the emperor Liu Bei some 2,000 years ago.

In other words, you probably want to hook up with someone local in order to find the opera. My interpreter, Zhike, almost refused to go, when he found it was 120 yuan per person to enter (about 12 bucks American); he was sure we weren’t paying the Chinese price. But then he queried a Chinese tour group, and sure enough, they were charged the same price.

Then he decided that it must be a tourist trap, as surely the local Chengdu residents couldn’t afford the admission price. I tended to agree, but I still wanted to see what it was all about — after all, that’s part of the reason I’m here, finding out what China is all about.

And in the end, he decided it was pretty cool, as did I, and well worth the admission price.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaHow to describe it? Part slapstick, part performance art, part magic act, part circus acrobatics, part modern dance … flame eaters, puppets, balancing acts, skits, martial arts … acrobatic tea pouring, a voluptuous MC in a flaming bright chartreuse dress — the list goes on. The evening culminates with the mask dancers, elaborately costumed dancers who, with the flick of a wrist, as they dance, constantly change their masks — elaborate, full-face affairs that match the costumes.

In short, the opera is about as spicy as the food in Chengdu. Speaking of which, it’s dinner time, and me and my trusty interpreter are off to a restaurant whose name translates into English as The Little Chili Pepper, or some such. Sounds right up my culinary alley.

Jeff

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Original Comments

at 11/8/2005 9:41:01 AM, David said:

How does one arrange for a personal interpreter in Chengdu? What is the cost?

at 11/15/2005 1:20:14 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

David, there are a number of ways to go about hiring a local interpreter. If you have professional contacts in China, I would start with them (that’s what we did; the student that traveled with me was hired through our staff at EB China). There are a number of expat Web sites and language translation sites where people advertise their services as interpreters and translators. If you are looking specifically for someone local in a certain place, I’d start with Google, and advertise on local message boards as well.

Dashed on the Hot Rocks of the Sichuan Siren

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — Alas, I have been forever ruined for Chinese food in the United States. It will never be the same; you can’t go home again.

I am doomed.

Like the mythical Argonauts I have heard the culinary Siren’s song that is Sichuan cooking, but unlike them I have no Orpheus to provide even better tasting food, and no Odysseus to plug my nose to keep it from smelling its intoxicating, peppery aroma or my mouth to keep it from tasting its fiery, eye-watering, forehead sweating pleasures.

I’m sure that soon after I return to the United States, I will soon be reduced to a skulking, emaciated shell of a human being, something out of a Tolkienesque nightmare, wandering from bland U.S. restaurant to bland U.S. restaurant, each proclaiming to be more authentically Sichuan than the last. With each one my hopes will be raised, only to be dashed on the Sichuan Siren’s rocks as the first mundane morsel passes my thin, fish-like lips. I will throw my chopsticks down in disgust, the only heat to be felt in my yearning mouth will be that of bitter bile.

I will crawl out of each restaurant on all fours, the few strands of dank hair still clinging to my otherwise bald scalp hanging into my eyes, as I mutter and hiss in the back of my throat about “my Precious … We misses it, we does … we misses Chendgdu, gollum!”

I Am Ruined; This is My Fate

Melodramatic, yes? Man, I can pour on the BS when I get going, huh? A journalist is nothing if not a professional bull manure slinger.

I suppose my situation is not as bad as Tolkien’s Gollum. But last night I finally got to Chengdu, my third to last stop on the Silicon Road — no thanks to Air China or the security personnel at Xiamen’s airport — and today, I tasted culinary nirvana. My taste buds reached a transcendental state; my stomach is gurgling contentedly, even as I type this.

For today I had my first Sichuan cooking in Chengdu, a bustling city of 4.1 million souls — damn lucky ones — near the center of Sichuan province, which is itself the geographical heart of China.

The Chinese have a saying about Sichuan, or so my Lonely Planet guidebook tells me (I have yet to ask my new Chinese friends about this); translated into English it says “Never visit Sichuan when you are young.” The implication is that you won’t want to leave.

Now I know why.

For those among the culinary clueless — and how I pity you — Sichuan cuisine is famous around the globe, and in here in China it is famous in a country filled with famous cuisine, a country that takes its cuisine very serious. Remember, this is a culture with the polite, throw-way greeting consisting not of the West’s “hi-how-are-you?” but “have-you-eaten-today?”

Now I should explain that I’m a bit of a masochist. I love hot, spicy food. I’ve yet to encounter much that is too spicy or too hot for me. It’s not hot unless I can’t feel my lips, my forehead is sweating, my tongue is burning and I’m getting the hick-ups. If these criteria are met, it’s hot and I’m in food heaven. Give me more; thank you mistress may I have another?

My father started me on this trend back when I was 12, introducing me to the delights of jalapenos on pizza. It’s been a hot downhill ride for me ever since. Luckily, I seem to have an iron-clad digestive track; peppers never require me to down a Peptobismal chaser.

So naturally, I’ve been a big fan of Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants back in the U.S. since I was a teenager; Sichuan cooking involves a lot of spicy, peppery stuff. So while I’ve been dining all sorts of crazy — to a Westerner — stuff here in China, donkey, duck’s tongue, unidentified boiled vegetables and whatnot — I’ve been waiting to get here.

Unfortunately, we got in late last night, and there wasn’t much open, so we had to settle for one of the restaurants in our business-class hotel; I didn’t much mind though, figuring that, well, the hotel is in Chengdu, so the food must be pretty good by default. Of course the fates decided to screw with me; out of all the hotel food I’ve eaten this trip, this hotel has the most bland food. And I don’t know how you can make congee — the rice soup that is a breakfast staple for many in China — any blander than it already is, but this placed manages to do it.

Fortunately, while I was working away this morning, my faithful interpreter, Zhike (aka Tony) was out researching restaurants in Chengdu, as he was as excited as I was about the gastrointestinal delights to be discovered here.

So for lunch today, we went to a place called Bian Shi Cai Gen Xiang … and my lips tingled … my nose ran … in a word, exquisite. The mapo tofu was exquisite, the best I’ve ever had (it’s a staple for me at Chinese restaurants back home), and I discovered a new dish, well several actually, but the best by far was “yu xiang rou si.” According to Zhike this was just your standard, everyday Sichuan dish, for me, it was the food of the Gods.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaCome to think of it, I don’t know what was in it exactly, and I don’t really care — it could be ground up leprechaun toe nails for all I care — if I could boil yu xiang rou si in a spoon and shoot it into a vein I would. It was that good; I’m an addict looking for my next fix.

I can’t wait for the next four days in Chengdu. Or the next 40 years — I remain, dear Gentle Reader, yours in culinary addiction,

Jeff

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 10/27/2005 2:22:53 PM, Lloyd Jhanson said:

I haven’t been to Chengdu, I was in Shenzhen a couple of years ago, I did try some snake…It was very good…”tastes like chicken”…I know you can get snake here in the States but as you’ve said everything is different there. I don’t know what kind of snake it was, my hosts said it wasn’t cobra…not expensive enough…something about the Chinese equivalent of workman’s comp, I think… Anyway, if you get the chance, try the snake.

at 10/27/2005 4:01:18 PM, Ray said:

Loved your blog. I can relate to your article. My dear Chinese wife couldn’t imagine to live anywhere else in the US other than the San Francisco bay area, because “there is no other good Chinese food in the U.S. Maybe in LA, but nothing back east.” Happy eating.

at 11/3/2005 10:38:13 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

I’ve had rattle snake back in the states … chewy, like you would expect. And while the food here in Shenzhen is good, as it is all over China, I miss Chengdu already. Or at least my palate does … so much so that I had to go to a Sichuan restaurant here in Shenzhen. Fresh seafood is great and all, but mapo tofu and yu xiang rou si … my mouth mourns the fact that in a few days I’ll be back in the States.