East and West

During my time in Tianjin, I saw quite a lot of Arabic script. Not only on the Yuan bills – Arabic script is used by a few minority languages represented on the Chinese currency – but also on the front of the many Muslim restaurants. Islam is very present in China – with Japanese- and Korean-ness, it may be the most visible sign of contemporary China’s multiculturalism.

From Aaron and my students, I gathered that there is a variety of Chinese muslims: Hui people and Hans who practice Islam (I could never really understand how these two were distinguished), but also Xinjiang ethnic minorities, with distinctive Central Asian features. These were painted as dangerous by most of the people I talked with (the discourse reminded me of how Europeans talk about Roms). Yet Aaron took me to a XinJiang restaurant once for lunch. It was a strikingly exotic experience. For my host, the place was Chinese as much as, to me, a basque, Alsatian or Breton restaurant are French. But the taste of the food and the decoration corresponded much more to my idea of the Middle East. It brought up images of people riding camels across the desert and organising ram-mechouis on the go, before reaching the next oasis.

When I migrated to Australia, Philip and I decided we should somehow connect Paris to Melbourne, and so decided to travel overland all the way to Singapore, last stop on the Eurasian continent before the big southern island. There were three possible roads. The Southern road went via Turkey, Iran, India, and Bangladesh, avoiding China altogether – but the war in Irak made it highly impractical. The Northern one, which we ended up taking for convenience, ran along the Transsiberian, entering China from Harbin or Oulan Bator, then heading south from Beijing. But there was a third one, the ‘silk road’, which from Moscow would take us through Kazhakstan and Xinjiang, before turning south via Lanzhou and ChongChing to Vietnam. The central stretch of this road crossed a zone in-between, in-between Europe and Asia, in-between Islam and Buddhism, in-between what for me then where distinct cultural areas, where China touches the confines of the Islamic world.

‘Oriental’, in English, refers to people from East Asia, somewhat indiscriminately, and derogativly. In French, the word has a different meaning, and is more likely to conjure up images of a Lebanese merchant eating loukoums in front of an Egyptian belly dancer. On my migration trip, I felt I was passing through successive ‘Doorways to the East’ untill, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, I found myself at a cross-over of the Chinese, Indian and Arabic worlds. But somehow, I became aware of that layering of the Orients as early as Berlin, and throughout my time in China.

The East itself has its Orients. I remember, when I first read the 1001 nights as a kid, feeling a strange fascination for India as imagined from Bagdad. Later, that interest for the ‘East of the East’ took the form of a certain fascination for films featuring travels across Asian countries. But on that migration trip, as I was radically moving myself from Europe to the Antipodes, I became more able to mentally shift across Eurasia, and start thinking of different Wests. As a Mediterranean, of course, I kept repeating how Americans, North Europeans and South Europeans have different spontaneous ways of relating to China, and how this should be articulated more. When I visited the Asian Museum in Singapore, I was confronted with something more radical. The place I’d always known as ‘Middle East’ labelled ‘West Asia’ on a map. The word ‘West’ resonated as much as the word ‘Asia’. That label asserted a unity between what I was now calling ‘the three Orients’ of East, South and ‘West’ Asia. It also, somehow, conflated Europe, America and the Arab world as ‘Western’.

Among Europeans, it’s commonplace to talk of China as ‘the big other’. Yet I remember, from a very early age, how I thought differently. I had a Chinese baby-sitter, DanHan, when I was sevent. She was finishing a PhD in Strasbourg and, during the holidays, she would take a bus back to China. That bus trip had a clear meaning for me then – and still does now. If China’s at the other end of a bus line, no matter how long the trip, it can’t be that radically different from Europe. Riding overland from Paris to Singapore, and exploring aspects of cosmopolitanism in Tianjin and Beijing on this blog were means for me to pursue that arbitrary childhood intuition – the result on my parents choosing a Chinese woman to baby-sit me. I’m not sure, therefore, if I uncovered something real, or only used all my rheorical tools to confirm an hypothesis. The fact is, I am now convinced, there is no radical essence of China to be found, along the coast, or inland. It’s just a big, fascinating country, across Eurasia, this side of the mountains.


When, halfway through my seven weeks in Tiajin, I told a Chinese friend I’d only been to Beijing once, he said: ‘you should go there more’, commenting: ‘Beijing is great for shopping; it’s one of the best places in the world for shopping!’

In one of my classes, we talked about French regulations against Sunday trading for shops. One of my students asked, astonished: ‘but what will French people do then, on a Sunday, if the shops are closed?’

Chinese people love their malls. They are a gateway to an exotic somewhere else, a Beaudelairian dream of order, beauty, luxury, quiet, and voluptuousness.

Shopping malls are urban landmarks. On my fist trip to China, my fashion-expert friend Ming took us from shopping mall to shopping mall, commenting: ‘this one is run by Hong-Kongers, this one by a Thai tycoon’. Again, this time, when I went to see her in Beijing, she suggested we meet in the Xin Guan Tiandi plaza – and I should wait for her by the Gucci store.

Shopping malls do serve a function in the terrible Chinese weather – hot and humid in the summer, cold and dry in the winter, polluted air all year long. They provide safe bubbles of pleasant air-conditioning. The height of Chinese liveability.

The plaza experience extends to grocery shopping. Posh malls in Tiajin – Isetan, HiSense, Lotte – all have an underground supermarket with luxury fruit and fish, imported groceries, and a fine wines corner, like David Jones in Melbourne, or Le Bon Marche in Paris. For those who can’t afford that level of luxury, they can find a bargain replacement: general stores on two levels – one selling food, the other clothes, household items, appliances, cosmetics, books, etc. Exoticism still applies here: these often come with foreign branding: Tesco, Carrefour, E-mart.

The weird thing with this Western exoticism is – things inside are eerily normal for a Westerner.

You’re in China, that archetype of complete otherness – yet the experience of supermarket shopping is only very slightly uncanny – because of Chinese script on the walls, and the range of ‘jerky’ products in the confectionery aisle.

and I started wondering, while grocery-shopping: for these people around me, is going to Carrefour or Tesco some exotic experience, like walking in a Chinatown is for me? Are they compensating for the frustration of long communist years, satisfying at last some frustrated hunger for glossy, commodified food?
Or were they doing something entirely mundane – grocery shopping – which I only reflected on because I was travelling, and in a meditative mood?

China branding

One clear sign of China’s integration into the globalised world is the presence of international brands and companies. The most visible are multinational food and drinks franchises, like Starbucks, KFC, Coke and MacDonald’s.

Chinese streets are lined with them – Binjiang Jie, the big shopping street in Tianjin, must have about three MacDonald’s, two KFCs, and three Starbucks. But these franchises made efforts to adapt. The main step for them was to find a Chinese name, adapting that core element of their brand-image – the name-logo, with its unique font and colour. Starbucks here still has green characters, but presents itself as 星巴克 – read ‘Xing Ba Ke (‘Star’ Ba Ke)’.

Choosing a Chinese brand-name is a tricky exercise. You want to mimick the sounds of the original, and Mandarin phonology does not always allow for it. But mostly, the characters chosen to transcribe the brand name will have a meaning of their own, and carry all sorts of associations. Brands must have found good marketing experts here. Carrefour has become 家乐福 – read ‘Jia Le Fu‘ – family happy and rich. Coca Cola became 可口可乐 – read ‘Ke Kou Ke Le‘ – the possibility of a mouthful is the possibility of happiness.

The menus also adapted to local tastes. McCafés serve green tea cheesecake; KFCs offer a congee option, with Chinese doughnut and soy milk, in their breakfast menu.

Global integration went even further. The principle of franchising itself has spread to China, and local brands emerged, like Vanguard 24h supermarkets, Bengon’s cake shops, and Xiabu Xiabu hot pot restaurants.

These local franchises, along with multinational ones, give Chinese streets their new colours. Who knows, maybe we’ll see them appear on Melbourne streets soon, like Taiwanese EasyWay bubble tea and Malaysian Kopitiams already have.

You like chicken?

This post is strictly not suitable for vegetarians.

You’ve been warned.

When I was in JiXian county with Aaron’s family, his father proposed to have chicken curry one evening. Curry is not a traditional Chinese specialty, but it’s become quite popular – curry paste is available in most supermarkets, and a chain of Taiwanese restaurants has curry beef or chicken as a standard option on their set meals. Now of course, in a Chinese village environment, the main excitement of chicken curry is all about the chicken.

It all starts with a drive along dirt roads, between brick walls or fields of pear trees. Untill you reach a particular house – known only to locals, no sign advertising poultry for sale here – and get off the car.

There’s a family standing in a courtyard: little boy eating something out of plastic wrapping, dog playing, and at the back, a huge netted area, with chickens running around. After a long discussion with the matron of the place, weighing options and selecting potential curry candidates, she gets into the pen, a large net in her right hand – like the ones used for catching butterflies. With a swift movement downwards, she traps the selected chicken inside, interrupting its wild run for life. She lifts it up by the wings, ties both feet together, and weighs it – alive – in rustic metal scales. 70 kuai later, the chicken is in the boot, quietly resting at the bottom of a blue plastic box.

A drive back to the village, and a stop at the village coordinator’s house – selected executor. He walks out to the river bank, holding the chicken in one hand; the other has a pair of scissors, old, rusty, blunt. The chicken is calmly put down on a clay pipe running along the river, and the village coordinator fumbles around its neck with the scissors, cutting off a few feathers first, then getting at the veins. Blood comes out, very slowly; the chicken’s eye closes, opens, goes upwards, closes again. It doesn’t resist, or scream. The village coordinator cuts a few more veins open; more blood comes out, but still slowly, quietly, not a gushing foutain, more like a drip. Then, the chicken goes limp, its eye doesn’t open again. The village coordinator washes it in the river, then brings it back inside the house. Blood and feathers cling to the clay pipe, unwashed.

Gender plays in. The village coordinator’s wife proceeds with feathering the dead animal, using boiling water, while you sit down on low stools and chat with her husband – sharing stories of a trip to Europe, discussing the defining features of a woman’s beauty, comparing Italian and Chinese customs. Fifteen minutes later, the chicken arrives, ready to consume – almost identical to what a Western city dweller will find in a supermarket, bar the plastic wrapping.

Back home, the chicken is cut into small pieces, and throw into a wok with onions, carrots and potatoes; then transferred to a larger pot with a bit of water, the curry paste, and half a can of coconut milk. Slow cooking, lid on. Twenty minutes or so, the chicken is ready to consume.

Having read that, maybe some people will choose the beef. I haven’t seen the killing method. What I saw was this. Sunday market in JiXian town centre, one lane has a few meat stalls: three selling pork, one selling beef. Unlike an Australian or French butcher’s display, this one proposes meat in its original state. On the bench, two legs of beef. You tell the seller which part of the leg you want meat cut off from, and she proceeds for you. The price varies, depending on the section chosen.

Gorish? Meat lovers, be reassured. Chinese city dwellers have their sensitivities too. Beef comes in all forms. And for those not enjoying the vision of beef flesh on the leg, they can try these little dry beef lollies, surprisingly popular.

How cute is the little cow. Notice the little poem? “May the breeze bring you the tenderness and warmth from me”. Crypto-christianism? Chew me, and I’ll be your strength.

Comfort food

Sometimes, it’s really tiring to live in China. Air, people, noise; even the food is getting too much.

You miss home. So you need some sort of comfort food, something nice, reassuring and familiar. I’ve had such moments, when all I wanted was a good cup of coffee.

But it’s been worse. I’ve been further. One evening, after class, it was really hard. And I gave in.

It was wonderful!

Inventing new tastes – Chinese fusion food

Aaron took me to a restaurant called ‘Friends’, in ‘Magnetic city’, a new development next to the Olympic stadium. He had bought a special coupon online, which gave 210 kuai worth of food for 65. The place was quite elegant although, at 5h45, resolutely empty.

The menu was ‘western food’, but the first item that arrived confirmed what I had been thinking from the start – this would be a different eating experience.

The purple lozange came with some sort of jam, and dried flowers stuck in a cherry tomato. I thought it was the starter – strange, a sweet starter, but then why always have the sweet things last? Later, I found out from Aaron that he had to negotiate so the ice cream would come at the end. Whether it is complete carelessness, or a deliberate attempt to unsettle eating habits – I am not certain.

Followed a dish of ‘yidali mian’ (Italian pasta). Spaghetti bolognaise, Tianjin style: a strong taste of thyme, and added sugar. Italians do add sugar to their tomato sauce, to correct the acidity, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever tried from Venice to Naples.

Yet it was not unlike Hangzhou cuisine – except for the texture of the spaghetti, nicely al dente, quite Italian. Overall, the whole meal was slightly disturbing. Not bad as such, but really different from what I expected. Untill the revelation came: this was not Western food, it was fusion food. Then it all made sense!

China is famous for its regional cuisines – Sichuan, Cantonese, Shanghaiese, Beijing, etc. – I read about them a few times, and tried to memorize their differences (Shanghai is sweet, Sichuan is spicy, Beijing is salty, etc). But now, with the opening to the world, a new type of food is being produced. Some sort of ‘Chinese fusion’, presented as ‘Western’, but which is to Western food what the ‘westernised Asian’ we can find in the West is to authentic Chinese. A restaurant I found when returning to Magnetic city confirmed my intuition – it explicitly labelled itself fusion, had a menu written in English and Korean, and advertised ‘Verona’ ice cream.

But on the spot, I didn’t call the food fusion – I called it Japanese. Rather, I think it was, precisely, ‘Japanese fusion’. Japan (and Korea) has been receiving western food for a while now, and interpreting it. Sweetening the taste, cooking with rice. A dish of baked pork with cheese on rice was precisely that – a Japanese interpretation of lasagna.

Like San Francisco, Melbourne and Tokyo, it seems that Tianjin is discovering the joys of fusion food – a necessary step to becoming a Pacific major metropolis?