Tag Archives: Japan

East Asia

2 Nov

China has a number of concession cities along the coast: Shanghai, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Macao, Qingdao, Dalian. In simplified Western historiography, these cities were ‘built by Europeans’. And indeed, they often have a significant number of buildings in European style. Yet rather than ‘European enclaves’, these cities should rather be thought of as cosmopolitan hubs where, in a European decor, East Asians were trading among themselves. In any case, this is a true descriptions of today’s Tianjin, where ‘foreigners’ come from Japan and Korea much more so than Europe or America.

According to Francois Gipouloux’ extraordinary book on ‘the Asian Mediterranean’, at their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, Shanghai and Tianjin were cities where Chinese people exchanged goods with the rest of Asia. Europeans benefited from that inter-Asian trade, where they could act as middle-men. But mostly, the European presence and administration benefited Asian merchants (Chinese or Japanese), who settled in the concessions, and controlled their trade empire from there.

Throughout his book, Gipouloux explores the history of the China sea, which he paints as a complex interlacing of commercial trade routes, emporias and diasporas. From the middle of the 19th century, this maritime empire – or china sea system – started revolving around Shanghai. Beijing was the capital of China, Shanghai the capital of the China sea. Hong Kong and Singapore replaced it in this role during the second half of the 20th century, but Shanghai is coming back, and reasserting its position as the capital of that fluid commercial world. Before it, Malacca, Guangzhou or Nagasaki had similar functions. There is a long history of commercial cities cities developing along the coast of the China sea, at the periphery of the big empires, with multicultural Asian diasporas (and a few Europeans). Tianjin falls in that category today. I heard Aaron answering the phone saying ‘moshi moshi’. We often had sushi, Bimbimbap, or ramen.

Since I decided to move to Australia, and adapt to life on the Pacific rim, I’ve been particularly interested in these inter-Asian movements. One crucial ‘haha’ moment came as I watched a Chinese film where one of the character goes to Japan. Dumb as it retrospectively sounds, I remember how radical it was for me to think of a Chinese person moving, or even travelling to Japan. I had never before thought of such inter-Asian travel.

I started collecting a mental list of films set in that East Asian space – a group of Hong Kong men helping a Chinese man escape from Vietnam (A Better Tomorrow III), a couple of Chinese people getting fat in Japan (Love on a Diet), or a Hong Kong woman exploring the original Thai village of a girl she received a cornea graft from (the Eye). I also made a mental list of real life stories – my friend Ming going to Pu Khet with her parents, my host in Nanning talking about her trip to Malaysia, or the groups of Japanese tourists I saw in in Angkor Wat.

And I’m also wondering: is there a place for Australia, among that web of global East Pacific metropolises? Should we start making a mental list of films where Asian characters explore Australia – Main Aur Mrs Khanna, Permanent Residence, or Japanese Story? Should we, as writers, build fiction set in that East Asian sphere, and through the power of fiction, inscribe Australia as a full part of that imaginary space? Or at least, as cultural consumers, be alert to Asian productions where Australia features – and encourage them, as much as we can?


Lao Wais

9 Sep

Everyone agrees, Tianjin is harder for a foreigner than Beijing and Shanghai, because you’re always the only lao wai (foreigner) around. Beijing has expat enclaves in San Li Tun and HouHai; Shanghai has the French concession – they won’t even answer in Chinese at the Gloria Jeans Coffee there. In Tianjin, staff at Starbucks often struggle to understand ‘expresso’. But I discovered a different form of multilingualism here, when I saw the restaurant menu was written in both Chinese and Japanese.

I actually had one of my most important Asian ‘haha’ moments at a Tianjin supermarket, around a similar discovery. I saw an ‘imported food section’, and went there looking for pesto, vine leaves and nutella. Instead of that, I found a bag of dry tuna flakes, wasabi and sake. It took me just that little moment to realise – that was imported food as well.

So, as a game, I started spotting traces of Japan and Korea. And I tried to experience them as multiculturally exotic (as much as Italians are in Australia). With my little eye, I spotted platters of sushi in a supermarket.

‘Japanese dinnering’ in Magnetic City

Some Korean beauty place inside a shopping mall.

And on NanLuoGuXiang, in Beijing, a Japanese everything cool shop.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon: many places with Japanese or Korean writing were not in traditional East Asian style, but superficially Euro-international, following a kind of cute-eurotic aesthetics, like that ‘Cafe Alice’.

The best example would be the ‘Austrian style’ shopping steet of Magnetic City, around the E-Mart Centre – a Korean development in faux Austrian style, with a bubble tea shop, a Lotte supermarket, and fake flowers hanging from hooks, along the faux-lattice wood facade.

Am I really the only lao wai around, I started wondering? Or are these “Asians” around me just as displaced as myself?

The place started bringing back me this quintessential Australian experience, on my first trip, at Box Hill central, when I saw two red-hair girls passing in school uniforms, sipping bubble tea from a plastic cup, smiling at an Asian family sitting there. Maybe, local Tianjiners who saw me queuing behind a Korean teenager at the bubble tea counter in the Austrian style city would experience a similar sense of eur-asianism and global citizenship?

An artist of the floating world

18 Aug

Tianjin has a famous ‘water park’, just south of the TV tower. I was intrigued by the concept of a ‘water park’. What would it be like? I had a bit of a (warm) laugh when I first entered, seeing garish smurf-like plastic houses. Another one of these Chinese gimmicky parks, magical world of speaking mushrooms for kids and adults alike.

I didn’t follow that trail. On my left, I found a long red portico, in traditional architecture, which I walked under for a while. People were eating, dancing or singing traditional music together. It was pretty, but nothing exceptional – I had seenall that before in China. Plus how did water play a role there?

But then, getting further into the park, I started seeing the beauty of its understated, grey Japanese aesthetics. Some scenes reminded me of hokusai’s drawings: people sitting under a pergola, on a stone path, in the middle of a lotus pond.

Towers reflected in the water, on either side of a stone bridge.

Or a boat crossing the lake, with a temple and a stone bridge in the distance.

These images were very much like the ones I had seen at the Museum, the previous days. Empty spaces giving room for imagination. Little people, and the simple dailiness of their activity, punctuating a vast landscape, full of nooks and chambers for them to inhabit.

Water was crucial here. Water, connecting and separating peninsulas, islands and bridges. Water, reflecting the sky, towers and trees. Water, the mother of dream, the playground of images. Water, a pathway to the other world.

Inventing new tastes – Chinese fusion food

4 Aug

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?