Chinese Buffet – Part 15: Suzhou Museum & Gardens

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Located less than an hour from Shanghai by train is Suzhou, a water town that’s been called the “Venice of the East.” One of China’s most ancient cities, with a history that dates back 2,500 years, Suzhou is known for its canals and gardens. I took a day trip (50 RMB round trip via train) to see for myself.

I had hoped to find one of the sightseeing boats I’d read about. Supposedly they depart from the canal near the train station and run through the city’s network of waterways. But there was massive construction taking place in the canal right across from the station — it was dry and full of work crews. Instead, I set out on foot down the main street that cuts through the city – Renmin Lu. Eventually I snuck down some side streets and walked along the canals, sensing a slight resemblance to Mediterranean life here and there along the waterway:

I suspect in cooler weather it could be great fun to spend several hours exploring the alleyways and bridges of Suzhou, but since my time was limited, I wandered with a fairly tight agenda. I wanted to be sure to fit in visits to some of Suzhou’s famous World Heritage recognized gardens. I took a shortcut across the main pedestrian shopping street (Quanqian Jie) and headed south, in search of The Master-of-Nets Garden. Tucked away down an alley full of trinket vendors, this quaint garden was nice and quiet when I arrived. Several guidebooks say it draws the most tourists because it is so charming:

The only group roaming around the grounds was a sketch class. I sat and observed some students as they drew. The crickets sang softly and a slight breeze cooled me down. It was exactly what I expected an ancient garden to provide — shade mixed with silence. I would have liked to linger longer, but I was in desperate need of water…and had an appointment.

I headed off to meet with Peter Goff and see the site for The Bookworm’s newest location. Superbly located along a canal just off Shiquan Jie (a popular bar and restaurant strip), the latest branch of this English-language lending library cafe is set to open in September. We took a short tour of the prime canal-side location where the building renovation is underway:

After our meeting I asked Peter to point me in the direction of the Blue Wave Pavilion. I liked the sound of this garden and knew it was nearby. He directed me towards Canglangting Jie. The garden is also known as the Canglang Pavilion. Spacious and peppered with rock formations, it was also quite empty. I think the hot temps were definitely keeping folks away. But the greenery of the garden actually made it a perfect temporary escape from the hot sun:

At this point I knew I still had a few hours to spare and decided I would switch gears from gardens to museums. Renowned for its silk manufacturing, I debated a visit to the city’s silk museum. But I had recently read an article about the new Suzhou Museum and was craving a contemporary art fix. I jumped in a taxi heading north:

Designed by international architectural superstar I. M. Pei, the new Suzhou Museum opened in October 2006. The original museum, established in 1960, was the former residence of Prince Zhong Wang Fu. This older part still exists at the rear of the museum, but the new “face” created by I. M. Pei brings a bold new look to this corner of the city:

The contemporary design takes its inspiration from the traditional courtyard and ancient gardens that Suzhou is famous for. It houses over 30,000 works from Suzhou and the surrounding Wu region. The four permanent collections include sections on Wu calligraphy, painting and relics.

I. M. Pei’s family lived in Suzhou, in an area that neighbors this museum and is part of another of the city’s ancient gardens. Fans of modern architecture or the work of I. M. Pei should not miss this masterpiece:

I sat by this creative wall waterfall and lotus pool, reflecting on the design elements I had encountered during the day:

From ancient gardens to renovated buildings to modern museums, I sensed a continuity to my Suzhou travels — it seems that what’s old is always new again.

Chinese Buffet – Part 14: Shanghai Shopping

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Shopping can be an ego-boosting activity in China.

“Hello beautiful lady.”

“Welcome to my shop pretty lady.”

These were the typical greetings used by savvy shopkeepers to lure us into their stores. Obviously there were ulterior motives behind these random compliments, but I just chuckled along and enjoyed them. I wasn’t really interested in the wares they were trying to sell, but wanted to witness firsthand the “experience” of shopping in China.

I skipped the stalls in Beijing, having no motivation to tackle the markets on my own. I knew that when I got to Shanghai, my skilled shopper pal Beth would give me a crash course in the art of Chinese bargaining.

My first haggling practice took place at the Yu Garden Bazaar, after our dumpling lunch. Beth used several key Mandarin phrases to secure some good deals. With her help, I purchased a few souvenirs from among the thousands. There were fans, scrolls, chess sets, chopsticks, silk scarves, jade jewelry…on and on and on. After awhile, the stores all started to look the same.

The Fabric Market was much more interesting to me. With a little imagination here, the possibilities are endless:

Many folks who live abroad here for any considerable length of time wind up with a wardrobe of custom-made clothes – dresses, coats, suits. Beth explained that her family has been more than pleased with the quality and price of their purchases from the fabric market. So I gave it a try. I picked a silk and design from the samples at one booth, and was fitted for a dress. A few days later, I picked up my brand new Chinese qipao:

It needed to be altered slightly, so we had to go back again the next day to pick it up and pay the balance. The dress, plus a shirt I had made as well, cost me $71 total. Travelers who want custom clothes and have a few days to spare in Shanghai should visit here first, to allow ample time for items to be made and altered if necessary.

We also made several trips to one particular pearl shop within the Xiangyang Market, an underground shopping center near the Museum of Science and Technology subway station. (This is a new location for the market — an earlier outdoor version was shut down in 2006.) Amylin’s Pearls is a popular place to stock up on gems:

Again, the possibilities are endless — there are tons of stones to choose from, in all shapes and sizes, and they can be stranded together any which way you like. Since I rarely wear jewelry, it took a little convincing from Beth to get me excited about pearls — but I did order a few black pearl items. I spent about $40 and took home gifts for myself and others too. If they have the time, the gals at Amylin’s will make your jewelry while you wait – you can walk through the underground mall while they work, or you can watch them in action:

Beth’s favorite place to shop is the outdoor Dongtai Lu Antiques Market. It was mine too, but not because of what we purchased. The place was empty, quiet and full of stories to tell. Even in the brutal heat, I liked it here. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have spent more time walking up and down the main corridor of booths. I’m sure there would have been more folks shopping if the weather had been cooler. But even then, Beth said that this market is usually pretty sedate. (No “beautiful lady” compliments here.) The best thing to do is peek down the side alleys while walking along the main shopping strip. See the stories lingering here?

The heat severely limited our time at Dongtai Lu, and it was obviously affecting sales for these merchants. We did a quick sweat walk through the stalls, purchasing some Chinese games, calligraphy brush holders and ink seals from this kind gentleman, who said we were his first sale in three days:

I was wiped when we were finished. As a self-proclaimed non-shopper, I had reached my limit. All the “pretty lady” compliments in the world would not have kept me going much longer.

But I’m grateful that Beth pushed me through the Chinese shopping experience. I would have never had a custom dress and matching jewelry made in China if it weren’t for her. I’m glad to have these personalized souvenirs to take home with me. And I’m very glad the shopping spree is officially over.

One for the Road – China: Chinese Foods

As a sidebar to this month’s Chinese Buffet series, throughout August, One for the Road will highlight travel guides, reference books and other recommended reads related to life or travel in China.

Those darling dumplings are just one example of traditional Chinese cuisine. So where do you turn to learn more? There are tons of books that could be mentioned here, but I just picked one title from a bunch I recently looked at from China Books. These guys carry books about all aspects of life in China. This Chinese Foods book is from the Cultural China Series of China Intercontinental Press, and has been translated into English by William W. Wang.

The book contains beautiful images and follows a clean, crisp design. It begins with a chapter on traditional foods native to China and is then followed by a look at foods introduced from other places — like corn and chili peppers. Most of the book is dedicated to traditions, local delicacies, tools of the trade and the Chinese eating experience. There are also sections dedicated to tea and wine. If you’re going to China on a culinary journey, this book might serve as a fine introduction to the history and culture of food throughout the country.

Chinese Buffet – Part 13: Darling Dumplings

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Going out to eat dumplings was a highlight of my visit to Shanghai. Although my pal Beth has been unable to stomach the taste of most Chinese cuisine during her pregnancy, the aversion has not affected her ability to toss back some steamed dumplings every few days. So that’s exactly what we did.

The first place we went for dumplings was Nan Xiang, a center-city shrine to the doughy little wonders. This restaurant is THE place to go to sample typical Shanghainese steamed buns. There are three floors, and the menu prices go up with each level. There’s also a take out window on the ground floor. We walked up one flight to the dining room that serves the cheapest menu.

Since this is a touristy spot, there can sometimes be a bit of a line, but we got lucky both times we visited, waiting no more than ten minutes for a table. Seating is done family style, to keep the hungry crowds moving through the place. We watched the restaurant staff making buns while we waited, and tried to chat with our neighbors at the table.

The dumplings usually come in pork and crab. But what makes this baozi particularly unique is that the meat is swimming in a little pool of liquid. Folks usually take a small bite out of the dumpling (known as xiaolongbao), suck the broth out, then eat the rest of the bun.

Beth taught me an alternative dumpling-eating strategy with one extra step. After taking the first bite to release the liquid…

…it can be easier (and less messy!) to first pour the broth into a spoon…
(which you will probably have to ask them to bring to your table)

…then sip the tasty soup up…

…before finishing the yummy dough ball — all at once or with a few bites. The dough is sticky so it usually stays fixed in the chopsticks quite well:

A trip to Nan Xiang is best paired with a walk across the Bridge of Nine Turnings and a visit to the neighboring Yu Gardens. A stroll through the beautiful grounds is a great way to work off your dumpling meal:

On another dumpling day excursion we also combined dining with sightseeing. We visited Din Tai Fung, a famous chain of dumpling restaurants that originated in Taiwan and now has outposts in several Asian cities and in Los Angeles.

This place is pricier and the wait longer (about 40 minutes), but the dumplings were still delicious. (I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to mess these things up?!) We were seated at a corner table for two — no folks to chat with this time:

I was happy to have the option to dip my dumplings in soy sauce and ginger at this restaurant. The traditional combination is vinegar and ginger, but I prefer the soy sauce, which you won’t find on the table at Nan Xiang. I also ordered a bit of fried rice and one larger bun, just to try something different. But it was basically just a ton more dough to chew through:

To walk off this meal, we strolled through the central stretch of Xintiandi, an open-air public space lined with a mixture of shops and restaurants. The area is well-known because of the shikumens that were renovated to create this old-meets-new development. We took a short spin through the Shikumen Open House, a recreation of a 1920’s era shikumen home. Like the hutongs in Beijing, efforts have been made to preserve the architectural history of these structures:

A history lesson on a full and happy tummy. Not a bad way to see the city.

Of course, I’m really craving a true Shanghainese dumpling as I write this…It is such a simple and perfect culinary creation:

Never again will I look at a Chinese dumpling the same way.

(Ya here that Mom and Dad?! When I get back home we’ve got to go in search of REAL dumplings, okay? No more of those fried ones from the take out menu. I’ve been converted and will attempt to convert you as well :)

One for the Road – China: Adventures of the Treasure Fleet

As a sidebar to this month’s Chinese Buffet series, throughout August, One for the Road will highlight travel guides, reference books and other recommended reads related to life or travel in China.

Ryan’s home is full of books — about dinosaurs, superheros, America and China. This is one I’d like to get for him when he returns to the US: Adventures of the Treasure Fleet – China Discovers the New World is a unique historical fiction title for kids. Released earlier this year by Tuttle Publishing, it is beautifully illustrated with the colorful detailed drawings of Lak-Khee Tay-Audouard.

Treasure Fleet is the story of seven epic voyages taken by Admiral Zheng He, who led more than 300 brightly painted ships across the South China Sea, to the Indian Ocean and further on to the coast of Africa. The events that occur during the voyages actually took place between 1405 and 1433. The author, Ann Martin Bowler, used diaries of actual crew members as primary sources. Both the stories and photos are full of fantasy and fun — and should surely inspire explorers of all ages to set out on voyages of their own. I hope it will inspire Ryan and other kids to keep on traveling…always!