The land of good Chinese food

I'm sitting in the airline lounge in Hong Kong, slurping noodles and waiting for my flight back to the US. This was my first visit to China, and perhaps it is apt that I started in Hong Kong and then across Shenzhen Bay to the first region that benefited from the economic opening.  And benefited, it has.

Shenzhen is vibrant, in every sense of the word. The buildings are tall, the streets are clean and people are busy. It is closer to the wide-open parts of Europe (Estonia, say) than to other developing countries like India. The fourth biggest city in China, Shenzhen, beats Delhi or Bangalore on pretty much any measure.

The most surprising thing to me about Hong Kong is how green it is.  The picture you have of Hong Kong (at  least the picture I had before coming) was of Hong Kong Island.  But Hong Kong is not just that one island. It also comprises quite a bit of Kowloon peninsula.  And the peninsula is full of hills and completely wooded. Hong Kong, in other words, could have sprawled Phonex-style, but they have done the smart thing and remained compact.

This is the ferry that takes you from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon.  Pretty cool ride.  You can also take the metro, but the metro is not as cool.  It is, surprisingly, also more expensive.

Hong Kong is most famous for its shopping. America, however, spoils you because nowhere else do you have the selection or the prices that you have in pretty much any medium-sized city in America. So, it was more amusing than anything to see people lining up to enter a handbag store:
It is not just handbags, of course. I have not seen as many ads for luxury watches than I saw in Hong Kong. I used to think the Lake Geneva was quite tacky with huge signs representing different watch brands, but Hong Kong beats it in sheer quantity.  Wonder who buys all those watches. When I mentioned the watch ads to my Chinese hosts, one of them pointed to his smartphone ("who needs watches any more?") but the other one said that she was wearing a Swiss watch. So perhaps every Chinawoman will one day own a Swiss watch, and these ads are simply fighting for that market share.

The night-time view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon makes Manhattan look provincial.

I was visiting China to visit the Shenzhen meteorological department and Sunday happened to be "open" day.  These are Chinese citizens visiting the observatory.  The TV screens with familiar weather forecasters reading the forecasts were the big draw.

The radar in Shenzhen is atop the observatory. In fact, the observatory was specially built to house the radar. The building has 15 floors, but the floors are 30-40 feet tall. So, with their high ceilings, the office spaces feel light and airy.  Before they moved here, the meteo department was in what is now the second tallest building in Shenzhen:

The hospitality was astounding. When we have visitors to NSSL, we may do one dinner with the visitors at a local restaurant. Here, one or the other of my hosts accompanied me at lunch and dinner each and every day. I told them at the outset that I loved food, was not picky and as long as they chose food without beef, I would be quite happy. They seemed thrilled that I ate with chopsticks and that I would eat fish with bones.

I also told them about cooking my way through Fuschia Dunlop's book on Sichuan food. "An English book," waved one of my hosts dismissively.  But he was from Sichuan and so he had to show me what real Sichuan food tasted like.  Off we went to a gourmet Sichuan restaurant.  That clothesline-type thing in the picture are cold cuts.  The noodles and vegetables were awesome. I think I come close in how my noodles taste, but the variety and taste of Chinese food in China is simply incredible. Chinese food in America doesn't hold a candle to this. Even the supposedly authentic Chinese places are poor echoes of Chinese food. I wonder how Chinese people can stand it (perhaps, they get served proper food when they visit and I get crap because I am not Chinese? -- I know that I can get proper Indian food at Himalayas, a local Indian restaurant in Oklahoma, but what they normally serve in their buffets is creamed-up junk).

Close to the observatory is one of the largest parks in Shenzhen. It was built for some flower expo and consists of houses similar to what you will find in different provinces of China.  A very cool park, and I took advantage to people watch in the mornings ...

The really cool thing was that people would "walk" their birds and hang them from trees.

One evening, I went to Darfen "village", a colony of painting shops. I had read about it in the NY Times a few months ago and thought it would be cool to get an oil painting of the family done.  Turns out, though, that it is the completely wrong mix of convenience, price and quality.  The painting would take two weeks to do (so it would have to mailed to me), would cost about $300 and consist mainly of transferring the photograph to canvas.  The examples they showed looked nothing like paintings -- the art was lifeless and failed to capture the spirit of the subjects.  There is no point to a low-quality painting -- I might as well hang a high-quality photograph -- and so I decided to not get a painting done.

With my work mostly complete, I had a day of looking around in Shenzhen. Unfortunately, the city is only 30 years old, and so there is nothing historic here.  The best option was "Splendid China", a theme park that  has small models of architecture from all over China.  A little cheesy, but it was perfect for me, with my passing acquaintance of Chinese provinces and building styles.

The entrance to the park has these three "gods" reflecting Chinese aspirations. The first one is the god of family, the second the god of wealth and the third the god of long life.  And I think that order is roughly right, because nothing provoked as much admiration in China as the size of my family -- two children!, everyone remarked, one boy and one girl. Put together those characters mean the word "good". Very fortunate, etc.  etc.

 All the Chinese forecasters and scientists had exactly one child each, of course.  We seem to take for granted that this means that the population of China will slope gently downward in the next few decades and so the demographic dividend will lag behind that of the United States (or India) whose populations are yet to peak. I think we are mistaking quantity for quality.  I observed that, because they have only child, Chinese parents pour all their hopes and resources into that one child. Get ready for a generation of extremely well-educated, well-rounded children.  Good for the world as a whole, but it is going to be a tough country to compete against.  Think South Korea, but more focused, militaristic and ten times as large.

Any way, back to the theme park. There was a quite a bit of Tibetan stuff there, placed in the context of grottos and Buddhas from other provinces in China. The subtext here was quite clear.

They also had quite a few shows of minority (i.e., non-Han) peoples. The subtext here seemed to be that these were primitive peoples practicing primitive religions and lifestyles.  Maybe it is even true.

The last evening in Shenzhen, one of my hosts (who is from Guanxi) decided that he had to introduce me to food from his hometown. We went to a restaurant that sourced all its food from that province. In other words, they did not shop the local markets. They got all the fish and meats and vegetables from Guanxi to Shenzhen. And yes, the food was delicious.

But the really interesting thing was the ordering of the food. We ate in a private room (Chinese restaurants have huge halls, but they also have dozens of private rooms, and most companies get one of these rooms for their groups. As far as I could tell, there was not a significant price difference between eating in a hall and eating in a private room). But we had to go downstairs, to where the food was kept and select the fish and vegetables and tell them how we wanted it cooked.  Selected fish would get whacked right there. The manager would write up a bill and then as the food got served, it would get crossed off the list.  The cost of a dinner for five with about a dozen dishes ran to about sixty US dollars.

All in all, in less than a week in China, I got to taste five different Chinese cuisines -- Cantonese (mostly steamed), Guangdong (cooked in meat fats), Mongolian (mostly grilled), Sichuan (mostly pickled-peppery) and Guanxi (cooked in mild sauces). I could live in China forever for the food -- the US now feels like the land of bad Chinese food ... but then you also quickly notice the drawbacks of living in China. No, not the pollution. It rained like crazy while I was there, so the air was quite humid, but clean. There was the time when one of my colleagues posted a link on Facebook to a New York Times op-ed about being a woman programmer and I found that I could not access it.  I could not access any New York Times article while I was in China. It was only when I was back in Hong Kong that I could read even that rather innocuous article.

Interesting story about the rain photo (above), actually.  The colleague who had taken me to Splendid China resolutely kept his phone-camera pocketed for over two hours. Meanwhile, I had taken about 200 photographs.  But the rain moved in, and out came the camera.  Weather geeks!  They are the same every where.

Casually full of verve

JK Rowling's first book after the Harry Potter series, Casual Vacancy, seems to be getting rather poor reviews. I think it may be all the new adults expecting the author they grew up with to remain stuck in the School of Magic.

As someone who found the Harry Potter books rather juvenile (of course! consider their audience), her new book was an eyeopener. JK Rowling can write! And make trenchant observations. The Casual Vacancy somehow rises past its rather humdrum plot to become a story of what life is like in the 21st century.  It brings to mind the great English novels -- the Victorian ones, with their large casts, careful plots, observations about the fine distinctions of class and Dickensian morals. Except that it has been updated for modern Britain. But you will recognize America in there too. All rich countries these days are alike.

Highly recommended.  It is high literature that manages to point at the injustice of modern life while always remaining a very entertaining read.