Best Burger in the Far East? Malone’s Made in China


 

Malone's Pub-Like Storefront

Malone’s Pub-Like Storefront

There’s a problem with finding a good hamburger in Asian. They just don’t get it here. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t have ‘Merican beef, or they are just philosophically opposed to ‘Merican mimicry. What is served as a burger is really just, well, meatloaf, referred to as “hamburg” throughout Japan. Read McDonald’s Can Kiss My Ass for more concerning this particular affliction for which there seems to be no inoculation. Until finding Café Captain Kangaroo this past weekend in the northern reaches of Okinawa with their fabulous array of deliciously hand-crafted burgers, the best beef patty with the usual accoutrements we had the pleasure of devouring was…

Made in China.

tongren2

At Malone’s, in Shanghai, to be exact. Described as an “American Café,” Malone’s is home to one of the most extensive burger menus in that far-eastern Asian metropolis. Located conveniently close to a few Western embassies and consulates right in the middle of the Tongren Lu district of Shanghai just around the corner from the Shanghai Center, Malone’s has been described – note the past tense – as “packed with expats and the out-of-town business crowd.” The three-story establishment used to offer differing venues, where a Filipino cover band used to play on the 2nd floor most nights, and the 3rd floor “Loft” offered a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. The extensive bar and the outdoor seating areas hinted at quite a maximum occupancy, but on the cold fall evening we visited, no one was sitting outside, and only about ¼ of the indoor seats were taken.

tongren3

These characterizations all share one important similarity: their tenses are all in the past. It seems that although Malone’s was at one time the place to be for Westerners visiting Shanghai, complete with an award-winning burger, today the bar/eatery is a mere shadow of its former self.

Past Awards Quite Dated

Past Awards Quite Dated

However, having arrived very late in Shanghai after traveling all afternoon and evening, Jody and I were hungry for a late dinner before bed. Our local Chinese guide, asking if we were interested in a good burger, recommended this particular place, which happened to be within walking distance from our hotel. Normally we both shy away from American food and chains traveling in Asia, but the lure and lore of a REAL burger was too much to pass up. Fifteen minutes later we were walking into Malone’s, and within another 15 and after a round of cold Chinese Tiger beers, a truly wonderful burger did arrive. It certainly didn’t take 15 to devour.

While the Atmosphere is Lacking, the Burgers are NOT!

While the Atmosphere is Lacking, the Burgers are NOT!

Malone’s opened its doors about 20 years ago as an international extension of a Vancouver, Canada-based chain of the same name. As the first western-owned and run restaurant outside of high-end hotels in the city, it was originally managed by a group of Canadian expats who wanted to bring western-style dining in a neighborhood-pub setting to Shanghai. It appears that the change in management from foreigners to locals has been a change for the worse. The bar is rather dirty, with the 2nd and 3rd floors closed during our visit. We were seated on the 2nd floor, but only after we asked about alternative seating since there were so many smokers and smoke on the first floor. The area clearly hadn’t been used, clean, or refurbished in I would guess at least a year or two. The service was okay, the beer was cold, and the food actually well above par. And all for a reasonable price. It’s unfortunately that this place has taken such a nose-dive.

Burgermondayflyer

I can still recommend the burgers at Malone’s for those that are craving a western-style meal after spending a fair amount of time flirting with mere “hamburg” in the Far East. But I wouldn’t visit the pub looking for atmosphere, music, or any type of night-life…. Read some recent thoroughly trashing reviews at SmartShanghai.com and Trip Advisor.

Map

Address:  255 Tongren Road, near Nanjing Xi Lu; 铜仁路255号, 近南京西路, Shanghai, China

Phone:  86 21 6247 2400

Website:  www.malones.com.cn

Email:  malones@malones.com.cn

METRO:  Jing’an Temple, 15 mins. walk

Hours:  Daily, 10am-2am

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes


“When a lovely flame dies, Smoke gets in your eyes….” ~ The Platters, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

The Cold, or Pollution?

The Cold, or Pollution?

Okinawa was put under an air quality alert this week as “fluctuating higher levels of pollutant aerosols [were] anticipated…,” the first time I recall this happening in my more than seven years spent on this island paradise. And the source?

Pollution. Made in China.

Slide from a Brief Warning of Increased Pollutant Aerosols

Slide from a Brief Warning of Increased Pollutant Aerosols

It’s an amazing coincidence as I just posted a blog discussing the massive pollution problem in China, witnessed firsthand during a trip there last November. See Pollution, Made in China for more.

Now, I’m not anti-China. In fact, it would be relatively easy to fall in love with what China can offer. Jody and I even found ourselves talking about living in Shanghai, it was that, well, “cool.” And then there were all the surprising turns that we didn’t expect. All those expectations and stereotypes that turned out to be patently false. See Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Misconceptions about China more just a few of those realizations.

So, walking outside yesterday, I was struck immediately by a slight odor in the air, one that was able to overcome the strong aroma of the steady sea breeze blowing salt and ocean across our entire neighborhood. But it was my limited sight line, my obstructed view-shed from our 5th floor building’s breezeway that stopped me in my tracks. There it was, the oppressive and offensive haze that was so ubiquitous in China, now the most recent but unwelcome import to Okinawa.

Okinawa PM2-5 Feb 2015

Okinawa Measures of PM2.5 Pollutants, 5 Feb 2015

PM2-5 RatingsAs forecasted, pollution from China swept across the East China Sea to affect Okinawa and beyond. While the smaller, most dangerous particulate matter (“PM2.5”) levels didn’t reach critical levels, they were hazardous to those at risk or who had respiratory vulnerabilities.  The air quality on Okinawa reached 154 on the 5th of February, a state considered “unhealthy,” while the most dangerous PM2.5 measure hit up into the 60’s, also considered troublesome.  By any measure, though, when pollution is thick enough to see and smell, it’s a problem, simply and most basically by being an affront to our senses, and an insult to Mother Nature. At worst, it portends a bleak future for the entire area, if not the globe. All based on pollution…originating from China.

AQI

How to Interpret Air Quality Readings

If you think this issue is being overstated, I answer with this: you have not spent any time experiencing the pollution of China firsthand. And if you still think, perhaps, that my sinuses are too sensitive, or that I have an owl’s eyesight and see the pollution differently than everyone else, check out this website where you can view movies of airborne pollutants throughout Asia. In fact, it’s so enlightening, I’ve included a screenshot below.

Forecast

The Next Wave of Chinese Pollution due to Hit Okinawa this Weekend. A new type of typhoon?

 

There is simply not enough ocean between Okinawa and China.

There is simply not enough ocean between Okinawa and China.

China is facing its own coming crisis in dealing with their relatively unchecked effluence. That’s all fine and well for them; at some point, the people will rise up and force change. But, unfortunately, for the rest of the world, it’ll be too little, too late. China’s poor stewardship of their environment is certainly trashing the Eastern hemisphere, and it’s not too hard to see a time when what they do – or fail to do – will have immense global consequences.

China's problem is now the world's problem....

China’s problem is now the world’s problem….

Pollution, Made in China


Real-Time Air Quality in China, 4 Feb 2015.

Real-Time Air Quality in China, 4 Feb 2015.

“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.” ~Dan Quayle, or something one might hear these days in China….

That's more like it.  Thank you, EPA!!

That’s more like it. Thank you, EPA!!

We were walking to our tour bus in Beijing, China, the Chinese capital city and third largest city in the world with a population of about 21.2 million. The pollution there was an affront to all our senses. It seemed thick enough to slice with a knife when we de-boarded our plane the day prior, and it seemed worse this morning. Curious as to whether or not this was the “norm,” I questioned our Chinese guide, “So is this fog, smog, or just pollution?”

“Yes!” our guide responded, with a knowing smile. And his tell was all I really needed to know….

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Ever since landing in China, there was a strange acidic smell hanging in the air, causing our nose to fill with black muck each day. The smog was oppressive, hanging low and dense and hindering almost every attempt at taking scenic pictures of the beautiful sites in China. And this level of effluence was nearly constant, both across the week (we had ½ of a nice day in Beijing), and across the country, even in rural areas hours away from city centers.

“But the skies cleared just a few weeks ago,” our local guide continued. “The government shut down factories, coal plants, closed schools and took half the cars off the road to get ready for the big APEC summit that was held here earlier this month.”

“Did it actually work,” I asked.

untitled

“Yes!!” he emphatically exclaimed, a smile so big it threatened to split his face in half. “We actually saw stars at night and blue during the day! The children were out of school! Everyone was so happy!”

But of course it didn’t last. Two weeks later, with business as usual, and the repressive contamination was back.

Horrific pollution in Xian.

Horrific pollution in Xian.

The summit he was talking about – the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting – was held last year just outside of Beijing in early November. In anticipation of such an important and public meeting, China attempted to prevent Beijing’s ubiquitous smog by limiting driving and closing down factories within 125 miles of city center. Cars were permitted on the roads only every other day. Schools and government offices were granted a six-day holiday during the Meeting. Residents were granted free admission to tourist attractions in neighboring provinces in a blatant attempt to move as much of the pollution’s shadow away from town as possible. And other more desperate measures were instituted: construction sites were shut down, deliveries were halted, many restaurants were closed, and even crematoriums curtailed the burning of funeral clothes, a common sacrificial offering meant to keep the dead attired in the afterlife. All in an attempt to not solve a pollution problem, but rather to temporarily hide it.

insolite-blog

Did the Chinese government really think that these rather unorthodox measures would go unnoticed? Or that they didn’t actually point a guilty finger at the pollution problem the government there is so quick to deny?

This is Hong Kong. But apparently it's also China's solution to their growing problem....

This is Hong Kong. But apparently it’s also China’s solution to their growing problem….

Amazingly enough, the air did indeed start to clear. Residents and citizens, seeing the effects that such simple measures could have over such a short period of time satirically labelled the improved weather conditions as “APEC blue,” which was meant to refer to something enjoyable but fleeting. Other Chinese joked that APEC stood for “Air Pollution Eventually Controlled.” But the oppressive smoggy skies returned the week of the meetings, with the US embassy reporting air pollution almost 50 times the World Health Organization’s safe daily limit.

Unlike Japan, where masks are wore to prevent disease transmission, in China they are intended to help prevent lung cancer....

Unlike Japan, where masks are worn to prevent disease transmission, in China they are intended to help prevent lung cancer….

The US embassy in Beijing regularly posts automated air quality measurements at @beiji ngair on Twitter. In the fall of 2010, the feed described the PM2.5 measurement as “crazy bad” after registering a reading in excess of 500 for the first time, a descriptor that was later changed to a more politically correct and scientifically-based “beyond index,” a level which recurred in February, October, and December of 2011. After new more sensitive equipment was installed, air pollution worsened with readings of up to 700 in 2013. The US Embassy recorded over 755 on January 1st, 2014, and 800 by January 12. If you read up on what these PM2.5 numbers actually mean, these readings are, without doubt, “CRAZY BAD.” A label that perhaps should be formally restored to characterize China’s rampant problem with pollution.

That's smog in the background.  Two hours away from Beijing.

That’s smog in the background. Two hours away from Beijing.

So, with the pollution still not hidden, what other steps could the Chinese take? Why, just deny access to the US data, of course! And worse, put up conflicting and erroneous pollution readings on their own websites and feeds…even though all someone had to do was walk outside and experience the particulate assault on their eyes, nose and lungs firsthand.

The only plus side for pollution?  Beautifully toxic sunsets....

The only plus side for pollution? Beautifully toxic sunsets….

According to the National Environmental Analysis released by Tsinghua University and The Asian Development Bank in January 2013, 7 of 10 most air polluted cities in Asian are found in China. And the pollution is beyond serious; it’s is damaging the very health of the (urban) Chinese people.

The gray stuff?  Let's just say it's not clouds....

The gray stuff? Let’s just say it’s not clouds….

Zhong Nanshan, the president of the China Medical Association, in 2012 warned that air pollution is poised to become China’s biggest health threat. Urban lung cancer and cardiovascular disease rates are 2-3 times that of rural China, and have been increasing, with air pollution and tobacco smoking being to blame.

Beijing_smog_comparison_August_2005

America was traveling down a similar road after WWII. The scenes playing out in China today could have been anywhere in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. What changed our path? How is it that we cleaned our waters and skies and moved from a culture of litter to one of waste management? Step in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

air-pollution

The EPA was created via Executive Order by President Nixon in 1970 for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. It seems that not all Executive Orders are not bad, even ones signed by crooks.

SO2_1970-2010_small-1e1h5a1By most accounts the EPA, now over 40 years old, has been singularly instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. It’s not just North America we are talking about; the EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines, with similar far-reaching effect.

NOxNO2_1970-2010_small-1xca9c2The Clean Water and the Clean Air Acts are early examples of sweeping legislation (some would classify them radical or even seditious) that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA remain focused on reversing and managing both ozone depletion and climate change.

Our success story with cleaning up our skies.

Our success story with cleaning up our skies.

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership, published, with the guidance of more than 20 key environmental leaders including several former EPA officials, a list of “10 ways the EPA has strengthened America over the past 40 years:”

Banning widespread use of DDT (and saving several species of birds)

Removing acid from rain

Rethinking waster as materials

Removing lead from gasoline

Clearing second-hand smoke (indoor smoking bans)

Vehicle emissions & efficiency

Cleaning the environment (“Superfund” Sites)

Managing toxins

Cleaner water

Public information and right to know

Before the EPA, American communities faced numerous perils without even knowing it. For baby-boomers and those born earlier, vivid images of American rivers so contaminated they could be actually lit on fire and choking smog-filled skies over major cities are etched in the mind. And that was just forty years ago — not so long when one considers the profound improvements that have been achieved in our air and water quality since then.  In the same time, China has achieved the reverse; my Father, who visited China for the first time in 1983, reported NO smog or other pollution….

The pollution in China is even visible indoors!

The pollution in China is even visible indoors!

China is facing their own similar crossroads. The New York Times claims that “[China’s] environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party.” According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial air pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death. And the problem has moved beyond China’s borders: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides created in China fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. According to the Journal of Geophysical Research, pollution made in China even reaches across the Pacific Ocean and is now a constant and recent import at Los Angeles, USA.

At least we can export our clean air to China!

At least we can export our clean air to China!

Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to temporarily curtail and hide rampant pollution, the air in Beijing quickly returned to a stifling gauzy white, registering as “very unhealthy” on the US embassy’s air quality scale. But apparently the government there is not about to take any drastic corrective actions necessary to change their country’s path. For example, after the summit, China and the United States announced that their two nations would work to reduce greenhouse gases and restrain pollution. The United States vowed to cut carbon emissions to levels 25% below those recorded in 2005 – an amazingly lofty goal, but China only agreed to “limit” their peak carbon emissions by 2030 (the first time China has agreed to cap their emissions) and strive to achieve 20% of its energy from sources that do not produce carbon emissions. Seems like a pretty ding-dang crappy deal if you ask me, not balanced in the least. From all quarters, it appears that China is simply not organically structured to create, implement and empower an EPA of their own…even though they already have one.

It seems we can have it all.  Or most of it.

It seems we can have it all. Or most of it.

For me, I will never curse the EPA ever again. Seriously. Yes, it is expensive to live cleanly. And yes, it does involve government oversight and regulation. But left to our own devices, unchecked and unregulated free-market capitalism would destroy the environment; there simply is too much money to be made. And our focus is generally and, for many, necessarily, on short-term consequences. Like protecting jobs and ensuring economic growth. But certainly the last 40 years under the EPA has demonstrated, quite conclusively, that we can have them all – a clean environment, jobs, and sustained growth in GDP!

lorax04

As a 10 year old kid on his first trip to Europe circa 1976, I immediately noticed the offensive and noxious fumes along the busy roads of Rome. Later I learned it was lead in their automobile fuel – something the EPA had removed from American gas before I could remember. That small change with such dramatic consequence has always stayed with me, highlighting really how easy it could be to protect the earth. But this trip to China has driven home the dangers of unchecked, unfettered human activity. After all, in the final analysis, if we mortally wound Mother Nature, jobs and the economy matter not.

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Next time you enjoy twinkling stars in the sky, or a clear, cool glass of tap water, or unobstructed clear blue skies of most of our cities, thank the EPA. Without it, we might be a lot more like China that we could ever imagine.

the-lorax-quote5

 

For more information, please see the sources used in drafting this blog:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/04/beijing-smokescreen-hide-pollution-apec

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/10/apec-china-blocks-access-us-air-pollution-data-beijing

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-epa-first-40-years/

https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=aspen+institute+epa+success+results

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting! Misconceptions about China


 

No, everybody was certainly not Kung Fu fighting. Nor were we tailed 24/7 by secret Chinese intelligence officials – which we were told would be the case by our American tour guide. And although our DNA may have been collected from one of our many wine glasses enjoyed along the way, I’m pretty ding-dang sure our suitcase weren’t rummaged through in our hotel rooms…as a counterintelligence friend of ours warned….

Aside from our touristy The Legend of Kung Fu show at the ritzy Red Theater in Beijing, we failed to sight even one local Chinese resident spontaneously breaking out into Kung Fu. Actually, I would hazard to guess that’s there probably a much higher probability of spotting such frivolity as part of some flash mob in “Some Town,” U.S. of A. And while we did take a plethora of wide-angle camera shots of surrounding crowds hoping to catch the spies that must have been surely in our midst, I am sad to report a complete lack of photogenic proof. But hey, that doesn’t stop the Sasquatch-Hunters or UFO-Believers, does it?!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

While we really didn’t expect to see Kung Fu fighting in the streets on our recent foray into China, at the same time we really didn’t know quite what to expect; perhaps our things would be rifled and electronic devices all copied and implanted with bugs and other MI-6 eavesdropping devices. My parents went to China – twice – in the very early eighties, when it literally has just “opened-up” a few years after the crushing weight of the 1970s Cultural Revolution had finally been lifted. They, of course, informed my early opinions of that far-away land, one that we learned next-to-nothing about in all of my formal schooling. And that concept of China centered on horrible food, substandard lodgings, an almost complete lack of cars, and the ubiquitous use of the abacus in place of cash registers or calculators. Oh, and the tours back then were escorted by the military and party officials, quite transparently.

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

That early concept of the Far East didn’t change too much over much of my early adult life. I did, at numerous times, get to enjoy Hong Kong and Macau, the latter first under Portuguese administration in 1999, and then as part of Chinese sovereignty in the 21st century under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. But it always was very clear that Hong Kong and Macau were not, and remain quite distinct from China. So, my early conceptual formulation, combined with decades of exposure to the indoctrinating fear and loathing of the U.S. political and military-industrial complex towards China, along with the arrogance and ignorance of most of my fellow Americans, resulted in several misconceptions about this intriguing continent-sized country, the most populous one on the planet, with the world’s second most powerful economy.

Chinese Flag

Chinese Flag

The first is its name: China’s name is not China …at least to the Chinese. We use China most likely because of its Sanskrit derivation from the Qin (pronounced “chin”) Kingdom, one of the first unified regions of today’s China that would have been reached via land-travel from the west in ancient times. Oddly unknown to the west, the Chinese peoples’ common name for their country is Zhōngguó (中国, meaning “Central Nation State.”

funny-languages-Japanese-Korean-Chinese-kanjis

The next most obvious thing? Chinese people don’t speak “Chinese.” Mainland China is made up mostly of the Han ethnicity, but includes large percentages of another 56 ethnic minorities (Tibetans perhaps being the most famous). Unlike many of its Asian neighbors like Japan, Korea or Vietnam, China is not homogeneous. One could say that China is more like the “Europe of Asia.” When we Westerners think of “The Chinese,” the Han majority is what we conjure, even without knowing it. And like most other places that aren’t the great melting pot that America once was, each minority in China retains its own traditions, costume and culture. And this includes language as well.

I've finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

I’ve finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

Mandarin is the “Chinese language” that we might commonly associate with what is spoken in mainland China. But the Chinese heard in movies and TV may more likely be Cantonese as spoken in Hong Kong. Putonghua, as Mandarin is called in Mandarin, is the officially unifying language taught in schools and used by the central government and on national television and radio. But there are wide and sometimes huge differences between languages in China. For instance, people from Shanghai speak Shanghainese, which is by and large incompatible with Mandarin! Come to think of it, I reckon that’s not much different from a Californian trying to converse with someone from, say, the hills of Kentucky.

YMCA-harder-in-other-languages

And speaking of language, don’t believe the hype about the lack of English speakers in China. There is, in fact, a fair amount of English spoken, especially in and around tourist areas and attractions. However, while English may be spoken, it may not be understood. A danger here, experienced firsthand, is that service industry personnel will smile, say “yes” and happily agree with you, especially when they haven’t properly understood. Oh, and an important tip: taxi drivers don’t generally speak English (at all), so it’s always good to have your destination written down in Chinese. See notes on language above!

Chinese Beer.  Yummy.

Chinese Beer. Yummy.

KFC in China

KFC in China

China 2014, Shanghai, Chinese coke colaChinese food in China is NOT anything like Manchu Wok! “Duh,” I hear you say, I know, I know. But since I’ve been asked this particular question more than any other since traveling to China, I just have to include what should be fairly obvious. Chinese cuisine focuses on seafood, although beef and pork are widely available and served in quantity to Westerners. Most surprisingly, it’s chicken that is in most modern demand (see Thanksgiving in the Far East for more). Noodles are the staple starch in the north, replaced by rice is the south (where people are smaller in stature as a result, or so I’m told). The food was very good, and yes, Peking Duck is really so very much better in China!

One Child Policy

And what about the “one child policy” that we’ve all heard so much about? Well, many Chinese do have siblings, and it’s becoming more and more common. The Chinese Government’s One Child Policy was only recently put into effect in 1979, so most people born before very likely have at least one brother or sister. In the West, the policy seems like – and at times is one of the worst forms of human rights abuses imaginable. But, in a country that was suffering unsustainable growth with well over 1 billion people at the time, such a measure of austerity make some logical sense, less the world have another Africa on its hands. Now numbers like billion don’t mean much to most people, but after a visit to China, one realizes just how many people China has! More than any other country in the world, in fact. In the mid-1970s, population models showed China’s growth spiraling out of control. Like anywhere else in the world, when there is an incongruity between people and resources, undesirable happenings like war, unrest, famine, and crime all can result. Personal sacrifice for general peace and harmony is a deep-seeded Chinese mindset stemming a long affair with Confucianism, where respect for elders (and family) and loyalty to the state are foremost above all else.

And, seldom noted in the West, the policy was never intended as blanket coverage; farmers and China’s ethnic minorities, typically much more blue-collar and agri-based, have always been allowed more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. So if you travel to the countryside or into remote regions of China, you’ll find families with more than one child. Although the policy remains in force, reduced and stabilized birth-rates, combined with a now aging population, has resulted in shifts in the application of the rule. For instance, if two people born under the policy without siblings marry, they may be permitted to have two children.

D2607AS1

The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

How’bout capitalism and democracy there? Well, my own response is that even America isn’t a democracy – it’s a republic…. And our “free market” is heavily influenced and to some extent controlled by the state. China’s economy is forecasted by the International Monetary Fund to surpass that of the United States within a decade or two. Their national per capita income will double, placing once destitute China on par with European countries like Italy and Spain – without the current economic and/or political woes those two countries currently suffer from. China has been and continues to open to the global village, and while it’s a reasonable expectation that Western influences must result in change to China, China is smart enough to absorb the best of capitalism from afar while translating it into a uniquely Chinese context. Don’t confuse China’s recent economic revolution with Westernization. Those are two very different ideas.

'Quick, comrade, what is the latest party position on existence of dragons?'

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Popular protests don’t mean that the Socialist Party’s power is in decline. The government in China, while suffering from a brutality-infused past and still heavy-handed by Western standards, still garners respect on the street. Nationalism is strong, and people are proud. For instance, older senior leaders in the party have admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a terrible mistake, and have acknowledged that much reform is still needed moving forward. It seems that at least while good times continue to persist, China’s citizenry will continue to support their national leaders and their leadership…even if sometimes only grudgingly. In a country as large, diverse, and heavily populated as China, stability is valued over almost all else. One thing for certain, the future of China’s political system will not be dictated by Americanor anyone else in the world…except for the Chinese themselves.

Mao_Jordan_cropped

China 2014, there are cameras everywhere in China WM

This can only be described as...individualistic!

This can only be described as…individualistic!

While American-style individualism is just starting to take root, American-style individual freedoms are not. China’s pop culture is undergoing a booming revolution, and like any fast-paced and progressive change, it comes with a whole array of counter-culture features and trends, from tattoo parlors to non-conformist artists and musicians. However, self-expression does not equate to freedom or independence. The wider Chinese society still is centered on the loyal clan over the free individual, and traditional Chinese values are still held in high regard. While horrifically destructive to the Chinese, the recent Cultural Revolution nor their conversion to Socialism/Communism post WWII failed to purge their central principles of sanctity of family and loyalty to nation. For most Chinese (and just like in Japan), the greater good of social harmony remains a noble goal that continues to trump individualism. The trick for the new Chinese moving forward will be finding the right balance that will maintain harmony between the New China and the Old.

Individual yet Collective!

Individual yet Collective!

“But surely the internet must revolutionize China,” I hear you thinking. Sure, the internet can’t help but change China, and the change the Internet brings is mostly good. But rather than causing a revolution, wiring the country with the information superhighway is better characterized as an evolutionary change. The central government in Beijing allows wide and expansive access, but retains veto power when it senses a threat to the state. Sure, Facebook is blocked in China, but would you really miss your friend’s constant status updates and inane check-ins? I wouldn’t – and didn’t while in China for a week, where, by the way, Jody and I were completely digital-free…except for our cameras. And in terms of this blog, in 2014 I had almost ~28,000 views, with only 15 of those coming from China. But while Internet users may grumble about state censorship in China, few activists are really ready to rumble over it.

Who is really more militaristic?

Who is really more militaristic?

Don't worry, we have 12.  And they are super-sized....

Don’t worry, we have 12. And they are super-sized….

And finally, what about what we’re indoctrinated to fear as an aggressively militaristic China threatening the West? C’mon people. The America War Machine remains the most-funded, best-equipped, and most destructive force on the planet, and is used to violent effect without much restraint across the globe. I find it absolutely hilarious that we in America question the rise of the Chinese military. When we stop trying to be Team American: World Police (“Fuck Yeah!”), perhaps we can see China’s intent through a less clouded and distorting lens. Sure, China is building up its military, and yes they even have a fairly capable blue-water Navy. By why do we panic whenever any other country builds an aircraft carrier? China is not about to challenge the U.S. militarily anytime soon, or is it likely to invade its Asian neighbors.  While “pacifist” is too strong (or weak as it were) a word, the Chinese are not itching for a fight. Like we are, at least. “Hello Kettle, this is Pot….”

us-and-china-comic-drawing-about-leading-world-economy

However, more importantly, in a more philosophical context, China does not inspire hearts and minds like America does. The precepts of America – government by, for and of the people (even if it doesn’t work), our Bill of Rights and individual freedoms (when the NSA isn’t listening), and the very idea of the “American Dream” all touch hearts and win minds. China is simply too narrow-minded and self-centered which serves to continually isolate and insulate. There is little doubt that China will be a world economic power. But it’s hard to imagine it becoming a world cultural or political power on par with the United States.

What manufacturers' labels say in China....

What manufacturers’ labels say in China….

So, can we in the West look objectively at the Eastern Dragon without bias and misconceptions? In my own experience, having spent 20 years in the military-industrial complex – much of that serving in the Pacific – and having experienced China firsthand, however small a sliver that was, I believe that much of the Western analysis of China, particularly in the last decade, has been overly alarmist. It’s time to approach China more honestly, without fear – and without misconceptions. A genuinely cooperative and more open relationship could open an unprecedented phase of peace and prosperity, not just around the Pacific, but across the globe.

China 2014, Shanghai, The Bund, Kevin amazed by the cityscape

Xi’an’s Fortified City: Another Brick in the Wall


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“All alone, or in twos, The ones who really love you Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand And some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists Make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.” ~Pink Floyd, The Wall

“So is this fog, smog, or just outright pollution,” I asked our guide Jessie in Xi’an, China. “Yes,” he responded, smiling knowingly yet uncommitted.

The thick blanket of haze’s assault on our senses that windless morning initially obscured the majesty of Xian, as well as the sun. The pollution in urbanized China is at once offensive and inescapable. I will literally never complain about our Environmental Protection Agency ever again; clean air and water are worth the cost and bureaucratic oversight. It was that bad there….

China 2014, Xian, main gate of the old city wall illuminated at night WM

Although Xi’an is probably best known for the relatively recently discovered “Terracotta Army” on its outskirts, in my opinion it is the restored and refurbished ancient city wall and its surrounding City Park that are the premier attraction there.

China 2014, Xian, Jody riding the ancient city wall WM

China 2014,_2803China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall at night WMRiding on a modern mountain bike over cobblestone roadway that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, thoughts of what the wall has withstood cycled through my mind: war, famine, disease, earthquakes, political upheaval and the very rise and fall of numerous dynasties. Yet today, when you examine the wall’s surrounds, you realize that on both sides – inside and out – lies urbanization not too different from any other city that you’d see in Europe or America. The hustle and bustle of a city full of cars and commerce, and throngs of people rushing about in the chaos of their day. Of lovers and tourists walking hand-in-hand and camera-in-hand. And of tall apartment towers and swank condo buildings, but also of quiet residential areas and timeless temples of ages old.

China 2014, Xian, panoramic city wall from one corner WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody poses in front of the city wall nightThe fortifications of Xi’an (西安城墙), an ancient capital of China, represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls, and one of the only centuries-old, large-scale complete walls left in the world. Construction of the first city wall there began in 194 BCE, and enclosed a large area of roughly 14 square miles. Although parts of the wall today date back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, what we see today was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370, and encircles a much smaller city area of just over 5 square miles. The wall measures about 8.5 miles in total length, averages about 39 feet in height, and between 49-59 feet in thickness at its base. It remains one of the largest ancient military defenses in the world.

China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall illuminated WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the city wall WMEven after China’s capital was relocated, the city remained an important military stronghold until contemporary times. Just like the Great Wall attempting to encircle the entire country (see Heroes of the Great Wall for our adventures on that fortification), the Xi’an City Wall was originally built for defense, with watchtowers, a deep moat and drawbridges.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin exploring part of the massive old city wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in front of a wall watch towerChina 2014, Xian, flags decorating the old city wall WMEvery 120 meters or so there is a watchtower and rampart which extends out from the main wall, 98 in total. Each is designed with a sentry building to provide a sector defense from which soldiers could protect the city without exposing themselves to hostile forces. The distance between towers is critical; it is just about twice the distance of arrow flight back in the day of the wall, allowing soldiers from consecutive towers to completely cover the wall. On the outer side of the wall there are almost 6,000 crenellations, small holes from which troops could fire while remaining protected behind the cover of the wall. On the inner side, parapets provide fall protection. Corner ramparts and watch towers, higher and larger than the others, are located on each of the wall’s four corners due to their strategic importance in defending the salients of the fortification.

China 2014, Xian, Jody bikes the city wall early smoggy morning 2 WM

China 2014, Xian, Chinese latern on the old city wall WMWeapons 500 years ago lacked the power to break through such a wall. The only way to take such a fortified city was by attacking and entering through a wall gate. At Xian, the city wall includes four main gates: Changle (“eternal joy”) in the east, Anding (“harmony peace”) in the west, Yongning (“eternal peace”) in the south, and Anyuan (“forever harmony”) in the north.

China 2014, Xian, drawbridge illuminated at a city wall gate WM

China 2014, Xian, selfie in front of a city wall gateEach city gate has three gate towers called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outer most is Zhalou, used to raise and lower drawbridges that would span the moat. Jianlou is next and serves as a robust defensive outpost of the wall with many windows for firing arrows. Zhenglou is the inner and most massive tower, and serves as main entrances to the city at each gate.

China 2014, Xian, Jody at a city wall gate smiling

China 2014, Xian, beautiful Jody at a city wall gate smilingChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe south gate, Yongning, is the most beautifully finished and the site of important greeting ceremonies and other traditional pomp and circumstance. It was also the only gate used when armies returned victoriously from their expeditions afar. The South Gate Square was only recently improved and opened in the fall of 2014. Our hotel was located immediately adjacent to the gate’s square and City Park grounds, and we enjoyed beautiful evening views from our hotel bar on the 10th floor as the entire city wall is trimmed with gold lights and illuminated red Chinese lanterns in a perfect a mix of grandeur and elegance. There are regularly scheduled shows and performances held here, from warrior parades to orchestra recitals. Viewing of these performances is included in your ticket fee. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time available to enjoy any of these short but powerful 10-15 minute acts.

China 2014, Xian, Chinese decorations along the city's ancient inner wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody and Kevin at an old city wall gate selfieChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe City Wall has been rebuilt three times: in 1568 with bricks, in 1781 with today’s gate towers, and restored more recently in the 1980s. The impressive City Wall Park has been built between the high wall and deep moat. Beautifully landscaped and well-appointed with classical Chinese architecture accents the majesty of the wall, a stroll through the park is a must, both in the day and at night. The park has become a favorite spot for locals, and we enjoyed seeing the elderly doing their traditional Chinese exercises and meditation early in the morning, and then groups of people spontaneously dancing in the evening in what can only be described as some sort of folk-based jazzercise! Couples here walk hand-in-hand, and street vendors sell snacks and sweets at night, while the area is bordered with high-end cafes, coffee shops and tea houses open during the day. This park is really a great place to see the nature of local life in today’s Xi’an.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated old city wall WM

One of the best ways to experience the wall is by bicycle. Bicycles can be found for rent at the main gates, and perhaps is the most popular way to take in the entire length of this fortification, which takes 1½ to 2 hours at a reasonable pace (we double such guidelines since we stop and take photos so often). A cash deposit is required to rent a bike, and rentals are for 100 minutes, although you can ride longer by paying more for each additional 10 minutes spent riding. Both single and tandem rides are available to rent. Bicycles should be returned at the South Gate before 20:00; the other gate rental sites close at 1800.

China 2014, Xian, early morning bikes on the old city wall WM

While you will be cycling on relatively flat ground, as a centuries-old structure built without the assistance of modern equipment, the ride can get quite bumpy where the wall’s cobblestone surface is somewhat uneven. The wall also has a changing pitch depending on your location, although this is hardly noticeable. If you do have issues providing your own power or have small children in tow, wall sightseeing is also available by electric golf cart.

China 2014, Xian, early morning stroll along the old city walls WM

The Wall can be ascended from any of the gates, and once on the wall you can tour the whole rectangle it forms. Here is a hiking itinerary around the wall starting from the South Gate as a basic reference.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated city park along the old city wall WM

After visiting the wall by day and at night, and while enjoying an almost private bicycle ride with Jody along its wide elevated avenue, I was struck by how this fortification, designed and built as a physical barrier to obstruct those wishing the city harm, now serves as a symbolic connection between not just China’s past and present, but between the historically isolated China and the outside world.

China 2014, Xian, city wall gate at night WM

While this blog’s opening lyrics by Pink Floyd concern more personal struggles with intangible metaphorical walls, the moral of their rock-opera no less applies: though there will always be personal and social barriers erected out of fear, oppression, pain, and isolation, it’s the job of every socially conscious individual and community to never rest in their efforts to tear down the walls that separate us.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in the city's wall park

Visit the City Wall at Xi’an. Although still a physically imposing barricade, you’ll find that it now does more to bind us together…than split us apart as it historically has done.

Dim Sum: Dinner and then Some


 Kuruma_Fuji_full_699193“Nothing can be more delicious than Jiaozi, as nothing can be more comfortable than lying down to sleep.” ~Chinese proverb

 “Dumpling means, in essence, ‘reunion’,” our Chinese guide “Jason” explained as we were seated for a traditional Chinese dim sum dumpling meal during our stay in Xi’an, China. “And the dumpling banquet means generally the same thing.”

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, bronze relief of dumpling making of the past 3

Chinese dumplings, particularly Jiaozi (餃子/饺子), are the traditional dish eaten on Chinese New Year’s Eve and at special family reunions. During these reunions, extended family members from afar may gather together to make dumplings. They are eaten again as a farewell feast to family members or friends who may not be seen for some time.

Other legendary mutant barbarians...who LOVE dumplings.

Other legendary mutant barbarians…who LOVE dumplings.

 

It seems that dumplings and China share a flavorful history together. A common legend goes that dumplings were first invented out of necessity in China during the era of the Three Kingdoms, around 225 AD. In this tale, a play on words is made between early mantou, a Chinese steamed bun and type of dumpling, and the homophonous word mántóu, meaning “barbarian’s head.”

Barbarian's head:  not so delicious.

Barbarian’s head: not so delicious.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, dumpling making tools of the trade WMrestaurant-2011-07-13-16-00-Leongs-LegendGeneral Zhuge Liang, a military leader and minister of the times, found his army’s advance blocked by a swift-moving and unfordable river after subduing a barbarian king and his unruly henchmen. A local barbarian lord informed spoke of times past when the barbarians would sacrifice 49 men and throw their heads into the river to appease the river spirit, which would allow passage as the heads would effectively dam the raging waters. Liang, however, did not want to cause unnecessary bloodshed, and instead killed cows and horses and used their meat to fill buns shaped roughly like human heads. After throwing these surrogate tops into the river’s flow, the river spirit allowed him and his army to cross. To honor the event, Liang named the buns “barbarian’s head,” mántóu (蠻頭), which evolved into the present day’s more appetizing but perhaps less buoyant dumplings referred to as mantou (饅頭).

A variety of dumplings for dinner.

A variety of dumplings for dinner.

Guess what the filling is??

Guess what the filling is??

Duck-filled and fun.

Duck-filled and fun.

Dumplings are considered a special food in the Spring Festival, or Chinese (Lunar) New Year to which people are deeply and emotionally attached. On the eve of the New Year, dumplings become the centerpiece in any celebratory banquet. Eating dumplings at the New Year is a way of marking the occasion with wishes and prayers for happiness, fortune, and wealth. The dumplings’ very shape resembles an old Chinese currency called ingot (元宝), and the word jiǎozi shares the same pronunciation with 角子 (jiǎozi), which was a small jiao coin used in antiquity. Thus consuming these little delicacies has come to be associated with luck and fortune. For us, some of the shapes our dumplings came in reflected their fillings, particularly in terms of duck and pork. Yep, there were little piggies and majestic ducks staring us in the face! No translation needed there. In another humorous twist, when the dumplings are made on the eve of the Spring Festival, the Chinese will place a coin secretly into one. The person who finds it will likely have good fortune in the New Year, even if he or she has to spend it on tooth repairs….

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, bronze relief of dumpling making of the past 3

Making dumplings is a community affair.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, bronze relief of dumpling making of the pastChina 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, dumpling recipes and ingredients WMMaking dumplings is a labor of love requiring a fair amount of preparation. Thus, dumplings have come to symbolize reunions where there are many hands available to help in their crafting. As you might expect, many Chinese learn to make dumplings at a very young age, and enjoy a lifetime of reunions around a kitchen table, chattering and laughing while familial connections are assembled, much as the dumplings. In an analogous King Konnection, my mother would make chicken and dumplings fresh during our own family reunions, and lucky for me and my siblings, we did all enjoy in helping in her efforts. What is it exactly about the formality of making and consuming dumplings that crosses culture so well?

Dim Sum Dumpling Dinner

Dim Sum Dumpling Dinner

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, famous dumpling chain in ChinaChina 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, lazy susan family style dumpling dinnerDim sum (點心) is a style of Chinese food prepared as small bite-sized or individual portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum is usually linked with the older tradition yum cha (tea tasting), which has its roots in travelers on the ancient Silk Road needing a place to rest and refresh. Teahouses were established along the roadside, and what started as a relaxing respite while traveling the road over the centuries has transformed into an often loud but fulfilling dining experience. While we arrived early at a famous dumpling restaurant chain in China, by the time of our departure the tables were filled to capacity and the rambunctious sounds of the diner’s laughter, the server’s questions, and the reverberations of serving carts and dishes melded into a cacophony of delight, filling the eatery much the way the dumplings were stuffed to capacity.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, steaming dumplings being served

EVERYTHING goes on the Lazy Susan!

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, eating the last of the dumplings!China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, ready for our super yummy famous dumpling dinner in ChinaA traditional dim sum meal includes various types of steamed buns, dumplings, and rice noodle roles, all of which are stuffed with delicious mixtures of goodness, including beef, chicken, pork, prawns and various vegetables and spices. The serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party, where, because of small portions, people can try a wide variety of food. In fact, many of our meals in China were served this way, where the table’s lazy Susan quickly became the best friend of the famished. Coordinating Susan’s movements to meet twelve diners’ demands, however, was downright comical!

Japanese yaki-gyoza.  YUM!

Japanese yaki-gyoza. YUM!

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One of the creepier Japanese mascots....

One of the creepier Japanese mascots….

Gyōza is the Japanese version of the Chinese dumpling jiaozi. The Japanese word gyōza is derived from the Chinese word jiaozi (餃子), and although it is written using the same Chinese characters, its pronunciation shifts using Japanese sounds. The most prominent and generalized differences between Japanese-style gyōza and Chinese-style jiaozi are a rich garlic flavor (less noticeable in China), the light seasoning of Japanese gyōza with salt and soy sauce, and the fact that gyōza wrappers are much thinner. Gyōza are also usually served with a soy-based sauce seasoned with rice vinegar and/or rāyu (chili oil), while the most common filling consists of a mixture of minced pork, cabbage, chives, and any combination of sesame oil, garlic and/or ginger. Jiaozi in China ae generally only steamed; if they are prepared by pan-frying and then steaming as most Japanese gyōza, they are more correctly known as goutie (pot stickers), a direct analogy to their Japanese cousins.

The Japanese Gyoza Association mascot.  Seriously.

The Japanese Gyoza Association mascot. Seriously.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, enjoying our dumpling dinnerBe they pot stickers or gyōza, I’m just happy that I don’t have to deal in barbarians (or their heads, attached or detached) in order to eat such tasty treats. In fact, they are so tantalizingly good here on Okinawa that I just texted Jody to pick up some on her way home from work. SCORE! Not only do I NOT have to cook dinner (and skate on my domestic engineering responsibilities), but Jody and I will celebrate our reunion this evening over some beautifully fried and steam Japanese dumplings.

China 2014, Xian, Dumpling Dinner, rubbing buddha's belly for good luck and long life

Now I completely understand why he’s so fat and jolly!

 After all, reunions should be celebrated, no matter how big or how small.