Crowd control Chinese-style

Most activities in China for tourists involve large crowds. One example was my trip with two friends to see the evening performance, Impression Sanjie Liu, on the River Li in Yangshou, a tourist town nestling among craggy limestone peaks in China’s southern karst scenery. The show, directed by the film director Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, is performed on the river by 600 local people, including boatmen on bamboo rafts, dancers, and singers from local ethnic minority groups, not to mention water buffalo and cormorants. Lighting is used to dramatic effect to illuminate the surrounding mountains, bamboo forests, floating scenery and eventually the costumes of the performers themselves. The show is so popular that it runs twice a night every day of the year for 2,000 people at each sitting.

Our guest house organised transport for us to get close to the performance park; the reception area thronged with noisy crowds, like a football ground on a Saturday afternoon, but with less transparent organisation, especially to a foreigner. Our taxi driver led us to a woman who gave us a small post-it note with indecipherable characters. She told us to follow a man holding a placard with 77 written on it. We clung nervously to each other until Mr 77 gave us three rather more official tickets and then marched us into an inner sanctum, where people seemed to be sitting in a large pavilion. Was this the auditorium? Where would our seats be? Where could the performance take place?

We must have looked pretty forlorn, as a young Chinese woman showed us yet another queue on an outer path and told us to wait there. It dawned on us that we were a long way away as yet from the real auditorium and that we still had 20 minutes or so to go. The idea of the crowd surging forward scared me, and I insisted we stood at the edge where we might escape any crush. In fact, about 15 minutes later, the crowd moved forward in a relatively orderly manner, and we soon found ourselves at official looking barriers, which scanned the bar code on our tickets. An usher took one look at us and saw that we had no idea how to find our seats and led us to them. We had made it!

As is so often the case in China, the people watching it proved to be as fascinating as the spectacle itself. The extraordinary light, sound and watery effects dazzled the audience who oohed and aahed appreciatively. There was a rather flimsy narrative but that wasn’t really the point of the show. It presented a nostalgic and satinised vision of the now rapidly disappearing and gruelling rural life on and around the river. If you cycle around the fields and farms you can still find the old way of life, but I doubt if it holds much interest for the newly urban Chinese who prefer the fictional version.

Most of the audience had arrived in coaches and minibuses and about 10 minutes before the end, the row of elderly spectators in front of us, all in identical red baseball caps, clearly began to get nervous about how they were going to avoid the crush to get out and ensure that they found their transport. They stood up, blocked everyone’s view and started to edge towards the aisle. An usher approached and firmly told them to sit down again. There was a backwards shuffle and while some found their chairs again, others slipped and sat on each other’s laps. The real performance seemed to be forgotten in the general merriment.

Eventually the show ended and we were all released into the night. The crowd dispersed without mishap and we were able to retrace our steps past the entrance and on through the rows of coaches and cars until we found our taxi man waiting at the agreed spot. Crowd control is a risky participative art form in China and I’m always relieved when I make it through safely.


Our local Chinese restaurants: learning the language of menus

Despite the presence of the massive Metro supermarket across the road, many small shops and businesses survive at the west gate of our compound. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a bright orange sign had gone up advertising a Dong Bei restaurant, selling ‘jaozi’ (dumplings). Dong Bei (North East) food is well known for being simple, filling and cheap, presumably to satisfy the appetites of the farmers and steel workers who live in the vast, cold wastes that stretch up to the border with Russia.

I duly persuaded Fintan that he would like to have a lunch of ‘jaozi’ and one Saturday we ventured into the small premises. It was a typical one family business – about eight small tables, plastic-wood flooring, rice steamers plugged into dodgy looking sockets on the floor and a tiny kitchen at the back. A woman in her early 20s took the orders, while her husband and father cooked and her mother looked after the grandchild. Each table was provided with cellophane wrapped sets of a plate, bowl and china spoon. Chopsticks in paper stood in a container next to a jar of chilli sauce and a jug of soy. Customers helped themselves to watery Qingdao or Harbin beer from a fridge.

I often used to go to similar restaurants with fellow students, but it was some time since I’d been to one. I had forgotten that the menu is a list of dishes entirely in Chinese. Chinese people seem to walk into a restaurant knowing exactly what they want to eat and don’t mind that the waitress immediately stands at the table expecting an instant order. For a foreigner with limited Chinese, however, this can be challenging.

My Chinese language suddenly deserted me, but I blurted out ‘jaozi’, hoping this would be enough. The waitress pointed to the wall, where a poster-menu showed that there were at least 15 different ones available. ‘What kind of jaozi?’ she smiled. I just about remembered how to say ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ and although the young woman said a lot more, she seemed satisfied. When I looked more calmly at the list I could see that she must have made a number of decisions on my behalf – with chives, with spring onions, with chilli, with greens – and so on.

Our steamed dumplings arrived and we quite enjoyed them. The pictures of food on the other wall looked a lot more appetising, but how to match them to the lists of dishes on the laminated menus that served as placemats? I took a photo on my phone, determined that we would return once I’d worked out what was what.

The following week I enlisted Yona’s help and sent her the photograph. Printed out in large format, the handwritten characters provided the basis for my next three lessons. First we started with methods of cooking, next we tackled the main ingredients and finally got to the names of complete dishes. The Chinese have an unimaginable number of words for ‘fry’ as this is their main way of cooking – quick fry, stir fry, longer fry, deep fry, fry and then braise in soy sauce, not to mention dry fry in a pot brought to the table. Then there is steam, stew, grill and roast, all with further variants.

Ingredients were sometimes difficult to translate, especially when I was more familiar with the Japanese names, such as shitake or enoki (fragrant mushroom and tea tree mushroom respectively in Chinese). Yona sent me about 50 new words and we identified things I would probably not like to eat – duck head, fish head, bull frog – among them. We looked at photos of different fishes on the internet – belt fish, croker, pomfret – usually agreeing that I would find most of them too bony.

I went back to Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, because she names every dish in English, Chinese and pinyin, which helped with cross-checking. She also stimulates my memory through her knowledge and insight; for example she says that the Chinese called newly imported tomatoes ‘barbarian aubergines’ (fan qie), ensuring that I won’t forget the character for aubergine in a hurry. It turns out that sweet potatoes are also barbarian potatoes.

Gradually my vocabulary and confidence grew and we got to the stage where I could read through the menu in halting Chinese (tones nearly correct) and write out a dialogue about going to a restaurant. Finally, after some negotiation with Fintan, I highlighted the dishes we would choose and practised how to say them. We were ready to return.

Yesterday we walked down to the west gate, full of expectation. Alas, the shutters were down and the restaurant was closed! This weekend is a holiday weekend, with Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping taking place on Monday. Presumably the family had gone back to their Dong Bei home to honour their ancestors.

Determined not to be defeated, we walked across to the establishments on the other side of the gate. At the end is a small restaurant run by a Hui family, serving halal food. The Hui are an Islamic ethnic group living across China. Although there was no pork, in most other ways the restaurant was almost exactly the same. Young woman serving, husband cooking, menu listed on the wall, small tables, packs of china, drinks in the fridge. It served noodles rather than rice, but I found my preparation had not been wasted, as I could now read most of the characters, and many standard Chinese dishes were available here too.

We ordered two bowls of noodles and enjoyed our simple Saturday lunch. We had discovered a new ‘local’ but I hope we will still soon go back to the Dong Bei restaurant.