Category: Just for Fun

Just for Fun: Restaurant Review – Noodles at Yiwanmen

By , September 2, 2021

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, restaurant reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Yiwanmen in Manhattan’s Chinatown

For many of my friends, I am their “China person.” Questions about Chinese politics, questions about Chinese culture, questions about good Chinese restaurants, they all come to me.  But it is the latter – good Chinese restaurants – that I feel most obligated to answer correctly.

So when my friend Tanya randomly said to me “I want good Chinese noodles,” I went to work, researching and asking friends who work in Manhattan’s Chinatown, what was there number one pick for noodles.  One name that kept coming up was Yiwanmen, or in Chinese characters, 一碗面, “A Bowl of Noodles.”  Seemed like a must try.

Yiwanmen, on Mott street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, has the look of a faux hole-in-the wall spot, with wood paneling on the outside in an attempt at making it look old even though it opened in 2017.  Inside, a small dining area with three tables and a few side seats, its clear that Yiwanmen is too clean to be a true hole-in-the wall.  But don’t let that distract you from the noodles, which are delicious, authentic and not to be missed.

Yiwanmen makes the smart, strategic decision of not offering too many noodle dishes, a total of 11 with only six being noodle soups.  And while Yiwanmen presents itself as a Chongqing noodle spot (it’s chef is from Chongqing), my eyes – and stomach – gravitated to its more northeastern noodle fare, namely the hongshao beef noodle soup. Hongshao, a type of slow braising technique using fermented bean paste common in northern and eastern China, is not usually associated with Chongqing, a city smackdab in the middle of China that embraces Sichuan spicy as its flavor of choice.  Should I go with something outside of the chef’s native city?  I decided to take the risk. I ordered the hongshao. 

And thank goodness I did.  The pieces of beef explode with the sweet, savory flavor of the hongshao, and because it was slow cooked, the beef melted in my mouth, making chewing largely optional.  The broth, a touch greasy, was flavorful withfresh cilantro and the noodles were perfect – not too chewy and they did not stick together. The chef may be from Chongqing, but he obviously is a master of all of China’s noodles.  Although one noodle not on the menu is the famous thick, pulled noodle (la mian, 拉面) of northwest China.  But given the ubiquitousness of those noodles throughout Chinatown these days, it was nice to find a place that shined the spotlight on China’s other noodles.  And at $9 for a big bowl of noodles, Yiwanmen is at the perfect price point. 

Hongshao noodle soup with jianbing in the background

My friend also ordered the jianbing, a crepe-like sandwich sold on the streets of Beijing.  I have never been a fan of jianbing so I cannot speak to whether Yiwanmen makes a good one.  But if it was me (and hopefully it will be me again very soon at Yiwanmen), I would stick with the noodles.  The fact that the place is called “Bowl of Noodles” in Chinese and not “Plate of Crepe-like Sandwich” is telling. 

One thing to do before you go – make sure you aren’t wearing your nice clothes, like my friend who wore her silk dress.  Drops of noodle soup just gets on you even if you try to be careful.  Other choice is to wear a bib.  But no matter what, when you are in the mood for noodles, get yourself to Yiwanmen. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Yiwanmen
150 Mott Street (between Grand & Broome Street)
New York, NY 10013

Yiwanman’s Menu

恭喜发财!Happy Year of the Ox!

By , February 9, 2021

The world needs an ox. Boy does it need an ox. Grounded, loyal, gentle and trustworthy, the ox fixes and stabilizes, heals and unifies. And on Friday, the ox will finally arrive as our friends in East Asia celebrate the lunar new year and mark the start to new beginnings.

The ox is known to work hard and plan and because of that some see this ox year as one that will take the negative challenges of last year – a rat year that brought a world-wide pandemic – and transform them into positive outcomes.  But the ox year can’t do it alone.  We have to put on our ox hats and work at it too.  There does seem to be light at the end of this COVID tunnel, but like an ox, we must stay focused and persistent, ensuring that we reach our goal of ending this pandemic. 

Although many are positive about the upcoming year of the ox, seeing its reliable nature as something that will get us through the next few months, there are some doubts.  In particular, feng shui master Raymond Lo warns that it could be a “bleak” year. That is because this year’s ox isn’t just any old ox but a metal ox.  In Chinese astrology, a new year doesn’t just usher in a new animal, it also brings forth a new element.  In addition to being associated with an animal, each year is also associated with one of the five astrologic elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth).  For 2021, that element is metal.  But at the same time, each zodiac animal is independently associated with one of the five elements.  And a ox’s intrinsic element is earth.  According to Lo, mixing an earth ox with a metal year “is a symbol of a harsh and cold atmosphere that incites disharmony, conflict, assassination, and terrorism.”  But Lo has never been a “glass half full” kind of feng shui master and if you ask me, Lo seems to be a little too focused on 1901, another metal ox year that saw the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley, the attempted assassination of German Emperor Wilhelm II, and an attempted coup in Portugal.  Let’s hope these are all things of the past.

What does year of the metal ox mean for you?  That depends on how your zodiac sign interacts with the ox.  To find out your wealth, career, love and health prospects for 2021, click here (Don’t know your Chinese zodiac sign? Find out here).

But most importantly, the lunar new year is a time to cherish your loved ones.  That’s hard to do in person right now, but maybe this weekend you, your friends and family can each order in some dumplings (traditional new year food in northern China), hop on the Zoom, and reminisce about the good times you have had together and plan for more in the future!  With that, I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and 恭喜发财! (gong-see-fah-tsai – “may you be happy & prosperous!”)

Since many will be missing outdoor lion dances this year, here is a great performance from Hong Kong, 2019.

Happy Year of the Metal Rat!

By , January 23, 2020

Are you ready for Year of the Rat?

For the Western world, a rat is not a good thing.  “Rat race,” “I smell a rat,” “pack rat,” “who gives a rat’s ***,” usually do not connote positive vibes. But in Asia, the rat is more respected.  For the rat isn’t just any animal on the lunar year zodiac, it’s the first of the 12-year cycle.  So on Saturday, when the world welcomes the Year of the Metal Rat, it will also be celebrating the start of a new lunar cycle!

It was the rat’s ingenuity and quick-thinking that caused it to be first among all twelve of the animals in the zodiac.  According to legend, the Jade Emperor called all the animals of the world together and announced that he was going to choose 12 to be part of the zodiac.  How would those 12 be chosen?  Through a race, and the order of the animals in the zodiac would be determined by the order in which they finished the race.  The rat, realizing it was one of the smallest animals, knew it didn’t stand a chance to be first let alone one of the 12.  So he asked his friend the ox if he could bum a ride on his back to get to the finish line.  The ox, being an honest, dependable soul and a good friend, agreed.  But just as the ox was about to cross the finish line first, the rat hopped off of his back and beat him to it, making the rat the first among the 12 animals.

With the rat year the first in the zodiac cycle, some feng shui experts say that 2020 will be a year of new beginnings, a perfect time to finish long-term projects and to make some money.  But some note a more ominous future.  Previous rat years have brought on wars and other calamities: 1840, a rat year, saw the start of the Opium Wars in China; and 1960, the start of the Vietnam War.  For those who remember the last rat year – 2008 – will also remember the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

What does the rat year mean for you?  All of that depends on how your sign interacts with the rat sign (to figure out your sign, click here).  For more details on what is in store for you, check out feng shui expert Theirry Chow’s predictions here.

But regardless of what 2020 may hold for you, the Lunar New Year – which lasts 15 days until the Lantern Festival on February 8 – is an important time to celebrate with cherished family and friends.  And to all our readers who celebrate the Lunar New Year, we wish you a healthy and prosperous Year of the Metal Rat!

A Christmas Story for Our Readers

By , December 23, 2019

Don’t forget to think of others this holiday season!

While this blog is almost exclusively about China, I hope that you will grant me one indulgence and permit me to publish an essay not about China.  This essay is about a Christmas Eve when I was a legal services attorney at Mobilization for Justice.  I feel very fortunate that I had the privilege to work with such selfless attorneys who gave daily so much of themselves to help those that society too often leaves behind.  This essay was picked up by the New York Daily News and you can read the slightly abridged version at their website here.  The unedited version is below. 

I hope that, in this season of giving, you think of your local legal services organizations. 

May all my readers have a very happy holiday and healthy New Year, and see you after January 1, with more hard-hitting China-related pieces!

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Lights of Encouragement

By Elizabeth M. Lynch; originally published in the New York Daily News
To protect attorney-client privilege, all names have been changed

It was three o’clock on Christmas eve day.  The normally bustling office of Mobilization for Justice (or MFJ as most people call it) was quiet with the 2 p.m. early closing.  The waiting room, ordinarily filled with clients desperate for a free lawyer, was empty.  The phones, usually ringing non-stop with the problems of the poor, did not utter a buzz.  Any client that did come to our office saw the signs the front desk staff had taped up – in English and Spanish – saying we would reopen on the 26th.   The few remaining people in the office were a couple of lawyers who needed the uninterrupted solitude  – a luxury rarely afforded a legal services attorney  – to catch up on work.

But as I sat in my office, hoping to leave by 4, I heard faint tapping on our waiting room window.  I ignored it, hoping that the person would see the signs hanging up in between the faded holiday decorations.  But the tapping persisted.  I stopped my work and, somewhat annoyed, walked to the front desk.  There, on the other side of the glass partition, was a petite woman, around 30 years old.  I could tell that she had dressed up for the visit, red lipstick freshly applied, hoping that presenting the best version of herself would garner the free help that so many New Yorkers seek when they come to MFJ.  As I slid the glass window open to tell her that we were closed, I saw in her trembling, small hand a marshal’s notice of eviction.

For low-income tenants in New York City, Christmas time is the one time of year that the system shows them any form of generosity; a sort of noblesse oblige given to today’s serfs.  During that time, most landlords cease eviction proceedings, most marshals offer a reprieve, and housing court essentially shuts down.  The eviction machine doesn’t roar back to life again until about a week after the New Year.  But this woman wasn’t so fortunate; her landlord evidently wasn’t participating in this unofficial Christmas amnesty.  As I looked up from the notice to the woman, the stain line of tears still evident, I could see in her frightened face the ruined Christmas that had befallen her.  The happiness of the lit Christmas tree in her apartment, the joy of seeing her kids open their presents, the warmth of being surrounded by her family for Christmas dinner, so easily snatched and exchanged for the weight of telling her family that they would soon be homeless.  My annoyance quickly dissipated, knowing the powerlessness this woman must have felt.

I am not a housing attorney I told her and, since our office was closed, I was not sure if anyone was around to help, I said.  I asked her to wait while I checked, taking her eviction notice with me.  But as I walked the quiet halls of MFJ, empty office followed empty office.  I began to get the sinking feeling that this woman would be getting advice from me, a consumer attorney who had only dabbled in housing court.  Finally, I saw the light from an office seeping out into the dark hallway.  I walked over to the lit office and there, finishing up his work for the day, was Jose, one of MFJ’s housing attorneys.  Jose looked up at me, “Hey, what’s up Liz?  You’re still here too?” he asked with a smile.  I dispensed with niceties and blurted out “There is a woman in the waiting room who received an eviction notice this morning.”  Jose’s smile vanished; a look of disbelief crossed his face. I handed him the eviction notice.  “But it’s Christmas,” Jose said more to himself than to me, “this shouldn’t be happening.”  After a long pause, Jose stopped his work, got up and walked down the dark hallway to the waiting room; I followed. He opened the door, letting the little bit of office light flood the dim waiting room.  He turned to Ms. Garcia and gently said “Ms. Garcia, let me see what we can do.”  A small smile passed over Ms. Garcia’s face as she walked into our office, likely hearing the first hopeful words of the day.  Jose didn’t leave before seven that Christmas Eve night.

Ms. Garcia became one of the 11,000 clients that MFJ’s attorneys serve annually in New York City, and because of MFJ, her eviction was successfully avoided.   But, in finding a free lawyer, Ms. Garcia was one of the lucky ones.  In 2017, 230,071 eviction proceedings were filed in New York City and in 2018, 100,186 debt collection cases – cases that often result in the garnishment of wages and can lead to a cascading effect in low-income families –  were filed.  New York City has made significant inroads in providing more free, civil legal services.  It’s Right To Counsel project – guaranteeing an attorney to certain tenants in housing court – is one such initiative.  But as of 2018, there were only approximately 1,531 legal services attorneys in New York City according to New York State’s IOLA Fund, 82 of which work for MFJ.  While    MFJ’s 11,000 clients a year seems impressive, it is only 3% of New York City’s total eviction and debt collection cases.  A drop in the bucket.

For Ms. Garcia though, Jose was likely more than just a lawyer.  By giving up his time that Christmas Eve to listen to her story, he gave her hope that maybe she had a chance at justice.  Winning the case isn’t always the most important part of a legal services attorney’s job; sometimes restoring a person’s faith in a system that all too often is stacked against the poor is just as significant.  Lights of encouragement my friend calls them.  But for too many of New York City’s most vulnerable – the poor, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence  –  who are fighting for the basic necessities of life, those lights never shine.

 

 

 

China Law & Policy Turns 10!

By , July 15, 2019

Today marks China Law & Policy’s (“CL&P”) tenth anniversary.  And like any good anniversary, it’s an opportunity to look back at where we started, where we have been and where we would like to go.

On July 15, 2009, we published our first post, a simple two-part piece to explain the riots that had recently engulfed Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province.  Ten years and 374 posts later, we are back where we started as Xinjiang continues to fill the news.  This time for the Chinese government’s unlawful internment of 1.5 million Uighur and Kazak Muslims, perhaps the world’s greatest human rights violation perpetrated by a current superpower (although the United States doesn’t have a firm leg to stand on right now given its inhuman treatment of undocumented immigrants).

Similarly, since CL&P’s inception, we have covered the Chinese government’s increasing suppression of human rights advocates and civil society.  No doubt that the suppression has become more severe since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, with his passage of restrictive laws on civil society and his July 2015 nationwide crackdown on human rights advocates.  But our posts show that the Chinese government had already moved in this direction even before Xi took power.  Posts from 2009, when Hu Jintao was still president, called on the Obama Administration to raise the issue of the Chinese government’s harrassment of human rights lawyers and discussed the unlawful detention – and the eventual release – of key activists including Xu Zhiyong and Ilham Tohti.  Both would again be arrested under Xi and be given harsh prison sentences in 2014: Xu, a four year sentence for disturbing public order and Tohti given life for separatism.

Another constant during the life of this blog has been the Chinese government’s use of the visa process to try to censor foreign journalists.  We first covered this issue back in 2012, with the what was effectively an expulsion from China of Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan.  Since then we have written about the denial of a visa to veteran China journalist Paul Mooney in 2013, the forced departure of New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy in 2014, the effective expulsion of L’Orbs reporter Ursula Gauthier in 2015 and the effective expulsion of Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan in 2017.  In fact, three posts concerning foreign journalists’ visas rounded out our top five most read pieces, including Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone, Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship, and the post about Gauthier.

But our most popular post by far was Parallels in Authoritarianism: Trump and the Chinese Communist Party, a post written only a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration that compared his leadership style to those of authoritarian rulers like Mao Zedong.  Over the past two years, these parallels have only become more apparent.  Our second most popular piece was one that took me a long time to come to terms with and write, Chen Guangcheng and the Commandeering of Our China Human Rights Policy, but I am glad that I did.

Oddly, our most read posts are not necessarily our most commented.  Those all happen to be some of our “lighter” pieces and posts from our “Just For Fun” category.  Our most commented post was our movie review of Zhao Liang’s “Petition: The Court of Complaints,” with many commenting on China’s unique petitioning system as a away of handling disputes.  Another heavily commented post was my critique of Maureen Dowd’s criticism of Bob Dylan performing in China, with many noting that I was too harsh on Dylan’s Christmas album by calling it “abysmally bad.” Since I have written that post, I have listened to Dylan’s Christmas album and it is surprisingly endearing; I now no longer skip it in my Christmas playlist and find myself singing along.  Thank you to those who raised this issue in the comments and forced me to change my view.

And that is what has been great about this blog for the past ten years.  It has forced me to more carefully analyze a country that I care deeply about and that has seen seismic change in this past decade.  Additionally, I hope that my passion for understanding China has been communicated to our readers.  CL&P was created to overcome simplistic views of China and to explain, in easy to understand terms, why non-China people should care about some of the underlying issues about China’s rule of law development.  Since its inception, I have strived to ensure that our analysis is always well-documented and informed.  With Trump as president and the fact that he has few China experts working for him as he deals with a more powerful China, understanding the country now is more important than ever.  And we will continue to blog and offer our perspective on US-China relations as well as the continued rise of China in a world where the U.S. seeks to exit the world stage.

In closing, I want to note that this blog would not be successful – and been able to continue for ten years – without the support of many friends and family and the readers who have emailed me to correct a fact or just to give me encouragement.  Your support has been instrumental to me over the years.  For my Chinese friends who have often provided me with a more nuanced understanding of what is happening on the ground in China, I want to say thank you for that and all that you do in China.

So join me in wishing a happy birthday to China Law & Policy!

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – What to Eat

By , April 23, 2019

October was my dad’s first trip to China. But by the second day in Beijing, he remarked “these people are always eating!” It’s true – Chinese people are always eating. And eating amazing food to boot. So the number one take away from this post is, if you see a line of Chinese people forming around a food stand or in a crowded restaurant – you need to go to that place!  Generally, 21 million people can’t be wrong. And don’t be afraid to eat the food, even if they are selling it on the street. The Beijing government has become fastidious about the cleanliness of street vendors.

With Beijing being the birthplace of some of China’s most iconic dishes and snacks, it is culinary dream. So if something looks good, try it. But just to give a little bit of direction to the first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy never misses out on when visiting Beijing.

Baozi – 包子

A plate of mini baozi. Make sure you get the big ones too!

Baozi is a little piece of heaven here on earth. And I have never understood why it hasn’t become more of a thing in places like New York City. Luckily baozi can be found on almost every street corner in Beijing – either at the window of a small restaurant or from a baozi hawker. Baozi is essentially a steamed, large, bready dumpling that can be eaten at any time of day. Inside this breaded goodness is a filling that can be anything – pork, beef, lamb, egg, an assortment vegetables. The bun that surrounds the filling often gets soaked in the filling’s sauce, making for a savory experience.

Zhajiangmian 炸酱面

A good place to try zhajiangmian

Zhajiangmian – a noodle dish with a tangy pork and bean sauce – is the first thing I try to find after landing in Beijing and its often the last thing I eat before leaving. Nothing is more Beijing than zhajiangmian and, sort of like bagels outside of New York City, it never tastes as good anywhere else in the world.  You can get zhajiangmian in lots of places in Beijing but the place that I think is the best is Xincheng Xiaomianguan (新城削面管). There is one in the Dashilar hutong area and one just south of the Drum Tower. Likely they are elsewhere in the city. But if you can’t find it, just ask your hotel where you can get some zhajiangmian nearby.

Jianbing – 煎饼

Fresh jianbing

I am not a fan of jianbing, but most people are and it is quintessentially Beijing. So it is a must try and tried fresh. The base is a very light and fluffy crepe and when it gets firm enough, a tangy, hot sauce is washed over it, an egg cracked on top and eventually scallions added. Sometimes a fried bread stick is also added. Once cooked, it is folded and ready to be wolfed down for a delectable treat.

Peking/Beijing Duck – 北京烤鸭

Preparing some Peking Duck

Eating Peking Duck in Beijing is not a cliché – it is a must! And it’s hard to find a bad place to eat it. Basically look for a crowded Peking duck restaurant and go in. If you can’t find one nearby, then head to Quanjude (全聚德). Quanjude, first founded in 1864, makes a mean, delicious duck.  Some might turn up their noses at the fact they are now a chain, but whatever. You aren’t in Beijing to be cool; you are there to eat good food and Quanjude offers great duck. If you have a bit more money to burn, there is Da Dong (大董) which serves splendid duck in a higher-end setting that is an experience to say the least. I prefer the one in by Worker’s Stadium(工体)with its neon lights and plastic, life-size horses in galloping poses throughout the restaurant.

Lamb Hotpot (火锅)

Lamb hotpot and other yummy things!

In the United States, when people think of hot pot, they often think of the super spicy version from Sichuan. But hotpot is also very much a Beijing thing, with the focus being lamb. Additionally, Beijing hotpot can have a spicy broth or a non-spicy broth. A simmering pot of the broth cooks in the middle of the table, with raw meat, vegetables and starch ordered to be cook in the broth once it starts boiling. It is best to go with a group so as to taste as much as possible. So if you are traveling with friends and family or a tour, grab a few people and go. If you are a meat eater, be sure to order the lamb slices. Potatoes, tofu, fish balls, chrysanthemum leaves and rice noodles are some of my favorites to throw in the pot as well. Once cooked, you can dip them into the sesame sauce that will be provided.

Beijing Yogurt (老北京酸奶)

Traditional Beijing yogurt

When one thinks of China, one does not immediately think “dairy.” But in Beijing, yogurt has been sold for centuries and is a rather exquisite treat to try while wandering the hutongs. Unlike U.S. yogurt, it is drinkable and you eat it using a straw. It is also unique in that it is sweet, but not overly sweet, with a tinge of the sour. It’s hard to describe why it is delicious which means, eat it.

This post could go on forever about all the scrumptious things to eat in Beijing. The point is, in Beijing, eating is half the fun; actually, it’s probably 75% of the fun.  So just try everything. And if you didn’t eat one of the things listed above, don’t stress about it. As long as you ate something good, that’s all that matters!

But did you discover some edible delightness that didn’t make it to this list? Or found a restaurant that is a must to visit? If so, we would love to hear about it so please share in the comments section below.

And most importantly, have fun in Beijing!

After a breakfast of baozi, Pops, having fun at the Drum Tower on his last day in Beijing!

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Things to See & Do

By , April 22, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

The Forbidden City is a must see, but here are som other recommendations

Few cities have seen as much change as Beijing. When I lived there in the late 1990s, farmers still entered the city with mule-drawn carts to sell their harvest on some random corner in downtown Beijing. They could do that then because many of the farms were just outside of the fourth ring road. Today, fruits and vegetables are largely bought in supermarkets. Flashy office buildings fill the skyline and luxury cars line the roads. In less than two decades, Beijing has transformed from a sleepy capital city into a major, modern metropolis.

But echos of the past still fill the streets and tourists – if they know where to look – can still see customs that are centuries old. Old men still walk their birds every morning; candied hawthorn sticks are still hawked by street sellers; and women practice their taichi early in the morning in Beijing’s various parks. For a first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy thinks should not be missed.

Jingshan Park at Dawn

My Dad, first timer to Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

Here is a secret about Beijing. Although it is a city of over 21 million people, you can have a little bit of it to yourself very early in the morning. So learn to love your jetlag and just get up when your body tells you to, which, for most people traveling from the United States, will be around dawn. One place you want to visit that early in the morning is Jingshan Park. Jingshan Park sits right behind the Forbidden City. The hill that is the park’s defining feature was created from the dirt that was dug up to make the Imperial Palace’s moat, and it offers some of the most spectacular views of Beijing. As soon as you enter the park, follow the signs that take you to the top of the hill. In a few hours, the hill will be a mad house but at 7 in the morning you could easily be the only one at the top. Enjoy the silence, the view and the light breeze across your face. Just to the south you will see the shimmering yellow rooves of the Forbidden City – on a sunny morning, the rooves will glow. But even on a cloudy or rainy day the view is not to be missed. And don’t forget to look at the other views – on the north side you will see the Drum and Bell towers; to the west will be the white pagoda of Houhai. Enjoy it for as long as you like, knowing that for hundreds of years, others have shared in this view. Then walk down and watch the senior set doing their taichi exercises.

Walk the Hutongs

My Dad, enjoying the Beijing hutongs

Hutongs – the alleyways where Beijing residents have lived since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) – are unique to northern China. No other place in the world has such architecture and it is a pity to not spend some time exploring these lanes. At one point the entire city was made up of hutongs but unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s desire to make Beijing into a “modern” city for the 2008 Olympics, many of the hutongs were demolished for large, non-descript apartment housing. However, there are still some hutongs left to explore where you can see how everyday life has been lived for centuries. One hutong area is the between the Drum Tower and the Lama Temple. This area has become westernized and you will find bars, coffee shops and high-end restaurants that cater to the expat crowd. But I do enjoy sitting in Café Confucius, having a nice latte with their cat, and watching everyday life pass by. If your travels do not take you to that area, you can also explore the hutongs just south of Tiananmen known as Dashilar. While a much more commercial district, it’s still a lot of fun to explore.

Inside Mei Lanfang’s siheyuan home

Do remember though that people still live in these hutongs. And while it is completely fine to wander the alleyways, it is not fine to enter into the courtyards where people live, even if the door is open. If you would like to see a traditional hutong home – known as a siheyuan (“four connected wall garden”) – check out the Mei Lanfang Museum over in the Huguosi hutong area, one of my favorite hutong areas. Not only will you be able to walk through a siheyuan home, but you will learn about a rather interesting and charismatic figure in Peking Opera and Chinese history.

Huguosi Hutong Area at night, Oct. 2018

Great Wall

Yes, you should go to the Great Wall. It’s mesmerizing to stand atop the Wall and look as it stretches endlessly into the distance. The only real question is, which part of the wall to see. Should you see the is the reconstructed wall or the “wild wall?”  I generally recommend the reconstructed wall for a first-timer. And if reconstructed is what you choose, the section to go to is Mutianyu (which if you walk in the direction of watchtower 23, you will hit the wild wall). If there are two or more of you, then hiring a driver to spend the day out there is worth it. The driver generally knows to leave early – the wall opens at 8 AM and, on a weekday, if you are there at 8, you will have some of the wall to yourself. As I mentioned yesterday, I have used Miles Meng’s service the last two times I have visited the Wall and find it well worth it.

Dad & me at the Mutianyu Great Wall, Oct. 2018

If you want to do the “wild wall,” do not do it alone.  I can’t stress that enough. Do it with a group so that you have a guide in case there are any accidents. Sprained ankles are probably the most common, but there are significant drops in certain places where the path narrows. I recommend signing up for a trip with Beijing Hikers. Usually it is a group of 10 to 15 people, with a bus pickup in downtown Beijing. If you are doing the wild wall, do wear hiking shoes.

Summer Palace

After the Great Wall, the Summer Palace is perhaps one of the most extraordinary tourist sites in Beijing. As its name connotes, it was the summer home of the Qing emperors after the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by French and British troops in 1860 (with some of the most prized antiquities of China carted off).  While the Summer Palace certainly has buildings that are must sees, it is more than just a palace. It is a massive, beautiful park where you could easily spend a whole day if you have the time. People may say that you only need two hours to “do” the Summer Palace, but this would be a mistake. After seeing the major sites in the park, go off on some of the side paths and enjoy the peace and quiet with spectacular views of the lake and Beijing to the southeast. Bring your lunch as the Summer Palace is a great place to picnic, relax and just have fun.

Beijing’s Summer Palace on a clear October day

Lama Temple

Beijing has quite a number of impressive Buddhist temples but the Lama Temple outshines them all.  Originally built as a residence for one of the Qing Dynasty princes, the building was converted to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in 1744 and has remained one ever since. It is still a practicing monastery and if you get there early enough, you might be able to see the end of the morning group prayers. It is something to listen to rather than to watch. In fact, much of the experience at the Lama Temple is about your other senses. Through out the temple complex, the sweet smell of incense will fill your nose and even though it is often crowded, it is quiet enough that you can hear the tinkle of the small bells hanging in the breeze. It is this feeling of peacefulness – in the heart of Beijing – that will be a more lasting memory than any picture.

Burning incense inside Beijing’s Lama Temple

The World Trade Center’s 6th Floor Terrace

Now that you have seen the old, it’s time to bask in the new.  The place to do that is China’s World Trade Center (Guomao – 国贸), a massive complex of office buildings, hotels and a multi-floored mall in the southeast corner of Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The two, glass brown buildings at the south of the complex, the ones that look very 1970s, were the original World Trade Center buildings that opened around 1990. I actually worked in one of them in 1999 and at that time, those two towers were surrounded by shanty towns. Today, those towns have been replaced by some of China’s most impressive, glittering architecture, including the imposing CCTV tower. And there is no better place to view Beijing’s modern architecture than from the 6th floor terrace of the World Trade Center mall.  If you find yourself getting lost in the maze of a mall, just follow the signs to the Blue Frog restaurant. The terrace shares space with that restaurant. But no worries if you are not up for a bite. Fortunately, most of the terrace is free and open to the public. 

Viewing China’s present from the 6th Floor Terrace at World Trade

These are just a few suggestions of what to see in Beijing. The most important thing is just being there, in the heart of this vibrant city that is changing the world. Was there something else you did in Beijing that didn’t make the list and should have?  Please feel free to comment below about your favorite Beijing experiences. And join us tomorrow as we conclude this series with the all important “what to eat” in Beijing. 

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Know Before You Go

By , April 21, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Getting Ready for the Flight to Beijing

Beijing has long fascinated the Western mind. Since Marco Polo published his travelogue of China in 1300, Westerns have been inspired to visit Beijing and have rarely left disappointed.  And rightfully so for the emperors of China knew what they were doing when they built the city. On a clear day, Beijing’s imposing, ancient architecture, with its blazing red walls and shimmering gold rooves, pops against the bright blue sky. Even with some of the city’s destruction during the Mao era and, more recently, for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is still a city like no other in the world.

But for a first time visitor, this city of 21 million people can overwhelm. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to eat. How does one prioritize?  China Law & Policy is here to help. In this three-part Just for Fun series, we give some pointers – based on our own experience in Beijing – on what a first time visitor should look to do. What should you see?  What should you eat?  Today, we start with some preliminary matters to take care of before you even get on your flight to Beijing.  For those of you who are regular visitors to Beijing, feel free to share in the comment section what you think is essential for a first-timer needs to prepare for his or her trip.

Virtual Private Networks

Before you get to the Great Wall, you will encounter the China Firewall

As soon as you arrive at the Beijing Capital Airport, you will be behind “China’s Great Firewall.” Those websites you visit daily – the New York Times, anything Google related (think gmail, maps), Facebook, Twitter – are blocked by government decree. But there are ways around it; one way is the use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”). Technically, accessing the internet through anything other than access points provided by the Chinese government is a violation of 1997 temporary regulations that are still in effect. And Chinese citizens have been fined ($150) during a recent government campaign against VPN usage. But most tourists that visit China use a VPN and here is a list of VPNs that usually work in China.  Here though is the clincher – if you are going to use one, you have to download it on all your electronic devices before you leave for China. Because VPN’s are essentially illegal in China, their websites are blocked in China and app stores are not permitted to offer VPNs once you are in China. So be sure to download them on your cell phone, laptop, etc., a few days before you leave and play with them so you know how to work them. A VPN will run you between $12 to $15/month. Almost all of the VPNs require automatic renewal on your credit card, so mark your calendar to terminate your subscription once you return.

Your Passport – Don’t Leave Home Without It

You will need your passport to get on to Tiananmen Square

Second thing to note is that you need to travel with your passport on you at all times (and in case you missed it in preparing, you need a visa to get in). The U.S. Department of State recently reminded tourists traveling to China to always carry their passports. Additionally, you will need it to get through security checkpoints at certain tourist sites, such as Tiananmen Square. More importantly, for those traveling to China in their golden years, some tourist sites give a discount – sometimes as much as 50%! – to anyone 60 years and older (Forbidden City, Summer Palace are two such places). But the only way to verify that fact is by showing your passport. So don’t miss out on that deal.

Cash is King, At Least for Tourists

For tourists, China is still very much a cash-based society. China sort of skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile payments.  At a small, hole-in-the-wall shop on some random street in Beijing, you will see Chinese people just flashing their phone at a machine to pay for their water. Fortunately for tourists, these shops still must accept cash. But they won’t accept credit card. For sure you can use your credit card at your hotel, for dinners at more established restaurants, and in fancier shops. When it comes to everything else, you will need cash. So you will be going to the ATM. . . a lot.  You should be able to use your ATM card at the major Chinese banks – Bank of China, China Construction Bank, ICBC, and China Merchant Bank, all of which are common around the city.  And remember, you cannot purchase Chinese money outside of China.  So as soon as you get out of customs at the airport, make a stop at one of the many ATMs that are in the airport and withdraw some cash. How much you need for the trip all depends on what you plan to do and what you plan to buy.

How to Get Around

Now, for taxis. It will be almost impossible to hail one off the street and Uber and Lyft are not really used by Chinese taxi drivers. They use DiDi, which does now have an English version but I have yet to use it. So if you don’t use Didi, empty taxis will drive right by you – even with your hand held up trying to hail them. For some reason, taxi drivers prefer a DiDi fare over a hail. So if you don’t want to download Didi on your cell phone, then your best friend is going to be Beijing’s extensive subway system which is a great way to experience Beijing as a Beijinger. But try to avoid rush hour when the trains are packed. Also, some stops are not terribly close to the tourist attraction and often there is a long walk to transfer trains.  So if you are traveling with someone who has challenges walking a lot, investing in a car service is a good idea. For the past few years, I have used Miles Meng (click here for info – just email Miles and he will set it up and give you the price) for airport pick-ups, driving to the Great Wall, and heading out to the Summer Palace. The driver drops you off and then tells you where to meet for the pick-up. It is more expensive than the subway, but when I was traveling with my Dad, a senior, it was a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time without tiring him out.

Toilet Paper – Don’t Leave Home Without It

Some things never change – a view of the Forbidden City at Sunset, Oct. 2018

When I first went to China in 1993, my roommate, who had lived in China before, immediately told me that I needed to carry a roll of toilet paper with me. Twenty-six years later, that advice is still applicable. Beijing is great in terms of public toilets. It’s just that the public toilets don’t supply toilet paper. Which makes sense in a city of 21 million people; imagine how much of the city budget would be earmarked for toilet paper. While you could carry pocket tissues and they would do the same job, in the end, I just end up throwing a roll in my backpack. And you can buy very nice toilet paper in local shops and supermarkets when you arrive – no need to bring that from the U.S. And in terms of public bathrooms, most now do offer at least one stall that is a “western” toilet and not a squat toilet. Although in more dubious bathrooms off the beaten path, I choose the squat toilet over a sit down.  Now that you have the preliminary matters down, it is time to start planning the itinerary!  Join us tomorrow when China Law & Policy shares some of its favorite things to see and do in Beijing.

Just for Fun – Movie Review: Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White

By , April 4, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Bin and Qiao, the two lovers at the center of director Jia Zhangke’s new masterpiece, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女), are having the time of their lives as the film opens. It’s 2001 and Bin (Liao Fan) is a successful gang leader in the declining industrial city of Datong. Qiao (Zhao Tao) is his dutiful girlfriend, always by his side, collecting money at the mahjong tables on his behalf and picking up Bin’s gun when he accidently drops it on the dance floor. She is also the sole care taker of her father, a man who once was an important leader in Datong’s coal mines when those mines were flourishing. Now he commandeers the neighborhood loudspeaker for his drunken tirades.

But Bin and Qiao are united in their belief in the gang world’s longstanding code of loyalty; loyalty to each other, loyalty to their family, and loyalty to the gang. But that loyalty is tested when Bin is attacked by a rival gang – an exciting, kung fu-inspired fight scene – and Qiao saves his life by firing his gun. Both are arrested but its is Qiao, never revealing that the gun was Bin’s, that takes the fall with a five year sentence for possession of a gun. When Qiao is finally released, there is no Bin waiting for her. Instead, she has go find him, journeying through parts of China hundreds of miles from her home.

Qiao (Zhao Tao) in the Three Gorges Valley, searching for Bin

Her search for Bin takes her to one of the small river towns in the Three Gorges valley. It is 2006 so while the town still exits, its demise is imminent. Beautiful shots of the Yangtze, flowing through the town, are punctured with the shrill sound of public announcements, instructing local residents to pack up their bags because their town of over 2,000 years will soon be flooded into oblivion with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. It is clear that Qiao is beginning to realize that she is in a new China. And it becomes clear to the audience that while Ash is Purest White is ostensibly a story about love lost (not surprisingly Qiao finds out that Bin left her and gang life) it is more a story of China during those first two, tumultuous decades of the 2000s. 

And Jia quietly captures the momentousness of those two decades, both while Qiao is in the Three Gorges Valley and on her train trip back to Datong, where she ends up encountering the first of the new Chinese, a rugged adventurer, with Western-style backpacker gear, on his way to Xinjiang to search for UFOs. When Bin comes to see her ten years later, she meets him at the high speed rail station clasping her smart phone. Ever loyal to the gang and to the life, it is Qiao who now runs the Datong mahjong parlor and has become an underworld boss. It is also Qiao – still loyal to Bin – who nurses him back to health.

Director Jia Zhangke

Ash is Purest White shows why Jia Zhangke is one of China’s greatest directors. The genius behind Jia, which is perfected in this movie, is his ability – without any words – to communicate the confusion and uncomfortableness of living in a country that is undergoing one of the fastest economic transitions the world has ever seen. Qiao’s loyalty is admirable and because the movie centers around her (with Zhao Tao giving one of her best performances), we are able to see her transform and become a stronger woman. But in the end, she is still stuck in Datong; her commitment to the past – the code of loyalty – keeps her there. Bin on the other hand is not; he’s on the move, able to forget the codes of the past. And in a country like China, is it better to hold on to the past or to be constantly on the move? Ash is Purest White never answers that question, but, by asking it, the movie shows the difficult spot that China and its people are in as the country continues to develop at breakneck speed. 

 Rating: ★★★★½

Just for Fun – Art Review: Tokyo National Museum’s Toyokan Gallery

By , March 29, 2018

The Toyokan Gallery at the Tokyo National Museum

On a rainy Tuesday in Tokyo, I found myself with a lot of time to kill at the Tokyo National Museum and as a result, ended up meandering into its Toyokan Gallery. A small, compact gallery, it houses some phenomenal art and artifacts from ancient China.  While the Museum’s “Highlights of Japanese Art” is what draws in most tourist, a stop at the Toyokan Gallery is equally a must.

Camel on the Silk Road

At the turn of the 20th century, while Qing Dynasty China was in a state of disarray, much of Western China became part of an international, archeologist race for who could uncover the ancient Buddhist capitals of the Silk Road.  With those discoveries also came a wealth of riches, namely the ability for those archeologists to take some of China’s most impressive artifacts back to their home countries.  Although the British, with Aurel Stein, and the French, with Paul Pelliot, obtained some of the most well-known artifacts from Western China, the Japanese were in on the game, sending a mysterious figure, Count Otani Kozui to these far reaches of China.

A map of Count Otani’s 3 tours to Western China, presented at the Tokyo National Museum

It is his discoveries – and many other Japanese archeologists and collectors who soon followed in his path – that make the Toyokan Gallery an impressive collection.  While the Museum does not exhibit any of the original work that Count Otani obtained during his three exhibitions to the celebrated, ancient Silk Road city of Dunhuang, the Museum does lay out other artifacts that show the beauty of Chinese art from the the eighth century, as well as the early sinicization of Buddhist sculpture.  In addition to pieces from far Western China, the Toyokan also has a number of splendid Buddhist wall sculptures, also from the 700s and lifted from a Buddhist site from the then capital of China, Chang’an (present day Xi’an).  The Museum does not explain how or why it has these niche carvings, but the collection is something to be seen.

A sublime example of Gandhara Buddhist artwork

But what makes the Toyokan Gallery truly superb is it large collection of Buddhist art from Gandhara, a kingdom which existed between 1200 BC and 500 AD and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BC.  Gandhara was located in what is now present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As a result of its history and geography, Gandharan art, with its crossroads of the Western world and the Eastern civilizations, shows the confluence of both.  It was also one of the first civilizations outside of India where Buddhism took hold on its way to China, Korea and eventually Japan.   But shockingly for most, its statutes of Buddha are not at all Asian.  Instead, the sculpture has traces of Greek and Roman influences – Buddha with western facial features, with curly hair. The Museum has some key pieces that truly highlight the beauty that is Gandharan Buddhist art and leaves the spectator in awe.  It would be a travesty to go to the Tokyo National Museum and miss this remarkable collection.

Gandhara Art!

The remaining floors also have other pieces of interest to Chinese art aficionados. Ceramics, lacquerware, and a rather impressive collection, largely from private donations, of Chinese scroll paintings and calligraphy.

Given its size, adding the Toyokan Gallery will probably only add an extra hour to your visit to the Tokyo National Museum.  But in that hour, you see some of the finest examples of Gandharan and western Chinese Buddhist art.  Expect your mind to be blown.  And it would be crazy to miss that.

 

Rating: ★★★★☆
Toyokan Gallery (the Asian Art Gallery)
Permanent Exhibit
Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Uenokoen, Taitō, Tokyo 110-8712
Sundays through Saturday, 9:30 AM to 5 PM; Open later Friday, Saturdays & Sundays
For more information on hours and how to get there, visit: http://www.tnm.jp/modules/r_free_page/index.php?id=113
Cost = 620 Yen

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