Posts tagged: review

Book Review – Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in A Tibetan Town

By , December 21, 2020

Since 2017, the Chinese government has interred over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, destroyed Uighur religious sites and limited – at times forcibly – the number of children a Uighur woman can have, all in what appears to be an effort to stamp out the Uighur culture.  This summer, in Inner Mongolia, the government instituted policies that restrict the use of Mongolian in local schools, an effort Mongolian parents maintain is designed to eliminate their language and culture.  For many outside of China, these policies are a shocking new development, reflective of the hardline approach of current President Xi Jinping.  But, as Barbara Demick shows in her harrowing new book, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, for Tibetans, cultural destruction has been a part of their lives for the last 70 years. 

Eat the Buddha tells the story of this destruction by focusing on Ngaba, a town on the Tibetan plateau that has earned the morbid distinction as “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations.”  Ngaba is not located in the Tibetan Special Autonomous Region (“SAR”), the area on a Chinese map that most non-Chinese think of as “Tibet.” Rather, Ngaba is located in the northwest region of China’s Sichuan province, and is an important reminder of just how far the Kingdom of Tibet once extended and how dispersed the Tibetan population is today. In fact, as Demick notes in her introduction, the vast majority of Tibetans in China live outside the Tibetan SAR, but this in no way lessens the Chinese government’s repressive rule. In many ways it is worse.  According to the International Campaign for Tibet, since 2009, 45 Tibetans in Ngaba have self-immolated in protest. In Lhasa, the capital of the of Tibet SAR, only two have. 

Map showing Ngaba’s location in China

In Eat the Buddha, Demick asks why. Why have so many in Ngaba chosen to set themselves on fire, especially in a religion where suicide is not an accepted practice. Demick answer this question by examining the lives of eight Ngaba residents spread across generations, from the daughter of the last king of Ngaba (Princess Gonpo) to a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl, captivated by Chinese social media and uninterested in her own culture (Dechen).  None of the people are particularly militant or even interested in Tibetan independence.  Even Princess Gonpo, whose family members died, some by suspicious means, during the Cultural Revolution, is not anti-China and sees some of the benefits of being a part of the world’s second largest economy. 

But as Demick tells their stories, each of the eight, even the younger ones, begin to resist Chinese rule and increasingly view the Chinese governments’ efforts in Ngaba as the degradation and ultimate destruction of their culture.  And as Demick shows, these efforts have not just been limited to policies designed to “assimilate” the Tibetans; some have been violent attacks on the Tibetan people.  Particularly harrowing is the retelling of the violence perpetuated on Delek’s grandparents in 1958 when he was just nine years old.  As he hid in basket in their home, he heard screams and the senseless beating of his grandparents.  When he emerged, this nine-year-old saw his grandmother, blood running down her head from where her braids had been ripped from her head.  More recently, Ngaba has seen the increase militarization of the police force, creating an air of violence and captivity in the city, and at times resulting in the loss of innocent, young lives.  For most of us who have studied Chinese history – at least those of us outside of the Mainland – we have been taught about the harshness of Chinese rule.  But Eat the Buddha, by putting a personal face on this human suffering for the past 70 years, horrifies in the way a history lesson never can. 

Chinese military on the streets of Ngaba around 2009

What Eat the Buddha also powerfully makes clear is that as much as the Chinese government attempts to censor this history in schools or tries to buy young Tibetan’s loyalty through a higher standard of living, these attempts ultimately fail.  Dechen is a perfect example. When we first meet her, she is a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl fluent in Mandarin who loves watching Chinese movies that glorify the Chinese military.  For her, Tibetan culture is for the old. But then, as Chinese rule becomes increasingly suffocating in Ngaba and her family members become victims of the government’s violence, she awakens her from her social media stupor. 

By the time Demick reaches the start of self-immolation period in 2009, the reader is not shocked. It is the last form of protest available to Ngaba’s Tibetans, particularly the young monks at the Kirti monastery, grandchildren of those Tibetans first exposed to the Chinese government’s oppressive and violent rule.  Unable to freely learn their religion and watching their culture be destroyed, they are left with nothing else but the ultimate sacrifice.  The sad truth though, these self-immolations, with their shocking nature and international attention, result in the easing of some restrictions.  45 monks had to kill themselves in the most horrific of ways for the Chinese government to listen. 

Ceremony at Ngaba’s Kirti Monestary

Eat the Buddha is a brilliant exposition of the Chinese efforts to eradicate a culture and how the culture pushes back.  But that push-back is not enough to save the Tibetan culture and one starts to wonder why other countries aren’t doing more.  Yes, some leaders, risking Beijing’s ire and meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists (Angela Merkel in 2007; Barak Obama in 2016).  But those are just symbolic gestures. And this is why Eat the Buddha is a must read. By telling Tibetan’s stories, Demick reminds us that the world’s commitment to human rights is more than just words, sometimes it is the difference between life and death for a people and their culture. Its time we give more than just words.

RATING:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Author Barbara Demick

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Penguin Random House, 2020), 352 pages.

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Just For Fun: Restaurant Review – Las Vegas’ Ping Pang Pong

By , June 13, 2013

Ping Pang Pong in the Gold Coast Casins

It’s not an understatement to say that Chinese tourists likely saved Las Vegas from economic oblivion after the meltdown of 2008.  When most of Nevada was in a foreclosure crisis, Las Vegas had to look elsewhere for cash and not surprisingly, that elsewhere was China.  Chinese people have long enjoyed gambling: Macau is the most profitable gaming city in the world and the number of Chinese travelers to Las Vegas has risen 30% every year these past through years.  In fact, last month, two Nevada congressmen proposed a bill to provide a visa waiver to Hong Kong Chinese.

And to thank these Chinese tourists, Las Vegas has given them their just reward – plenty of Chinese restaurants along the strip.  Because if there is something that Chinese tourists like more than gambling, it is eating Chinese food.  Some of the fanciest hotels – like the Bellagio and the Wynn – have premier Chinese restaurants allegedly serving “authentic” cuisine.

But what China Law & Policy wanted to find out – were any of them good?  A review of the internet brought up mixed reviews of some of the fancier places, but the one name that kept popping up as the best Chinese food was the unfortunately named Cantonese restaurant Ping Pang Pong in the old school, $5-table Gold Coast Casino.

Ping Pang Pong and the Gold Coast Casino are about a 20 minute, unattractive walk from the strip.  But every step of that walk is worth if for just

Best roast pork buns outside of Hong Kong? You bet!

for one thing: some of the best roast pork buns (cha siu bao) outside of Hong Kong.  All too often dim sum restaurants give too little attention to the roast pork buns, knowing that it is an easy sell; even a bad roast pork bun is still good.  But Ping Pang Pong’s roast pork buns are not simply good, they are actually divine.  The attention provided to the pork is amazing – not only is the bun full of shredded pork, but you can actually taste the barbeque flavor of the sauce mixed with the sweetness.  The soft bun, which was served hot, was fresh and added a perfect complement to the strong, delicious and distinct tangy and sweet flavors of the meat.  This is the way a steamed roast pork bun is supposed to taste.

The rest of the dim sum was very solid.  Although the restaurant was full of Chinese and Hong Kong customers (out of the 20 tables, only four were non-Chinese speaking) and most of the ordering is done in Chinese, it is still accessible to non-Chinese speakers because of its picture menu.

Spinach in garlic sauce

One of the first things that intrigued my dining companion and I on the picture menu was the shrimp lollipops.  And these lollipops did not disappoint.  If you like shrimp, you will love these.  The ground shrimp meat is fried and breaded and sits on a bamboo stick.  Although fried, these shrimp lollipops are very delicate – the frying is lightly done with no taste of oil, allowing for the flavor of the hefty amount of shrimp meat to really come out.  Even ground, the shrimp was still extremely fresh.  There is a mayo-based dipping sauce that comes with the shrimp lollipops, but this only detracts from the flavor.  There is no need for any sauce with these hefty shrimp mammas, but if you feel the need, go with the table hot sauce.

Next we tried the sticky fried rice with Chinese sausage.  At first taste, there was not much to write home about.  It wasn’t overwhelmingly flavorful, but it was a dish my dining companion and I kept coming back to.  The sausage was nice and sweet and the texture of the sticky rice complemented the sausage.  This was a dish we ended up making a point of finishing – it turned out to be very savory and satisfying.

Our next dish was a bit of a mistake – shrimp balls with rice on the outside, sitting in a congee sauce (rice gruel sauce).  Mixed with the shrimp was a vegetable medley of sorts – corn, carrots and peas.  I would not recommend ordering this.  While it is great that Ping Pang Pong is experimenting with new ideas, this is one experiment I could do without.  The flavors do not really go together and it’s just weird to mix corn, carrots and peas with the shrimp.

Fortunately we were saved by the next dish – the beef and shrimp shu mai.  These shu mai were bursting with flavor and were also very savory.

Turnip cakes

The dish did not come with a sauce and to be honest, it wasn’t needed.  A sauce would again detract too much for the freshness of the meats.  We also ordered off the menu – spinach with garlic sauce.  The dish was good – it was not dripping with garlic sauce which meant that the flavor of the spinach wasn’t lost as all too often happen – but it wasn’t great.

Finally, we ordered one of my favorites – turnip cakes.  These turnip cakes were fresh out of the oven, an experience I never had.  As a result of their freshness, the cakes fell apart very easily when you went to pick them up with your chopsticks.  Also surprisingly, these turnip cakes did not come with the oyster sauce that usually accompany them.  The waitress was happy to oblige when we asked for it, but I have never seen turnip cakes without a sauce.  These turnip cakes were good – my dining companion enjoyed them more than I did – but nothing you can’t get in New York City’s Chinatown.

All done!

Ping Pang Pong offers very good dim sum with exceptional roast pork buns that should not be missed.  The food is authentic and can compete with some of the better dim sum restaurants of larger Chinatowns like New York and San Francisco.  It also can compete with many of the Strip’s more famous chefs. Whoever the chef is of Ping Pang Pong, his genius is evident in the roast pork buns – Emeril could learn a thing or two from him.

What’s also great is that the meal will not set you back in the way that one of the restaurants on the Strip will.  The prices of the dim sum dishes range from $2.18 to $5.88 for a specialty.  Our meal – in which we over ordered – was $35 with tip (no alcohol though).  Certainly a winning find after losing big the night before in blackjack.

 

 

Rating: ★★★½☆

Ping Pang Pong
Inside the Gold Coast Casino
4000 W Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, NV 89103
(702) 367-7111

http://www.goldcoastcasino.com/dine/ping-pang-pong

 

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