Thursday, 11 April 2013

Latest post

I'm sorry guys, but I've taken done the latest post due to security reasons. I'm not keen on getting deported by the government. So if you are really interested in reading my latest post, please email me on the usual email address and I'll send it to you. Ciao for now!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Journey to Meixian, the home of my ancestors

Living in China for the past 18 months I was unaware of having any relatives in China. Most of my family presently live in the UK where I was born and also Mauritius where my parents’ generation are from. However, an eye-opening trip to Meixian; the birthplace of my ancestors soon proved me wrong. Accompanied by my parents, my uncle and aunt from the UK and my father’s oldest brother and his grand-daughter from Mauritius, I travelled to Meixian to find out more about my Chinese roots and try to find some of the answers to questions I had about the emigration of the family from Meixian to Mauritius.

The Chan Tanghao 
It was at the Lantern festival banquet dinner, to mark the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations, where I found out that, incredibly, the 800 people present were in some way related to me. The dinner had taken place in the Chan compound outside the Chan ancestral hall which is known as the Tang hao in Chinese (堂號) – a simple unassuming structure which housed a small temple to offer worship and sacrifice to our ancestors. I had previously imagined this place to be quite rural and undeveloped, i.e. no roads, old wooden building and dirt tracks as my father had described it after visiting it 10 years before but it was not the case. Around the Tang hao were well-kept communal buildings and houses surrounding a small lake and a cemented road that ran around the compound.   

View of the Tanghao from the lake
On the night of the banquet, many red lanterns adorned the outside of the tang hao and underneath them, a sea of over 100 red circular tables covered the area around the Tang hao and also inside the building itself. To the right of the Tang hao was a pop-up outdoor kitchen; huge woks the size of upside-down parasols sat on intensely burning fires whilst young chefs and servers rushed to and fro with vats of raw ingredients. All members of this Chan clan were invited to attend the dinner, including women who had married out of the family and whose own family was not regarded as Clan. I was impressed and surprised to find out that I am 14th generation of the clan. This meant that there had been a long line of fathers stretching hundreds of years back in history, all bearing the same Chan name and originating from the same little place in Meixian.

As dusk fell, each family sat down at their reserved table and eagerly awaited the banquet whilst drinking toasts of Baijiu to welcome the new year. My family meanwhile, was ushered to the head table because my eldest Uncle was a honoured guest at the celebration. I observed the scene before me with much wonder; it was a raucous, colourful celebration which is usual for Chinese tradition. Suddenly the food started arriving; I had no clue how they were going to feed 800 people at the same time but the cooks and the servers though noisy and brusque, handled it with ease and one by-one a dish of steaming food was placed on the table before us. The food was plentiful and absolutely delicious; amongst the 12 or so plates were well-known Meixian dishes, for example, braised belly pork on preserved vegetables, steamed corn-fed chicken and fish ball soup. I was quite relieved that we were not treated to a dog casserole which was the case when we had lunch at the compound a few days before.

During the banquet the head of the clan said a few words and acknowledged my family travelling all the way from England and Mauritius. My eldest Uncle beamed in pride for this place had been his home from the age of 5 to 15 years old.  I tried to imagine him as a little boy running around the compound and my grandmother working hard to provide for the family. Returning to his old home in China and clan meant so much to him and it was wonderful to share the experience and learn more about his life there with his mother, my grandmother. She and my grandfather was one of the thousands of immigrants who left Meixian to find work in Mauritius. Following the birth of her two sons and daughter, my grandmother returned to Meixian with the children and lived in the same area with the other Chans, managing a small shop.
Outside the place where my grandmother lived
On a visit to the area a few days back, my Uncle showed us where they lived, it was a small rundown shack not far from the Tang hao that had been abandoned many years ago. A few minutes walk from here was her shop, which now housed a mobile communications store. With a heavy heart I learnt more about the grandmother I never knew, the hard laborious life she led and the painful tragedy of the death of her infant daughter. With the threat of civil war in China, life in Meixian was no longer safe therefore she took her teenage sons back to Mauritius and rejoined her husband where they made a life for themselves. After bearing 6 sons altogether, she longed for a daughter though it was not meant to be. Therefore it has been said that unusually for a Chinese person, she wished her sons to bear daughters and later her wish came true, with 10 granddaughters and only 2 grandsons in the family. Though, sadly we were all born before we could meet her, her legacy continues in the Chinese names that she chose for us before we were born, all etched on her gravestone. 

On my return back to Nanjing in China, where I live, I told all my Chinese friends about the trip, the massive banquet and what I had found out about my roots. I was very surprised to hear that they had no Tang hao or did not know what generation they were from. It would appear that in modern day China that this it is rare to follow such traditions but I for one, have come away feeling humbled by the whole fascinating experience and insights into my ancestor’s lives.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Teaching English to the Chinese

So I’m earning my keep by teaching English at a Chinese university along with 20 other English teachers, most of whom are American – I’m the only Brit. We get an apartment and a salary to plan and teach about 18 periods a week (14hrs of classroom teaching) which affords us plenty of free time. 

Chinese students
I teach eight different classes of Chinese students from freshman to seniors– they range from twenty to about forty-five students in one class – so roughly about 250 students in total! I’ve encouraged them to choose English names as it makes it easier for me to remember them – there’s no way I’d remember 250 Chinese names!  Many students have asked me to give them a name so I’ve “christened” over 100 of them which has been quite fun. It keeps me amused in class when I look down the register and it resembles my friends’ list on Facebook. Some students have unfortunately chosen their own names, one girl asked to be called Cinderella which I quickly advised her to shorten to Cindy. One boy asked me to call him Adolf, to which I replied without thinking, “After Hitler?” Unfortunately I didn’t know what to shorten that to.

Each class varies in personality depending on their major and like most of my colleagues I have a favourite class that I look forward to teaching each week.  More often than not, the students are shy and will not respond or volunteer if you ask them a question. It’s not that they don’t understand as their level of English is upper intermediate, more that they are afraid of losing face if they wrong. It is quite frustrating when I ask a question and nobody answers – they won’t even nod or shake their head, sometimes you can see them mouth the answer but they won’t say it aloud. Even though I’m in a room of 40 people I feel like I’m talking to myself! Now I make a point about picking people to answer questions, works a treat if the students have fallen asleep or chatting in the back. I was covering for a fellow colleague the other day and I couldn’t believe my eyes when one of the students pulled out a pillow and put his head down for a snooze! The blatant cheek….!

Amy and Tracy took me to Korean BBQ
However, I do have some students who are real gems such as Michelle and Vanessa who volunteered to show my cousin around the city whilst I was teaching and also Right, Tracy and Amy who took me out for dinner last week and insisted on paying for everything. Other English teachers have also commented on the generosity and friendliness of the Chinese – one teacher and her fiancé were invited to the family home of a Chinese student for the Mid-Autumn festival and they said they never have experienced such kindness as they did that weekend. Nothing was too much trouble or cost. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my Chinese friends, learning about their culture and hopefully repaying some of the kindness that they have shown me.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Shanghai World Expo 2010

If you are Chinese or have visited China in the last six months you would have heard about the Expo in Shanghai. It is the number one attraction in China at the moment, and throughout its five month long lifetime, the number of attendees has averaged to around two to three hundred thousand people a day. Since its opening in May, the Chinese have been visiting in their millions aided by the free tickets that the government has given out to each family causing hours of queuing to get into the pavillions at the site.
Dying to find out what all the fuss was about, Jacky and I joined the masses and headed down to the Expo sight in Shanghai. The Expo for those of you don't know (don't worry, I didn't know anything about it before coming) is a exposition of world fairs and many cities have hosted it in the past.
UK pavillion at the Shanghai Expo2010
China being China - had promised the biggest and greatest Expo at Shanghai with over 190 countries participating.  For £16 entrance fee, we could experience a slice of life in each participating country's pavillion. The weather was hot - about 33 degrees and we weren't looking forward to the horrendous queues we'd heard about to get into each country's pavillion. The China pavillion was a complete no-no. There was a separate ticket you had to get in the morning when the gates opened and frankly we came too late to get one.

But actually the queues weren't too bad - we avoided the ones that looked huge - like Japan which would have taken 3 hours. And because we brought our UK passport we were allowed a fast track into the UK pavillion, skipping 2 hours of queuing...hooray!!! The UK pavillion was actually one of the most spectactular at the Expo - we certainly felt that the UK did ourselves proud.

Inside the Seed Cathedral: UK pavillion
Inside the Seed Cathedral in the UK pavillion i.e. that giant capsule with 60,000 tubes sticking out (see picture above) we were surrounded on all sides by the end of the tubes. As you can see, inside each tube there are different kinds of seed,  collectively it looked quite extraordinary. I did hear a rumour that upon the end of the Expo, the British would send schools in China one tube each so they could plant the seeds and carry on the legacy of the UK pavillion. Lovely idea but not sure if this is entirely true!

We actually managed to visit quite a few pavillions at the Expo - admittedly we were only interested in the ones that didn't have much of a queue so we did end up at random ones like Oman  and Tunisia. Jacky and I were keen to pop into the Mauritian pavillion though there was not much to see unfortunately.

Me demonstrating the Mauritian pavillion
There was a Mauritian stall selling nicknacks from Mauritius and also bottles of the infamous Green Island Rum. I tried to bargain with the Mauritians running the stall speaking a bit of creole and managed to get the price down on a bottle of rum to £8. However it was more impressive to hear the Mauritians speaking perfect Mandarin to the Chinese.

The pavillion which we enjoyed the most was the South African pavillion. The reason being was that with a bit of teamwork between Jacky and I, we managed to blag our way into a wine and food tasting event which was strictly restricted to industry people only. However we worked the Ah Fong charm offensive to the max and we were soon sitting amongst 40 VIPs and our friends Tom and Maria (who we got in too), listening to the South African wine expert and tasting 6 different wines. After the wine tasting we were served some South African delicacies including wittchety grub and caterpillar. Hmmm, don't think i'll be trying THAT again! Wine was freely flowing and we readily took advantage of it. As wine in China is pretty awful and the imported stuff is horrifically expensive; it was fantastic to drink good quality wine after not having it for 3 months.The evening was topped off by a kind donation of a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to Jacky by the nice wine expert.  After drinking our fill, we headed out merrily into the night - we had been in the South African pavillion for 4 hours! 

Monday, 4 October 2010

Hong Kong is my Dim Sum heaven

Dim Sum at Saam Hui Yat
If you know me well enough, you will know that my holy grail is to find restaurants serving the best Dim Sum. Although I have tried many in London and have strong opinions about which are the best, I must admit I am not that knowledgeable about the quality of Dim Sum in the rest of the world.  Though I must say that that the Sydney Dim Sum or Yum Cha has been top of my list for quite a number of years now.

Being in China a trip to Hong Kong was inevitable, not only to arrange my Chinese working visa but to experience the home of Dim Sum. Going over the border crossing at Shenzhen, I was practically salivating at the thought of trying some authentic har gau or siu mai. I had done a little research on the best places to eat Dim Sum in Hong Kong and for my first experience, I chose a small locals place that was near my hotel in the Sai Wan area called Saam Hui Yat which had rave reviews. When my friend Will and I eventually found the restaurant we were surprised as we were expecting somewhere bigger, a bit less rundown and a bit more approachable. It was tiny, seated probably only 15 people maximum, and full of oldish men who eyeballed us as we were ushered in by the cook manning the towers of steaming Dim Sum baskets in a small cubicle next to the front door.

Once seated, I was given the menu and hardly surprisingly there was no English translation or pretty pictures we could point at - just Chinese characters. So I went ahead and ordered the most popular Dim Sum dishes, har gau, siu mai, cheung fan, and then went over to the steaming baskets and pointed to a few of those for good measure. Whilst waiting for the food, the waiter arrived with a bowl and hot water for us to rinse our dishes, teacup and chopsticks, it seemed like less of a tradition and more an actual necessity.

Cheung fan, har gau, siu mai, sticky rice, stuffed bean curd
However the proof was in the eating and once we were eating the Dim Sum we couldn't care less what the restaurant looked like - it tasted wonderful - real homemade stuff that you would imagine your grandmother to make - every delicious mouthful of it. Will was impressed too and declared it to be much better than any of the Dim Sum he'd tasted in London.

In my opinion, the meal was excellent but I was still determined to discover more tasty dim sum eateries. Therefore when my friend Anne suggested we go to her favourite Dim Sum restaurant, Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin starred-restaurant in the world, I jumped at the chance. Anne warned us that the queues to get into this tiny establishment were legendary. Many people flock far and and wide to experience the skill of the chef, Pui Gor; a former chef at the Four Seasons Hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant Lung King Heen, he is now serving five star dim sum to the masses.

Tim Ho Wan - world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant

As Anne lived round the corner from Tim Ho Wan in Mongkok she kindly offered to queue up at 10am to hold a table for us. At 11.30am when we arrived, she was still waiting. The outside of this restaurant caught me by surprise - it was certainly not what I expected of a Michelin-restaurant. Beyond the large congregation of hungry people outside, the restaurant looked small, ordinary and unassuming. I would have by-passed it in a second if Anne had not have mentioned it. 

It was only another 20 minutes to wait and like others outside the restaurant we did not mind much. Once our number was called we hurried inside like eager children and the waitress pointed to a space between diners for us to slot ourselves into. The restaurant was so small and tightly packed- probably about 30 covers - that she had to pull out the table for Anne and I to sit behind. However, it was of little consequence and we ordered quickly and soon our steaming baskets came out covering our entire table. Elbow to elbow with our fellow diners we ate and ate.
Chicken's feet, cheong fan, dumplings on our tiny table
The Dim Sum was outstanding - all the traditional dishes we ordered were a cut above what I had previously tasted elsewhere in the world. Tim Ho Wan didn't just do it better - they took Dim Sum to a higher lever. For example, the beef meatballs were tender and more importantly good quality beef with the aroma of dried mandarin peel and corriander. Anne raved about the cha siu baau and insisted we try them. It was a sweet pastry version of the traditional barbecue pork-stuffed buns which I was not overly keen on in the past. But the pastry on this bun was divine; flaky, light and utterly delicious, it went well with the sweetness of the pork. Will also insisted on getting chicken feet. I have never been a fan of this aesthetically displeasing dish - but here they actually looked appealing and I decided to bite the bullet and try it. To my surprise it was quite tasty, lots of juicy meat and not much bone/cartilage as is usual for this dish.  

Anne told us that every dish is made to order and it clearly showed. I was impressed with the the chef's mission to create amazing Dim Sum dishes in relatively small quantities and not sacrificing the quality by opening a large eaterie. Our bill for the three of us came up to HK$150 which is about £14 in total. Not bad for a Michelin-starred restaurant!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Shanghai with cousin Jacky

During the mid-autumn festival many Chinese people have at least 1 day off but because of my schedule I actually had 4 days off - Tuesday to Friday. I was really chuffed as it meant I could meet my cousin Jacky in Shanghai and spend 6 days there with her. She had flown there to see me and discover China as it was her first visit to the homeland. She had arrived on the Sunday in Shanghai so after teaching my morning classes on the Monday morning I  jumped on the bullet train at Nanjing train station to Shanghai. This new train journey started up in July  and is one of the fastest trains in the world reaching over 300kph and only taking 75mins in total between Nanjing and Shanghai. Amazing stuff...a feat unimaginable in the UK. And what's more, the trains run like clockwork in China - usually no delays or cancellations. How refreshing!

So I met cousin Jacky - who I proudly introduced to everyone  as "Wo de jiejie"  i.e. my big sister and together we had a 6 day blast in Shanghai. I was not sure I was going to like it as much as Beijing but I was more than pleasantly surprised and by the end of our stay I didn't want to go back to Nanjing. Shanghai is very much like London - fast-paced, dynamic, dripping with opportunties and wealth. Its not really a place for sightseeing, though there is stuff to see, but rather city where you can hang out in the different neighbourhoods experiencing the delicious food, culture, shopping and busy nightlife.

Lucy and Jacky in Pudong....the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower is behind us
Being a born and bred London girl, I absolutely loved Shanghai and could see myself living there. It is the most costly place in China to live, given all the foreign restaurants, expensive designer shops, glamourous bars and the countless number of activites to choose from. However from what I have gathered, the Shanghainese like to work and play hard and this is why the expats have been flocking in their hundreds. Furthermore, what I did like about Shanghai, is that whenever I spoke a little bit of Mandarin or my Beijinghua, I would be understood by the various taxi drivers, waitresses, passers by. This is not the case in Nanjing where their accent is crude and gruff - you almost have to speak Mandarin like you're barking like a dog.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

5 weeks in Beijing

This photo is of a food stall in the Wanfujin market in Beijing. If you look closely at the sticks, you will find that it isn't meat on the sticks - they are insects! And they were actually alive, wriggling about, probably trying to get free, before they are deep fried and eaten by some hungry Chinese man. I did have a nibble on a scorpion, it did not much flavour after being frazzled by the hot oil. But the texture was comparable to potato chips. I also had a try of a starfish - that was a bit weird, it had the texture of a biscuit and tasted really salty and fishy, a bit like whitebait. If you click the picture you can see more pictures of my 5 weeks in Beijing.