Learning the ZhongGuo lingo

I thought it was about time we did a blog that covered one of the biggest challenges connected to living in China – the language – so I’ve done a self-interview where I ask the questions that my 18-month-ago self would like to ask my today self.

Are you good at languages?

No. I learnt German and French at school but found it tough. I struggle to learn something if I’m not interested in it, so lacked the discipline needed to study and practice tables of  vocab, tenses and genders. Grammatical rules leak out of my brain faster than they’re poured in and my pronunciation is shocking (my command of English language – my mother tongue – is based on the 80:20 rule, meaning that Em spends a good half hour proof-reading and editing each of my blogs before I publish them).

In sum, I have none of the attributes of a good language student. Expecting myself to pick up a highly complex and structured language was akin to dropping a range cooker into the shallow end of a swimming pool expecting it to complete a 50m front crawl.

What language do they speak in China?

It depends on who is asking. If you’re a child, i’d say Chinese. If you’re standing next to me in the toilets while at a pub quiz, I’d say Mandarin Chinese.

If I’m at a dinner party and want to out-smug you, I’d say the answer actually depends on whether you mean ‘speak’ in the literal sense, or whether you also mean ‘read’ and ‘write’.

Traditional & Simplified Chinese

Try changing the language settings on your phone to Chinese (don’t actually change it, it’s devilishly hard to undo). There will probably be two options: “Simplified Chinese” and “Traditional Chinese”. These relate to the written language. Chinese writing has evolved over thousands of years and the written characters are central to the culture (calligraphy is a widely practiced skill and visual art form). A vast number of characters (estimated over 100,000) developed over time, each with varying levels of complexity of meaning- this is what is referred to as Traditional Chinese.

In the mid 20th Century, to improve national levels of literacy and to make it easier to read/write, the government promoted a simplified character set covering a few thousand common words. Most of China now uses the simplified version, though in some pockets (such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) traditional characters still prevail. Some regions have their own unique characters (e.g. those we saw in Lijiang which resembled little stick men carrying out activities) but these aren’t widely used in modern china.

Evolution-of-chinese-characters.jpg
Examples of the evolution of characters from those written in old bones (c1300 BCE) to modern simplified characters.  Image yoinked from www.chinafriendly.com.au
Mandarin Chinese

Each character has a spoken form, and “Mandarin” is the term used to describe the dialect that 70%+ of the population speak. It’s based on the northern Chinese dialect, and spread through China along trade routes emanating from the capital.

There are actually 7 major dialects in China each of which boasts a compilation of sub-dialects; many of these are barely distinguishable even for Chinese nationals, but some are practically different languages altogether. As an example, if you go to Hong Kong you’ll find many people don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese. Simply put, the same characters will sound different depending on your location in China and the time period.

Pinyin

The third element of the modern Chinese language is ‘pinyin’, which is standard Chinese but written in the Latin alphabet. This is useful both to teach pronunciation of the characters and to help you type the characters into your keyboard or phone. Before pinyin, if you wanted to learn how to say a character, you’d need to remember the pronunciation for each one; some characters contain clues to how they should be pronounced, but that’s not much help if you’ve got another language system coded into your brain.

chinese_symbols_for_table_tennis_7884_2_2

Pinyin gives you the latin alphabet word for each character. For the above, ‘pīng‘, ‘pāng‘ and ‘qiú‘ respectively. This tells your Latin-indoctrinated brain and mouth how to pronounce each Chinese character. Helpfully, if you type pingpangqiu into your phone while set to Chinese, it’ll create the characters for you (which mean ‘ping pong’ or ‘table tennis’). So whereas in the UK most people have to learn written English and spoken English, most people in China would learn written Chinese characters, spoken Mandarin Chinese and written pinyin.

pinyin
Some characters and the pinyin.

Do you need to know mandarin to live in China?

That depends on your definition of ‘need’. In a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai many people can speak English (most Chinese kids will learn English to a good standard at school) and many are totally fluent. It’s likely to be harder to get around Shanghai if you don’t speak English. Most signs, menus and labels have English versions, or are set up for foreign visitors (most menus have pictures of food for you to point at). So in answer to the question, you don’t need to.

However, it’s probably a good idea to do it for the following reasons;

It’s fun. I often feel like I’m in a massive code-breaking puzzle with little mini-games everywhere, each with varying degrees of difficulty and offering your brain little squirts of dopamine when you solve them successfully.  Take buying something from Taobao (China’s Amazon/e-Bay megahybrid) as an example. Imagine the normal consumerist buzz you get from buying something online, but you also need to look for treasure by navigating a dense jungle of sellers using a bewildering wall of complex symbols on a tablet (or phone), then overcome several side-quests; “Can you successfully decode what size and colour it is?”, “Can you find your address and enter it in the right place so the courier can read it?”.  Once you’ve beaten the ordering level, you then have the thrill of waiting to see if your chosen item actually turns up and is of reasonable quality.

People respect the effort. People will forgive even the most abysmal butchering of their language if you’re genuinely trying. ‘Knee how. Wo yow moy ee bay pee jeeyo’ (‘Hello, i’d like to buy a bottle of beer’ in ChinBrum). The culture is very relationship based so trying is a good way to show respect.

It improves your options and experience. Nice restaurants, hotels, western chain coffee shops, art galleries etc. are all likely to cater for English speakers. However, if you want to try a more unusual restaurant, a speciality coffee or get a Miley Cyrus tattoo; then you might find fewer English speakers. If you want to venture out of the city, set up text alerts on your phone, return an ill-advised purchase of some Hello-Kitty patterned trousers, or apologise sincerely to a police officer, then you’re much better off if you can speak some Mandarin.

You feel embarrassed less often. There’s nothing as humiliating as being stuck in the middle of a public place (like a supermarket) doing something that should be straightforward (like trying to buy toothpaste), when the person in front of you is asking you questions or giving instructions but you literally can’t understand or respond to a word they are saying. After some time you either have to give up, or wait until someone comes along who can speak English to tell you that they’re just trying to explain the price. Actually there ways it could be more humiliating than that. Like if you were buying ointment. And were naked.

How are you learning?

As part of the assignment we get some lessons included; I do around 90 mins of lessons per week, every week. There are loads of books and websites that help you learn, but I’ve found a couple of free language apps which are really helpful.

learning-app.jpg
Which one do you think it is?

Is it hard to learn?

Yes.

Why?

Tones. I said earlier that pinyin gives you a Latin version of each character. Well lots of characters have very similar letter-chains. The thing that tells you that word is a different word from the exact same letters in the exact same order is the tone you use to say it. There are four tones in Mandarin, which are best explained using the pinyin word ‘ma’. Depending on which tone you use to pronounce the ‘a’ in ma, it can mean four different things. ma

The little squiggles above the ‘a’ tells you how to pronounce the word. Trouble is, those little squiggles are hard to keep in your brain since you need to remember the word and the tone of each word. It also makes it really hard to understand whether or not someone is talking about their mother, some hemp or a horse. It might help if you knew words like ‘saddle’, ‘nosebag’, or ‘rope’. Then you’d definitely know they were talking about mothers.

The pronunciation is really quite important. Consider that I work in a place called ‘Hongqiao’ 虹桥 – which means ‘Rainbow Bridge’. Similar to this is ‘Hongchao’ 红潮 which means menstruation; so as someone who is atrocious at pronunciation, when I say even simple statements like ‘I work in Human Resources’, people find it laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Time & Effort. The typical teaching method in China is to learn through regular repetition and lots of independent study. You need to practice to commit so many different images, sounds and letters into your brain. This can be hard when you’re trying to work and travel and write blogs. My foreign colleagues who’ve done the best at learning the language have put in lots of extra time and get the benefit. I do ok, but still find that in between lessons the vast majority of learning just empties out. It’s been like trying to do an etch-a-sketch on a trampoline.

There aren’t really any shortcuts. The closest there is to a shortcut is to learn Pinyin (i.e., how to say the words). This means you don’t need to bother learning the characters. However, you don’t see pinyin written anywhere (apart from road signs), so your brain doesn’t get any help from your eyes when trying to remember words. The other limitation of only learning Pinyin is that you still can’t read anything, you can only do the speaking and listening bit, which is hard when people speak quickly and you can’t pick out if they just said 人事 rén shì (Human Resources/HR) or 人势 rén shì (Human penis). In fact both of those sound exactly the same; I forgot to mention that Chinese is a contextual language so the general theme of the discussion will influence the meaning of each word. I’ll let you think of your own hilarious examples of the the rén shì/rén shì dilemma.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAuMAAAAJGM3NjNkZDNlLTEwNWQtNDMyOC05NzA1LWEyMjcyOWJhOWQ4Ng.jpg
“You studied what at university?”

Everyone speaks English! Sometimes, if you’re standing naked in a supermarket trying to buy ointments, the most expedient way of communicating is in English. This is also true in the workplace (though nudity is against the dress code), as most people’s English is far superior to your Chinese. So if you need to summarise a meeting agenda, you could do this in 15 seconds in English, or 30 minutes in Chinese, after which you’ve probably accidentally called everyone’s mother a horse.

Do you need to learn the characters?

No, but as above it can help you remember the words. For example, the character below has four little lines on the bottom of it. These represent flames (like flames under a pot). Once you know to look out for that, you know that this character has something to do with fire, heat, cooking etc.

re
– means hot

The bit above the fire 执 means zhí – to hold in your hand. That is made up of two bits, on the left 扌 means ‘hand’, on the right 丸 means ‘small round object’. One technique is to make up little stories to help you understand the character. So to remember the word for ‘hot’, I always try and remember the scene in Home Alone, where Joe Pesci opens a door (with his hand) and Kevin McAllister has rigged the door with a blowtorch trap. As Joe walks through it, the blowtorch blasts fire onto the small round object that is Joe Pesci’s head. The sound ‘rè’ is like the horrified, angry, pained noise that Joe Pesci makes until he can dunk his flaming head in the snow.

joe pesci
rrrrrèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèèè – hot. See?

Sometimes the character looks a bit like what it’s meant to represent.

huo
huŏ – fire. See it resembles a fire?
shan.png
shān – mountain. See, it looks like a mountain?

Sometimes words are made up of smaller words. Volcano is ‘huŏ shān‘ – which is literally the two characters above in succession. I like that, and if you think about it, ‘fire mountain’ makes a lot more logical sense than ‘volcano’.

Chinese conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a fire mountain”, “Why?”, “Because it’s a mountain and there’s fire that comes out of it”, “Okay, that makes sense”

English conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a volcano”, “Why?” “Do remember the Romans? So they had this god called Vulcan. He was the god of fire. There was this mountain near Rome called Etna, and the Romans believed it was the forge of Vulcan because occasionally fire would come out of it. They used to apply the word Vulcanus to it. Over time, and due to the cultural and linguistic influence of the Roman empire, this turned into a general term for volcano, burning mountain in latin languages” “Okay, that makes sense but my enthusiasm for learning and asking questions has been crushed at an early age”

There are lots of other examples of this:

  • 电 (‘diàn‘) means ‘electric‘.
  • Add 脑 (nǎo) which means ‘brain‘, and you get 电脑 (diànnǎo) – ‘computer‘.
  • Or add 影 (yǐng) which means ‘image‘, and you get 电影 (diànyǐng) – ‘movie‘.

This way, once you manage to crack some of the characters or syllables then you can build up other words, or at least have a good guess.

Since there isn’t much pinyin written down anywhere, I find that I recognise certain symbols around me which then makes them more familiar and easier to remember. If you’re a visual learner like I am, I’d recommend trying to learn at least some.

One hard thing though, there isn’t really much punctuation, sowhenyouseeasentencewrittendownitcanbedifficulttoworkoutwherewordsstartandend.

Can you write the characters?

To write the characters properly, you need to remember multiple strokes (lines), which order they go in, and which direction you write them. This explains why caligraphy is an art form. I can write the following:

yī = One;  二 èr = Two; 三 sān = Three; 十 shí = Ten; 人rén = person; 上 shàng = On/Up;  不bù = No.

The co-ordination in my hands and eyes dissipates half way through a W, so I don’t stand a chance with characters with multiple strokes. Whereas English dictionaries are organised A-Z, Chinese are organised by stroke count 1-64. Yes, some characters have 64 strokes.

3009
– or ‘how a dragon flies’ has 51 strokes.

This complex beast, 龘,  , which relates to the visual way a dragon flies only has 51. This explains why, in ancient times, prisoners who were offered one last wish before they were executed would simply say: ‘I never got to see a dragon. I wish someone could explain, in writing, how a dragon flies’. The sheer time it would take for the obligated jailer to complete his task would effectively grant the condemned a permanent reprieve. (NB I made this up)

 

What about all the grammar rules and sentence structures?

I recently started on my intermediate text books which includes some more complex grammar. Up until now, I’ve found the grammar much easier than English, at least in spoken form. The main thing is to remember is the vocab and tones.

I explained earlier how context is pretty important, allowing people to fill in gaps and understand meaning; this means you can be quite economical with your language. When my language teacher teaches me sentence structures, it often sounds like a Chinese person speaking slightly broken English – so I try and imagine a Chinese person speaking English and use that as a template. To give you an idea:

你在做什么 Translates literally as: “You doing what?”

我在找人事部门”I looking for Human Resources department”

你为什么赤身裸体 “You why be stark naked?”

我想买软膏 – “I want buy ointment”

这是超市. 我们不卖软膏. 你怎么来到这里?”This is supermarket. We no sell ointment. How you come here?”

我来到这里用马 “I come here using horse”

你可以骑马吗?”You can leave by horse?”

不能”No can”

为什么不能”Why no can?”

我的马在虹桥”My horse in Hongqiao”

 

– 迈特 màitè – meaning Matt

 

WTF. What the foot?

Hi. It’s Matt, hopefully you remember me. I’ve been very inactive blogging for a while. Here are my excuses:

  1. I’ve been painting a lot. I hit a decent vein of ‘form’ with some paintings. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time working on that. If i feel creative, I have to prioritise painting over blogging. Sorry blogging.
  2. It’s harder to find weird. When I first arrived everything was weird. “Hey, wow, you can get beef flavoured sweets! Hey, wow, ‘duck bits’ are a more popular snack than crisps! Hey, wow, you can get preserved eggs for breakfast that look like the jellified black translucent output of a zombie chicken”. Now, the ‘once-weird’ is just my normal diet. When I’m peckish, no longer do I reach for a packet of crisps, i like packets of dried seaweed. Rather than toffee I eat tofu. Rather than gummi bears I eat bear gums. (I may have made up the last one). Anyway, this means my frame of reference has been normalised, so it’s hard for me to find noteworthy topics. I liken my quandry to that of a person from Sunderland who was brought up on our local delicacy of chips – with our recommended daily intake of fruit and veg usually being provided by squirtings of tomato ketchup. One day, I discover some mavericks covering their chips in cheese and red sauce. What!!?? No way! Now, I find this incredible and begin to regularly add cheese to my chips and ketchup. One year, I somehow end up in the bohemian town of Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough is about 20 minutes south of Sunderland (therefore 20 minutes closer to Vienna), so the chip chefs invented a fusion dish called ‘Parmoe’
    800px-Meat_feast_parmo
    Parmo. The north-east UK’s interpretation of Chicken Parmeggiana, whereby you take Chicken, cheese and then replace all of the other ingredients with chips. Best served in a heap on a polystyrene plate, even when (as in this picture) proper crockery is available.

    which is chips, topped with cheese (like in Sunderland) but then doused in bechamel sauce (white sauce), and deep fried chicken schnitzel.  The Sunderland native, seconded to the peculiar and alien world of Middlesbrough, would invariably be thrilled with his exciting new discovery, and amaze his mates back home with tales of this weird ‘white stuff’ all over his familiar chip bed. He would relish as his friends struggled to even comprehend this discovery: “Ah man, that’s not natural like.* The chemicals at that factory** must have turned the tomatoes white for them to get that weird sauce out of them”. However, over time he would find he actually preferred white sauce with the cheese and schnitzel, and though unhealthy, he would grow used to the variety of flavours as his palate developed, even preferring these new styles. The point being, it becomes harder to blog about weird stuff when you no longer see it as weird.

  3. I got too self indulgent. I tended to spend far too long on irrelevant and meandering preambles to the real content of my blog. Usually this felt like I would be shoehorning something extraneous into the blog, just to pad it out and disguise the fact that I don’t have the dilligence to do proper research, or the talent to do proper food reviews.

*I know we have readers from many different countries now, so this is a very soft representation of a north east accent. If you want to hear what a north east accent sounds like, watch an episode of Byker Grove or Geordie Shore.

**Middlesbrough was famous for having a large chemical factory which you could see clearly if you drove north up the A96.

Anyway, fortunately i’ve no more need of such excuses, and i’ve eaten some new things to talk about. So let’s get on with it:

Chicken feet

The first time I ate chicken feet was in Birmingham. Em and I were presented with a plate of of 6-or-so; thin, bony, sad looking things laid out submissively and covered in a sweet gloop. They aren’t easy things to look at and subsequently eat; of all the bits of chicken, they’re probably the most anthropomorphic, resembling as they do tiny distorted, tortured hands. Once you get past all the unpleasantness of that, you remember that the knobbly thick skin can only be the foot coating of an animal that hasn’t yet evolved to develop and wear comfortable shoes.

Having once again done zero research,  I was a little surprised to find that there was no actual meat content. I’d expected them to be a little bit like chicken wings. Bony, but with little sections of tasty meat that you can search for and gleefully excavate as part of a meaty treasure hunt. Not so. The stuff you eat is just the thick skin. I found it a little bit like trying to eat a thick washing up glove that was wrapped around a bunch of broken Ikea pencils. So I reasoned that maybe the idea was that the bit you’re meant to eat was the sauce. The foot is to the sauce what a wooden stick is to an ice lolly, if you will. The sauce wasn’t great (like coagulated Irn Bru), so we just left it and enjoyed the rest of our Dim Sum.

While I sat there thinking that this was one of the most needless and wasteful food vehicles I’d had since the fruit corner yoghurt, I couldn’t escape the feeling that i’d missed the point. After all, they aren’t a cliche; people really do eat them.

The second time I ate them, in a hotel near Changshu, China, they’d been soaked in a spicy vinegar so had a bit of a kick. This helped as the taste was enough to keep me interested and I had a colleague with me who could explain how to eat them properly.

My colleague explained that the thick skin occurs in clumps around the joints of the foot, while in the ball of the foot is the ‘best bit’ – the thickest bit of skin, as well as some translucent white stuff that is a combination of fat, tendons and gelatin. The skin is actually a lot like slightly undercooked pasta, and the ‘best bit’ was like eating a tiny fatty dumpling.

chicken feet
This Chicken met it’s demise as it was attempting a Mr. Spock salute from Star Trek. Deserved.

I prefer it to the chicken skin you get on a breast, thigh or wing. The last 18 months in China has made me much more comfortable with eating things like skin and tendons, so the second time I actually enjoyed them a lot more than the first.

Apparently it’s common to pair chicken feet with a beer. Because a foot has a lot of bones in it, eating these can be quite fiddly, so people like to eat them as conversational foods to give them something interesting and complicated to nibble on while drinking a beer and to give them a welcome excuse to dip in and out of boring conversation. Like Pistachio nuts or a Kinder egg.

Verdict: Better on second tasting, not entirely unpleasant and i’d eat them if they were put in front of me – but there’d have to be something seriously wrong with the rest of the menu for me to order them. Perhaps best tried at a buffet.

Pig feet

image1
Pig feet. Good for your skin, but not much else.

I love pork in China. It’s comfortably the most commonly consumed meat. While I was in the UK, most of my encounters with pork were either as bacon or slices of dried out pork shoulder at a Sunday carvery (slightly re-hydrated by smearing it with sweet apple sauce). In China, it turns up in everything (even deserts and sweets) and although often quite fatty, is almost always delicious. Some of the appeal seems to be the fat in pork, which serves two purposes that make it well suited to Chinese diets.

1. Fat is an energy source, which takes on a greater significance when you consider that there are many people here who’ve lived through less plentiful times.

2. Fat is soft. I don’t yet know why (maybe it’s that dental care is expensive), but many people like soft foods that are easy to eat without chewing, so anything that melts in the mouth is a good thing.

One lunchtime I was late to the table at a Taiwanese restaurant with my team and as I sat down they announced that they’d already ordered a healthy meal: Bitter melon and pork belly soup, deep fried pork ribs with sticky orange sauce, some sauteed greens and 4 pig feet. My face obviously communicated that I needed an explanation of ‘healthy’…

My team: “The bitter melon is good for your digestion. Greens have lots of vitamins. The ribs are good because they have bone in.”

Me: “What about the pigs trotters? Are they just like chicken feet but with way more fat and skin and bone in them?”

My team: “Yes. Ladies like them. They are good for your skin”

Me: “OK.”

I decided that as they would be cooked Taiwanese style (usually a tasty combination of various sauces such as sesame oil, honey, rice wine) then would give them a go.

It turned out that I was right about the feet. They’re like a bigger version of chicken’s feet, albeit less scrawny and taste like pig rather than chicken. I didn’t like the skin, as it was far too rubbery in the way it’d been cooked and also highly fatty. Apparently the bit the ladies like (for skin purposes) is a bit of connective tissue in the middle of the trotter. If you imagine the trotter as a giant piggy whelk, and you aren’t eating the shell, but poking around with a toothpick for a mollusc inside the shell, that’s the basic idea (this tissue part actually tasted ok). The others were quite happy to chomp away on some of the gelatin too, but I prefer my gelatin in wine gum format.

 

Lamb feet

Emma’s blogged about the food in Xi’an. It is great, especially if you like lamb. We had many delicious meals here and on our last night we went to a place to try and revisit some of our favourites.

Fortunately, unlike many restaurants in Xi’an, they had an English menu.

Unfortunately, the English menu was about as helpful as the norovirus. It read:

  • Lamb – 25 RMB
  • Lamb – 30/52 RMB
  • Lamb – 20 RMB
  • Lamb (Spicy) – 18 RMB
  • Lamb – 30RMB
  • Sprite – 8 RMB

It reminded me of the classic Monty Python sketch:

 

  • “Egg and Bacon”
  • “Egg, Sausage and Bacon”
  • “Egg and Lamb”
  • “Egg, Bacon and Lamb”
  • “Egg, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Egg, Lamb, Lamb, Bacon and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Egg and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Baked Beans, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb and Lamb”
  • “or Lobster Thermidor au Crevette with a Mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and lamb”

Like the man in that skit, we quite like Lamb, so we played lamb roulette and pointed out few dishes.

The first thing to arrive was lamb kidneys skewered on a twig and covered in spices. Liked these a lot. Second, Jackpot, we got the delicious lamb & bread broth that Emma wrote about. Then came twig skewered chunks of succulent barbecued lamb meat. 3 wins out of 3. I was on a roll, eagerly awaiting the 4th success….

Then we got a plate of lamb feet.

IMG_5421
This is one of the only meals I’ve ever had that looks like someone else had already finished it.

I never knew lamb feet were a thing. Of course I know lamb have feet (they aren’t snakes) but I didn’t expect them to be a meal choice for humans at a relatively nice-looking restaurant. It felt a little bit like we’d been served the sub-prime mortgage derivative of the barbecue world – this restaurant had figured out a way to disguise a valueless byproduct of real food by covering it in sauce and sesame seeds, making the menu unclear, then selling it to unsuspecting consumers.

The good bit about lamb feet (compared to chicken and pig) is that there is a bit of lamb flavour to it. That’s pretty much it though, the rest of it is just tough skin, fat, gristle and gristly skin fat. On a stick. If you want lamb flavour, just get some lamb. I don’t know how much the feet were, but everything else was a better option. These were comfortably the worst feet of the three, with pig second. Having written this blog in this order and not bothered to edit it, I’ve now become nostalgic for the chicken feet by comparison and i’ll more than likely eat them again.

To close this blog, I thought i’d try something different and write a little poem.

Ah how I respect the noble foot or, plural, feet.

Designed to stop our legs from scraping along the street.

Of all the body parts the most discreet,

No matter how much abuse and how much we mistreat

They support us, daily, never missing a beat.

Yes I do respect them; but without deceit

I never thought i’d eat.

Feet.

As a treat.

There’s just so little meat.

My meal is not complete.

I have tasted de-feet.

 

Cheeses wept

Cheese is one of mine and Emma’s all-time favourite things. We love the stuff. But how to prove it?

  • Exhibit A: We hold an openly stated belief that a meal is not worthy of the title unless it contains one or more of the following: a shaving of parmesan, a wedge of cheddar, a dollop of brie, a melting of mozzarella or a crumbling of feta. A lack of the aforementioned would lead us to argue that it wasn’t a ‘meal’ at all; more a precursory snack before the real food arrives-  biscuits and cheese. We’ve refused to pay for meals that have not contained enough cheese.
  • Exhibit B: It’s so important that we have cheese in our diet/lives that if we’re counting the calories and can’t stretch to a bite, we will take a block of Wensleydale from the fridge and simply lick it for 15 minutes.
  • Exhibit C: When I’m feeling generous, or need to make up for something that I’ve done wrong  then my go-to act of penance would be call in at the supermarket and buy a couple of ‘danger cheeses’ to accompany some wine.

    ‘Hey Em. I’m sorry, I accidentally broke your favourite handbag. But to make up for it, I’ve got a present for you. I got you 100g of Blue Jersey, an ounce of Reeking Pontefract and a truckle of Bolivian Otter cheese’

  • Exhibit D: On our first Valentine’s day together, I told Emma I was going to get her a cheesy card. I bought the biggest card I could find, with the soppiest message on the front (it was a teddy bear saying ‘I wuv you’ or something); then inside the card I wrote down the name of every single cheese in the world, and stapled a few slices of plasticky American burger cheese in the middle. It took me around 4 hours. The burger cheese is still in perfectly edible condition, over 5 years later.
  • Exhibit E: If you cut us, we’d bleed runny Camembert and we call the withdrawal symptoms you get from a few days without cheese (bad temper, insomnia, heavy sweating) ‘Going Cold Tezacki’

Before I go on, I will admit that I made all of the above up, apart from one which is completely true. If you are reading this on a long car journey, why not crack open a wheel of Edam and see if you can guess which.

So, if like us you love to munch on a bit of manchego, how easy is it to get your cheese fix in China?

Cheese isn’t anywhere near to being a staple in China. Curiously, China is the 3rd largest milk producer in the world, but large numbers of the Chinese are allegedly lactose intolerant (no official figures exist but some studies show high numbers of Chinese adults suffer from lactose malabsorbtion), and locally-produced milk isn’t high on consumers’ preference lists (it’s perceived not to be as pure as imported milk ). Anecdotally, in a supermarket/store the milk you see is almost always imported from Japan, Korea, Australia or Wales (?!). Soy milk and yoghurt seem to be much more common than milk as a drink on its own – especially for breakfast.

Given the massive supply and the less than obvious demand, I have no idea where all that surplus milk goes (Thirsty cats?), but there’s little likelihood it’s going into cheese production.

Mostly, we keep our blood/cheese levels topped up by eating western foods like Pizza or boutique salads and sandwiches. That said, occasionally peoples’ lack of cheese-awareness shows through. I bought a Chicken & Parmesan sandwich from a normally capable local deli. The chef evidently had no idea that Parmesan (the firm salty Italian cheese) and Primula (a semi-liquid mild cheese packaged and designed to be squirted into the grooves of celery) were different.

You can buy cheese in it’s purest form in import stores and high-end supermarkets, but it can be eye-wateringly expensive. Feta is easily 5-6 GBP per 200g block – which makes it about the same price as copper; a good chunk of good cheddar can easily approach 8 GBP, while Buffalo Mozzarella is like white, creamy, melty, gold dust.

To summarise;

  • Cheese is available, but expensive
  • Chinese food doesn’t contain a lot of cheese
  • We like cheese

Without further ado, let’s look at some tasting notes….

Yunnanese Goats cheese

Yunnanese food is terrific, as mentioned in one of our earlier blogs. It’s where most of China’s fruit, veg and flowers come from and one of the only types of Chinese cuisine I’ve come across that has its own cheese. I found 2 types so far.

1: a slightly rubbery, salty cheese that is sliced up and shallow fried. It’s basically Halloumi, though very slightly fluffier than the Cypriot sheep cheese. A restaurant near us serves it with a Yunnanese jam made from roses. It’s essentially the cheese equivalent of one of those renowned juxtapositions of sweet and savoury, like sea salt & caramel, peanut butter & jam, Ivanka Trump.

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Components of the dish; Top left, Rose Jam from Yunnan; Right, shallow fried goats cheese from Yunnan; Bottom left, curly Parsley garnish from the 1980s.
If you’ve completely lost all sense of value and perspective, in the store next to my favourite Yunnanese restaurant you can actually buy Halloumi, imported from Australia for 6GBP a pack. 

2. The second kind is more unusual. I don’t know what animal milk it’s from – let’s assume Goat. While warm it’s flattened into some large plates and then fried. It looked a little bit like a dog chew, but tasted like an Emmenthal flavoured Chewit, beaten into a thin sheet.  Imagine you were eating the tongue of your dress shoe but it was made of was made of crispy-fried cheesy toffee. Not at all bad if you can deal with the texture.

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True, it doesn’t look appetizing- like a poppadom used in some botched clinical trials. But you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Unless the cover is bound in the above leathery cheese material, in which case you should judge it delicious.

Cheese and Red Bean Ice Cream

I can and will write a whole blog on ice cream. This blog is about cheese. This was a

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Cheese and Bean ice cream.  Think of tutti fruiti, but where there is only one fruit; and it’s not a fruit but a bean.
cream cheese style ice cream, studded with little red beans. Until I came to China, i’d never had beans as a dessert food. Until now, i’d never tasted cheese and beans together without them being on a baked potato.

It’s very common to get beans in dessert, but it’s still an acquired taste. You normally get either red or green beans and they really can appear on anything, with the result ranging from ‘delicious’, to ‘violating interntional human rights convention’.

 

My Cheese and bean ice cream was definitely in the former camp. It was very well balanced, the bean gave it some intrigue and texture, and the bean flavour didn’t overpower the subtle creamy cheesiness. Categorically a winner.

Unlike….

Cheese Fish Sausage

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As soon as Em pointed this out to me in our local convenience store, it was inevitable I was going to buy a pack. I’ve missed the opportunity to have a local friend translate/explain the packaging, but my favourite part is the proclamation that it is ‘Cheese: 4.59%’. I have no idea what the remaining 95.41% was made from, but it seems a little misleading to lead with Cheese. Though, obviously they sold at least one pack (to me) so maybe that is the point.

This is one of the stranger foods I’ve had. I don’t really know why it exists, or what it’s meant to do. It was sausage shaped (about the size of a thin marker pen), and it was wrapped in celophane but with one of those little metal rings to seal it, like at the end of a Chorizo. You had to open it by snapping it in half, which squished the sausage a little as the texture was somewhere between a mild dutch cheese (like edam) and soft tofu. Firm enough not to disintegrate to the touch, but not hard enough to do some damage if it landed on your head after being dropped out of a plane.

It tasted ever so slightly of cheese, maybe 4.09% Dairylea, 0.5% mild Emmenthal. By far the strongest flavour was the fish (Mackerel? Sardine?). While uncommon, I know that you can mix cheese and fish (Tuna & Cheese Melt or Salmon & Cream-Cheese being two obvious examples) – but it’s not exactly a dead cert (though if a ‘cert’ was a kind of fish, this would taste like a dead cert). When I see a product like this, especially one that tastes like a by-product of cat food production, I like to imagine what kind of market research process they went through. What must the earlier versions have tasted like? What flavour combinations did they reject? Are the creators now in prison?

Cheese Tea

One day while exploring, I felt simultaneously adventurous, thirsty and peckish. At that precise moment, I passed a shop with this sign.

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Red Tea with Cheese Milk Foam. Topped with little bits of actual cheese.

By now, you know I love cheese, but let me assure you, I also love tea. I really love tea. Had this company found a way to combine two delicious things, perhaps succeeding where Mr Cheese-Fish-Sausage was sadly found wanting?

I was telling this story to someone (let’s say Emma), and they (she) said:

‘That’s stupid. It sounds foul. Why would you assume it would taste anything other than stagnant pond water, that someone had thrown some cheese in once?’

‘Ah but’, my logic went, ‘I’m pretty sure that if you went back to medieval France and told them that it would be possible to combine cheese with cake, they’d have skipped the water trial and burnt you immediately as a witch. Nowadays, its’ commonplace to have cheesecake. What if CheeseTea will be the 26th century’s hottest drink? Do you want to be a leader or a sheep?”

Besides, I also reasoned that if a company was so confident in their product that they made it the subject of their biggest sign, then the odds are it will be good.

Sweet cheeses; I owe my tongue an apology. And Emma.

I’d expected a kind of sweet creamy foam and a mild, fruity tea. I wasn’t totally wrong about the tea, it was a redbush style – no issue there. I was totally wrong about the cheese foam. It was the flavour of welsh cave aged cheddar; tangy, salty, savoury and foamy. It would have been delicious on some mushroom soup, but it totally ruined the tea and made me almost vomit.

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Above; Guidov’Guy’ Fawkes’ normal autograph, 1605.  Below; Guy Fawkes’ signature after drinking a cup of cheese tea
If i’d have been given a cup of builders tea with a stick of cave aged welsh cheddar stuck in it, i’d have been able to have removed the cheese, and enjoyed it separately. In foam format it covers the surface of the tea like japanese knotweed and every sip you take to the very end is ruined.

It was so unpleasant that the mere memory of it means I can’t think of a satisfactory way to finish this blog.

– Matt

Elephants

It’s been a long few weeks between this and my last post. Partly because I’ve been struggling with how to write about this subject, and partly because I’ve been too drunk, lazy and fat over the Christmas period to type coherent sentences.

What follows is a bit of a sort of loose mashed-up allegory of an aspect of life here. Hopefully it’s reasonably clear what i’m talking about…

This was the first Christmas in our 5 years together that Em and I have been in the same place, so we used our Asian foothold to enjoy a Thai Christmas. Emma writes far better travel blogs than I (and my below-par standard of my photography means I have no interesting, i.e., in-focus, photos to share) so i’ll let her cover the details, but as a seguay to what i want to talk about here just let me tell you about a couple of the highlights…

Instead of turkey dinner, we ate barbecued crab and green papaya salad. Instead of snow, we had beaches. Instead of Christmas trees, we had palm trees. Instead of a boxing day hangover nap, we had massages. Instead of reindeer, we had elephants. Instead of Santa, we had larger, fatter elephants with beards.

We saw loads of elephants actually. They were everywhere. Speaking of elephants, instead of ‘larger, unaddressed issues’…

When we first considered moving to China, one of the main concerns we had was – and bear with me – the well documented elephants in the rooms of large, densely populated Chinese Tier 1 cities. Only these elephants had tendency to occupy the air for extended periods. A bit like…

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Disney’s Dumbo. An elephant that occupies the atmosphere.

We’d heard via the popular media that airborne elephants can have a somewhat negative impact on quality of life and if you hang around them long enough they can impact on your longer term health.

The cause of this problem is fairly well documented. Elephants are normally found in places like jungles, plains or woods; but when people burn those natural resources to – for example -generate heat for their homes, or to power factories or cars then it disturbs the elephants causing them to rise in large quantities in the air. For many days in the year you can’t detect their presence, but they definitely are more noticeable during periods where there is more burning than usual (depths of winter and height of summer).

You will already know that as sociable creatures, elephants engage in herd behaviour. When there are enough being displaced or where there are particular weather conditions, large herds can migrate towards population centres. Sometimes the herds can be visible in the atmosphere for several days; though reprieve is available when it rains (because the airborne elephant is fearful of getting wet).

The days on which the herds aren’t a problem outnumber those really bad days by a sizable margin across the year, so on balance it’s a pesky issue but not one which makes us consider leaving our new adoptive home. The seasonality means that these beasts can make some of the months disproportionately worse than others, so you get a bit of concentrated disruption. When it’s bad, the effect can be considerable. I find it makes me really quite drowsy, while others report heavy coughing, phlegm and so on. Visually the airborne elephants turn into a kind of fog which has a yellow tinge as though it’s been shot through a retro Instagram filter.

A high volume of elephants may mean you need to change your behaviour on a particular day. So, if you plan on going out for a jog and encounter heavy, flatulent beasts floating about in the way, you will need to rethink your plans.
There are a few tried-and-tested strategies that a Shanghai resident can adopt when the elephants become problematic.

  • Firstly there are apps that provide a daily report on the concentration of elephants in your local environment. These are great as they give you a recommendation first thing in the morning as to whether or not you need to take precautions that day.
  • Secondly, everyone is by now aware that elephants are afraid of mice. However, mice are notoriously difficult to train, and may attract unwanted cats. It’s actually underappreciated that elephants are rather frightened of ninjas (the silent Japanese assassins). You’re therefore able to limit the impact of the problem by buying a mask and adopting the appearance of a ninja. Unlike those worn by the ancient cadre of silent killers from feudal Japan, modern ninja masks come in a variety of colours and styles. It turns out that elephants are equally terrified of the ‘Broken-Britain-Hoody’ ninja or the ‘face-condom’ ninja, as they are of ‘using Paddington Bear as a nosebag’ style ninja.
  • Thirdly, we use Air purifiers in our apartment which are made in Sweden (ironically the Swedes have no problem with atmospheric elephants, but are nevertheless experts in this area). The purifiers make a loud humming noise that must prove unpleasant to animals with large ears (I’ve not seen the data to back this up, but we’ve not had any rabbits or fruit bats in the apartment so it’s probably true). If any are not put off by the noise, then they are certainly caught by the filters as the air is passed through the purifier which which takes out all but the smallest of elephants.
    These three strategies don’t address the root cause of the issue (stopping putting elephants in the atmosphere in the first place) but solving that issue is a global matter and one which I can’t really go into in this blog.

In summary then, the elephants are a problem (and it’s not good to have them in the air in the first place), but it’s not a deal-breaker for us living in Shanghai and there are a few means to manage it.

Finally, one day when the elephants were out in force, I decided to paint the scene from our window. You can’t see any elephants in the picture, I realise that, but they’d just left the picture, leaving the gaseous fog you can see in the painting in their wake.

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The biggest challenge for this one (which I did using similar technique to the alleyway painting) was to keep perspective and to get the atmosphere and colours right. I chose a view that didn’t have anything particularly significant in it (no landmarks I mean, and no people) as the environmental effect was what I was looking to capture. In the background I needed to pick out some of the modern skyline in the haze, but contrast it a it with the higgledy-piggledy older structures that are closer to our apartment (and a feature of the french concession).

Right, done. My next blog will be more straightforward, I promise. Probably about cheese. Actual cheese. Not cheese as a euphemism for the long-term cultural and economic consequences of the one child policy, but the edible stuff you get when milk goes hard.

– Matt

“That’s a spicy meatbowl”

“Matt, we have ordered”, my team said as I arrived at the table.

“Great, what are we having?” I replied (I was feeling a little nutrient-depleted having been out for a few drinks the night before, and looking forward to lunch)

“Well we have ordered traditional sweet rice dumplings, a sour spicy beef dish and a healthy dish that is also a bit spicy. We hope you like spicy food”

“Mmm. I love spicy food, that will sort me out. What’s the healthy dish?”

“It’s not the outside meat of a pig”

“It’s not? What is it then?”

As this dish arrived, the team started to use translation apps to describe the food.

“This bit is “Guts”. This bit is “Lung”, this “Stomach”. We think this bit is from in here (pointing somewhere around the lower part of their rib cage). This is some kind of eel. This is pigs blood.”

I was about to politely decline, when a little voice in my head said: “Go on, eat it. At least you can blog about it”

And here we are. And the dish  is called Mao Xie Wang

maoxiewang
MaoXieWang

It’s fair to say that other than ‘Spicy pig brains’ this is probably one of the most testing dishes on the menu at this restaurant, primarily because of the ingredients*, but also because it’s madras hot. I love spicy food and find that if you can get over the idea of what you’re eating, it’s not bad at all. Being a Sichuan dish, it has both a burning heat and a kind of sour lingering spice from the sichuan pepper which I love. The offal and eel was all perfectly edible (nice even) and after a while you do forget what it is. The bit I wasn’t so sure about was the blood. It’s that dark brown stuff that looks a lot like liver in the picture above and it had a consistency of soft tofu (or somewhere in between set-yoghurt and feta cheese).

It’s not what i’d call an easy eat. The Chinese people love spicy food because it warms them up on a cool day, and on a hot day it makes them sweat which cools them down. So not only are you having a Guts Vindaloo in the middle of the day- with all of the associated consequences- but you get all sweaty and with the sheer numbers of spices in it (including garlic) your breath smells like a thousand year-old onion.

Would I eat it every day? No. Would I eat it again? Yes. In moderation. And not before a job interview.

*it’s worth remembering that in the UK you will often see challenging food given euphemistic names to make it seem more palatable; “Sweetbreads”, “Tripe”, “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, “Chicken McNuggets”. Here, you will just get the dictionary translation of a thing, so ‘guts’, ‘colon’, ‘uterus’ are not uncommon things to see on a menu.

Honeycomb tripe

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Honeycomb Tripe. Don’t know why it’s called ‘Honeycomb tripe’. ‘Flappy tripe’ might be a better name.

I’d only ever heard of tripe as an advertised ingredient in dog food. I knew it was basically stomach lining, but other than that I never expected to eat it myself. The above picture is of tripe in perhaps it’s most tripe-like state or appearance.

This dish was cooked in a semi-spicy, sour sauce. Taste-wise, the tripe is really inoffensive. It’s slightly meaty, but not so much as to make you certain it was meat. Consistency-wise it’s slightly chewy and about as tough as a firm mushroom or al dente pasta. It seems to be low fat/high protein, so I imagine (without doing even the most basic of research) that it’s reasonably good for you.

However, there are probably three main things that are difficult about tripe.

First, the name. Tripe, or Stomach lining, is about as unappetising a name as you can get. To me, the word just has ‘dog treat’ written all over it. Although I once read an anecdote that at Mars (who own Pedigree Chum), the employees eat the dog food on occasion because it is more than fit for human consumption, kind of like a meat stew. I’m not sure if that helps build the case for tripe, but it might for some of you.

Secondly, the appearance. Let’s not kid ourselves, no-one is looking at that picture thinking “Mmm! look at that! I’d quite happily tuck into that while i’m watching Coronation Street”. Most people are thinking “Good god, is that food? It looks like something out of that movie ‘The Fly’ where the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum tried to test his teleportation device out on a pig or a rabbit or something but got his maths wrong and ended up turning the pig or rabbit or something inside out. It was horrible. Matt, you could have warned us, I’m trying to watch Coronation Street”

And finally, the mouth-feel – especially in the above form. It’s nowhere near as unpleasant as cold jellyfish, but all those little sticky-out bits do sometimes make it feel like you’re chomping away on one of those chewable toothbrushes you can get in motorway service station toilets (I had the feeling that I was eating food and having some plaque removed at the same time).

So in summary, it’s probably not going to be most peoples’ first choice; though if you’re the sort of person who can cope with the name and appearance, and are already comfortable getting your tootbrush from a vending machine in a toilet; you might want to consider some tripe next time you see it on the menu. It’s, er, ok.

Matt

 

Market Day

My recent painting of a Shanghai alleyway was a quick dip back into painting after a long absence. After this I wanted to go back to my normal style; and to do a portrait. We’d seen some great imagery in the markets we’d visited so I decided to take inspiration from there.

Below are some pics from the traditional markets we visited on holiday in Dali and Kunming – we’ve seen several markets on our travels and these are representative – crowded, characterful places, with sellers almost outnumbering buyers.

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There’s often a defined central structure with tables covered in produce which is surrounded by a undefined hotch-potch of other vendors offering a miscellany of items for sale; cages of ‘behead to order’ chickens; potatoes loose in flatbread trucks. Nearby two grubby men fed large green machines with sunflower seeds, which were crushed to fill great flagons of oil.

There were whole tables dedicated to eggs; fresh eggs (duck and chicken), preserved eggs which are kind of black and jellified, tea eggs and soy eggs, which are brown – also eggs which were stored in some kind of ashy crust – which looked a bit like a scotch egg but you wouldn’t want to eat the outer layer!.

Some tables were piled high with meat (unclear which animal and which bit of it you’re looking at) and fish, usually uncovered with a cloud of flies taking a close look. We walked around one market specifically for pets and flowers and saw boxes of fish, turtles, tortoises, puppies, rabbits, snakes, spiders, stag beetles (and sometimes huge open buckets of their feed – smaller insects writhing about).

Walking around your senses are pleasantly assaulted with plenty of smells and sights and the gentle push of the other shoppers. The ground crunches underfoot as you tread on discarded seeds, vegetables, egg shells – thrown into the walkways by stall-owners or spat out by people tasting the goods.

The thing that amazes about these markets is the sheer abundance of food – almost everything is stacked up in much greater quantities than you’d see in a busy UK supermarket. It can’t last all that long in the heat, so either the supply is great (at the moment) or the demand is great and the stuff shifts. It may well be a bit of both in Yunnan as it’s the agricultural hub of China and I saw plenty of people walking around with large wicker baskets on their backs full of corn, spring onions and massive courgette/marrows.

We get markets in Shanghai too, but they’re often indoors (called ‘Wet Markets’), aren’t quite as chaotic and usually somewhat cleaner than their countryside counterparts. I’d love to be able to shop there, but my Chinese isn’t good enough yet so I’m not yet able to guarantee I wouldn’t end up with several kilos of pig shins, a live hamster or a duck penis.

Anyway, back to the painting. I reverted back to my usual style. It’s largely a portrait of a smoking man, but I also tried to capture some of the character of the market around him.

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I was keen not to distract too much from the central figure so tried to make the composition drive the viewer back to his face; on the left the lines that bring you down towards the watermelons stop by the man’s face, and on the right side most of the diagonals take you to something ‘off canvas’ to the right, which presumably the guy is looking at while he smokes his cigarette. This takes you back to his face again.

The background has a huge amount going on, so it was a challenge for me to keep it interesting without it becoming a distraction – this was made harder by the fact that I painted the background before the central figure and so wanted to put some interest in it. Initially there were more people in the background, but I decided to  take them out. I also dulled down the watermelons and dragonfruit in the centre as some of the bright colours dominated the veggies at the front a little too much. Another technique I tried – which i’ve not done before – was to blur the background using layers of washes (colours that you thin down with white spirit or oil and apply over another colour) – this worked quite well for the fabric netting in the top right.

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For me the most fun bit was painting the guys face and I also enjoyed painting the surface of the trestle table behind him (meant to be blood soaked – I was going to put some pigs heads in but Em didn’t like the idea of raw meat being stored so close to fruit). The hardest parts were the sweetcorn and chillies; because of the slightly translucent, shiny coating, the light reacts differently on them so you get a kind of orange shadow, but I’m pleased with the end result.

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– Matt

Still life in the fast lane

 

One of the most eagerly awaited packages in our sea freight was my box of painting stuff. If you don’t know me all that well, my primary non-alcoholic interest is painting – so the first thing I did when all our boxes arrive was crack open a bottle of wine. The second thing I did was set up my easel.

Because my paintings can take me a long time (months; years) , it’s important to carefully consider the subject matter. I’d just completed a landscape of Scotland which took a long long long time to finish, so didn’t fancy another marathon landscape. I have been keen to get back into portrait painting but hadn’t been overly inspired by any faces yet. Instead, I decided to try and capture an atypical element of the city. Typical Shanghai images are of the Bund or the skyline containing the Pearl tower. They’re pretty, but ubiquitous.

One of my little pleasures has been to wander off around the Puxi districts exploring some of the side streets. One of the most curious aspects I’ve found has been the contrast between adjacent neighbourhoods, some of which consist solely of giant skyscrapers of glass and steel and others which are small cramped residential warrens. Though these little residential ‘lanes’ aren’t exactly historic, they are more traditional Shanghai; and typically it is these areas that get flattened to make way for the modern malls and apartment blocks.

The lanes are fascinating. They seem to almost always feature clothes drying from suspended hangers, people washing in outdoor sinks or sat on tiny plastic chairs playing cards. They’re almost always strewn with something; litter, scooters, animals, stacks of cardboard or plastic. Occasionally people set up a few tables and chairs and sell food to passersby. When you take a stroll down one of these lanes, you often experience a number of unusual smells, sounds and sights.The last time I walked through one, the back of my throat hurt with all the chilli in the air from the cooking. I imagine it like a bee-hive; people will emerge from the tiny ‘lane houses’to undertake a bit of frenetic activity in the street, and poke their heads out of windows and doors to partake in animated conversations with their neighbours. Sometimes these dwellings consist of only 1 room; which is astounding given some of the wealth and prosperity you will see in adjacent neighbourhoods (or even adjacent streets!). Given the possibility that these areas will make way for more gentrified buildings, I thought it would be appropriate to make it my first painting.

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To get back into the swing of things, I chose to take a departure from my usual painstaking approach to constructing a painting. Normally with these lanes, you’re walking through or past them rather than taking time to soak it in so I wanted to try and represent the essence, not the detail. I also wanted to reflect some of the charming griminess that many of the lanes seem to have.  I didn’t think I could capture the human element at the same time, so I chose not to include any people in it. I’ve got plenty of time to do some character studies. The finished painting is below.

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It didn’t take a huge amount of time to do – around 4 hours i’d say in total. It’s painted with oil paint on canvas and I tried to use a limited colour palette; there are only 2 reds, 2 yellows, black, white, a tiny bit of blue and a brown called ‘Burnt Sienna’. Almost all of it I did with a palette knife (a type of blade used for mixing and spreading paint that you can get in various shapes). One of the characteristics of oil paints is that they don’t dry very quickly at all. This is very unhelpful if you ever drop a wet painting (the same physics that apply to buttered toast apply here too), but it is very helpful if you want to mix and blend paints while on the canvas. This can produce the kind of effect I achieved in the central pathway- where you have separate colours that are blend unevenly across a surface and give the impression of multiple shades of colours.

Palette knives are also great for creating texture. You can apply paint and then scratch it off in parts to reveal the white underneath, or to reveal the grainy texture of the canvas. This was useful when trying to differentiate between one surface and another, and was particularly helpful when creating the bricked areas. With a picture like this, where the composition relies heavily on perspective created by having straight lines disappearing into the central area, getting the lines right can be very important. Bricks are a challenge, because you need to deal with vertical and horizontal lines across 3 dimensions, as well as having to make them look bricky. I found that I could ‘cut’ the bricks into the picture by loading the knife up with paint and chopping in to create the desired impression. Much easier and much more effective, as the illusion of depth is maintained.

My other aim was to create some interest at the focal point (the end of the lane). I tried to do this by just contrasting some black and white to represent the extremes of light. There are hints of some ‘stuff’ towards the further recesses, but I put a bit of detail into the bike as one of the handful of elements you’d have time to notice if you only glanced up the lane.

My next picture is more in line with my usual style (painstakingly detailed) so it’ll be a few more weeks until i can post about it but I will do so once it’s done 🙂

– Matt