Annie Bananie en Europe

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26 days in China, part 6.2 – Guangzhou (continued)

Though I planned my China trip so that I’d spend most of my time in my hometown, “most of” still only meant ten days, which was rather short. The happiest part of my segment in Guangzhou was spending time with family and friends, hearing the soothing sound of Cantonese, and feeling like I was part of the city again!

In the last post there was a group photo of my relatives on my mom’s side of the family, and this time it’s one of my dad’s side, only without my dad being present. Some of them came all the way from Hong Kong to be with us for Christmas!

In Guangzhou I also got to meet up with my very good friend, LS. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see each other often but I love this girl so much and am still indebted to all that she’s done for me in France. Here we are at Shamian Island (again for me) as I got to be the guide of my own city ^_^

Of course we had to meet up with the Lam family again before we went our separate ways, so it was like another mini Bordeaux fellowship reunion after the one we had in Hangzhou and Huzhou. It’s amazing how the friends I met in France all those years ago are now scattered all over the world, yet we still have these rare opportunities to meet and reconnect, all by the grace of God. Take care, my friends – I will see you again in Zhuhai or Xi’an or Lanzhou or Malaysia or…wherever you guys happen to be next time I decide to find you guys!

One phenomenon that has been very widespread in China in recent years is that of “square dancing”. Nope, not the western-style square dancing. “Square” here refers to any public open space where people could gather and dance to very catchy music with a good beat. Apparently this is especially popular with middle-aged women, and it’s more like a form of socializing or physical exercise. I gotta say…I almost couldn’t resist joining because it looked like so much fun! Watching the people dance and enjoying the music has become my guilty pleasure and it is my secret wish to join them one day…if it is still popular when I’m 40?!

On a perfect sunny day, I revisited Sun Yat-Sen (known to use as Sun Zhongshan) Memorial Hall, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou. I wanted to go back to Sun Yat-Sen’s statue because I remember a foolish thing I did as a child. Pointing to the statue, I ignorantly asked my aunt, “WHAT is this thing?” The funny thing was that I didn’t even ask “who” it was…I literally asked “WHAT” it is, as if Mr. Sun was a “thing”. My aunt didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry, and when I told LS this story, she jokingly said that I’ve committed the crime of disrespect to our “Father of the Nation”. I’m sorry, Mr. Sun…please forgive my stupidity as a child!

Guangzhou’s subway tends to get quite crowded, and Chinese people will know what I mean when I say “people mountain people sea” (a literal translation of the Chinese expression meaning “extremely crowded”). Squashed into a corner on a subway, I saw a woman carrying this bag with the words “Jesus Loves You” in English and Chinese. I didn’t manage to visit any churches in Guangzhou this time around, but I’ll make it a goal to do that next time I go home 🙂

Here I am with two of my favourite people in the entire world – my beautiful mom and my aunt Yaya, who was almost like my nanny/caretaker for many years when I was young. Every time I go back to Guangzhou, Yaya is the one I look forward the most to seeing. As for my mom, spending 26 days with her (more like 20 because actually some of the days were without her) was a luxury especially now that I’m living away from home again. Back in Glasgow all by myself, I’m missing her all over again 😦

I also miss some good ol’ shrimp dumplings (ha gow) that are arguably the most classic Cantonese dim sum. These are sexy, irresistible ha gows right there – large and translucent with the perfect shrimp-to-skin balance. The shrimp was bouncy and the texture of the skin was on point!! One of the most beautiful creations of mankind ever… ❤

And I end the Guangzhou posts…with tea. Ah yes, good tea with good conversation – that’s livin’ the Cantonese lifestyle. Another cup is always welcome!

Side note: My Welsh pastor once asked me, “Are you Canadian, Chinese, or a strange mix of the two?” I had to smile and commend him because there’s really no better way to describe me than “a strange mix of the two”. This trip back to Guangzhou, though, made me feel slightly more Chinese. Perhaps nostalgia kicked in harder than it ever did before when I went back, and perhaps the familial ties, which are such an important Chinese value, are also pulling my ever so subtly. You know…if I were to return to this city of my roots, I think I could get used to living here, but still, the notion that I’m considered a “foreigner” instills in me so much uncertainty…

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26 days in China, part 6.1 – Guangzhou

Guangzhou, home time!!

Previous trips back to the third largest city in China have always evoked complicated mixed feelings of nostalgia and unfamiliarity, giving me a strange sense of melancholy every time I stepped into this place I call my hometown. I wanted so much to still be able to call myself a local, a true Cantonese, but I’m never sure if I can anymore. Well, at least that’s what it was like several years ago

Then I realized that I had been overly sentimental and what I really should do was just enjoy this city, whether as a local or as a former resident or as a tourist or whatever! This was going to be the trip where I could spend precious time with family, be a host to some foreign friends of my own, and eat lots of good food! No existential crisis in Guangzhou for me this time – I’ve got all the fun and relaxation to look forward to during my first “winter” in Guangzhou since…1995. The average temperature in late December was 23 degrees Celsius, there was no smog (yay for being in the south), and I missed most of the infamous “frigid damp winter in southern China”. How perfect could this get!

First up: group photo with the extended family! Growing up, I’ve always been very close with my aunts, uncles, and cousins on my mom’s side of the family. The opportunity to see them together is rare, and this time my mom and grandma were also around, making this a super long-awaited reunion (though missing several people)!

I decided to go down memory lane and revisit some places that were so familiar to me in my childhood, starting with the kindergarten that I attended for four years. It was after classes and the gate was closed, and I doubt I would have been able to enter even if it were open. Still, I could see the vivid pictures of my childhood passing by in front of me. Those annoying boys that destroyed the brick zoo that we made, dancing to classic karaoke songs, being the head of the lion for the Chinese new year lion dance, school lunches with pickled radish, English classes…things only I would remember!

Continue down the road and we reach the elementary school that I attended for a year and a half before moving to Canada. As my caretaker, my aunt used to take me to school on a bike, so I never really had to walk to school. Through the eyes of a child, however, the school felt so far away from where I lived. Now, the trip takes me merely around half an hour, a distance which is considered quite small for a city as large as Guangzhou. And to think that second-grade-me felt sooooooo grown up…if only I could be a child again!

We now jump all the way from my own childhood to my DAD’s childhood, to a place where he spent a majority of his time when he was a young boy – Shamian Island in the Xiguan area of Guangzhou, a territory formerly leased to France and the UK. My dad always likes to ramble on and on about how he used to play with his siblings on Shamian and laments how much the place has changed over the years. However, since I haven’t experienced the evolution of Shamian through time, Shamian to me is just a tranquil place to spend a day away from the crowded metropolis. To be fair, I had been to Shamian several times, but never alone with the opportunity to walk around to my heart’s desire. Perhaps to some, the European architecture and remnants of colonial times make this place an attractive gem in Guangzhou, but I guess I only wanted to visit it again to try to imagine what it was like for my dad to grow up here, no matter how much it has changed beyond recognition (true words from my dad).

What I loved about Shamian were the bronze statues that are scattered all around the island depicting life on Shamian in the past. There must have been at least 20, but some of my favourites are shown here. Top left: an old man taking his caged pet bird for a walk, something that elderly people seemed to enjoy doing a lot in the past. Top right: a kid in clothing worn in the Qing dynasty, dropping a letter in the postbox. Middle right: an old man playing the fiddle. Bottom left: children catching fish in the river. Bottom right: elegant ladies singing and dancing to Cantonese opera wearing qipao.

Meow. I spotted this shy white cat hiding behind some potted plants near a church on Shamian and just wanted to say…hi! It kept running away from me though, and I could only observe it from a distance and try not to scare it. What a beauty you are!

Back in the city, it was time to meet up with my Malaysian guests! I had already traveled to Hangzhou with MC and YX but here in Guangzhou we were joined by MC’s husband, Mr. Blue. Of course I had to take them out to lunch and what better way to do it than the most traditional Cantonese way – “yum cha”, which literally means “drink tea”! To most people this only means dim sum, but tea is such an important aspect of the Cantonese lifestyle. Good tea and good dim sum complement each other, and good company makes it all the better!

I never used the word “beautiful” to describe Guangzhou until I took this photo from a pedestrian bridge. Friends who saw it commented that Guangzhou is such a beautiful city, and you know…I think they’re right. Like many of the places that I’ve called home and taken for granted, I hadn’t noticed its charm until I don’t live there anymore and returned to see it again with fresh eyes. Five years ago it would be an unfathomable to say that I’d even consider going back to China and living/working there long-term, but that possibility doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore. Who knows…I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow, but a stroke of luck, I end up back where I started…

I’ll end this post with a mission that I set out to complete in Guangzhou: the search of two famous local eateries in the Xiguan area. Needless to say, wonton noodles are one of the most popular street foods in Guangzhou, and Wucaiji (left) is one of those hole-in-the-wall places that locals know and love. I had heard about Wucaiji a while back and decided to finally look for it, and it took me a bit of time because it was literally located in a secluded alley and easily missed unless you looked closely. At Wucaiji I got their classic wonton noodle (top right) with wontons made the traditional way with pork only and without shrimp (according to my dad). It was a warm day (24+ degrees) and the soup was hot but so flavourful. I was sweating as I was eatiing – luckily I also ordered a bottle of cold soy milk – but I enjoyed it so much even with sweat dripping down my face. The simplest things are the best! After the noodles, I headed for a dessert shop 15 minutes away called “Nanxin”, which specializes in double skin milk pudding (bottom right). It may look plain and ordinary but it was spoonful after spoonful of sweet goodness with a custard-like texture. Delicious or as we say in Cantonese, “Ho sik!”

This is only the first of three posts in the Guangzhou mini-series in the grand “26 days in China” series – yes yes I’m showing obvious favouritism to my hometown, heh 😛 Part 2 is coming up and of course there is going to be a post dedicated to more amazing food!

26 days in China, part 5 – Wenzhou

Getting closer and closer to my hometown in the far south of China, but not before I stop by another city in Zhejiang province…Wenzhou! Like every other stop on this long trip across China, Wenzhou is home to a couple of friends whom I wanted to visit. In fact, over the past years, I’ve met many people in Europe who came from Wenzhou, having heard so much about THEIR hometown. So this time, it was finally my turn to go and see the place where they grew up and lived before their adventures in Europe.

First visit: WY the wine lady! I met WY in Bordeaux when she was studying vineyard management, and she is currently very successful in the wine business in Wenzhou. If I remember correctly, it had been almost three and a half years since I last saw her in Bordeaux – too long! I brought her a little bottle of English mead (honey liquer) as a gift. Not sure if the taste beats any of her wine, but the bottle is certainly cute and delicate ^_^

Having dinner at WY’s place means we’re gonna have some good wine, guaranteed. In fact, WY’s flat turned out to be wine haven as she had racks and racks of wine of all sorts well laid out in her living room. What a way to live! People in the wine business truly amaze me because I can’t tell a good wine from a bad one to save my life. Doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a glass or two though, whether it’s red or white! Here’s dinner with my mom, YY (another friend), YX and MC (from Malaysian, whom we were with in Hangzhou and Huzhou), WY, and WY’s sister. Cheers, and let’s dig in to the hot pot!

After dinner, YY, my host in Wenzhou, welcomed me and my mom to her flat, where we stayed for two nights. I met YY in Glasgow but this was the first time I was meeting her two adorable sons, Jack and John. You certainly didn’t think she was the mother of two 8-year-old twin boys, huh! Anyway, even though I only spent two days with the boys, I felt like we could have become best buddies. They are so active and intelligent and just so quirky that it was pure fun being around them! My mom instantly fell in love with them as well, heh! I really felt bad that I had to leave them in the end 😦

Here’s John (or Jack?!) teaching me how to hold the violin properly. I had tried to learn to play the violin by myself years ago but failed miserably, so it was good to have a teacher! OK…I was so bad at it that he gave up teaching me and just decided to play me a song instead 😛

Day two in Wenzhou, and my host YY took me to a village in the nearby mountainous regions where the TV series “One family in Wenzhou” was filmed. I don’t know much about the series, but I liked the tranquility of the village surrounded by nature and fresh air, away from the big city. Without a true local as a companion, I would never have known such a place existed!

Hiking through woods and up and down hidden trails in the mountains, we encountered a series of waterfalls that dropped into pools with the clearest and most turquoise water I had ever seen. It was here that I wondered…are these the REAL Fairy Pools?! I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the photos of the Fairy Pools on Skye were actually taken here…simply breathtaking! The bonus point was that this area is still quite unknown to the public, so we pretty much had it all to ourselves. As I was already sweating from the uphill hike, I had the urge to jump in for a swim! Oh, what a beautiful surprise. China, you never cease to amaze me.

Annie and YY finally take a photo together! I was so glad to have had her presence in Glasgow for a year and too happy to see her again in China, in her hometown. As with all of the other friends that I reunited with during this trip, I’m not sure when I’ll see YY again but I’m sure we’ll be in each other’s prayers 🙂

Before leaving Wenzhou for good, my mom and I had the opportunity to visit a local church for its Sunday morning service. I’ve heard many things about the expansion of Christianity in the Wenzhou area and was eager to join YY and her family for worship. First thing first – they weren’t kidding about the huge churches! One thing, though, was that I understood nothing from the sermon simply because it was delivered in Wenzhou dialect…oops. Still a great experience, especially the gigantic lunch feast that followed! If you hadn’t told me that it was a church meal, I would have thought that it was a wedding banquet. Rows after rows of round tables and at least 7 or 8 dishes prepared for each. And all that rice! There must have been hundreds at the gathering – I was really quite impressed!

As was the case in most of the posts in this series, I have to introduce the food. In Wenzhou, we were offered a much more home-styled taste compared to the other cities that I had visited. Top left: fresh steam crab prepared by WY. Top right: Wenzhou-style steamed fish prepared by WY. Middle: hot pot with a variety of small dishes prepared by WY. Bottom left: farm-style stir-fried tofu. I must say, if this wasn’t the best tofu I’ve had in my life, it came very close. I can’t imagine it being made in any complicated way – it must have been one of the simplest home-style dishes that the villagers made every day but somehow it smelled and tasted so wonderful. Bottom right: a type of root-like vegetable called “sheng di” in Chinese that has no direct translation. They look like creepy caterpillars but trust me, they were only vegetables. After having eaten at restaurants for so many days, it was great to finally have some taste of home!

As we left Wenzhou, I became more and more excited because I was about to board a flight to MY hometown, Guangzhou! Finally, after spending 10 days in various places near the Jiangnan area of China, I was able to say that the next destination was…home!

26 days in China, part 4 – Huzhou

Huzhou is one of those places that is as of now mostly untainted by tourism, and the only reason I visited it (and found out about it) in the first place was to see my long-lost friend, YH, whom I met in Bordeaux and hadn’t seen for four years! Huzhou is her hometown and where she currently works, so a north-to-south China trip wouldn’t be complete without stopping by, especially since it’s only 2.5 hours away from Shanghai by high-speed train (and my mom’s first time on China’s high-speed train). In fact, I would say that Huzhou was the most anticipated stop on the itinerary!

Compared with nearby tourist hubs like Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and many other cities in the Jiangsu/Zhejiang provinces, Huzhou is quaint and quiet but certainly did not lack characteristic. In fact, because it wasn’t super crowded, Huzhou exhibited an accentuated sense of elegance that so well defines the Jiangnan region (or my impression of the region). Again, these are settings that only ever appeared in the quintessential historical Chinese movies and drama series, but beautiful places like these do exist in real life! Here is an alley on Yishang Street (“yishang” means “clothing”), which is one of the oldest and historically significant streets in Huzhou.

One (very well) hidden gem in Huzhou and my favourite place was the Lotus Garden, Huzhou’s response to the many famous gardens of Suzhou, except without the crowds and admission fees. Near the entrance there was a path lined with bamboos on both sides, and I felt like the only thing that was missing to make this a perfect TV scene was the sound of a bamboo flute and a handsome guy with a sword. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, anyone?

At the Lotus Garden, people liked to sit in pavilions to have tea and chat, or sing in groups in a courtyard, the way one leads a leisurely life. Now, that’s a lifestyle that I wouldn’t mind adopting after retirement.

Going away from the city centre, we arrived at a prominent landmark of Huzhou: the “Moon Hotel” by Tai Lake, which is really just a Sheraton Hot Spring Resort. It was rather a pity that we were not there during the evening, when the exterior of the entire crescent-shaped hotel is lit up and transforms the surrounding atmosphere. I would actually like to experience a stay at the hotel, at the very top of the crescent…one day, when I’m super rich!

And at Tai Lake, I met none other than my childhood hero, Doraemon! Well, a life-sized or more like a blown-up version of him, as I don’t think Doraemon is really THAT tall and huge. Can’t resist taking a photo of my all-time favourite fictional (is he fictional?) character, a close tie with the Little Prince whom I already met years ago in Hong Kong. Now if only Nobita and Shizuka and the rest of the gang are present, that would have been perfect!

By Tai Lake, a fisherman was drying and selling his catch of the day. It was extremely windy and cold that day, especially around the Tai Lake area. As I walked by, I was hoping that this man had enough clothes to keep him warm, because who knows how much longer he had to stay outdoor! Take care!

In the evening, YH and I went back to Yishang Street, where we were earlier, and I was surprised to see such spectacular night scene by the river that ran through Huzhou. This just goes to show that a city doesn’t have to have glittering skyscrapers to be charming. Even when most of the city seemed to have fallen asleep, Huzhou shone secretly and quietly only for those who were determined to seek her beauty.

During the preparation of my stay in Huzhou, YH originally intended to arrange for me and my mom to stay in one of the chic, Chinese-style boutique inns along the river but because I am a “foreigner” (not a Chinese citizen), I wasn’t allowed to book there… 😦 I don’t really know why that is the case, but even though China is an amazing place full of things to be discovered, being a foreigner in this land (even though it was MY native homeland) has its disadvantages. Oh well.

As for food, I was fed so well that if I lost any weight within the past month of going to the gym, I gained it all back in Huzhou. YH certainly knew how to be a great host! Let’s see what we have here. Top left: steamed fish from Tai Lake, one of the “three treasures of Tai Lake”. Bottom left: fish cooked with suancai (Chinese sauerkraut). Top right: cow (or pig?) stomach cooked with suancai. Middle right: home-styled tofu, excellent with the sauce and a bowl of rice! Bottom right: marinated beef wraps, kind of like the beef version of the Peking duck. It is almost dinnertime as I write this and looking at the photos of this food makes me sooooo hungry…

The one thing that I did regret was forgetting to take a photo with my friend YH this entire time (except the group photo at West Lake in Hangzhou, from the previous post) as we were having way too much fun reminiscing and exploring. One of the most frequent phrases that I heard during my entire China trip was this: “Your stay is too short!” Of course I heard this in Huzhou as well, but albeit it was a short stay, being able to experience this authentic city with a born-and-raised-here local was truly the greatest blessing. Huzhou and YH, you are greatly missed!

Next stop: another city in Zhejiang province – Wenzhou!

26 days in China, part 3 – Suzhou and Hangzhou

There’s a saying in Chinese that goes, “Paradise above; Suzhou and Hangzhou on Earth”, describing the beauty and elegance of the two cities in southeast China (the Jiangnan region). The convenient locations of Suzhou and Hangzhou made them the perfect day trips from Shanghai and Huzhou (I was going to write the Huzhou post first, but decided to save it for the next chapter), and with some time on our hands, my mom and I were off to explore paradise on Earth ^_^

First up: Suzhou, located in Jiangsu province. Suzhou is famous for its many elegant classical Chinese gardens and canals and is known as “Venice of the East” (though, why can’t Venice be “Suzhou of the West”?) Upon entering the city, we were greeted by tranquil rivers and old bridges, a picturesque scene reminiscent of a painting. All of a sudden we felt like we stepped into the set of a historical TV drama taking place in ancient China. Bring on the costumes!

Perhaps the most famous of Suzhou’s gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuo Zheng Lin). The garden was said to be named as such because its original owner, a former government official, decided to build a garden and live a simple, quiet life after retirement, planting trees and growing vegetables for leisure. Hence, the name of the garden referred to the life of its owner, a humble man. From the outside, the garden isn’t all that impressive, but you’d be surprised how HUGE it is inside! Lakes, pavilions, bridges, stone sculptures, hills, bamboo forests, bonsai gardens, courtyards, artistic corridors and windows…I was told that every layout and every element was intricately and delicately designed to display an ultimate sense of aesthetics!

The other garden (we only visited two out of the tens of them) that my mom and I visited was the Lion Grove Garden (Shi Zi Lin), named so for the (too) many lion-shaped rocks scattered around the garden. I actually liked this one more than the Humble Administrator’s Garden, precisely because of the rocks that formed a complex maze throughout the garden. Going through the interconnected tunnels formed by the rocks and going up and down the steps made us lose track of orientation multiple times, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it took us 20 minutes to finally find the exit. Lots of fun, actually, if you have time and patience to play hide-and-seek with a bunch of friends…!

You may have noticed the appearance of willow trees in the previous images and that was one of my favourite things about any of the Jiangnan cities. I had always compared willow trees to a classy lady dancing in the wind with graceful movements, and in Suzhou, these ubiquitous trees complemented the classic beauty of the gardens so well. Of course, the most beautiful one was my mom, who wore the perfect bright red coat that day (with her red-dyed hair!) to contrast the colour of the willows. Too lovely!

After Suzhou we went to the other paradise on Earth, Hangzhou. I had been here in 2010 during the summer and upon seeing the lotus ponds 6 years ago I had to gasp, “What beauty that makes me faint!” It was then that I made it my bucket list item to come to Hangzhou at lease once during every season, and this trip fulfilled the “winter” part of that goal. Although there was no snow as I had wished, the West Lake, which is the defining feature of Hangzhou, was still as beautiful as ever.

Selfie time at the West Lake! So happy to be travelling with this wonderful lady in red AKA my mom! It was also probably only one of the two days during my entire 26 days in China where the temperature was below 10 degrees Celsius – rather windy too!

And here are the rest of my companions – MC, the lady in red; YX, MC’s son; and YH, my host from the nearby city of Huzhou (next post) whom I haven’t seen in four years! In fact I met all of these great people in my Bordeaux fellowship, so it was a mini but precious reunion in China!

At sunset the West Lake was getting ready for rest as the sun began its descent behind the smoky clouds. And of course the willow trees were ubiquitous here, just as they were in Suzhou. We didn’t see much of Hangzhou aside from the West Lake this time but for a first-timer like my mom, that was sufficient as the highlight. As for me, you know I’ll be back – spring and autumn!

A final look at the West Lake before it got completely dark. The layering mountains in the background made this look almost like a traditional Chinese landscape ink painting and even in the dark, the West Lake still hasn’t lost its unique charm. So will you say that you agree with the saying that Suzhou and Hangzhou are like paradise on Earth? 😉

This is one of the few posts in the “26 days in China” series that does not include any food, since Suzhou and Hangzhou were done as day trips and we mostly packed just snacks and simple foods. Rest assure though that food will be aplenty in the upcoming posts 😉 Next up: arguably the most anticipated city, Huzhou! (Yes it will be Huzhou for real this time!)

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