Why the Chinese are batty about bats and westerners are not.

The Chinese are not spooked by bats, in fact they really rather like them. Bats feature prominently in Chinese art, embroidered on silk robes for an Emperor, painted on porcelain, b11e12a1c2c1ccc5393a17f3216d5453carved in lacquer ware or wood. On the landing outside our apartment is a beautifully carved screen which features a bat and fishes – the bats represent good fortune and the fish represent wealth – what more could one want?!authentic-hand-carved-chinese-cinnabar-lacquer-trinket-box-bats-1

Now that I’ve told you about bats being depicted on Chinese items, you will start noticing it yourself .*

mingbats

In the USA and Canada, the bat has become irrevocably linked to witches, demons, vampires and general spookiness – mainly as a result of the increasingly commercialised celebration of Halloween in North America.

th-3                                                                                                                                                                      In the UK they are  mainly thought of as a bloody nuisance’.                                                                                                                                          This is because all bats in Britain are protected by law, and when they settle in churches,  houses, or other buildings it is almost impossible to be allowed to remove them –  despite the damage their urine and faeces causes to fixtures and furnishings.  Some years ago I read the despairing letter a country vicar had written to the local newspaper who was at his wits end about how to contain the damage to the ancient paneling in his church which had become home to a colony of over 200 bats – he ended his letter by saying  “…if only they would stay in the belfry where they belong.”!

th-6

In English, the words bats/batty are often used to indicate a level of craziness, obsession, eccentricity etc.   You might hear someone say ‘Jim is bats about vintage cars’ meaning he really loves them; or someone else saying ‘that old man is completely batty, you won’t get much sense out of him’.

th-4

Then there are the many misconceptions about bats.                                                       Women, in particular, seem to be afraid of them,  they fear that bats will fly down and become entangled in their hair – this very common belief is highly unlikely to ever happen, bats will do almost anything to keep away from people, certainly it is not a common situation, not even an uncommon situation – it is as rare as finding a hen with teeth.

As experts say about many wild creatures: ‘they are more afraid of humans than humans are of them’.  Bats are also feared as spreaders of disease, – whilst that is always a possibility – but there is little evidence to show it actually happens regularly;  and as for them flying in to your home to suck your blood whilst you are asleep– forget it!       Unless of course you are living in the middle of a Central or South American jungle or a stone’s throw from the Amazon river – which rules out most of us – and even then it would be a rare occurrence.

Having bats in your neighbourhood is the sign of a clean environment, and as most bat species live on insects, they are helpful as they reduce the need for pesticides.

In China, unlike in the West, bats are considered lucky.

BatsBats have been living in China for millennia;  they were (and are) revered for their longevity and for the way they pollinated some fruits – particularly peaches.

Bats and Peaches B60P1707

As I have mentioned in other blog posts, the Chinese language has many, many words that are pronounced the same, but written with a different character. These words are often paired up, with one representing the other in symbols and puns.

One of the most common designs you see is that of five bats surrounding the symbol th-2shou which represents longevity, this also links to the Chinese idea of bats, as bats often live in caves and some colonies of bats are believed to have been living in such caves for over 1000 years.

The Chinese word for bat (fu 蝠) sounds identical to the word for good fortune(fu 福) making bats a popular Chinese rebus. Five bats together (wufu 五福), represent the ‘Five Blessings’:

images12

Long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death.

I have never been a particular fan of bats, as I had bought in to the  many misconceptions  about them. Now I am trying hard to change my views and understand these amazing creatures which are the only mammal that is able to fly; however I have quite a way to go before I will believe, as the Chinese do, that they bring good fortune.

 

* When I was staying in Cape Town recently, the guest room in my friend’s house had a jar on an upper shelf, and – of course – it showed the lucky five bats and a shou symbol!

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Fashionably Early or Fashionably Late?

In the west, when we send an invitation inviting people for lunch, or a dinner or what-ever, we give a time to arrive – so do the Chinese. But they don’t seem to really mean the time given.

For example, a western invitation would read something like this:

 Loobie Lu and John Doe would love you to join them for lunch  on

Saturday 31st of December at 12 noon……

th-3.jpg

 And to me that means that 12 noon is the EARLIEST time they would expect anyone to arrive.

China is SO different, and when I first started living here I could not get my head round it. An invitation such as the one above would mean some of the invited Chinese guests arriving either on the dot, or up to half an hour EARLY!

HalfPast11.png

Quelle horreur! (as the French would say!)

In the west, there is a concept of being ‘Fashionably late’ by which guests mean to show that they are busy, popular people with a lot to do, thus giving respect to their hosts for turning up.

th-4

 

In China, it is the reverse – it is fashionable to arrive early; it shows respect to arrive early for any event.  My DH drives me crazy when we are invited to a Chinese event by insisting we should arrive early – why? WHY?  They gave a time on the invitation, let’s stick to it is my view.

Both these ways have problems for whoever is hosting an event – but I find the Chinese way the most problematic.

Often, I have got everything for a meal prepared, table set, etc. etc. but have cut the time a little finer than intended; just leapt into the shower and about to dress in smarter clothes then slap on some make-up, when – 30 minutes early –  some of our Chinese guests arrive…. aargh!

On the other hand, with Western guests, everything is ready, the apartment, the food, the wines and other drinks, I am fully glammed up etc. and nobody comes, time passes and still nobody arrives. I start panicking, did I put the wrong time/date on the invitation? What will I do with all the food I have prepared if no-one arrives? And so on and so forth.  Then, 45 minutes late, the first couples burst through the doors and everything gets going.

After several years of always being on the back foot so to speak, my solution is to have a stiff drink and to hell with the timing!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in politeness, timing, invitations, being a good guest,, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

‘Ferryman’ – the Scottish YA novel that is a best-seller in China.

Avid book readers in the UK would be hard-pressed to name the YA book by Claire McFall, a young Scots author, published in 2013. It has sold approximately 10,000 copies in Scotland, whereas in China over a million copies have been sold so far, pushing it into the top 3 on the bestsellers list here.

th

The book is ‘Ferryman‘, a romantic para-normal tale of a teenager who (just) survives an horrendous rail accident, and the other worldly Ferryman – think Charon and the river Styx – who has been sent to take her across the ‘wasteland’ to the afterlife.  The strap line on the UK paperback edition reads “Is there Love after Death”….cue the music.71KYf7+HV4L.jpg

When I  became aware of how many Chinese readers were buying Ferryman I thought I should read it – it is the first British novel to really hit the big time in China since the advent of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. So I downloaded it to my Kindle and got stuck in.

I do not want to say any more about the tale as it might spoil it for future readers.  Suffice to say, this is not a book I would normally pick up, let-alone read, and I can’t in all honesty say it was my cup of tea.  Having said that, it is beautifully written and Claire McFall obviously understands teenage girls  (IRL* she is a teacher at a Scottish secondary school), and she not mawkish or overly sentimental in writing about death, and the deep intensity of teenage love.   She has written a follow-up book: ‘Trespassers‘,  and is hard at work on a third book, turning it into a trilogy – I hope they prove just as successful here in China.

Why, I asked myself, has this book had such an appeal to Chinese readers?  After thinking long and hard, and doing some research I have come to the conclusion that in Chinese literature tales featuring wandering ghosts, hungry ghosts, fox women, demons, lost souls etc are commonplace.  Additionally, in ancient China there was a period when the Chinese conception of the afterlife was based on a combination of Chinese folk religions, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism.

At the moment of death, it was believed that one’s spirit is taken by messengers to the God of Walls and Moats, Chenghuang ShenCheng Huang, bronze sculpture; in the Guimet Museum, Paris. who conducts a kind of preliminary hearing. Those found virtuous may go directly to one of the Buddhist paradises, to the dwelling place of the Taoist immortals, or the tenth court of hell for immediate rebirth.

To get to the God of Walls & Moats  it was believed that the souls of the dead had to cross a river or desolate land to transit from mortal life to an after-world.  Nowadays such a belief is not so common, but the idea still has a romantic pull… and if one crosses over the wasteland, is it ever possible to cross back to the land of the living? So Mc Fall’s novel seems to fit well within the ancient Chinese belief system.

The book is also very popular in Japan and Korea, I am told – both of which have similar attitudes to life after death. There were moments, when reading it, that I could imagine it being re-written as Japanese manga, in which format I am sure it would be another huge success.

Because of the immense popularity of ‘Ferryman‘ here in China, Hollywood has come knocking on McFall’s door,  film rights have been sold and I suspect this Scottish lass will not be working in the Scottish Education system for much longer!

Here should say that I am really turned off by books which publishers market as ‘YA’ – I know that is prejudice on my part, but this whole YA category bothers me. What IS a YA in the first place? a 15 year old? a 21 year old? does it mean a book that a 30+ reader would not relate to? there are many books that appeal to readers in general, and if marketed as YA it may turn older (more mature?) readers off buying/borrowing/reading them.

I am glad that the fact that ‘Ferryman’ becoming a bestseller in China led me to read it. It is good for me to read outside my comfort zone and see what books appeal to other age-groups. Now I am determined to try books designated as YA from time to time, just to shake up my reading habits!

I have also bought two copies of ‘Ferryman’ in Chinese to give as gifts – one for the 20yr old daughter of a dear friend, and the second for my Chinese teacher who is still under 30 and has a romantic disposition! I can’t wait to hear what they make of it.

If you read ‘Ferryman’, I would be fascinated to hear what you think!!

 

* IRL = In real life

Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Oysters and the Chinese Saucerer

130 years ago, in 1888, there was a young man called Lee Kum Sheung who lived in Nanshui, Zhuhai, a small town not far from Shanghai. He had a take-out shop which served oyster soup.   founder-of-lee-kum-kee---mr                                                  One day he must have been distracted, as he left his big pot of oysters (which were being cooked to make the clear broth) for far too long, the ‘soup’ overcooked and became alee-kum-kee-premium-oyster-sauce-510g viscous thick, brown liquid.

Not wanting to waste the oysters he had bought,  he decided not to throw the thick liquid out, but to sell it as ‘oyster gravy’. To his surprise it was very popular.  So he made some more, refined it by adding some sugar, salt and cornflour and poured it into bottles – calling it ‘Oyster Sauce’.                                                                                                                                       He then started his own small company –  Lee Kum Kee – to make it commercially, and the rest is history.

The sauce rapidly became an essential component of Cantonese cuisine and was widely used for cooking in Vietnam and Thailand.

The company went from strength to strength, producing not only the original Oyster Sauce, but many other sauces such as Hoisin, Chili & Garlic,  Chili Oil,  various Soy Sauces, Fish Sauce etc., etc.images-3

Mr Lee moved his HQ from rural Guandong Province to Macao and eventually to  Hong Kong, but the company’s biggest factories remain in China.

After he died, LKK continued to grow and expand under the management of his sons and daughters, and now it is run by his grandchildren.

Just as in Mr Lee’s day, the oysters are sourced from inner bays along the South China coast where freshwater and sea waters converge. They are gathered and then sent immediately to the factory where they are cleaned and cooked whilst still very fresh. After 10 hours of boiling to get the thick oyster ‘extract’ during an intensive production cycle the other ingredients are added, and everything is monitored to ensure the sauce meets International food hygiene standards.

The LKK products are sold in 100 countries around the world – as well as being the big brand leader in China.

IMG_2314

If I am asked by western friends what to buy in a Chinese supermarket when they want to make Asian food (where the choice can seem overwhelming), I always tell them to look for the Lee Kum Kee sauces – they are high-quality, and usually available.

IMG_2325I have bottles and jars of LKK sauces in both my kitchens –  Beijing and Scotland – and use them in many dishes both western and Chinese.

Below is a recipe for a simple vegetable dish I often make as a side dish to meat or fish, if you have laid out your ingredients in advance it takes only moments to make, so be sure all the other components of the meal are ready.

Stir-fried Broccoli with Oyster Sauce:

(for 4 people)

A large head of broccoli, cut into florets (or equivalent amount of tender-stem broccoli)

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons water

3 Tablespoons LKK Oyster Sauce

Dash of LKK light soy sauce,

Dash of LKK toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Heat your wok or a deep frying pan until hot, then add the oil and swirl it around. Tip in the broccoli and stir for a minute or two then add the water (it will sizzle and hiss), keep stirring – once the water has evaporated the broccoli will be cooked but still crunchy – then add the oyster sauce, keep stirring. Add a dash of soy sauce and of sesame oil, stir, sprinkle on the sesame seeds, stir some more, then tip onto a heated serving dish and take to the table.

(BTW you can substitute Bok choi/Pak choi for broccoli if you prefer.)

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Some may have noticed that I have not written a Blog post for quite a while, but a few nights ago a during a long conversation with my old friend Pauline A, Oyster Sauce was mentioned and it made me get my act together –  so I am back in the blogging business! Thanks Pauline! this post is dedicated to you XX

 

 

 

 

Posted in Food & Drink, Recipes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

A Night at the Opera

A few weekends ago my DH and I took the High Speed Train from Beijing to the city of Wuhan which sits astride the great Yangtze river, some 1060 kms south of here. We were going to the Opera.

In September last year the San Francisco Opera debuted a new work which they had commissioned, ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, th-2which ran for eight nights to huge public acclaim. With a Chinese composer and librettist re-imagining one of the four great novels of China, and turning it into a western style opera which would be sung in English by Chinese singers. The composer was Chinese-American Bright Sheng, who wrote the libretto together with David Henry Hwang

920x1240.jpg

We have a dear friend, Wray Armstrong, who is a classical music/opera Impresario here in China. His company brings orchestras, solo players, choirs, etc from the west to perform here; and they are tremendously well received.

Our friend decided to take the huge commercial gamble of bringing the whole DRC opera production from San Francisco to China where it toured 3 cities: Beijing, Changsha, and Wuhan. No-one was sure how the Chinese critics and public would react to a western opera based on this quintessentially Chinese book. Suffice to say it was a HUGE hit.

We were in the UK when the Opera opened in Beijing and then moved to Changsha – where it had been chosen as the opening performance for Changsha’s new and beautiful opera house. This amazing piece of architecture by the late British architect Zaida Hadid was the last project to be built before her untimely death.

We were so happy to be invited attend the last night of the run in Wuhan; we would not have missed it for the world. Wuhan’s opera house is about 10 years old, purpose built, with fantastic acoustics it seats nearly 2000, and it was packed out for the performance we attended.

‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ (aka ‘The Story of the Stone’) is a fantastic work of literature written in the mid 18th century, all Chinese know of this book even if they have never read it.*  Over many years the book has been adapted into various Chinese Operas, into ballets, and several Chinese TV series – the 1987 series was very, very popular in China.

The book /story is ideal operatic material, lots of action, romance, etc. and the librettist has done it proud by taking actual lines from the book which work really well with the music. Of course it is important – as it is with any opera – that the th-4performers are first class, and in this production they certainly were. All but one of the main characters were played by Chinese singers -some from mainland China, some ABC (American Born Chinese), some Malaysian or Singaporean Chinese.

A Ukrainian opera choir who specialize in providing choruses for operas came out to China to join the production, and they were stunning. I discovered that the production team had tried to get a ‘Chinese’ chorus, specifically from the great singing choruses of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), but the PLA musical director said it would take them a year at least to learn how to sing in a western opera as it is so out of their experience.

The opera is in two acts with an interval between them. As yet, the Chinese opera going audience has not got the idea of having a glass of wine, a beer, ice-cream or soft drink during the interval – they just go out of the theatre and mill about. Many men rush outside to have a quick ciggie (same as in the UK!!).

The sets were stunning, and the costumes – oh my word! absolutely fantastic – the whole performance was a treat for the eyes. I absolutely loved it.

Spoiler  alert!                                                                                                                                      The opera does not end on a happy-ever-after note. The heroine, Daiyu, walks into the raging river and is drowned, and the hero, Baoyu, becomes a Buddhist monk, wandering the world with his begging bowl.th-3

As the opera was coming to an end, and Daiyu was walking into the river, I became aware that the two young women seated behind me were in floods of tears, so touched by the sad denouement. What greater accolade can there be than that singers have moved their audience to tears?

There was a well deserved standing ovation, and the cast were called back again and again by the applause of the audience, bouquets were delivered, the conductor and orchestra were cheered to the max. Finally the curtain fell.

As the auditorium emptied, I was surprised to be told that my DH and I were invited to go up on to the stage to meet the cast. It was a first for me, to be on the stage of a huge opera house. Because it was the end of the final performance, and had gone so well, the cast were high as kites – absolutely euphoric!

IMG_3094.jpg

I congratulated and hugged so many of them, I took photos, photos of me with cast members were taken, everyone was laughing and smiling, it was a wonderful experience.  The lead soprano, Wu He, who sang the part of Daiyu was so interesting. She is from China but for the past few years has studied at the Royal School of Music, specifically at the Guildhall School in London, and she has sung in various operas in Europe. Wu He is still very young and is building her career, which I have no doubt will be stellar.  But the singer who stood out for me above all, was the young tenor, Yuan Li,

dream_of_the_red_chamber-opera-china-1.jpgwho played Baoyu, the leading man. He had been drafted in to sing after the tenor who sang in Beijing and Changsha was unable to continue. He had had a short time to learn the part, but his voice and stage presence were stunning.

The next day, on the four hour train journey back to Beijing, I thought about how wonderful it had been to spend  A Night at the Opera.

 

*My previous blog post is a quick crib on the book which has been turned into this opera.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Dream of the Red Chamber – China’s Downton Abbey

‘The Story of the Stone’ by Cao Xueqin is more familiarly called ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ (DRC). Written in the mid 18th Century, it is considered one of the four ‘great’ literary works of China.

In fact, I think it is one of the greatest novels in the world.

511D7aDVEFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

The original book is daunting – the highly acclaimed English translation by David Hawkes and John Minford – which is published by Penguin Classics, is in five volumes, with over 2500 pages in total, featuring at least 50 main protagonists and an additional 400 characters in the book.

51hckZusmtL._AC_US436_QL65_.jpg

For many western (and Chinese) readers the thought of reading it is just too much.  People in the UK who say that they find the idea of reading the great Russian classic ‘War & Peace’ difficult, would tremble before this behemoth of a book which is double the length of W&P!

‘Too long, too difficult, too many names which are hard to pronounce let-alone remember…’,  that is what people think about the full version. Chinese school children – who are all taught about the book – are only ever given shortish extracts to read.

However, if one perseveres it really is well worth reading, and deserves to be better known in the West.

Some western literary critics compare it with Shakespeare, and, like the works of the Immortal BardEroticism-and-Other-Literary-Conventions-in-Chinese-Literature-Intertextuality-in-The-Story-of-the-Stone-Cambria-Sinophone-World-Series.jpg  the DRC is studied, pored over and dissected by scholars who write serious books about aspects of the novel – there is now a whole field of study known in China as ‘Redology’.

Over the years DRC has been turned into Chinese Operas, several ballets, and more than one TV series here in China. In addition there have been countless ‘re-interpretations’ of the book.

Personally I think the DRC is like Downton Abbey but set in 18th century China!

The book tells the story of the Jia family, who are rich and well-connected, living  luxurious Rongguo Mansion in Beijing during the Qing dynasty.  The story goes from how the Jia family rose to prominence to how they fell from grace when the political tide turned against them, their mansion was raided and trashed by Imperial troops, with the senior males being thrown into jail and the women reduced to penury.

The cast of characters, as I said before, is huge but the main protagonists are the elderly matriarch, Lady Jia, her son Duke Jia Zheng who is currently head of the family, his spoilt son Baoyu, his nieces Daiyu and Baocai, daughter-in-law Xifeng and her weak husband Jia Lian, family friend Mrs Xue who’s wild son Xue Pan is the cause of many problems, as well as the adult children of  Jia Zheng’s concubine; and last but not least, the many servants/slaves who work for them in their huge sprawling compound.

3506030.jpg

It would take too long to try and outline the story which has plots within plots, suffice to say that there are love affairs, jockeying for favour, arranged marriages, fears, betrayals, sex, arguments, deaths, jealousies – indeed all human emotions and relationships are there in spadeth-1.jpgs.

This main story is framed by another tale – that of a sentient Stone who prevails upon a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest to have them take the Stone with them into the world where it can experience the human realm.  At the end, this framing tale has the primary male character Baoyu, who is purportedly born with a jade stone in his mouth,  becoming a monk and wandering the world. This is why the book is also known by the title ‘The Story of the Stone’

The daily lives of such a family and their servants is wonderfully depicted – what they eat and drink, what they wear, how they amuse themselves; how the houses are furnished, the make-up the women wear, the jewellery, the way servants are treated. Sons are expected to study hard for the Imperial Examinations, but needless to say they don’t always do so, they go out on the town, get drunk, have fights, seduce girls. The women gossip, learn household management, stroll in the gardens, have illicit love affairs, play musical instruments and bicker with one another…

3807011.jpg

Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters of the book loosely based on the experiences of his own family. After he died Gao E ‘finished’ the book with a further 40 chapters – though many Redology scholars think he based them on drafts prepared by Cao Xueqin, the arguments over this rage on!                                                                         What Gao E certainly did was to get the book published in print form – in 1791 AD. Prior to that year it had only been copied by hand and passed around.

For anyone who would like to read the story, but feels daunted by the 5 volume original translation, there is a recent novel by Pauline Chen, ‘The Red Chamber’, in which she has ‘re-imagined’ the tale, but cut it down to the core characters, and I highly recommend it.  Well written, with most of the descriptions of life in the Jia family mansion kept intact it is a cracking read, I enjoyed it very much.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

After months away, I’m back in Beijing!

It is over three months since I wrote a blog post – why? because I have been away from China; first I spent 10 happy days at Woods Hole on Cape Cod with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons.

Map.png

Then I was in Fife (north east Scotland) with my Mum for a while, then down in London for 10 days, then back in Scotland again.

pittenweem-4814.jpg

So much to-ing and fro-ing!!  Still it meant I spent time with family and friends; was able to visit the fabulous house my sister and b-in-law have built in the Scottish borders; attended the English wedding reception of Beijing friends; got my eyes tested and ordered new lenses/specs etc; and filled my lungs with clean Scottish air!!

We also had various friends come to visit in Fife which was wonderful. One couple who are old Beijing pals were on a mega tour of Britain and it was great, if slightly surreal, to see them in our small fishing village rather than on the Great Wall* which is their natural habitat!

  •  www.wildwall.com/

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments