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travel

a hub of culture and sophistication, protected by towering parapets decorated with blossoming pink hibiscus. Chengdu remains a city of poetry, with not one but two of China’s greatest sons of letters calling the city home, and one of these poets – the Tang Dynasty master Du Fu – still has his cottage preserved on the edge of town. Chengdu was a city of art, a capital of beauty hidden in the foothills. Those flowering walls were destroyed years ago, and on the site of the ancient palace China’s highest statue of Mao Zedong now stands, a 35foot image frozen mid-wave. Not far from his visage is People’s Park, where a former military warehouse now serves as the central gathering point for most of the city. By the time I arrived at this hub of activity, the ear-cleaners were just beginning their shift. I meandered past flailing ribbon dancers and water calligraphers marking the ground with indescribably elegant flourishes that will evaporate in minutes. I passed through an impromptu bookstore, casually browsing through their selection of textbooks and Chinese classics sitting incongruously alongside biographies of Steve Jobs. I needed some more peace and quiet, so I sought respite in a traditional teahouse located in the park. It could have been any one of the hundreds of teahouses throughout the city, where lo-

cals sipped to a soundtrack of clicking mahjongg tiles and go pieces. Many spend their entire day in teahouses like this one, gossiping about their neighbors and in-laws under the shaded verandahs, avoiding the punishing summer heat. The clientele begin to change during the lunch rush – stylish leather shoes of the nouveau riche begin to tread the piles of sunflower seed and peanut shells and fruit rinds littering the ground. There is a buzz in the air of such places, adding to the endless hum of birds chirping, the slurps of tencent cups of tea, the chatter of the clientele.

Fiery food

By early afternoon, I had still not eaten. A short walk away was Chengdu’s old town, a stretch of preserved narrow alleys and twostory stucco houses that are popular with tourists. Among the vendors selling mass produced garbage there is an opportunity to try some of Chengdu’s local cuisine, renowned for its heat and flavor. There are cities of industry and cities of politics, but Chengdu is a city of epicureans. Sichuan’s capital was bestowed with the title of Asia’s first city of gastronomy, with its local culinary treasure trove distinguished by the liberal use of the indigenous Sichuan peppercorn. Fragrant enough to be used as a perfume in antiquity, both fresh and dried varieties of this inconspicu-

ous pellet numb the human mouth sufficiently to still be used by some rural dentists as anesthetic. As I tucked into spicy rabbit heads, I noticed a nearby man beating a drum advertising his cellophane noodles. I approached, but my mandarin could not match up to his mellifluous dialect, and I had to resort to hand-waving to secure my bowl of noodles. I repeated this process time and again to get samples of every snack on sale – rice noodles, vegetables and meat simmering in a hot broth, glutinous rice balls – all were sold by heavily-accented locals unused to dealing with foreigners. It is here, amid the bustle of the food market, that I learn that the Sichuanese of Chengdu take time to enjoy life because here, in this misty, crowded and often ugly metropolis, life can be so thoroughly enjoyable. As I slurp my way through a toothsome bowl consisting of strips of meat resting in a mild sauce, a vinegary, savory dish first created by a husband and wife team on a Chengdu food cart and so good it now bears their names, I realize that this is why people never seem in a hurry to get anywhere in Sichuan’s capital. There’s simply nowhere more relaxing to be, if only you let it in. My eyes closed. I inhaled deeply. Then I resumed my hand-waving – I wasn’t about to leave without trying a bowl of spicy mapo tofu.

real chinese

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gǎo

E’gao Spoof

Beware when uploading photos to the Internet – China’s netizens might spoof them. Whether adding a comedying beard to a solemn portrait or parodying an entire movie. In China, Internet parodies are known “e’gao.” With “e” meaning “spiteful” and “gao” meaning “play,” e’gao aim to make people laugh by parodying someone or humorously altering a picture or video clip, a popular trend in the Chinese Internet community. The original e’gao is believed to be an

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online short A Murder Caused by a Steamed Bun, made by ordinary netizen Hu Ge who re-arranged clips from The Promise (2005), a famous flop of a fantasy epic by renowned director Chen Kaige, into a police thriller, adding his own comedy narration in the style of an official legal news broadcast. The short went viral, ironically receiving a far better reception than The Promise itself. Since then, China’s netizens have been going e’gao-crazy. For example, netizens photoshopped an image of a fat little boy

with a scornful expression into posters for popular movies like Titanic and Braveheart. However, the more popular memes are generally those satirizing social problems. E’gao culture is so widespread that some of the most popular ones have been made into products, such as paid ring-tones. Although critics have warned of the dangers of personal attacks or copyright infringements resulting from e’gao, supporters argue that ordinary Chinese people need an outlet for creativity. CHINA WEEKLY I March 2013

April 2013  
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