Sunday, November 18, 2007

21st- and 19th-Century Zhuhai

On Saturday, I tagged along again as one of C***o's coleagues took her to Zhuhai city to see the apartment buildings the college owns there. Apparently once you've worked at the college for a certain number of years, you can get a unit in the buildings; many faculty have both a residence on campus and one in the city (which explains how they can stand living in a region as desolate as the one surrounding the campus — they don't, at least not all the time).

The buildings are very modern — they went up within the last two years — and look essentially like the hundreds of others that are sprouting up around the city, especially on its outskirts. (These are in a similarly undeveloped part of town; other than dozens of other apartment buildings of similar vintage, the nearby area is largely barren, with hardly any retail stores or much of anything else)

We got a tour of the interior of one of the units, which are somewhat larger than the standard Chinese apartment, but with the same ubitquitous white walls and white vinyl tile on the floors. The landscaping is nicer-than-average as well, and there's even underground parking. President Wong lives in the building across from the one we visited.

Other new construction going up nearby dwarfs the older dwellings that probably aren't long for this world.

We then joined about a half-dozen other people, some of whom I think lived in the complex, for a tour of nearby attractions. As usual, no introductions were made (or, more precisely, half-introductions were made: C***o told the newcomers, in Mandarin, who I was, but never said anything to me about them), but I learned later that the three men all worked for Zhuhai's propaganda office, which meant that they promoted tourism to the city (I told C***o that the proper English word was "marketing" — "propaganda" connoted political objectives — but she insisted that was their actual title.

Our first stop was the stone archways located at the site of a village called Meixi, built by the emperor in the late 1800s to honor Chen Fang, the first Chinese consul to Hawaii. There were originally three archways, but one was destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

The grounds also include the residences Chen built for himself and his sons in the 1890s after he returned from Hawaii, where he'd started several businesses, served in the legislature, and married a princess.

The outdoor dancing room in Chen's residence combines Romanesque arches with Chinese ornamentation.

One of the buildings contained a wax museum depicting notables who hailed from Zhuhai. All eras were covered, from these early nobles to Communist Party leaders to China's first world table tennis champion.

More interesting was a small museum featuring a collection of 65 plaques from Chinese businesses and homes. The exhibit combined calligraphy and culture, although it obviously would have been more meaningful if I could have recognized what the plaques said.

Next on the itinerary was the nearby Agricultural Research Center, also known as the Agronomic Wonders Land (or, as the sign says, "Agricultural Paradise"). Unfortunately, we arrived there at dusk, too late to do anything other than take a quick look at a few of the many greenhouses on the grounds.

By then it was dinnertime, so we drove to a nearby restaurant. Our private dining room (where the waitress is icing a bottle of red wine — but it's Chinese wine, so that can only help) included the standard television set for post-dining karaoke . . .

. . . but also a ping pong table, an accoutrement I'd not seen before.

The dinner was another consistently scrumptious banquet, with one knockout dish followed by another, and then another — it’s kinda scary how blasé I've gotten about the meals here, and I know I'll look back at that placid acceptance in disbelief when I'm back home in a few weeks. I'll constrain myself and only post a few shots of dishes I hadn't had before:

These savory little pigeons weren't an alternative to duck . . .

. . . because that came later, albeit in a casserole rather than roast.

These pancakes were eggier than typical.

Okay, these clams aren't new — but don't they look great?

Near the end came these pan-fried items made of a Japanese-like glutenous rice flour, but with some sort of cruncy vegitable that varied the texture interestingly.

The meal was obviously wonderful, but what made the evening stand out was the liveliness of the group, spearheaded by the three propaganda officials. The one in the middle is apparently their boss, judging from the way they deferred to him. The guy on the right had a rollicking sense of humor that I enjoyed even if I couldn't understand his jokes.

The rest of us (including, here, C***o, R****i, C***o's colleague, and the younger propagandist's wife) largely sat back and participated in the many toasts. As often happens when I'm a guest at one of these banquets, the men all wanted to share one-on-one toasts with me, so I drunk more than my share that night; once again, I impressed them with my capacity, and they loudly voiced their approval every tim I drained my glass. And I learned a new flourish from the jovial pudgy fellow: At the end of each gambei, I'd invert my glass to accentuate its emptiness.

I don't think I've mentioned that at these banquets there's always a waitress standing by — and often two — to refill glasses, replace dirty plates, and attend to any other needs. It's a level of service that's obviously lacking in the States, and I especailly miss it at Chinese restaurants there — it's just not the same when you have to pour your own tea.

The head propagandist turned out to be a remarkably talented singer, who entertained us with everything from traditional Chinese songs to Italian arias. He was so good that the rest of us were too intimidated for karaoke (which to me was just an added benefit of his performance).

Considering the vast quantities of pijiu I'd ingested (as well as just a bit of liquor), I was in pretty fair shape when I arrived home. But just the same, I was glad that I didn't have class — or much of anything else I had to do — the next day.

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