Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Guangdong - The Final Word

It's time to say joigin to Guangdong - it's been a really interesting learning experience - slightly longer than usual, because of the Christmas vacation!

A summary of the themes

During the two months that I've been blogging about Guangdong, I've tried to get my head around the sheer size of Guangdong's population and that of China in general. I also grappled with some comparative linguistics, in an attempt to understand how close (or not) Cantonese is to Mandarin.  I did some research into Guangdong's toy industry as I learned how to make Stir-fry Beef with Oyster Sauce.  

Tools for research

I read three books during my research about Guangdong:

Research on Guangdong, China
China: Culture Shock! by Angela Eagan and Rebecca Weiner (2007) which gave me a good overview of Chinese culture.

Modern China: A very short introduction by Rana Mitter (2008) - part of my favourite series of books by Oxford University Press.

I also read Fan Wu's beautiful novel, February Flowers (2006) set in Guangzhou. 

The movies I watched as part of my research included:

Happy Together (1997), dir. Wong Kar-Wai and starring Leslie Cheung (the famous Cantopop star) and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, about a gay male couple who are trying to get by in Argentina. 

Jet Li in Once Upon a time in China
Once Upon a Time in China (1991), dir. Tsui Hark and starring Jet Li.  I never imagined I would enjoy a martial arts movie, but this movie was both funny and interesting to watch.

And I absolutely loved Ip Man (2008), dir. Wilson Yip and starring the rather gorgeous Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen. The martial arts scenes in the movie were beautifully shot and the story was incredibly moving, being mostly based on the famous master of wing chun, Yip Man (who also trained Bruce Lee)

Other Themes

If I had time to continue blogging about Guangdong, I would be interested in the pursuing the following themes:

Chinese Protestants
The Taiping rebellion
The demise of China's nationalist party, the Kuomintang
The growing African population of Guangzhou
Ching Shih and female pirates
The Dynasties of China
Wedding photography
Chinese football
Chinese surnames
The Canton Fair - China's biggest trade fair
The exotic animals of Qingping Shichang
China in the Olympics
Kwang-Chou-Wan (Guangzhouwan), the 'French Hong Kong'

Dinner Party Trivia

As usual I learned some trivia about Guangdong which, I'm sure, will come in handy for dinner party small talk:

- Guangdong's economy is equivalent to the economies of Indonesia or Turkey
- Guangzhou is known as 'the flower city'
- Overseas Chinese are called Huaqiao 华侨
- There is a 7th century mosque in Guangzhou - Arab traders settled in Guangdong 1,000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene
- Chinese law stipulates that all citizens must be cremated after death - however, exceptions are made for ethnic minorities, eg. Tibetans.
- Although only 1% of China's population is Christian, that still amounts to approximately 1.4 million people
- In 2012, Ireland helped China establish its first national equestrian facility

In the News

I've also been keeping an eye on news stories related to China over the past two months and there's been quite a lot going on, including:

- Protests in Vietnam over the Chinese Navy's activity around the disputed Spratly Islands, which both countries claim as part of their sovereign territory
- The 75th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre
- A knife-wielding madmen who stabbed children in Henan province - although this happened around the same time as the terrible shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, I wouldn't have been aware of the stabbings in China, if I hadn't been following Chinese news
- A craze amongst China's nouveau-riche for European-style butlers
- Panic-buying of baby milk in Australia, as Chinese visitors stock up on the Australian brands, not trusting baby milk produced in their own country
- Demonstrations in Guangzhou about press freedom
- A landslide in Yunnan province
- Coastal China's lowest temperatures in 28 years
- Chinese workers kidnapped in Sudan's Darfur region
- Another year of slow growth in China's economy - 2012 saw the lowest level of growth in 13 years

The Final Word on Liberty

I was really interested to read about Isaiah Berlin's 'two concepts of liberty' in Rana Mitter's Modern China: A very short introduction.  According to Mitter, China scores very low in 'positive liberty', which would include things like press freedom, the right to demonstrate and form political parties opposed to the governing party.  However, arguably, when it comes to 'negative liberty', ie. the right to be left alone, China might score a bit higher, in the sense that the state in 21st century China doesn't tend to interfere in the personal choices of its citizens (marriage, fashion, access to music etc) in the same way as in, for example, Saudi Arabia.  I thought this was an interesting theory and it reminded me a lot of how the state operates in Russia - I guess there are many similarities.  Whilst I think Mitter might be on to something, I can't help thinking that China's one-child policy and state control of the Internet constitute restrictions on its citizens' negative liberty. 

A Cantopop Swansong

And, of course, I've been listening to lots of Cantopop.  I listened to Hong Kong stars like Sammi Cheng and Leslie Cheung.  Leslie was a great artist in many ways, an actor, as well as a singer, he did a lot to challenge Chinese preconceptions on sexuality, starring in ground-breaking movies like Farewell my Concubine (1993).  He suffered terribly from depression and tragically killed himself on April Fool's day in 2003, by jumping out of the window on the 24th floor of Hong Kong's Mandarin hotel.

But I'm going to leave you with a Youtube video by one of the most famous Cantopop singers of all, Roman Tam, whose music I've grown quite fond of.  Unfortunately, I can't find my favourite Roman Tam song, World of Love on Youtube, so I'm posting another really beautiful song, so you can get an idea of what his music sounds like.

Image credits:

The photo of the books was taken by me.   

The image of the still from the movie, Once Upon a Time in China is from a photo taken by me. This image is being used to illustrate this blogpost and promote Tsui Hark's film. By publishing this image, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of this image on the Internet or anywhere else. This image is not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blogpost, but is meant to highlight the performances of these actors in this movie.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Guangdong - Girl Love in Guangzhou

I struggled to find a modern novel set in Guangdong.  As with Cantonese music and film, a lot of the best known works come from Hong Kong, rather than mainland China.  However, my research finally paid off and I came across a really interesting novel called February Flowers by Fan Wu.  Although she grew up in southern China, Fan Wu emigrated to the US, where she now works for Google, as well as being a writer!

A 'Who's who?' of Chinese literature

It's a real book-readers' book.  The main character, Ming Chen, is a serious student with a passion for literature and the novel contains a 'who's who?' of inspirational Chinese literature.  Ming and the other characters in the novel read Chinese classics such as, Dream of the Red Chamber and Laozi's, Tao Te Ching, but they also read modern Chinese writers, such as, Ba Jin, Lu Xun, Qian Zhongshu and Shen Congwen.  

At the beginning of the book, Ming is concerned with cleaning dust off the furniture and bookshelves, in her student dormitory.  Thoughts of 'being left on the shelf' come to mind, as Ming shows no interest in boys, or the world outside her precious books.  

Women in Love

Chrysanthemum by Juliana Coutinho
Ming's life is turned upside down when she meets an older female student, Miao Yan, who is wild and sensual, the complete opposite to Ming.  Throughout the novel, Miao is seen by Ming as a 'woman', whereas Ming is only seventeen and still a girl.  Ming falls in love with Miao or, at least, the idea of Miao and the allure of becoming a woman.  The novel is very much a coming-of-age story, set in Guangzhou during the 1990's, at a time when the city was experiencing an economic boom.   There's quite a beautiful paragraph in the book, when Ming describes the moment she first 'fell in love' with Miao.

'It was the early morning of a hot spring day.  The reddish morning light poured in through the half-opened door and there she was, whirling against it.  She looked so angelic, so delicate, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  I sat on the edge of my bed and watched her, my heart jumping, speechless.'

Extract from February Flowers by Fan Wu.  

Unnatural nature

Wu uses the imagery of flowers blooming in the concrete jungle, to represent Ming's coming-of-age.  The book opens with references to chrysanthemum and hibiscus, both very symbolic and sensual flowers.  Miao wears a flowery blouse that epitomises her 'womanliness'.  People in Guangdong hang flower-boxes outside their apartment windows, in an attempt to beautify an otherwise urban landscape.  Guangzhou itself is described as a forest of half-built commercial high-rises - a very unnatural version of nature!

North and South

Hibiscus by Marufish
It was interesting to see Guangdong through the eyes of characters from other parts of China.  There are very few Cantonese characters in the novel - those that are there, like Ming's room-mate Yishu, keep their distance from the non-Cantonese students.   For the other Chinese students, Guangdong is seen as a better place to live than northern or western China.  The standard of living is higher in Guangdong than in the provinces that the other students come from and many of the characters are desperate to find a job in Guangzhou or Shenzhen.  Some of students try to find Cantonese partners, so they can marry and not return to their home provinces.

The Mandarin/Cantonese divide is a strange one.  On one hand, Mandarin culture is the dominant one - the culture of the capital Beijing and the political establishment.  Whilst they look down their noses at the Cantonese and grumble about Cantonese people refusing to learn Mandarin, there is also a desire to stay in Guangdong and learn Cantonese, so they can find a long-term job in the province.  I get the impression that the Cantonese pretty much steer clear of mainstream China - doing their own thing, oblivious to what happens in Shanghai or Beijing.  The North might hold political power, but it's in the South that the real money can be made.

The lure of the Other

Tropical flower by Marufish
The book has also got a lot to say about race and, in typical Chinese fashion, people like Miao, who is from an ethnic minority, are represented as 'the exotic other'.  I explored this theme when I blogged about the 'fragrant concubine' of Xinjiang/Uyghuristan, so it's really interesting to see a similar depiction of an exotic other in Wu's novel.  Miao comes from the Miao (also known as Hmong) people of China's faraway provinces, such as Guizhou and Yunnan.  Whilst Ming is fascinated by her ethnicity, Miao seems embarrassed by it and, it's only towards the end of the novel, when Miao opens up and talks about her culture. 

Trying to understand Cantonese culture in such a short space of time has been a difficult task but, more than anything, I think Fan Wu's novel has brought me closer to an understanding of what life is like for people in Guangdong than anything else that I have read about China.  I'd definitely recommend it and I look forward to reading more Chinese literature for future blog posts. 

Image credits:

The image of the chrysanthemum was taken by flickr member, Juliana Coutinho who is from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  You can see more of Juliana's work on her website.  Also, if you read Portuguese, there is a nice description of chrysanthemum on this photo's page

The photos of the hibiscus and the tropical flower are from flickr member, Marufish who is from Alor Setar in Malaysia.  You can see more of Marufish's photos on their photo stream

Thanks to Juliana and Marufish for sharing these wonderful images with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Guangdong - Stir-fry Beef with Oyster Sauce

I've only been to mainland China once (in Beijing and the North) and one of the things that surprised me most about my trip was the quality of the food!  I guess, like most Westerners, I thought that I already knew Chinese food, thanks to the myriad of Chinese restaurants I've frequented in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere.  I realise now that when we (in the West) think of Chinese food, we're mostly talking about Cantonese-style Chinese food.  A large part of the Chinese diaspora overseas came from Guangdong and brought their cooking traditions with them.

The Four Great Traditions

Whilst 'Western' Chinese cuisine is a fast food - often not very healthy - my experience in China was completely different.  Cooking is something akin to an art form in China and the Chinese expect food which is tasty, fresh and beautifully presented.  It's hardly surprising, in such a big country, that there are many different regional cuisines - the exact number is a subject of debate - but, during my research, I've come across the phrase the Four Great Traditions, time and again and I feel that this is a good starting point to understanding Chinese cuisine. 

Cantonese cuisine is, of course, the most familiar Chinese cuisine outside China.  In the hotter climate of southern China, where ingredients can spoil easily, the Cantonese tradition involves a lot of wok frying at high temperatures.  Cantonese cuisine is also characterised by small bite-sized portions of vegetables, seafood or meat, generally known as dim sum.  An ancient Chinese idiom asserts that 'In Beijing, people talk, in Shanghai, people shop but in Guangzhou, people eat!'

A Northern feast
The other three main traditions are, Sichuan (or Szechuan) - which is spicier than other Chinese cuisines and becoming increasingly popular, both outside China and in the big cities of China's eastern seaboard.  Cuisine from the Yangtze delta, around Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai is known as Huaiyang and is often seen as the most prestigious of China's four great traditions.  It seems to involve a lot of seafood and steamed dumplings!  The fourth great tradition is the one I experienced, Northern cuisine.  It might surprise many to know that this tradition isn't focused on rice, but much more so on 'bready' products like noodles - closer to Mongolian cuisine and more suitable for a colder climate.

In my very first blog post on Learning about the World, I mentioned Sweet and Sour Pork which I made as part of my research on Hong Kong.  I've also cooked a Mongolian dish called Tsuivan which included making my own noodles!

Choosing a Cantonese dish

Oyster sauce mixed with sugar and water
I was spoilt for choice when it came to Cantonese dishes.  In the end, I plumped for something very straightforward and typical, Stir-fry Beef with Oyster Sauce.  The Chinese seem to love pork and chicken, so I thought it would be nice to do something with beef instead.  Also, I'd never cooked with Oyster sauce before and I was keen to get my hands on a bottle of this curious condensed mixture! 

Like many great ingredients and recipes, Oyster sauce was the result of a culinary accident.  It's probably a good idea if I explain to casual readers, at this point, that I'm no great cook and this blog post is not meant to provide a definitive guide to making this dish but is, rather, a record of my attempts to learn about the cuisine of Guangdong!  I looked at various different recipes before I made this dish, but I was mostly influenced by a recipe on About.com

The ingredients

Stir-fry Beef with Oyster sauce, the ingredients
500g Beef frying steak (cut into thin slices)
A small piece of fresh ginger
Some mushrooms
One small carrot
Oyster sauce
Soft brown sugar
Vegetable oil
Half a cup of water

For the marinade

Dark Soy sauce
Chinese rice wine
Corn flour
Vegetable oil

I haven't put exact quantities on this recipe, as I think it's matter of personal taste - less is more is often a good rule when it comes to strong ingredients, of the type found in Chinese cooking.

How I made Stir-Fry Beef with Oyster sauce

I started by slicing the beef into thin strips about 2 centimetres in length (enough for a forkful).  I mixed together the ingredients of the marinade, in the order given above and popped this in the fridge for twenty minutes or so.

Slices of beef for the stir-fry

With a marinade of rice wine, dark soy sauce, vegetable oil and corn flour

Meanwhile I prepared the ginger, mushrooms and carrot - cutting each of them into equally thin slices.  I also prepared the Oyster sauce by adding soft brown sugar and water (probably a little bit too much water). 

Prepare the ginger, carrot and mushrooms

Once the beef had marinated, I heated up oil in the wok and stir-fried the pieces of ginger, before adding the beef slices and stir-frying these until they had turned a soft brown colour. 

Cantonese cooking involves wok frying at high temperatures
Stir-fry the beef until it browns

Once the beef had fried through, I removed it, wiped down the wok and started again, with fresh vegetable oil.  I started by stir-frying the pieces of carrot, before adding the mushrooms.  Once the carrots and mushrooms had cooked a bit, I added the Oyster sauce mixture and covered the wok to bring everything to the boil.

Stir-fry the pieces of carrot
Add the mushroom
Add the Oyster sauce mixture and bring to the boil
As soon as the mixture reaching boiling point, I added the cooked beef and ginger pieces and let them heat through. 

Add the cooked slices of beef and ginger and heat through

Finally, I served the stir-fried mixture with rice - a very simple, but tasty recipe that I would recommend to anyone who wants to cook an authentic Cantonese dish. 

Stir-fry Beef with Oyster sauce - served with rice

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me, please feel free to reuse, under the Creative Commons license:

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