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Month: June, 2013

STINKY TOFU

15 June 2013

My postings are meant to be about things beautiful or pleasurable. But sometimes, to truly appreciate beauty or pleasure one has to experience the absolute opposite, just as to appreciate Good one has to experience Evil. And so my post today is about stinky tofu.

Any reader who has walked a street in Asia, as my wife and I did here in Beijing last night, where hawkers are selling stinky tofu

hawker selling stinky tofu

and been subjected to the particularly awful stench of this foodstuff

At_a_Stinky_Tofu_Stall

will understand immediately my choice of it as the extreme opposite of all that is beautiful and pleasurable.

For those of you who have never wandered unwittingly into a drift of stinky tofu odour, though, how can I describe its reek? A similarity to rotting garbage has been suggested by some.

rotting garbage-2

I can assure you, however, from the height of my one and only experience of working in a landfill, that landfilled garbage smells quite nice compared to stinky tofu; in its later stages the rotting process produces certain organic acids, which offset the smells of putrefaction.

Garbage to Gas

That being said, I will admit that freshly rotting garbage, especially when left standing on a city street on a hot summer day, can be quite dreadful. My poor wife suffered terribly from this in her third month of her first pregnancy as we walked to work in the mornings.

Others have suggested similarities to wet socks or smelly feet.

smelly-feet

It is certainly true that this is a smell which can be quite dreadful. I have one memory in particular of stinking feet which is etched into my brain for ever more. One Easter holiday, my English grandmother took me on a bus tour of Spain (I mentioned another tour she took me on, aboard a cruise ship, in an earlier post). One afternoon, in some town I now no longer remember, four of us were visiting a church. A local came up and offered to be our guide. Being too polite to refuse, we submitted.  There followed one of the most dreadful 20 minutes I have ever had to pass. The man spoke rather quietly so we had to lean in to understand. But on leaning in we encountered a powerful stink coming from his malodorous feet. If, to escape this, we leaned in still further, we encountered a powerful stench of garlic emanating from his mouth. And so we swayed unhappily back and forth between the Scylla of his feet and the Charybdis of his mouth for 20 long, long minutes.

Scylla-and-Charybdis

Awful …

Yet others have suggested strong resemblances to the smell of faecal matter. It is true that some of the public toilets I have been forced to use in China have had certain olfactory similarities to stinky tofu, although in defence of China’s public toilets, our experiences with them have generally been positive.

china-public toilets

And sometimes the stench from street drains here in China can be incredibly strong. There is one in particular in front of a Ministry which I often have to visit that has exceedingly powerful exhalations, and the drain opening is located precisely where I get out of the car to enter the building.  I rather fancy that the Ministry keeps it that way to chase off the swarm of petitioners who haunt every Ministry in Beijing, looking for the justice which they cannot get back in their home towns. And perhaps to chase me off too.

And then there is the smell of rotting meat, which can be particularly disagreeable. Luckily, I have never had the misfortune of stumbling across a decomposing corpse like my grandmothers’ cousins must have done in the trenches of the Western Front, although I do have a memory many years ago of coming across a dead and decomposing rabbit in a field. That was quite disagreeable enough, and unfortunately I am reminded of it every time I visit our local supermarket. I don’t know what the problem is with the building’s ventilation but the fact of the matter is that the meat and fish sections smell really rancid.

chinese supermarket-2

We never, ever buy meat or fish there. On a side-note, from my rare outings to other supermarkets here it seems to me that Chinese supermarkets generally have a problem with ventilation. At least, I hope it’s that and not the quality of the food.

Some commentators have suggested a similarity between some of the smellier cheeses and stinky tofu.

smelly cheese

Certain cheeses do indeed have awesomely powerful aromas, and I have mentioned some in previous posts, but none I have ever come across reach the levels of stinky tofu.

Indeed, in my opinion none of the smells I have so far reviewed, awful as they are, reach the heights of olfactory horror of stinky tofu. The incredible thing is, there are people who actually like to eat the stuff! Aficionados claim  that while the smell is pretty powerfully horrible the taste is sublime.

But I look at these people trying to eat it

eating stinky tofu-3

eating stinky tofu-4

and I know that this is a claim I will never, ever, EVER, test.

_________________________________

Hawker selling stinky tofu: http://www.wiredmash.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/shilin-7773.jpg

At a stinky tofu stall: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_dcySoOkPBTo/TFGvcdR0XXI/AAAAAAAAALE/c3nWQkiA8IY/s1600/At_a_Stinky_Tofu_Stall.jpeg

Rotting garbage: http://www.cbc.ca/gfx/images/news/photos/2009/07/30/w-toronto-strike-cp-7088271.jpg

Landfill garbage: http://cdn2-b.examiner.com/sites/default/files/styles/image_content_width/hash/ad/d4/add4a119570bcadddc356d36f902ffd2.jpg?itok=ZrYbfrYD

Smelly feet: http://www.personal.psu.edu/afr3/blogs/siowfa12/smelly-feet.jpg

Scylla and Charybdis: http://cghub.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=46899&d=1305261655

Public toilets: http://www.scmp.com/sites/default/files/styles/980w/public/2013/02/22/china-toilets_bej03_4751449.jpg?itok=ZVuaWtvO

Chinese supermarket: http://images.travelpod.com/tripwow/photos/ta-00a1-9098-55fc/walmart-smoked-meat-section-yueyang-china+1152_12839097171-tpfil02aw-10357.jpg

Smelly cheese: http://blu.stb.s-msn.com/i/9E/6C3E59DD72C77E4D299AA65F3C3A71.jpg

Eating stinky tofu-1: http://themightyafro.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/stinky-medium.jpg

Eating stinky tofu-2: http://aningredientaday.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/stinky.jpg

Eating stinky tofu-3: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_bvgGOKjWg6U/TFPYpiF-oPI/AAAAAAAACBo/F6guzJeZ8Xg/s1600/12+Stinky+Tofu5.JPG

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SICILY THE LOVELY, SICILY THE DAMNED

12 June 2013

Two weeks ago, when I walked into the apartment in the evening, back from a business trip, my wife announced triumphantly that she had discovered a treasure trove on Youtube, shows from a series on Italian TV that we never even knew existed: Commissario Montalbano.

Readers will be forgiven if they look blank at this announcement. I will allow that Montalbano is not (yet) a household name. Yet my wife’s announcement filled me with great excitement. The detective stories written by the Sicilian-born writer Andrea Camilleri about Salvo Montalbano, Inspector of police in some modest township in western Sicily, have gripped me ever since I stumbled across one of them some six years ago. I read them in the original, which I must say is not easy. Already reading in Italian is slightly more difficult for me than reading in English, and Camilleri writes in an Italian which has been heavily saturated with Sicilian dialect. The first time I ventured into one of Camilleri’s books I was reading like a child of 5 for the first ten pages or so until I got the hang of it and could stop asking my wife every ten seconds what this word or that word meant. It’s still tough going, but the dialect really helps to drop you into Sicily.

Well that evening, after dinner, we settled down on the couch, poured ourselves a glass of wine, opened Youtube, chose one of the shows, and started to watch. For me, there was an initial moment of discomfort; when you have read so many stories about the same characters you create an image of them in your mind’s eye, and I was finding it difficult to adjust to this being Commissario Montalbano:

Commissario-Montalbano

(too handsome!), this being his two main collaborators, Mimí and Fazio:

mimi-e-fazio

(too tall the first, too handsome the second), and this being the klutz of the office, Cattaré:

catarella

(too much of a clown)

(I also have a very distinct picture in my mind of Smiley, Le Carré’s master spy hero – the spitting image of my Latin teacher at school. But I digress)

Quickly, though, I was drawn into the stories and forgot to mentally tut-tut over the faces of the protagonists, and we have now eased into a nightly ritual of hauling out the computer after dinner, pouring ourselves a generous glass of wine, and watching a Montalbano.

I have always thought that this series of detective stories, inserted as they are so deeply into the Sicilian reality, would have little echo outside Italy. Imagine, then, our astonishment when a few days ago (this coincidence of dates must have some cosmic meaning …) my wife read out an article at breakfast from the Guardian newspaper commenting on the popularity of the Italian Montalbano TV series in the UK. The article also commented on the number of Brits doing Montalbano-themed visits to Sicily! I was gobsmacked. When we did a little bit of web surfing, we discovered that actually people from all over the world love Montalbano (much of this coming from comments left on Tripadvisor about Montalbano’s house, which some canny Sicilian has turned into a Bed and Breakfast).

Is it just that we all love a good yarn well told, and a good detective story has all the makings of a good yarn? Is it the Italianness of the character which attracts people? The relative exoticness of the locations? Something else?

As far as I’m concerned, my attachment to Montalbano goes far beyond the thrill of the detective story. It goes even beyond the characters, marvelous as they are. Through Salvo Montalbano, Camilleri depicts wonderfully well that spirit of contrariness which is very definitely part of the human landscape of southern Italy.  The TV show captures this trait of Montalbano’s nicely, as it does the subtle intelligence and cynical sense of humor – such Italian traits! – which Camilleri gives to his creation. And of course Camilleri injects wondrous descriptions of Sicilian food by making Montalbano a gourmet, something which we see a little of in the TV series by having Montalbano spend a fair amount of time sitting at restaurant tables (but we discovered a web-site which lovingly lists the recipes of all the dishes which Montalbano eats!). My only real disappointment with Montalbano’s TV character (apart from him not looking like I imagine he should) is that I haven’t yet seen Salvo Montalbano’s love of the written word (which is, of course, Camilleri’s). Camilleri has peppered the books with his hero’s musings on various works of literature. I love this about him since I also like to muse (muse to excess, my wife might add) on literature.

But what actually draws me most to these detective stories is the melancholy view of Sicily which permeates them. Sicily the beautiful, damned by the gods and abandoned to its fate. So much my feeling of the island! Camilleri shows it mostly by building in a constant, extensive, subliminal presence of the Mafia – truly like a cancer in the island’s body politic – and exposing the total corruption – moral more than monetary – of the island’s political class. I saw it instead through my work. Fate had it that I had to spend most of my time in Sicily in collapsing industrial zones, built in the 1950s and ’60s. These came into existence as part of a political discourse which claimed to be bringing modernity and wealth to the south of the country by implanting heavy industry there: oil refineries, petrochemicals, agro-chemicals, iron and steel, non-ferrous refining … you name it, there was one somewhere in the Mezzogiorno. It was a stupid idea right from the start. The south had neither the infrastructure nor the industrial culture to digest these huge industrial complexes dumped on them: “cathedrals in the desert”, the Italians aptly named them. This is a refinery in the south of Sicily, with Mt. Etna in the back:

raffineria gela

And the actual implementation of the government’s plans made it all so much worse. Corruption was rampant, with every level involved in planning and construction decisions taking its cut. Many companies only located in the south to take advantage of the government’s tax holidays; it made no economic sense for them otherwise. The moment the holidays were over they upped stakes and moved on, leaving the State to hold the baby. The Government couldn’t afford politically the loss of jobs, so many of these industries were nationalized, which made them even more inefficient and drew in even more corruption (and the Mafia). The Trade Unions fought to remove the only advantage the south had, cheaper labour than the north, by insisting on equal pay for equal work. And then came globalization, which was the kiss of death. It now made even less sense to have these kinds of industries in the south. So I was a small part of a larger strategy by the government to quietly sell off – often in fire sales – the miserable remnants of these industries. The Sicilians I spoke to were so angry, so bitter, so sad about the whole thing. Huge investments by the government, which would never come again, which could have raised the island out of its chronic poverty, but which had just been frittered away … Poor Sicily.

______________

Montalbano: http://www.blogtivvu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Commissario-Montalbano.jpg

Mimí and Fazio: http://static.televisionando.it/televisionando/fotogallery/625X0/66329/mimi-e-fazio-fidi-collaboratori-di-salvo-montalbano.jpg

Catarella: http://www.ilbrigante.it/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/angelo-russo_preview.jpg

Refinery in Gela: http://static.blogo.it/ecoblog/IverticidellaRaffineriadiGelaSpaindagatiperomissionedicautelecontrodisastri.jpg

GONE FISHING

8 June 2013

Readers of my posts will no doubt have noticed that I often refer to a piece of canal which runs close by our apartment and along which I walk every day as I go to and from the office. I like my piece of canal, especially during the summer when along the banks the weeping willows have leaved and the water irises stand tall, while the lotuses on the artificial island in the middle of the stream are unfurling.

irises May 2013 004

Closing my eyes a little and squinting a bit, I could almost imagine that I am on a placid river running through a quiet wooded landscape rather than in the middle of a highly urbanized setting. This view of the canal today, where to a great degree the fog blots out the buildings,  gives an idea of what I mean.

misty canal 002

Fishermen also like it. The moment the ice melts and the trees start flowering, they filter out of the surrounding urban jungle and start settling down along the banks.

fishermen 002

fishermen 003

They sport what look to my eyes like state-of-the-art fishing rods (no stick, string, and safety pin for them), nets to hold their haul, and various pieces of fishing tackle.

fishermen 013

And there they sit all summer and well into the autumn, staring out into the middle distance, waiting for a nibble on the end of their lines.

fishermen 010

fishermen 011

What are they thinking about, I always wonder, as I walk briskly by aiming to arrive in the office on time? Really, what do fishermen think about all day?  This has always been a mystery to me. And what are these particular fishermen catching, for Lord’s sake? The few times I’ve seen a fish on the end of their lines, they were small and malingering. I fervently hope they don’t take them home to the wife to cook.  I should clarify that as my pictures show the overwhelming majority of my fisherpersons are men. I got quite excited one morning when I spotted a woman, and I guess this other woman I saw a week or so ago thought it was better to be with her man than alone at home.

fishermen 009

I am no fisherman; I suppose that much is clear. In fact, I have only ever fished once in my life. I was 14 going 15, and I was on a canoe trip on Lake of the Woods.

lake of the woods

I remember the date very well; it was when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Me and my travel companion, Steve, must have been the only people in the whole of North America not sitting in front of a TV that day. After a hard morning’s paddling and looking over some Native American rock paintings,

rock paintings

Steve decided to give me a taste of the sport. He hauled out his fishing rod, set me up, and gave me a short lesson in its use. We then sat there for a while – not long, thank goodness – until I got a bite. My fish fought a bit, but after a while I hauled it in. It was a large pike, or so I have thought all these years. It certainly looked like one. But my internet surfing for this posting has convinced me that I caught a muskellunge (or muskie to the experienced fisherman – you see how quickly I catch on to the jargon …), which actually does belong to the pike family.  I suppose it was no more than a metre long but in my mind’s eye it has grown over the years to an enormous length. Steve took a photo, with me holding the muskie a trifle nervously but still sporting a smug smile on my face. Where is that photo? Sitting in a shoe box under a bed somewhere, perhaps, or now that both my parents are dead it is probably buried in a landfill in some foreign land. For all intents and purposes, gone. But here is a photo, which seems very similar to mine in my mind’s eye, except that we were sitting in a canoe while this gentleman is standing in a rather swank boat

Muskie on Lake of the Woods

Well, I suppose that will be the only time I ever sit behind a rod staring into the middle distance thinking about … what?

fishermen 008

___________________

Lake of the woods: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m5tjkqKB7h1r1ghhbo1_1280.jpg

rock painting: http://www.canoenorthwestontario.ca/sscimages/history/IMG_4260_1.jpg

Muskie: http://harrishillresort.com/files/images/49%20inch%20Muskie%20on%20Lake%20of%20the%20Woods.JPG

the rest: mine

SQUATTING AND CHAIRS

2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.

chair-shaker-2

We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:

chair-ming-1

The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.

_________________________

Squatting men: http://mattchalmighty.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/beijing-wangfujing-men-squatting-large.jpg

Squatting woman: http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/China/Beijing/BeijingWoman.jpg

Assyrian throne: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/images/essentials/kings/sh5-til-barsip-large.jpg

Abu Simbel: http://famouswonders.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/abu-simbel.jpg

King Tut throne: http://comeseeegypt.com/images/tutthrone.jpg

Qing Emperor Kangxi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/12/China,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg

Kowtowing before the emperor: http://www.mitchellteachers.org/WorldHistory/AncientChinaCurriculum/Images/legendaryemperors/ImperialRobesOfficialsPayingRespect_large.jpg

English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor: http://images.printsplace.co.uk/Content/Images/Products/92648/89219/Reception_of_the_Diplomatique_and_his_Suite_at_the_Court_of_Pekin__c_1793__1.jpg

Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne: http://filelibrary.myaasite.com/Content/26/26343/29921747.jpg

King Edward’s Chair: http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Visitors+Look+Coronation+Chair+Westminster+Wk0GK7SFdXnl.jpg

Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair: http://v020o.popscreen.com/eGhxd3hrMTI=_o_st-edwards-chair.jpg

Spaghetti chair with sled base: http://img.archiexpo.com/images_ae/photo-g/commercial-contemporary-sled-base-stacking-chair-50648-3267845.jpg

Shaker chair: http://www.jkrantiques.com/_images//ShakerCounterChairWeb.jpg

Danish harp chair: http://shard1.1stdibs.us.com//archives/upload/1stdibsA/071607_sb/arensojoldHD/19/xHudJuly07_398.jpg

Mondrian chair: http://www.dorotheum.com/fileadmin/user_upload/bilder/Presse/Gallery_of_Highlights/Rietveldstuhl.jpg

Mackintosh chair: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_ZjHHv_Nzls/UOP0yApjC4I/AAAAAAAAAI0/yTahn5EI7q0/s1600/1.Charles_Rennie_Mackintosh_Hillhouse_Chair_rfd.jpg

Ming chair: http://www.easterncurio.com/easten%20curio/Afurniture/ItemForOn-Selling/A1S152101.jpg