Hi there!Mark Whitworth I am Mark Whitworth -
writer, educator, traveller
and all round good guy.
Welcome to my website.

October 2009

mark The Return of Suzhou’s Prodigal Sun – Part 12

An old picture to kick off with, but I think the point will become clear a little latter in the piece. This is the Colonel and me in Ho Chi Minh City some four years ago and, as much of this diary is dedicated to food and shopping, I felt its use appropriate thematically, if not geographically and chronologically! It also reminded me of that Billy Bragg line, slightly amended, “Me and the colonel out on a spree, damned from here...to eternity!”

I didn't know how topical an issue the Colonel was in the UK until six hours after posting this article! You can find the link on the last page!

Rest assured the rest of this journal doesn’t carry on in the same vein!

As October squeezes its way off the calendar the weather remains uncompromisingly pleasant and the forecast for the next week is excellent! The only criticism that could be made of Suzhou’s atmosphere at the moment is that four days out of every seven there is a massive amount of dust in the air. When it clears it’s been beautiful but the air is generally thick with visibility down to less than a kilometre. When windows are left open, which they always are, a layer of dust carpets rooms in hours, and it’s pretty unpleasant to breathe. Most people are complaining of coughs and yesterday morning I got up at 05.30hrs to keep from waking Andrea with just such a problem.

It’s not clear whether the dust clouds are the result of factory output, construction, blasting or, a semi-natural phenomenon; light sand particles swept off the north-western deserts. It is, of course, possible that the present conditions are a result of all four combined, what would be nice is if it would all blow away!

markThere is a drought in Jiangsu at the moment and they’ve stopped raising the level of the Three Gorges Dam temporarily. It had been due to reach its absolute maximum this autumn but they’ve held off because of the water shortage problem. If you’ve read the Economic Wave, and believe me you should, then you’ll know that water supplies are going to become a major issue in China; is this the start?

Last Saturday we visited the first Walmart to have opened in Suzhou. We had saved up for the experience and eagerly anticipated our visit to the world’s largest retailer. Whilst we didn’t expect a fully American store, we did expect something a little better than what we found. Quite simply it was the worst supermarket I’ve ever been in, they seemed to have taken the worst aspects of state-side shops and combined them with the worst aspects of Chinese outlets; the only thing you could say in its favour was that it was relatively clean.

Obviously we are in China and therefore it’s normal for foreign retailers to stock typical Chinese product lines, but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, have I seen frozen blocks consisting of only packed ice and twelve duck’s heads. The bull’s penises would probably have shocked most U.S. Walmart customers and the tanks of nearly fresh fish would have surprised; however what was difficult to come to terms with was that there was so little in there that anyone would wish to buy. The customers, or lack of them, have voted with their feet; on a Saturday afternoon, normally the busiest time for a Chinese retail outlet, the place was empty. We’ll not be going back.

An English-style fish and chip shop has opened in Suzhou recently. We’ve not yet visited but it is being promoted on the ex-pat websites. Described as a “Buddha-send” by the over-enthusiastic writer, the place is co-owned by a Singaporean and someone who was brought up in Yorkshire, where her parents ran a similar outlet. I’m wondering if they’ll do mushy peas and English curry sauce as accompaniments! As always, the three questions concerning fish and chip chops are; what sort of fish are they using? Will there be more batter than fish? Do they wrap them in newspaper?

Continuing on the food theme, something I meant to mention in the last journal was the description of a local restaurant on the official Suzhou website. The heading was “A Characteristic Restaurant”. See if you can guess the brand name:

“There is no fault to find with either the dining environment and the sincere and friendly service, or the incessantly renewed delicacies. If you want to have a try of the most fashionable new way of having Hamburger, you might order a "Mexican chicken meat roll", by selecting a soft and palatable Mexican pancake, fresh and dainty chicken-leg meat and lettuce, and mating them with delicious shasha paste and black-pepper mayonnaise, you'll feel a unique flavour (sic), fresh and tasty. There is also "strongly puffed chicken meat", packed in portable small cardboard box, which is crisp, fragrant and a little chilli(sic) to eat, with strong puffing taste lingering in one's mouth.”

Yep, you’ve got it! It’s the instantly recognizable KFC! Now you understand the title picture...eh!

The same author lauds a local teahouse with the following:

“Just next door to Suzhou Conference Center, its advantage lays in its unconventional decoration, with its ancient furniture, old embroidery pieces, past generations' water and tea sets as well as silver ornaments succeeding in giving full expression of the tea culture south of the Yangtze River. And its unique practice of guests being allowed to have their full in taking the self-service tea refreshments at a base price is something advocated earlier than any other such stores.”

Such gobble-de-gook has obviously been run through a translation dictionary and remained decidedly unchecked by an English speaker. I think I’ll offer my services and see what the response is.

Philip visited last weekend, after leaving Suzhou for Tianjin in August. It made me realise just how much I miss him, which brought me round to thinking about others I was missing. Obviously, in the international education business you expect people to move on; this is a fact of life. I do my best to keep in touch with as many people as I can, but obviously some fall away and are replaced, others are in touch occasionally and some very regularly. This year I’ve landed myself with a double whammy, in that I’m not seeing the people I worked with last year who have stayed in Suzhou! The result of this is that life is not at its most scintillating at the moment; I’m getting down about my failure to sell any written work and feel rather isolated as well.

I just need a break with the writing and perhaps need to focus on one topic area and stick to it. The obvious one is travel writing but the field is so packed with aspiring pen-pushers that it’s a daunting prospect. I’d far rather focus on different slants on news items and feel if I could get one step ahead in the information gathering stakes I’d be on to something; how to do so is a different matter. The story, Lost Friend, is an attempt at something completely different; I’m dipping my toes into water murkier than a Suzhou canal! I do have a travel piece up my sleeve, based on a whole China do-it-on–the-cheap tour and that’s probably got legs, as they say; I need a few clear days to put it together.

The one minor breakthrough has been that e-chinacities have asked if I’d write some online material for them. This will probably consist of a weekly blog type article on a current event and regular travel tips articles on Suzhou. The rewards are pretty small but it will present an opportunity to produce some regular work and perhaps spin off the information into other articles. I’m waiting for my first briefs.