Yellow Earth

From 15-18 September, the CUHK History and Anthropology AOE and Shaanxi Normal University arranged a field seminar in and around Xi’an.

The itinerary was arranged by Micah Muscolino at Oxford, and took us to about 8 villages in Baishui 白水县 and Chengcheng 澄城县 Counties, along with a large scale water reclamation project, and two gorgeous temples.


Most of what we were doing was to see the long history of terracing, which is a way of keeping the water in the soil, and keeping the soil in one spot. This is especially important in the “Yellow Earth” region of central China, where the soil is notoriously soft and wispy. Besides the terraces, the most notable feature of the landscape is deep gullies, which are created from water erosion. Even with plant cover, the ground just doesn’t want to stay still.

On the other hand, because the soil is so soft, it is really easy to work. People compress it into walls between fields to stop the wind, and famously dig houses (窑洞) into the hillsides. Mao and the Yan’an communists lived in these during the 1930s and 40s, and people think of it as a hardship. Surely it was, but the houses themselves are very comfortable – since the walls are two meters thick, the cave houses stay cool in summer and warm in winter.

Lyme disease

Here is a picture of our awesome outing to the springs and oboo in Weinahe. Looks nice  doesn’t it?


Other than the fact that we finally have some good photos for our album of 90s college rock, do you by chance notice anything about these pictures? Anything that perhaps separates one of us from the others?  That’s right, one of us is wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Compare me to Marlboro Man Jan Kiely, who did take seriously the repeated and explicit advice to cover up.

And of course, as soon as we got back to the hotel, people started talking about ticks. I found three, including one that had already made its way to real estate that I can’t mention in a family blog. And yes, his head was already detached and lodged in my skin. Think about that for a moment. I sure have.

By the time I got to Harbin a few days later, I was already feeling achy, but figured that was just the stress of travel. By the time I got to Kyoto a few days after that, I was feeling achy, sweaty and dopey, plus the big one – rashy. So I went and got a blood test. Yep, it was blood alright, and moreover blood that swimming with critters that they said was maybe Lyme disease, or maybe something similar, but in any case something that they felt comfortable carpet bombing with antibiotics.

Unfortunately, the antibiotics (no doubt combined with with the stress of months of travel, and the Lyme disease itself) completely knocked me out — literally — I ended up passing out and waking up in a hospital– not once, but twice. That’s a record.

Lesson to be learned? Don’t get Lyme disease. That is also the lesson I learned with dengue, scarlet fever, salmonella and probably some others. I think the real lesson may be just stay the hell home, but “home” being Canberra (for the moment), I probably won’t be taking it much to heart.



Back in Harbin – it’s been just about a year since I was here last. Just like last time, I can’t decide if I like Harbin or not. The city certainly has charm, especially in summer, when the streets are lined with green, leafy poplars, and everyone gets to go outside for some badly needed sunshine.

On the other hand, there’s no mistaking that Harbin is rough. I recently read a great book, which used Japanese police records to paint a picture of daily life in the city during the 1920s. The book was beautifully written and brings up vivid images like how poor male workers who found themselves dying in one of the city’s flophouses would be robbed of their clothes and dumped in the snow to die outside. Harbin feels like the kind of place where that could have happened not that long ago.

It’s also more “old school” than most cities in China. Even the architecture mixes beautiful art deco with a Stalinist aesthetic that in most places has been built over. Let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised to be refused entry into the archives (though I was surprised at how nice they were about it).


But like it or not, the fact is that Harbin is exciting, and probably always has been. While finding pictures for my new book, I came across a great collection of Japanese postcards of Harbin, probably from around 1930. (There are more of these in the wonderful East Asian Image collection at Lafayette College)  I think I actually recognize some of the buildings.

The pictures below are from the pedestrian street near my hotel, and also from the two cathedrals. The brown one is the Orthodox Sophia Cathedral just across the street, the brick one was originally Orthodox, but was converted to a Catholic church after the Cultural Revolution.

Food in Hong Kong (aka, no love for Jade Panda Garden)

A lot of people tell me they don’t like Hong Kong. At first, neither did I. The first time I came here in the mid-90s, I had just spent couple of really nice weeks in pre-casino Macao. The comparison was pretty stark: where Macao was nice and quiet, full of piazzas and egg tarts, Hong Kong seemed noisy, polluted and distinctly lacking in chouriço.

Of course, the problem was that I only stayed a few days, and spent those days in the wrong places. For most of this semester at CUHK, I lived in Taipo 大埔墟, which is not only much less crowded, it’s also a real place with real history. The way it was explained to me was that Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British because the land itself was not valuable. It’s the peninsula, especially further up towards what is now Shenzhen that had the good land and the thriving villages. Unimaginable though it may be if you are sitting in a Starbucks in Mongkok, Hong Kong is still mostly rural, and many of the villages are centuries old. My friend and colleague He Xi took me on a tour of some of these villages in Fanling, and yes, they go back to the Ming dynasty.

Taipo itself isn’t much to look at, but it has real charm. Since my apartment consisted of a little doggie bed and not much else, I spent most of my time outside. I got to know the fruit sellers and the restaurants, and spent a lot of time in the community gym, which was full of retired guys who just hung around and pumped iron on fairly decrepit equipment. These guys were serious — 40 pull ups in a row serious. Some just wanted to work out, others wanted to chat. Later we would see each other in the street and say hi. It was awesome.

Now where this is all going is food. My colleague Igor memorably described mall food in Hong Kong as “tragic.” The stuff in real restaurants is infinitely better – not more authentic or any of that nonsense, it’s just better, as in properly prepared. One of my favorites is the Chaozhou dish of stewed beef brisket. It’s stewed, then steamed, so it has the layers of fat, but it is not greasy. Then its is cut against the grain and served with rice or rice noodles. My favorite place for this is just outside the Taiwo MTR station.

This morning I went back to my favorite dim sum place, which is a wet market in a big tent outside the MTR at Shatin wai. Again, there’s a specific charm, especially if you are there alone. I sat down with some old folks (who no doubt spent the whole morning and much of the afternoon in that same spot) and had some really good shao mai, har gao, and cuttlefish rice porridge. My new friends didn’t speak Mandarin, and I don’t speak Cantonese, but conversation flowed, mostly them insisting that I have some tea, or else I wouldn’t be able to digest my food properly. It was just so – nice. The kind of thing that fills your belly and puts a smile on your face for the rest of the day.




Dried beef noodles

It’s been a great week. One of those that’s so action packed that it feels more like a month.

Over the past few days, I met with my friends in the local university (呼伦贝尔学院), and squeezed in a good schedule of interviews with local residents in their 70s and 80s. This lineup included a couple of former cadres, and a wonderful local historian, who was introduced by the father of one of my office mates in CUHK.

In between, I did a lot of wandering around Hailaer, not that I didn’t already know the city pretty well, but it’s definitely a different world when it’s frozen over like this. The roads are pretty, but even with teams clearing the ice (by hand!) every surface is completely frictionless.

Of course the best part of walking around is those unexpected, 可遇不可求 moments, like today, when I went looking for one restaurant, then couldn’t find it, then got lost, then decided, screw it, I’m going home, but then remembered I was still pretty lost, and by the way that it’s also really cold (see previous entry). All that time, I didn’t think I was all that hungry, or at least there was nothing I really craved for lunch. Then it hit me, I really want dried beef noodles. I had these noodles last summer in Baerhu zuoqi, and they were damn tasty, and I had realized that dried beef noodles were only thing in the world I wanted now.

But you don’t see dried beef noodles just everywhere – in fact, I hadn’t seen them anywhere in Hailaer. I was actually thinking of going to a store and buying some dried beef to drop into a regular bowl of noodles.

And then I looked up and saw the sign — dried beef noodles. Into the shop I went, and once my brain and glasses had unfogged, I saw that everyone in the restaurant was sitting around one table that was covered in beer bottles. Clearly the owner and friends were having a belated new year get together, so I felt kind of guilty interrupting their fun. But it turned out that they were the friendliest people in the world. They would not let me leave, so I had some noodles (tasty!) and some beer (also tasty!), and we talked about this and that. I told them that I was in town to do research on local history, and that I still need to interview some old people from Baerhu zuoqi (where Ganjuur Temple is). And wouldn’t you know it – that’s exactly where they are from. So they will get everything set up tomorrow, and I will go the day after.


And that’s why doing fieldwork is the greatest job in the world.




“Harbin isn’t that cold”

Last summer I visited Hailaer 海拉尔 to scout out a project on the development of the northern corridor along the Russian border. The trip was useful, and Hailaer was charming–a quiet yet visibly wealthy city that people call the “pearl of the grasslands.” (Note: everything in China is the “pearl” of something.)

I knew that I would want to come back to conduct some proper research and interviews, and figured that non-summer would be a good time to do it, since the growing season is very short and very busy. When you have 18 hours of daylight, you tend to want to use all of them, and not waste time talking to a pesky historian.



So back I am, and despite having grown up in snow country myself, have to say that Hailaer is cold. Damn cold. Today was 30 degrees below zero. Yesterday I was chatting to a team of old men and women who were clearing ice from the streets, and said that this might even be colder than Haerbin 哈尔滨, a city that annually builds six story buildings out of ice, and then lets people walk around in them. They just laughed and said “peh, Haerbin isn’t that cold.”  Pretty impressive.

The difference between here and Hong Kong, where I am staying this semester, and which also had a fairly damaging cold snap, is that this place is built for cold. People suffered (and died) in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan because nobody expects the temperature to drop–when you have palm trees in your courtyard, you might be forgiven for not thinking to install good windows or heat. Not so Hailaer, which is beautifully heated. My hotel is heated, taxis are heated, stores are heated. So much heat. Unfortunately, they are heated with coal, which you can smell, and eventually taste in the air. And here’s the paradox: go outside and start to freeze, and you start to crave the smell of burning coal. It’s Pavlovian–you follow the fumes, because that is where the warm is.