The Mid-Autumn Festival

Chinese traditional moon cakes
Chinese traditional moon cakes

On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, or the full moon between early September and early October, China and Vietnam celebrate the Mid-Autumn Day (sometimes called Moon Cake Festival). In Chinese, the festival is known as 中秋节 (Zhong Qiu Jie), which literally means middle autumn festival. The festival signifies the end of the autumn harvest and is a cultural, and in some places, religious holiday. It’s among the most recognized Chinese holidays, along withDragon Boat Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Chinese Spring Festival. In China, Mid-Autumn festival ranks behind only Chinese Spring Festival in significance.

History

In China, the moon has always been observed carefully, and most important decisions are somehow tied into the moon and its movements. All major holidays are planned according to the lunar calendar, and wedding dates are often chosen by the position and phase of the moon. The moon was thought to have close relationship with how the seasons change, and thereby also affect the agricultural production. So, to express their gratitude, the ancient Chinese would give thanks and celebrate the harvest with sacrifices to the moon on the autumn days. This tradition is said to be as old as the Zhou Dynasty between 1046 and 256 BC.

In recent years, a more romantic story has gained traction. A long time ago, ten suns had risen in the heavens and it was causing hardships for the people. An archer, known only as Yi, shot down nine of the suns, and as a reward he was given an elixir of immortality. However, Yi didn’t consume the elixir because he didn’t want to become immortal without his wife Chang E. One day, when Yi was hunting, Fengmeng broke into his house, and forced Chang E to give up the elixir. When she refused Fengmeng threatened her, so to keep the elixir safe she drank it herself and flew towards the heavens, choosing the moon as her new residence. When Yi came home and heard of what happened, he was inconsolable –  he found the fruits and cakes that his wife loved and put them forward to her. It’s possible this story is actually the origin of the sacrifices to the moon.

Customs

One of the most popular customs around the Mid-Autumn festival is eating moon cakes. Moon cakes come in many shapes and sizes, and with a variety of fillings. Everything from fruits, nuts, bean paste, coffee, chocolate and flowers. The cakes are round, symbolizing the reunion of a family. Eating a round moon cake under a round moon makes the Chinese long for their friends and family. Today, presenting moon cakes to friends and family is a way to wish them a long and happy life.

On this day, Chinese families gather to gaze at the moon, which is rounder than at any other time of the year. They get together and express their yearnings towards the friends and family who live far away.

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By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Best Expat Bars in Tianjin

La Bamba Restaurant and Bar in Tianjin
La Bamba Restaurant and Bar in Tianjin

As far as big cities and nightlife goes, Tianjin isn’t known for its party scene – especially when compared with neighboring Beijing. In fact, most bars in Tianjin wind down around 2:00am, as locals generally like to turn in early. However, there are a number of bars that stay open until the wee hours of the morning, and these are usually good places to meet fellow expats, have a slice of English conversation, and enjoy some late-night western food. After considerable research (it’s a hard job, but someone’s gotta do it), I’ve made a list of some of the best expat bars in Tianjin.

 

Texas BBQ

Central Avenue, Building C7, Magnetic Plaza, Nankai District

This two-story sports bar is in Ao Cheng and has a great happy hour, good food, and loads of expats. Happy hour is from 3.00pm-7.30pm everyday, which includes a selection of beers, wines and spirits at a 2-for-1 price. The food is tasty Americana bar fare, including burgers, pizzas, ribs and fries. A wide range of sports from around the world are shown on the numerous big screens around the bar and the tables (both indoors and outside on the pavement) are long, wooden, and perfect for meeting new people.

 

Indie Bar

Yichang NanLi 1, Yichang Dao, Heping District

Indie is a great little, laid back, artsy bar near Tianjin Medical University. There’s lots of little tables to play games (cards, mahjong, or board games), draw, listen to live music, and of course eat and drink. Here you can feel comfortable to be yourself and do pretty much whatever you like to chill out. The food and drinks are well priced and tasty – they even serve poutine for the Canadians amongst us.

 

Jack’s Bar

6F Blk C Shangu Commercial St (Off Tianta Dao), Nankai District

This small, unassuming bar located on the 6th floor in a building in Shangu (near Tainta) is a great place to go for a few games of pool and interesting conversations with expats from a range of countries. The owner, Jack, is an extremely friendly and welcoming local who mingles with the expats (and will most likely beat you at pool!). In Summer, Jack opens the rooftop deck (just above the bar) which has loads of tables, delicious BBQ food, and great sunset views of Tianjin.

 

Truman’s

103 Building C, Zilai Huayuan, Shuangfeng Dao, Nankai District

A little hard to find in a small side street of Nankai District, Truman’s is popular with expats and locals alike. Here you can play darts, mingle with and chat to the bar staff and other patrons. There’s two levels to chill out in, and the top level has comfy couches to melt into.

 

La Bamba

Weijin Road opposite Tianjin University’s East Gate, Nankai District

This restaurant-bar usually attracts a younger university crowd so there’s a bit of an upbeat, party sort of vibe here. The food (with, as the name suggests, a Mexican theme) and drinks are cheap and the booths and tables are arranged so that it’s easy to weave in and out to meet new people. Take note of their happy hour times and food specials as the discounts are great value for money.

 

Helen’s

Helen’s gets a special mention here. In my experience, it’s not necessarily one of the best places to meet expats, as it’s usually fairly loud and smokey, and people generally stick to their own tables. But the drinks are cheap and the food can be  good, so once you’ve got your own crowd, head here for a night of fun and games. There are a few Helen’s in Tianjin (and Beijing!), so check their website for your closest one.

 

Sitong

126 Chengdu Rd. (at B1 of Somerset Olympic Tower), Heping District

No list of bars in Tianjin would be complete without mentioning Sitong. Although more of a club than a bar, this place is infamous amongst expats. Come here for a night of dancing, drinking, loud music and the chance to meet “that special someone”.

 

All of these bars have English speaking staff as well as menus in English, but if you want a practice ground for your Chinese basics, these are great places to start. Most bars also have free wifi (you’ll just have to ask for the password). The easiest way to get to most of these places is by taxi. Just show (or tell) the driver the address in Chinese and you shouldn’t be more than a 10-20CNY away from a night of fun.

Where are your favorite expat bars in Tianjin? Let us know in the comments section.

*Please note that things can change, and all information was correct at time of publishing.

DSCN6110Penny de Vine is a thirty-something Australian freelance writer with a love for travel and trying anything new! You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Four “Must See” Parks in Tianjin

Parks are a huge part of Chinese culture and they’re used for a massive range of activities. Year-round you’ll see people playing badminton, practicing tai chi, playing musical instruments, boating, flying kites, painting, line-dancing, as well as the ‘usual’ activities of walking, running and playing games. With a population of around 14 million, Tianjin is China’s fourth largest city – it can be fairly hectic, so it’s no wonder the locals appreciate the great network of parks. When you need to escape the hustle and bustle, there’s a bunch of great parks to choose from. Here’s a list of what I consider to be four “must see” parks in Tianjin.

 

Water Park in Tianjin (水上公园 )
Water Park in Tianjin (水上公园 )

Tianjin Water Park ( 天津水上公园 Tiānjīn Shuǐshàng Gōngyuán)

33 Shuishang Gongyuan Bei Lu, Nankai District (天津市南开区水上公园北路33号)

This is the biggest park in Tianjin. It’s situated near the popular expat area of Ao Cheng, so it’s not as central as other parks, but it’s well worth the trip away from downtown. There are loads of winding paths and islands to explore in this truly massive park. You’ll see some ducks, plenty of boats in the summer, and even a Ferris wheel (which is part of a small amusement park). The small zoo has cheap entry and is popular with young and old, and there’s a great view of Tianjin’s TV tower, which makes for photogenic backdrop. 

 

Trash MountainTrash Mountain, or Nancuiping Park (南翠屏公园 )
Trash MountainTrash Mountain, or Nancuiping Park (南翠屏公园 )

Trash Mountain (or Hill Park) (南翠屏公园 Nancuiping Park)

Binshui Xidao, Nankai District (天津市南开区宾水西道)

This is a gorgeous little park tucked away behind Ao Cheng, and as its name suggests, was once a mountain of trash (although it’s really more of a small hill). However, don’t let this interesting fact deter you from visiting this hidden gem. There’s so much on offer here including a running/walking track, several small restaurants, boating in summer, and a man-made snow hill in Winter that you can tube down. What more could you ask for in a park?

 

Tianjin People’s Park (人民公园 Rénmín Gōngyuán)

The intersection of Yong’an Dao and Guangdong Lu, Hexi District (永安道,广东路的交叉点)

Like most big cities in China, Tianjin has its own people’s park. Here you’ll find a variety of fun areas for the young ones (slides and sandboxes), as well as a ton of nice areas for adults to relax and enjoy a sunny day. The west gate is worth a look to take a picture or two and there’s even a couple of birdcages for you Ornithologists out there. This park has a couple of interesting facts: once owned by a salt merchant, it was donated to the state in the mid 1900’s, and it is the only park that Chairman Mao did calligraphy for!

 

Changhong Eco-Park (长虹生态园)

145 Hongqi Lu, Nankai District (天津市南开区红旗路145号)

Here, as with many of the other parks in the city, you’ll find loads of paths winding around water features and plenty of beautiful trees and plants. There’s even a section featuring tropical plants and flowers. Interestingly, this was apparently the first park in Tianjin to stop charging visitors for entry (now almost all parks in Tianjin are free to enter). The West gate is the place to head for drinks, snacks and toys you convince yourself you totally need (but you know you really don’t).  It’s also one of the premier spots in Tianjin to enjoy roast leg of lamb in the summer. Cooked over an open spit, and served with an ice-cold Tsingtao beer, there’s no better way to enjoy an evening in China!

 

Parks in Tianjin are great all year, but spring is by far the prettiest time to visit – there are gorgeous water lilies and colorful flowers blooming everywhere. All parks listed here are free to enter and open 24-hours a day. They can be crowded on weekends, so be prepared to jostle for space at times, or try to work out which times are a little less busy, like early morning . Most of these parks are easy to get to by bus or subway (and then a bit of walking), or if you’d prefer, show (or tell!) a taxi driver the Chinese name and you’ll be there in no time!

 

Where are your favorite parks in Tianjin? Tell us below!

DSCN6110Penny de Vine is a thirty-something Australian freelance writer with a love for travel and trying anything new! You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Street Food in China

For me, street food and traveling go hand in hand. I love eating what the locals eat, where the locals eat, and being among the locals when they eat it. If you too are a lover of street food, you’re sure to find yourself in street food heaven when you arrive in China. If you’re not so into it, I can almost guarantee you’ll leave craving some delicious snack you picked up from a roadside somewhere. To help you in your street food sampling journey, I’ve put together a small list of some of my favorite street food in China.

Beijing bugs – many people fly into China’s capital city Beijing. There’s so much to see and do in Beijing, I suggest spending at least a few days taking in the sights. While you’re there, you simply cannot miss seeing (and sampling if you’re brave enough) the food at Donghuamen Night Market (北京东华门夜市). On offer are skewers of barbecued scorpions, seahorses, centipedes, starfish and much more! Don’t worry, if you’re not into street food of the creepy crawly variety, there’s plenty of other delicious (more Chinese/Western looking) food to sample here too.

Sugar coated fruits – Chinese people love, love, love fruit. Where we westerners might take packaged snacks on outings, more often than not Chinese people take fresh fruit. But fear not, if you haven’t packed fruit with you, you can try some tanghulu (tung-hoo-loo 糖葫芦), which is the Chinese version of a toffee apple. Instead of one apple, you’ll get a skewer of several Chinese hawthorn that have been dipped in liquid sugar and dried. If you’re not a fan of hawthorn, many other skewers of delicious sugary fruit can be found around the place too (such as kiwi, strawberry and grape).

BBQ meat – this is my favorite street food. Perhaps it’s because I’m Australian and barbecuing meat regularly is a big part of our culture, or maybe it’s just because it tastes so darn good! Whatever the reason, come summertime in China you can barely drive a few blocks without seeing chuan  er (chwar 串儿) stalls on the sidewalks. Here you can choose skewers of a range of vegetables, tofu, meats, seafood and animal parts (like heads, feet, and livers) to be freshly barbecued right in front of you. Be sure to ask for bu la 不辣 (not spicy) if you can’t handle heat, as most barbecue stalls add a pretty spicy rub to all their fare.

Savory pancakes – who doesn’t love a pancake? Here in China you can pick up a savory pancake,  or jianbing (煎饼), at almost any time of day – and they’re not to be missed! The most common type available is more like a crêpe fried on a hot, flat metal plate and topped with a thick sauce, egg, scallions or onions, and cilantro, then rolled up like a burrito and served in a plastic bag. You’ll usually find these in street stalls in the morning as it’s a favorite breakfast dish among locals. I highly recommend trying the big round crispy cracker (baocui 薄脆) or savory thick breadstick/long doughnut looking thing (youtiao 油条) wrapped in the pancake too.

Fried noodles – most Chinese people will list noodles in their top three favorite foods, and with so many and delicious types on offer, it’s easy to see why. Fried noodles from a street vendor are just fabulous (especially as a late night bite after a few píjiŭ/beers). Usually there’s a range of noodles (egg or rice, round or flat) to choose from, and a range of vegetables (cabbage, onion, carrot), with an egg thrown in the pan for good measure. Some oil, spices and sauces complete your meal (or midnight snack!).

Roasted sweet potatoes – Winter in China can be brutally cold (depending on where you are of course), so if you’re looking for the perfect snack to warm-up, look no further than a roasted sweet potato (kǎo hóng shǔ 烤红薯). You can usually smell these vendors before you see them (commonly by subway stations) roasting this delicious, creamy vegetable over hot coals. When you buy one, the vendor will weigh it and put it in a plastic bag for you. All you have to do is peel back the skin and dig in!

Street food in China is not only delicious, but it’s also incredibly cheap. Most of the things listed here, you can pick up for 5-10 CNY (a little more or less than $1 USD). If you need a hand with ordering, check out our article on Chinese for Beginners. Then go forth and try some of these tasty treats (but remember to go easy at first, or you might wind up spending a little more time in the bathroom than you’d like!).
Have you tried any of this street food in China? What are your favorites? Tell us below!

DSCN6110Penny de Vine is a thirty-something Australian freelance writer with a love for travel and trying anything new! You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

The Legend of the Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duanwu Jie (端午节) is a National Holiday in China, and is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month following the traditional lunar calendar. This year, the festival falls on June 20th.

The English name “Dragon Boat Festival” translates directly to Longchuan Jie (龙船节) which is also its name on the Chinese mainland. The name Duanwu Jie is more commonly used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The date of the festival, according to the lunar calendar, 5/5 is also the source of its alternative name, the “Double Fifth Festival”.

While there are a few different origin stories for this holiday, in most parts of China the festival is said to commemorate the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (屈原). During the Warring States period of Ancient China, Qu Yuan worked as a minister in the ancient Chinese State of Chu. During this period, there were seven warring states, and Qu Yuan supported the decision to take up arms against the State of Qin, a formidable opponent. However, the King of Chu decided rather than fight and risk defeat, he would ally with the State of Qin.  When Qu Yuan publicly opposed the alliance, he was exiled and accused of treason.

Qu Yuan had such love for his country, that during his exile he wrote countless poems about his home country. Twenty-eight years later, the state of Qin captured Yin–the capital city of the state of Chu–and, in despair Qu Yuan threw himself into the river and drowned himself.

The legend says the local people admired him so much, they raced out in their boats to try to save Qu Yuan, or at least retrieve his body. They couldn’t find his body, so they threw balls of sticky rice into the water with hopes the fish would eat the rice instead of the body of their beloved poet. The race to retrieve his body is said to be the origin of the actual dragon boat races; the sticky rice balls (zongzi, or 粽子) have since become a Chinese delicacy eaten during the holiday. There are varying English names for this traditional Chinese food, including Dragon Dumplings and Glutinous Sticky Rice Balls. They are often wrapped in leaves and sold in supermarkets, on the street, and in specialty stores, where they prepare gourmet zongzi of various tastes and flavors.

In modern-day China, the festival is celebrated in some places by racing dragon boats and eating zongzi. It is also believed to be a time to strengthen your body, cleaning your house, and doing what you can to prevent getting sick during the hot summer. This is done by hanging mugwort leaves and calamus in the house, and wearing small perfume pouches that protect children from evil. In metropolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, you are less likely to see many of these customs and traditions. But they’re still very much alive in more traditional rural cities.

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Photo credit: Tolbzela (Flickr) | License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

City Profile: Chongqing, Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing (重庆) is regarded as the industrial capital of Southwest China. With a population of just under 30 million people, Chongqing Municipality is the most populous of the four direct-controlled municipalities in China. An ancient regional trade center, Chongqing today is still a major manufacturing and transportation hub. But, don’t let that scare you off—despite being known as an industrial city, Chongqing is extremely pleasant and livable, with parks and green areas all over the city.

Chongqing has a long standing historical background—the city dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period—around 316 BC. At the time the city was known as Jiangzhou; its current name was given to the city in 1189 with the crowning of Prince Zhao Dun, who described his crowning as a “double celebration”, the literal meaning of “Chongqing”.

Regarded as one of the “Four Furnaces” of China, Chongqing has an incredibly hot and humid summer. Temperatures reach the high 30’s and the humidity is often more than 80%. At other times of the year, however, the climate is characterized by mild winters, and warm spring and fall seasons.

Unlike most big cities in China, Chongqing is considered to be a sprawling countryside, rather than a city. The lifestyle isn’t as hectic and stressful as coastal mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Unlike many of the Tier I cities, Chongqing has remained affordable to live in. Eating local Chinese food is inexpensive, and a good meal will cost as little as CNY 7 (just over $1). Taxis are also affordable for getting around downtown, and the city’s thirteen districts are well connected by four major subway lines. Access to long distance buses, train stations and the airport are all convenient and cheap. A trip across the city on the subway, will set you back less than CNY 10.

The people in Chongqing don’t usually speak Mandarin, but rather a distinct dialect called 重庆话 (Chongqing hua) or Chongqing Language. It’s a local dialect similar to that spoken in Chengdu and across Sichuan province, also called “Sichuanese”. It’s common for Chinese who speak Mandarin to not fully understand people in Chongqing, and vice versa.

Chongqing is also home to the famous “hot pot” or 火锅 (huǒguō), a selection of sliced meats, fish, and vegetables, typically served in a very spicy (hot) broth. The name hot pot (literally: fire pan) comes from the spicy peppers. While hotpot is the most famous cuisine in Chongqing, you’ll find a lot of interesting and varied food in this mountain city. Their love for spicy food is apparent, but restaurants are nice enough to ask foreigners if they can handle the heat—they’ll prepare a toned-down version of the dish for those who aren’t fond of spice. In Chongqing you’ll also find 小面 “xiǎo miàn or small noodles” and other delicious and spicy foods such as 串串 ” chuàn chuàn” and 干锅 “gān guō or Dry Pot”.

Being a modern city, you’ll also find plenty of western-style restaurants and coffee shops, along with a variety of western supermarkets where you can buy imported food. If you buy a lot of food at once you can go to Metro; plus, one of the biggest IKEA’s in China opened just last year. You can buy Scandinavian furniture for your apartment, or enjoy traditional Swedish meatballs! For shopping and nightlife, most people find their way to Jie Fang Bei or Guan Yin Qiao where you’ll find a myriad of western restaurants, bars and places to kick back and relax.

Chongqing is the kind of city that mixes a little bit of everything. There’s a great mix of business and pleasure within each district, and though some parts feel a bit like a concrete jungle, you can also find quiet parks that overlook the rivers and give you amazing views at night. Chongqing has an eclectic blend of lifestyles—old and new China living side-by-side. It’s common to see business people wearing crisp suits on their morning commute walking alongside the street vendors and 老百姓 “laobaixing, or common people”. It’s a “big, small city”—it has everything without having too much of anything. Chongqing has a friendly spirit and strikes a perfect balance of old and new, making it an amazing city to live, work, and play.

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By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Hotpot and Xiaomian: Two of Chongqing’s Amazing Foods

Chongqing hotpot
Chongqing hotpot

I don’t normally eat spicy food, so it may seem strange that I moved to Chongqing where the food is mostly full of peppers and fiery. I didn’t move to Chongqing because of the incredible food culture, rather because it was simply where life took me at the time. I have since then experienced the signature mouth-burns that can follow from a Chinese hotpot (火锅) meal and the more subtle and soothing spicy taste of the local xiaomian (小面), which literally translated means “small noodles”.

When I went to my first hot pot restaurant in Chongqing, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I knew the basics about what hot pot is: a big bowl of spicy broth over an open flame—which you put raw vegetables and meat in to boil—then dig out with chopsticks and eat. It’s typically a social and communal meal, meaning that many people will around the same table and eat together. I recall sitting at a grand table with friends all around, everyone snatching food from the pot with their chopsticks. After just one bite, my mouth was on fire.

It’s not just foreigners who suffer from sweats and burns when we eat hot pot, the Chinese can’t always handle it, either. Many hotpot restaurants now offer different grades of spiciness to cater to as many customers as possible. It’s definitely an experience, and a “must try” while in Chongqing, but for the most part I’d rather leave this kind of extreme spice for friends and colleagues with a more adventurous palette than I have.

Another famous local food in Chongqing is xiaomian. Thinking it was a fad, I avoided it at first; everyone wouldn’t stop talking about how delicious it is. Finally, after trying a bowl of “small noodles”, I could taste what all the fuss was about. There is a small kitchen near my school; not quite a restaurant, it’s just a small room with tables and chairs, and a kitchen in the back. It’s become the “go-to” spot for me and my colleagues.

Chongqing xiaomian
Chongqing xiaomian

While hotpot can be a bit pricy by Chinese standards (about CNY 300-400 for four people), a bowl of xiaomian is usually just around CNY 5 (less than $1!). One bowl will completely fill you up, and though the taste is spicy, there’s no lingering burning sensation in your mouth. It’s quick, tastes great, and isn’t completely unhealthy. My colleagues and I have a 2-hour lunch break on weekends—after a bowl of xiaomian we usually have another 90 minutes to sit, talk, relax, or take a nap. It’s perfect.

I do enjoy hotpot occasionally, and believe it or not, the spice is easier to handle if you’re in good company. If there are a few 外国人 (wai guo ren, or foreigners) at the table, the waitress will usually ask how spicy to make the hotpot. We usually aim for something moderate—between drop-dead spicy and plain water. With a nice, cool beverage, and a little sauce to neutralize the spice, hot pot can be a very enjoyable and social meal, even for who don’t like spicy food.

If you ever pass through Chongqing, these are two foods that you absolutely must try. Thankfully that’s easy to do, because you can find hotpot and xiaomian restaurants on nearly every street corner in Chongqing!

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here