Living in the throes of development

“These are the throes of a developing city,” read a message on a local online forum. Many citizens of Huai’an are having a hard time sleeping at night with the sounds of jackhammers and cranes running in the background. If modernization has a sound, then this is it.

In July, massive construction projects began inside the city’s Economic Development Zone (EDZ). Prior to this the sites under development had been deserted for years.

Supposedly, the development is meant to ease pressure on the local housing market. Last year many older homes in Huai’an were demolished. And although the people who lost their homes were financially compensated, they were still without a place to live. Without much to choose from, many of them turned to the EDZ to buy a new home, with their new money.

Huai’an Ecological New City

The EDZ is a relatively new district. It sits close to the Ecological New City, an area where the new municipal government building and other so-called modern architectural wonders sit.

The migration of the municipal government brought superior medical and educational resources, and in turn, increased housing prices.

Homebuyers were attracted to the area’s “geographical advantages”. Many people bought houses they couldn’t afford. School enrollment quotas were met at a faster rate due to overcrowding. The demolition and construction in the city’s older areas have made things worse. The noises at night have become fixtures of the city.

In October I called the Mayor Hotline (12345) and was told by a polite receptionist that she would notify the police and they would handle it.

The next day she called me back and said that someone had called to complain about the same issue and the police had handled it.

The construction noise stopped for a few days, but then it resumed. After a week I called the hotline again and spoke with a different receptionist, who sounded younger than the previous one. She thought the construction company probably had a permit issued by the Provincial Environmental Administration that excused the construction noise. She suggested I find out if there was a permit at one of the sites.

The next day I went to one of the sites and after a careful inspection was unable to find a work permit whatsoever.

I haven’t called the hotline again because the noise is not that loud at night, at least not loud enough to wake me up. But another reason is that I have almost lost all hope the authorities can resolve the problem.

Anyway, just like the pollution emanating from chemical plants in suburbs, the government will continue to turn a blind eye in an effort to reach or surpass their economic goals. It’s just another example of what it means to live in the “throes of development.”

Huai’an: Behavior warp in the modern era

When it comes to e-commerce, China is the undisputed leader. In small cities like Huai’an, WeChat and Alipay have become so ingrained in everyday life that if one of those platforms crashed, widespread chaos would erupt.

Anyway, a few odd customs and traditions remain in today’s modern era, and they can be a little surprising. Last week my wife purchased some milk powder at a local store. After close inspection I discovered that it was from a factory in Heilongjiang Province. For those of you unaware, it’s an area of the country not exactly known for its green pastures and lush vegetation.

When taking into account the potential risks involved with giving a baby milk powder made in China, I felt it best to see if I could go back to the store where it was purchased and exchange it for something a little safer.

milk powder store

I voiced my concerns to the store owner, and he said I could exchange it, but that I would have to come back in the afternoon. He said exchanges were only conducted in the afternoons, and that’s where his explanation ended.

I thought to myself, “What a unique little policy!’ I asked if this was common in the other stores in the city, thinking maybe I had come at the wrong time. I could see he was becoming annoyed with what he perceived as naiveté from somebody who was obviously not a local.

Without giving me any more attention than he already had, he instructed, “Go home and ask your parents, they’ll know.”

First, I’d like to make it very clear how satisfied I was that he had agreed to take the powder milk back. But to be honest, I was a little put off by his rigidity and indifference. I really wanted to know the source of this policy and its history. Who came up this idea? Why wasn’t there a note on the receipt that said, “Morning Exchanges Prohibited.” As a freelancer I’m constantly thinking about my time and how best to use it. Clearly, this was a huge waste of my day as now I was going to have to come to his store to complete the exchange in question.

I held my cell phone in front of him and asked, “Can you repeat the store policy so I can let my parents hear it?”

But he slapped it away with a rolled up newspaper. He stared at me angrily and said, “Here I am, feel free to come back anytime you want, I’m not afraid of you!

I responded with, “What did I say? I haven’t threatened you, I just to think your exchange policy is ridiculous. And while we’re at it, your attitude isn’t exactly in the place where it should be.”

I later asked my friends about this “morning exchange prohibited” policy, and one friend explained that store owners think it will bring bad luck on the day if they carry out exchanges in the morning. If you start the day on a bad note, then chances are you’ll the day on a bad one as well.

I think it’s silly, and e-commerce behemoths like Taobao and JD would not be around if a rule like that was part of their business methodology.

But outside of inconvenient methods of business operations, the people of Huai’an place great emphasis etiquette in specific social environments.

“Huaianese,” as I like to call them, are fantastic drinkers. This should come as no surprise as the city is home to a handful of baijiu factories that churn out some of China’s best brands. So it only makes sense that they would be particular over how they conduct themselves when drinking with others. And certainly more so than how people drink in neighboring cities.

Chinese Baijiu etiquette

Their drinking etiquette isn’t complicated, but there a few crooked types who use such social rules as weapons for abuse or an excuse for ostentatious behavior associated with a retarded person who’s manages a McDonald’s.

One rule of etiquette involves downing two drinks consecutively which makes up the entire round. This means one cannot drink with another person until they have completed the entire round. This rule provides one with the opportunity to decline a toast made in your honor.

Now, this may seem strange for someone who has never been to China, but I’m pretty sure this is how it goes down. I attended many dinners and social events when I worked for the government. At these gatherings it seemed that everybody was an expert on drinking etiquette, and top of that, they were also extremely polite.

Recently, I was refused by another. I thought the man had one drink obligation with someone prior to me, but then an uncle sitting next to me said the man refused my toast because he had already finished one kettle of alcohol, which I had not done. He next proceeded to chastise me for not knowing the local drinking etiquette.

I was offended because the guy I wanted to drink with simply waved his hands in the air rather than offering an explanation as to why he didn’t want to drink with me. When you think about it, if he wanted to practice local etiquette, he could have least waited until we consumed the same amount of alcohol together. My uncle’s reaction didn’t make sense either. He was only trying to show some kind of imagined superiority over me because I was the youngest person at the table.

I later discussed what happened with a friend and he was in complete agreement with my interpretation on how the evening should have transpired.

Huai’an possesses many unique and fascinating customs, but engaging others with them in a polite manner should be of utmost importance. As the saying goes, “If you can’t do something nice, then don’t do anything at all.”

Huai’an effort falls short once again

Huai’an did not make it past the 5th round of the country’s “National Civilized Cities” competition. The unfortunate news, delivered on September 14 by the National Central Civilization Office, made it official that the city had failed once again to achieve its overall goal.

A poster for the “Building a National Civilized City” on Huai’an street has served as an indicator on how long the city has entertained the idea of winning the national title.

The “National Civilized Cities” title is the most difficult to obtain within the arena of establishing the image of a city. It is the highest form of recognition a city can receive in China. The process involves an analysis of a wide range of factors related to a city’s economy and environment, along with sanitation facilities, citizen behavior and overall satisfaction with the quality of life that comes with living in such a place.

Huai’an’s municipal government has heavily emphasized the importance of building a civilized city, when really their only goal is to win the title. Unfortunately their efforts have been criticized as being too formalistic and “movement-type.” Now to be fair, there were few things carried out, such as their anti-prostitution drive, which was without a doubt an impressive move on their behalf.

In order to enforce such difficult challenges, over the course of a few months, Huai’an police conducted several raids on the so-called “dirty” establishments which included “massage parlors,” in an effort to rid the city of “uncivilized behavior.” The police also focused on other harmful behavior such as jaywalking.

It was believed that taking such measures to protect people and eliminate criminal activity would serve as a positive influence on the overall behavior of the city’s citizens. But in areas that went unnoticed, the local government or relevant authorities could have done a much better job.

For example, the city’s hospitals have become notorious for how poorly they treat their patients. There are some doctors who are modest and kind, but there others who happen to be arrogant for absolutely no reason at all. And to make matters worse, hospital officials routinely ignore the poor behavior and attitudes that characterize the majority of doctors who work there. There are even times when it’s impossible to find a guestbook in order to submit a formal complaint for the sole purpose of improving the quality of care required at any hospital. Today, the relationship between doctor and patient is so strained and uncomfortable it’s now evolved into an embarrassing travesty of medical care in the modern age.

Another example that proved to be a failure was the public use of electric quadricycles. This unique and yet dangerous transport vehicle has four wheels and a steering wheel, similar to the electric car, and yet a license is not required to drive one on the city’s open roads. And if that wasn’t enough, in a move that challenges the fundamental principles of rational thought, those who drive the quadricycles are under no obligation to obey the traffic laws.

Today these vehicles are running recklessly all over the city. They are typically driven by the elderly, or mothers on their way to pick up their children from school, and unfortunately neither one of these groups knows how to drive, thus making the streets that much more dangerous.

These vehicles are strictly prohibited in larger cities all over China and yet strangely enough they’re allowed on the streets of Huai’an. And in a further twist of irony the new district of Hongze, which was a county last year, officials there impounded every electric quadricycle it could find, while older districts, especially those located within the economic development zone, ignored the potential dangers that these vehicles create.

It appears Huai’an has a long way to go before it can honestly achieve the national status it has long desired.  But when you really think about it, the most important thing that should be addressed by the city’s authorities has to do with maintaining a deeper concern on the safety and health of the people who live here, rather than focusing on numbers, charts and indexes.

Unparalleled pot-stewed foods in Huai’an

Although intake of too much nitrite is unhealthy, moderate quantity of pot-stewed foods are enjoyable, especially in Huai’an.

People in Huai’an do have a talent in making pot-stewed foods. Soybean paste made by my grandma is unbelievably better than those sold in supermarkets, various self-made pickled vegetables (lettuce, cucumber, radish, etc.) in my hometown are also very delicious, not inferior in any respect than products of those famous pickle factories.

Even pickled mustard tubers sold in food markets in Huai’an are far better than those in Nanjing.

If you prefer stewed meat than vegetables, then Huai’an can just suit your taste better. Whether people admit it or not, “Spicy Goose” (麻辣鹅) has become a local specialty which can be found everywhere in Huai’an.

This kind of deeply loved stewed meat is said to come from a city of Sichuan province called Luzhou, and people who sold it in Huai’an often speak with foreign accent, but Huai’an turns to be its best haven. And it’s weird that you cannot find it even in Nanjing, the nearest big city; thus, Huai’an people living in Nanjing have to come back to eat spicy goose.

Speaking of Nanjing, the city is famous for roast duck and boiled salted duck, but the former is comparatively sweet, making it not a typical pot-stewed food, and the latter is so hard to make that only several shops provide high-quality boiled salted ducks. Most salted ducks you can find in Nanjing either have a fishy smell or taste not good. Spicy goose faces a similar situation but you have a bigger chance to get a qualified one in Huai’an.

The different tastes of a same product category in Nanjing and Huai’an are more persuasive – stewed chicken feet. I bought some stewed chicken feet from an inconspicuous shop in Huai’an recently, and I was stunned by its taste. It’s just as good as the best packaged stewed chicken feet produced by big enterprises, and is much better than any self-made ones in Nanjing.

Excellence of pot-stewed foods in Huai’an can be attributed to the heavy taste and culinary legacy of Huai’an people – inherited via Huaiyang dishes. Such taste and gift make Huai’an a haven of pot-stewed foods – local people become good at making them and masters from other places also gather here.

Impression of places to eat in Huai’an

Compared to bigger cities like Nanjing and Suzhou, foods in Huai’an is much less diversified, but still some local and exotic restaurants are worth trying.

When I came back to Huai’an after about four years, I was very eager to go back to some eateries I favored. But unfortunately, some are nowhere to find now.

Slided Noodles in Huai'an City

One of my favorites is a sliced noodles restaurant opened by a family from Shaanxi province, which was named “Shaanxi Sliced Noodles Restaurant”. Providing sliced noodles at prices of only 6 to 8 yuan, the eatery enjoyed full house every night.

Its classical dishes are sliced noodle with minced meat and sliced noodle with beef.

The location of the noodles restaurant is now occupied by a hospital, and as the name of this restaurant cannot be found on the electronic map, it has surely disappeared.

Good news is my another favorite noodles restaurant in Huai’an is still there, and is now even bigger and better – Changchun Noodles Restaurant.

This noodles restaurant is a typical one offering Huai’an local noodles, which is fantastic but nowhere else to find – strange but true.

I’m a fan of various noodles, and I know a lot of great noodles restaurants in Nanjing, but not one providing such noodles cooked in Huai’an way, which is not a bit inferior to the other kinds of noodles.

Anyhow, when I went back to Changchun Noodles Restaurant recently, its original staff was basically still there, and the decoration is now much better, prices basically unchanged, and is still full of people.

This time when I came back to Huai’an, I tried more bigger restaurants – ones that provides dishes other than snacks like noodles, but the results are not very satisfactory so far.

One example is Bensu Suancaiyu Restaurant, “Suancaiyu” literally means “Fish with pickled cabbage”, a popular dish of Sichuan cuisine. Instead of offering cheaper black carp, this popular restaurant provides snakehead fish, but I don’t think they make it better than black carp ones in Nanjing; however, their dish is to my wife’s appetite, she said it’s the best Suancaiyu she ever ate.

Another example is a Xiebao restaurant – a chain “crab in casserole” restaurant in Huai’an. Their specialty crab in casserole sounds very tasteful, but proves to be just a gimmick. The crabs in a casserole are just spicier than steamed crabs – the traditional way of cooking crabs, but are much less delicious. However, my friend didn’t agree with me, he said that’s because I missed the first step – fried crabs, which are better than crabs in a casserole. So maybe I need to try the restaurant some other time again to make a more faithful judgment.

The third example is a seem-to-be-popular fish restaurant at Hongze county. Hongze county is famous for its fishes, as the county is beside Hongze Lake – one of the biggest fresh water lakes in China.

This “WS” restaurant is located in a popular food area besides Hongze aquatic product wholesale market, and the reason we went there was that it ranked the 2nd among all restaurants at Hongze in November, according to a popular map app – that makes it the 1st among all the fish restaurants, and we’d like to have some Live Fish with Fried Dumplings, which is its specialty.

But later I found this specialty was worse than what we ate years ago, they were obviously over fried and contained too much oil. And its fishes are not even better than those we cook at home.

In spite of the above more or less disappointing restaurants, an unknow restaurant downstairs of my home is ironically good, although it’s often empty due to solitary location. However, it has been open for nearly ten years. Given its dull business, it’s impossible to sustain such a restaurant in any big cities, but it absolutely happens in Huai’an, a city with lower housing price.

Huai’an has a lot of restaurants, I believe there are more fantastic ones to be found, but just as indicated above, some popular ones don’t have to be good, people may just go there for some gimmick. And I’ll update places to eat in Huai’an by writing more articles here.

Nanjing-Huai’an Intercity Railway to be constructed: less than 1 hour’s nobreak ride

There isn’t any nobreak railway between Nanjing and Huai’an right now, but an intercity railway is being planned and designed, and hopefully its construction will start in 2018.

This railway will be about 200 kilometers long and the designed speed is 350 kilometers per hour, which means only less than an hour will be needed from Nanjing to Huai’an.

Nanjing-Huai’an (Ninghuai) Intercity Railway will be between Nanjing North Station and Huai’an East Station and go by 11 stations including those in Nanjing City, Luhe District of Nanjing, Tianchang City of Anhui province, Jinhu county, Hongze District of Huai’an and Huai’an City.

Nanjing-Huai’an Intercity Railway will also be seamlessly connected with Lianhuaiyangzhen Railway, a high-speed rail which is under construction and is expected to be completed in 2019, connecting Lianyungang, Huai’an, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang.

After completion of Ninghuai Highspeed Railway, Huai’an will be a part of Nanjing’s “one hour metropolitan area”, and more railways will also be constructed to make sure that major cities in Jiangsu province are all about 2 hours away from each other.

Huai’an: a city with more human touch than big cities

After years of living in Nanjing, I get very surprised and even unadaptable to some actions of Huai’an people.

For example, when I went to a toilet in Wanda Plaza yesterday, I was very embarrassed to see an elder female cleaner in it. She smiled very friendly at me, asking me to go upstairs or downstairs for another washroom as she was doing the cleaning, and then she even patted on my back.

I was used to see indifferent cleaners in big cities, who just follow their procedures – putting a warning sign outside the washroom when they are cleaning, and asking if there is anyone in the washroom before they enter. They wouldn’t say an extra word to you, not to mention smiling at you or patting your back.

But if you know one or two grannies from the countryside of Huai’an, you wouldn’t be too surprised at the elder cleaner’s doings. That’s who they are and what they do every day. They are plain and simple.

However, sometimes such plainness and simpleness could cause discomforts. My wife and I went to a pork shop this afternoon to buy some sausages. When talking about what ingredients to add, the boss and his wife said they offer “chicken powder”, which is widely known as unhealthy, so I asked if aginomoto could be added instead and I said I could buy it as they didn’t have aginomoto, but the boss and his wife refused me toughly at first, as if the sausages would be their own foods. This certainly surprised me because I certainly have the right to customize my product.

Later the boss’s wife realized that we were a bit obstinate and she went to a variety shop to buy a bag of aginomoto. But when the boss was putting various ingredients to our pork, he also acted inflexible to our preferences – I really don’t have high hopes in this year’s sausages.

In contrast, when we bought sausages in Nanjing, the boss behaved so professional that we had nothing to oppose or complain, and I believe even we did, he would either persuade us in a polite way or be very flexible to any reasonable requirements.

In general, Huai’an people is undoubtedly more “human” compared to people in metropolis, but they lack professionalism and business sense.

Huai’an shopkeepers, doorkeepers and servers are basically much more willing to talk to you than those in Nanijng, maybe because they don’t have to worry if I’m a outlander and they can speak Huai’an dialect freely and communicate in a Huai’an way – but don’t worry if you are a foreigner, Chinese people are always very warm to foreigners.

Another reason is that they almost all grew up in the countryside and most of them didn’t go through the baptism of living in big cities, so they are not shrewd enough but are honest and easy-going.

Tips about Huai’an Airport

Huai’an Airport, or Huai’an Lianshui Airport, is nearly 40 kilometers away from the urban area of Huai’an city – 40 minute to 1 hour’s drive, and is located at Lianshui county of Huai’an (淮安市涟水县空港路1号).

Map of Huai'an Airport

Opened in 2010, Huai’an Airport now operates flights to about 20 cities – mostly in China (including Taipei) – except route to Osaka Japan recently opened. See flight details on the official website of the airport: http://www.ha-airport.com/flightinfo.asp (in Chinese), and its service hotline is 0517-81666666.

Some people has been complaining that the airport is a bit too far from Huai’an city, and it’s true that the airport has few supporting facilities. For example, there is no hotel or restaurant around the aloof airport – except a small hotel nearby and an expensive restaurant in it.

Besides, you need to pay attention to your mobile phone to know any updates on your flights, because you would probably only get a short message when your flight is canceled, and since no airline has set up a service desk in the airport, you would have to call your airline to cancel or change your tickets.

Airport bus timetable

(after October 30 2016)

Buy tickets from Huai’an Wanda Realm Hotel (嘉华酒店) Buy tickets from Wanda Plaza (万达) Date Flights
6:10 6:30 1、3、5、7 Xi’an 1、3、5、7
7:40 8:00 Daily Harbin、Changchun 2、4、6;Tianjin 1、3、5、7
8:20 8:30 Daily Beijing、Haikou 1、3、5;Osaka 1
10:50 11:00 Daily Pudong Shanghai、Xiamen、Haikou 7;Taipei、Guangzhou
12:20 12:30 Daily Shenzhen、Chongqing 2、4、6;Kunming 1、3、5、7
14:20 14:30 Daily Wenzhou 1、3、4、6;Shenyang, Dalian 1、3、5、7
19:40 20:00 1、3、4、6 Shijiazhuang 1、3、4、6
21:40 22:00 1、3、5、7 Hangzhou 1、3、5、7

Source: official website of Huai’an Lianshui Airport

Meeting with USA teachers in Huai’an

About six years ago, I came across two American girls on my way back to Huai’an from Mount Tai. They were lost and didn’t know how to get back, and I became their guide back home.

When we finally get off our taxi, it had been late at night. But we got touch again several days later, when I invited them to dinner, together with two of my colleagues.

They told us that they are sisters and had just graduated from universities, they came to China to see the world outside and make money to repay their education loans.

They said it was very easy for them to get a teaching job in Huai’an, as the test paper for them was questions like “Who is the president of USA?” And the answer was and still is Obama, who will not be very soon. How time flies!

We kept in touch and weeks later, I asked if they were interested in visiting the countryside of China, and they said yes. So we went to my hometown, as well as urban area of Hongze county.

The reason I invited them to my hometown is that even though countryside in Huai’an may not be as developed and vast as in USA, it’s beautiful in my eyes. But they didn’t seem to think so.

So after a short discussion on some political issues with my grandpa and a night’s stay there, we went to the downtown of Hongze county, where some local people were really curious about foreigners. People kept asking me questions about them on the bus to Hongze, and after we got off, two tricycle drivers said “hello” to them grinning cheekily. All these made me very embarrassing.

I invited them to my third grandfather’s home for lunch, because that’s the only close relative I got at Hongze city, and I thought it was decent to do so and it should be very impression experience for both sides. And my relatives were very hospitable by offering a big meal.

But the eating seemed to be a bit awkward even though everyone seems to be very happy. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a competent cultural bridge/interpreter, or it was a bit imprudent for me to bring them to a relative’s family without knowing whether it was what both sides exactly wanted.

Later when the elder sister’s boyfriend came to Huai’an, the sisters invited me to dinner, and I was so surprised that her boyfriend was a forest fireman, and he answered me some questions about putting out fires in a forest.

Months later, I happened to open my e-mail box and saw an invitation from one of the sister, it said that I could go to their Thanksgiving party if I wanted, and I would need to bring some food if I was to come.

It’s unbelievable to ask a guest to bring foods in China, but I went to the party with some frozen stuffed dumpling and snacks, which were not really used later because they had got enough foods.

The party was filled with foreign teachers from all over the world and Chinese students from the Huai’an college where they taught. I had my own foreign teachers at university and I also joined some gatherings with the teachers and my classmates. But for such a party, it might be my first time, and the atmosphere was very different.

People just tried to make conversation, and some of them seemed very open. For example, a female Chinese student sat on the lap of an old Australian teacher all the time, but the latter refused to admit that she was a girlfriend. While other Chinese were overly positive in communicating with the teachers, I was at a loss and left early.

We basically lost contact after that, and I assumed they went back to America soon.

I was deeply impressed that the sisters were very keen at reading novels, they brought English novels everywhere they went, and would read them once they got a free moment. I told them half-jokingly that some people would call others reading too much as a nerd/egghead in China – I was actually criticizing those who say so, but they didn’t smile or say a word, so I guess that was not a good joke and they might felt offended.

Anyhow, they were very nice people, and we just didn’t have many common topics as I assumed.

Huai’an: a city eager for a real hill

Located in a floodplain of the ancient Huai River, Huai’an has no real mountain or hill, except some hills at Xuyi county.

When I was little, I was so eager to see what a real mountain or hill looks like, later I saw it on a bus near Nanjing, and I was told that there were wolves in the hills, but that’s certainly not true.

China do have countless mountains and hills, the nearest metropolis – Nanjing has a lot. But for Huai’an people, it’s a rarity.

People in Huai’an city are so eager for hills that they’ve built several rockeries in the urban area. The most famous one is Bochi Hill, or translated as “Bochi Mountain”.

Mount Bochi in Huai'an

Located in the downtown of Huai’an city, Bochi Hill (钵池山) is a large park with an artificial hill. It’s often jokingly called “Idiot Hill”, because the pronunciation of its real name – “Bochi” is almost the same as “Idiot” in Huai’an dialect. But disappointedly, this biggest “hill” in Huai’an city is more like a red rock and is unclimbable.

You can also find some rockeries in another park – Taohuawu Park (Peach Blossom Dock), which are not tall but climbable and can meet your needs of rock climbing a bit.

My friend just sent a message that a hike is to be organized several days later, and the route is across almost all the parks in the urban areas of Huai’an city, which are connected by streets of course. If Huai’an had any big hill or mountain, such activity would surely don’t have to go across the streets.