Toto, we're not in London anymore
If you’ve ever been to China and had dinner with a Chinese person here, you will inevitably come across a very simple yet gargantuan question. To welcome us to Shanghai a lovely friend of ours took us out for dinner where she casually dropped it into conversation.
“So, what do you think of China?”
There was a moment of brief silence whilst Mark continued to eat, unaware of the situation unfolding.
In the back of my mind I’m deeply suspect of this question. Is this some kind of interrogation? What does she really mean? If our places were reversed I wouldn't ask what was thought of the entirety of Britain. Perhaps I would ask how she was finding London, but I wouldn't have it feel like a loaded question, I'd really only mean has she figured out the Tube, or something about the weather.
Does she want honesty?
Does she want to hear something that will make her smile?
“Yeh, it’s not bad.” This is a safe reply, a very British way of saying, it’s good, BUT, I also have this list of things I’ve noticed so far that I think are, a) odd, b) fascinating, or c) make me revile in disgust, that I'll do my best not to ask.
I started to feel uncomfortable and asked a question in reply in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“What’s with all the clothes covered in words? Do they know none of it makes sense?”
You army sun shine too darling
I showed some examples I’ve collected on my phone to our friend, but she seemed confused by my fascination. She understood the absurdity of the translations, but failed to see the humour or the irony. The air was now awkward. Maybe I'd asked the wrong question. She couldn't possibly have been so confused though, so I looked around casually for hidden recording devices, taking her response as a silent nod confirming my conspiracy theory that the Chinese are all fully aware of the gibberish, that the whole thing is one massive troll of all the foreigners and outsiders, a mind control experiment so perverse it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
The conversation ebbed and we ate in silence for a few seconds, leaving me feeling ill at ease again until Mark stabbed his chopsticks into his rice to check his phone.
"Don’t do that!" I yelled out loud, telling him off as if this terror is offending the entire nation.
He sighed in exasperation.
Our friend is laughing at the drama unfolding at the table. Next time I think we should go for food you eat with your hands.
On Sunday we escaped the megalopolis of Shanghai and took the train to Thames Town, a totally unapologetic example of China’s copy-paste buildings. It was significantly cheaper than flying home for the day.
The town is not just a single monument, but a way of life. It’s a place that successfully, even if unintentionally, ridicules the earnestness of Prince Charles’s Poundbury.
The most surprising thing to see was how accurately they have copied some 1980s postmodern architecture. I found various elements of Rotherhithe or Salford duplicated, rather than it being a fantasy chocolate box village, which, after taking off my glasses and squinting a little, made it all the more possible for me to imagine I was back on any old high street back home.
Suburban postmodern realness
But unlike the spy towns of Soviet-era Russia, or Dorset's royal cottagey slum, the motive for building Thames Town was entirely different. It's a tourist attraction at most, with the main visitors Chinese brides and their photographer in tow. But there are people who actually live here too, in the replicas of houses you might find on Regent’s Park, though without the multi million pound price tag.
Before leaving we settled in the Thames Bar and I ordered a Thames Beer (and lemonade so I could make a shandy). I also ordered a plate of chips, only to get a plate of crisps. But my day was not utterly over until I spotted a final hurrah in the menu.
I'll just have a Paris Water thanks
For me, Thames Town is the result of someone being asked that ham-fisted question at the beginning, and like me they’ve avoided answering properly. Rather than deflecting or changing the subject, they’ve chosen to compliment the question asker, to tell them something that will just make them feel better about themselves. And it's a lovely answer, their thought that we all live in a suburban bliss and Great British greatness lines every street. But the dishonesty of the answer is apparent to all, through the cracks of the cheap concrete, the shoddy church that looks like it was drawn from memory, and the bloody American English.
On the metro home I'm filled with conflicted thoughts. I wanted to find comfort in something familiar, but realised it couldn’t possibly exist here. I'm still needing to console myself. A Full English would be best, but you can’t get the bacon here. A cream tea would be nice too, but good luck finding clotted cream.
Perhaps the real answer isn’t in truth or happiness, it's just in the eating of something we can all agree is delicious.
Cola Chicken Wings
Chicken wings, along with ribs, should only be eaten with your hands. You cannot be polite or delicate about it, forget the chopsticks and put down the knife and fork.
This is a very popular home recipe with young suburban Chinese. A simple and delicious treat that goes perfectly with a beer or shandy.
500g chicken wings
100ml light soy sauce
250ml full sugar cola (whatever you do, do not use diet or sugar free)
20g toasted sesame
1 spring onion
1 red chilli (optional)
Salt & Pepper
Oil for frying
1. Pat dry the chicken wings with kitchen paper and add to a bowl with 50ml of soy sauce and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well and leave to marinade for 30 minutes.
2. Combine the cola with the remaining 50ml of soy sauce in a small saucepan. Bring it to a boil and turn it down to a simmer for about 20-25 minutes. Take it off the heat once it has reduced down to about 50ml and is syrupy.
3. Add the cornflour to the chicken wings. Stir well until evenly coated.
3. Heat 3cm deep of oil in a pan. 190c is ideal but if you don’t have a thermometer then test with a small piece of white bread. If it browns in 30 seconds you’re ready to fry. Adjust the heat up or down.
4. Fry the wings in batches for 10-12 minutes until golden brown and drain on kitchen paper.
5. Add the cooked wings to a clean bowl, pour over the cola and soy glaze and toss until fully coated. Garnish with sesame seeds, finely sliced green onion and red chilli.
Cola Chicken Wings