A town in California

 

Just after Christmas in 1994, we flew to San Francisco in California (USA) for a four-week holiday. My wife was in the sixth month of pregnancy. Before booking our trip, we consulted her obstetrician at St Marys Hospital in Paddington, London. We wanted to know whether it was safe for her to travel at this stage in her pregnancy. The obstetrician did not mince her words:

Yes, go ahead, but make sure that you have good travel health insurance because having a premature birth in the United States might well bankrupt you.”

After spending a few days with friends who live across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, we rented a car, an upmarket Toyota, one of the nicest cars I have ever driven. We drove all over California south of San Francisco. Also, we visited the Grand Canyon and saw it under snow. This was a very beautiful sight because the snow had fallen in such a way that the many stepped strata that line the walls of this spectacular gorge were accentuated. We admired this while trudging through very deep snow. In order to enjoy this, we had had to purchase snow chains and to learn how to apply them to the wheels.

One day, we drove south from the snow-covered Grand Canyon to Sedona, a town famed for its vortices of energy. It was a distance of 106 miles. Yet in that short distance the weather had changed from Arctic to summer. And, the following, day we drove further south past Phoenix and Yuma and then through a southern Californian Desert to San Diego. Even though it was freezing up at the Grand Canyon, from Phoenix to San Diego it was so hot that we had to switch on the car’s air-conditioning.

From San Diego, we spent a few days driving along roads close to the Pacific Coast. We visited most of the historic mission stations between San Diego and San Francisco. We also stopped at Nepenthe in Big Sur, where the writer Henry Miller once lived. The building in which the writer lived was open to the public. While we were visiting it, my pregnant wife needed to use a toilet urgently. Without making any fuss, the guardian unlocked the toilet that Miller used to use and allowed my wife to relieve herself.

Being fans of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, we visited some of the few buildings that the great architect had designed along the route we were taking. One of these, at San Luis Obisco (between Los Angeles and San Francisco), was a particularly lovely medical centre, the Kundert Medical Clinic that was built in 1956.

On the final day of our road trip, I looked at the guidebook and spotted something that I did not want to miss. To reach it, meant adding 60 miles to our already long (300-mile journey) journey. The place that caught my eye was about 90 miles to the east of our destination Marin County on the left bank of the River Sacramento. The small settlement is called Locke.

Locke is in the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. In the 1860s, work was undertaken to drain the malarial wetlands. Many poor Chinese labourers were hired to do this work at disgracefully low wages. In about 1912, the settlement of Lockeport, now called ‘Locke’ was established by three local Chinese merchants. Three years later in 1915, the Chinatown in nearby walnut Grove was destroyed by fire. The Chinese community then moved to Locke and a town grew. Because the Californian Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade Asians buying farmland, the Chinese in the area leased the land from a George Locke.

The town’s population reached 1000 to 1500 in its heyday. It acquired a reputation for its gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels. At one point, according to an article in Wikipedia, it became known as ‘California’s Monte Carlo’. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the towns population dwindled because many people migrated from Locke to major American cities. Currently, there are only about ten people living there.

By 1995 when we drove into Locke it was already a ghost town, a lesser-known tourist attraction. However, it did not disappoint us. Most of the main street’s buildings were picturesquely decaying. They were all made of wood, and no doubt highly inflammable. The place looked like a rundown set for a cowboy film, except that it was for real. One of the buildings that had housed a gambling salon, or maybe a brothel or opium den, was open to the public. Its original dingy décor had been preserved. All that was missing was a haze of opium smoke and the poor Chinese workers squandering their hard-earned money.

From Locke we drove west into the setting sun towards Marin County, pleased that we had made the detour to see the fascinating remnant of a far-off era. Our daughter was born three months later, having travelled several thousand miles around the American west in utero.

Chopsticks

 

My earliest recollection of eating Chinese food was in a restaurant called ‘Tung Hsing’ in Golders Green almost opposite the old Hippodrome Theatre. It opened in the 1960s and was one of the first restaurants in London to serve Pekinese food, rather than the then usual Cantonese cuisine. The restaurant was owned by a retired ambassador from Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist China and his wife, whom I believe was responsible for the very excellent food served. 

Although I am sure they were available, I am not sure whether I used chopsticks when eating at the Tung Hsing. Maybe, I learned to use them there, but I really cannot remember. Whatever the case, I have been eating Chinese food with chopsticks for many decades. I would not say that I am 100 percent proficient with them, but I feel that using them to eat Chinese food satisfies me.

Chinese-style food is very popular in India. Most Indians eat in Chinese restaurants using western utensils such as plate, fork and spoon. If you ask for chopsticks, they are usually available, but they are not supplied as default table settings.

Some years ago, early this century, a new Chinese restaurant opened in Museum Road in Bangalore. We visited soon after its inauguration. It was a lovely restaurant and the food was good by Indian Chinese restaurant standards. As usual, we asked for bowls and chopsticks. The waiter disappeared for a while, and then returned empty-handed.

“There are no chopsticks,” he told us.

“Why not?” we asked.

“I will ask the manager.”

The Manager came over, and explained:

“We have been so busy since we opened, and many of the guests have taken them home as souvenirs. So, we have run out of them”

 

A guilty secret

I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. It would not be exaggerating to say that the displays of plants are all quite wonderful.

Among the show gardens, I spotted some fine examples of peonies, some in bud and others flowering. Seeing these brought back memories of my childhood when we lived in a house with a fine garden in north-west London. At one end of the garden, there were several peony bushes. At the appropriate time of the year, these plants produced almost spherical buds.

My sister and I were attracted to these buds and used to pull them off before they could flower. My late mother used to get very upset by our horticultural vandalism, and told us off so severely that I still recall our midemeanours on the rare occasions that I think of peonies, which is not all that often.

You will be pleased to read that I resisted the temptation to pluck any of the peony buds I saw at the Chelsea Flower Show!

And, here is an interesting fact: Peony is the name of a novel by Pearl S Buck. The story is set in China and features a Chinese Jewish family.

No coriander please

 

I love eating Chinese food. So, do many people in India, where this cuisine is served everywhere from simple, unsophisticated street stalls to dedicated, smart Chinese restaurants.

Indian Chinese food is prepared to suit Indian peoples’ tastes. To people used to eating Chinese food in London or elsewhere in the UK, the Chinese food in India may seem somewhat different, especially its taste. Although I much prefer eating Chinese food in London, where the restaurants serve food to many people of Chinese origin, I also enjoy eating Indian Chinese food, which is prepared mostly for Indian diners. On the whole, the Chinese food in India is less ‘authentic’ than that served in London, where there is a large population of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Once when we were visiting Mangalore on the coast of the Indian State of Karnataka, we entered a Chinese restaurant. Its main entrance was almost hidden in a dingy yard that would have made an excellent setting for a performance of West Side Story. This establishment was staffed mainly by a Chinese  family, rather than people with slanting eyes who had originated in the north eastern states of India. I was delighted to find steamed pork dumplings on the menu amongst the starters. I ordered these, and was told that I would have to wait atleast 45 minutes. I said that was alright, and we ate other dishes whilst we awaited the dumplings. 

When the dumplings arrived, we found them to be as delicious as the best we had eaten in London. They were made without making compromises to satisfy Indian tastebuds. The reason that they had taken so long to arrive was, I believe, that they had been made fresh, from scratch. Of all the Chinese food I have eaten in over 25 years of visiting India, these dumplings are the best Chinese food I have been served in the country. I have eaten other enjoyable Chinese meals in India, but none matched those dumplings in Mangalore.

There is one feature of Indian Chinese food that particularly displeases me: the over use of fresh coriander. I like this herb in some Gujarati vegetarian dishes and some Mexican food, but I do not think it enhances Chinese food. Almost every Chinese dish served in India is tainted with fresh coriander. 

I am fond of Hot and Sour Soup, both in London and in India. However, in India my enjoyment of it is marred by the obligatory addition of fresh coriander. Recently, a friend of mine in Bangalore made the very sensible suggestion that I should ask for this soup to be made without coriander added. So, the next time I ordered the soup I followed his advice. The waiter noted my request and the soup arrived without coriander. I tasted it. To my great surprise, the soup was tinged with a taste I associate with Polish food. The chef had replaced coriander with freshly chopped dill leaves!

How China viewed Albania

HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!

Albania is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Between 1944 and late 1990, it was isolated from the rest of the world by a stern dictatorship that held in high regard the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his methods of government. In brief, Albania was ruled by a pro-Stalin dictatorship.

The dictatorship, led by Enver Hoxha from 1944 until his death in ’85, had few allies. For a couple of years after 1945, Albania maintained an uneasy friendship with Tito’s Yugoslavia. Then for a longer period, the USSR became its ally and provider of assistance. With Stalin’s death and his replacement by Nikita Krushchev, who denounced Stalin posthumously, Albania rejected the USSR.

For a period between about 1964 and the mid to late 1970s, tiny Albania became closely allied with the enormous Peoples Republic of China. This period included the ten year Chinese Cultural Revolution. Albanians were subjected to Enver Hoxha’s own version of what the Chinese people had to suffer. Eventually, China’s drift away from Albania’s approach to Marxism- Leninism, caused an end to friendship between the two countries.

I have met several retired diplomats who served in China during the period of Sino-Albanian friendship. Their anecdotes make interesting reading.

When I was last in Tirana, I met a retired Albanian diplomat, who had served in China during the years of Sino-Albanian friendship. He said that in those days the Chinese newspapers were full of pictures and articles about Albania. One day, some Chinese people approached him. They told him that because there was so much about Albania in the news, it must surely be a huge country like China!

A retired Indian diplomat, who had served in China during the Cultural Revolution, collected atlases, something that I also enjoy doing. He found a Chinese world atlas and looked for Albania. In this particular atlad, Albania was hidden away near the spine of the book where two pages met. The country was barely visible except by opening the atlas as widely as possible without cracking the spine. When some young Chinese students asked the diplomat to show them Albania in his atlas, they were surprised at its almost hidden representation in the book. They could not believe that their country’s socialist ally in Europe was so tiny and insignificant. Almost immediately, the students began insulting him with phrases like: “capitalist spy”, “imperialist lackey”, and “enemy of the people”. They refused to believe that the country, which was so important to China, was so tiny.

Another retired Indian diplomat, whom I met in India, came up tomeafter I had given a talk about Albania. He told me that he was serving in China when Enver Hoxha sent the open letter declaring that he was terminating the friendship between his country and China. He told me that he was amazed that such a minute nation like Albania had the nerve to throw mud in the face of a major power and ally such as China was and still is.

These anecdotes help illustrate that tiny Albania had a larger than life history during the 20th century.

A Chinese gong in Bangalore

The Bangalore Club, until 1947 a British officers’ club (the Bangalore United Services Club), was founded in 1868.

gong

At the entrance to the dining hall, there stands a heavy metal Chinese gong shaped like a ship’s anchor. It is held in a wooden frame surmounted by carved wooden dragons. On each of its flat surfaces, there are Chinese pictograms (writing characters).  My friend Pamela Miu has kindly translated these Chinese pictograms. What she tells me gives some clues as to the history of the gong, which I have been seeing regularly for 25 years.

On one side, the inscription reads that the gong once  belonged to the imperial navy school of the late Qing dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet, dating the object to the late 19th century.

The other side of the gong includes a date. This refers to the Qing Dynasty period. It mentions the the gong’s date is October in the 21st year of the reign of the Guangxu Emperor, who ruled 1875-1908. This dates the gong to 1897.

How the gong reached Bangalore from the Chinese naval school is a mystery at present. Apparently, the Beiyang Fleet suffered many defeats. Also, the British, along with seven other nations, fought the Chinese and looted many treasures from China. Tjis gong might well be be part of the loot. Finally, Pamela mentioned that when the British took (leased) Hong Kong in 1898, many of its police force were brought over from India.

So, there is a bit of the history of a dinner gong, which I have never seen used.

 

Many thanks to Pamela Miu