10 Ways to Travel at Home for Chinese New Year

Happy Lunar New Year  and 恭禧發財 to you! What a fantastic excuse to “travel at home” and enjoy some cultural treats from China, no matter where in the world you are located.

Of course the Lunar New Year celebrations are shared by many cultures (for example, the fellas in my family recently participated in a Vietnamese Tet Celebration— I am training them well!). But I adore China and I have brilliant memories of travelling there a few years ago. So here are my suggestions (quite non-traditional!) for how to imagine you’re in China and perhaps learn a bit about its incredible culture, heritage, history and impact.

1. Drink Tea. Chinese tea, of course– this blog is named after it! There are many resources online to help you choose a variety. Mine is Iron Goddess tea; astringent and cooling (I’ve written about it before here).

Chinese Lunar New Year Green Tea Vintage Doll Decor

2. Read about tea (and opium, and how it links to tea). The history of the relationship between “The East” and “The West” is caught up in tea and opium. The story is horrific and much more fascinating than any fiction; I think it’s important to have context to so much of our current world situation. To read about the world’s first– and probably worst– multinational company, see this article in the Guardian about the East India Company, whose story also reaches across to the beginnings of the American Revolution.

China Tea History Books Travel East India Company

3. Eat Chinese Food. That’s easily done, thanks very much, yum! I’m teaching my two how to use chopsticks with their fab toucan contraptions (it’s a game to them) and I will be attempting some proper Lunar New Year recipes from a fantastic family blog I’ve found called The Woks of Life. I’m also keen to make Tomato Egg Drop Soup which was my favourite when I was in China.

Chinese Luna New Year Geoff Lindsay Chow Down Noodles Kids Chopsticks

4. Read more books about China, its traditions, its more recent history (especially if you plan to travel there). The story of the Cultural Revolution is heartbreaking and the consequences can still be felt in China now. The influence of Chairman Mao and Communism is still evident, despite relaxed attitudes (and no, I don’t think Mao is ever appropriate as decor or fashion, I’m quite astounded at this retailer).

Memoirs are an invaluable way to understand the people of China; the incredible story of Wild Swans and Mao’s Last Dancer are well-known examples, or try Red Scarf Girl for a Cultural Revolution setting. If you are more interested in China as a world power, try these suggestions from Fortune of books to help explain its modern nuances.

Chinese Ma Jian Lunar New Year Books Proverbs Traditional Made in China

5. Watch Chinese movies or movies set in China. There are plenty of Communist propaganda films to help you toe the party line (here’s a famous one called Lei Feng), but I recommend every film by Zhang Yimou, or Kung Fu Hustle with the English overdub for belly laughs.

Chinese Tea Jasmine Films DVD Movies New Year Travel

6. Light some sparklers (the only “fireworks” we are allowed here), consider that gunpowder was invented in China and that gunpowder changed the world. Actually there’s a great film about a firecracker factory, called Red Firecracker Green Firecracker, that I could add to the list above.

Travel at Home China Gunpowder Fireworks History Sparklers

7. Go to a parade and observe fireworks at your local Chinatown if you have one; we’ll be doing that this coming weekend. It seems as though Lunar New Year has finally become mainstream: there are markets and events happening in the city all this week to mark the occasion.

Chinese Lunar New Year Many Cha Cha Lion Dragon Lantern Parade

8. If there is no Chinatown near you, create your own parade! We live in a small town and luckily we are known for marching around in costume, so nobody blinked an eye when we took our vintage lion head out walking to scare away last year’s bad luck.

Many Cha Cha Lunar New Year Kids Parade Lantern Chinese Dragon Mask Costume

9. Enjoy some Monkey Magic! Every year is year of the monkey with my two boys but I think it’s finally time I read the classic work, Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en on which so many fantastic Monkey adaptations are based. I would give anything to see this “opera” version by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz, even the promo video is exciting.

Chinese Lunar New Year Monkey Magic Journey to the West Remember Tibet

10. Remember Tibet.

Many Cha Cha Lantern Chinese Red Home Travel Decor Decoration

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Seeking Mercy from the Iron Goddess

Iron Goddess of Mercy Chinese Fujian Oolong Cup Tea

The name of this tea, “Iron Goddess,” suggests a beverage with a punch. In contrast, the tea is actually very smooth, but I may still be destined to receive that punch!

The phrase makes me think of my sister, although she may not appreciate the flattery intended in that. She has admirable home-management skills, making her the closest thing to a domestic goddess that I know, but don’t imagine for a second that means she is an apron-wearing softy. She doesn’t need to be rocking her corporate heels to verbally — proverbially — kick ass.

The fully translated name of this tea (which is not always used) is “Iron Goddess of Mercy” and it’s worth mentioning that last bit because it really changes the connotation. In Chinese, the name refers to Guanyin, a compassionate, enlightened being. Not an ass-kicker and not even necessarily a female.

In terms of flavour, the tea is mild and sweet, like my sister most of the time. It’s an oolong tea, meaning that it goes through a lengthy and complicated process, including partial oxidisation, that sounds like a line dance (pluck, wither, toss and roll).

Iron Goddess Tea Leaves Sassafras Iron Goddess Oolong

The resulting little pellets of tea unfurl as they brew into a caramel-coloured, mellow flavoured liquid. It doesn’t have the bitterness of black tea, or the grassiness of green tea and it’s a bit flowery. It can be steeped more than once and some believe that this even improves the flavour.

My tea came from the wonderful Tea Leaves shop in Sassafras, and the Iron Goddess of Mercy variety originates in Fujian province of China, which is about halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong. I’m probably going to have to run away there when my sister reads this… or perhaps she’ll be pleased if I brew her a pot of this lovely fragrant drink.

Iron Goddess Fujian Oolong Chinese Tea

Crouching Soupstall, Hidden Guesthouse

Dog and Vegetable Vendor Street Scene Seller China Many Cha Cha

From: Michelle
Sent: Tuesday, 30 May 2006 10:27 PM
To: Family and Friends
Subject: Crouching Soupstall, Hidden Guesthouse

Ni Hao from Beijing!

I hope you are all well.¡¡´ó¡¡°Ó¡¡Èø¡¡·¤ (That’s not Mandarin it’s nonsense; I hit the wrong button on the keyboard and I thought it looked cool so I left it).

I had a very interesting introduction to Beijing by an American guy who had been drinking since Ohio. He spoke reasonably good Chinese, even whilst drunk, so we were able to negotiate a taxi from the airport and found my guesthouse. We only had to stop on the freeway (!!!???) twice to call the guesthouse to ask for directions. And after checking in, we only had to walk for about 7 minutes up the road to the actual room! But it’s a nice, Beijing court-yard-house-style place, comfortable, and there’s some good company here.

I was out and about very late on my first night here (after a sleepless night and long journey, I was delirious) and had an interesting food experience walking home at about 1.30am. I was hungry by this stage, and convinced my new friend to eat something from a hawker stall. I pointed at what looked like an omlette, and indicated that I wanted one.

The stall-holders were extremely welcoming, pulled up (tiny) stools and settled us in. Then proceeded to cook up two bowls of something that looked like my favourite noodle soup. I didn’t hesitate to have a try, and immediately realised it was absolutely rank but I had already committed.

My friend poked in a chopstick and tasted the broth, then started looking closely. He identified a number of different types of offal. I had assumed that I had tried omlette and tofu, but it could just as easily have been tripe and brain. I dunno! ERGHHH!!!

I smiled/ grimaced at the stall holders, ate some *obvious* vegetable from the bowl and pretended I was full from this delicious meal, then shook their hands saying “Xie Xie” and ran for it! We couldn’t get the taste out of our mouths for ages! I didn’t get sick from it, thank god, and I’ve since found some good local specialties and won-ton soup.

I have walked so far it’s not funny. The maps are extremely deceptive, because the main roads indicated are huge, broad boulevards. It is exhausting to cross one of them. The bike lanes on the sides of them are as wide as our roads. So I was amazed at how long it took to “stroll” (read: hike) down to Tian’anmen Square to see the huge portrait of the “Great Helmsman”. I haven’t visited the pickled man himself, yet.

I’ve seen people playing ping-pong and mah-jong in the park, and crazy people swimming and fishing in the green lake, and people selling sausages or mangoes or shoes off a cardboard box in the middle of a laneway. And people gesturing at my nose (hey! That’s a sore point, guys!) and little girls doing traditional fan-dancing routines to the Black Eyed Peas… ah, Rudyard Kipling was wrong about East and West “never the twain shall meet”

I’ve also visited the Forbidden Palace, which is huge and under renovation.

Speaking of huge, the Communist buildings are amazing. Big, square, imposing structures that are SO UGLY. As I was trying to find my way back from the palace, I got lost amongst the big buildings and wide streets. So I risked a subway train (easy) and then asked a cab driver. Only once we were on the road did he tell me he knew the street but not the specific address. I said no worries, I’ll remember the rest of the way.

I was wrong. Everything seems familiar here, because everything is unfamiliar, if that makes any sense. And there are so many of everything… people, cars, bikes, laneways etc

“Oh! There’s the music shop! Oh. There are fourteen of them. Oh! There’s the neon sign next to the red lantern! And the guy selling shoe soles… Oh. There are heaps of them.”

So landmarks didn’t help me one bit. I walked up and down and up and down… Needless to say I nearly fell over when I finally found it.

Love to you all, watch what you eat and look after your feet!

-Michelle

Chairman Mao Tin Sign Portrait Old Vintage China Photo

A Long Journey for a Cuppa: Russian Caravan Tea

Russian Caravan Tea Twinings Samovar Glass

The story of how Russian Caravan tea gained its name and flavour seems to wind back upon itself like… well, like a trade route through mountainous terrain. Let’s set the record straight to begin with: this tea does not come from Russia. It’s a blend of Chinese black teas which will vary according to brand (and there are no hints about origins at all on a Twinings packet).

I have wondered before about the labels attached to tea blends and come to the conclusion that marketing plays a part, but tea history certainly figures in this one. This blend is named for the couriers and merchants who transported leaves or bricks of tea from deep within China either to Russia or through Russia to other parts of Europe from the late 1600s or so.

Either way, picture this: wiry humans carrying more than their weight in tea through terrain that is simply too treacherous to sustain the foothold of any other beast. Then, when the route opens out to the vast open deserts and grasses of Mongolia and Russia: hundreds and hundreds of camels loping along with aromatic, valuable, delicious tea cargo. Depending on whether you count from the tea garden origin in Yunnan or from after the tea has been inspected, weighed and packaged in Mongolia, the journey takes either half a year or nearly two to reach its destination in a teapot or samovar.

Russian Caravan Tea Keemun Lapsang Souchong Glass Russia China

Naturally, since it wasn’t easy to get hold of, this stuff was expensive and rare. The name has retained some of its exotic cachet, even though the caravans ceased during the early twentieth century due to the implementation of railways, the development of new tea-growing regions and war.

Traditionally, tea named Russian Caravan has a slight smoky flavour (although due to a lingering head cold I can’t confirm whether this is the case with my Twinings sample). Legend has it that the couriers’ camp fires infused the cargo with smoke, adding depth to its flavour. It’s probably more true that the tea was dried over pine wood fires by the Chinese growers in preparation for the journey, as described by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson in their book “Tea Classified”. These days a touch of Lapsang Souchong is often added to the black tea blend to evoke this quality.

Even without a blocked nose, I’m not sure that dunking a teabag is really the best way to experience this historic beverage. I’ve noticed that you can pick up an old samovar online, either antique/ornate, or Soviet/electric. The time and expense to have one of those shipped here might help me recreate the true mystique of some real Russian Caravan tea.

Russian Caravan Tea Old Vintage Keys Many Cha Cha

Generic Exotic

Old Style Chinese Restaurant Hand Lettering Sign Take Away

It’s a familiar style of shop front that can be seen around Australia, and around the world. These ubiquitous restaurants say more about how well Chinese immigrants have become indispensible locals, than they do about food in China.

Before “multicultural” became standard, these restaurants often provided the only touch of foreign flavor to Australian towns and suburbs. (The history of Chinese immigration to this country is intertwined with the history of Australian colonisation itself, although the Chinese have still been considered the outsiders).

Old Style Chinese Restaurant BYO Takeaway Sign

I must admit I was a bit confused by these places upon our shift to Hobart. I saw so many Chinese restaurants with beautiful, but faded, hand lettered signage and closed curtains or blinds. Were they still operating? Why were they so shuttered to the world?

But of course, in the old-style restaurant it wasn’t about authentic décor or transporting the diner to Shanghai or Sichuan. It was about being functional, comfortable and fairly plain. I suspect that many of these restaurants were decorated to mirror the sentiments of the immigrants themselves: they were Chinese, but trying not to attract too much attention for it.

Old Style Chinese Restaurant Interior Australia

(The style was not entirely inauthentic: plenty of restaurants in China are plain and practical too. I remember eating in one that really appeared to be the inside of a shipping container and thinking how easy it would be to hose out at the end of the day).

Old Style Chinese Restaurant Retro Tea Jasmine

So yes, these restaurants are still operating behind those heavy curtains. And what of the food? It reflects a similar story of clever and adaptable Chinese people who have adjusted their own cuisine to suit a local palate. It has been years since I have seen “chow mein” and “chop suey” on a menu! Lemon or honey chicken, standard orders when I was a child, were created because the true Chinese flavours were too salty for westerners. The most famous and enduring example of this adaptation was the Melbourne invention of the “dim sim,” which can still be purchased from any Aussie fish ‘n’ chip shop, steamed or fried.

Old Style Chinese Restaurant Exterior Neon Sign Retro

Once, when I was a teenager walking down a suburban street, my friends and I saw a stranded cat being coaxed from the roof of one of these restaurants by an Asian-looking man, who we presumed to own the shop. “No kitty, don’t listen to him,” my friend shouted, as we laughed. “Stay up there, you don’t want to be a dim sim!”

We thought it was hilarious then. But now I respect the Chinese people who brought us these funny old suburban restaurants as pioneers, in their way. They paved the way for even more adventurous eating by Australians. And they’ve helped shape the culturally diverse Australia that I now enjoy.

Old Style Chinese Retro Restaurant Lazy Susan Table