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

The Why of Pumpkin Pie

I’ve always liked the idea of a celebration to give thanks, but I’ve never known why America has a holiday called Thanksgiving. And then there’s the much more pressing question: what is the story with pumpkin pie?

Pumpkin Pie Baked Butternut Squash Shell Apple Sauce Recipe

Thanksgiving probably began simply as a celebration of a bountiful harvest, and the idea has been co-opted at different times by religion and politics. Eventually its various origins and purposes seem to have come together mostly as a reason for Americans to come together, firstly as a symbol of national unification (as decreed by Abraham Lincoln) and these days as a family occasion.

My extensive research of American TV situation comedies suggests that this is a holiday with generous and loving qualities.

Still, I’m more intrigued by the idea of pumpkin pie. Why pumpkin pie?

Ryan O’Hanlon of Pacific Standard has this excellent quote to add to my understanding of it: “Thanksgiving is an American holiday, and there are few things more American than dumping a can of pre-prepared mush into pie crust and calling it dessert.”

Certainly pumpkins originated in the “New World” along with corn, tomatoes and peanuts. However it seems likely the recipes that evolved into modern-day pumpkin pie were actually European. They had been stuffing and roasting cucumbers, gourds and zucchini since the Middle Ages. So the first “pumpkin pies” were probably pumpkins stuffed with apples and berries and shoved into a fire. Sounds practical but even more weird than the modern version.

Pumpkin Pie In Shell Mash Recipe Origins

All of this brings me to my own attempt at making one. The nearest I have come to tasting a genuine Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is smelling a “spiced pumpkin” scented candle, so I didn’t have any bias to begin with. But I wanted my version to hint at the history of this odd-sounding dessert. So I stuffed a pumpkin with a custardy pumpkin mash (recipe below).

Actually it was a butternut squash, so my pumpkin wasn’t really a pumpkin just as my pie wasn’t really a pie. I served it with Dutch apple sauce in homage to those medieval cooks I mentioned, but that extra flourish also added extra weirdness to the flavour, I think.

Whether or not my “pie” was a success depends upon who you ask. The kids tucked in and then tired of it very quickly; perhaps they found it too rich. The husband took two spoonfuls and declared it “not yucky… but a bit weird.”

I think it was delicious and I’d like all my vegetables served as custard from now on, please.

Pumkin Pie Stuffed Shell Custard Recipe History

Many Cha Cha’s Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie

Half a small pumpkin (I used a butternut squash, which we call a pumpkin…)

1/2 cup Muscuvado sugar

2 free range eggs

1/2 cup cream

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground Allspice

Whole cloves (to decorate the pumpkin shell)

Icing sugar and perhaps Dutch applesauce or extra cream, to serve

Brush the pumpkin or squash with oil and roast for 40 minutes at 180C. Scoop the flesh out of the shell, discard the seeds and puree the pumpkin. Add eggs, cream, sugar and ground spices to the pumpkin puree and continue to blend until mixture is well combined. Decorate pumpkin shell with whole cloves and then spoon the pumpkin mixture into the shell (any leftover mixture can be baked in patty pans or ramekins). Place the pumpkin into an oven-proof bowl to help it retain its shape, then return it to the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until set, at 150C. Dust with icing sugar and serve with sauce or cream.

Pumpkin Pie Butternut Squash America Thanksgiving Tradition History Recipe

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

Rolling Like a Stone

Cycle Life Jewish Cemetery Garden Menorah Gate Garden Hobart

I visited a local Jewish cemetery today and I placed some stones on one of the graves: it is one of my favourite Jewish customs.

There are a variety of understood reasons for the tradition, but the purpose seems intuitive rather than rational. Pebbles and rocks are sturdy, weatherproof, solid, heavy. By placing one on your grave I am marking my respect in a tangible way, I am adding to the monument of your life, I am letting future visitors know that you have been acknowledged by me.

Cycle Life Jewish Cemetery Henrietta Moses Grave Stone Pebbles

(Henrietta Moses died at age 13 in 1853, around the time when the Jewish population was at its largest in Tasmania).

Cycle Life Henrietta Moses Tasmania Jewish Cemetery

The cemetery at Cornelian Bay is located on land that was once government farmland, and it has been used as a burial ground (on and off) since 1872. Many of Hobart’s original cemeteries became health hazards because it wasn’t possible to dig deeply enough into the rocky earth to make suitable graves.

Cycle Life Hobart Cemetery Magen David Head Stone Jewish

I gather that the old Jewish cemetery, used from 1828 to 1871, had a block of apartments built upon it but was exhumed in its entirety once the building was demolished. The human remains and some salvaged head stones have been reinterred at Cornelian Bay and a lovely garden space has been created as a memorial.

Cycle Life Jewish Cemetery Hobart

I wasn’t able to linger long over the graves today, but I did reflect upon the contribution of these long-ago people to the development and culture of the place that I now call home. There were Jewish convicts and free settlers in Tasmania, and the plaques in the cemetery dedicated to infants are a stark reminder of the harsh conditions in which these people attempted to raise families. Meanwhile, one of the plaques names 89-year-old Sarah Moses, who died in 1861; she must have been one tough cookie.

Cycle Life Jewish Cemetery Moses Infant TasmaniaCycle Life Sarah Moses Jewish Settler Tasmania Cemetery Hobart

Having been at this place and thinking about these things today, I was particularly struck when my husband received news this afternoon of a family member’s pregnancy, while another beloved relative is very near death.

The cycle of life and death is a mystical, but somehow also very ordinary, thing. All we can do is roll with it.

Cycle Life Death Jewish Cemetery Harrington Street Hobart Reinterred

(The photographs feature all the Moses graves that I could find for a writer and archaeologist on the other side of the world, Lois Elsden, who has ancestral links to early Tasmanian settlers).

Mofo Music Show Gives Statistics a Face

Most of the time, history seems far away and the people who lived before us are faceless and forgotten. Of the convicts who contributed so much to the history of Australia, Robert Hughes wrote (in The Fatal Shore): “They were statistics, absences and finally embarrassments.”

Indeed, it’s not that long ago that Tasmanians sought to have the World Heritage Listed former penal colony, Port Arthur, renamed and ignored because of its ignominious past. They did not want to be reminded of their convict roots.

So it’s amazing to be confronted with real convict faces, as is possible via the Tasmanian government archives. This is William Marsden, photo taken in 1874 by Thomas Nevin.

And it was an unexpectedly moving experience to listen to songs detailing the stories of 17 convicts and their families in the Dark Mofo event, Vandemonian Lags. It wasn’t musical theatre, exactly, it was a concert with a context. Short dramatised introductions, recreations of judicial court trials on the other side of the world, for example, set the scene for the songs with projected images and film. Most songs were about specific people who were transported here as prisoners. Some detailed what happened to their offspring, others were about the crimes that got them sent over.

The performers were legendary musicians from the Australian rock and folk scene and the songs, which were based on original convict records, were all immediately likeable. The stories and songs are available to explore on the Storylines website, which appears to have been made as part of the overall project and provides an incredible educational resource.

Husband, who is a storyteller by trade, felt that the lyrics occasionally got in the way of the story and sometimes the story wasn’t clear, but I didn’t think this detracted from the overall mood. The variety of songs created great texture and it maintained a good pace. In fact — surprisingly given the subject — it was frequently rollicking and at least once it totally rocked out.

Vandemonian Lags History Through Activities Tasmania Pageant Vintage School Book

I cried twice and tried to pretend I didn’t. Having just visited Port Arthur last weekend, I had colonial history at the forefront of my mind and I was really receptive to the emotional hardships that these people went through, as well as their physical travails.

It’s so interesting to notice how our attitudes towards the past changes, and that what is considered valuable is not fixed. History, so often written and dominated by the wealthy and powerful, is now “interpreted” (rather than told) to include and perhaps give dignity to those who were once ignored.

The songs and stories in this show were about forgotten folk, a reminder that some of the most unfortunate occupants of Van Diemen’s Land were real people too.

Transported

Transport Museum Glenorchy Old Rail Signal Tasmania

As we go about our daily lives, within our comfort zones for ease and convenience, we often keep our heads down and our eyes lowered. Yet when we travel we are open, receptive and alert.

This means that we often miss things that lie nestled within our own neighbourhoods, while when we are away from home we are more likely to notice small details.

Transport Train Signal Antique Vintage Stencil Lettered Hobart Museum

As relative newcomers to our town, we are still half way between these two attitudes. When we mentioned the Tasmanian Transport Museum to locals, they shrugged and said they’re not aware of it. Yet it’s tucked in behind the shops of a Hobart suburb, easy to find and not far from anything.

Transported Vintage Luggage Train Station Glenorchy Tasmania

It’s a small museum, based around an original railway station that is no longer in use (only freight trains operate in Tasmania these days). It features many historical vehicles and other transport paraphernalia, including luggage that would be right at home in my house.

Transport Train Signal Antique Hand Lettered Hobart Glenorchy Museum

The museum was a fun excursion for us because the two small guys are just learning about different modes of transport and they like them very much. One of them greets every car as if it’s the first and best one he’s ever seen.

Transport Train Signal Antique Machine Hobart Glenorchy Museum

As you can see I was focused on the surfaces and textures that modern life doesn’t often allow any more. Hand lettered or stenciled signs, the patina of rust and worn paint, the glow of weathered timber.

Transport Train Antique Vintage Metal Hobart Glenorchy Museum

Some of the colours that time created were just gorgeous.

Transport Train Old Rust Paint Hobart Glenorchy Museum

All of this was a visual treat, an interactive experience and an opportunity for learning. It was a great reminder: if we want to be briefly transported to a fascinating place or another time, we have to remember to occasionally lift up our eyes.

Transport Antique Vintage Danger Keep Off Sign Train Station Museum