My mother’s auntie (I call her grandmother, lao lao, for some reason) lives in the Daxing district of Beijing, some 31 kilometres away from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. Beijing is divided into 6 “ring roads”, with central Beijing (i.e. Tiananmen Square) as Ring Road 1. Daxing is on the 6th ring road. By the extremely efficient and cheap Beijing subway, it takes 45 minutes to get from my grandmother’s house to the push and shove of the middle of town.
When I visited in 2003, all of the area in which my grandmother lives – all of the apartments, broad multi-laned roads and giant supermarkets – was all fairly undeveloped land. Back then, she lived in what I would describe as a big courtyard with three buildings: one for the bedrooms and living room, the other for cooking and another for the “toilet”. By “toilet” I mean “hole in the ground”, but let’s not get into that discussion.
It definitely didn’t feel like we were in the 21st century. The pillows weren’t filled with soft goose down or foam that moulds to the shape of your head, but rather, uncooked rice. We used bed pans if we needed to go to the toilet during the night – either that, or we had to carry a torch with us to go to the outside toilet. I went to my mum’s cousin’s work every night to shower because a shower at my grandmother’s house was literally getting water in a tub of some sort and washing yourself with it outside, regardless of whether it’s in the middle of Beijing’s stifling summer or bone-chilling winter. Oh and the water? Pumped straight out of the ground with questionable cleanliness.
But meandering along the dirt roads, I found a bustling community. Make-shift BBQs lined the streets, letting off clouds of smoke and filling the air with the smell of spiced, chargrilled meat. Locals sat around on old tables and chairs playing cards or just hanging out. Bicycles, mopeds and scooters zoomed in and around each other, adding to the chatter of passionate conversation. Just like the city, the countryside never really slept.
Leap forward to today and it’s all gone. The dusty roads, the droopy trees that were a grey-green hue, the atmosphere, the general openness. The government approached the residents of Daxing, as they did with all the other areas they’ve now urbanised, and bought out the people’s properties, giving them a place in one of the many apartment blocks they built instead. It wasn’t so much an offer as it was a notice of their intention to take away the people’s land, knock down their homes and build up from the soil, rows and rows of mid-rise apartments.
I visited again in 2011 and stayed with my grandmother for the time that I was in Beijing. For someone like me – a complete city slicker – it was at the high end of the comfort scale. The floor was marble, the furniture was polished wood, the toilets had bidets, there was air con in every room and the kitchen is bigger than the one I have here in my quarter acre home. From that kitchen came dumplings and various stir fries, as well as iced green tea drinks and weird yoghurt drinks that tasted like sour milk.
My relatives always joke that my grandmother’s cooking all tastes the same – oily, slightly tangy and very salty – but to a foreigner, it’s always delicious. I guess when it comes down to it, my mum’s cooking is similar in that most of her dishes all taste the same. This is because she uses the same seasoning products – mainly soy sauce – for most of her dishes unless she’s making something with a unique flavour, such as satay beef or Ma Po tofu.
I’m sure I’ve written about this already but there are several different cuisines in China, which isn’t always represented by Chinese takeaways or restaurants that all serve the same fried rice and wonton soup. Contrary to popular belief, rice isn’t eaten everywhere in China, nor are noodles. And sweet and sour pork? Not really a thing north of Canton, although I’m sure people would know about it regardless.
About two weeks ago I made a tofu and prawns version of General Tso’s chicken, which is also not traditionally a “thing” in China – it was created in the US. The recipe I based it on can be found here. I just half-cooked the prawns before adding it to the mix and then let it cook the rest of the way as everything was being mixed together with the sauce.
It tasted fine but not sure I’d make it again. There is a suggestion from a reviewer to marinate the tofu, then bake it after dunking it in some egg and cornstarch mix. I personally think this is unnecessary unless you are after that crispy fried tofu. There is enough sauce to coat the tofu and veges quite generously.
Photo: Tao Lin
Alternatively, you could just stir fry everything with some garlic, ginger, soy sauce, maybe some oyster sauce too, and cornflour and it’ll still taste amazing.
As much as I am all for change and thoroughly enjoyed the more modern lifestyle in present-day Beijing, I couldn’t help but feel forlorn for the loss of its more rural areas. These people who now live next door to a hyper-efficient public transport system and newly sealed roads didn’t ask for their homes, or their lives, to change. They may have lived a harder life, though maybe not as hard those begging on the city’s most inner streets, and they lived with little. But despite having little, they were in want of nothing. They had open air and space, food and water, electricity, the freedom to cook, drink and play whatever they liked out on the neighbourhood paths, and they weren’t restricted from each other by metres of concrete and cold security gates.
As my grandmother gets older, she certainly enjoys the accessibility and modernity of everything that surrounds her now but at the same time, I think she also looks back on those less-privileged times with fondness and a touch of wistfulness too.