published in http://www.tripatini.com
The diminutive and coquettish shoes, not more than three inches in length and with arched heels, exquisite embroidery, semi precious stones and in iridescent colours, are not doll’s shoes but regular shoes worn by Chinese women centuries ago. One pair was just 7 cm in length, the smallest shoe in the display from collection of Dr David Ko Chi-sheen of Taiwan’s Foot-binding Culture Museum. (Hong Kong 2009).
Foot binding or ‘Lotus Feet’ was a Mainland China custom percolating down from rich to poor. Finding a suitable match negated educational qualification and ‘tinier the feet’ meant better chances of appropriating rich husbands. A three feet foot, referred to as ‘silver lotus‘ or ”Small, slim, pointed, arched, fragrant, soft, and straight giving the same pleasure as a lotus blooming in murky waters’, was considered the perfect symbol of bound feet. A prospective mother-in-law, knowing her son’s preference for ‘butterfly’ dainty steps, would first inspect a girl’s feet and then say yes to the marriage proposal . The pain and suffering due to decaying toes and peeling skin was inconsequential.
Dorothy Ko in ‘IN EVERY STEP A LOTUS’ writes that the Han Chinese women were bowing to social dictates of the time wearing the embroidered and colorful symbols of prosperity. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century the custom had percolated down to the masses.
In 1887, Alicia Little, refers to bound feet and how ‘six year old girls instead of hopping, skipping or jumping like little girls in England, were leaning heavily on sticks taller than them or being carried on a man’s back or sitting sadly crying’.
I look at the ‘normal’ feet of women walking the Hong Kong streets and find the giant strides equally ‘beautiful’.
“Orange, the blend of red and yellow, is a mixture of the energy associated with red and the happiness associated with yellow”.
Orange is ‘joy, warmth, heat, sunshine, enthusiasm, creativity, success, encouragement, change, determination, health, stimulation, happiness, fun, enjoyment, balance, sexuality, freedom, expression, and fascination’.
The ‘Orange’ of my travels from mandarins in Taizhou(China), sunset in Kasauli (India),a Brooklyn brick house, cables in Gurgaon (India), a worship idol (Hong Kong).
The surprising part is that I am not a food person but gastronomic interjections have always been lurking in the background. In the 1970s while in the midst of understanding the nuances of the Romantic poets P B Shelly, Keats and William Wordsworth ( for Bachelors at Allahabad University) I would willingly miss lectures to gormandize on Sweet & Sour soup followed by Chicken noodles twirled in Chicken sweet ‘n’ sour.
Indian-Chinese food, especially the three mentioned dishes, was the ultimate in food luxury, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were nowhere near Allahabad’s ambit, with restaurants and roadside food stalls were in business, forget the authenticity. Even our helper dreamt of returning to his native village in Bihar to open a noodle shop,even Maggie noodles would do and worked hard to invest in woks, ladles and packets of Maggi noodles. The ‘Genuine Fake’, as a salesperson on Nathan Road (Kowloon) would say, was gaining popularity.
Marriage and travels did not lessen the craving for Chinese food, in all its avatars, and my first choice in whichever part of India or world I would be in, would be noodles and Chilli Chicken or Sweet & Sour and second choice Indian Mughlai preparations. Our five-year stay (1995-2000) in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman was a diversion with Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Lebanese shawarma*, taking precedence.
In July 2008 I found my self winding down from Hong Kong International Airport to Kowloon. The lights and traffic could not wrap away the distinct aroma that trailed us on our walks in the malls, lanes and markets of the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. My initiation into the wet markets, discovered by chance, was lamentable and urbane in turns. Initially, the raw meat smell forced me to walk away from the forked hanging pigs, the bloated ducks, the flowing tanks of unknown fish, prawns, scallops, colored crabs, clams, oysters and carts of dried sea food and chicken claws. My curiosity over rode my olfactory senses, guiding me to the markets and lanes of Sai Kung, North Point ferry station, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau islands, Tai Po, to Hung Hom lanes and Yau Ma Tai food streets and food vendors.
On occasions food masqueraded as outings on the stony trails of Ng Tung Chai waterfalls scrunched between bare rocks and tropical vegetation on the northern slopes of the cone-shaped Tai Mo Shan in Kowloon; on tram rides to the Peak and its surrounding attractions; ferried us to Discovery Bay, Lamma, Lantau, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau, Tung Lung Chau (off Clearwater Bay) and Tap Mun the Grass Island on the northern part of Sai Kung ( would be asked whether I had tried “iceless” cold milk tea, sun-dried fish and boiled squid and shrimp); on the Buddhist path to Diamond Hill and the Nunnery, the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze); the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant in Aberdeen; Tai Ho, where I had gone to watch the Dragon Boat Race, famous for its gourmet delicacies the Loh Mai chee glutinous handmade rice balls stuffed with sesame and peanut paste or Cha Gwoh rice dumplings stuffed with mixture of Chinese herbs; Po Lin Monastery for its popular vegetarian fare and the concrete jungles of Central, Causeway Bay, Shueng Wan, Kowloon, Wan Chai for their pubs, cafeterias, fast evolving eateries and Michelin starred restaurants.
The Chin-India cuisine was replaced by Cantonese, Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Szechuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang cuisine originating from different regions of China. The closest to Indian-Chinese is Szechuan, spicy and oily, though by now I was developing a taste for soup noodles and dim sums. In Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai I stuck to McDonald’s and KFC. The one time I tried traditional Chinese cuisine was a post wedding lunch at a village near Taizho situated south of Ningbo on the eastern coast of Zhejiang province, Mainland China. We had accompanied the groom’s friends and family to bring his wife from her parental home and were treated to a lavish wedding feast prepared by village cooks in the backyard. I had never tasted or seen so much exotic fish and would ask my friend the names every time a new dish was served.
My one grouse is that I can never walk into a Chinese food place on my own as the menu is mostly in Cantonese. Somehow learning languages has never been my forte and in six-years stay could manage ‘wai’ or Hello and that too because it is the most frequently used word. The goof up happened in Shanghai where I tried all possible actions, flapping wings, quacking, doodling to get across the ‘chicken’ word to the waitress. The girl, probably in a rush, as it was nearing closing time, came with our order that looked and smelled beefy. Our doubts confirmed by a young man had to be content with side veggies. Another impossible venture is using chopsticks as my fingers seem stuck in the ‘two left feet’ syndrome no matter what the encouragement or admonishment, ‘See…it is so simple..place it between thumb and fingers and voila the grain is in your mouth’. I wish it was so easy.
In between there were trips to USA, Canada, Japan and I preferred to try local temptations than the five-star presentations. In Hiroshima it was the ‘Japanese Pizza’ the ‘Okonomiyaki’ a thin layer of batter and a generous amount of cabbage on top of yakisoba noodles. One can opt for toppings of oysters, squid and cheese with bonito flakes, green laver and okonomiyaki sauce and optional extras, mayonnaise, pickled ginger, and seaweed. We were seated at a counter facing the chef preparing the okonomiyaki on a large griddle and could see other eaters drooling as he speed-chopped, layered, topped and presented the precursor of a snack called ‘issen yōshoku’ or “one-cent Western meal”.
‘Poutine’ was another luck-in was in Calgary, Canada, on a cold, snowy day. ‘Poutine’ or simply piping hot crispy fries and cheese curd cut into pieces dunked in gravy of choice, to meld in a unique flavor. Initially, I was hesitant in trying it out but then the first few bites had me scrapping till last bite.
Every city has its own aroma, sometimes familiar, and six years down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’, in words of Betty Mullard* has become more than a city to explore, it has become a way of life via the gourmet trail.
* Kowloon Tong. A novel of Hong Kong by Paul Theroux
Beginning or Incunabula* (in-kyoo-nab-yuh-luh) meaning “the earliest stages or first traces of anything.” To me Beginning is the first ray of hope, of understanding, and this is what I experienced on a slope of the Great Wall of China somewhere on the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, about 70 kilometres north of Beijing.
Whichever way you look at it…climbing up or going down, it is a step towards a new beginning to understand yourself in context of the universe in all its phenomena.
Guangzhou – Shoe selling
Statue of Liberty? Guangzhou ( Guangzhou Martyrs’ Memorial Garden)
Guangzhou – Bags all shapes, sizes and color in the wholesale market
The familiar bleak friable landscape interspersed with algae ponds, cattle and livestock in different stages of thinness grazing on non-existent grass, the sparsely cultivated fields, thatched hutments, semi naked children chasing mangy dogs, men huddled on charpoys or walking listlessly with the familiar ‘lota’ (metal mug) for their morning ablutions, women head covered engrossed in washing, cleaning. I was aboard the Prayagraj train, named after my home town Prayag and present Allahabad, after a gap of nearly 20 years and sat glued to the window not wanting to miss out the familiar sights.
The excitement was visible as on night of travel I arrived at New Delhi station two hours before departure time to a deserted platform and wondering if had got the day wrong. Maybe I had the Freudian fear of missing a train and arriving at railway stations two hours ahead of time though unlike Freud I did not associate train travel with death. For Freud ‘Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey’. (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’).
My misgivings proved wrong and within minutes the rush started and deposited on my berth, second ac sleeper top berth near the entrance and the toilet. I was looking to swap my berth for a lower one, Second AC has two berths instead of three of Third AC sleeper, but my appearance, frail, nor my age softened male hearts. As one person I requested put it ‘I have approached railway officialdom for lower berth of my choice months in advance’. The ticket collector too was elusive and for a moment was tempted to pass on some bucks but an unbeliever in bribery resigned myself to the continuous footsteps and the all-pervasive urine odor from the rusty, rickety toilets (one is western and other squat).
An overnighter, the Prayagraj, is ideal for business or work commute but not for viewing the dusty plains of North India. I was awake early morning, 4 a.m. to preempt toilet use and for the first glimpse of the Gangetic plain awakening to dawn. I had done this journey umpteen times but the gap of 21 years made me curious about the changes as we crossed obscure hamlets familiar not for their names but appearance, decrepit stations with platforms stacked with parcels and human bodies asleep or the in between naps, oblivious to the rattle of speeding trains. The familiar food carts, the tea stalls displaying the mud cups or kullars and their owners parroting ‘chai chai’ ( tea-tea). Station tea tastes best in earthen cups with aroma of leaves mingling with the mud smell. Fathepur beyond Kanpur had been my favored station to drink the special brew as the train arrived here early morning.
Around 5 a.m., the filtering sun exposed derrières along the tracks and at one place a group of boys ( four- six years) appeared to be playing a game sitting in a circle. Not a pleasant early morning expose. There are no major cities on this route, till we touch Kanpur or Cawnpore of British India history. The motley procession of spreading dry fields interspersed with green patches shaded by mango and neem trees and being a history buff visualized marauding mutineers and British soldiers galloping across the grayish brown terrain. The Mutiny of 1847* .
There was still an hour to reach Allahabad and as I gazed into the horizon I compared the passing scenery with another train journey in 2009 from Hong Kong to Beijing – Shanghai and back to Hong Kong. Then it was T 98 a superfast luxury train and the Soft Sleeper (four berths)compared with present situation had felt a luxury on wheels with clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (at the top), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights, air cons and new colored slippers for each occupant. The toilets were clean but towards end of journey, toilet hopping, it is a through train, appeared a better option.
The train had swaggered past the scenic Pearl River delta, a continuous drizzle and a disappearing sun cast a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains, leaving behind the pastoral countryside metamorphosing into a clinical landscape of barracks and factories, the occasional residential complexes with children frolicking in puddles and the elderly smoking, squatting or working in fields.
Next morning we got a glimpse of the grey skies, a continuous phenomenon of our 10 day journey, as we approached the enormousness of Beijing station mid afternoon. Few days in Beijing and another train ride to Shanghai and this time in the swanky D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand-new 200km/h sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and caps. Slightly intimidating and we slid in quietly so as not to disturb the other passengers in the upper bunks of the 4 bunk Soft sleeper. It was a twelve hour nigh journey and we missed out the country sights.
Shanghai station is a throwback of stations back home, except for its voluminous interiors, with escalators not working and no one to tell you where to go. The return journey to Hong Kong via T 99 in Hard Sleeper with 6 bunks was a journey closer to real China train experience. The upper, middle and lower bunks cushioned bunk stacks and I had spent my waking hours in the corridor, folding table and chairs placed in the corridor, observing passengers trussed amongst bales, packets and luggage, playing Mahjong. We had planned the train journeys for a view of the countryside and to interact with the locals but it was nowhere near the ‘family’ atmosphere of Prayagraj, of camaraderie with friends, foes, acquaintances and strangers.
My bonding with trains is probably a residual baggage of my mother’s accounts of journeys aboard the British India Railways, the compulsory every six months winding up the hills to Simla and return to Delhi. Her stories were peppered with grandmother’s verbal tags on the helpers and coolies, her vigil of the steel trunks carrying the family ‘silver’ …clothes, ration, and household stuff.
The steam engines wove their magic in my psyche and as a six-year-old I would dream of traveling the Indian countryside in the chuk-chuk trains. My elder brother, probably in line with family tradition, joined the Railways via Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering (IRIMEE) Jamalpur, an institute started by the British to rope in the best brains to manage the railways. His first posting was in Bhusawal, Maharashtra and my mother, me and younger brother spent a summer in his cottage in the railway colony. At night we would be woken up by frantic calls from the linesmen about some derailment or another and often my brother had to rush to the scene. He had been assigned a carriage, with bunks, washroom and kitchenette, which was attached to a goods or passenger train, depending where he was traveling. We joined him once for a regal ride from Bhusawal to Mumbai and Pune. The carriage was coupled at the end of a goods train for most part of the journey and our mother spent the entire night worrying about being looted by robbers or being stranded in some vague station. It was an experience having the humongous railways at our service, the linesmen, station attendants waiting to welcome the Sahib and train travel took on another meaning.
New modes of transport did not lessen fascination of trains and they continued to be a metaphor connecting lives across the dusty plains whether in air-conditioned comfort or sweaty general compartments.
Here, I was two decades later re-living the romance of the philistine wheels not on an unknown journey but a journey to my past.
Photo taken from moving train with my iPhone on way to Allahabad.