Friday, May 8, 2009 ;
8:21 AM
On International Labour Day (May 1st) [as opposed to Labor Day on Sep 1st in the US], we spent our day at Cathay Future. haha.

They forced us to. You see, they said all parents have to sign up for the summer classes on May 1st in order to enjoy substantial discounts.

Since I wanted to immerse the kids in the Chinese language before we returned to face all the family and friends who will ask us, "How come the kids have been in China for 1 year and still cannot speak good Mandarin?", I had planned to enrol the kids in as many courses they liked.

The night before, H told me the course schedule had been posted on the website, so I read the courses out to both kids.

They singled out these courses they'd really love to participate in:
- rollerblading
- art
- painting

Ok, good and fine, I will sign them up. However, I always felt that China has strengths in certain sports and arts specialties. If I just let the kids learn these not very Chinese things, I may have defeated my initial objectives.

Hence, I started a big campaign in front of them, highly recommending table tennis, erhu, dizi, Chinese enrichment classes, abacus...

Hey, China is the world table tennis champion. Why should the kids learn rollerblading? Table tennis makes more sense.

They were sold on the ping pong idea. But they absolutely would not agree to erhu, dizi... Even though I played lovely erhu and dizi youtube clips to them.

In the end, we reached this agreement:
and they were signed up for
1. Chinese stories (story telling by teachers) for both
2. Music and movement (like the Orff method, something like learning musicality, rhythm and music theory through fun activities, and a lot of moving around/ dancing) - for both
3. Rollerblading - for both
4. Painting for ds1
5. Cartoon art for ds1/ general art for ds2
6. Table tennis for both.

All these lessons will take place in July and Aug, with 12 classes per course. The cost/ fees is the best part.

I readily signed them up for what they wanted because it is very cheap compared to Singapore, for a similar tr:student ratio and facilities. On average, the courses cost S$3-4 an hour. With the discount, it is even less.

I got a 15% discount on everything when I sign up on May 1st.

Now we have to go buy the rollerblades. The kids are so excited.

2 May

We decided to visit a friend who hasn't been able to come for church services for a long time because she lives very far away and operates a noodle shop, which meant she works every Sunday.

The place is a historic village/ town called 杨柳青 (Yang Liu Qing)。It's beyond the Xiqing Industrial Area, so that meant more than an hour's journey.

However, in order to encourage that friend, and also to spend time with our other Tianjin local friends, we felt we should go.

I went to google that area and found that it is actually a tourist destination of sorts. It is well-known for New Year Paintings and it dates very far back. According to the websites, the whole of China will order their New Year Paintings from YLQ each year.

The reason is because there is something like more than 12 steps to complete the painting, involving wood-block printing, painting etc etc. I am not an artist so I won't attempt to explain the process. Just google YLQ if you are interested.

So we set off at 8.30am, met Mag at 下瓦房地铁站 (a subway station in the city) at 9am, then took bus 175 from there.

It costs 3yuan per person (S$0.60), a flat fare. So for us, it was very worth it! We were taking it from the 1st stop to the last! haha.

Thankfully we got on at the 1st stop!
This bus is the older smaller version. Most of the Tianjin City buses are big, air-conditioned and relatively clean. This one has smoky exhausts, poor ventilation, smells bad around our seats, and generally not so clean. Worst of all was, it was so packed and crowded.

According to our local friends, this is the only bus that goes out to YLQ and passes by the industrial area and the farms in the outskirts, so everyone takes it. A lot of students visit YLQ during the weekends too, and old people from the farms come into Tianjin city very early in the morning to buy groceries and other stuff then take this bus back.

To make matters worse, the bus passes through so many districts, including Nankai, where all the Unis are. Nankai Uni, Tianjin Uni, etc etc Uni. So at every stop, more and more people came up the bus but none alighted, cos everyone was going to the countryside!

Along the way, Jan boarded this same bus and met up with us. She had to stand the rest of the 1hr journey. It was simply too packed. And I could smell the odours of everyone standing next to me. I was seated with the kids. We squeezed 3 of us onto the seat also, to enable more of the standing passengers to sit.

The scenery was very interesting though. A lot of industries at first, then lots of farms. Not many people at all until certain intervals when we see a whole crowd waiting. That meant it was a bus stop, although there were no signs, poles or anything! I asked Jan how they know it's a bus stop, she says not fixed, as long as everyone around there agrees, it's fine, the bus driver will stop the bus and pick them up.

Close to 10.30am, we reached and walked through the small town to find Phe's shop. That's the pic of the group walking when we first arrived.

Found Phe and her food haven. Wow, impressive signage!
When we reached, there was only 1 couple inside having brunch. So we could chat with her for sometime.

Phe is the one in the blue polo tee next to Dh. She came to our house once on Sunday long ago, then couldn't come again anymore. We discussed how to enable her to join us more often. Some alternatives were to engage someone to watch the shop for her while she comes to join us (she could borrow a car to cut short travelling time), or Dh suggested that everyone (minus me and kids) could go to YLQ once a month to meet with her.

She said afternoon timing is good, since there would be a lull in the business. So Dh is going to work out something. He and me and kids would have our family thing in the morning. Then in the afternoon, he and the rest of the local friends will go to YLQ and congregate with Phe.

(We decided to leave the kids out for regular travels cos the journey is tedious, and Phe has a very small shop area only. Also, the kids were restless during the bus trip cos the duration was long, and they didn't care for the scenery, unlike me.)

I was curious as to why the noodles are called "过桥米线" (cross-bridge-rice-threads) and asked her. She pointed this sign out to me.

It was such a touching story! In case you cannot read the words even after clicking on the image to enlarge it, here is a brief summary.

Long ago, there was a scholar in Yunnan who was studying very hard to be an official. He needed to take the Imperial Exams and studied in a place far away from his village home. His wife loved him so much and still walked the arduous distance daily, from their home to the place he lived and studied. She always brought his lunch for him, which consisted of the normal rice and some veg/meat dish.

Every time she sent food to him, she had to cross a bridge to meet him.

She noticed that the food always turned cold and unpalatable when it reaches her husband. And especially during the colder months, her husband would be wearing his thread-care clothes, damp and cold, and still had to stomach icy cold food.

Being a virtuous wife, she kept thinking of a solution. Finally, she hit on this idea: cook rice noodles, add meat and veg, cook everything in a stone pot. Then pour a layer of hot oil over the surface. She carried this to her husband and it worked, because the oil insulated the noodles, and it was still warm when her husband ate it.

Her husband understood her love and sacrifices and studied extra hard. When he finally made it through the Imperial Exams and was ordained an official, he at once sent for his wife to join him. However, he found that she had died, being overworked and ill.

He missed his wife so much. In memory of her love and noodles, he decided to order his cook to replicate the same dish in the same way she made it, and termed it "过桥米线".


After a long chat, Phe said she will personally prepare our noodles. She showed us the menu and asked what we would like. A look at the menu indicated that the price of the noodles was 10-15yuan per bowl (S$2-3).

We let her decide, cos we don't know what's good. I told her just let us (me and Dh) try something different and just 2 bowls. The kids can share with us.

In the end, I think she must have given us a lot of extra ingredients, cos my bowl of noodles had so much veg and meat, and all kinds of veg! Dh too. He had beansprouts, green veg, beef, tofu, fish cakes, quails' eggs and a lot of the noodles. I had an assortment of mushrooms (button, golden needle, abalone...), green veg, tofu, carrot, fish cake, quails' eggs.

I really love the noodles. The texture is springy and full of 口感. It is like 粗米粉, only thicker and springier! The kids loved it too. We were absolutely stuffed.

She gave us drinks too, and the kids lapped up and emptied their Minute Maid Orange juice bottles, the greedy guys.

Then she refused payment. Said this is our first time, so it's on her.

If you notice, the stone pots are very heavy and thick, and it cooked very merrily. It was a sight to behold, and really whets my appetite as I watched. She was cooking the exact 4 bowls for us (me, Dh, Mag and Jan).

When it is served, because it is very hot, another porcelain plate is placed below the stone pot. There is no layer of oil on top nowadays. Anyway our noodles didn't have to travel a distance. Yum yummy!

While we were eating, people started streaming in. Until all the tables were taken up (about 10?). So she became very busy and we tried to eat quickly too, so we could free up the tables for more customers.

Her shop had another level upstairs and we saw more people being ushered up there, but according to her, there was very little space on the 2nd level because she lived there (it's her living space).

So we left for sightseeing after that. Wow, business was good on weekends indeed!

A group pic.

I like the old part of the town. You can still see how they used to live in the past. With the central courtyards. All these brick houses are making way for new ones. Can you see the new devts in the background? I am sure they have better facilities like flush toilets, but are they aesthetically more pleasing?? I somehow feel the blue and white colour and the style, is so incompatible with a historic town like YLQ.

Kids had a whale of a time running up and down the stairs almost in ruins. Notice the big chinese word on the wall behind ds1? These are all to be demolished soon.

As both boys ran around and up and down, I kind of imagined how life was in the past... The many kids in the village must have played like that too, without a care. How lovely.

This whole area was owned by the rich and wealthy Shi family, who in the past was one of YLQ's biggest painting and art maker. Their founder and descendents all learned the art, and continued the family business of New Year Paintings. Very beautiful architecture indeed.

You can see the amount of detail that went into every corner of the buildings. Very intricate and exquisite.

Every available area seemed to be covered in beautiful paintings, sometimes of dragons, of flowers...

Now, the 1st storey of all these buildings have been converted into stalls selling all kinds of handicraft. Food pushcarts abound too.

A video clip of an elderly man making animals out of some edible stuff. No chance to ask. And the filming was obstructed by a lady in front of me who kept moving to block me.

Many stalls have such New Year Paintings. The expressions of the people, and the background, and all the detail of everything in the painting are impressive. Many paintings have a story behind it too, or it may represent a saying or good luck phrase for New Year celebrations.

They also specialise in figurine and clay product making.

This shows how the artists paint. They have to paint vertically, on boards or the walls.

Both ds looking at the many clay figurines the artisans made. A lot of focus on the Chinese history and culture, cos we saw a lot of the Monkey King characters, 3 kingdoms, Opera masks...

The main stage and theatre area. Can imagine how grand it must be in those days!

There was some damage done in this shop. haha. Too irresistable. The kites that were hand-made and painted were so realistic and so beautiful. Dh really loved the falcon, because it was so well-crafted, but alas, it was too expensive.

So Dh settled on 2 others. I was surprised he was so generous, asking ds1 and ds2 to choose one kite each. But then I know he, in his heart, wanted 2 anyway, that's why. We already have a huge spool for kite thread/ string at home, but when Dh saw the traditional wooden ones that are hand-made, he couldn't control himself and bought 2 also!!

But I agree they are all beautiful. So I held my peace. :-) It must be because Dh is a bowmaker himself. He appreciates hand-crafted things made from raw materials a lot more.

Some of the kites. Guess which one Dh had a soft spot for? (Hint: although it is the most expensive of the lot, it is not the biggest. It's just the workmanship that's much better than the rest, and the materials used are better.)

The corners of the buildings always have the row of animals perched there. Very cute, and interesting. I remember there is a story behind that, but I forgot. ahhh... terrible memory.

This place is touristy enough to have fancy horse-pulled carriages.

The main gate, with the name of the village. Very majestic, artistic indeed.

A gold sculpture. Lots of people taking pics with it. Said to bring good luck. The 3D sculpture shows a child. On one side, you see a boy, the other side, you see a girl. The pic shows the "male" side. The other side has a child with long plaits, signifying the girl.

The Shi family mansion is huge. This is still part of it.

Another shop specialising in paper cuttings and clay figurines. The figurines here are mostly of politicians, and famous stars/ people. Very realistic. I even saw Pavarotti.

A part of the Shi family mansion was converted into an art museum. There were many paintings and art pieces within, but there was an admission fee charged. Although not very expensive, there was a public gallery with a display of some important works too, so we decided to view the free ones instead.

(ooh, too cheapskate when it comes to art! I am sure if it was a concert, no matter how expensive, Dh would buy tickets. Sorry, must qualify- must be classical music, no rock pop for him.)

It was good that we had the well-read and well-versed Jan with us. She explained each drawing, the history and stories behind it, and could even tell us how it was painted! Wow... it was very educational.... I learnt so much about all the sayings, poetry and art in Chinese history in less than 30min.

It's a pity we had the kids with us. They were impatient to move on, and were tired, so they grouched a lot, distracting us. Else I could've asked Jan even more Qs on each painting. They were full of details and important info. The pic below shows Mag and Jan taking us through all the paintings. To the kids' credit, they do seem engrossed in this particular painting.

As we walked back to the main town area, we took a different route and passed through more ruins.


So begins the urge of the kids to go up and down all the stairs again. ds1 is doing some funny routine here, while Mag looks on.

We went back to Phe's shop and said goodbye to her. Her restaurant was still packed with customers (around 1.30pm then?) so we left soon. When we passed by the city center, YLQ had a totally different look. A lot of shops were brands I had seen before in Shanghai and Beijing's shopping district. There was of course McDs, KFC, Starbucks etc. haha.

And this Roman-inspired column?

ds2 was almost falling asleep while walking cos we woke early in the morning, so we decided to take a cab back. Since the cab couldn't fit all of us, Mag and Jan took bus back, while our family took the cab. There were plenty of cabs at the bus stop, so not a problem there.

The cab fare back was about 65 yuan (S$13), even though it was a long distance away. Quite worth it actually, so if the kids were with us, we would take a cab the next time. The travelling time was cut by half!

Along the way back, I saw 2-3 trucks carting trees. It was an interesting sight again. They really can pack trucks over here. Last few times I saw overloaded trucks with thousands of plastic bottles tied till the total volume of the bottles was bigger than the whole truck, I didn't manage to take a pic in time.

The thought suddenly struck me that if I were far enough and the trucks with these trees were very close together, it would look like a forest is moving (like in Macbeth).

Took this again when our cab overtook the truck. Probably going to be transplanted elsewhere.

The final pic is unexpected. I bought some photo cards with famous YLQ New Year Paintings and their description. There were 12 in a pack. Cost 10 yuan (S$2). Very good deal.

The stall holder gave them to me in this plastic bag. Only when I reached home, I realised it was more than just a cute plastic bag. It was full of vulgarities!!

Look closely and you will see the "f***king" word printed all over! I am glad my kids didn't read the words. Wonder if the people who printed it, sold it, or bought it knew it was a swear word??

rainbows every day, do not worry for the morrow

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