Sichuan Peppercorns Get You High!

Pass it my way, man


I always get head rushes from our favorite dishes, gan bian si ji dou (dry fried stringbeans) and mapou tofu (spicy tofu), and finally last night, when the rush was bigger than usual, Googled it.

People: these dishes’ signature, Sichuan peppercorns, contain THC! The psychoactive ingredient in cannabis!”The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A couple other plants make THC in smaller amounts, most notably the Szechuan peppercorn, hwa-jhou.”

My kids also say they are getting buzzed on our dinner dishes!

The chemical in the peppercorns

Don't bogart that peppercorn, dude


“produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation…[and] appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.”

BTW tumeric has some, too.

Bespoke (David)

He'd rather be biking

David is very tall. Also his arms are long, so clothing sometimes doesn’t fit. His wardrobe, while timeless in one sense (khakis, herringbone tweed, blue shirts) is also mostly of the 20-year-old, Salvation Army variety.

The man and his khakis

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!!

Still. For his birthday, we dragged him to a Chinese tailor for his first-ever custom-made clothing.

The tailor is making him a sports jacket, a cashmere overcoat, and a set of shirts. I don’t want to overdo the joy at underpaid Chinese labor, but let’s just say, Lands End wouldn’t sell you a jacket for the price of this package. Which will fit!

Happy birthday, honey!

In sports-casual mode

Bad Ideas–Like Bullets in Your Suitcase

Stupidest thing we’ve done: Checking Ethan’s toy airplane (swear, I thought it was brass tubes), in a suitcase & learning–while being briefly searched & detained at the airport–it was made of bullets.

Don't fly with bullets

We Blue-Eyed Devils aren’t so hated anymore. (The moniker dates to the Opium Wars; it actually is devilish to use addicting a country to heroin as a tactic for redressing a trade imbalance.) Now kids at KFC and McDonald’s, and young parents with toddlers enrolled in “Disney English” language schools wear all-American Abercrombie, Gap, Lauren, and Hilfiger. Or this:

So hot, so sexy

At Beijing’s Silk Market, where half (3/4?) the goods are pirated (Louis Vuitton bags for a few bucks, Adidas & Nikes for $20; new movies and DVDs for 80 cents), there’s a new sign of the times at the gate: Pirating is not OK! In place of enforcement, banners. Be Law-Abiding!

Protect Intellectual Property Rights!

Increase awareness!


P.S. We call him “Tongue Dog.” He lives on campus.

We love Tongue Dog

Beijing, Destroyed

Beijing Central Busn. District


In the aftermath of Xi’s visit to the U.S., some thoughts on China–trying to understand its exercise of power, self-reinvention through destruction … the meaning of all this new-ness all around in this rising superpower. From my vantage point in Beijing, on my 6-month anniversary here.

Take the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre in Paris, so many parts of London, Rome, NY’s W. Village or the Meatpacking District, Copenhagen’s Medieval quarter — great cities, alive, conjuring a sense, an experience, of history. You walk it, see it, feel it. Same with the Middle East’s walled medinas — Jerusalem and Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, Fez and Marrakesh.

Old City Wall of Fez, Morocco

Not so Beijing.

You’ll look hard to find China’s ancient majesty. It’s tucked away, almost an amusement park. Beijing has cool new buildings (the Olympics’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube; CCTV “Big Underpants”) but what most characterizes Beijing is…miles and miles of already-cracking nondescript newness. Ugly flyovers across 8-lane mid-city highways. It seems contradictory yet Beijing is overpopulated yet barren. Beijing, despite China’s amazing excitement and energy, the humor and art, vitality, great food, is largely depressing if you love cities. Just try to find a pedestrian route through this seemingly improvised sprawl.

“Beijing is defined by congestion, lack of public spaces, discontinuous neighborhoods,” writes Michael Meyer, author of the excellent The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Which this post is all about.

Beijing from the Jing Guang Bldg

Meyers explains why it’s so bad, while chronicling the razing of Beijing’s few, precious, surviving old neighborhood alleys (or hutong). (It must be said that original hutong homes have no plumbing; residents use public bathrooms. I don’t ever idealize that kind of poverty and hardship. They needed to be renovated–not demolished.)

Chinese for "Destroy," painted by authorities


Why has Beijing been destroyed? Meyer’s research found, for starters, there was (& remains) comparatively little professional capacity, relative to the need: No Chinese architecture department until about 1930. “Building” long considered a lowly trade. Few decision-makers even now understand preservation, sustainable development and planning (re: resource use — god let’s hope that’s changing fast), nor architectural heritage. Some important advocates raised loud voices here; big-name Western foundations offered expertise, to no avail. Or too little, too late. China, built of wood, rotted away.

From Meyer. Why Old Beijing was destroyed:


1. It reminded people of feudalism, which they hated.

European architecture carries you to different eras. (A cathedral is “a portal back to a specific time and its politics, arts, ethics, economy.”) In China, materials and design remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. It’s all about one hated period: feudalism.


2. The city had a celestial function. Once obsolete, no reason to save it.

Beijing for millennia had a cosmic raison d’etre. “European cities grew organically [around] food production, transportation, and governance.” Not so Chinese cities, Meyer explains. Planned from scratch as administrative centers, great cities simply were home to a high-ranking official. A capital “existed as a medium for the emperor to communicate with the universe through rites, balancing the harmony between the celestial and the earthly.” Harmonizing yin and yang forces, feng shui, the Earth’s five elements. Confucian hierarchy, Taoist balance, determined layout and location. When beliefs died, there was no reason to save the infrastructure, preserve the history, salvage the urban grid or revisit traditional design.

Old Beijing



3. A century (the 20th) of self-hating envy of the West

In the early 1900s, many Chinese studied in America (including Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, who went to UCLA and Columbia) and came home to modernize the southern port, Guangzhou (Canton), with deputies likewise trained in America, “where the nation’s wide, paved roads designed for cars made a lasting impression. On their return, they ordered the pulling down of Guangzhou’s 800-year-old wall…[even as Canadian and American architects] urged an adaptive architecture [melding] modern engineering with traditional Chinese building traits.”

Chaoyang, Beijing (CCTV Bldg)



4. Embarrassment at China’s poverty.

Rich Americans seek out high-priced old Amish barn siding: it’s a precious decorative accent. Here old wood = slum. “You must understand the terrible inferiority complex that comes with poverty. The only desire is to look modern.”

CCTV Building, "Big Underpants"



5. Successive Chinese empires wiped out what they conquered.

The tradition of razing goes back to the emperors. Conquer-and-raze was a millenia-old tradition.

Wall remnant; Beijing


6. War


7. The Cultural Revolution


Of course. “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” Along with torture, murder, and public humiliation, Red Guards vandalized or burned down an astonishingly large fraction of China’s heritage. Many temples have been (are being) rebuilt and restored. I lack data but they’re a small bit of what was lost. We look hard to find and visit them, as do many Chinese tourists and pilgrims.


8. Communist (sometimes Soviet) ideology.

Beijing had two rings of walls: the inner surrounding the imperial palace, the outer around the city. A 1953 city government declaration said the Old City walls “serve feudalism and the imperial era.” Soon the outer was gone. (A crusading architect at the time, Liang Sicheng, said it felt “like having my skin torn off my bones.” He was in the papers this week when his own home was razed, despite its status as “an irreplaceable cultural relic.” [See under: “Rule of Law, problems with”.])

Beijing City Wall Museum

In 1953, under the CCP slogan, “Learn everything from the Soviet Union” a cadre declared (per Meyer), “The major danger is an extreme respect for old architecture.” So went not just wall but gate towers, ceremonial arches. He quotes a People’s Daily (CCP party organ) editorial of 1957: “The people all want to use their hands to destroy! You destroy a gray brick, I’ll pull down a piece of stone. Citizens of every district help pull down the wall.” Today, instead of gates, gargantuan intersections. Meyer found that Soviet advisers actually urged preservation of parts of the wall, to no avail.

A few years ago, about a kilometer was reconstructed — between a highway and a housing block.

Beijing City Wall remnant


9. ‘Urban renewal’ (quote-unquote) — hastened by the Olympics.

With Beijing’s Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, “Neighborhoods that had survived the fall of imperial rule, the Republican era’s modernizations, Japanese occupation, and Mao’s industrialization fell to a faceless foe. The Hand moved through the hutong after dark, surreptitiously marking courtyard homes ‘Destroy.’ ”

A typical hutong (alley)


10. And why does it happens so fast? Party politics. Bureaucrats’ ambition..

Meyer explains: “Rapid clear-cutting [is] the preferred method over selective thinning of buildings. “It’s about time… Speed. For the officials in charge, the faster they demolish old structures and begin new projects, the faster they can declare to those above them, ‘Look what I’ve accomplished.’ There are no paths to career advancement for ‘Look what I saved.’ ”

Consumerism in mod malls, says a famous, gifted Chinese architect (hutong-raised, trained at Berkeley, who hated the dead suburbs he saw in America, and now is head of architecture at MIT) — isn’t just a priority. Newness, consuming, is a way of life. Not of the opiate, brainwashing, shallow sort. Though it may devour 7 earths (that don’t exist), Chinese postmodern self-expression through consumerism is about choice where none existed before. It’s about experiencing freedom, exploring a new world. Life for once as a series of open possibilities.

The world’s robust new superpower, embodied in Beijing destroyed, is managing its own fate.

Another City, Old & New (Xiamen)

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No Lies Beijing

Sunday: Saw nothing quaint, antique or traditional. No orange-robed monks. Real Beijing was the library construction site outside — home to migrant laborers’ trailers — springing back to life after the Lunar New Year.

View from our window

Riding the subway and learning from billboards everywhere that Beijing has a new motto: “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue.”

If it says so, it must be so

Visiting Tiananmen’s lone old watchtower, and a historic district (Dashilar or Dazhalan) restored, in part, with a Fanieul Hall/South Street Seaport artificiality. It was Ethan buying Mao’s Little Red Book there, a fake-antique.

Sayings of Chairman Mao

Eating hot pot without drama: only minor hand burns.

Emperor ate hot pot here

And dinner in chichi Sanlitun with a NY childhood friend, late-40s like me, who’s produced (and exported) U.S. theater here for 2 decades. Today, her old contacts, partners, friends, have hit (or anticipate reaching, come October’s transitional Party Congress) China’s very highest levels.

Glossy, glassy Sanlitun

If you’re a 40- or 50-something, a Chinese regional or industrial or political or bureaucratic somebody, this is your time. Or maybe I should say, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you do: Whatever the world will become next — it’s our turn now.

A Few Funny Foods

Edible flowers–Yunnanese food, at the famous Golden Phoenix near Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Minzu, campuses in Haidian.

Stir fried with garlic

Bagels are great…but not Chinese. Amazingly, we found a Beijing bakery devoted to — the bagooel.

And at the Beijing Capital Airport Burger King, why just fry your burger? Coat it in bread first: The Tempura Whopper.

If you enjoy our blog, click “Sign me up” on the right to get emails when we post. We’ll try to keep it colorful and brief. Thank you for sharing the journey.

Drying Tea, Pickling Cabbage

Tea dries, tulou

Cabbage, mud bricks

Grieving for Anthony Shadid, who died apparently of catastrophic asthma, covering the Syrian resistance, as always by giving voice to those otherwise unheard (“we write small to say something big” — quotes the Times op-ed). Our friendship began in Cairo ’91 or ’92; my best memories center on rookie days in NYC, Upper West and Brooklyn; Anthony terrifying me swimming in humongous waves off Jones Beach after a hurricane blew out to sea…loving his first Jewish chicken soup, Shabbat at my sister’s (“What do you call this?”).

Chess in tulou


The humanity of his reporting–so rightly praised by Pulitzer juries, readers, editors, colleagues. I tell all my students one of his great questions, useful almost always in interviews: “How so?”

Then you listen.

Hakka woman, pickling

A reporter who listens that well is practicing an art, fulfilling a godly obligation, in possession of a precious gift of compassion–and making a heavy choice, making sacrifices, to be in a position to listen for so long, so carefully.

Cabbage on wall


A very simple photo journal on drying plants in southern China, Fujian province, at clusters of tulou, “roundhouses,” a few hours from wealthy city Xiamen. The famous tulou (“too-low”) are dried-mud, multistory apartments 100s of years old. It’s tea- and cabbage-drying season. The Hakka, a minority group, pickle cabbage. They also sell China’s famous oolong tea.

Carrying tea

Harvesting greens


Tea-drying basket


Tulou exterior


Tulou cluster


Tulou central courtyard


Tourists overlook tulou


Ethan exits tulou


Road beside tulou