Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading into the Tea Leaves

The protocols of yumcha took a moment to decipher, and at one moment a woman probably Chinese American with her Caucasian husband walked over to clarify our confused looks. At the entrance to the dining room there had been a drop station for teapots and dishes in plain view, much like a fast food tray & trash disposal area. Adjacent to that was a semi circular counter where a woman constantly prepared pots of tea. Just to the left of the stairs was a food station where a woman stood arranging trays and carts with various plates and steamer baskets of dim sum, though the choices were limited to half a dozen options. I didn’t see it, but assumed that there was a dumb waiter in addition to the man who ferried a few assorted dishes and collected the spent remainders from the abandoned tables. Several people, servers and runners hustled through the space not talking much, while local customers chattered on, occasionally calling out requests in Cantonese. Behind us was a cashier counter with several abaci, stacks of coins and a butcher block off to the side with a man, the owner/butcher, dismembering chickens between making change. He carefully washed his hands between each activity.

One of the curious oddities of this excursion was the twist on how we were perceived by locals. Unlike most places we had previously been to, this moment in O Mercado Vermelho reeked of inside the identity of Macau, not peering into the fishbowl observations and skewed performed pseudo-realities. Unlike Union Square, this was a mom’s shoppers market. Yes, I did see 2 groups of the ubiquitous Japanese youthful tourists, (who pens their guide books, they are insanely local and micro-focused); but otherwise everyone was getting food for dinner, and possibly a few things for the weeks larder. At this point it was second nature that I, we would receive a thumbs up for my dreads, customarily from post teens and wannabe hipsters. Here, it was the women fishmongers, the dried foods vendors and random laborers who were quick to clammer forward, announce their praise and initiate a collegial hug claiming fame by virtue of a shared digital snapshot; most often with my camera & not their own. A few sported perms thus claiming membership in the crazy for curls club that I must chair in their eyes. More importantly, when we engaged these people, mostly women in our truly broke Cantonese, clipped simple English and/or finally deadending Portuguese, we were proclaimed as Portuguese. I thought long about this after the third incident, and ceased using any Portuguese phrases in an attempt to see if that elicited a different judgement call. But, no; we were confirmed in our nation-status as Portuguese by all. I found this odd, since the people I had spoken to in restaurants and on the street who identified as Portuguese were clearly white, dark straight haired, blue or brown of eye and in no way tawny or colored of skin. Fascinating that difference, skin color, hair texture, dress code provoked this association. I considered looking for things like Bacalhau to see if possibly, the point was that the Portuguese also came here to find their favorite local and imported foods. That would befit the Macanese who were culture crossers, blurring the cultural and language divide in sound an flavor; but the Portuguese were pretty true to form, wanting heritage foods and wines. I never solved this enigmatic riddle, but enjoyed basking in the delight that we brought to the merchants as we watched shoppers select the most vibrant, wiggling fish, carefully observing their favorite butcher cut carefully leaving just enough meat onto the head for soup and leaving the liver and air bladder or maw attached fully inflated like a balloon, with a substantial piece of tail, bone in left for home filleting. Both ends still jumped and wriggled as they were gingerly placed in the plastic bags, then into the baskets and woven carry bags. Apparently, only the non local species were fully filleted, since they came rigor mortis. Similarly, the meat butchers, displayed oxygen rich livers and organs up front, dripping with glistening crimson blood to identify freshness and recent kills. It appeared that not one aspect of any product was wasted. Waiting for a sales, each vendor had a side project, cleaning fish, sorting beans, grading or sizing like products in anticipation of business and as a time suck. Nowhere we walked on the selling floors was there an odor, other than freshness, though a cloud of bleach perfumed the bathrooms, I guess that was an appropriate means of deterring cross contamination and maintaining hygiene standards.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mercado Vermelho/Red Market

Arriving at the remnants of the Cathedral after walking the old quarter was a good punctuation to the morning, a Kodak moment and our first exchange with a Portuguese speaking Macanese. He looked the part of the Euro-Asian, freely borrowing lovely bits from several cultures DNA; South Asian warm skin tones, fine features nearly an aquiline nose, a long drawn face, yet hair and eyes distinctly Cantonese. He recommended one of the parks mentioned in books as a Tai Chi practice and observation spot. We never made it there, just kept walking down hill towards the port and the temple. After our commune with the various gods, A-ma holds court to Buddhist, Confucianism and Daoist shrines while also being the prayer point or patron saint to fishermen, seafarers, gamblers and pawn shops. After lunch I smartly chose the wrong bus, ended up crosstown who knows where, slowly wended our way back home to crash before dinner.
After the aforementioned low profile New Years we took another bus-hike to the northeastern extreme of the city to check out Mercado Vermelho or the Red Market. The market itself is a four story brick building housing the major “wet market”, or wholesale produce, poultry, meat and fish purveyors. Additionally there was a small section of “ dry market”, think preserved, canned or jarred foods. Surrounding the building for maybe a 8 block radius was their variation of Orchard Street. Narrow alley streets had numerous stalls selling most anything, hardware, stockings, clothing, batteries, etc that you could need or wanted to haggle for. I, was overwhelmed by the volume so I didn’t shop but shot images. Michele found a baby outfit for a yet to be born future second niece. In between stalls we found a lovely old Yumcha, or drink tea boite; classic in styling and menu with tasty mostly pork or beef based dim sum for very little MOP or patacas, the money of Macau.

the beach at Colonane, policemen's holiday greetings and a favorite soup noodle toast joint

New Year's, not really Ying Yeung; yum.

New Years was almost a non event this time. I guess it could have gotten much more mileage had we walked into a casino. Not happening. We did venture in along the periphery, yet when money changers had guards on the sidewalk and metal detector screening devices were de rigueur for the low end mass quantity consumption of slots and simple card games, the glitz tarnished in my mind’s eye. After a good dinner among many local family celebrations and a pleasant walk home, I was crashed and needed a nudge to see the year change, for the second time that day. I had called and emailed various homeys at around lunchtime when midnight hit America. At that point the focus of my day and real celebration was walking the streets of Macau
The A-Ma temple, the street markets and deciphering the local definitions of Portuguese, Macanese while nibbling bits of the various Cantonese establishments, Dai Pai Dongs, noodle soup houses, cross cultural Leiteria’s, etc. In addition to the introduction of peanuts, bacalhau and Catholicism the Portuguese also brought dairy products with them back in the 16th century. Some things stuck. I read a historic tract that described elite Macanese families as having a young servant girl to beat eggs all day. During my interview at Riquexó, aka Rickshaw in English with 70 plus Teresina and her 94 year old mom who still comes in to supervise the cooking; this fact was not supported. Or at least not in mom’s memory of her youth. Needless to say the Portuguese love desserts, creamy and custardy among the lot. One of the reasons to stop into these mixed bag Milk or Dairy diners is for the double cooked milk custard. Either white as freshly fallen snow or loaded with yolks and brilliant yellow, these delicate custards make panna cotta seem rubberish. A few spots will add additional flavorings, ginger, coconut or coffee were a few we sucked down. Toast as a concept living between the most basic iteration of the Maillard reaction applied to crustless soft white bread to French Toast sans syrup, and embellishments such as griddled spam, fried eggs, breakfast meats, etc all perched on top of the warm, caramelized manna squeeze in next to macaroni or rice noodles with simmered meats, fish balls and simple sandwiches. Ying Yeung (prounced Ying Yurng) a new favorite beverage, think strong English Breakfast Tea, a pinch of sugar, Evaporated (or Condensed if you prefer) milk and Coffee all in a glass, hot and balanced to reveal each component and meld to a great hybrid hot jolt, washes down the cheap eats. The dining areas are stainless and tile, designed like a subway car not to hang out in. Suits, bohemians, working class and tourists drop in, eat and split like our old pre fab diner devotees. A good sidetrack or pitstop snackspot on the road to find my cuisine.

Monday, January 18, 2010

pasteis de nata, walking the streets, smelling the creole magic

And on the fourth morning we split town.

We had scheduled an early flight out of Beijing to maximize time in Macau. Little did I know that I could or would need several visits to understand that small, quixotic city of dreams, casinos, slums, Portuguese colonial heritage, Macanese cuisine and Patúa language. The first good news was the weather, though overcast the temperature jumped from -10°C to about 16°. The traveling was initially stressful and ultimately circuitous. We arranged a cab with the help of one of the assistant concierges, leaving according to their suggestion. At the airport we were passed between three different attendants each one drawing long faces as they viewed our itinerary, hurriedly talking with their colleagues in hush tones, but not with us. Ultimately, they informed us that in their minds we were late arrivals and sent us to one then a third kiosk for boarding passes. I didn’t understand why the first set of folks couldn’t have printed out the paperwork and send us more quickly on our way, I had forgotten that in reality we were leaving the country and had to go through customs. We were able to board without much difficulty, fly into Hong Kong and transfer through to a hydrofoil for Macau, passing through several manned temperature control checkpoints that attempt to contain contagious diseases with plastic pistol like thermometers that instantaneously measure your temp, before passing customs at the ferry terminal before locating our hotel shuttle van.
This hotel was a dowager with fresh makeup in what appeared to be an older urban district reminiscent of old Times Square Hotels like the Edison. The managers seemed South Asian, though the clerks were clearly Chinese. Half of the elevators were glass rising up towards the sunroof, above the lobby garden and terraced floors. This room was not as smart and modern as the one in the Crown in Beijing. Still functional though its one modern pizzazz was a large control box, or super sized remote control for lighting, media and temperature. Stumbling into the bathroom late at night without the aid of this device was not easy.
We set out to change money and get lunch after quickly unpacking. Using our new concierge as a guide we found a Macanese restaurant, that was better for people watching, than dining. The garlic shrimp were decent, though the bolinhos de bacalhau, or cod fritters were not nearly as rich as a bunch of Chinese fellas that could be Triad wannabees or rejects among the gambling families and travelers. I found the seafood rice, somewhere between fried rice and paella to be competent and satisfying though not memorable. I hoped that this was not an indication of tastes to come. At least every corner had great old overblown neon that was lit day and night.
My research project is grounded in Macau and its distinct culture. As the first point of contact between Europeans and Chinese in the 16th century, parts of the city were designated World Heritage sites. Now home to an ever expanding casino empire, monopolized by Stanley Ho for 40 years and now home to the largest global casino enterprises this city is poised o make Vegas look like a pinball game arcade, cloning the western excess ontop of Chinese glitz and uber-bling. The visually orgasmic result is as abhorrent as it is seductive attracting a largely middle and working class Asian edgy gambler. That mixed with a spate of Japanese Christian tour groups centering their visits on iconic Christian shrines and reliquaries that are symbolic and reverential of prior persecutions for Catholic Japanese that had included crucifixtions and torture. The Westerner’s have been late to the party, with Atelier Joel Robuchon leading the charge, setting up shop in Macau for his ultra French open kitchen concept in Macau before opening in Manhattan. Money talks.

After lunch and comparative exchange rates we walked over to the Leal Senado or Legal Senate and center of the old Portuguese district. All through this area were large bandstands set up for performance and decorated with oversized Technicolor plastic and vinyl Santas, elves and reindeer. We walked through the old quarter, happening upon an old urban mansion, a myriad of food shops with sidewalk salespeople passing out samples of cured meat pastes, fish maws, (air bladders), medicinal and tea shops, video, book and clothing stores almost all with signs in 3 languages; English, Cantonese and Portuguese. Yet, most everyone spoke only Cantonese except for bye bye and hello.
Finally, after exploring the ruins of the cathedral, restored and excavated we found an older 50ish tour guide who purported to speak 7 languages, one being the Portuguese of his youth. That day wound down by getting lost on the bus system, ending up at the A-Ma temple and eating wonderful Macanese food at Littoral, before crashing for a bit and coming out later for another lovely Macanese early dinner at Alorcha.

duck, duck no goose later on.

Peking Duck

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Duck, Furs and Vitality

I had previously mentioned this quirky tricked out mall of high and low consumer goods. Once we found it after several inquiries with help from passersby and hotel doormen, we located a way in and finally found the elevator off of the main artery of luxury boutiques. The way in and through was characteristic of almost every walk in every city; most so in Hong Kong. Aerial footbridges, subterranean walkways or tunnels, extended escalators, alternate points of egress and timed street crossings were the norm in these dense, tall city plans. Often once you knew where you were going, you had to look ahead to see how to get there, would an escalator a aerial bridge, two turns in the subwalkway to cross under a busy boulevard mindful of observing which designated exit opened up on your destination was as important as having an address. This mildly confusing moment was just a harbinger to routine.
The elevator opened up at the 5th floor onto a long carpeted mallway which led into a brightly lit white tile foyer with 3-4 women loudly greeting every guest from behind a low black lacquered podium. Liu Ye had said reservations weren’t necessary, though just as in NY there was that clutch moment where their shrewd eyes and pursed lips engaged mine implying, “No reservation. Huhmmm, doubtful let me see what I can do…,”though fairly quickly we were led to a side dining room that looked onto the duck chefs away from the large open main dining room with panoramic city views, and power banquettes.
I was enraptured being adjacent to an open kitchen, it was all good. The duck chef area was an octagonal raised gazebo with a decorative roof that hid the HVAC venting system. At three of the corners there were wood fired tiled ovens with a sortof white stucco exterior and thick iron doors. In the center a table with a variety of knives, sharpening stones, cutting boards and implements. Long hook poles and fire place tools stood in a tall canister off to one side. On the fourth corner stood low racks with leathery skinned dried ducks waiting for the fire. Approximately ten men were huddled around the center table apparently discussing tonight’s game plan. One of them seemed to be the head chef of the area. Once the games began they all donned the blue surgical masks that were commonly scene on the streets and buses. I learned that many restaurant workers across the country used these masks particularly when coming quite close to food or during service periods.
We ordered two vitality soups each geared to our respective genders, a stir-fry braise of fresh bamboo shoots and mushrooms, Peking duck, bottled water and Oolong tea. Before the food arrived, I was asked whether I wanted to choose our duck, which was easy money for me. I went up to the duck area and was introduced to one of the chefs. He opened his oven, revealing 30+ roasting ducks hanging in long rows at different states of doneness. I asked through my waitress what criteria they used for selection. Size and color were the key, light brown almost chestnut seemed to be optimum. We looked at a few before I selected ours from the front row. He used his hooked pole to pull it out, quickly closed the door and set it on his cutting board. I watched as he buffed the skin, I guessed to remove any fine hairs or ash. I returned to my seat to wait for our food.
The soups came in small covered porcelain dishes which can also double as teapots. Each soup was a mixture of various meats, herbs and odd bits. I remember that mine had deer heart, chicken, what looked like Goji berries and gingko. Michele’s also had chicken, but I think either offal or pork as well in addition to flower petals and herbs. The broths were clear but full flavorful, mine a bit oily on the lips though no slick of fat sat on its surface. I enjoyed mine, finishing it quickly. Michele, not so much. The bamboo was served cascading out of a piece of bamboo on an oversize rectangular white plate. It was simple, satisfying and redolent of ginger. In between bites the waitress rolled up a gueridon with a few plates, long fine chopsticks, a small bamboo steamer basket, and a covered round dish. Our chef appeared now masked carrying our duck on an aluminum baking tray. He set it on the gueridon’s cutting board and began to slice the skin off of the breasts. After he skinned the bird, he split it in half lengthwise and began slicing into the meat.
The waitress made all of our first tastes to initiate us. The first tastes were to be of just skin and coarse slightly brown raw sugar. This indicated the technical skill of hanging, marinating, drying, and flash poaching, blowing up the birds with straws to separate skin from flesh before roasting. The roasted skin had layers, not as numerous as millefeuille yet delicate levels of unctuousness and crispy; a serenade to fat’s glories. The sprinkled sugar iced it off. Next we were instructed on the other condiments in the small individual trays in front of us. Plum sauce, fine shreds of scallion and ginger, and a mild mustardy puree. The lid was pulled from the covered dish and the steamer, revealing the crepe-thin white pancakes and small, round, thin skinned sesame rolls hollowed and puffed like Indian Poori.
We were to choose either one and create either a little pancake package or open-faced affair inside the rolls of duck and condiments as the chef carved the breast meat for us. Ideally, we should save at least half of a sesame crisp for the roasted brain which would be served last. The pancakes were assembled and deftly rolled with our black lacquered chopsticks, never allowing our hands to dirty themselves if we were adept. This theory of eating was a key point in many meals. Our hands were free to pick up dry things like bao, or steamed buns; but little morsels of chicken, ribs or fish on the bone were all meant for chopstick manipulation, shifting the meat near the mouth and cradling the bone with our tools, until it could be discarded on our small plates. It was not always easy, but it paced your eating and possibly contained a portion of our gluttonous spirits.
After we had inhaled all of our duck, I more quickly than Michele, the chef placed the small brain halves on a tiny plate and disappeared with the carcass. Negotiating the meat’s richness was an agreement she needed to make with her belly. We observed our neighbors, many Chinese middle to upper middleclass often with signature designer clothes and furs to European travelers and businessfolk. Furs were big here; usually short coats mink and sable seemed to be the norm for both men and women. Much like the Russians it seemed normal for the culture and the cold, defining class but also history of hunting and trapping. Our conversation continued, reflecting on our day and the tomorrow plans as the chef suddenly reappeared with two small covered dishes on a silvered platter. Placed in front of each of us and simultaneously removed a milky broth was inside, steamy and heady of duck. To complete our service the carcass was put in a press to extract all of the juices. This oily broth was the finish. I gratefully drank mine, but by now, Michele’s insides were rebelling from the greasiness. She had a bout of queasy and nothing further back at the hotel, settling now for the platter of sliced melons and dragonfruit instead of the soup. We walked home and fell out, full and exhausted.

a few final forbidden shots & Tianamen

a lil more Forbidden City....

walking in the hutong

tea and sweet potatoes

Yumcha, [drink tea, actually snack and drink] or Teatime & a brief Temple view

Making it down the mountain was much easier than climbing up since I was able to easily find the actual trail. The village seemed still and quiet as I walked its dirt lanes. I poked my head into the compound where we had used the family’s outhouse. Now up and preparing the food in the yard, I encountered the wife who had been sleeping. In gesture and my spastically with my limited vocab I got her attention such that she ran to get her husband, I think more out of concern than comprehension. Glad to see me again, I was able to convey my thanks at his graciousness before I walked on downhill to the car. Zhao was leaning on the hood, smoking and tapping his foot when I walked up; Michele was sitting in the car with the door ajar. He smiled broadly at me, crushed his cig under his other foot and we were off.
He made a few calls as we left the village, obviously now able to plan his next move upon our return to the city. Our level of trust and communication had dramatically increased between us. I was able to convey that we didn’t want to return to the hotel. I gave him the option of 798 the art district or the Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan shrine in town and one of the spots identified by Alan, Dalia’s friend back in NY. He chose the latter based upon the geography. In reality, 798 would have been more practical once we began to hit rush hour. Michele dozed, while Mr. Eveready, aka me, fixated on the buildings and vistas from the shotgun seat. Arriving at our next destination and a parting of the ways, Zhao shook both of our hands and then briefly embraced me, looking into my eyes as we both stumbled out thank yous and I realized the level of trust we had developed with each other.

Air pollution and dusk had begun to cloak the Lama Temple in another layer of mystery. Unfortunately, with the traffic we arrived moments before its closing hour. This was the only opportunity to experience it on this 3 day moment in Beijing. We walked around t compound and got a sense of the physical beauty of this shrine to the Tibetans, now excommunicated from the Chinese cosmology. The vibrant colors though weathered stood out in the half light with an ethereal glow. Stoic stone sentinels describing lions and dragons were as effective as the numerous military guards shepherding visitors towards the gate as they joked about their evening plans.
Back onto the street after just a tease of a visit, we crossed the boulevard to enter the hǔtong, vestigial alleyway communities, set on a oppositional axis as the street grid for better Feung Shui; a remnant of the TARTARS (?) existence/destruction of Beijing centuries earlier. The hǔtongs are an essential feature of Beijing’s architecture just as their cousins, lítongs characterize Shanghai’s. The dense single story rabbit warren network of homes, single item shops, teahouses, intermittent communal bathrooms, and home clusters reminded me of the Anastazi dwellings in New Mexico. Similar to those ancient Indigenous housing developments, these homes appeared to force residents to walk through each others’ rooms to arrive at their own. Being visual guests not invited ones; this conjecture cannot be confirmed without an architectural history guide. I saw a sign and asked Michele if she would like tea at the teahouse indicated in the crude sign. We entered deeper into the angular maze, volunteer Skinner subjects looking for our reward. Arriving at the brick framed doorway we knocked on the steel door. A young woman, possibly 16, slightly shy possibly due to my hair or our foreignness beckoned us in. My dreadlocks created instant admiration, wonder and eternal giggles with palms fighting to silence the betrayals of loose mouths. Pulling out my blue school notebook, I began to string together my limited vocabulary into a marginally coherent sentence. Crossing the threshold, I realized that this home must have been built for a higher class family. The doorway opened onto a central compound with many rooms and doorways opening up onto this yard. Some of the rooms had windows to view the activity in the yard. Even in this cold a clothesline was strung off to our right and a few garments hung in the dim light of dusk. Our hostess pointed to our left, and another open doorway. Through the windowless framed openings, I saw a woman sitting reading, no watching TV; probably the mother, and another young girl sitting quietly in the central room. There were three adjoining rooms. We were led into the farthest one, past an antique chiffrobe that was later described as Ming dynasty. Two love seat sized wooden sofas sat at angles to each other with one chair near the entryway. Pillows covered in a variety of traditional woven textiles, a few antiques and various draperies, a low wooden table, hangings and art objects decorated this salon. She indicated for us to take a seat, while she made ready for tea. She gathered the implements as we took turns in the bathroom, those indoor outhouses, with a ridged white porcelain square spot to squat and do your business, fully plumbed and thus not as primitive as the outdoor variety.
We were told her name, and that of her sister, but as with many exchanges in China, if I didn’t write down the names, and attempt a phonetic spelling all the data was forgotten. Our teen hostess had placed a carved wooden raised rectangular platter on the low table that sat between the love seats. On the platter she set a large ceramic tray with one inch high sides, a highball glass with an herb tea that Michele had requested after reading the menu. For my choice she brought out a Yi Ching pot, the regional ceramics from Southwestern China whose traditions and artistry dated to 500A.D. with myths and monks to add drama. A large bowl, a few cocktail sized napkins, two of the dollhouse like cups, a wooden cylindrical stand filled with half a dozen wooden implements and a crude funnel , all in the same wood as their container; a small tin of the Taiwanese Oolong I had requested and a small, clear glass pitcher. Her sister came in with an oversized kettle steaming straight off the brazier, whose fire smelled of coal.
First she poured boiling water into the bowl and placed her pitcher and our tea cups and saucers into the bowl, showing us how to gently spin them around on all sides, pseudo sterilizing them before placing them in front of us. Next she did the same with the teapot. Pulling out a 5 inch shovel-like tool from the wooden container, she dug into one of the two tea canisters to gather the leaves. The first batch went into Michele’s highball glass, and the second into the teapot. She filled the waiting pot, and then quickly poured water in it to fill it, immediately pouring the tea water into the bowl. This was the washing of the tea, blooming the leaves slightly and I assume pulling out any dust or unwanted sediment. She filled the pot again, replaced the lid and then poured boiling water overtop of the pot to heat it equally inside and out. She explained in simple sentences that this insured an even brew. Waiting just a moment for the steep before placing the wooden funnel over the glass canister she produced a metal screen filter that I hadn’t noticed and setting on top of the funnel. She poured the tea into the pitcher and took another wooden tool out to stir it gently, homogenizing or blending the yellow amber liqueur in the pitcher. She quickly removed her tools and poured the contents of the pitcher into our cups. There would be enough for a second cup. We were instructed to smell the aromas and drink tea. Her sister entered with a small tray of snacks, coconut teacakes, our first of many iterations of coconut confections, savory dumplings one set filled with sweet bean paste and the other with finely chopped vegetables. Giddily we ate and drank our yumcha. Michele alternated between her glassful of tea, and the tiny cups. The herb studded black tea had become slightly bitter, and after a few moments, she pushed it aside. This process was repeated five times. We were told that generally six was the maximum amount of brews from one pot. Looking into the pot before the second replenishment, we noticed that the unfurled leaves tightly filled the pot, insuring that the hot water bath would produce a quick full bodied brew. Each potful had slightly different taste profiles. She indicated that with this tea she best liked the third steep. I was torn between the first and second versions. I noticed that the liquor color changed with each successive brew,. She was careful to observe the color before the final pour into the pitcher. The steeps became longer in the later brews. The aromas and taste profiles morphed on the tongue, throat and gums, yielding sweetness and tannins in different places from each pitcher or potful. The girls’ mother had stopped her TV and what looked like accounting briefly to see that we were content. I chose that moment to stand and look around the compound. Michele said she had done the same as she had exited the bathroom, while standing at the sink and washing her hands in cool water. Unheated water flowed from the taps of our few home based experiences in Beijing.
Once we were done, we looked more closely at the furnishings, settled our bill, trying to accurately estimate the exchange rate and need to add a tip or not. The second sister I realized now was older, and that she was probably quite adept at managing this family cottage business. So, our hostess her kid-sister was being evaluated for her capabilities as a practitioner and hostess of tea. The two girls showed us pots and tea that they had for sale as well as describing a few of the antiques in simple phrases. The opportunity to practice their English with native speakers by their admission appeared to be a necessary and slightly uncommon event. We made our way out to the main lane, stopping for directions and ending up buying a/2 caddie or probably 4-6 oz of tea at a small dimly lit teashop before happening on a small museum-like antique store of sculpture, scrolls and carvings. Not wanting to dwell in one place we exited onto the side street that had been our way into the hǔtong from the exterior neighborhood. A young man, I guessed in his late teens manned a pushcart that looked like a tin or corroded steel file with cylindrical drawers. Pulling one open, I saw the fire that he used to roast the bright yellow or eggplant colored sweet potatoes that he sold by weight. I bought one for 7 yuan, about $1 dollar, and easily a pound in weight. He offered to put it back in its drawer to make it piping hot for me. Holding the tough skin helped my hands fight the chill I had forgotten existed during our teatime. I was in. Sweet potatoes and yams are a ‘go to’ mainstay snack for me. My memory fell right into Ralph Ellison’s Harlem sweet potato vendor story captured in Invisible Man and the recent excerpt I had read from Damian’s dissertation of a Mrs. ______, who had moved up north in the early Harlem Renaissance amassing a fortune off selling hot baked yams also in Harlem. Would this man realize some measure of success with his craft, or just eke by? As I walked and ate, I hoped that his entrepreneurship would be fruitful. For the next hour we walked in and out of several small shops which straddled the perimeter of the hǔtong and the main thoroughfare. These one room businesses sold simple foodstuffs, knickknacks, jade, incense, carved Buddahs, antiques, jewelry and New Year’s accoutrements; fireworks, red envelopes, posters and paper dragons. Each peddling a single item.
Trying to shoot a few shots in the half life, we were now quite exhausted and I descended onto the shoulder of the roadway, looking to signal a taxi in the bumper to bumper traffic making its way home, out or somewhere. Luckily, I had learned to always leave the hotel with a note in character detailing our destination. It took time to find a ride, but we made it home to rest before considering dinner. Life is good. I realized that the idea of going to the Peking Opera was a pipedream, and in fact Michele got home and crashed while I wrote, sauna-ed and ended up eating upscale Hainanese Chicken in the hotel restaurant. I learned that the night crew, menu options and service standards were much more limited than at breakfast.

Mah Jhong outside of the Lama Temple