Memory the only takeaway from a magical Chinese experience…

The Emperor's Palace, Beijing

The Emperor’s Palace, Beijing

It’s impossible to conclude my blog-posts about China without writing about the food. I’m not actually a big fan of Chinese food when I’m in England, principally because so many Chinese restaurants here adulterate their cuisine with monosodium glutamate. (The Chinese restaurant in which I worked when I was a student, which was home to the cook called Moon, star of a previous post, was an honourable exception.) If I consume this substance, which I believe is also called ‘Chinese taste powder’, I invariably get a headache and feel dizzy the following day.
However, I was assured that monosodium glutamate is never used in restaurants in China and I certainly didn’t detect it in any of the food there. I was very honoured to be treated with the utmost hospitality throughout my stay and, as food plays a big part in Chinese standards of courtesy, I was presented with what was effectively a banquet every night. Although when at home the Chinese usually confine themselves to three or four dishes, which in Shanghai always includes a soup (It was explained to me that soup helps to regulate the body temperature if the climate is hot and dry or if other foods are spicy.), when guests are taken out to eat it is not uncommon for ten or twelve main dishes to be ordered, as well as many appetisers and side dishes. These don’t all appear at once: the waiting staff bring them in one by one and place them on a huge circular glass ‘lazy Susan’ (the Chinese use the same words), which is spun slowly round by each diner in turn, with all the tantalising magic of what felt like a place at a gastronomic ouija board.
All the food that I ate in China was delicious: without exception, it was very fresh and featured many different kinds of vegetable (though an actual vegetarian would have a tough time there, as most dishes also include meat or fish of some kind). At every dinner there was also a whole sea bass garnished with herbs and spices – an expensive treat, presented to guests as part of the impeccable code of hospitality. I was only once offered a delicacy that I was reluctant to try: on my last evening in Shanghai, the pièce de resistance was a dish of pickled ducks’ tongues. One of my fellow diners told me that they tasted like mackerel, but I was too cowardly to find out if this was true!
Among my favourite foods were the exquisitely-crafted dumplings that usually appear after the main entrées. The smaller ones contain meat, the larger ones a special soup: they require eating with great care, so that none of the soup is lost.

Soup (large) and meat (small) dumplings

Soup (large) and meat (small) dumplings

Rice and noodles are served separately at the end of the meal, because guests are encouraged to eat their fill of the finer dishes before filling up on these staples. Desserts are simple and light, consisting usually of sweet soups (plum is a favourite) or yogurt and honey. Tea is the main beverage. Light beer is also served, but drunk sparingly. Wine was not served at any of the dinners that I ate and no alcohol was ever served at lunch.
My two Beijing dinners were particularly special. The first was at the original Peking Duck restaurant, which is close to the main campus of Peking University (The University retains the name ‘Peking’, choosing not to call itself ‘Beijing University’ because it is proud of its heritage. It is China’s oldest and most prestigious university.). This restaurant has been serving Peking Duck since the 1930s, when it invented the recipe.

My number's up for this Peking duck...

My number’s up for this Peking duck…

Each diner is given small dishes of cucumber, chopped spring onion and plum sauce and a round box of steamed pancakes. I discovered that Peking Duck is one of the most authentic dishes served in Chinese restaurants in England. In Beijing, the duck itself was oilier and therefore richer than in the UK, but apart from that the taste of all the ingredients was similar: the key difference was the dexterity with which the waitress demonstrated how to flip the pancake on to the plate with chopsticks, fill it and form it into a neatly-wrapped parcel. None of my parcels looked like hers! As they leave, diners are given a certificate to prove that they have eaten genuine Peking Duck in this restaurant.

Proof of the eating in the original Peking Duck restaurant

Proof of the eating in the original Peking Duck restaurant

On my last night in Beijing I enjoyed the most special dinner of all. It was a banquet held in the ‘Emperor’s Palace’, a restaurant whose real name is the Bai’s Home Courtyard. It was originally the palace home of Prince Li of the Qing Dynasty. The courtyard is in fact a succession of formally laid-out gardens, each one containing a single-story building that once formed part of the Emperor’s palace and has now been converted into a dining-room. The buildings are guarded by young men dressed in the traditional garb of Imperial soldiers, and the waitresses are young women attired in beautiful traditional silken costumes and head-dresses.

Waiting at table in the Emperor's Palace

Waiting at table in the Emperor’s Palace

On their feet they wear tall pattens – the platforms of these, on which the centre only of the foot is balanced, are about four inches off the ground. One of the girls told me that it takes a week to learn how to walk in these shoes. Twelve of us ate that evening and we were served throughout by four silk-clad waitresses. Our dining-room was dedicated to longevity, symbolised in the detail of the wall-hangings.

Opulence and longevity in the Emperor's Palace

Opulence and longevity in the Emperor’s Palace

The table was round, for equality, and all the chairs except one richly covered in yellow silk; this single chair was made of intricately-carved wood. Originally, it would have been the one in which the Emperor sat. No woman ever sat in the Emperor’s chair – at least, not then!

No woman may sit in the Emperor's chair - ha!

No woman may sit in the Emperor’s chair – ha!

We were served perhaps two dozen dishes at the Emperor’s Palace, some of them tiny, all of them delicious and beautifully presented. My favourites were a very special kind of smoked fish and venison stewed with chillies. The banquet lasted for about three hours. Once outside again, we discovered that it had turned bitterly cold – some of the fountains in the gardens had frozen over and the walkways as we made our way back to the street were lit with bright orange lanterns that picked out the tiny dots of silver frost on the profusion of plants flourishing on the small ponds and spilling over the low formal walls designed to contain them.

A cold night in the Emperor's Palace garden

A cold night in the Emperor’s Palace garden

It was a magical, almost an enchanted, evening, a marvellous culmination to eight days of extraordinary new experiences. If I did not have the photographs, I might believe that I had dreamt it.

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

For all the tea in China, I’d need several fortunes…

Entrance to Yu Garden, Shanghai

Entrance to Yu Garden, Shanghai

This is my first full day at home after my visit to China, and I’ve just enjoyed a nice cup of tea. Tea is one of our national clichés – the universal British remedy for everything, from broken hearts to bereavement, and also the beverage that most Brits look forward to the most when returning home from foreign adventures. However, I can hardly claim to have been tea-deprived during my five-day sojourn in Shanghai or the two days I spent in Beijing. Tea is what you drink with every meal in China, and there are hundreds of different kinds. I managed to sample a few of them, sometimes in very special surroundings. It is served with some ceremony in restaurants: waiters hover with teapots and fill your cup again as soon as you’ve drained it. As with wine, special kinds of tea are recommended for some types of food: for example, a rich, smoky tea accompanied the duck that I ate in the original Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (more of this in a separate post). Tea is also used in very traditional restaurants to cleanse crockery and cutlery at the table.
I had only two half-days to myself, as mine was a business trip, not a holiday, but, aided by some kind Asian colleagues, I was able to make the most of them. On the Sunday after I arrived in Shanghai, I took a taxi to the Yu Garden,
Temple courtyard in Yu Garden, Shanghai

Temple courtyard in Yu Garden, Shanghai

a mesmerising complex of temples, waterways and ancient shops, and, after an hour or two of sightseeing, found myself standing outside the fabled Huxinting Tea House, the oldest tea house in Shanghai (the building is about 230 years old, becoming a tea house in 1855).
Huxinting Tea House, Yu Garden

Huxinting Tea House, Yu Garden

Naturally, I went in and was delighted to find that I’d chanced upon a mid-afternoon lull in business, so it wasn’t too crowded.
Inside, the tea house is opulent but not flamboyant. The waitresses are dressed in a uniform based on one of the many forms of Chinese national dress and they are attentive but unobtrusive. There are scores of types of tea to choose from, some of them extremely expensive. I chose jasmine, which came in a glass jug and was accompanied by two aromatic sweetmeats.
Jasmine tea for one, please...

Jasmine tea for one, please…

It was quite delicious: fragrant and refreshing, exotic without being strange. It wasn’t cheap, either: it cost the same as a couple of lattes from Starbucks would have cost in the UK, which by Chinese standards is very expensive indeed. But it was well worth the price: I understand why Chinese people think that the tea house is so special and come here for a treat. It’s not only the ambience inside the building itself that gives so much pleasure; it is also being able to look out across the water of the lake in which it stands on stilts to the picturesque buildings beyond. The paths and walkways are always teeming with people and the tea house itself offers a haven of tranquillity from which to observe them, as well as a feeling of privilege. The elderly couple sitting next to me were obviously savouring every moment, whilst also engaging in a very animated conversation.
Or tea for two...

Or tea for two…

Each type of tea is served in a different type of vessel and theirs was in terracotta pots with lids, which they had refilled more than once. I’d have loved to have been able to ask them what their choice had been.
Since I came home, I’ve read about the Huxinting Tea House online and discovered that the Queen has visited it. I don’t suppose that she had to worry about the cost of her tea, but I do wonder if, having imbibed its product, Her Maj was constrained to use the establishment’s facilities. If so, I’d like to know what she made of the shaft-style convenience,
For the convenience of the tea house customer...

For the convenience of the tea house customer…

which was the first, but by no means the last, of this type of porcelain that I encountered in China. (I should add that the one in the Huxinting Tea House was spotless.)
I wanted to bring some tea home with me, but was advised against buying it from one of the specialist purveyors of tea or at the airport as being prohibitively expensive in either. On my last day in Beijing, I therefore walked to a local supermarket and bought two types of tea there, one of them a chrysanthemum tea that I’d first seen earlier in the week when it was ordered by a librarian during a conference that took place at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. On that occasion, it was served in a tall glass mug with a mash of dried chrysanthemum flowers floating on the surface of the hot water. More prosaically, I think that my own purchase will consist of more conventional-looking tea leaves, albeit made out of chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemum tea sounds unpleasant – I was sceptical until I tried it, thinking that it might taste as the half-dead ‘chrysanths’ which I remember adorning the graves in Spalding Cemetery used to smell, but in fact it is delicate to the taste-buds and very refreshing.
Going to the supermarket offered me one of only a few rare opportunities to encounter ordinary Chinese people as they went about their business. I was grateful for this experience. Once again, I was also astounded by how expensive the tea was and how greatly prized. In the supermarket where I bought mine, it was kept upstairs with the alcohol and closely guarded by a security man. It cost about three times as much as a packet of ‘builder’s tea’ in England. I wonder what Chinese builders drink? I’d like to think that their day is fuelled by an infusion of chrysanthemums!
China tea at home...

China tea at home…

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

Sorry, Michael, for my previous prejudice… may I make amends!

Chasing the Dime

I am going to start this review with a confession: although I have been given several books written by Michael Connelly and even lent them to my friends, Chasing the Dime is the first one that I have read  – and, ironically enough, I bought it at a book sale in a Co-op supermarket near Oxford, because I’d run out of things to read.  Normally, I wouldn’t buy books from a supermarket because I believe in supporting local bookshops.  So, two firsts in one go!

The reason I’ve not read a Connelly novel until now is that, and my ignorance is pretty unpardonable, I’d been led to believe him to be the kind of blockbuster author in whom I’m least interested: big-picture, change-the-world sort of stuff (x saved the world single-handed from the next atom bomb, Hermann Göring, Nuremberg and suicide notwithstanding, has been alive and well in South America for the last sixty years and running drug rings, that sort of thing).  Chasing the Dime is not like that at all.  Instead, it is one of the most perfectly-crafted murder stories that I’ve ever read.

There’s the background, for a start.  The hero, Henry Pierce, runs his own R & D company.  It is conducting research into molecular computing, in a highly competitive sector where several other companies are also in the race to crack the conundrum.  Their mission: to create a computer the size of a dime.  Hence the title – but the title also reflects the company’s need to find sponsors and also, sadly, refers to why beautiful young women are forced to prostitute themselves.  (The title is one of many aspects of the book that works on several levels.)  I’m sure that when Connelly wrote this novel (it’s now well over ten years old), there was a race to bring such a molecular computer to the market in just the way that he describes, but it says a lot about his talent as a writer that, although during the course of the novel he reveals many facts about the complex technology involved (and has clearly mastered what these are), he never obtrudes knowledge on the reader in such a way that this information seems to be anything other than an integral part of the story.  Few writers can pull this off.

Then there’s the plot.  Henry’s obsessive research has just caused his girlfriend to break with him.  Henry moves into a new flat, for which his PA acquires a new telephone number.  The problems start straight away: the number had obviously previously been allocated to a call-girl.  Because of certain facts in his past – which Connelly allows to emerge at enigmatic intervals throughout the story – Henry decides to find out the identity of the call-girl and what has happened to her.  Owing to several rash but perfectly understandable (from the reader’s point of view) decisions, he quickly becomes a murder suspect.

I won’t say any more, for obvious reasons.  However, I’d add one further thing: nothing in the plot is incredible; there are no fantastic twists or turns and not much transpires in a way that the reader can’t guess; yet, because of Connelly’s psychological insights and his fast-paced but not too whacky writing, the reader is held, spellbound, until the last page.

I owe Michael Connelly an apology for doubting him for so long.  As it is, I shall do ‘penance’ in the most pleasurable of ways: by reading the rest of his novels in short order.  You will, I’m sure, be lining up to tell me that his Harry Bosch series is a must-read and roundly ticking me off for my shocking prejudice.


It is Christmas Eve, so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has read this blog and supported it with so many kind, helpful and insightful comments over the past year.  It has been my very great pleasure to have ‘met’ you in this way and I feel extraordinarily humbled that you have spared the time to take so much interest in me and my writing.  For those of you who celebrate Christmas and for those of you who don’t, I’d like to wish you a very happy and relaxing time and a spectacularly successful New Year – wherever you are and whatever you are doing.  If you are a writer, I wish you some of that elusive luck that all writers need.

P.S. The blog-posts have been a little erratic in recent weeks, as I’ve been away a lot. I shall try to do better as my main New Year’s resolution!  However, I’d like to share with you that the day-job is taking me to China in the first full week of the new year, so they may be a bit thin on the ground then – though you can be sure that I shall recount my experiences in as much detail as you can take afterwards!

When a much-loved author doesn’t please…

The Man from Beijing
I should say straightaway that I have long admired Henning Mankell and consider him to be the most distinguished of that very select group of Scandinavian crime writers that has continued to intrigue and amaze us over the last ten or fifteen years. I’m saying this now, because I found The Man from Beijing a very disappointing novel indeed.
It starts brilliantly, with the graphic but not unduly sensational description of the brutal massacre of almost the whole population of a remote Swedish village. Only one of the victims, a young boy, is not a resident of the village. The murder case is led by Vivi Sundberg, a brusque, unimaginative policewoman who is not meant to appeal to the reader. Instead, our sympathies are evoked by Birgitta Roslin, a middle-aged judge whose health is not good and whose marriage appears to have entered a state of gentle decline which she finds depressing. Birgitta is a complex and well-drawn character, one of Mankell’s best, and is, in fact, the only fully-rounded character in the whole book. She gets unofficially involved in the case because she realises that two of the murder victims are the very elderly step-parents of her own mother.
So far, so good. But then, through a chain of unlikely and unconvincing circumstances, Birgitta’s private investigation takes her to China. She happens to have a friend who is a Sinologist who happens to be speaking at a conference there. Both Birgitta and her friend were ardent supporters of Chairman Mao in their youth.
At this point, the novel separates into two strands. One of these, by far the weaker, continues with what are obviously going to be Birgitta’s fruitless efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery of the massacre. It is spiced up by the ever-present suggestion that her life is in danger. The other strand, which goes on for many pages – at least half of a book that totals 550 pages – is a political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction. Ostensibly, it is about the corruption of power and how far modern China has deviated from Mao’s ideals – themselves always false, which is made clear – while still paying lip-service to them; it is a political warning against the present-day colonisation of Africa by the Chinese government.
The political sub-plot – which after a short while almost completely eclipses the main plot – depends on two things: the literary device of using an omniscient narrator to describe certain atrocities carried out against a particular Chinese family during the nineteenth century, and the vicious manoeuvrings, even against each other, of a high-status Chinese political family in the present. It is suggested, but never made clear, that the latter are the descendants of one of the former, and that the wheel of human exploitation and misery has turned full circle. The modern Chinese characters are sketchily drawn – only two of them, Hong Qiu and her brother Ya Ru – have any distinguishing attributes, and the reader senses that these have been bolted on only in order to oil the creaking mechanism of the plot.
At the end of the novel, after several more deaths along the way, the mystery of the identity of the original murderer is solved, but unconvincingly. Several clues scattered at the beginning of the book remain unaccounted for. I’m not suggesting that this is in itself a fault (as I’ve made clear elsewhere, I dislike crime novels in which every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ crossed), but these clues are so extraordinary that I feel that we are owed some kind of explanation for them.
Most of all, however, the novel is dissatisfying because the reader feels bamboozled. I am aware that Henning Mankell is an expert on Africa and that he has written eloquently about its woes on many occasions. Even so, it just isn’t fair to place two or three hundred pages of what is at times a rambling political exegesis between the covers of what is meant to be a work of crime fiction. I read the book to the end in homage to the many hours of unalloyed pleasure that Mankell’s work has given to me. I suspect that some of its other readers will have lost patience long before they get there.

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