A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Yang Chen Lake to try the famous crabs. Yang Chen Lake is located near Kunshan, halfway between Shanghai and Suzhou. The crabs from this lake sell for fantastic prices in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The high prices created an incentive to pass off crabs from other lakes as Yang Chen crabs and in response the local crab farmers association introduced a system of tagging individual crabs. Before long of course people were faking the tags and everyone was back to where they started.
Since my ex-flatmate from Taiwan was on a business trip in Kunshan so on Sunday morning I hopped on the train to Suzhou to pay him a visit and check out the crabs at the source. Rather than joining the huge ticket queue inside the station I found the little kiosk selling platform tickets and bought one of those for 1 RMB. Once you have a platform ticket you just need to find your train, jump on, and hope there will be a free seat. Eventually the conductor will find you and sell you a real ticket. If you are unlucky you can end up without a seat but for short distances it doesn’t really matter. Queuing in the station for half an hour to make sure you have a seat on a half hour train ride makes no sense.
After about half an hour or so I arrived in Kunshan and took a motorcycle taxi to my friend’s hotel. There were no ordinary taxis available. It is a little weird to be deposited of the back of an old motorcycle outside a hotel and then have liveried doormen open the door for you. It’s weird in a good way though.
I had a quick minibar beer with my friend (A-Guo). The cheerful cleaning lady who pointed me to the room had enthusiastically gushed that on such a clear day I’d be able to enjoy some fine views from the 20th floor. While A-Guo used the bathroom I stood at the window and took a couple of moments to appreciate the grey apartment blocks, grey sky, and grey canals of Kunshan. I was strangely reminded of Chinese ink landscapes on paper scrolls. A semi-demolished sports ground directly below provided a splash of color, though the debris strewn grass suggested a future more in keeping with its grey surrounds. I thought back to the cleaning lady as I surveyed the scene and had the sense that I was missing something. Perhaps you really need to be Chinese to get these things.
We headed downstairs and jumped in a taxi, a real one this time, out to Yang Chen lake to try the crabs. For some reason Yang Chen lake crabs (otherwise known as hairy crabs) are a famous delicacy in China. Personally I don’t rate them that highly. The flesh is sweeter than most crabs, but they are also smaller and more fiddly. I don’t think the flavor is special enough to justify the hassle and I’d just as soon eat a larger sea crab. I may be wrong but I also imagine that sea crabs live in cleaner water than the Yang Chen lake. Kunshan is a massive industrial area and while the lake is some distance from the factories you have to wonder how clean it is. I’ve heard rumors that the prices of the crabs follow the movement of futures in heavy metals. Actually I made that rumor up myself just now, but I think it’s a fine one and worth repeating.
Near the edge of the lake you reach a big strip of crab restaurants. They all have unimaginative names like ‘Crab King’, ‘Golden Crab’ etc. As we walked along the strip I thought of my own name for a crab restaurant - ???*.
The restaurants all back on to the lake, so you get to see your crabs before deciding where to eat. After wandering up and down the strip we chose a restaurant with healthy looking crabs.
The idea is that each diner eats both a male and a female crab. I can’t taste any big difference between the two, but the male is bigger than the female (or possibly it is the other way around). You dip the crab in sweet vinegar flavored with ginger, and accompany the meal with some warm Shaoxing wine. Shaoxing wine is a type of rice wine from the city of Shaoxing, located a few hours away. You can drink the wine straight, but people tend to infuse it with a little ginger and sour plum. We drank a ten year old bottle; it was decent but not exactly Lagavullin.
The lunch was good. I thought the simple and cheap chicken marinated in Shaoxing wine and sesame oil was tastier than the expensive and potentially radioactive crabs. The crabs were good though, and much cheaper out at the lake than they would have been in Shanghai.
By the time we finished lunch it was close to dusk so we just took a quick walk around the lake and headed back to Kunshan. We were going to take a bus back into town but a guy in a van picked us up at a discount to the standard taxi fare. Back in Kunshan we checked out a couple of little bars but found them extremely dead. A-Guo then decided we should go for KTV since his company was entertaining a group of local suppliers. KTV is not really my thing, especially KTV for business people, but once in a while it can be OK so off we went.
If you go to KTV with a group of friends you sit in a private room with a TV and sound system and sing songs. There generally is not a lot of drinking because everyone is having too much fun fighting over the mike to bother with finishing their drinks. If you are a foreigner people will expect you to sing the lamest songs from the English song list. You inevitably have a mike shoved in your face as The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More starts up. Chinese people are socially and culturally clued up enough to realize that all foreigners love singing Yesterday Once More - “especially the part where he’s breaking her heart” and of course there is that other good bit where it goes “shing a ling a ling”.
KTV for business people is slightly different. You sit in the same private room but the group is normally male only, and each member of the group is supposed to order a hostess to sit with them and chat. The hostesses make sure your party spends lots of money on alcohol by playing drinking games. If necessary the hostesses also help individual group members stay sober by drinking their share of the booze when they lose in the drinking games. The whole set up with the hostesses is thus a little weird. The hostesses will compete against the guy she is sitting with and challenge him to drinking games, but when her guy gets involved in a drinking game with another guy or another hostess, she will simultaneously step in and help him out by drinking his share. So your hostess is highly dangerous but simultaneously your guardian angel. You could see this as a metaphor for all kinds of male-female relationships. Most of the hostesses will also come home with you at the end of the night if you want them to, though this varies according to the individual. Obviously there is singing as well, but since the hostesses are keeping everyone busy drinking nobody has much time to fight over the mike.
A-Guo and myself arrived later than everyone else, at about 9pm or so. KTV usually starts at around 7.30pm and the real aficionados get there very early to pick the best looking hostesses. We sat down, a group of about eight hostesses were sent in, and I let A-Guo send the first group away. Sending the first group away seems to be a bit of a ritual. The customers get to look discriminating and the shop gets to look like it has a ton of hostesses on hand. Basically everyone looks good. A second group came in and after A-guo picked one from that group I did the same.
A KTV joint usually aims to have more hostesses than there are customers on any given night. The hostesses pay a small stipend to come in to work each day. If they don’t get chosen then they not only don’t get paid but are out of pocket for the night. Provided they get regular business though the money is very good compared to what they would get elsewhere. Most of the girls are pretty but uneducated and would otherwise be working in a factory or a small shop earning maybe RMB1000-1500 per month. In KTV they can earn RMB200 a night simply to drink with customers, and maybe four to five times that if they go home with them. It is lucrative and easy work for most attractive and personable. For the rest it can be extremely competitive and unfair. Obviously a lot of the girls end up hating each other and after a few drinks you can might get to listen to the story of why Brilliant Jade from Anhui is a certifiable bitch.
The girl sitting with me, Yawen, was from some town I’d never heard of in Jiangsu. She had come to Kunshan to work in an electronics factory, left the factory to work in a small fashion boutique, and then left the boutique to work in a KTV and save money to open her own boutique. She was nice but had few topics of conversation besides money - natural enough when you are short of it but boring nevertheless.
We played some drinking games, mainly ?? (or ‘guess fists’), which involves two people simultaneously flashing their hands at each other and guessing the total number of fingers extended. The loser has to drink. I’m very bad at it because I never play, and Yawen was very good at it because she plays every night. Naturally I ended up drinking a fair bit. Luckily the booze was mixed quite weak though.
In KTV you usually drink Chinese ??(baijiu), which is a clear spirit. Baijiu is usually distilled from grain, typically sorghum, but can be made of almost anything. Baijiu is something like a very fragrant vodka, and not necessarily fragrant in a good way. The flavor profile is not always well balanced, and can include some bizarre esters. In KTV people often pour the baijiu into jugs packed with ice cubes, stir to chill it and let the ice melt a bit, and then decant it into small pouring jugs. I have no idea why this seems to be the practice in KTVs and nightclubs, and I never noticed people drinking baijiu this way in restaurants. I think the custom is a vague take on the cocktail (sometimes they add lemon wedges, wasabi nuts, tea or other flavorings), and has taken off in KTVs, bars and nightclubs because they are seen as appropriate locations for a mixed drink, while restaurants tend to be more traditional. In restaurants people tend drink baijiu straight, possibly warming the bottle in a bowl of water during the winter.
Later we played a very dangerous dice game with hazy rules in which the loser was going to have to drink a largish jug of baijiu. I was within one dice throw of being the fall guy but saved myself with a triple six on my last throw. I think a double six would have been enough to save me but everyone was very impressed in any case. My hostess asked for my phone number after seeing my dice throwing skills. Seeing the number of sixes people were throwing though I had to wonder whether or not the dice were weighted. I’m sure they were, and I guess all the sixes makes the evening exciting.
The group I was with was mixed Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese. Overall the Taiwanese were reasonably restrained with the hostesses, while the mainlanders were getting involved in some heavy duty groping and pawing. One of the Mainland guys came over to my side of the room and challenged me to drink. I joined him in a glass. As I put my glass down he grabbed my hand and sort of forced it onto my hostess’s tit. Needless to say she absolutely loved this. I’m not sure what he was thinking. Maybe he had seen lots of western porn movies and expected more enthusiasm from me? I apologized to the hostess while continuing to drink with the guy. He calmed down a little but then began asking for my number, saying we would go out together in Shanghai and he would pay for everything (”???! ???. ???…”). I gave him the number hoping he would go away. He was plastered and drinking far too fast. I drank a glass or two more with him, then let my hostess keep him company for another glass or so. He just wouldn’t stop drinking though.
I decided to pop off to the toilet, partly because I needed to take a pee and partly in an attempt to lose this idiot. I didn’t bank on him jumping up and following me into the toilet. So I unexpectedly found myself in the toilet with a drunken moron. He was grabbing me by the shoulder still talking about how we would go drinking together in Shanghai and he would pay for everything, while checking and rechecking that my phone number was correct.
This was all getting very tiresome, but more disconcertingly I was wondering what the hell he was doing in the toilet with me. A room in an upscale KTV joint usually has its own toilet, accessed through a door inside the room. This means that you don’t need to go out into the external corridor to get to a toilet, and also means that everyone in your group knows who is in the toilet and for how long. Besides being annoying the situation was thus getting embarrassing. First I act less than enthusiastic about groping a strange woman’s tit and seconds later I disappear into the toilet with another man. If I didn’t get him out of the toilet fast everyone was going to assume we were enjoying a booze fueled quickie. Now some people can probably adopt a relaxed attitude to all of this, maybe thinking “So we had knocked back a few drinks and were feeling pretty loose. Hell, who hasn’t had a homosexual encounter?” I admire this attitude. Admiration is precisely where I draw the line though, and at the end of the day this is an attitude I must leave to others.
I needed to get him out of the toilet and fast. I tried vainly to end the conversation. It didn’t matter that I called his mobile to demonstrate that the number I had given him was in fact correct, he simply refused to shut up and leave the toilet, and kept grabbing my arm and talking about going drinking. So what did he want? Was he in fact gay? There was only one way to find out. Groping for some clarity I reached into my pants.
Ahh! A heterosexual!
I heaved a sigh of relief and used the facilities in peace.
When I walked back out he was no longer sitting beside my seat and had moved back to the other side of the room. The unsophisticated approach to resolving awkward social encounters is underrated.
The rest of the evening was uneventful enough. At around midnight the hostesses all disappeared, changed out of their uniforms, and returned in normal clothes, giving the signal that it was time to go. We paid up and left, some alone and some with their ‘girlfriends’. To keep the crab theme going we went to a restaurant for crab flavored rice porridge.
The crab porridge restaurant was Taiwanese style and it was interesting to see that most of the KTV girls, who came from all over China (Suchuan, Dongbei, Shanxi, etc.), knew how to make Taiwanese style tea (otherwise known as Minnan style tea). There was a tea set sitting on the table and they immediately got to work with it. The Minnan style of tea drinking is very specific and forms the basis for the Japanese tea ceremony. Minnan style tea is very potent and served in tiny cups, making it like the tea equivalent of espresso. The etiquette for brewing the tea is fairly relaxed, unlike the complicated Japanese tea ceremony, but making tea this way is still not something that most young Chinese women can do. Outside of Taiwan, Fujian, and parts of Guangdong, where everyone makes tea this way, this style of tea drinking is more like a hobby that a few old men get into. Obviously the KTV had lots of Taiwanese customers, which with Kunshan being full of Taiwanese was no surprise.
After the crab porridge I found a taxi and headed back to Shanghai, finally getting home around 4am or so after the driver got lost crossing Shanghai. For some reason the driver spoke Mandarin with me and dialect with everyone else. The problem was that nobody in Shanghai could understand anything he said in dialect and I ended up ‘translating’ for him. He spoke perfectly fine Mandarin, but his dialect was different enough from Shanghainese to make him unintelligible to the locals.
* ‘Crab’ in Mandarin is pronunced ‘xie’ in a rising tone, while ‘thank you’ is pronounced ‘xie’ in a falling tone. So ‘???‘ would mean either ‘the crab thanks you’, or maybe ‘thank you crab’, but would sound very similar to a simple ‘thank you’ (???). It is a little laborious to explain but kind of clever.